Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet
Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?These are not normally scientific questions – but that is changing. Complexity theorists, social scientists and historians are addressing them using new techniques, and the answers are not always what you might expect. Far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon. And as complexity keeps rising, it is already mutating into novel political structures. Get set for neo-medievalism.
But for every Syria or Iraq there is a Singapore, Malaysia or Tanzania, getting along okay despite having several “national” groups. Immigrant states in Australia and the Americas, meanwhile, forged single nations out of massive initial diversity.What makes the difference? It turns out that while ethnicity and language are important, what really matters is bureaucracy. This is clear in the varying fates of the independent states that emerged as Europe’s overseas empires fell apart after the second world war.According to the mythology of nationalism, all they needed was a territory, a flag, a national government and UN recognition. In fact what they really needed was complex bureaucracy.Some former colonies that had one became stable democracies, notably India. Others did not, especially those such as the former Belgian Congo, whose colonial rulers had merely extracted resources. Many of these became dictatorships, which require a much simpler bureaucracy than democracies.Dictatorships exacerbate ethnic strife because their institutions do not promote citizens’ identification with the nation. In such situations, people fall back on trusted alliances based on kinship, which readily elicit Dunbar-like loyalties. Insecure governments allied to ethnic groups favour their own, while grievances among the disfavoured groups grow – and the resulting conflict can be fierce.Recent research confirms that the problem is not ethnic diversity itself, but not enough official inclusiveness. Countries with little historic ethnic diversity are now having to learn that on the fly, as people migrate to find jobs within a globalised economy.
Both Bar-Yam’s and Cederman’s research suggests one answer to diversity within nation states: devolve power to local communities, as multicultural states such as Belgium and Canada have done.“We need a conception of the state as a place where multiple affiliations and languages and religions may be safe and flourish,” says Slattery. “That is the ideal Tanzania has embraced and it seems to be working reasonably well.” Tanzania has more than 120 ethnic groups and about 100 languages.In the end, what may matter more than ethnicity, language or religion is economic scale. The scale needed to prosper may have changed with technology – tiny Estonia is a high-tech winner – but a small state may still not pack enough economic power to compete.That is one reason why Estonia is such an enthusiastic member of the European Union.
“The future structure and exercise of political power will resemble the medieval model more than the Westphalian one,” Zielonka says. “The latter is about concentration of power, sovereignty and clear-cut identity.” Neo-medievalism, on the other hand, means overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders.