Do we need nation states
The crisis of the nation state and the failure of supranational entities
“If Europe succeeds in mastering the current challenge, [...] this will lead to a deeper form of cooperation, certainly also to new institutions.”
From: Europe is the solution. (Frank-Walter Steinmeier 2016)
“The nation state is the best instrument to improve the lives of peoples. ” (Donald J. Trump UN General Assembly September 19, 2017)
After the nation-state had emerged as a model of social order - in some European countries as early as the end of the 18th century - it successfully established itself worldwide in the decades that followed. This applies to all continents, even if the Nation-building-Processes proceeded very differently. Some of the nation states emerged on the territory of their pre-national structures, others were created arbitrarily (e.g. former colonies), others emerged from former great empires and could only be constituted after lengthy processes. At the same time, in the 19th century there were aspirations from ethnic groups who, as part of supranational empires, began to strive for independence when national consciousness grew stronger in the first half of the 19th century. The French Revolution had done away with traditional estates: the emergence of nation states on the European continent was therefore also associated with the striving for the establishment of democratic states. Major upheavals contributed to the formation of nation states in recent history. I give two examples:
The First World War marked a turning point, as did the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world order was deeply shaken in both cases. After the end of the First World War, nation states left the collapsed k. u. k. –Monarchy emerged from the former Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century. Although the latter had a self-image as a “Soviet nation” (in the stage of communism that was to be reached, ethnic / national affiliations should no longer play a role), it was de facto a multi-ethnic state. The original idea of the Bolsheviks was to first transfer ethnic groups to the “nation” stage in order to then break their national consciousness and “Sovietize” them. This project partially worked, but was not yet completed by 1991. Due to the forced, schematic procedure, this plan of the Bolsheviks led, among other things, to numerous ethnic / national conflicts that have not yet been resolved, as well as to the emergence of new geopolitical interests, which also resulted in wars. (e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine).
The Nation-building-Processes of the successor states of the Soviet Union were connected with numerous difficulties, but they had one thing in common: now the Soviet ideology was replaced by the respective national ideologies or a new national self-image was developed. For most of the former Soviet republics, there was never any doubt that nation-states would emerge from now on. Concepts of a supranational entity following the Soviet Union were also rejected by Russia.
The successor states of the Soviet Union as well as states of the former Warsaw Pact (some of which had previously also belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and were therefore only granted a very short phase of independent statehood in the interwar period) are still striving to consolidate their national self-image . These are states that, as young nations, sometimes aggressively express their interests. In the EU, it is the Vyšehrad states in particular that underline that, due to their dependence on the Soviet Union after 1945, they were not really sovereign nation states. After 1991, a new national self-image that is highly self-referential has awakened in these countries. Although these states are members of the EU, they are not ready to integrate into this structure because their striving for national consolidation is too great. In the EU, they stand in contrast to Germany, for example, which, mainly due to its past, has in recent decades harbored the desire to merge into a supranational entity. But other western states are also supporters of a common European idea and even a common constitution, because, from their point of view, the continent can only play an appropriate role in global politics in this way. At the same time, the EU should help to better realize its goals. Even this Europe-related thinking is almost exclusively nationally shaped. National interests are underlined by all member states: You want to use Europe to be strong as a nation. Germany also pursues national interests in Europe, because becoming one with Europe in order to improve its own reputation is not a European but a national goal.
With a few exceptions, bias in national ideologies is a matter of course. All proposals for political order are fundamentally thought of nationally, including the European Union. This can be illustrated, for example, with the following aspect: The question is not how Europe can be represented as a whole, but how each individual nation in Europe could best represent itself. Or: There is a so-called European cultural festival with 27 nations. Each nation is given a day or evening to present itself. So a national panopticon is being organized, which highlights each individual state in its own way and only receives the label Europe.
This makes it clear: just as one could not imagine a society without kings and their representatives for centuries, thinking without nations is not imaginable today. Dynastically constituted societies were a protracted phenomenon that determined the world order for several centuries. In comparison, nationalism is still a relatively young ideology and the associated nation-states are in some cases significantly younger.
The idea of the European Union, which was initially a reaction to the Second World War, emerged despite the dominant national ideology, which gave some hope that it would be quickly buried. Today, supranational unity is not only approved as an answer to globalization, but is part of it. But anyone who believed that the European Union could replace the nation-state is bitterly disappointed. Euro crisis, Brexit, the opaque and powerful bureaucracy in Brussels, the lack of influence of the only democratically elected body among the European institutions, the European Parliament, the disagreement in the refugee crisis, to name just a few, have even made supporters of the European idea skeptical be let.
