What makes a nation?

July 04, 2022 10:24
A great nation is one that tolerates disagreement and embraces plurality. Photo: Reuters

To begin with, it’s imperative that we differentiate between the following terms – the nation, and the state. The state denotes a geophysical fixture – an entity that is recognised by international law and (most) other states around the world, to be sovereign and entitled to juridical-legislative prowess over a specified plot of territory; over such land, the state wields utmost and fundamental final say – the ability to determine whom a criminal is; the ability to prosecute justice and sentence individuals to jail or beyond; the ability to enforce and decree property rights. Such is the nature of the modern-state, at least.

Yet when it comes to the nation, things get murky. The nation, unlike the state, does not map necessarily onto a discrete entity in legal terms. Nor is it easily capturable through hard, physical, and binaristic stipulations. Individuals could belong to multiple nations at once (NB: the difference between nationalities and (memberships of) nations), or to no nation. Individuals cannot easily opt in and out of citizenship in relation to a particular state; they can, however, under certain ascriptivist accounts of nationhood, opt into or out of national identities into which they are born, or have previously enrolled.

What makes a nation, then? Benedict Anderson posits that the answer rests with ‘imagined communities’. Ernest Gellner envisions the nation to be a unit that could be both pre-political and a-political, yet is rendered political under nationalism; indeed, he attributes the birth of contemporary nationalism to modernising, industrialising forces that compelled the spread of education and standardisation of the language. Fanon’s conception of the nation is inherently liberatory, whereas for cosmopolitans and hardcore anti-nationalists such as Bakunin, the nation may well be a barrier to true freedom.

What is a nation other than its people? The people are what makes – or breaks – the nation. In my view, a nation that has neither popular support nor resilient governance institutions, cannot claim to be a legitimate nation. Nor, indeed, is the nation likely to succeed. On the flip-side, we must do away with the notion that only nations with leaderships procedurally determined en masse by the public, could be legitimate qua their being democratic. That the public votes, does not imply that the public’s will and interests are accurately reflected by said nation’s leaders, and thus said nations. Indeed, democraticity is often necessary – but insufficient – for genuine national representation.

If a nation is to succeed, it must successfully establish itself as a nation-state. This is why impracticable projects, rooted in delusional grandeur and fetishisation of independence for the sake of independence, not only are likely to be doomed to failure, but are also highly self-destructive for the populations involved. On the flip side, nations that successfully wrestle free of colonial or imperialist dominion, that successfully stand for values of self-determination in face of oppressive structures, are likely to find themselves precursors to nation-states; though, as examples in the Horn of Africa and Latin America have repeatedly shown, a successful nationalist movement does not always translate or convert into effective governance.

I hence offer a slightly distinctive suggestion. I suggest that what makes – or breaks – the nation, is whether its citizens perceive there to be a viable alternative to said nation. Many living in countries wholeheartedly and reservedly support their states – nation-states, not on grounds that these states are innately benign, but because the alternatives are worse. By comparison and elimination, they would prefer to reside under this nation, as opposed to any other nation, or – worse yet – the state of quasi-anarchy induced by the weakening and dissolution of national bonds and boundaries. This is not to say that the status quo in national borders and arrangements are thereby justified, but it is to say that having some degree of restraint and limit on national identities is both necessary and indeed justified.

A great nation is one that tolerates disagreement, embraces plurality, and celebrates its ability to rectify its own inadequacies. Why is that? For in order for any nation to move past the point of remaining merely a talking shop, it must build a critical coalition of consensus – whether it be via force or otherwise (though some would posit the former does not come easily or on the fly) – amongst its denizens. This is unlikely to be the case under regimes where none of the above virtues is championed. Many in international relations analyses tend to jump to assertive conclusions, in arguing that because country X is of regime type T (e.g. is not a democracy), ergo it is destined to fail. This – I suggest – ignores the few select cases of non-democracies that have largely managed to get by through centralised and effective governance; or the plethora of democracies that strain to hold themselves together. The rate-limiting step across these cases isn’t democracy or the lack thereof: it’s whether the nation sticks together, or does – and has – fall apart.

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Assistant Professor, HKU