Problems with “Nation”-building

Any political Geographer worth a pinch of salt could probably guess what I’m going to discuss in this post. Oh yes, the “nation.” Words are important, and even though everyone else misuses a word doesn’t mean you should too! Long after you’re dead, your words will persist, (potentially) influencing thinkers and doers for centuries. The nation, the state, and country are found in the political Geographers’ lexicon and its worth having a brief discussion of them to explain the importance in the distinction between the terms and why confusing them is a pretty serious.

The easiest is a country. It’s the Japans, Brazils, Russias, and Togos of the world. The precise number of countries in the world is subject to debate, Geography points out that there are 193 in the United Nations but there are several with functioning governments, territories, and people without representation. The U.S. State Department recognizes 195 and then there are some outliers, like Taiwan, with all these indicators of countryhood but without recognition. Kosovo has a similar status, Western Sahara is more nearly a “territory” than a country.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to associate the state with a country, but it is dangerous. The state is almost like the “government”, and in some cases it is the government. Remember back to those long-forgotten political science classes. You often had a “head of state” and a “head of government.” The government can be more readily replaced, but the state is (somewhat) more persistent. In the United Kingdom you have the monarchy, the Queen (or King) is the head of state, he or she is the head until death typically. The head of government is the prime minister, s/he and the members of parliament stand election periodically. Prior to the liberal revolutions in the 18th century, the heads of state and government were synonymous. Kings and queens were the state and government. Louis the XIV, King of France until 1715, is attributed with saying “L’État, c’est moi”/”I am the state”. But the state is much more than a person, it’s the organizations that run and govern it. The police, the military, transportation and utilities, the central bank, all the things that your taxes pay for are part of the “state”. These are the services that the state renders to you for being a part of that state, typically through citizenship.

Then there’s the nation. The nation is not the state. The nation is a group of individuals, who, for one reason or another, choose to associate themselves with another. Its kind of like an ethnic group or a tribe, but its much larger, much more impersonal. I’m in the American nation, to me, that nation is predicated on the belief of the Constitution being the supreme law of the land and the various branches of the government interpret, amend, and enforce that document across the land. There are some Americans who think differently, of course, some would base membership in the “nation” with speaking English, practicing a particular religious system, or the color of your skin. The problem with “nation”, and probably why we should just stop using the word altogether, is that it is often confused with “state.” So we will talk of “nation-building” for instance, when that means very little and we should be talking about state-building.

This problem is rooted in political science and the mistaken view that we have “nation-states” that appeared after the Peace of Westphalia (in 1648). Like the ideal of one-man, one-vote, this ideal was for one-nation, one-state. Every state would have just one nation constituting it, and every nation would have its own state. The state would be the instrument to manage internal and external affairs of the nation. So the “French nation” would have its state, the “English nation” would have its state. And the “Bavarian nation” would have its own state. Except a few hundred years later, the Bavarian state (and other “German” principalities) was rolled into the German state. Part of the Prussian justification? The German nation should be based on language, rather than maintaining the demesne’s of the hereditary monarchies. Plus, they were doing the “German” nation a favor but creating a stronger, more powerful state, one that could compete with the other European powers.

So the idea and membership in the nation is somewhat arbitrary, it holds until it doesn’t. Pretty much every state is constituted by a variety of nations. France includes several North African nations, the United Kingdom includes South Asian nations. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the point that the “Indian” nation or “Moroccan” nation is, itself, sub-divided into other more “real” nations, Berbers, Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Telanganis, Hindu Bengalis, Parisians, Oromo, Freislanders, Danes, Milanese. A bewildering array that can be divided and redivided until you’re looking at map of villages and towns and subdividing those. Well I don’t associate with those townspeople because they’re Virginian.

And then there’s “nations” without states, like the Catalans, or the Berbers in Western Sahara.

So what’s the problem with nation-building? Well, its a conceptual problem. And the problem with our concept is that the premise is fundamentally flawed. You wouldn’t begin treating a person with leukemia with the premise that the person is a cat – would you? No, you start with the basic premise – the person is a person, so person remedies are needed. And so why prescribe nation-building with the premise that there is one-nation, one-state. I believe state-building is a fine development and security policy, but who’s going to control the levers of that state you’re building? This nation or that one? Do you even know what nations are in existence? Which ones would rather see that other one dead, buried, and gone? What happens when you create a super-equipped and trained military and leave it under control of a “nation” which bases membership on something observable (like religion, language, skin color, eye color, or hair thickness)?

Certainly you’ve engaged in state-building, or as I would call it, state-capacity building. But who’s in this state exactly, and who’s going to be left after the killing begins?


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