The study of the modern nation-state is one that fascinates political scientists, historians, and sociologists. Among the questions most often asked are, first, what are the characteristics of a nation-state that make it a distinct political entity within the international community? Second, how is the concept that was introduced in the mid-17th century manifest today in the post-industrial era? Finally, what will become of the modern state in the future? This paper investigates the nation-state within the framework of these three questions.
Keywords Autonomy; Nation-state; Nationalism; Regime; Super-national
In 1648, the Thirty Years War came to an end with the Treaty of Westphalia. Europe had been devastated by the war, which was waged between rival factions of Catholics and Protestants. The precepts of that accord took to task the divergences that fostered this three-decade war, citing the apparent whims of those who ruled over the respective combatants as the primary reason for the horrors seen during the conflict. The agreement stipulated that citizens of each nation must follow primarily the laws and governmental rules of their respective homelands. In essence, the Treaty transferred ultimate power to legal and constitutional institutions within states, rather than their leaders. The Treaty serves as the historical foundation of the modern nation-state ("Is the nation-state obsolete?," 2006).
The study of the modern nation-state is one that has intrigued political scientists, historians and sociologists since Europe's last religious war ended at Westphalia. Among the questions most often asked are:
- First, what are the characteristics of a nation-state that make it a distinct political entity within the international community?
- Second, how is the concept that was introduced in the mid-17th century manifest today in the post-industrial era?
- Finally, what will become of the modern state in the near future?
This paper takes an in-depth look at the concept of a nation-state within the framework of these three questions. In doing so, the reader gleans a better understanding of the nation-state in both theoretical and practical terms.
Government for the People
In the late 17th century, the British political philosopher, John Locke, offered a direct counterpoint to the prevailing view that supported the divine right of the monarchy. Locke's latter notion held that kings were given their respective authorities by God, and that the governments that these monarchs establish are therefore also divine.
Locke, however, asserted that men were by nature free, and as such, must create laws and political institutions that have but one purpose: To protect the liberty of men. Such institutions might be multifarious, representing individual groups (such as ethnic or social groups) and either having to work with or compete against other such institutions. When those various "nations" find confluence within a certain geographic area, they may centralize a government within certain geographic boundaries. It is at this point that a nation becomes a "nation-state."
There is some debate, however, as to whether the rise of the nation-state would signal an end of imperialism and monarchist rule, or if the latter used the new nation-state to solidify its power. After all, many of Europe's strongest powers may have centralized power during their histories, but have been unable to completely unify the nationalistic attitudes of many of their constituents — in the United Kingdom, Scotland still stresses its autonomy, as do the Basques in Spain and the Languedoc in France. In fact, many scholars believe that many empires thrived in history due to the establishment of the nation-state (Rothbard, 1993).
Nationalism, therefore, becomes a central element in the development of a nation-state. In unifying diverse regions (and, in essence, smaller "nations") into one jelled nation-state, leaders have sought to create harmony among oft-multifarious political, social, racial, ethnic and religious groups by emphasizing the collective interest in promoting the nation-state as a whole. As shown above, there have been instances in which nation-states have fallen short in coalescing such diversity. Then again, there have been examples in the early history of nation-states in which such nationalistic endeavors have proven successful. The most prominent of these case studies is the foundation of the United States.
The Birth of the United States
The quest for independence from the British monarchy in and of itself jelled the myriad of individual interests and groups located not just within the collective 13 colonies but within each respective colony as well. After all, the vast majority of colonists either arrived or descended from those who arrived for the purpose of religious and social freedoms. Repelling the increasingly repressive British crown was therefore a cause worth pursuing, regardless of the ideals of those alongside whom they would be fighting. Once the war was over, however, the true challenge became manifest: Creating a nation-state that would govern effectively for the long-term in the vacuum created by the removal of British rule.
One of the most central issues at hand in the creation of the United States was how these "states" would be "united." Some preferred that the new country would be a collective of independent states, closely linked to one another but at the same time autonomous. Others pushed for a strong, centralized government to administer from one capitol. Federalists prevailed, but not without appreciating the need for compromise. Such consensus-building helped establish a balanced central government with limited authority (Zummo, 2007).
This concession appeared in the development of the Constitution and, more specifically, in the determination of individual rights and protections as outlined in that document. The establishment of the Bill of Rights was seen by some as unnecessary, as the principal source of the repression of basic rights, British rule, was no longer an issue — for those who remained to build America, protection of the citizens' rights was understood. However, those who, along with generations of ancestors, were scarred by persecution and repression, deemed language that safeguarded against specific manifestations of government authority as paramount to the formation of the United States. In a compromise move, the Bill of Rights was included in the Constitution, enabling the establishment of the federal government and ensuring ratification (Liu, 2007).
The wrangling over specific provisions of the Constitution in the earliest years of the United States echoes an important point made earlier about the establishment of nation-states. Nationalistic fervor may entice disparate nations and groups to unite, but how the aggregate holds fast is an altogether different challenge. Compromise remains a critical component in this arena, as nationalistic rhetoric and political posturing must ultimately give way to the establishment of a middle ground in order to coalesce the diverse subcomponents which will ultimately comprise the structure of the nation-state.
The Nation-State in the Modern World
With the end of the Second World War came the slow but steady dismantlement of the concept of the "great empire." In the Middle East and Central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, overstretched and taxed heavily by its participation in WWII, collapsed into itself. In south Asia and Africa, the satellites of the colonial powers (most notably Great Britain) began to fall apart one-by-one.
In the post-war era, however, not all hegemonies and colonial empires fell away to history. The post-war rise of the Soviet Union is the most glaring example of this change in the post-war world order. Many nations of the war-torn Central and Eastern European region were absorbed into the USSR, some by force, others by default (nations that had little government with which to function who allowed Soviet influence to draw it inside the growing nation-state).
Keeping such an enormous, incredibly diverse group of subjects within the USSR did occasionally require military intervention (as was deemed necessary in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan), but by and large the primary "unifier" of such satellites was two-fold.
- First, Soviet subjects...
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