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World Went to Hell When We Threw Out the Habsburgs…


Barry Stentiford has a brief but strongly argued article at SWJ on the problems of the ethnically based nation state:

Despite it faulty assumptions and deadly affects, the idea will not die. In briefings, conference panels, informational lectures, and classrooms, it has become the default argument. The border between India and Pakistan was arbitrarily drawn by the British when they partitioned India; the Baluchs are divided by the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Kurds are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yes they are. And that is simply the way most nation-states are. For Americans to push for the ethnically based nation-state is truly bizarre, for in such a world, Boston’s North End would be part of Italy, and sections of Los Angeles would belong to Laos. National borders drawn for whatever reasons are national borders. The problems that plague so many nations in post-colonial areas stem from the inability of some governments to extend control over all areas nominally under their sovereignty, not from the thwarting of some idealized alignment of borders with ethnic divisions. Yet the non-alignment of national borders with tribal, ethic, or linguistic groups remains part of the introduction for a host of issues and problems. It sounds sophisticated but in practice its implantation has been destructive. It is an idea that needs to be added to the scrap heap of history.


There’s nothing particularly new for people familiar with the theory and arguments, but it nevertheless is a nice corrective to a zombie idea run amok.  I especially like the discussion of how the ethnicity based state was originally understood as a liberal concept, designed to detach ethnic communities from hereditary monarchies such as the Habsburgs and create an logic of the state in which authority implicitly manifested from the people.  Turns out, of course, that ethnic nationalism was probably the single most illiberal force of the twentieth century, and that defining an ethnic community in terms of the nation-state is inherently violent.

Caveat is this; with the genie of ethnic nationalism released and combined with the power of modern media, the statemaking project of early modern Europe is no longer possible, at least in terms that we’re willing to accept.  Focus should indeed be on developing the capability of states to accept and govern ethnically heterogeneous populations, and we shouldn’t buy the argument that changing borders will solve all problems.  However, it is possible that some ethnic identities have become so salient, and some relationships between identity communities so poisoned, that reconciliation is effectively impossible on any reasonable timeframe.  But this probably constitutes a distinct minority of the cases under discussion.

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