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Rethinking National Sovereignty

Posted by Anthony on February 24, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

The modern world is the world of the nation-state, a world in which every ethnic group lays claim to their own special plot of land under the guise of nationalism and their “historic” rights to that place. Gone are the days of the empires, those polyglot entities encompassing the ethnicities of a dozen or more groups and spreading across the globe with seeming impunity. The trend had begun long before then, but by the end of the Second World War empires were crumbling wherever they were found. It was a long process, tied to the end of colonialism, and as such is generally viewed as a good thing in most circles. Was it really?

In the aftermath of the First World War, two of the great empires that had chosen poorly as far as which side to back found themselves obliterated. The Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary) essentially disintegrated in the last months of the war as various ethnic groups sought their own independence from the monarchy in Vienna. The victorious powers made no efforts to maintain the empire in the aftermath, something that would have been almost impossible in any case given the virulent nationalism awoken as a result of the losing effort in the war. As a result, central Europe became a weak hodgepodge of small states who turned out to be easy prey for their larger neighbors such as (and especially) Germany during the 1930s and continued to create violent flashpoints up to and including the present day in locations such as the former Yugoslavia.

The other great empire of note was the House of Osman, or the Ottoman Empire, straddling the current Middle East and Anatolia. Prodded on by the British, Arab nationalists revolted in conjunction with British military efforts in order to destroy the power emanating from Constantinople and succeeded: in the aftermath of the war, Turkey was established on Anatolia alone and the other parts of the empire went on to become various mandates under the League of Nations that were given to victorious powers such as Britain and France. One only needs to look at the sorry state of most Middle Eastern countries today to realize that the collapse of the Ottomans impacted the region in a generally negative fashion.

The bottom line here is that in the drive to enfranchise every ethnic group who wants their own state, the global community has created an unwieldy system by which ethnic conflict is actually exacerbated and crimes against humanity have increased, both on a domestic and international level. Naturally the decision as to which ethnic groups get what lands has been the subject of traditional back door deal-making and eleventh hour negotiations: the Kurds for example have long been denied any sort of homeland in eastern Anatolia, northern Iraq, and western Iran simply because they lacked the ability to force their will on the regional powers.

It is not just about ethnic conflicts, however, as the situation in both Iraq and Bosnia have shown us: in both cases, religious conflict has fueled hostilities that have claimed tens of thousands of lives. The creation of so many little states has also resulted in unprecedented economic competition, replete with the abuse of natural resources and the need to build up power bases that come along with such birth pangs. One must seriously question whether for example the inhabitants of these states would have been better served by remaining a part of a greater entity whose ability to treat on a global level would have garnered them greater prizes and fewer calamities.

The point of this question is not to argue for a return of colonialism; that, after all, was a dual edged sword even back when it was the dominant global system fuelled by the dreams of mad mercantilists. Yet the discussion of whether many of these “states” that currently exist are worthy of their status and whether the global community would not rather be better served by encouraging the merger of such irrelevant actors into greater powers that could more effectively handle the trials and tribulations of living in modernity.

At the end of the day, the global trend seems to be running counter to this line of thinking: even today, in successful states such as India, Spain, Canada, and China, there are groups seeking “independence” and their own state, or at least autonomy within a more or less federal structure. It is perhaps inconceivable that ever again shall the world see a truly multi-ethnic, polyglot empire in the tradition of Austria-Hungary or the Ottomans rise again to draw from the powers of many groups and focus them in one coherent manner. It is, however, a legitimate topic for discussion as the world continues to see ethnic, religious, and economic conflict develop as competition for ever dwindling resources becomes the next great crisis for humanity to solve.


2 Responses to “Rethinking National Sovereignty”

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