Look again, the nation-state isn't going away

January 21, 2000|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The notion of "fin de siecle" -- "end of century" -- has implied cultural decadence, confusion of values, a loss of elite confidence. The end of the 19th century notoriously possessed all those qualities. Looking back, we see it as an augury of the crisis of European civilization that followed in 1914.

The 20th century, by contrast, went out in a fireworks display of optimism. The major nations had their value crises and social and cultural upheavals during the mid-century decades. The "zero" years for Europeans and Japanese were the late 1940s, when their systems were broken by war. America's crisis came in the 1960s and early 1970s. The 1990s were a triumph for the democracies. Their economies bloomed. Even Russians, for whom the century has been an appalling experience, ended last month with hope for a better future.

Some envision progressive system change in the 21st century. An example that seems to epitomize the West's political optimism of the moment is the claim that nations and nationalism are going to fade, made obsolete by forces of economic and political integration, with an impartial internationalism taking their place.

Anthony Giddens, the British academic credited with some of the "new labor" ideas that made Tony Blair Britain's prime minister, said on the BBC last year that the era of the national state is over. This idea rests on several current trends apart from trade and market globalization. One is the extension of international law's jurisdiction by creating independent tribunals dealing with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.

A treaty voted by the vast majority of the United Nation's members in 1998 would create a permanent international war crimes court. A new affirmation of international jurisdiction in crimes against humanity was made in the Pinochet case. Nongovernmental volunteer agencies (the NGOs) have acquired much-expanded influence. Some advocate recognition of an international right to intervene where human rights abuses occur.

However, much of this is not as new as it may seem. In the past, the church proposed a form of international law based on Roman law. International maritime and diplomatic law came soon after the rise of the nation-state.

The great success of the European Union confirms another form of progressive internationalism. The idea of eventual federation of all the market democracies, which enjoys favor in the United States, is encouraged by NATO expansion. Yet the nation certainly is not declining, on present evidence -- least of all in Britain, which continues to resist full EU integration and the single currency.

Today's market and trade globalization have yet to reach the level of integration achieved under the gold standard and free trade at the end of the last century. I would myself argue that the nation-state remains the most efficient and effective agency of self-government for a community of people united by a common history and culture. This is an argument from pragmatism and historical experience. The nation-state was preceded by city-states, identical to nation-states but smaller; and by empires, typically ruled by one state that was technologically or militarily and administratively more advanced, if you will -- than the societies it ruled.

When the latter developed the sophistication and ambition of the ruling power, they typically threw off imperial rule and set themselves up as nation-states. The consensual community, such as the EU, is something new in modern history, though it has medieval antecedents. They have pooled their sovereignty in certain areas, but they retain the right to recover it.

The consensual community also has to be a union of equals. This sets it apart from an expanding NATO, an alliance formed around a leader. Only when members of the consensual union make an irrevocable cession of sovereignty can the nation be said to be on the way out.

Otherwise the international system continues to evolve within the established traditions and sovereign limits of the past. The nation-state's obituary remains to be written.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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