96. Beyond Narrow National Interests

Unlike most people in this ageing world, I can still remember the hopes raised by the birth of the United Nations in April 1945. I felt at the time that a new world order was in the making with the defeat of the Nazis and the recognition by the leaders of the 51 nations attending that there was something more momentous at stake than their national sovereignty: A lasting peace and security which demanded collective action by the creation of the United Nations. To my youthful bewilderment the world leaders never aimed at creating a world government, but then I was a born cosmopolitan!

The UN was founded on the principle of the sovereignty of the nation-state. Its charter was formulated in such a way that the sovereign equality of all member states would in no way be reduced. The recommendations of its General Assembly did not demand enforcement but only asked for the recognition of respect for the opinions of its members. A Security Council of 11 members was founded to rule on substantial issues arising, but each of the five permanent member states (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) were granted veto powers which resulted in blocking most of the truly serious matters which have faced the world ever since.

Narrow national interests have stood in the way of progress on many fronts from the beginning of the UN and continue to do so. The refugee crisis in Europe is a prime example of how the blinkered interests of the Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and other nations have put the fears and protests of their populist minorities ahead of the true responsibilities of the larger European Community. How to balance the global needs of international governance with the vociferous demands of smaller sovereign groups is at the basis of the world’s mounting troubles. There seems to be no solution at hand. Not only is there a dearth of genuinely effective leadership to face the multiple challenges, but all too many of those in command seem to turn a blind eyes to a whole range of global challenges.

The League of Nations was failure No. 1 in the 20th century; the collapse of the world’s “Communist” Movement was the second; the United Nations is now widely regarded as a failure and the European Union appears to be on the way of these organizations. The general conclusion is that the existing world governmental bodies have been by-passed by the growing power of communications, by the ever increasing power of multi-national corporations and by the advances in science and technology in a globalized world.

The UN is simply not capable of facing up to its duties in meeting enormous challenges. Even at the internal, domestic level most decisions within the UN are taken by a narrow group of managerial bureaucrats. This should give us pause. These are the experts, the specialists and professionals who almost universally lack any coherent vision of a viable global future for mankind. One recent critic who resigned as an assistant secretary general of the UN singled out minimal accountability and political expediency as partial reasons for its dysfunctionality. The organization is burdened by a “sclerotic personnel system in which it is impossible to fire staff members.” Instead of staff who “lack the moral aptitude and professional abilities to serve, we need a UN led by people for whom ‘doing the right thing’ is normal and expected.”1 Another departed official forcefully joined the critique by concluding that “The disturbing truth is that the world’s primary institution to deal with war is not working.”2

Just as capitalism is at the basis of many of our economic problems, nationalism is at the root of many of our political challenges. This planet has become too complex, too interdependent and too connected to continue the fragmentation caused by nationalism even if, as has been said, the nation state is too small for big things and too big for small things. Greater integration and the growth of broader cooperative communities is essential but we can expect increasing resistance from an alienated, uncomprehending, poorly-educated and narrow-minded section of the electorate, as we have witnessed in the United States, France, and many other countries.

Fortunately there is no reason to think that the nation state is here for all eternity. It is a social invention which in many ways has been by-passed by the internet, globalized trade, science and the World Wide Web. But what next? Could a democratically elected governance replace it? To fully understand this dilemma, I feel it is important for us to understand how we became burdened with the nation state over the past few hundred years. Understanding how it came about might help us surmount its grip. So I shall try follow its global rise.3

The ‘promised land’ and the ‘chosen people’ originated with the ancient Hebrews. These notions provided a divine sanction for the aspirations of future generations. Both the trend towards unity and the rise of the city-states were evident while empires like that of Egypt, Assyria and later Rome embraced political and cultural concepts which brought highly diverse peoples together. After the breakdown of Rome, its unifying ideas were taken over by the Holy Roman Empire in the center of Europe. Similarly the Ottoman Empire brought together most of North Africa and the Middle East.

After the Middle Ages, the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation ended with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which saw the emergence of the secular nation-state. As the years went on, restructuring much of the world on artificially drawn national lines and linguistic maps did not lead to greater peace or stability. Instead it “created new conflicts, exacerbated tensions and brought catastrophe to numberless people innocent of all politics.”4

It was not until the French Revolution that nationalism first emerged on the political scene. The construct of “for the people” morphed into the foundation of the French nation and became a matter of pride. The French nationalists were ready to glorify their own national perspective by armed force if necessary. Within this revolutionary period, the nation as a human collective became more important than the individuals who had to submit to its ‘popular’ authority in return for a modicum of protection. However, communities and individuals were now seen as having the right to secede from one and adhere to another state.

