NEW YORK – This fall, thousands of college students will be taught a myth presented as fact. It is a myth that has helped fuel wars and may hinder finding solutions to the world’s biggest problems. Though the origin of this myth is cloudy, science has proven its falsity, and a globalized world has rendered it anachronistic. I am talking about the nation-state.
The nation-state myth conflates two ideas, one that is concrete, the state, and one that is fuzzy, the nation. The utility of the state is clear. It is a necessary organizing principle that allows people to pool their resources for the common good and mobilize against common threats, whether they are floods or invading armies. The state is also the final arbiter of law. State power is even on the rise, partly as a backlash to globalization and as a result of growing wealth from energy markets.
But the nation-state as a basis for statecraft obscures the nature of humanity’s greatest threats. Pollution, terrorism, pandemics, and climate change are global phenomena. They do not respect national sovereignty, and, therefore, they necessitate global cooperation.
The origin of the nation-state idea is unclear. Most agree that it offered a way to consolidate and legitimize a state’s rule over a group of people, whether defined by a common language, culture, or ethnicity. The problem is that the contours of a cultural community rarely coincide with a political entity. Nor does the ideal of national unity account for internal diversity and conflict.
Identities within nations are fluid, even from minute to minute. About 15 years ago, I spent a summer in France’s Loire Valley. As many travelers to France will attest, people in the French countryside believe that they, not Parisians, constitute the “true” France.
This division of core and periphery is common in many countries. But I also noticed that a person’s identity would change during the course of a conversation. “We French” would give way to “We Gauls,” “We Latins,” “We Bretons,” “We Franks,” or “We Europeans” depending on the topic. This ever-changing identity was startling, but, on second thought, it made sense: after all, Charles de Gaulle famously said that it is difficult to govern a country with 246 types of cheese.
China is often thought to be governed by the Han majority. But this group is linguistically, culturally, and even genetically diverse. As the author Ian Buruma recently mused, it is not clear what people mean by “China.” Taiwan is an independent state but is officially part of China. Chinese culture and language has spread all over the world. “China” is much more than just a nation-state, Buruma concludes. Taiwanese scholar Lee Hsiao-feng has recently argued that the concept “Chinese” is a meaningless word that was fabricated to justify rule over minorities.
It is difficult to imagine a nation that is confined to one state or a state that contains one nation. Some argue that Japan is an example of a nation-state. In countless heated discussions, I have reminded many Japanese that the Japanese people actually comprise Ainu, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and Ryuku. Their response is always: “Yes, but we want to believe that there is a Japanese people.” They even have a field of study devoted to examining what it means to be Japanese.
Like religion, the nation-state myth requires a leap of faith. Japanese scholar Yoshihisa Hagiwara argues that since it is not grounded in fact, the nation-state myth is bound to dissolve, giving way to an understanding that we are merely individuals who are part of a global community. He laments that the Japanese are especially fond of the idea of “Japaneseness,” making it possible that Japan may become the “last hero” of a dying ethos.
Expressions of this notion appear frequently in popular culture. A recent credit card commercial depicts a father and son traveling to Norway to trace their family’s origins. After bonding over local beer, food, sweaters, and swimming, they discover their family is actually from Sweden.
If I were to take that trip, I might have gone to Ireland to discover that my Irish ancestors were originally from Scotland. But where were the Scots from? Just across another sea, perhaps. The origin myth continues ad infinitum until we reach humanity’s common ancestor, or an actual myth – a black egg in China, a spear in the ocean in Japan, or the interaction of fire and ice in France.
If policymakers are to address today’s problems, they must think more broadly. One place to start may be to reexamine the concept of the nation-state, which students around the world are taught is the basic unit of international relations. Beyond the core Realist theories of balance of power, an introduction to ethics in international affairs – moral philosophy, human rights, and the role of non-state actors – should be mainstreamed in international relations curricula.
As the philosopher Peter Singer showed in his book One World , a united front against the biggest problems facing the world will require a fundamental shift in attitude – away from parochialism and toward a redefinition of self-interest. Enlightened self-interest can be state-based, but interests would be re-defined to encompass universal principles such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If these interests are to gain universal recognition, we will need to shed the nation-state myth once and for all.