4. The Rationality of Nationality

Identity, Tribalism & Nationalism

Nationalism and globalism appear to be at odds, but they don't have to be. Both are integral to international community-building.

To join or leave a community or make a new deal, one must know where one stands and develop a sense of boundaries. These thresholds shift over time, in response to situations.

To configure to international laws, agreements and institutions, a nation must have its people's backing and be accepted by other nations. This involves transparency, negotiation and a reduction of idiosyncrasies.

This is an identity and legitimacy issue, and identity-formation is multifarious, different for each nation.

Ideally, inherent identity moulds a nation by dint of ethnic or geographical factors. Egypt has had consistent nationhood for 5,000 years. But identity can be built up too – France's unity and identity were hammered out in medieval times.

Some peoples could be unified but they are not – Irish, Kurds, Armenians, Koreans and the descendants of Mayans. Others are held together by geopolitical sellotape, inertia or grace – Afghans, Iraqis, Swiss, Nigerians, Turks, Brazilians, Mexicans, Americans, Canadians and Indonesians – and stress could divide any of them.

As globalisation stirs up our perspectives, identities and interests, some peoples feel a need to pull closer together while others wish to loosen their sovereign autonomy.

By the late 20th C national interests could no longer be defined in isolation. Nations each affect all others as a result of travel, trade, pollution, migration, leaky borders and cultural interdependence.



During the 20th C sovereignty, stable borders and non-intervention were the norm, though periodically broken. The 'pre-emptive' US invasion of Iraq in 2003 pretty much ended this.

People hold on to sovereignty, but it has already been lost to trade, economics, crime, pop, media and organisational border-hopping. Ordinary people have weakened borders through travel, consumption, migration, pan-national ideas and movements.

This has left a mess, kept clamped and under wraps. It's acceptable to those who profit and unacceptable to those who don't. Were it not for nationalism, vested interests, the scale of the problem and difficult borderline cases, a full redesign of nations and borders would be sensible. But this is a hornet's nest.

Nations are being quietly eroded from above and below. Both unpopular and sought after, globalisation proceeds apace without full discussion.

The issue isn't whether or not globalisation should happen, but how it happens and how it impacts on humans and nature.

Globalisation has a standardising aspect which fires up an equal and opposite counterforce, localisation. Local governance and emotional identification are finding new relevance and distinction.

Globalism and localism aren't contradictory. Globalising forces have bulldozed local obstructions and pushed hard at human tolerance, provoking a localist and nationalist gut-reaction. The scale of globalisation is enormous, and yet 'one size fits all' is not succeeding.

Societies are cleaving and splintering along new sectoral, generational, regional and belief-oriented lines. This is humanity's communal tendency at work.

This new tribalism is experience-based. Nowadays we separate out less by clan than by interest-group.

Are nations relevant nowadays?


Nations are emotionally valid because we humans need locational and identificational anchorages. Something in us craves a landscape and social matrix in which to feel at home. This urge, when under assault, becomes rigid, conservative and nationalistic.

For the future, we don't really know what needs reinventing and what needs preserving. Preservation is fine as long as things are not just freeze-dried but alive and developing. If the creative life-spark inherent in tradition withers, we lose our way.

Reinvention or 'modernisation' has problems too - old errors are repeated or costly lessons are re-learned that we already knew.

Nations act as containers of identity and culture. They have relevance, but that relevance is changing.

States are valuable as political and administrative entities and holders of regalia. But they vary so drastically in size and have evolved in such haphazard ways that they only sometimes reflect the de facto needs and life-patterns of people, geography and nature today. Today's states are frozen as entities unless crises forcefully re-shape them.

The status of states is shifting. Regions are in the ascendant while nation-states are weakening. If you want to have an influence in a global world, you need to be a big guy: EU, USA, India and China demonstrate this.

Who knows how, but we are likely to see states change massively in coming years. Some could break up, some might transfer or exchange territory and some might merge or federate. New states might appear.

The overall trend is for nation-states to melt surreptitiously in significance - even though a lot of fus is still made about them. A conglomeration of continental and cultural blocs is forming.

Blocs, federations and unions


Some blocs are obvious, such as Latin America, North America and sub-Saharan Africa. Others have a core with unclear edges, such as South East Asia and the Middle East.

Does Europe include Turkey, Ukraine or Russia? Will Russia and Siberia remain united?

Some blocs are possible but not inevitable: Central Asia, Meso-America and the Caribbean.

Would Israel join a Middle Eastern union? Would India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh federate? The global community-building process drags up these tricky issues.

The pressure to form cultural blocs comes from above and below. Global decision-making with today's 186 sovereign nations is complex. It is dominated by the big players. Some nations don't even have a million people.

Cultural identifications are shifting in response to this re-grouping. Britain and France, once great powers, are now just nations, part of the same union, and their status as Security Council members is anachronistic – EU should replace them at the table and pass on the spare vote.

Both EU and USA serve as valuable models of unions, with their successes and failings. The EU evolved over five decades, consensually and by accretion. USA was born suddenly, by declaration. The both behave like that.

