Understanding the nation-state
The nation-state is a complex governance structure with a long cultural and historical process of interactions between people, territory and political power. A distinction should be made between the nation, a cultural identity, and the state, a political power (Agnew 1994, 53). A nation-state is then a cultural identity with political legitimacy, in a determinate territory, such as Portugal and Japan (Scholte 2005, 228). However, most of the cases of nation-states are a result of a cultural homogenisation implemented or forced by the state (Agnew 2009, 191), as is the case for France and Mexico. In addition to nation-states, we still have states with more than one nation (e.g., Belgium), states without a nation (e.g., Kosovo) and stateless nations (e.g., Tamils) (Lara 2009). This distinction, and the understanding of the nation-state construction will make a difference in recognising the role of the nation-state in the contemporary world.
Why the nation-state it is still relevant?
In a globalised world, we can still find the manifestations of national identity based on common culture. The quest for a state persists in stateless nations (e.g., Kurdistan) and the search for a common identity continues by states without a nation (e.g., post-colonial countries in Africa). It can be argued that national identity struggling for political legitimacy has not abated with globalisation as the nation-state is still seen as an important governance structure to achieve the welfare of people. Examples such as Iceland and Portugal demonstrate that nation-states can provide a good governance structure, as these countries achieve good welfare levels in the Global Peace and Human Development indexes.
Nevertheless, the attempt to create a nation-state can provoke conflicts between nation and state. Different reactions followed the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum, but with the same fear that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq could spark more conflicts in the region. The same fear exists in Europe, as Catalan independence could see other stateless nations seeking the right of self-determination. These two cases have a long historical background behind a common cultural identity that could create a stable nation-state. Although a unilateral declaration of independence could have a bad impact as it lacks political legitimacy, as seen with the Catalan Republic. However, for African countries, the nation-state might not be the best solution (Kheir 2010). Tribalism is seen as a threat by the nation-state (Hylland 2014, 31), and any attempt by the state to create a national identity in a territory with several ethnic groups can lead to ethnic cleansing, as the Isaaq genocide during Somali Civil War. These examples show that the attempt to create a nation-state in the contemporary world, without legitimacy, has an impact on the stability of countries (e.g., Spain) and it can provoke the deepening of conflicts in states without a nation (e.g., Somalia). Even though nations and states are still looking to achieve the nation-state structure, its success depends on the application of the rule of law.
How the relevance of the nation-state identity has changed?
In a contemporary world, the struggle for a common identity is also held by international organisations. The EU is a good example of how globalisation has shaped the nation-state model to a “macro region-nation” (Scholte 2005, 226). The Treaty of Lisbon refers “Every national of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union.” (2007, 14). This reflects the attempt to create a European citizenry (Lagos 2002, 12), while programs such as the Erasmus+ promote a European identity. However, the Treaty of Lisbon also says that the European citizenry does not replace the national citizenry. It can be argued that even on a supra-national level the national identity is still more important than the European identity as a descriptor of who we are.
Globalisation has shown that the construction of a common identity occurs at the convergence of the individual and state, not the imposition of the latter. There is a feeling of globalness that underpins environmental justice movements in which people in different parts of the world share transworld solidarities and struggles (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016, 747). This creates a hybrid relation, where individuals have more than one identity, such as the case of diaspora communities, to whom the national identity coexists with other identities (Clifford 1994, 308). Nevertheless, the nation-state also creates exemptions to its national identity by creating economic zones within its borders (Bach, 2011, 100), as the NEOM project in Saudi Arabia.
To conclude, globalisation revives the nation-state as political legitimacy derives from the individual. States, international organisations and global-movements need to create a common identity around individuals that will give them the moral and political legitimacy to support their projects/causes, as it happened in the construction of nation-states (e.g., Portugal). The new regional/global identities are a challenge for the nation-state identity, as the national identity has to be shared with other identities. However, a nation-state should be seen as a place where the local, national and global identities meet, as a juxtaposition of policies (Amin 2002, 397). For instance, Portugal is still influenced by other cultural identities, and it has also outsourced the nation-state through its communities around the world. This shows that nation-states are not part of the alter-globalisation movement, but part of the globalisation process as they represent part of world cultural diversity. However, in a contemporary world, the nation-state might have lost importance as a governance structure as it is not the best model for some states without a nation and can provoke instability in states with several nations. In these cases, states and nations should look for other governance structures that will bring stability to their territory (e.g., Swiss Confederation, Federal Republic of Germany).
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