Partly because citizens are desperate for the cover-up to succeed: deep down, they know to be scared of what will happen if the power of the state is revealed to be a hoax. Almost all those nations emerged in the 20th century from the Eurasian empires.
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The modern nation of Syria looks unlikely to last more than a century without breaking apart, and it hardly provides security or stability for its citizens. Empires were not democratic, but were built to be inclusive of all those who came under their rule. It is not the same with nations, which are founded on the fundamental distinction between who is in and who is out — and therefore harbour a tendency toward ethnic purification.
This makes them much more unstable than empires, for that tendency can always be stoked by nativist demagogues. Nevertheless, in the previous century it was decided with amazing alacrity that empires belonged to the past, and the future to nation states. And yet this revolutionary transformation has done almost nothing to close the economic gap between the colonised and the colonising. In the meantime, it has subjected many postcolonial populations to a bitter cocktail of authoritarianism, ethnic cleansing, war, corruption and ecological devastation.
In the breakneck pace of decolonisation, nations were thrown together in months; often their alarmed populations fell immediately into violent conflict to control the new state apparatus, and the power and wealth that came with it. Many infant states were held together only by strongmen who entrusted the system to their own tribes or clans, maintained power by stoking sectarian rivalries and turned ethnic or religious differences into super-charged axes of political terror.
The list is not a short one. Formally equivalent to the older nations with which they now shared the stage, they were in reality very different entities, and they could not be expected to deliver comparable benefits to their citizens. Those dictators could never have held such incoherent states together without tremendous reinforcement from outside, which was what sealed the lid on the pressure cooker.
Horn of Africa
But the cold war vastly expanded the resources available to brutal regimes for defending themselves against revolution and secession. The two superpowers funded the escalation of post-colonial conflicts to stupefying levels of fatality: at least 15 million died in the proxy wars of that period, in theatres as dispersed as Afghanistan, Korea, El Salvador, Angola and Sudan. And what the superpowers wanted out of all this destruction was a network of firmly installed clients able to defeat all internal rivals. The breakup of the superpower system, however, has led to the implosion of state authority across large groups of economically and politically impoverished countries — and the resulting eruptions are not contained at all.
Over the past 20 years, the slow, post-cold-war rot in Africa and the Middle East has been exuberantly exploited by these kinds of forces — whose position, since there are more countries set to go the way of Yemen, South Sudan, Syria and Somalia, is flush with opportunity.
Their adherents have lost the enchantment for the old slogans of nation-building. Their political technology is charismatic religion, and the future they seek is inspired by the ancient golden empires that existed before the invention of nations. Militant religious groups in Africa and the Middle East are less engaged in the old project of seizing the state apparatus; instead, they cut holes and tunnels in state authority, and so assemble transnational networks of tax collection, trade routes and military supply lines.
Such a network currently extends from Mauritania in the west to Yemen in the east, and from Kenya and Somalia in the south to Algeria and Syria in the north.
This eats away the old political architecture from the inside, making several nation states such as Mali and the Central African Republic essentially non-functional, which in turn creates further opportunities for consolidation and expansion. Several ethnic groups, meanwhile — such as the Kurds and the Tuareg — which were left without a homeland after decolonisation, and stranded as persecuted minorities ever since, have also exploited the rifts in state authority to assemble the beginnings of transnational territories.
For many decades, it was content to see large areas of the world suffer under terrifying parodies of well-established Western states; it cannot complain that those areas now display little loyalty to the nation-state idea.
Especially since they have also borne the most traumatic consequences of climate change, a phenomenon for which they were least responsible and least equipped to withstand. The strategic calculation of new militant groups in that region is in many ways quite accurate: the transition from empire to independent nation states has been a massive and unremitting failure, and, after three generations, there needs to be a way out.
The situation requires new ideas of political organisation and global economic redistribution. Barbed wire and harder borders will certainly not suffice to keep such human disasters at bay. L et us turn to the nature of the nation-state system itself. The international order as we know it is not so old. How were human beings to live securely in their new nations, after all, if nations themselves were not subject to any law? Without such constraints, their disproportionate power produced exactly what one would expect: gangsterism.
Experience beauty every day
The end of the cold war did nothing to change American behaviour: the US is today dependent on lawlessness in international society, and on the perpetual warfare-against-the-weak that is its consequence. Just as illegitimate government within a nation cannot persist for long without opposition, the illegitimate international order we have lived with for so many decades is quickly exhausting the assent it once enjoyed.
In many areas of the world today, there is no remaining illusion that this system can offer a viable future. All that remains is exit. Some are staking everything on a western passport, which, since the supreme value of western life is still enshrined in the system, is the one guarantee of meaningful constitutional protection. But such passports are difficult to get. That leaves the other kind of exit, which is to take up arms against the state system itself.
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The appeal of Isis for its converts was its claim to erase from the Middle East the catastrophe of the post-imperial century. The era of national self-determination has turned out to be an era of international lawlessness, which has crippled the legitimacy of the nation state system. The true extent of our insecurity will be revealed as the relative power of the US further declines, and it can no longer do anything to control the chaos it helped create. T he three elements of the crisis described here will only worsen.
First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest countries and regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. So we are obliged to re-examine its ageing political foundations if we do not wish to see our global system pushed to ever more extreme forms of collapse.
This is not a small endeavour: it will take the better part of this century. We do not know yet where it will lead. All we can lay out now is a set of directions. From the standpoint of our present, they will seem impossible, because we have not known any other way. But that is how radical novelty always begins. The first is clear: global financial regulation. There is no reason to heed those interested parties who tell us global financial regulation is impossible: it is technologically trivial compared to the astonishing systems those same parties have already built. The history of the nation state is one of perennial tax innovation, and the next such innovation is transnational: we must build systems to track transnational money flows, and to transfer a portion of them into public channels.
Without this, our political infrastructure will continue to become more and more superfluous to actual material life. In the process we must also think more seriously about global redistribution: not aid, which is exceptional, but the systematic transfer of wealth from rich to poor for the improved security of all, as happens in national societies.
Second: global flexible democracy. Nations must be nested in a stack of other stable, democratic structures — some smaller, some larger than they — so that turmoil at the national level does not lead to total breakdown. The EU is the major experiment in this direction, and it is significant that the continent that invented the nation state was also the first to move beyond it.
The EU has failed in many of its functions, principally because it has not established a truly democratic ethos. The building dates from the early s. Ancient beams cross the ceiling.
The views out of the windows are of bicyclists racing by and the evocative, ever-somber surface of the canal reflecting the gabled facades of the buildings on the opposite side. Six made coffee that morning, then sat down to a stack of mail. He dispensed with the bills and other annoyances first so as to settle into the catalogs of coming art auctions.
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He skimmed it quickly, almost dismissively; it was for the daytime sale, which featured lesser objects. The top paintings and sculptures are always reserved for the evening. And then, he told me, he stopped cold.
The slightly miscolored photograph in the catalog was a portrait of a rather dazed-looking young gentleman with a lace collar and a proto-Led Zeppelin coif. The painting dated from somewhere between and The giveaway was the particular type of lace collar, which was the height of fashion in that brief span and then quickly went out of style.
From there, Six was a bloodhound on the trail.