The Myth of the Nation-State

The idea of the nation-state is one of the most powerful paradigms in modern political thought. It means that within given borders and under a legitimate government there resides some form of homogeneous group, ideally ethnically similar. The philosopher Ernst Gellner once quipped, “Each nation should have a country and each country should have a nation, and hopefully they are the same”.

There have been few true nation-states in history. Most of them were exclusive if not violent towards those who were not part of the dominant group. True nation-states have not been kind to minorities.

During a recent trip to Kiev, I posed three basic questions to my hosts: 1) What is Ukrainian identity? What does it mean to be Ukrainian as opposed to Polish or Russian? 2) What are your negotiating positions to get out of the current crisis? To say that Crimea must be returned, that Ukraine should be a member of NATO and the EU and that Russian interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine must stop is not a negotiating position. 3) How do you think Moscow views the current crisis? To say that Vladimir Putin is the reincarnation of Hitler, that he is trying to re-establish the Soviet Empire is not a  rational analysis of his motives and will certainly not be helpful in resolving the crisis.

None of the three questions was adequately answered. I’m not sure the three questions were even properly understood.

The first question goes to the heart of the crisis. Borders can legally differentiate between countries, but they are usually arbitrary in nature, such as the line of latitude between the United States and Canada. Other borders can be natural, such as the river Rio Grande separating the United States and Mexico. But the myth of the nation-state remains such that even within artificial borders, or borders artificially drawn such as is the case in much of Africa, there should be some form of homogeneous group within the borders. While sovereignty is both a political and legal term, belonging to a nation is an emotional feeling. We feel Swiss, American or whatever. We are proud when our country wins a football match or a national tennis player shines on the international stage. We identify with fellow countrymen.

What happens when political/legal citizenship does not coincide with emotional belonging? In restaurants I went to in Kiev, people were speaking Russian, but they were Ukrainian citizens. When I asked for symbolic Ukrainian heroes – thinking of William Tell – I got no answer. What holds this country together? There is no Ukrainian national identity embedded in a common culture, religion or language. Like many of the regions of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine was part of a larger entity with its own limited identity, leaving  room for certain specific regions to develop their own such as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

It may seem strange that in a globalized world there are more and more traditional geopolitical struggles. But it is specifically because of globalization that the striving for emotional identity has become so important. The myth of the nation-state is still with us, but the notion of nation and nationality has become more and more fragile. While we can be citizens of several countries, because of globalization our personal identities have become problematic.

Fred Halliday observed that out of 12 historic true nation-states, 9 were genocidal. The myth of the nation-state is still with us. We continue to insist on the term nation-state because we need to belong. But belong to what? For the people residing within the current borders of Ukraine, this is both a political/legal and emotional quandary.


Ne reste plus qu'à espérer une attaque extra-terrestre pour se rappeler que nous vivons tous sur ce petit globe insignifiant dans l'univers.
That is the only true belonging.

Écrit par : Pierre Jenni | 02/05/2014

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