By Anthony Coughlan.
The growth in the number of States in the world is one of the most remarkable features of our time, though it is not often commented on. The United Nations had 51 Member States when it was established in 1945. It had 193 at the last count – a near fourfold increase in 70 years.
The dissolution of the colonial empires after World Wars 1 and 2 brought many new States into being. The number of European States has gone from 30 to 50 since 1991.
When the USSR dissolved that year one State was replaced by 15. Czechoslovakia divided into two new States around then, Yugoslavia into seven.
Will Scotland eventually leave the UK? Will Catalonia leave Spain? Will the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium hold together indefinitely? If nation state boundaries are still at issue in Western Europe, where people have been at the business of State formation for centuries, the process of new States coming into being subsists in Eastern Europe. It has scarcely begun in Africa and Asia, where the bulk of the 7,000 million people who make up the human race now live.
There are some 6,000 different languages in the world. At their present rate of disappearance there should be 600 or so left in a century’s time. These will survive because in each case they are spoken by a million or more people. Not every such language group will necessarily become a national community aspiring to its own State, but that is the historical tendency.
The international community looks like growing to 300 or 400 States or more over the coming century. At the same time ease of communications, the internet, free movement of trade and capital, and common environmental problems make us all conscious today that we are part of a ‘global village’. The world shrinks while simultaneously the number of States in it grows.
Nations exist as communities before nationalisms and Nation States. To analyse nations and the national question in terms of ‘nationalisms’ is philosophical idealism, looking at the mental reflection rather than the thing it reflects.
Nationalism developed as an ideology legitimating the formation of Nation States in the 18th century, although its elements can be found in some of the world’s oldest States centuries before – in Denmark, England and France in Europe; in China, Japan, Iran and Thailand in Asia.
Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common language and territory and the common history and culture that arise from that. On this basis develop the solidarities, mutual identifications and shared interests which distinguish one people from another.
Some nations are ancient, some young, some in process of being formed. Like all human groupings – for example the family, clan, tribe, they are fuzzy at the edges. No neat definition will cover all cases. The empirical test is what people say themselves. If people have passed beyond the stage of kinship society, where the clan or tribe is still a political unit, as it was in Ireland 400 years ago – and some half of mankind still live in kinship societies, mostly in Africa and Asia – they will know themselves what nation they belong to.
What are the implications of these trends for democrats? Nationhood, shared membership of a national community, is the normal basis of democratic states in the modern world. We are internationalists on the basis of our solidarity as members of the human race. As internationalists we seek the emancipation of mankind. The human race is divided into nations. Therefore we stand for the self-determination of nations. This is internationalism, not nationalism. The word “internationalism”, from Latin “inter”/”between”, implies the pre-existence of nations.
The right of nations to self-determination inspired the 18th-century American Revolution. It was formally proclaimed as a democratic principle of universal validity in 1789 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution. It is now a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
The right of nations to self-determination is based on the fact that it is principally within the national community that there exists sufficient solidarity and mutuality of identification and interest to transcend other social divisions and induce minorities freely to consent to majority rule, and to obey a common government based on such rule. Such mutual identification and solidarity characterise the “demos”, the collective “We”, which constitutes a people possessing the right to national self-determination.
If such a people is incorporated into a State with its own government, this mutual identification and solidarity underpins people’s sense of shared citizenship of that State and their allegiance to its government as “their” government, possessing democratic legitimacy. It is what makes them willing to finance that government’s tax and income-transfer system, thereby tying the richer and poorer regions and social classes of that State together.
The right to self-determination of nations does not require a nation to seek to establish a separate State. Nations can co-exist amicably with other nations inside a Multinational State, as the English, Welsh and Scots did for three centuries in the UK, or the many Indian nationalities inside India. They can do this, however, only if their national rights are respected and the smaller nations do not feel oppressed by the larger ones, in particular linguistically and culturally.
If this condition is not observed, political pressures will develop to break-up the Multinational State in question. Some Multinational States are the legatees of colonial conquest – for example, India, Indonesia and most of the States of Africa. Others have been formed by the governments of large nationalities extending their sway over smaller ones and incorporating the latter into either a unitary or a federal State. Examples are Britain, Spain, Russia, Turkey.
The historical tendency seems to be for Multinational States to break up into national ones, mainly because of the breakdown in solidarity between their component nationalities and the development of a feeling among the smaller ones that they are being put upon by the larger. It is the absence of such solidarity in the European Union which makes the notion of turning the EU into a meaningful “United States of Europe” so problematic and unlikely to succeed.
Shared ethnic nationality is the political basis of Nation States, shared civic nationality the basis of multinational States. In both cases, if the State is a democratic one, all citizens will be equal before the law and the rights of national minorities in Nation States and of minority nationalities in Multinational States will be equally respected.
There is a library of books on nationality and nationalism. In my opinion the works of Anthony D. Smith, who is Professor Emeritus of Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics, are the most insightful on this important topic. Google him and see. •
Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin and Director, The National Platform EU Research and Information Centre.