Nation State delusions and dangers

SCMP July 13, 2014


The idea of the nation state is in trouble. It is also causing trouble. In many parts of the globe, one can now see coming unstuck the concept of the nation state as embodied in the polities which blossomed in Europe in the 19th century and reached their apogee in state creation during the post-1945 decolonisation. There was to be, in principle at least, no arrangement between the nation state, whatever its size, and the empires of old.

But, now, we see states which are so far from being nations that they can be held together only by brute force. We see petty nationalism seeking independence based on a mix of contrived history and imagined insults, egged on by self-aggrandising politicians. Then there are states which need to realise that they can only survive with their current borders if they recognise the minority nations that lie within them.

In short, the world needs to recognise, indeed encourage, different kinds of arrangements that do not fall into the nation-state category, leave issues of language, religion and history aside, and focus on outcomes for the citizens.

It is often forgotten, even in Europe, that Italy and Germany are new creations. Of the major states of Europe, only England, France and Spain have an uninterrupted nation-state identity dating back hundreds of years. Most of the states of Europe were once part of now defunct empires - Habsburg, Ottoman, tsarist Russian, even Swedish.

The Ottoman and Habsburg ones in particular were especially diverse in terms of their ethnic, linguistic and religious composition. One language and one religion were always on top but diversity was tolerated so long as overlordship and some basic rules of behaviour were accepted.

Thus, regions in Iraq and Syria were under the Ottomans, mostly Arabic-speaking but with a complex mix of major religions and minor sects. Yes, the people may have resented the Turkish yoke but having thrown that off, and then the British and French, they are now further than ever from finding an identity as a nation state.

Blame the Americans if you will, or the Europeans who drew the post-1918 boundaries. But no one has yet proposed a better division - unless you either abolish Iraq altogether and divide it between Iran, Syria and a new Kurdish state, or find some very loose federal structure with Arabic as the lingua franca.

The Arabian Peninsula is even more full of nation-state absurdities: petty sheikhdoms which got British protection, then oil, but rely on cheap foreign labour. Saudi Arabia is a recent dynastic invention next to an ancient, poor and overcrowded Yemen.

Some of the same issues in Iraq and Syria are replicated along the old frontiers between the Russian, Turkish and Austrian empires where a myriad of petty nationalism flourishes, mostly with more powerful patrons. But if Gambia and Kiribati can be independent, why not Transnistria, or bits of eastern Ukraine? There are at least real divisions of language and religion.

Can that be said of Scotland, the major beneficiary of the British empire? Imagine how Adam Smith and David Hume, the great apostles of reason and the common good, would feel about the sheer pettiness of Alex Salmond and his equivalents in England and elsewhere thrown up by the recent European elections, all living in an imagined past.

Unfortunately, that very embodiment of national cooperation, the European Union, has by default come to encourage the fracturing of older links, whether England to Scotland, Spain to Catalonia or Czechs to Slovaks.

As for Asia, the whole of central Asia - everywhere from the eastern borders of Xinjiang and Tibet to the Black Sea - faces ethnic issues which are now irritants but could get much bigger, whether because of petty local nationalism or the inability of large states to accommodate different cultures within an overarching system. More and more, one can see the benefits of loose empires which provide a framework for cooperation but not an ideology or ethnic identity.

In Southeast Asia, there are some colonial-era borders which will be very hard to maintain with even the best will on the part of component states - those of Borneo are especially vulnerable.

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, state formation, let alone nation states, is still a work in progress. South Sudan's only identity is that it is not Arabic-speaking, Muslim Sudan. It is a state in name, where small nations now fight each other. It can only be resolved - if at all - by one suppressing the other, or both being brought under a bigger power.

The relevance of all this to Hong Kong is that we are a lucky exception to the nation-state obsession. It is, by historical chance, a wonderful example of the triumph of other interests. The specific values may not be transportable but the principle of differences creating shared interests should be.

China could show its own wisdom by being more proud of this part of its broader state, show its appreciation of history by making a virtue of Hong Kong's differences, allowing similar for Tibet and Xinjiang. By doing so, it would show that it is more than a nation state, and be a global example for the future.





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