by Austin Bay
March 7, 2006
Is the "nation-state" dying?
Several strategic thinkers, including the brilliant Martin van
Creveld, have suggested that the nation-state is kaput. At least two books
published in the 1990s sported titles trumpeting "the end of the
nation-state" -- extreme versions of van Creveld's reasoned critique. Czech
Republic president and playwright Vaclav Havel said in 1999 that NATO's war
in Kosovo (led by the Clinton administration) placed "human rights above the
rights of state." Havel applauded this outcome.
Others argued that Kosovo demonstrated moral values may have a
national interest, however, and that powerful states can act on this
interest. It took states to place human rights above the rights of human
Declaring "the state is dead" does create media sizzle.
Nietzsche did it with "God is dead." Alas, catastrophe sells.
Nietzsche thought science and rationalism had killed a shared
belief in God. What killed (or is killing) the nation-state? Various
culprits are blamed: the Internet, bond traders, weapons of mass
destruction, terrorism -- a mix of technology, irrationalism, social
pathology and failed states.
Sharp minds like Bruce Porter and Philip Bobbitt both contend
new state forms are emerging. In "War and the Rise of the State" (1994),
Porter suggested we're entering the era of the "scientific warfare state."
Bobbitt's "Shield of Achilles" (2002) said the market-state is emerging.
Bobbitt told an interviewer: "The 'market-state' is the latest
constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy
with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the
nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to
better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to
maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen."
News of the nation-state's demise may be very premature --
Porter seems to believe that genuine nation-states are adaptable. I've
argued that democratic nation-states in particular exhibit extraordinary
flexibility and resiliency.
Weaknesses in the Westphalian system exist, in part because it
has never been a complete system. (The Westphalian system evolved from the
Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the series of peace settlements that ended
the Thirty Years War in Europe.) Westphalia's "nation-state system" has
always faced "gaps" (anarchic regions) and "failed states" (which are often
collapsing tribal empires with the trappings of modernity, not the
In a recent article in Policy Review, the National War College's
Michael J. Mazarr countered nation-state obit writers. He noted that
"Westphalian rules" are increasingly accepted, though concepts of government
legitimacy have evolved to include "no genocide." That's one reason the
United Nations may "invade" Sudan's Darfur region. African Union
peacekeepers haven't stopped the genocide. The United Nations wants NATO
troops to try (i.e., troops from flexible, adaptable democratic
The "it's dead" and "it lives" contingents do agree that
transnational terror is a threat. Mazarr identified "psychopolitik" as a
common feature shared by such notionally disparate types as the Unabomber,
Oklahoma City's Tim McVeigh and al-Qaidaites.
"Fantasy ideologies" -- utopian visions like al-Qaida's and
communism's that energize "alienated" people -- have threatened the global
system. Mazarr argues Nazism was "psychopolitik" writ large and the war the
Nazis started "a product of psychological" more than geopolitical issues.
In Mazarr's view, "alienation" creates security problems by
"paving the way for aggressive, despotic movements to seize control of
national governments and wage traditional war" or "burst forth" as "civil
wars, revolutions or ethnic conflicts." Today, Mazarr writes, "the central
security challenge of alienation is global terrorism, emanating from
extreme, anti-modern Islamic groups."
Mazarr acknowledges the "alienated" will always pose a threat
and weapons of mass destruction magnify that threat.
However, Mazarr concludes "the threat of alienation is a
somewhat temporary menace'" confined to "phases of modernization and
cultural change that precede complete modernity," where "most people are
prosperous enough and safe enough and have sufficiently reliable avenues to
identity." In other words, nation-states, or market-states, or market-states
with "scientific warfare state capabilities" will co-opt, incarcerate,
eliminate or marginalize even hard-core rejectionists.
Responsive, legitimate, wealth-producing, safety-creating
states -- whether market or nation -- are powerful, civilizing forces.