Nationalism is, on the whole, seen as a bad thing, but the nation state is the fundamental unit of political power in the world so it’s worth examining some of the issues with it.
The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit.The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term “nation state” implies that the two geographically coincide. Nation state formation took place at different times in different parts of the earth but has become the dominant form of state organization.
The concept and actuality of the nation state can be compared and contrasted with that of the multinational state, city state, empire, confederation, and other state forms with which it may overlap. The key distinction from the other forms is the identification of a people with a polity.
A political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history, and language.
A form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities
The origins and early history of nation states are disputed. A major theoretical issue is: “Which came first, the nation or the nation state?” For nationalists, the answer is that the nation existed first, nationalist movements arose to present its legitimate demand for sovereignty, and the nation state met that demand. Some “modernization theories” of nationalism see the national identity largely as a product of government policy to unify and modernize an already existing state. Most theories see the nation state as a 19th-century European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as mass literacy and the early mass media. However, historians also note the early emergence of a relatively unified state, and a sense of common identity, in Portugal and the Dutch Republic.
Before nation states
In Europe, in the 18th century, the classic non-national states were the multiethnic empires, (the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kingdom of France the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire) and smaller states at what would now be called sub-national level. The multi-ethnic empire was a monarchy ruled by a king, emperor or sultan. The population belonged to many ethnic groups, and they spoke many languages. The empire was dominated by one ethnic group, and their language was usually the language of public administration. The ruling dynasty was usually, but not always, from that group.
This type of state is not specifically European: such empires existed on all continents, excepting Australia and Antarctica. Some of the smaller European states were not so ethnically diverse, but were also dynastic states, ruled by a royal house. Their territory could expand by royal intermarriage or merge with another state when the dynasty merged. In some parts of Europe, notably Germany, very small territorial units existed. They were recognised by their neighbours as independent, and had their own government and laws. Some were ruled by princes or other hereditary rulers, some were governed by bishops or abbots. Because they were so small, however, they had no separate language or culture: the inhabitants shared the language of the surrounding region.
In some cases these states were simply overthrown by nationalist uprisings in the 19th century. Liberal ideas of free trade played a role in German unification, which was preceded by a customs union, the Zollverein. However, the Austro-Prussian War, and the German alliances in the Franco-Prussian War, were decisive in the unification. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire broke up after the First World War and the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, after the Russian Civil War.
A few of the smaller states survived: the independent principalities of Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco, and the republic of San Marino. (Vatican City is different. Although there was a larger Papal State, it was created in its present form by the 1929 Lateran treaties between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church.)
Characteristics of the nation state
“Legitimate states that govern effectively and dynamic industrial economies are widely regarded today as the defining characteristics of a modern nation-state.”
Nation states have their own characteristics, differing from those of the pre-national states. For a start, they have a different attitude to their territory, compared to the dynastic monarchies: it is semisacred, and nontransferable. No nation would swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king’s daughter married. They have a different type of border, in principle defined only by the area of settlement of the national group, although many nation states also sought natural borders (rivers, mountain ranges).
The most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.
The nation state promoted economic unity, by abolishing internal customs and tolls. In Germany, that process, the creation of the Zollverein, preceded formal national unity. Nation states typically have a policy to create and maintain a national transportation infrastructure, facilitating trade and travel. In 19th-century Europe, the expansion of the rail transport networks was at first largely a matter for private railway companies, but gradually came under control of the national governments. The French rail network, with its main lines radiating from Paris to all corners of France, is often seen as a reflection of the centralised French nation state, which directed its construction. Nation states continue to build, for instance, specifically national motorway networks. Specifically, transnational infrastructure programmes, such as the Trans-European Networks, are a recent innovation.
The nation states typically had a more centralised and uniform public administration than its imperial predecessors: they were smaller, and the population less diverse. (The internal diversity of the Ottoman Empire, for instance, was very great.) After the 19th-century triumph of the nation state in Europe, regional identity was subordinate to national identity, in regions such as Alsace-Lorraine, Catalonia, Brittany, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinated to central (national) government. This process was partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy, in formerly centralised states such as France.
The most obvious impact of the nation state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy. The model of the nation state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by a common descent, a common language and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation state often tried to create it. It promoted a uniform national language, through language policy. The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education and a relatively uniform curriculum in secondary schools, was the most effective instrument in the spread of the national languages. The schools also taught the national history, often in a propagandistic and mythologised version, and (especially during conflicts) some nation states still teach this kind of history.
Language and cultural policy was sometimes negative, aimed at the suppression of non-national elements. Language prohibitions were sometimes used to accelerate the adoption of national languages and the decline of minority languages (see Germanisation).
In some cases, these policies triggered bitter conflicts and further ethnic separatism. But where it worked, the cultural uniformity and homogeneity of the population increased. Conversely, the cultural divergence at the border became sharper: in theory, a uniform French identity extends from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine, and on the other bank of the Rhine, a uniform German identity begins. To enforce that model, both sides have divergent language policy and educational systems, although the linguistic boundary is in fact well inside France, and the Alsace region changed hands four times between 1870 and 1945.
Links and Sources:
- What Caused the Collapse of Ottoman Empire (wanttoknowit.com)
- The Balkan Wars: 100 Years Later, a History of Violence (world.time.com)
- The Nation State (educationofcyrus.wordpress.com)
- Does Global Citizenship Really Exist? (pinstripepumps.com)
- Asia’s more pressing challenges are from within (todayonline.com)