Growing up in England, an almost monolingual island, I was always jealous of the ease with which continental Europeans would switch seamlessly between French, English, German and other languages. Since there was always a clear demarcation between ‘home’ and ‘abroad’, which to me was always the 60 minute ferry ride to Calais, the idea that one could drive through 10 different countries in a long weekend and hear different languages blend into one another along the way blew my mind. This was a sudden realisation that nationality and identity is not binary and clear cut. In the last few years I’ve spent some time thinking very hard about the concept of nation states and how their very nature relates to identity, security, representation and accountability.
The United Nations
One logical starting point for examination of nation states is within the UN context (and not only because I am a current UN employee). Yet I need only reach for my copy of the UN charter and read as far as the second listed purpose to come up against fundamental difficulties
The purposes of the United Nations are … To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.
Promoting self-determination of people while being fundamentally based on the inviolability of member states quickly leads to contradicting positions on questions of secession, such as the Basque separatist movement or Caucasian independence.
UN member states themselves introduce some uncomfortable inequalities in representation. Each member state in theory wields equal power, yet with countries as mismatched in size as India (pop. 1,250,000,000) and Tuvalu (pop. 10,000) the power for accountability of each citizen is similarly unequal. This is in addition to the rich country bias inherent in decision making fora like the Security Council and the Bretton Woods system (see George Monbiot in Age of Consent for a more detailed examination).
Small states give rise to a number of quirky anecdotes such as Tuvalu’s ability to pay off 11% of its national debt by liquidating it’s London embassy and deriving 10% of revenue from it’s fortunate .tv domain. More seriously, I would argue that one side-effect of globalisation that has remained relatively under-examined is the phenomenon of weaker, smaller states exploiting their sovereignty to the detriment of the rest of the world. Smaller countries struggle to fulfill their obligations of statehood in many areas of regulation.
In the case of maritime law, all ships in international waters fly the flag of a given country. This right is sold by that country and in return that country, and that country only, may police all ships flying its flag. When a ship is registered in a different country than its country of ownership, this is known as a Flag of Convenience and is generally done to obfuscate oversight (Ian Urbina’s fantastic 4 part series on lawlessness at sea in the New York Times expertly expands upon this).
Smaller countries, especially small islands, often resort to innovative ways to raise money. This includes ‘offshore’ banking which offer secrecy to kleptocratic leaders and organised criminals. As described by Nicholas Shaxon in Treasure Islands, these small states instigate a race to the bottom in terms of lightening regulation and transparency. Seen as a desperate manouvre by countries with few alternative sources of income one can empathise, however the knock-on effect is sobering. To quote Shaxton
The Global Financial Integrity Program at the Centre for International Policy in Washington …estimated [developing countries] lost a staggering $1.2 trillion in illicit financial flows in 2008… Compare to the $100 billion in total annual foreign aid.
Put simply, in 2008 it is estimated that 10 times the flow of foreign aid into developing countries left to tax havens.
A final spoke of sovereignty is that of citizenship. In this case, the broad thrust of overcoming the punitive Global North/Global South divide, based simply on passports, is admirable. This division, whereby the citizens of many poor countries have limited access to opportunities to travel reveals an additional shortcoming of a narrow nationalistic view. As The Economist notes:
Imposing restrictions on the basis of nationality is the bluntest of instruments, scooping up legions of ordinary tourists and travellers as well as the occasional suspect
Part of the appeal of passports from countries such as Dominica, is that membership of the Commonwealth provides very favourable access to other members. This has led to wholesale selling of citizenship often under the guise of an ‘investment visa’.
Nations as We Know Them
It is useful to consider the origins of a sovereign state, as an iteration on a religious state or empire. This is generally first attributed to the Treaty of Westphalia in Europe introducing the ideas of legal equality between states and the principal of non-intervention between states. (The Peace of Westphalia 0f 1648 and the Origins of Sovereignty paint a more nuanced picture of this treaty).
However this conception of a clean equality between states is confounded by the unfathomably diverse origins of the current 200 or so, depending on definitions, independent states. Aside from the disparities caused by unequally sized citizenry, how can we morally feign equivalence between, for example, European countries with institutions that have been incrementally modernised over many centuries and rapidly decolonised African countries? Acemoglu and Robinson delve into the fascinating issue of extractive colonisation and its victims such as Congo, left without a single university graduate upon independence from Belgium in 1960.
While the Westphalian nation state was surely an improvement on empire, there has been increasing challenges to the status quo of global governance based on nation states that has been sharply focused on the Middle East.
The Legacy of Sykes-Picot
The Sykes-Picot agreement well exemplifies the arbitrary nature of many post-colonial borders; a clandestine agreement between France and the United Kingdom to divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between them. Sykes infamously described a line drawn with a ruler from
the “e” in Acre to the last “k’ in Kirkuk
Recent consideration of partition in Syria and Iraq has given rise a to fevered exhumation of the Sykes-Picot agreement (see the Independent, New Yorker, New Statesman). While Western commentators have generally advocated incremental changes to the partition imposed, ISIS have pushed back against the artificial boundaries imposed both ideologically and physically, in favour of reverting to a global Islamic caliphate.
Mooted future maps of supposedly stable states and borders were put forward following this. Some of these were well informed such as that from Global Research Center for Research on Globalization
While blogger Karl Remarks made light of this glut of map drawing
While the negative shortcomings of our present system of nationhood, global governance and citizenship are easy to enumerate, an alternative is less easy to offer. The issue appears to revolve around the question of the optimal scale for organisation. On one hand, large and cumbersome structures are ill suited to adequately responding to diverse needs of its citizens; with proof points coming from the Soviet Union to the Roman Empire (Niall Ferguson’s masterful treatise on the collapse of empires stands the test of time here). Conversely, protection of the climate or policing tax havens perfectly exemplify public goods that must be policed at a supra-national level to be effective. It is also worth noting that regional coalitions such as the European Union has seen unprecedented periods of peace and prosperity.
The quandary is familiar from evolutionary management; humans organise, compete and cooperate in different ways at different scales: generally individuals are more productive per capita working in teams than in isolation. Yet put too many people together and they begin to conflict with one another and slow each other down. Continuing the evolutionary biological analogy, the question may be framed as knowing where to slice the family tree that finds 7 billion individuals at its leaves and a single, monolithic global organism at its root. Clearly some countries make sense as regional coalitions and some federations would operate better as states with some level of autonomy.
I feel it incumbent upon me to at least offer one alternative, and so I humbly suggest cities as the most logical administrative unit for the 21st century. In light of massive urban migration, cities emerge as promising candidates for robust foci of human cooperation. Cities have long successfully nurtured large groups of diverse peoples, given rise to impressive economies of scale and social mobility, been rightfully noted as the most effective leaders on climate change and introducing beneficial social norms such as smoking bans. Perhaps the future axis of governance will not be between rich/poor or South/North but urban/rural.