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This essay was inspired by a conversation in Tel Aviv
with an American citizen of Israel when the initial topic
of conversation was the threat of a breakup of Iraq.

I really enjoy travelling to other countries and meeting people of different cultures. To date, I have managed to visit 52 countries of very different historical backgrounds and current circumstances. The more I travel, the more I feel that one of the key questions of our age is: What is the nature of the nation state?

It seems to me that, in every nation state, there are minority groups that feel less allegiance to that state than the majority of citizens, either because they are not treated equally or more fundamentally because they do not really wish to be citizens of that state but instead of either another state or even of a state which does not yet exist.

This analysis begs several difficult questions: How do we define a nation state? Who decides whether a territory is to constitute a state? How do we deal with those who do not identify with the state?

Let's start at the beginning. What constitutes a nation state?

Nation states, as we understand them today, are a relatively recent creation since most of the history of humankind has focused on communities which are much smaller (the village or city state) or much larger (the empire). Today there are around 200 nation states but there is no absolutely clear definition of what constitutes a state. A pragmatic definition might be that a nation state is a body which has membership of the United Nations and therefore is recognised as a nation state by the majority of other nation states. But a state like Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002 and some bodies that would regard themselves as nation states such as the Cook Islands are not in the UN.

Some nation states look very natural, but many look like artificial creations. What factors contribute to the idea of nationhood?

Geography: This looks very logical. For instance, Iceland and Japan are very clearly nation states. The island nature of these nations provides clear national boundaries and the distance from other land gives them a strong homogeneity. However, take an island like Ireland. Irish nationalists would argue that the island of Ireland should constitute a single nation state, but one million Protestants in Northern Ireland would argue that they are religiously and culturally so different from the four million Irish citizens that unification is unthinkable. Many countries especially many in Africa but even the USA to the north have boundaries which bear no relationship to natural features, let alone cultural or ethnic or linguistic features, but are simply lines on a map frequently drawn by a former colonial power. Should we respect these lines? Does our respect depend on when and how these lines were drawn?

Ethnicity: A powerful case for nationhood can be mounted when there is a common ethnicity at stake. Historically China has often comprised several (usually warring) states, but there is strong sense that the Chinese constitute a single nation. In 1947, one could make the same case for what was then India, but Muslim leaders felt that religion was paramount and forced the creation of a separate nation called Pakistan which was geographically peculiar because it consisted at the time of two units some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) apart. Then again, if ethnicity is a prime determinant of nationhood, why is there no nation state called Kurdistan? Instead the Kurds are (predominately) in the nations of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Language: The language that people speak has been a strong force for the creation of nations. France, Germany and Italy are large, prosperous states that are defined in the main by language. Brazil is defined in part by its use of the Portuguese language, the only Latin American country to use the language. When people in different states speak the same language such as Romania and Moldova, Albania and Kosovo, The Netherlands and Flemish Belgium there are those who argue for a bringing together of those people into a common state. There are many people in Hungary who lament the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 and would like all Hungarian-speaking peoples in surrounding countries to be reunited with mother Hungary. The problem is that, in countless states, there is no single dominant language but many different languages, so that language alone is often a poor determinant of statehood. For instance, India has no less than 23 official languages, while South Africa has 11.

Religion: Religious belief has been the building block of many countries. Many European countries to this day see themselves as essentially Catholic or Protestant. Most Middle Eastern countries see themselves as Sunni Muslim or Shi'ite Muslim. Countries like Nepal and Bhutan see Bhuddism as a defining characteristic. Perhaps the most radical case of a religion distinguishing a nation is Israel which defines itself as a Jewish state. But, if religion is so important, what do we do about states that are sharply divided by religion such as Nigeria or the Sudan? And, if religion is the defining feature of a state, do those of a different religion have the same rights as other citizens? A Catholic could not become King in Britain; could a Muslim become President of Israel?

It is clear from this brief review that there is no common delineation of what represents a nation state and that different groups can call in aid different factors such as geography, ethnicity, language and religion to promote their cause, but in virtually no case do all these factors coincide. Indeed they frequently complicate or conflict.

So, if the current definition of a particular nation state is to be altered, who is to decide this?

Take the case of Northern Ireland for instance. Many Northern Irish Protestant Unionists wish the region to remain part of the United Kingdom; many Northern Irish Catholic Republicans wish the territory to become part of the Republic of Ireland. Currently there is provision in UK legislation for a ballot to be held periodically whereby the people of Northern Ireland are able to express their wishes on this matter. However, some would argue that such a decision should not be made by the people of Northern Ireland alone but by all the people living on the island of Ireland. Others still might argue that, since Northern Ireland, is currently part of the United Kingdom, then any decision on the status of Northern Ireland should be decided by the people of the UK as a whole.

Consider some other examples. Who should have decided whether Kosovo could leave Serbia? Who should decide whether Catalonia could leave Spain or the Kurds leave Turkey? If it is the Kosovans, the Catalonians and the Kurds, then the fear is that the country being departed will lose some of its citizens and might fragment even further. If it is the Serbs, the Spanish and the Turks, then the aspirations to a new nationhood will be defeated. In 1993, there was a remarkable instance of the break-up of a nation state Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia - when neither part of the country held a referendum and opinion polls suggested that the majority of both the Czechs and the Slovaks were opposed to break up.

Take another (very topical) case: Iraq. This country was an artificial creation of the British, but would the interests of its citizens and of surrounding countries really be better served by a division of the country into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish statelets?

Where does all this leave us? I can only express a personal view.

I believe that redrawing boundaries is rarely the solution. Drawing a new line does not solve a problem of nationality; it seemly redefines it. As we saw in the case of the partition of India, drawing lines to create a Muslim state of Pakistan did not solve the problem of Hindus and Muslims (and Sikhs) living together. Many millions were forced to migrate and perhaps half a million died and we still have many Muslims in India. If we were to redraw the boundaries of Northern Ireland so that more Catholics were in the Republic of Ireland, it would not solve the problem of a divided community in Northern Ireland there would still be a Catholic minority.

Indeed I would argue that redrawing boundaries does not only fail to solve the problem; it usually worsens it. First, redrawing boundaries creates the false illusion that the answer to inter-ethnic conflict is to separate peoples instead of addressing the causes of ill-feeling such as discrimination. Second, even after the imposition of a new boundary, there is still a minority population, but now the minority is smaller and the willingness of the majority to embrace the minority is even less likely. Third, every time one redraws a territorial boundary somewhere in the world, one encourages others down that path and there is no end to this road. If one grants independence to the Basques in Spain, then why not to the Catalonians or the Galicians?

If redrawing the boundaries of nation states is not the solution to the challenges of inter-ethnic conflict or inter-communal rivalries,what is?

I would argue that, without abandoning the notion of the nation state (which would be totally unrealistic), we need to give less emphasis and importance to it. Instead we need to:

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Last modified on 18 March 2008

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