1. Your Passport Please...

What are nations for?

A nation is a group of people identifying with one another, recognising a shared connection derived from ancestry, kinship, location, language, culture or belief. Or perhaps they are just ruled by the same government. Or decisive historic events welded them into a nation, willingly or not.

We could define three main kinds of nation: 'first nations', 'nations' and 'states'.

Nationhood is complex. There are some 180 states in the world, and some 15,000 identifiable peoples. Some peoples are spread across different states, and some states encompass different peoples. This becomes a problem when one people feels oppressed. Which is common.

First nations are conglomerations of clans and tribes sharing a native identity, culture and origin. They usually trace their heritage back to a common ancestor or source. Most first nations existed before recorded history, possessing an inherent natural, ethnic nationhood.

Nations are variously welded together by historical events and ruling élites. They possess a created emotional integrity. Sometimes nations possess sufficient social glue to hang together, and sometimes not – or they tread a narrow line between institutional unity and human diversity. Before states arose, nations had heartlands without definitive boundaries, held together by traditional power-arrangements, custom or kinship.

States are governmental entities formed by rulers, élites or political agreements, largely for consolidating power, often without the consent of subject peoples. The first ancient states were city-states or empires. States establish clear boundaries within which their taxes and jurisdiction operate, ruled through centralised and military power and integrated economies.


Until the spread of industrialisation and rapid communications between 1800 and 2000, two societies existed side by side, worldwide – one growing and the other retreating.

One was driven by trade, money, law, religious and military power, centralised around towns and transport. The other was a village-based, self-sufficient or feudal peasant culture outside the money economy, ruled largely by elders or feudal lords. Peasants could get on with their lives if they paid their tithes, obeyed their lords and provided fighting men when required.

In the last 200 years communications have brought centralised systems and modernisation to the furthest-flung areas – an incorporation process which, today, encompasses the world. With this, Western-style statecraft, law and economics spread too.

Nation-building, a term used when intervening in 'failed' states, is a misnomer. It builds state institutions more than helping nations' welfare. Democracy is flagged as a cure-all, but its frequent result when transplanted is dictatorship, business hegemony or political fudges.

Democracies and people's republics have seen a distancing between people and the state. Corporations, institutions and transnational organisations nowadays act with governments to make an over-arching power system in which people take second place to the interests of the system.

This question sits prominently on the unwritten agenda of the 21st Century.

States were first ruled by monarchs, lords and magnates. Loyalty was imposed by the sword or by threat. By the late 1700s, reaction against authoritarian power-abuse led to ideas like 'the will of the people', the 'social contract' and 'human rights'.

With them, patriotism become more important in social control. While the 20th C brought freedoms, education and social benefits, pressures to conform and collude also increased, using carrots more than sticks – discipline is now more psychologically internalised.


An emotional and humane revival is today taking place in the hearts and minds of millions of people, transcending national boundaries. It surfaces whenever a humanitarian crisis or a potently symbolic set of events breaks out. Compassion and empathy are growing, helped by education, travel, media coverage - and a surreptitious shift of heart.

Mass-produced 20th Century conformist and nationalist values are being subtly undermined by a contrary sensitivity and empathy for suffering minorities. Women and their growing social-political influence affect this. This undercurrent of re-humanisation points to something quite tribal – though it is unclear whether this means our tribe or the human tribe. Faced with a new six billion strong global family, we find ourselves caught in a semi-conscious tugging of the heart.

As globalisation proceeds, nationalism and tribalism grow in proportion to it. Everyone, no matter how cosmopolitan or well-travelled, still needs to go home and shut the door, to be in 'safe space' and 'together with friends'.

These intimacy needs are genuine, yet they provide little justification for narrow nationalism, xenophobia or dogged obstruction of wider-world imperatives.

Tribes have their 'ring of power' – bonds of solidarity in which common needs, shared values and the wellbeing of the clan override individual differences.

When space became scarce or the 'ring of power' broke as a result of tragedy, invasion or disintegration, painful precedents and social devastation ensued. In Mesopotamia or northern India this breakdown happened 3-4,000 years ago, but elsewhere it has occurred more recently, even just in recent decades.

Social breakdown


At times of social breakdown, a critical choice is offered: people may see strangers or change as a threat, or they may accommodate and collaborate with them. If pain or loss are involved, the threat option is often chosen. The emotional complex of Us against Them hardens and strengthens.

This breakdown of social trust is probably the greatest collective emotional trauma humanity has ever faced.

Today's civil wars, sectarian rivalry, nationalism and polarisation have their roots in this collective emotional breakdown long, long ago. Its memory is so long forgotten that it seems mutually-assured trust and sensitivity never really existed.

The worst kind of social breakdown happens within the family itself. When kinsfolk fight, pain and betrayal are perhaps the most hurtful of all – Israelis and Palestinians.

The collective pain arising from the shattering of the 'ring of power' is buried deep beneath the strata, rubble and dust of subsequent history.

Dominance and victimhood patterns derive from social pain and the resulting emotional hardening. A broken people or culture often over-reacts, fights back, attacks, dominates or at minimum ensures that others' happiness and progress are blocked.

We do need a healthy sense of national, regional and community identity. Everyone needs to identify with their own kind. Each people has a contribution to make to the global matrix, weaving its own thread into the world tapestry.

Yet we need to overcome antipathy and narrow interest: this is a major task for the 21st Century. Demeaning and demonising others demeans and dehumanises us too. We lose intimacy and security when inter-communal trust and feeling harden. Security measures increase insecurity in the longterm. We become socially underdeveloped.


Nations aren't dying. But the world's political geometry is indeed shifting.

Nowadays, many nations don't reflect real cultural, ethnic, geographical or contingent needs. Many Middle Eastern and African states were created by foreigners: their states and peoples are now incongruent.

The world needs a redesign. This is impractical in today's geopolitical context, but it would remove many causes of conflict.

But the key really lies in social choice. Conflict is a choice, and cooperation is a choice. Structures take time to change. Attitudes and beliefs can transform faster.

In the end, the passing of generations changes things. But, with a little commonsense, we can do things faster than that.

In a globalising world we need to establish common standards, yet we're faced with a need to accentuate our cultural differences too. Otherwise human diversity and culture suffer, and too much is lost.

In community, diversity and individuality are not wiped out. Possibilities increase. In the 20th C globalisation brought much standardisation but, in the 21st C, variegation and mutual respect are the name of the game.

Cramped by imperialism and then by superpower dominance, only since 1989 are the world's nations and peoples truly coming to meet. This isn't easy or comfortable.

The old superpower agenda of the 20th C is giving way to a shift in global geometry. Something to do with 'the international community'.

This is happening in the world of summits and big organisations, but it's happening on the people level too.

Insiders & Outsiders

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