End of nations: Is there an alternative to countries? – life – 03 September 2014 – New Scientist

12 Sep


… careful analysis
confirms that trouble arises not from
diversity alone, but when
certain groups are systematically excluded
from power.

Governments with ethnicity-based politics
were especially
vulnerable. The US set up just such a
government in Iraq after the
2003 invasion. Exclusion of Sunni by
Shiites led to insurgents
declaring a Sunni state in occupied
territory in Iraq and Syria.
True to nation-state mythology, it rejects
the colonial boundaries
of Iraq and Syria, as they force dissimilar
“nations” together.

Ethnic cleansing

Yet the solution cannot be imposing ethnic
uniformity. Historically,
so-called ethnic cleansing has been
uniquely bloody, and “national”
uniformity is no guarantee of harmony. In
any case, there is no good
definition of an ethnic group. Many
people’s ethnicities are mixed
and change with the political weather: the
numbers who claimed to be
German in the Czech Sudetenland territory
annexed by Hitler changed
dramatically before and after the war.
Russian claims to
Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine now
may be equally flimsy.

Both Bar-Yam’s and Cederman’s research
suggests one answer to
diversity within nation states: devolve
power to local communities,
as multicultural states such as Belgium
and Canada have done.

“We need a conception of the state as a
place where multiple
affiliations and languages and religions
may be safe and flourish,”
says Slattery. “That is the ideal Tanzania
has embraced and it seems
to be working reasonably well.” Tanzania
has more than 120 ethnic
groups and about 100 languages.

In the end, what may matter more than
ethnicity, language or
religion is economic scale. The scale
needed to prosper may have
changed with technology – tiny Estonia is a
high-tech winner – but a
small state may still not pack enough
economic power to compete.

That is one reason why Estonia is such an
enthusiastic member of the
European Union. After the devastating wars
in the 20th century,
European countries tried to prevent further
war by integrating their
basic industries. That project, which
became the European Union, now
primarily offers member states profitable
economies of scale,
through manufacturing and selling in the
world’s largest single

What the EU fails to inspire is nationalist-style allegiance – which
Malesevic thinks nowadays relies on the
“banal” nationalism of
sport, anthems, TV news programmes,
even song contests. That means
Europeans’ allegiances are no longer
identified with the political
unit that handles much of their

Ironically, says Jan Zielonka of the
University of Oxford, the EU
has saved Europe’s nation states, which
are now too small to compete
individually. The call by nationalist parties
to “take back power
from Brussels”, he argues, would lead to
weaker countries, not
stronger ones.

He sees a different problem. Nation states
grew out of the complex
hierarchies of the industrial revolution. The
EU adds another layer
of hierarchy – but without enough
underlying integration to wield
decisive power. It lacks both of Malesevic’s
necessary conditions:
nationalist ideology and pervasive
integrating bureaucracy.

Even so, the EU may point the way to what
a post-nation-state world
will look like.

Zielonka agrees that [25]further integration
of Europe’s governing
systems is needed as economies become
more interdependent. But he
says Europe’s often-paralysed hierarchy
cannot achieve this. Instead
he sees the replacement of hierarchy by
networks of cities, regions
and even non-governmental organisations.
Sound familiar? Proponents
call it neo-medievalism.

“The future structure and exercise of
[26]political power will
resemble the medieval model more than
the Westphalian one,” Zielonka
says. “The latter is about concentration of
power, sovereignty and
clear-cut identity.” Neo-medievalism, on
the other hand, means
overlapping authorities, divided
sovereignty, multiple identities
and governing institutions, and fuzzy

[27]Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton
University, a former US
assistant secretary of state, also sees
hierarchies giving way to
global networks primarily of experts and
bureaucrats from nation
states. For example, governments now
work more through flexible
networks such as the G7 (or 8, or 20) to
manage global problems than
through the UN hierarchy.

[28]Ian Goldin, head of the Oxford Martin
School at the University
of Oxford, which analyses global problems,
thinks such networks must
emerge. He believes existing institutions
such as UN agencies and
the World Bank are structurally unable to
deal with problems that
emerge from global interrelatedness, such
as economic instability,
pandemics, climate change and
cybersecurity – partly because they
are hierarchies of member states which
themselves cannot deal with
these global problems. He quotes
Slaughter: “Networked problems
require a networked response.”

Again, the underlying behaviour of systems
and the limits of the
human brain explain why. Bar-Yam notes
that in any hierarchy, the
person at the top has to be able to get their
head around the whole
system. When systems are too complex for
one human mind to grasp, he
argues that they must evolve from
hierarchies into networks where no
one person is in charge.

Where does this leave nation states? “They
remain the main
containers of power in the world,” says
Breuilly. And we need their
power to maintain the personal security
that has permitted [29]human
violence to decline to all-time lows.

Moreover, says [30]Dani Rodrik of
Princeton’s Institute for Advanced
Study, the very globalised economy that is
allowing these networks
to emerge needs something or somebody
to write and enforce the
rules. Nation states are currently the only
entities powerful enough
to do this.

Yet their limitations are clear, both in
solving global problems and
resolving local conflicts. One solution may
be to pay more attention
to the scale of government. Known as
subsidiarity, this is a basic
principle of the EU: the idea that
government should act at the
level where it is most effective, with local
government for local
problems and higher powers at higher
scales. There is empirical
evidence that it works: social and
ecological systems can be better
governed when their users self-organise
than when they are run by
outside leaders.

However, it is hard to see how our political
system can evolve
coherently in that direction. Nation states
could get in the way of
both devolution to local control and
networking to achieve global
goals. With climate change, it is arguable
that they already have.

There is an alternative to evolving towards
a globalised world of
interlocking networks, neo-medieval or not,
and that is
[31]collapse. “Most hierarchical systems
tend to become top-heavy,
expensive and incapable of responding to
change,” says [32]Marten
Scheffer of Wageningen University in the
Netherlands. “The resulting
tension may be released through partial
collapse.” For nation
states, that could mean anything from the
renewed pre-eminence of
cities to Iraq-style anarchy. An uncertain
prospect, but there is an
upside. Collapse, say some, is the creative
destruction that allows
new structures to emerge.

Like it or not, our societies may already be
undergoing this
transition. We cannot yet imagine there are
no countries. But
recognising that they were temporary
solutions to specific
historical situations can only help us
manage a transition to
whatever we need next. Whether or not our
nations endure, the
structures through which we govern our
affairs are due for a change.
Time to start imagining.

This article appeared in print under the
headline “Imagine there’s
no countries…”

Debora MacKenzie is a consultant for New
Scientist in Brussels


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