Nation-State Research Paper

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A nation-state is the singular authority that represents the sovereignty of the people of a nation—that is, a group of people with commons bonds of culture, history, and language—within clearly demarcated territorial boundaries. The emerging system of nation-states in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was closely associated with imperialism abroad.

The term nation-state ought to be distinguished from two closely related terms, nationalism and nation. The nation can be thought of as a group of people who are said to have collective bonds—produced by one or more cultural phenomena such as race, language, religion, culture, or history—and affiliation with a common territory. Nationalism is the valuation of the national bond over all other ties and is expressed as the identification of the national collective with a present or anticipated nation-state. The nation-state is the singular authority that represents the sovereignty of the people of the nation within clearly demarcated territorial boundaries.

A “primordialist” view of the relationship between these terms posits that the nation, if not nationalism, precedes the nation-state. In this view, the nation-state represents the primordial nation’s ultimate awakening or coming to awareness of its racial or deep cultural bonds in order to fulfill its destiny in a modern future. Nationalists describe the history of the region as an evolution or awakening toward modern national consciousness. Contemporary scholars of nationalism, most of who can be dubbed “constructivists,” do not subscribe to this view, although the extent and understanding of their constructivism varies. Constructivists argue that the nation is in many ways the product of relatively recent state formation that sought to integrate different groups into a political body (which comes to be called the nation). The constructivists argue that by interpreting the diverse history and loyalties of the region as the evolution of the nation, nationalist seek to legitimate the present nation-state.

To be sure, some societies, such as China or England, have had long processes of state formation that did produce enduring ties and even an awareness of Chineseness or Englishness, but in the absence of modern technologies or need for strong identity creation, such awareness was often temporary, limited to few groups, and rarely overrode other local or religious bonds. Nonetheless, some historians argue that historical conditions are an important factor and no social formation can be arbitrarily constructed into a successful nation.

The Nation-State System

The nation-state is believed to have evolved from the system of states in Europe traceable to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War. The treaty came to inaugurate a system in which, by the nineteenth century, each state was defined by territorial boundaries and ruled by one sovereign. But the system of nation-states is more appropriately dated to its explicit articulation by the philosopher Emmerich de Vattel (1714–1767) in the late eighteenth century, which assumed that states respected the territorial integrity of other similarly constituted states. The Westphalian-Vatellian nationstate was distinguishable from other polities (such as empires or kingdoms), which had several, often competing, sources and levels of authority (such as the church, tribes, or feudal lords) and in which authority extended over people but not necessarily over territory.

Although in theory a nation-state acknowledged the sovereignty and autonomy of other nation-states, the states were engaged in a competition for resources that entailed not only military conquest and colonization, but also annexation or domination of one another’s territories. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these states became increasingly involved in creating the conditions for capitalist competition and wealth accumulation within Europe as well as overseas. Through the nineteenth century, they standardized and regulated their economic, judicial, and political systems while competing for colonies in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific. Colonization or semicolonization (such as informal domination through the imposition of unequal treaties in East Asia) was frequently justified by the allegation that colonized societies did not possess the laws and institutions of “civilized nation-states” and were thus not qualified to participate in the system. Their resources and labor were fair game for colonization and were mobilized for capitalist competition. Thus the emerging system of nation-states was closely associated with imperialism abroad.

Within the boundaries of the nation-state in western Europe and North America, the nation became associated with the doctrine of rights for its citizens. The French Revolution of 1789 protected and enforced human and individual rights as national rights. Article III of the Declaration of the Rights of Man states, “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. Nobody nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation (or the laws of that nation).” In the early stages, the majority of the population, including women, minorities, and slaves within the nation, were not granted rights; their rights were won in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through political and military struggles. But the fact that such struggle for rights became possible at all was due in large part to the changed foundations of the sovereignty of the state. The state no longer derived its sovereignty, particularly after the antimonarchical American and French Revolutions, from religious or dynastic claims, but increasingly from the idea of the “people” of the nation. The notion of the “nation-people” as the bearers of rights served as a spur for self-determination and fueled the spread of national movements in the territories of the Napoleonic, Spanish, Habsburg, Ottoman, and Czarist empires in the nineteenth century.

Even so, most of these movements were relatively elitist affairs, and nationalism as such did not appear until toward the end of the nineteenth century. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, nationality was not viewed as a birthright or an ascriptive status during much of the nineteenth century. Patriotism in the eighteenth-century revolutions in America and France was regarded as a largely voluntary affair. To be sure, the territorial nation-state did produce the cultural homogenization that was a condition for nationalism. But ethnicity, language, and other markers of collectivity were not to become the natural basis of claims to sovereignty until the last decades of the century. There may have been earlier, individual cases of ethnicity or other collective markers being used as rallying points to mobilize the people, but they were isolated and usually elitist; nationalism as a near-universal phenomenon emerged only in the later period and became rapidly realized in the aftermath of World War I.

The Nation-State and Nationalism

Several circumstances led to the emergence of mass nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industrialization necessitated mass literacy and interchangeable skills, which the philosopher Ernest Gellner (1925–1995) argued required the state to produce a culturally homogenous population congruent with state boundaries. The political scientist Karl Deutsch (1912–1992) noted the importance of modern mass media for nation-building projects, and the political scientist Benedict Anderson has emphasized the mass marketing of print media in what he calls print capitalism, which described the imagined community of the nation to the reading public. Nationalism was also linked to the politics of mass mobilization that emerged with the increasing democratization of European polities after 1880. Some of these conditions—such as the mobilization of certain identities or a form of print capitalism—could be found earlier in imperial China and elsewhere. Nonetheless, it was the simultaneous development of all or most of these conditions within an evolving system of competition between states that shaped nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century as the ideology of the nation-state.