A model cultural bloc is the Muslim sphere where one faith and system of law and customs binds its nations together over time. Kind of.

In the 'clash of civilisations' of 2001 the distinction of Islam and the West came starkly clear. The West no longer had the final answer. But the Islamic world has begun slowly to realise that if it is to provide new answers, they had better be good. Fundamentalism doesn't persuade majorities.

A pan-African cultural consciousness simmers fitfully, seeking vision and expression. Coming decades will see Africa enter happier times, a home-spun revival coupled with reduced outside interference. Two of our time's top leaders have been African – Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. This is a sign.

Geopolitical chess


Collective identity is a big source of geopolitical angst. Identity becomes a prison when fixed and inward-turning. International relations conducted by 'playing to a home audience' also blocks necessary global change and priorities.

Yet identity is still important. Debates and arguments can help if they are handled maturely, as a community-building exercise. But when hands move to sword-hilts or delegates walk out, it is necessary to pause, step back, start again and stay with the process. Otherwise, no 'international community', only delayed solutions.

Too often, when the heat rises, negotiations break down. Yet hurt egos and harsh words mean that breakthrough is close. This is a therapeutic catharsis, where the ugly stuff comes out. Things need to be said, even if not entirely true. But good procedures must be followed to prevent damage being done.

Nations need to work through their anxieties, to reach a point of mutually-assured peace. Past positions then ease, arguments subside and the picture changes. Participants in peace often need to be braver than they are in war.

Conflicts triangulate around specific issues which often are deflections from the real issue, but nevertheless they carry emotional charge. This draws us into facing unthinkable and unspeakable questions. Big issues come up, forcing resolution.

Behind this a larger global chess-game is being acted out. Afghanistan and Iraq have recently fallen victim of global issues concerning superpower control, oil, terrorism, arms, culture-clash and international cooperation-deficiency. They were prone, yet it fell on them.

Conflicts put global issues on the table. This is a cop-out, since many conflicts would be unnecessary if things had been sorted out earlier.

Antagonism raises undiscussed questions, putting us all on edge, hurting a lot of people and costing the Earth. We now need to move on from this. We can't afford it.

Identity and nationalism


National identity-formation is not a fully conscious, intentional process. International relations are highly fictionalised, causing nations' self-images and their international relationships to grate.

Today, the main action is not really national, but regional, generational, ethnic, cultural and belief-oriented. Yet these dynamics still evolve within static political boundaries. Nationalism often has more to do with other things - power, maleness, inadequacy, insecurity or social stress, projected outwards.

National feeling is natural for peoples who have lived long in a landscape. But antipathy to others is a cover-up - something is wrong on the domestic front and few are facing it.

A successful culture is vibrant, relevant and open to change. It encourages the young, the creative and the enterprising. It welcomes strangers to its hearth.

Narrow nationalism demonises others. Some is propaganda and some is cultural conditioning. Many myths are believed because few question them. This makes prejudice difficult to root out. Animosity becomes a safe option, a default pattern.

Each nation has a web of relationships largely dominated by political and business establishments. They call their private interests 'the national interest'.

They fix things, pump the economy, demonise subgroups, pick fights, exploit and corrupt. Vested interests seek to keep society atomised, patriotic and compliant. Today this is slowly eroding as the public sees through it, but it's taking a long time.

Patriotism and fear cover over a multitude of sins, eating at a country's culture and self-esteem. Domestic power-battles triangulate onto scapegoats – immigrants, rebels, workers, women, gays... This keeps the powerful in power, skewing the picture, dehumanising decent people and polarising society. It justifies discrimination, atrocity, expulsion, invasion and genocide.

Negative qualities projected onto others describe in detail what the accusing country itself does or has done.

Clean-up time


There is always shared responsibility between dominators and victims in geopolitical chess-games. Anti-American feeling since 9/11 demonstrate this.

"America should change". Underneath this was: "The international community will no longer go along with a superpower agenda". Beneath that: "It's time for the international community to shape up".

The world had to start making big decisions and carry them out, with or without USA. Otherwise, it invites USA to be its 'global policeman'.

The world should have dealt with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. One reason it didn't was arms proliferation, a subject no one wished to raise. Dealing with Saddam meant a global clean-up process. The international community would have to 'walk its talk'. Nations would have to raise their standards. Instead, they let Saddam and other dictators get away with it.

Globalisation is obliging an inevitable clean-up. Secrecy and no-go areas are being disentangled.

Here the wider world has a transforming influence within nations. Nations big and small are being obliged to get to grips with many issues because of pressures from outside or simply the mirroring effect of intensifying international relations.

This concerns each country's relationship with itself, the state of its society and the standards by which it lives. It concerns national spirit and aspirations, self-respect and the quality of its culture.

Within the formation of continental and cultural blocs new regional identifications are forming. The small and the local – our homes, families, people and landscape – are highly relevant too.

Resolving the contradiction between global and local issues is a psychological and emotional, irrational process. Yet to move forward, we must be exceptionally rational. Without clear-headed behaviour, it's war and crisis.

NEXT: Same Planet, Different Worlds

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