The nation-state is the primary political unit in the contemporary global system. Nation-states have a near monopoly on sovereignty and the legitimate use of force under international law and custom. These political constructs emerged in early modern Europe as the result of the combination of both smaller political actors, including city-states and small kingdoms, and large empires, as well as the development of the strong central state. Meanwhile, nation-states competed with empires for power and influence within Europe and to ensure their own survival. Early nation-states such as France, Holland, and Britain concurrently sought colonial empires outside of Europe to counter the resources and power of the multinational Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. The rise of the nation-state occurred simultaneously with the decline of the Catholic Church as a supranational political actor following the Thirty Years War (1618–1648).
The Formation of the Nation-State
The nation-state consists of a relatively homogeneous population (the nation) of individuals with similar ethnic backgrounds— including language, religion, culture, and traditions—who reside in a fixed geographic area (the state). Prior to the rise of the nation-state, political authority was diffused among many actors and often based on personal power. Monarchs and other elites typically had varying degrees of sovereignty that transcended established borders, and their reigns were often marked by multiple allegiances. The result was that national borders had little real relevance, and subjects had little loyalty to the state. Some city-states were able to elicit strong bonds of loyalty among their subjects, but these entities could not generate the military resources to defeat large empires (which had resources, but lacked loyalty).
In Europe, the broken geography and range of ethnic and linguistic nationalities precluded the rise of large empires and resulted in a collection of small feudal kingdoms during the Middle Ages. Almost constant war and strife prompted the development of ever stronger central bureaucracies that would allow governments to take advantage of an area’s resources and mobilize populations. The nation-state emerged as the ideal European political organization, since it could combine the resources and size of the empire with the citizen loyalty, or nationalism, of the small city-states. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) marked the start of the era of the nation-state.
Nation-states were different from earlier political organizations in three main ways. First, the nation-state’s political authority came to be organized as separate from and supreme to that of other social actors, including the Church. This provided the nation-state with its high level of authority and legitimacy. Second, nation-states developed a significant degree of self-identification and state loyalty among populations that led to the rise of modern nationalism. Third, nation-states developed concurrently with the rise of the merchant class in Europe. As a result, intricate class structures, which extended beyond elite-peasant systems, created opportunities for pluralistic government and nondiscriminatory legal systems, and hence, the eventual rise of democracy.
The Modern Nation-State
The nationalism of nation-states contributed to both the scramble for empires and the great wars of the twentieth century. Nation-states that had high degrees of homogeneity at home nonetheless developed multiethnic empires that failed to develop the same degrees of loyalty and attachment to the home state. That nation-states were at their core ethnic entities contributed to ongoing ethnic conflicts, especially as the consequences of imperialism were manifested by the redrawing of ethnic boundaries and the dislocation of populations. After World War I (1914–1918), the empires of Germany, Russia, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary were dismantled by the victorious allies, and their former territories were either granted independence or came under new colonial mandates by the remaining imperial powers, France, Britain, and Japan.
In the post–World War II (1939–1945) era, the nation-state came under increasing competition in the global system. The empires of Western Europe disintegrated due to a combination of self-determination movements, nationalism, cold war politics, and empire fatigue occasioned by the increased costs in terms of lives and resources of combating resistance movements. The break-up of colonial empires and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war caused the number of independent countries to increase from 75 in 1945 to more than 200 by 2000.
International organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) altered traditional notions of sovereignty and established competing centers of authority over political, economic, and security matters. For instance, in the early twenty-first century, the EU has taken over many of the functions formerly the domain of the nation-states, including monetary policy. The attractiveness of organizations such as the EU is that they allow small to medium-sized nation-states to pool resources and magnify economic and security power. Nonetheless, this trend also undermines the nationstate’s traditional role. In addition, the growth of multinational corporations (MNCs) has eroded the economic and political control of individual governments and offered new challenges to nation-states.
Contemporary political science scholarship remains divided on the role of the nation-state in the international system. Neorealists continue to assert that the nation-state is the main actor in global politics and that these entities are rational actors that seek to maximize power through cost-benefit analysis. Such scholars contend that international bodies are merely the reflection of the political preferences for the great powers and serve as a means to augment, rather than lessen, the power of the nationstate. Neoliberal-institutionalists counter that the nation-state is on the decline as global organizations and MNCs increasingly gain economic and political power. In addition, the growing interdependence among states has not only reduced nationalism and increased economic ties but fostered a nascent global culture that transcends traditional notions of self and ethnicities. Such manifestations of globalization are criticized by scholars who contend that the erosion of national norms and values undermines indigenous cultures and is a form of cultural imperialism.
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