It has also proven to be an illusion that the EU can successfully integrate states with a short national history, as the example of the aforementioned Vyšehrad states shows. Although this problem is on everyone's mind, the EU is now striving to integrate new states that have emerged from the Soviet Union. Such expansion plans by EU politicians, who want to increase the profits of the EU and their respective countries of origin without really knowing these countries, is one reason for the crisis and the recurring failure of this entity.
The young states in Central and Eastern Europe belong to an association of states that is supranational, but at the same time reject their own membership for ideological, i.e. nationalistic reasons. Reasons why they still want to belong to the EU are primarily financial advantages and profit, but not the European idea. It is not the influence of Europe in the world that is important to them but the assertion of their national interests. In the case of the young nations, this attitude is particularly drastic. For them, the EU is just a tool to assert their own advantages. The few pro-European voices that could still be heard in the 1990s can hardly be heard from this part of Europe today.
Ultimately, the entire EU is a hodgepodge of nationalist states that act according to this ideology, which also contributes to the EU's susceptibility to crises.
To some observers it seems that nationalism is now experiencing a new bloom, but there can be no question of that: nationalism has never disappeared, and neither have the nation-states that go with it. Especially in a world in which peoples (have to) move closer together for various reasons, thinking in national categories is not overcome but strengthened. The American President Donald J. Trump recently came up with a formula with the dictum “America First” that caused unease in Europe. It is easy to overlook the fact that voices like this can also be heard in Europe.
The genesis of nationalism went hand in hand with the transformation of the traditionally feudal society. The change led to a democratization in most states and in many cases resulted in democratically constituted societies. This important aspect of early national thinking, namely the demand that systems of rule should be democratically legitimized, we often encounter when criticizing the EU. Its democratic deficit is criticized because it is said that it is contrary to the interests of individual nations to allow a bureaucracy that is not democratically legitimized to impose regulations that limit the freedom of the nation state in its freedom of choice and action. But just nations that voice this criticism the loudest do not support a European constitution that could eliminate this very deficit. The entire European integration process is in a vicious circle. As a result, the EU cannot fundamentally change and the nation state appears as a feasible, even clearly more democratic, alternative.
However, the principle of participation is not the only important aspect in this context. The nation state is based on a principle of inclusion and exclusion. Traditionally, it was clearly defined who was allowed to participate in life within the boundaries of a certain state. Some states favored the citoyenneté model and the associated land law (ius soli), which automatically gives nationality to every citizen born in the country. Others saw themselves as a cultural nation and favored or still favor the model of blood law (ius sanguinis), according to which origin determines citizenship.
In the meantime, nations that acted on one principle or another have grown much closer to one another. Some countries that previously had land law have abolished it, while other countries such as Germany, where blood law applies, now allow dual citizenship.
The debate about who can and cannot be a citizen is still ongoing in some countries. In Germany, this is one of the reasons why people have been struggling with an immigration law for years.
Although the two principles represent very different models of nations, all nation states, in the course of modernization, endeavored to make their societies more homogeneous. It was envisioned that a nation could only be successful if there was little ethnic diversity. This discussion continues today when people talk about “leading culture” or when the question is asked how much so-called “multiculturalism” a nation can tolerate.
The discussions about this question are not new, even if they were previously assigned other attributes. For example, after the founding of the state in 1918, Poland had an extremely diverse ethnic composition: 13 languages were spoken in some cities. In the interwar period there was a discussion about how to deal with the numerous minorities on the territory of the state; some answers were liberal and inclusive, while others were radically exclusive. This question was no longer asked after 1945, after the National Socialists had destroyed this multi-ethnic state and the Polish eastern territories (which were particularly homogeneous) were assigned to the Soviet Union. Today this discussion is again explosive in Poland, although the country is one of the most ethnically homogeneous of the European nations.
Today (not only) all European states are confronted with this problem. While the call for dominant culture and homogeneity is getting louder and louder and some voices are calling for the strict exclusion of migrants and foreigners, the reality is completely different: the nation states have not achieved the desired exclusion for a long time. Almost all European nations today are multiethnic states, a fact that cannot be changed with demands for homogeneity. Even the advocates of such a demand do not know how this can be achieved. Unless they favor extreme bellicose positions or even deportations of refugees.