In the neighboring Germanic states during this same period Johann Gottfried von Herder, a founder of the German Romantic movement, became the most outspoken advocate for the divided but linguistically united Germany. He rejected the localism of the tiny, decaying units of the Holy Roman Empire as opposed to the cultural links of the German people as a whole. Herder’s concept of Volk (or ‘the people’) was described by him as a metaphysical entity with strong unifying ties such as language, traditions, music, literature and civilization. However, he never endowed his Volk with the absolute value or ultimate sovereignty that his followers did. Herder also denounced the “Universality” of the Hapsburg Empire or patriotism of the French for reducing people to a singular cultural denominator, depriving them of the individual identities which he asserted gave life both its variety and meaning. He branded the 18th century French as having instituted a kind of cultural imperialism.

His philosophic successor, Johan Fichte, became one of the leading thinkers who described the state as being the only social format capable of providing people with a purpose to their individual lives. This was, of course, an expression of the increasingly urgent need of the Germans to forge their own united Germanic state. The greatest of these German thinkers of the period, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), clearly saw the inherent conflict between spirituality and secular power, between the individual and the state. He declared that “The basis of the state is the power of reason actualizing itself as will.” Hegel joined his faith in the march of progress with his ultimate faith in the nation-state:

“The nation-state is spirit in its substantive rationality and immediate actuality. It is therefore the absolute power on earth…The state is the spirit of the people itself…The self-consciousness of one particular nation is the vehicle for… the development of the collective spirit. Against this will no other national minds have rights: that nation dominates the world.”5

Hegel’s concept of freedom as participation or membership in the collectivity of the nation-state gave strong ideological underpinning first to Marxism, then to German militarism which led to fascism and ultimately to Hitler’s National Socialism. Only such Germanic figures as Herter, Fichte and Hegel could have devoted themselves to demonstrating the cosmic necessity of the nation-state as the logical and inexorable conclusion to mankind’s evolutionary process.

Outside of Germany, particularly in Britain and the United States, nationalism in its early stages was influenced by the libertarian formula, essentially a mixture of French egalitarianism and Anglo-American individualism. John Stuart Mill went so far as to identify the principle of nationality as a clause of liberalism itself. But Mill believed that the coexistence of several nations under the same state, such as England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, afforded a test, as well as the best security, for individual freedom. The historian John Dahlberg (known as Lord Acton) wrote most favorably about the importance of multi-ethnic states, but pointed out that the nationalists, extolling the manifestations of the divine will and stirred by their desires for power and expansion, generally paid little consideration to the rights of other nations.6 Just before his death he wrote that “nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State. Its course will be marked with material as well as moral ruin in order that a new invention may prevail over the works of God and the interests of mankind.”7

From another perspective, the “sanctified” defense of the motherland became identified with communal posterity and survival. Nicholas Berdyaev, a Russian religious philosopher, wrote that “To the nation everything is permissible… even to commit crimes in its name.” On the other hand, he insisted on making the distinction between peoples and nations:

“Love for one’s people is a very natural and good feeling, but nationalism insists upon hatred. It requires hostility towards and contempt of other nations… The nation is a complex product of rationalization… It might be said that ‘the people’ is concretely real while the nation is abstractly ideal.”8

In the 19th Century national self-government became accepted in Western Europe as the only legitimate type of state. The shot-gun marriage of the nation (with its ethnicity and languages) and the state (with its territorial boundaries) swiftly led to the pettiest kind of chauvinism. Samuel Johnson had already dubbed Patriotism as “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” in the 18th century and Goethe had asserted that “you will always find patriotism where there is the lowest degree of culture.” Nationalist zeal in devotion to one’s country popularly manifested by flags, songs, emblems and such simplistic slogans as “my country right or wrong” became widely displayed.

Nationalism also turned into a populist movement in the 20th century. It reflected the need to recreate on a large scale a feeling of kinship and fraternity, as well as a sense of common purpose and unity otherwise absent from a rapidly modernizing world. Nationalism declared the good of the nation to be paramount. With the growth of ‘national socialism’ in Germany in the 1930’s, the sentiment grew that “the nation,” as a social unit, was the arbiter of standards. Even the worst offenses soon became excusable, demonstrating nationalism’s inherently disastrous possibilities in WWII.

