Nationalistic tendencies are central to global political systems. This is evident in the fact that we now have an international system based on interaction between a series of sovereign nation-states. Of course, the expansion of this system of nation-states to all four corners of the world is a fairly recent development. Whilst the early roots of the process extend back to the Middle Ages, it must be remembered that the notion of a nation-state remained foreign in several parts of the world, until as recent as the first decades of the twenty first century. However, it can be argued fairly confidently that this is now the normal political form across the world.

  • Behaviour of nation states

    The development of the international system of sovereign nation-states is a clear indication of the way in which nationalistic ideas have shaped our modern world. However, scholars who study international politics offer different interpretations of the way in which these national units interact, and specifically how willing they are to collaborate and share resources.

    On one hand, those who espouse the Realist perspective on international politics claim that nation-states are essentially introverted units, who will always place self-interest above any other considerations. From this viewpoint, any collaboration between different states is only possible if the respective partners believe that they are benefitting from the process in any meaningful way. These arguments derive from the Realists’ core belief that the international system is unstable in nature and that it therefore promotes competition between states, motivating them to place national security and self-interest above all else.

    Other scholars have challenged the traditional Realist perspective, arguing that nation-states can behave in an ethical way which also acknowledges the needs of other states. The claim that nation-states do more than consider the safety and interests of their citizens as they play on the international stage. Indeed, this perspective assumes that emphasis on national interests can be balanced with cosmopolitan considerations which acknowledge that the nation-state is a member of a wider international community. Similarly, this is a viewpoint that acknowledges that a person’s attachment to his/her fellow countrymen/countrywomen is important, but that he/she also has a significant duty to other individuals throughout the world.

    The viewpoints above can lead to different ideas regarding the extent to which nation-states should be able to operate free from the interference of others within the international system. To the Realist, states should abstain from interfering in other states’ internal issues, as long as there is no threat to their own self-interest. However, those who hold more collaborative viewpoints maintain that a state will sacrifice its right to external sovereignty if it tramples on the fundamental rights of its citizens. Similarly, under such circumstances, there is a duty on other states to act in order to improve the behaviour of the offending state.

  • Rejection of Nationalism

    There is a range of important conceptual traditions which, in different ways, have questioned some of the fundamental principles of nationalism and challenged the assumption that nation-states are the appropriate units for organizing the international community.

    To begin with, anarchists have challenged the supremacy of the nation-state based on the belief that they are too big as units and that they over-centralize power which creates corrupt politicians. They tend to favour federal political systems which allow power to thrive at a very local level and there is balance of power between different units. These traditions are often linked to the ideas put forward by figures such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin.

    Marxists’ suspicion of the modern nation-state derives from their belief that it is the product of a capitalist system, and that therefore it is a political form which will always defend the interests of capitalists at the expense of the working class. As a result, the need to dismantle the state is a consistent theme in Marxists’ work as is the need to establish an international sense of unity among the working class which will rise above nationalistic differences. This vision was of course undermined to a great extent by the Communist regimes which were established during the twentieth century. In reality, these were totalitarian systems in which the power of the state increased rather than disappeared. Even so, it can be argued that the communist countries, under the leadership of the Soviet Union, promoted far-reaching collaboration across borders.

    One other important tradition which has challenged the idea that nation-states should play a central role in the international system is Cosmopolitanism. This tradition originally emerged from the ideas of thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Richard Price, who both argued in favour of the need to move beyond the idea of sovereign nation-states towards a global federal system. During the twentieth century, thinkers such as Charles Beitz developed cosmopolitan arguments based on principles such as liberty, equality and individual rights, in order to challenge the idea of a world divided into a series of sovereign nation-states. Beitz encourages us to view justice as a truly international consideration, rather than something which is discussed and practiced within individual nation-states. Furthermore, he argues in favour of far-reaching policies which would lead to the redistribution of resources and wealth across state boundaries. These arguments don’t specifically call for abolishing the nation-state, but they are certainly ones which are eager to see its power limited significantly, so that global considerations such as environmental wellbeing and worldwide poverty can receive far more attention.