Nation states belong in the XXI century

  • 2024-02-13
  • Vytautas Sinica is political scientist, PhD in political theory, specializing in the field of European integration

The 21st century promised the end of nation states and the triumph of globalism. Intellectuals proclaimed that nationhood was limited and outdated, politicians said the nation state was a dead idea. They were to be replaced by broader and more flexible identities, by a more diverse state that did not give priority to any culture.

That does not seem to be happening. Asian or African nations do not even consider such ideas. They are primarily for Europeans and Americans, who tend to imagine themselves at the vanguard of history and at the forefront of progress. But it is precisely Europeans and Americans who have been rejecting these ideas more and more firmly over the last decade. The more insistently they are pushed, the more harshly they are rejected.

This is most clearly seen in the rise of what are known as nationalist parties. At the beginning of the 21st century, such parties belonged anywhere but in parliaments. Ideas of nationhood were not politically relevant to Europeans. Twenty years on, the opposite is true: Lithuania is probably the last remaining EU country whose parliament does not contain an openly nationalist party that promotes the ideals of nationalism and the preservation of the nation state. Everywhere else, such parties are enjoying a huge upswing. There is no clearer sign that national ideas have become relevant when they should have disappeared altogether.

Why has this happened? Reality did not match the slogans. The ideals of globalism are very nice 'on paper'. The end of wars, the unity of mankind, the ability to feel like a citizen of the world, the diversity that enriches societies, and the other promises of globalism, all sound really good. Humanity has always yearned for peace, unity and limitless horizons. 

But it has had, and continues to have, a nature that prevents it. It turns out that these ideals are in direct conflict with human nature. It is inherent in human nature to distinguish between one's own and others’, to identify with a defined community of people (nation), to become embedded in one's own culture, and to feel more comfortable being surrounded by people of the same culture, language and norms. People want the experience of otherness as a thrill, but (with rare exceptions) they want to live among what seems to be their own. 

This has been absolutely confirmed by the experience of mass migration and multiculturalism. In Europe, the post-war period, and especially at the turn of the twenty-first century, saw the introduction of a policy of mass immigration and multiculturalism. Societies believed that newcomers would integrate into the local national culture, learn the language and accept the norms. Politicians were not about to demand it. Driven by essentially Marxist ideas of diversity, they saw integration as discriminatory and degrading to other, mostly historically oppressed, colonised peoples. Instead, they opted for multiculturalism, with the essence of 'live according to your own norms in our country'. Live as you wish.

Immigrants to the rich countries of Europe or North America have very willingly accepted that. Muslims, in particular, had no intention of integrating into what they saw as godless and degraded European societies. If states had tried to do so, they would have encountered (and still will encounter) resistance. It is well known to migration scholars that people of one nation come together in emigration, forming communities where there is someone to lean on, someone to help them get to know the country, someone to talk to, etc. The more compatriots that  arrive, the easier it is for those who stay and the less need for integration. To a certain extent, this was and still is the case for Lithuanians in the diaspora. However, this phenomenon has taken on a completely different dimension in Muslim communities.

Across Europe, wherever multiculturalism has been implemented on a larger scale, there have been major public security problems (including terrorism), cultural tensions, social pressures and, ultimately, the formation of no-go zones. All of this has become particularly evident following the migration wave of 2014-2016. While the media everywhere systematically glossed over such problems, the scale of the problem was demonstrated by police reports and, for example, the sometimes increased purchase of self-defence equipment such as gas canisters in countries like Germany and Sweden. Sweden in particular is today an extreme example of a failed diversity experiment. Having taken in a percentage of people from an extremely alien culture and without even trying to integrate them, Sweden is today facing such crime and gang wars that it has admitted that it is out of control and has introduced an army to keep order. Immigrants everywhere are living in virtual ghettos because they want to live with their own people, and the Swedes do not want them in their neighbourhood. Everybody wants to live with their own kin.

Sweden and the Nordic countries have long been the best example of the many benefits that a nationally cohesive society brings to its people. Sociologists (most famously Robert Putnam) have long shown that a nationally cohesive society is the best condition for citizenship, the welfare state and democracy to work. All this is linked to social capital - trust in strangers. No matter how much they have been brought up, people of all nations naturally trust a stranger whom they can consider their own, whose culture is clear to them and whose behaviour is predictable. This has nothing to do with racism or skin colour. Nationals are naturally trusted more than non-nationals, and this is even true of Swedes. The positive consequences of this are that in a homogeneous society, people are more courageous in organising, cooperating, taking civic action, taking care of the environment and public affairs. 

On the other hand, people are more willing to pay their taxes and do not feel cheated when they are spent on the needs of the community rather than on the needs of complete strangers. It is easier to accept that we are paying for the pensions of the compatriots who built our country than for the unemployment benefits of illegal immigrants. Finally, national unity is a prerequisite for democracy, because common norms make it easier to take decisions together and to accept when we do not like them. What binds nations together is not so much their origin as their culture and language and norms of behaviour. Germans have a fundamentally different understanding of what is "normal" than Turks living in Germany. It is much easier for Germans to agree on solutions among themselves than it is for Germans to agree with Turks. Their cultural horizons are completely different.

It is no coincidence and no accident that mass democracy emerged and spread in Europe in the 19th century with the Spring of Nations and the emergence of nation states. It is no coincidence that democracies do not take root where national boundaries do not correspond to national borders and where national identity itself is weak, overshadowed by the tribal (as in Africa) or religious (as in Asia). Nation states are a prerequisite for democracy, civil liberties, human rights and state stability. Elsewhere, they simply cannot be sustained. If we value these things, we have reason to value nationhood and the nation-state based on it, and not to try to "transcend" or "outgrow" them, as we are urged by, for example, advocates of a European federation. Ukraine shows us a perfect example that a nation, its sovereignty and its land are worth fighting and dying for. It would be the stupidest of things to forfeit those goods by ourselves, with no coercion.