In order to defend their national existence, nation states are forced to find rules for the coexistence of the nation: for example, that immigrants must adapt to the majority society, must observe the laws of the country and, of course, should also learn the language in order to participate in working and social life . Modern nation-states should be able to enforce these and similar demands, but even this they fail miserably. It is precisely for this reason that many states refuse to accept migrants. Due to the refugee crisis and migration, in countries that are traditionally not immigration countries or do not see themselves as such, the integration of foreigners is particularly difficult to achieve in every respect. In many European nation states there is no clarity about how to deal with migration, also because national ideology and potential solutions are not compatible. One example are the controversial upper limits in the EU countries, which play a role from a pragmatic point of view, but also serve to serve the national emotions of the populations. In the long run, they are not a solution to the problem either, because migrants are trying to get further to Europe anyway. Conversely, the national ideology also serves to legitimize an exclusive policy. This is particularly the case in the young nation states, for example the PiS government in Poland specifically fosters xenophobic attitudes.
The basic conditions for the survival and continued existence of the nation state can hardly be guaranteed. Because outwardly, the nation-state principle needs exclusion with the help of its borders. For this reason, the Schengen Agreement was a decisive step on the way to the abolition of nation-state principles in Europe. In this case, a truly supranational element was created in the community. The goal of a pan-European border was one of the core ideas of the European Union, so as not to leave supreme control to the nation state. But this idea has now suffered a major setback. The individual nations are now calling for the introduction of national border surveillance, as they fear losing control over their territory. The year 2015, in which Germany opened its borders, showed the nations of Europe how radically the German government broke with the principle of exclusion of the nation state and thus also of the European continent.
The overstrain of the EU states by the refugee crisis clearly shows how unstable this supranational entity is. Europe is facing a special dilemma: individual nation states are overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, but the supranational entity does not step in as a helper, but loses its strength, which further exacerbates its crisis. In short: the nation-state fails, as does the supranational entity.
In this way the dilemma in which the national order finds itself becomes apparent: the nation-state cannot be overcome at present, but can no longer solve the problems described here today. The dictum that the nation state is the best solution for world order sounds like a desperate attempt to ignore its crisis. No other solution is being considered, it seems unthinkable. Organizations that operate supranationally can achieve partial success, but are not in a position to remedy the grievances resulting from nationalism. After all: there has been peace in Western Europe since 1945, but closer cooperation on the continent is not in sight, despite the proposals of pro-European politicians, as the people do not accept it. Persistent crises mean that peace can no longer be taken for granted.
There are other reasons why there is currently hardly any conceivable alternative to the national world order: Nation states are usually constituted democratically, which is why the strong national consciousness of the world's populations is important. Citizens cannot imagine an exclusive membership in a supranational entity. The consciousness in which the nations live today is deeply shaped by national identity and in this way influences politics. This ranges from patriotic enthusiasm for national sports teams to racist national ideas.Whether harmlessly patriotic or extremely national, such mentalities limit the possibilities of a supranational policy because it does not correspond to the will of the citizens / voters. For many, the EU is a supranational juggernaut that wants and should subjugate the nations and their peoples. These views, radical as they may be, also fit into the tradition of nationalism, because from its inception the participation of the people has played an important role.
For decades there have been (radical) critics of nationalism who regard it as a burden, a delusion or a delusion. For others it is an instrument of rule that is no longer legitimate in our time. But even the opponents of national thinking cannot free themselves from national discourse and realities. They are forced to constantly grapple with national points of view and cannot make themselves heard with alternatives. In addition, important contemporary political discourses are conducted in national categories or within national boundaries. An example: the discussion about which nation will become the first world power in the future. It is always about national values and competition among nations, an element of the dynamism of nationalism.
The disputes over nationalism do not open up any perspectives with regard to a reorganization of the world, and the opponents of national thinking do not know any realizable alternatives either.
That is why there will not be any major upheavals in the foreseeable future. There are no supranational structures that could replace the nation state. Its powerlessness in the face of global problems has so far not led to the erosion of national ideologies or of nation states.
It remains to be said: the ideas of Europe are ultimately based on principles of the nation state, which are transferred to the European entity. This is doomed to failure. Europe's crisis and the crisis of the nation states are connected, also because they ultimately arise from one and the same, national thinking.
Alix Landgrebe has a doctorate in history and is a Slavist. She taught history at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. She has been an employee of the Goethe Institute since 2004, where she held various positions, including head of the Goethe Institute in Algeria. Most recently she was director of the German House for Science and Innovation in Moscow.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Sweden
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