This will be a brief* meditation, as The Optimistic Conservative is weighing anchor on Tuesday and heading to her ancestral homeland (Oklahoma) for a month. The topic here is the benefits that accrue to us from the political organization we call the nation-state.
The nation-state gets a bad rap – and when it is not getting that, it is essentially ignored, or taken for granted. No one on the political right thinks a world government is a good idea, and Americans are naturally resistant to the concept of empire. But there is no body of theoretical advocacy, among political commentators or in academia, that counterbalances the broad and insistent body of advocacy for subversion of the nation-state, and for the gradual introduction of a world government subsuming the authority that today resides with nations.
The latter body of advocacy is a product of the political left, which sees the need for coercion of peoples on a global scale to address lists of “problems,” from “social injustice” to “climate change.” The right, while opposing all the assumptions that underlie this advocacy thrust, rarely if ever makes the case for what the nation-state has done for us. Yet the nation-state is the model of political organization in which liberty and civil rights can flourish and be protected. If not for the concept of the nation-state, hammered out in Europe in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there could never have been a United States of America, founded for the purpose of a particular and specific political commitment. Nor would there have been a Britain, our political progenitor that carried an idea of pragmatic, consensual government and moral equality among humans to the ends of the earth, in a way no other colonial power did.
The nation-state is a product of technology as much as of political ideas. Technology is what made it possible for nation-states to stand in defense of themselves against empires. City-states with agricultural hinterlands, tribal-nomadic societies, and empires that control trade routes and industry: these are the forms of organization that all predated the nation-state, that have been more common than the nation-state over the totality of recorded human history, and that persist in their dynamics even today.
As the uneven history of post-colonial nations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East indicates, nation-statehood is not a condition even all largely modernized societies are prepared for. Europe also affords us a number of examples of polities on which the status of “nation-state” has been conferred, even though the nations in question are little more than city-states, and would have no hope of defending themselves independently – a key attribute of a true nation-state – if they existed on another, less quiescent continent.
The true, self-defending, self-sustaining nation-state is an entity that affords its people an option other than being absorbed in, or perpetually at war with, an empire. It also enables adjacent peoples to form unions that end smaller-scale strife. The nation-state came about to alleviate two problems: the menace of empires to local political independence, and the menace of fragmentation to peace, commerce, and prosperity. The twentieth century has given us examples of both dynamics, and shown the detrimental effects they have. Whether we look at the empire of the Soviet Union – short-lived, as empires have gone, but with a tremendous and evil effect on the lives of millions – or at the fragmentation of the Balkans after the Cold War, or the endless ethnic strife in parts of post-colonial Africa, the same dynamics that made the nation-state a natural solution to human problems have persisted well into the lives of even the youngest among us.
It is useful to remember that, as we contemplate both the nation-state and the arguments of its critics. There is a tendency among even conservatives today to buy into the idea that with so many aspects of our lives – information, entertainment, terrorism, ethnic strife, trade in consumer goods – “internationalized,” the importance of the nation-state is declining; even that its demise is inevitable, because of the many things that are no longer stopped at or contained within borders.
But this analysis is one-sided, and ignores the more important point that the purpose of the nation-state is to stop political power at the borders, not to compete in TV programming or to sequester, say, Swahili-speaking people, or adherents of a particular religion, from everyone else. Without the nation-state, there is no defense of liberty – American-style liberty, the style of Britain and her colonial empire, French-style or German-style or Scandinavian-style liberty – against the antiliberal tendencies inherent in all political empires. Liberty cannot be maintained inside an empire, nor can responsive, accessible government; and these are among the top handful of reasons why the nation-state emerged in the first place.
The demise of the nation-state is not by any means inevitable. If it truly occurs, it will be a political choice: a choice of some to give up their liberty and their self-government, and of others to pressure them to do so. Giving up on the nation-state is, inherently, giving up on the means of preserving individual liberty on the model prized by Westerners. Empire is a condition into which humans have routinely settled, and in which there are no guarantees for subjected peoples; it is the nation-state that has been the means of preventing subjugation and the growth of empires – a means that did not exist in a routine and well-defined form until the modern era in Europe (post-1500). The wonder is not that we have had empires, but that we have had nation-states.
