Keep your fiscal powder dry. Barry Eichengreen

Unpopular Sovereignty – Part 1

Nationhood, and the way we perceive it, is potentially the most controversial topic of the 21st century.

When translated into English, the German word “Staatsangehörigkeit” is said to mean nationality, although that’s not entirely accurate. When translated into its literal form, the true meaning resembles something closer to a phrase like “state-belongingness”. Such a difference, although subtle, speaks volumes about how not just Germans, but indeed people everywhere, identify with their country of origin. In the real world, of course, the nations that people identify with are not always synonymous with the sovereign states that recognize them as citizens. Growing economic interconnectivity and the movement of people that comes with it is decreasing the congruency between citizenship and national heritage. This, in turn, has moved many to question how valuable our “state-belongingness” really is.

States vs. nations

The textbook definition of a state is the political body that governs a region. It’s the fundamental institution of political sovereignty. A nation, on the other hand, is a group of people sharing the same culture, and often the same language or ethnicity as well. The United Kingdom, for example, is a state. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, are nations (not to be confused with provinces). The Kurds are a nation, because they share a language and a culture, though they lack an official state. A country like France most closely resembles a nation-state, because the state’s borders reflect where people who ethnically and culturally identify as French live – though that has begun to change slightly. As capital flows ever more internationally, so too do people.

Supporters of this trend say it will lessen the likelihood of everything form war to poverty. We need to be integrating cultures and economies until the mere idea of state-belongingness, and nationalism along with it, disappears. Opponents say that it’s highly exploitative, giving oversized banks and multinational corporations an almost feudalistic power over everyday people who lose their voices and their civic identities when their nations or states become more opaque entities.

Whether one is in support of or against such liberalist trends, one thing holds true in either case: How a person reconciles the relationship to their nationality with the relationship to their state decides everything. Different identities foster different results, both good and bad. States like Denmark or France with defined ethno-cultural identities often fare better when creating progressive policies, because the citizenry share a culture that prioritizes similar values. They agree on things faster. They get things done faster. On the other end of the spectrum, states like the United States (today a single state despite the name) as well as governing bodies like the EU and ASEAN must operate without the notion of nationality. They house many cultures within their borders. This, unsurprisingly, makes it a struggle to agree upon common values. Things get done more slowly as a result.

Nation-states have their own struggles too. Cultural integration is more difficult for a Denmark than for an America. People can immigrate to a nation-state like Denmark, but to be Danish is as much an ethnic, cultural, and lingual identity as it is a legal one. This makes integration harder than in the U.S., where being considered American is mainly a matter of citizenship and speaking English – the world language.

Drawing tribal lines

As we all know, people often disagree on how to reconcile ethnic and cultural identity with citizenship when they don’t align. If someone is born in Brazil but raised in Japan, is he Brazilian or Japanese? If someone from Botswana moves to Ireland and gains citizenship there, is she suddenly Irish? If the child of a Turkish guest worker grows up in Germany, speaks German, but is not legally recognized as a German citizen, is she German, or is she Turkish? Maybe neither? You can always be in a state, but still lack state-belongingness.

Globalization, once said to be a force of internationalism and cultural interconnection, has also fostered a resurgence of nationalism within states all over the world.

Balochi, Kurds, Catalans, Northern Irish, Eastern Ukrainians, and countless other nationalities around the world have had people fight for independence from the political states that currently (and uneasily) govern them. Phenomena such as terrorism, genocide, or even less extreme trends like soccer hooliganism or buying from local farmers all somewhat represent humans seeking out totems of identity in a world where traditional boundaries have become increasingly opaque.

Are we dissolving national identities and replacing them with something more international, or are states and economies gradually changing to reflect the geography and the values of the world’s many nations? Currently, the political state, and our own sense of state-belongingness along with it, looks hopelessly stuck in a tug-of-war between nationalists and internationalists that may one day rip it apart.

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