In a matter of a year or two, Great Britain may no longer be so great. That’s because Scottish nationalists are currently working to sever most every significant connection with London. This is no longer viewed as an utterly romantic quest because elsewhere around the world centrifugal political forces have long been operating. The nation state is under pressure in many places: the parts are challenging the whole.
History books have long focused upon those bold leaders who succeeded mostly through conquest, organizational genius and administrative skill in knitting together far flung regions and diverse peoples into nations or empires. It seemed natural to go that route because it conferred power and glory and introduced unprecedented orderliness into what otherwise was a fragmented and turbulent landscape. Nation building often involved squelching regional autonomy, neutralizing local rulers and erasing traditional privileges. And when it worked out, say with Mazzini in Italy, or more notably with Bismarck in Germany, you ended up with a powerful new entity far more impressive than the sum of its original parts.
Today it’s often a different story. Many of those territorial pieces and “diverse peoples,” once just tossed into the mix, have become openly disaffected and, no longer accepting the deal they got- they want out. Some protest that the wealth of their region is being transferred unfairly to other parts of the country. Were they now to go it alone, substantial economic benefits would follow, with local wealth retained, not redirected. (Reminiscent of the time when southerners in the United States believed their cotton wealth went mainly for the benefit of northern merchants and shippers. That point of view helped set the stage for the showdown in 1861.) In other places people insist that they’re being discriminated against for ethnic, cultural or religious reasons, and that leaders at the national level consistently ignore local sensitivities and traditions. Some point out that their incorporation into the larger entity was, at the outset, a mistake, the result either of coercion or mindless indifference by authorities, often foreigners who drew the original boundary lines.
Recent decades have illustrated the persistence and power of these local movements and the serious challenges they present to arrangements, often of long standing. Within memory, though circumstances might differ; we can point to the breakup of India, with Muslim Pakistan splitting off as an independent nation and then itself being diminished by the creation of Bangladesh out of the former East Pakistan. The Eritrean population engaged in a 30-year war against Ethiopia before it achieved independence in 1993. In that same year, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, its internal incompatibility reflected in the formation of two new countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Also in the 90s the world witnessed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of a host of new republics within its former borders. More recently, Kosovo broke away from Serbia and South Sudan from Sudan. And it’s hard to know what’s keeping Belgium together.
Of course, not all break-away movements succeed. Canadians have successfully warded off efforts by French-speaking Quebec to go its own way. Nigeria suppressed the attempts by Biafra to forge an independent nation. And for years Russia has kept a rebellious Chechnya under its iron fist. Still, the world scene is far from stable. The Kurds residing within the territories of several nations still long to have their own state, as do populations in Darfur, Tibet, East Timor, the Basque regions of Spain and France, and even sections of Italy.
Years from now history books will, unlike in the past, pay more attention to these local movements within nation states, viewing many as legitimate efforts at self-determination or home rule and representing a serious challenge or perhaps even signaling the end of an era of national expansion and consolidation. There are certain to be observers less sanguine about the consequences of such a splintering, as it undermines the ability of the nation state to govern effectively.
We already have over 200 nations across the globe. Is that enough, or are we likely, in the near future, to see additional national flags unfurled and rippling in the wind?