Americans tend to think in terms of a political accretion process in which tribes and ethnic groups form a nation-state over time, with its boundaries refined through conflict, and empire eventually results if the nation-state goes a-conquering overseas. This model partially fits the Mother of All Empires – Rome – and fits the colonial powers of Europe even better; hence its hold on the American imagination. But the truth is that empire, as a form of human organization, has been in existence since before man began recording his history, and is older and more automatically occurring than the nation-state. The nation-state is the antidote to empire: the organization that stands in the way of it, and makes it possible for peoples to resist absorption into empire. There is, in fact, no other antidote to empire than the nation-state. If the peoples of Africa, South Asia, and North America had been organized effectively into European-style nation-states in the 16th century and later, Spain and France and Britain and the Netherlands would have had a great deal more trouble colonizing them, and the Europeans and Arabs a much more difficult time creating the African slave trade. Contrast their experiences in these other areas with that of Spain’s conquistadors in Mexico, encountering the Aztec empire. Spain had superior technology and a European enthusiasm for engineering and science, and this was a substantial advantage over the Aztecs; but conflict with the Aztecs was fierce, and presented great difficulties for Spain, and near-run outcomes. In overcoming their organized numbers over time, Spain’s greatest advantage was the inadvertent introduction of new diseases.
The technology point highlights another fact about nation-states, which is that they produce science, innovation, invention, engineering, and commercial efficiency much better than empires do. Rome is unique as an empire that started as a city-state and became, essentially, a nation, before assuming the mantle of empire; but in terms of its achievements in engineering and organization, these successes originated with Romans, and from Rome. It was Rome’s cohesion as a nation-state polity, not Rome’s empire, that made her a colossus of engineering prowess. Throughout her empire, it was only the city-states of Greece and the Phoenician traders, where traditions of innovative commerce and engineering long predated Roman rule, that kept such traditions up under the imperial yoke. Rome brought “Rome” to her colonies and imperial holdings across Europe, but imperial administration did not promote separate or distinctive development of scientific inquiry, engineering, or innovation in far-flung localities.
Throughout the Roman period and its long decline, city-states like those in northern Italy and Spain were the seats of technological advancement. It was in the period of the nation-state’s modern emergence in Europe that progress accelerated dramatically in science and technology. A number of reasons can be postulated for this, but one that stands out is the multifarious nature of the true nation-state. It is large enough to feed itself, and administer vast lands devoted to farming and animal husbandry; it maintains its own system of roads and canals; it has multiple industries, multiple large cities, often more than one port; and it has a large and varied tax base, which enables it to support not only an army but institutions of higher learning. The nation-state does far more for itself, across all the disciplines of corporate life, than the city-state. Yet – unlike the empire – the nation-state does not have to devote enormous assets to patrolling subject lands and peoples, and to maintaining power at a distance over the unenthusiastic or unwilling. The nation-state’s natural level and kind of resource use suits it to producing technological advances in a way no other form of political organization does.
In terms of domestic political responsiveness, the nation-state is typically of a size and scope to optimize it. Political responsiveness by government is never perfect, but it is far better in the nation-state than in the empire. This is the case independent of the form of government. Yet the nation-state does what the city-state and tribal model cannot: govern multiple ethnic groups, tribes, and economic “systems” (essentially what a city-state is) equitably, and in relative unity and peace.
None of these facts mean that everyone who has ever inhabited a nation-state has been happy with his condition. Many have not. The dissatisfaction of ethnic groups with their assignment to nation-states has been one of the most common causes of persistent, lower-level strife around the world, especially in the last two centuries. Many of these groups are, from an objective standpoint, better off materially and more secure politically as the citizens of a nation-state they dislike, than they would be in a self-governing condition. It has often been the case that peoples of a more tribal, less settled, less urban-agricultural habit are unable to defend themselves if they are left to govern territory on their own – and this creates a vulnerability for the defensibility and integrity of the modern nation-states they coexist with.
It is not to make the point that either of these modes of corporate life is more “right,” or somehow better, that I discuss this feature of the issue. Rather, it is to observe that the nation-state organization has superior defensibility. Settled urban-agricultural areas will tend to prefer it, and to occupy and administer territories whose government by tribes incapable of self-defense would render the adjacent nation-state vulnerable.
The main reason a recognized “Kurdistan” does not exist today is that Kurds, as they live and are organized, cannot defend a nation-state territory against Iran, Turkey, Iraq, or Syria. The same can be said of ethnic separatists in China or northern Spain, and even to some extent of the American Indians who roamed territory disputed between Britain, France, Spain, and the United States. The Kiowa, Comanche, and Sioux could not decisively menace the forces of the US, but they made a path of least resistance for Spain and France in their history of ruling and trading territories in North America. The US push to occupy and administer North America was as much about positioning the new nation to resist outside colonization of the continent as it was about gold, homesteading, or “Manifest Destiny.” (It was about these latter too, but nations spend much less time than we tend to think acting on sentiment or cupidity. Nations are motivated primarily by what they exist for: the provision of security.)
