The recent vote for Kurdish independence and the attempted vote for separation in Catalonia reflect a desire to establish homogeneous nation-states. We are witnessing a backlash against globalization towards more local types of representation. Kurds want to be ruled by Kurds – even beyond their own regional parliament – and the Catalans want to be ruled by Catalans. Beyond autonomy, there is a calling for political independence.
The two examples show how many multicultural heterogeneous political institutions are being called into question. The famous melting pot is looking more and more like a salad bowl. Instead of becoming unified in some form of confederation, different ethnic groups are striving to be separate within their own political space.
Does the wish to live within a homogeneous group make sense in today’s globalized world? While one can understand a preference to be able to speak a particular language in school or have access to news in a local language, is it reasonable to expect our leaders to be exactly like us?
Even in Switzerland, a country with three official languages and cultures, the recent election of a representative from the Italian region as federal councilor was seen as fulfilling a constitutional requirement that “consideration has to be given to the adequate representation of regions and languages.” But beyond the mere representation issue, is the Swiss ideal “to live our diversity in unity” a thing of the past?
Moreover, the state as an institution is also being called into question. Large multinational corporations are as powerful or more powerful than most state institutions. The GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple – are representations of a new form of global organizations that in many ways dwarf the established international system. While not legitimate in the traditional sense, these private companies wield enormous economic and political power. They may not have the emotional attachment for their shareholders associated with citizens in the modern state – national anthems, Olympic teams and all – but they represent transnational enterprises that have more resources than most states.
Is this a problem? We usually think of the development of the state system a positive step in the progress of civilization. State building guaranteed safety from those on the margins – traditionally considered barbarians.
Armed non-state actors (ANSA) is the current term for those outside the state system, and they are generally considered terrorists. Even certain states, called failed or fragile, like Somalia are pariahs. Helping developing countries solidify their institutions through the rule of law is a major concentration of developed countries foreign aid.
The civilizing role of the state is not obvious. While Finnish international lawyer Martti Koskenniemi writes of international law as “the gentle civilizer,” James C. Scott, in Against the Grain, argues that states have been responsible for wars, slavery and, above all, taxes. Scott’s point is that the state system, as recent as it is in human history, has not been the civilizing force by which it has been portrayed.
The secessionist movements in Iraq and Spain are reminders that the state system is fragile. See for example recent articles in Swiss newspapers that ask: “And if a canton wanted to become independent?” In this sense, there are no fragile states; all states are fragile. States are a very recent phenomenon. Whether challenged by multinational corporations or domestic ethnic groups, states should be seen in their context as historical entities. And like all historic entities, they are subject to rise and fall.
Rather than automatically condemning certain secessionist movements – the West applauds Kosovo’s independence while condemning Abkhazia’s – we continue to marvel that federated countries such as Switzerland are functioning so well. (No, cantons cannot secede.) The Swiss Confederation has existed for over 700 years. Its ideal “to live our diversity in unity” is a true exception.