On Point: News of the Nation-State's Demise May Be Very Premature

by Austin Bay
March 7, 2006

Is the "nation-state" dying?

Several strategic thinkers, including the brilliant Martin van Creveld, have suggested that the nation-state is kaput. At least two books published in the 1990s sported titles trumpeting "the end of the nation-state" -- extreme versions of van Creveld's reasoned critique. Czech Republic president and playwright Vaclav Havel said in 1999 that NATO's war in Kosovo (led by the Clinton administration) placed "human rights above the rights of state." Havel applauded this outcome.

Others argued that Kosovo demonstrated moral values may have a national interest, however, and that powerful states can act on this interest. It took states to place human rights above the rights of human rights abusers.

Declaring "the state is dead" does create media sizzle. Nietzsche did it with "God is dead." Alas, catastrophe sells.

Nietzsche thought science and rationalism had killed a shared belief in God. What killed (or is killing) the nation-state? Various culprits are blamed: the Internet, bond traders, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism -- a mix of technology, irrationalism, social pathology and failed states.

Sharp minds like Bruce Porter and Philip Bobbitt both contend new state forms are emerging. In "War and the Rise of the State" (1994), Porter suggested we're entering the era of the "scientific warfare state." Bobbitt's "Shield of Achilles" (2002) said the market-state is emerging.

Bobbitt told an interviewer: "The 'market-state' is the latest constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen."

News of the nation-state's demise may be very premature -- Porter seems to believe that genuine nation-states are adaptable. I've argued that democratic nation-states in particular exhibit extraordinary flexibility and resiliency.

Weaknesses in the Westphalian system exist, in part because it has never been a complete system. (The Westphalian system evolved from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the series of peace settlements that ended the Thirty Years War in Europe.) Westphalia's "nation-state system" has always faced "gaps" (anarchic regions) and "failed states" (which are often collapsing tribal empires with the trappings of modernity, not the institutions).

In a recent article in Policy Review, the National War College's Michael J. Mazarr countered nation-state obit writers. He noted that "Westphalian rules" are increasingly accepted, though concepts of government legitimacy have evolved to include "no genocide." That's one reason the United Nations may "invade" Sudan's Darfur region. African Union peacekeepers haven't stopped the genocide. The United Nations wants NATO troops to try (i.e., troops from flexible, adaptable democratic nation-states).

The "it's dead" and "it lives" contingents do agree that transnational terror is a threat. Mazarr identified "psychopolitik" as a common feature shared by such notionally disparate types as the Unabomber, Oklahoma City's Tim McVeigh and al-Qaidaites.

"Fantasy ideologies" -- utopian visions like al-Qaida's and communism's that energize "alienated" people -- have threatened the global system. Mazarr argues Nazism was "psychopolitik" writ large and the war the Nazis started "a product of psychological" more than geopolitical issues.

In Mazarr's view, "alienation" creates security problems by "paving the way for aggressive, despotic movements to seize control of national governments and wage traditional war" or "burst forth" as "civil wars, revolutions or ethnic conflicts." Today, Mazarr writes, "the central security challenge of alienation is global terrorism, emanating from extreme, anti-modern Islamic groups."

Mazarr acknowledges the "alienated" will always pose a threat and weapons of mass destruction magnify that threat.

However, Mazarr concludes "the threat of alienation is a somewhat temporary menace'" confined to "phases of modernization and cultural change that precede complete modernity," where "most people are prosperous enough and safe enough and have sufficiently reliable avenues to identity." In other words, nation-states, or market-states, or market-states with "scientific warfare state capabilities" will co-opt, incarcerate, eliminate or marginalize even hard-core rejectionists.

Responsive, legitimate, wealth-producing, safety-creating states -- whether market or nation -- are powerful, civilizing forces.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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