America has always been unique in also, self-consciously, existing for the realization of a political ideal. Political distinctiveness has applied to other nations too, but no other has been created for a unique political purpose in the way the USA was. A number of historical trends came together to make the US possible; one of the chief was Protestant Christianity, which operated in a symbiotic relationship with the emerging nation-state to define Western polities out of spiritual dominion by the Roman Catholic Church. The acceptability to God of peoples ruled by neither Rome nor kings with a divine charter was a concept advanced by Protestantism, which took seriously Jesus’ admonition to distinguish between Caesar and God. (The key aspect of the Roman Catholic Counter-reformation was its emphasis on disengaging the Church from its deeply embedded role in temporal, monarchic politics, and returning – this was considered to be a return, not a new direction – to its origins as a supremely spiritual entity.)
But the nation-state itself was an equally important concept in the intellectual heritage of the US. The idea of it had gathered in Western philosophy, influenced by the Greeks and Romans, the ethnic solidarity and political distinctiveness of Northern European peoples, and the “national” concept of Judaism – the latter, one that predated Plato and Aristotle, and was carried forward by the Christian philosophers who studied the Old Testament alongside the canon of secular Western thought. To varying but visible degrees, the nation-state arose as a solution to the problems of avoiding imperial conquest (e.g., by Islamic invaders and by the empires of Europe), and of establishing independence from the Roman Catholic Church. The nation-state became the vehicle for defying aspiring emperors, and enforcing the authority of local monarchs and assemblies to adopt their own laws, order their own trade, and otherwise make their own arrangements, with or without the approval of the Pope.
It thus became the natural model and tool for America’s Founders. Although they were largely skeptical of government, in all its manifestations, they recognized that the new nation would have to be a nation and behave as one, governing itself with conscious attention to the forms that were effective in Europe. They explicitly rejected an Arcadian vision of peaceable decentralization, understanding that that made for an indefensible polity – too great a danger in a world with Britain, France, and Spain in it. But they also deliberately chose to limit the amount of centralization embedded in our Constitution, recognizing that going too far down that route courted the evils of distantly-ordered imperialism. They did not want Washington to become Babylon, Susa, Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem, an Algonquin council, or the site of a nameless Teutonic moot assembly – they wanted it to be its own form, constructed with reference to the West’s philosophical heritage, but refined away from the excesses and errors of its historical examples.
We forget this at our peril. Empire, on the one hand, and tribalism with indefensible borders on the other, continue to lurk on the periphery of human tendencies. They have been eclipsed for several centuries by the unique successes of the nation-state, but most of us are aware, if we think about it, that these organizational tendencies persist.
European voters, nominally the ones furthest advanced toward a consensual idea of supranational government, consistently demonstrate not only these tendencies, but awareness of their dangers. They send delegates to Brussels, but are highly skeptical of actually being governed from there. Yet they also continue to mount a variety of sub-national separatist movements, as they have throughout history – and through the modalities of their individual nation-states seek to domesticate and hedge those movements about, now awarding one a recognized polity of its own, now advising another to drop its bad idea and be content.
France had the option to elect Nicolas Sarkozy, and take political tacks independent of the collectivist zeitgeist in Brussels, because she is France, and the EU is actually nothing without her. A similar point can be made about Germany, and her see-sawing between center left and center right, as about Britain and Italy and Spain. The EU is the success it is, for Europeans who still prize their political liberty and (relative) economic opportunity, because it is ultimately unable to suppress independent action by its members. The EU cannot become an empire because its members are still too much the nation-states they have been. If they cease to appreciate and maintain that status, the EU will either be the vulnerable head of an indefensible continent, or become, in fact, an empire: high-handed with distant locales, inequitable, reactionary, exploitative, and oriented on the security of far-flung borders and a career of expansion.
It is quite true that the success of the nation-state has been guaranteed in part by the existence and character of the United States. Without our military might, Europe would have to live in a state of greater agitation over security, and would have far less leisure to experiment with quiescent supranational organization. All of these factors combine, however, to argue for the continuing value of the nation-state to securing liberty, and resisting centralization and empire. The nation-state organization enables us to stand against an empire – or an incipient empire – without having to be one. That has been its unique role in history, and one we would do well to keep perpetually in our minds.
* OK, not so brief.