The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War. Map: Wikipedia

The isolationist and arbitrary Westphalian state system characterized by the twin principles of absolute sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs has been replaced by an active and democratic liberal international order with the ascendance of norms of democracy and human rights. However, exclusion of people from national space, a drive toward homogenization and conflicts along ethnic, religious and cultural lines inherent to the nation-building process producing refugees and stateless people as a consequence still persist as problematic issues. Nation-states’ claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity very often conflict with the normative demands of the international order that strive to defend human rights and address the problem of statelessness.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended 30 years of war in Europe and introduced the idea of the modern state defined by the principle of ruler’s sovereign control over a specified territory without outside interference. Liberal thinkers and leaders then, inspired by the Enlightenment idea of human freedom, tended to democratize the Westphalian states and international order. US president Woodrow Wilson, taking a cue from liberal tradition, first hailed national self-determination as the organizing principle of the 1919 territorial settlement that then defined the international normative order. In between the Peace of Westphalia and the World War I peace settlement of 1919, popular revolutions in such countries as the US and France strengthened the idea of the nation-state.

Admittedly, human society will continue to be designed as, or will aspire to be, nation-states for the purpose of governance without the availability of any alternatives. The liberal tradition’s defense of a shared identity as a prerequisite for securing political obligations, social solidarity, and mutual respect for fellow citizens as well as for resisting arbitrary abuses of power is also logical.

However, the practice of endorsing the nation-state system as well as the theoretical tradition seeking to defend it has generated calls for irrational attachments to national and sub-national identities. This must be replaced by rational identification with the nation that will pave way for acknowledgement and sharing of the problems of outsiders.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” published in the early 1970s, argued that people could sacrifice morally less significant goods to uphold and contribute to higher moral principles. For instance, contributing some assistance toward saving the lives of starving strangers is morally superior to spending more on additional clothes, fancy dinners and tickets for concerts. However, he argued that development assistance must replace humanitarian assistance in the long term so that poor and starving outsiders could develop their abilities to sustain themselves.

It has been further estimated that trade barriers raised by developed countries cost the developing and underdeveloped countries far more than they receive in foreign aid. Nevertheless, irrational attachments to national and sub-national identities fomented by leaders, media and various other social groups not only prevent nations from sacrificing what they could easily do to attain higher humanitarian objectives, but can contribute to problems like ethnic cleansing and statelessness.

It must be noted that the fusion between citizenship and nationality was not realized even in Western Europe, where the modern state had its birth, and therefore the idea of homogenization dawned upon and was endorsed by intellectuals as well as politicians

It must be noted that the fusion between citizenship and nationality was not realized even in Western Europe, where the modern state had its birth, and therefore the idea of homogenization dawned upon and was endorsed by intellectuals as well as politicians.

For instance, France as a nation-state was formed as a consequence to a revolution but failed to be a nation-state in the true sense of the term. The Bretons in France were condemned as alcoholics and the inherent superiority of French as a language of culture, progress and social promotion was emphasized. Even while no force was used against the Bretons, they were asked to forsake all that was most unique to their culture and assimilate into the French culture.

The most systematic effort to marginalize and liquidate Jews as a way to achieve homogenization of Germany was undertaken by Adolf Hitler. Barring the Protestants in Northern Ireland, the British state treated the Irish homeland as a colony and sponsored colonization of the island by non-Irish British citizens. While language was instrumental in the continued process of nation-building in France, it was ethnicity in the US and religious preferences in Britain that determined the contours of national-identity.

Andrew Bell-Fialkoff in his 1993 article “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing” and Jennifer Jackson Preece in her 1997 article “Minority Rights in Europe: From Westphalia to Helsinki” provide numerous examples of religious cleansing designed to create homogenous populations within the European states prior to 1919. The peace settlement of 1919 aimed to restructure international society according to the requirements of national self-determination defined in ethno-cultural terms. If people inhabiting a particular geographical area possessed a unique language and culture, they could legitimately claim a right to self-determination.

Thus, within very short span between 1919 and 1920, many new nation-states were forged in Central and Eastern Europe. For instance, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, as well as the Prussian kingdom, led to the emergence of a dozen new states claiming legitimacy on the grounds of nationality, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Albania. Similarly, Finland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania emerged out of the disintegrating Russian Empire.

However, the 1919 boundaries drawn by the League of Nations unavoidably created not only new nation-states but with them new national minorities that could potentially threaten the territorial division of the post-World War I settlement through separatism or irredentism. As the Second World War progressed, both the British and US governments came to believe that population transfers would play a key role in the postwar settlement. With the fresh memory of the failure of the League of Nations’ minority system in their minds, the planners of the post-World War II world order proposed to solve the problem of minorities neither by redrawing frontiers nor by attempting another guarantee of minority rights, but by eradicating the minorities themselves.

Ethnic cleansing, as well as forcing homogenization of populations as an instrument for building nation-states, gradually spread its tentacles to other parts of the world. In the context of South Asia, it has been witnessed that irrespective of the official status accorded to religions in the constitutions of the states, the norms, values and lifestyles of the dominant religious collectivity have often been incorporated in formulation of state policy.

David Nugent in his 1997 book Modernity at the Edge of Empire: State, Individual, and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885-1935 highlight the underlying socio-economic factors that shape culture and contribute to identity formation. In marked contrast to Europe, where socio-economic factors were instrumental in the formation of national identity, overriding many particularistic identity claims and excluding many marginalized identities from the national space, the Chachapoyas movement in Peru – then a developing Latin American country – was led by the people themselves against the entrenched aristocracy and was based on local culture. However, it subsequently led to the exclusion of marginalized groups on the basis of socio-economic interests of privileged classes.

Even while a group can project itself as a self-conscious community (a nation) on the basis of certain common cultural practices, cultures can exist without people possessing a sense of self-consciousness and cultural symbols may function as the markers of ethnic and national boundaries while cultural myths might furnish materials for group narratives.

William Safran’s 1997 article “Citizenship and Nationality in Democratic Systems: Approaches to Defining and Acquiring Membership in the Political Community” highlights the grim fact that while countries such as France, the US, Germany, Britain and Israel were hosts to significant numbers of immigrants, the acquisition of formal citizenship there did not imply the acquisition of the country’s nationality, as that was defined in terms of sharing that country’s historical consciousness and myths.

Immigrant nations, contrary to their image, engage in fostering national identity based on ethnic, religious and cultural principles and exclude many people from the self-defined moral community. Contrary to the late British historical sociologist Anthony D Smith’s assertion that “immigrant nations” like the Americans or the Australians differ from the nations of the Old World (Europe) in their self-conceptions, Eric Kaufmann and Oliver Zimmer in their 2004 article “‘Dominant Ethnicity’ and the ‘Ethnic-Civic’ Dichotomy in the Work of A D Smith” argue:

“A glance at the history of either nation, Australia or America, in the 20th century shows that the nation was defined in an ethnic ‘British’ or ‘WASP’ manner which was more effectively executed than in many ‘old world’ nations. Britain or France, for example, never implemented a racial or ethnic quota system like the Americans ‘National Origins’ scheme of 1924-65 nor were they gripped by the kind of dominant ethnic fraternalism represented by the American Protective Association or (second) Ku Klux Klan in the United States or Orange Order in Canada. The phenomenon of ‘white flight’ in the US is also far more developed than in Europe, where racial mixture and co-residence is more common.”

Join the Conversation

24 Comments

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *