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The Rise and Fall of the Modern State System

Daniel J. Elazar

Given practical form by the new nation states of Western Europe such as France in the late Middle Ages or Prussia in the nineteenth century, the old state system rested on the idea that by concentrating power in a single head or center, the state itself could be sufficiently controlled and its environment sufficiently managed to achieve self-sufficiency or at least a maximum of self-sufficiency in a world which would inevitably be hostile or at best neutral toward each state's interests and in which alliances would reflect temporary coalitions of interests that should not be expected to last beyond that convergence. The old maxim: "No state has friends, only interests," typified that situation.

The first powerful nation-states were monarchies, advocates of the divine right of kings to protect central authority and power. After a series of modern revolutions, first in thought, led by people like Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Rousseau, and then in practice as articulated in The Federalist, kings were stripped of their exclusive powers and new power centers formed, presumably based upon popular citizenship and consent but in fact with the same centralized powers, only vested in representative assemblies and executive officers speaking in the name of the state. Only in a few cases, where earlier dispersions of power had been constitutionalized, did they need to be taken into consideration. This led to the establishment of federations, forms of federalism that combined national supremacy with real constituent state powers, at least for purposes of foreign relations and usually defense.

The second defining element of the nation-state was its striving for homogeneity. Every state was to be convergent with its nation and every nation with its state. Where people did not fit easily into that procrustean bed, efforts were made to force them into it. This was done either through internal pressure (as in France where the French government in the name of the state warred against Bretons, Occetanians, Provencals, and Languadocians, among others, even denying them the right to choose names for their children that did not appear on the official Francophone list), or external (as in the Balkans where small national states with minorities outside of their state boundaries regularly warred with one another in an effort to conquer the territories where their fellow nationals lived and either exterminate or expel those not of the same nationality). As a result, modern wars were basically of two kinds, either imperialistic wars designed to enable more powerful states to become even more self-sufficient by seizing control of populations, territories and resources that could be used in that direction, or nationalist wars designed to reunite parts of the nation with the national state.

In the end, none of these three goals could be achieved. In many cases they were not achieved at all; in others they were achieved temporarily until those disadvantaged by them succeeded in revolting. In still others they proved to be unachievable by any sustainable means, usually with a combination of all three factors that preventing their attainment. As a result, the existing states in the world, 90 percent contain minorities of 15 percent of their population or more within their boundaries (like Croatia) and of the remaining 10 percent, almost all have large national minorities living outside of their state boundaries (like Somalia). Since then, matters have gotten more complex, as we see by the great resurgence of ethnic conflict in one form or another throughout the world, a factor that has become one catalyst for the new paradigm in its search for ways to overcome those conflicts.

As we approach the end of the era of the politically sovereign nation-state, we also are beginning to recognize that state self-sufficiency, in reality was never achievable. It is well to recall that modern economic liberalism, which was essentially based on the principle of free trade, emerged shortly after the emergence of modern statism with its economic basis in mercantilism which sought self-sufficiency, because of the problematics of mercantilism brought to the fore, inter alia, by the American revolution against Great Britain. When that policy failed, imperialism replaced it -- for the powerful states -- as the means to the end of self-sufficiency. Imperialism failed by the middle of the twentieth century, not only because the subjugated peoples rejected it, but because a democratic moral sensibility came to affect the subjugators. So the world has had to find a new paradigm -- and it seems that we have.

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