After the Nuremberg war trials the international pendulum swung back towards more traditional standards of justice where the national government could no longer violate the human rights of its citizens. However, today the extremes of nationalism exercised by dictators like Syria’s Assad who has been barrel-bombing his own subjects, as well as the horrors committed by the jihadists, have come to be regarded as malignant disorders rather than a part of any nationalist program.

In opposition to nationalism we have seen the rise of the concept of ‘mankind’ which has been turned into a global reality by the use of satellites and the media. The internet does not recognize national boundaries — although dictatorships, like that of China, are trying to stop its intrusions. It is becoming increasingly difficult for parochialism to flourish in a world of television and the internet which focus on the present with an immediacy which was not previously conceivable. These forces are making diversity more acceptable for mankind and creating the first truly global epoch in human history.

The narrow belief in the superiority of one’s culture and the fear and disparagement of rival or alien cultures has been in force since the earliest tribal communities. Basically the loyalties of men and women are based on emotion and feeling rather than upon intellect and reason. They do not rationalize about their national pride or patriotism.9 Overcoming such attitudes is essential if we are to achieve long-term stability through what could be called “transnationalism.” However, this is feared by many.

Science and technology have pushed a kind of universal restructuring which includes the replacement of traditional forms of social organization with economic units based on efficiency. The new global system (driven by capitalism, the power of multi-national corporations, and the growth of world trade) is transforming life on earth and moving us towards a universal standardization feared by many. Nations, governments and even organizations like the United Nations or the European Union are not necessarily the kind of efficient units demanded by the capitalist economy. Indeed capitalism, with its hunger for profits, seeks monopoly instead of natural diversity, and demands growth rather than stability. The tensions between this economic force and the reluctance of humanity to accept changes are most challenging. We can see how the advance of internet financial integration is beginning to tie the hands of central bankers, for example.

One of the major stumbling blocks for a more effective world government is that the different nations have unequal stages of economic political and cultural development. As new groupings are formed a gradual approach to change, involving share values and consensus, is demanded. However, close to half of humanity is online today and that percentage is increasing. The impact on the less developed areas of the world is overwhelming. It is unlikely that a system of this power and scale can remain entirely free of national interference for long.10

It would seem to me that the nation-state is no longer capable of handling the fast changing economic and scientific advances. The problems we are facing are beyond the capacity of the nation-state to resolve. The mounting environmental issues, the invasion of automation and robots as pushed by ‘Silicon Valley’, tax evasion by multi-national corporations and satellite security will all ultimately require a degree of global cooperation which would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago. This means that the world must learn to shift away from national sovereignty, even as there is a simultaneous push for the creation of new and smaller units like an independent Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec.

The wise and increasingly appreciated philosopher, Hannah Arendt, warned:

“No matter what form world government with centralized power over the whole globe might assume, the very notion of one sovereign force ruling the whole earth, holding the monopoly of all means of violence, unchecked and uncontrolled by other sovereign powers, is not only a forbidding nightmare of tyranny, it would be the end of all political life as we know it. Political concepts are based on plurality, diversity, and mutual limitations.”11

Such warnings have led me to look more closely not at the alternative between nationalism and supra-nationalism but between federated communities and internationalism. Much has already been achieved by nations harmonizing their interest on issues like Antarctica, the environment, satellite safety, and, yes, the Declaration of Human Rights.

What might the map of the world look a century from now? One trend could see the world divided up into huge regional blocks, such as an Asian co-prosperity sphere, a North American Partnership, an Islamic Bloc and so forth. The important conclusions to be drawn from such alternatives is that there could be the growth of sets of cooperative communities striving to avoid collision with each other in a World Assembly endowed with sufficient powers and responsibility to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict. There seems to be no easy way to reorganize power from its classical, pyramid-like structure, however the power of the internet might provide the complex but essential contacts between the billions of inhabitants and the resolutions of a centralized center of wisdom as originally envisioned in Plato’s Republic.


1Anthony Banbury, “The United Nations is failing”, The New York Times, March 19, 2016.

2Carne Ross, “The United Nations is Failing,” The Guardian, March 11, 2016

3see: Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, (1996) pp. 149-160

4Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (1960) p. 138

5Friederich Hegel, Philosophy of Right, (1821)

6John Dahlberg, Nationality” (1862)

7John Dahlberg, The History of Freedom, (1907).

8Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), Slavery and Freedom, (1947) pp. 166-8

9Elizabeth Anne Weber, The Duk-Duks (1929) p. 125

10Scott Malcomson, “ Splinternet,” (2016)

11Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (1968 edition) p. 81

Advertisements