The Failure of the Nation-state

Flag of Kurdistan, Created in 1946 for a Country that Still doesn’t Exist

It’s hard to imagine that the nation-state is a new concept to politics. But contrary to popular belief, the idea of the nation as a specific country or place, defined by set borders and given an official language is a new necessity, and an incredibly problematic one at that. Let’s think about some of the new nations that have appeared on the global map recently: South Sudan (the youngest), Palestine (the most contested) and Pakistan (perhaps the most instable); not to mention the creation of 15 new countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, if we look at these new countries together, we can see a commonality: they all arose from blood, war and violence.

But why did they need to be created? Why did the lines on the map have to change? Surely the mass of land on planet earth has always been the same? Besides, surely people have been living in these places for centuries, right? Yes. Still to answer these questions it is important to understand that the idea of the nation-state was invented by the West for the West. It goes back to Colonialism, or the rise of the Empire (the British in particular). See in order to conquer such a huge number of places such as India, Rhodesia, Burma, Sudan and Australia, Britain required a defined ‘people’ or national identity in order to have the sovereign power to conquer other parts of the world. Basically, in order to expand, Britain had to set lines and spaces for itself so that it could ‘claim’ where it could justify its rights.  Drawing lines around itself helped to start this.

Map of the British Empire

(This is not to say Britain is to blame for everything, of course Rome had an empire that expanded all over the place, but the idea of the modern nation-state is something else. It is not an empire, it is a political state which derives its legitimacy from being sovereign, i.e. defining itself as a people with a polity.)

So what about these new countries, why was their development so brutal and bloody? The answer lies in the fact that their existence was the result of their struggle for independence from another country, mostly from regimes where they have been oppressed—or do not have a nation-space as in the case of the Jews in Europe and the Indian-Muslims in India. See the problem with the idea of politics, rights and identity and the people who are defined as ‘citizens’ within these spaces, is that they exclude others. They need something to hold them together, glue which says who is who and where they will go. This glue is usually ethnic or religious in origin, or is the unity of an official language.

But what about the Jewish people in Europe? Or the Kurdish people in Turkey and the Middle East? These are two ethnic groups with a language and no ‘homeland,’ both historically persecuted as they have no set space on the map to be protected by their own country and the rights it grants. We only need to say the word Holocaust to realise the damage not having a homeland can do to a group of people in ‘someone else’s country’ when they are no longer wanted as they don’t fit the mould of belonging to the national group. Solution: The Jews were given Palestine by the British, now named Israel (an area of land already occupied by the Palestinian people who were forced from their land and homes by force—often resulting in violence and death of innocent people); and the Kurdish people are still fighting for their own nation-state, an issue which causes great instability in Turkey and the Middle East.

A Palestinian Woman Stands Before a Mass Grave Containing her People, Killed by the American and Israeli Armies

This failure of modern politics to see that we can’t fit everyone into neat packages called nation-states is frightening to say the least. It causes war, destruction and terror. There needs to be an alternative. I suggest a global government. Or some form of freedom to roam movement. It’s definitely about time the world realised that we can’t keep allowing wars to happen over the rise of nations, it’s an impossibility to think that every form of ethnic, religious and dialectal group can possess their own square on the map. And when they don’t, we need to find some way of protecting them.

I would certainly be interested in hearing anyone else’s thoughts on this?

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