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

Small States

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).

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).

The number of countries with their own constitution over time (taken from the CCP dataset and first published in Disentangling Network and Global Effects in Constitutional Political Development (2016). The period of rapid decolonisation is shaded in blue.

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

By Royal Geographical Society, Mark Sykes & François Georges-Picot
Credit: Ralph Peters (link)
Credit Karl Remarks. Caption reads Polka Dot: “Old fashioned but still popular” (link)

Alternatives

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.

Data, science, data science and trace amounts of the Middle East and the UN

Data, science, data science and trace amounts of the Middle East and the UN