The relationship between nationalism and competition between states was catalyzed by the challenge to British global supremacy in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nationalism became the ideological means among rising competitor states, such as Germany, Japan, the United States, Russia, and Italy, to mobilize the population and resources within the state’s territory in order to gain competitive advantage globally. Political and capitalist elites in these newly industrialized societies gradually undermined the classical liberal principles of free trade—enabling and enabled by British hegemony— by adopting policies to secure a state-protected national economy. The two world wars of the twentieth century were significantly driven by emergent nation-states in the competition for global resources.

Equally important was the mobilization of human resources by the nation-state in the name of the nation. Nationalism was deployed to rally the population and resources for imperialist expansion and war. Mass organizations created by the nation-state to mobilize civilian support for war were first developed by Japan, the Soviet Union, and Italy, nations that were not principals in World War I but that observed the insufficiency of civilian support during the war. These government-sponsored mass organizations, such as the Military Reservists Association formed in Japan in 1910, were developed along the model of a conscript army, imbued with nationalism, and were elevated rhetorically to represent the will of the people. In this way the government would call on the people to transcend immediate and particular interests; it might, for example, ask people to forego personal consumption or it might call into question the legitimacy of striking workers within the nation. Empire became the reward and glory of mass nationalism.

The events that concluded World War I established the normative principle that the world should be divided into nation-states and dealt an important though by no means conclusive blow to imperialism. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Soviet Revolution, the break-up of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires into nation-states, and the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920 reflected a vision of the world in which the boundaries of the state coincided with that of language and nationality. The creators of the league imagined it as a forum for internationalism based upon cooperation among nations—the individual families of mankind. Two other factors following the war have to be noted: the changed balance of power in the world and the advent of a new discourse of anti-imperialism.

The Soviet Union and the United States of America emerged as new powers with little stake in the old international order based upon the European balance of power; indeed, they were opposed to formal imperialism. Both Lenin and Woodrow Wilson were committed to national self-determination; when the Czarist Empire was reconstituted as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, the constituent parts were theoretically autonomous socialist nationalities. The anti-imperialist outlook was undergirded ideologically by the discrediting of the “civilizing mission” of the imperialist powers. Horrified by the scale of devastation of World War I, intellectuals both in the West and in the colonial world launched a critique of the Western ideal of civilization, which in the light of the war they felt had forfeited the right to represent the highest goals or ultimate values of humanity. Colonial intellectuals and leaders in places such as China, India, and the Islamic world began to look to their own civilizations’ traditions to sanction their emergent national movements.

The period after World War I witnessed both the expansion of the nation-state system and the growth of nationalism. While it was hoped that bringing more states under the regulatory mechanisms of the system, such as the League of Nations, would solve the problem of wars among nations, the inherent contradictions in the system actually appeared to intensify. On the one hand, more nation-states and even colonies such as India and mandated territories in the Middle East were part of the League of Nations; one the other hand, burgeoning nationalism justified aggression and domination. Older imperialist nations, faced with the growing phenomenon of nationalism, had to find alternatives to formal colonialism in order to control resources and remain globally competitive. Sometimes this meant developing client states and other subordinate political forms instead of colonies. Rising nation-states such as Germany, Italy, and Japan intensified their pursuit of economic and political supremacy, particularly during the Great Depression. The League of Nations turned out to have no teeth and could not enforce compliance upon those who brazenly violated its covenant, such as Italy and Japan. In part, this was because it was dominated by imperialist nation-states who themselves continued to possess colonies and special privileges. The League ultimately failed in its effort to reconcile the reality of imperialism with the idea of national self-determination.

Decolonization and Globalization

World War II brought about the beginning of the end of colonial empires. It also brought about the triumph of the nation-state as the successor state throughout the colonized world. This was not inevitable, because in several colonial empires, such as the French and the Japanese, there had been considerable experimentation with more-equal affiliations between colonies and the imperial metropole country through ideas of imperial citizenship. One of the most important factors ensuring that decolonization would yield nation-states was the growing role of the United Nations and international organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Global Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, and the International Trade Organization (later World Trade Organization), and World Health Organization, which tended to recognize only nation-states. The enhanced resources, power, and prestige of the new nation-state system ensured that the only legitimate and viable polities in the world would be nation-states, recognized as such by the system. For example, during the 2003 SARS crisis, the state in Taiwan, which has all the prerequisites for being a nation-state except recognition, had considerable problems gaining access to the services of international organizations—precisely because it lacked nation-state status.

Since decolonization, some have argued that the nation-state form has not provided effective protection against domination by superior powers, which are able to use their continued military and financial might and their influence in international organizations to dominate weaker nation-states. The United States and West European powers have been able to limit the capacity of the new, often institutionally fragile nation-states for self-determination. Similarly, the Soviet Union sought to limit the independence of socialist republics in Eastern Europe and of new nation-states dependent upon its military and financial aid. The effort to create a nonaligned movement during the Cold War, which gained momentum during the Bandung conference in Indonesia (1955), was not very successful, although some states were able to play off superpower rivalries to gain some competitive advantages.

Even though the threat of war between the superpowers was ever present during the Cold War, the existence of the socialist bloc and ideology nonetheless reduced the competitive pressures which had driven nations-states to war during the first half of the century. For better or for worse, the new socialist nation-states restricted the role of multinational companies and full-fledged capitalism within their borders, and their nation-building projects tended to look inwards. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the transformation of China into a capitalist society, nation-states have been turning away from the model of protected development and toward competitive capitalism, now called globalization. In the process, nation-states’ relative autonomy from international capitalism and ability to exercise control over their boundaries and identity are once again being affected. Whether or not the new order of international institutions will be able to contain the effects of extreme competition and challenges from the interstices of the system remains to be seen.


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