The nation state in the modern world

Saturday 28 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 4-6The new political landscape

Professor Robert Tombs, writing in the FT in July, reminded us that until recently conventional wisdom had concluded that ‘national sovereignty was long ago consigned to the dustbin of history’.  The decline of the nation state was seen to be the inevitable consequence of the hidden hand of globalisation, with the growth of multinational corporations and borderless free trade, or due to the benign design of cosmopolitan internationalists, with their consciously created transnational laws and institutions. But as recent events seem to have demonstrated, reports of the death of the nation state have been greatly exaggerated.

National sovereignty became the defining theme of the Brexit referendum, entering the consciousness of the country in a way that it hadn’t for at least a generation. This has sparked a lively and often bitterly contentious debate about the rise of nationalism. At its most pessimistic, commentators warn that a vote to ‘take back control’ really presages the return of dark forces of xenophobia and Little Englander parochialism. There are fears that this assertion of national self-government means the death knell for internationalism, solidarity, even peace.

In a speech delivered in Berlin in 2010, Herman van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, argued that ‘Euroscepticism leads to war’. Indeed, the EU has defined itself as the only institution that can save the continent from a descent into the aggressive nationalism that dominated the first half of the twentieth century.  And in the context of Donald Trump’s America First protectionism, and calls to ‘Build the Wall’ to keep people out, perhaps it’s unsurprising that there’s nervousness about whether the new nationalism can be anything more than an assertion of territorial exclusivity at the expense of other nations and ‘the Other’ more generally.

Yet the nation can be looked at more positively, philosophically and politically.  The word nation stems from the Latin word natio, meaning ‘people, tribe, kin, genus, class, flock’, and for many it still provides a context for the cultivation of a real community and felt identity. Yet ironically, while it is fashionable to valorise the identities of minorities, regions and ethnic and other groups, too often there is nothing but scorn poured on expressions of national pride.  Critics of national sovereignty are keen to point out that in a modern, globalised world, national parliaments and constituencies are ill-suited to deal with the complex challenges of governance – many of which transcend borders and are global in character. But supporters of national sovereignty stress that, for all its limits, it offers the only meaningful means for democratic accountability and popular self-government.

Where does the balance lie between the more toxic aspects of nationalism and the positive concept of democratic sovereignty? Are supporters of nation states only concerned with the autonomy of their own countries or can they establish new forms of international cooperation across and in spite of territorial borders? Is it naïve and old-fashioned to imagine that sovereign nations can hope to navigate a world that heavily promotes globalisation – economically, culturally and politically? Does any assertion of nationalism inevitably lead, as is suggested, to a rejection of the world and the Enlightenment ideals of universalism and global brotherhood?  Why and how has national sovereignty become so closely associated with far-right ideology or can a progressive case be made for it?