The future of sovereign nation-states

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By Henry Srebrnik

Commentary

In the last 30 years or so, a consensus has emerged among our political elites, in Europe and North America, regarding the proper character of the state. They increasingly have come to regard as illegitimate states that are founded on the basis of ethnic or religious nationhood, as opposed to the civic-territorial or multicultural model.

They have come to define nationalism itself as a variant of racist intolerance, indeed a political pathology that leads inexorably to the narrowest of so-called 'tribalism'. The older paradigm of nationhood, one grounded in an exclusionary ethno-nationalism, has been largely discredited, perhaps due to the excesses of fascism and ultra-nationalism before the Second World War. In its stead has arisen the paradigm of a state with a universalist vision based on international human rights ideology.

This ideal state should preferably not be linked to any ethnic group per se but should adhere to a civic and political, rather than ethnic, concept of nationhood: the United States or Australia are examples. And even if it remains, historically and still predominantly, the homeland of one ethnic group it should live up to the same standards, the way Holland or Sweden do.

The traditional definition of a nation, to quote the political scientist Walker Connor, "is a group of people whose members believe they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group to share such a myth of common descent; it is, in a sentient sense, the fully extended family."

This sense of kinship, of separate origin and evolution, whether historically accurate or fictive, is, he writes, "the glue of the national bond."

While objective criteria such as common language, religion, territory, and the like, help define an ethno-national community, its essence is a psychological bond that joins it and "differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all non-members in a most vital way." And it also, Connor indicates, accounts for the emotional depth - call it irrationality - which it inspires, "the fanatical sacrifices which have been made in its name."

Even more important for ethnic survival, and perhaps long-range success, argues the British theorist Anthony Smith, is the need to cultivate the myth of ethnic election. Even in those instances where political independence was lost (as in the case of the Armenians and Jews), the moral community and the sense of divine mission, "the passionate attachments to sacred lands and centres, and the abiding imprint of sacred languages and scriptures proved to be an enduring legacy for many peoples." It nurtured their hopes for political restoration to the ancestral homeland.

Studies of nationalism by Conor Cruise O'Brien and Donald Akenson, Irish and Canadian scholars, respectively, have also emphasized the religiously based nature of national identity among peoples such as the Afrikaaners, Ulster Protestants and Jews.

Their complex foundation myths and territorial claims involve covenants with God, "promised lands" for "chosen peoples," which served as crucibles of national evolution. Arabs, Japanese, Russians, Poles, Serbs, and many other peoples have also asserted a special relationship with a transcendental deity.

But modern western political theory has become increasingly critical of the classical nation-state, especially of the notion that each self-defined group is entitled, as part of its patrimony and place in the world, a particular space it can call its own homeland.

Rationalist intellectuals are, needless to say, even more skeptical of theologically-based claims to particular territories. Antipathy to such notions gained ground over the past two centuries; today, the proponents of multicultural secularism are opposed as a matter of principle to homogenous ethnically-based statehood.

Europe's dominant paradigm now is post-nationalist as opposed to the retrograde nation-state. In their version of the ideal polity, the nation is the territory, not the people.

Are these modern leaders really nostalgic for such failed testaments to multi-nationalism as the old Austro-Hungarian, tsarist Russian, and Ottoman Turkish empires?

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Europe, North America, United States Australia Sweden

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