Nations, States, and Foreign Policy Fantasies

Below is my attempt to make sense of the world, especially that of the Middle East. It’s best viewed in tandem with two earlier posts on the subject, and deals with military intervention (as opposed to outright war).

This post concerns the issue of scholars, journalists, intelligent laymen, and activists continually evoking the nation-state as their point of reference for discussing and analyzing foreign affairs. Here are two general examples:

I don’t think all nation-states are morally equal.


The list of nation-states involved in the Syrian fiasco are few in number.

This is logical as far as it goes, and there is something to be said for using the nation-state as a tool for better understanding the world around us, but in the post-colonial, developing world there are no nations attached to the states there.

Let me see if I can explain. The nation-state is a rare and parochial political unit found only in Europe and in parts of East Asia. Notice the hyphenation of the words “nation” and “state.” These are two very different concepts, and yet they are applied – together – nonchalantly in nearly every study or report to be found on international relations.

The interwar economist and patron saint of the present-day libertarian movement, Ludwig von Mises, studied nations after World War I out of a desire to better understand why large-scale violence occurs and how it can be prevented. I appeal to the authority of Mises on this matter because of the attempt by some libertarians today to simply disparage understandings of collectivist concepts such as “nation” with a brusque “the world is composed of individuals and nothing else, so your argument is invalid as well as incoherent.” It is true that individuals should be at the forefront of any question asked about society, but attempting to do so with tabula rasas won’t get you anywhere.

Here is Mises on nations, in the first chapter of his excellent 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy (pdf; and one of only two books I’ve read by Mises), making my point for me much better than I could ever hope to do:

If we wish to gain insight into the essence of nationality, we must proceed not from the nation but from the individual. We must ask ourselves what the national aspect of the individual person is and what determines his belonging to a particular nation. (34)

When a libertarian points out that the world is composed of individuals he is correct, but when he brushes aside any and all attempts to understand collectivist ideas such as nationalism he puts himself at an intellectual disadvantage. Perhaps this is because many libertarians, especially the post-Ron Paul 2008 ones, don’t want to think things through anymore. Perhaps it’s power they crave, rather than liberty and truth.

At any rate, Mises continues his thoughts on nationality with this sentence: “We then recognize immediately that this national aspect can be neither where he lives nor his attachment to a state. (34)” Nationalism isn’t even a phenomenon that can be tied to a specific geographical location, much less a specific state. (It’s worth noting that this is still the rough understanding of “nation” that sociologists and anthropologists have today. Many other theories about the “nation” have been swept away into the dustbin of history. I point this out because classical liberals tend to produce works that stand the test of time, and this is because of their commitment to the individual.) How can a conception of “nationhood” not be directly tied to territorial or political attachment?

I don’t claim to know, but here is how I break this recognition down. The tie-in to US foreign policy is coming, I promise.

The New World (Canada, the US and Latin America) is home to a small number of large republics that broke away from an imperial center at some point in the past. This is a very different arrangement from the large number of small nation-states in Europe and Japan/Korea mentioned earlier. There is no Brazilian nation to speak of. No American nation or Colombian nation to brag about. Only Brazilian, or American, or Colombian citizens are found in the republics of the New World.

While there are arguments to be made about the seriousness of nationalism in the New World republics, I don’t pay them much heed because the distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘nation’ explains well Europe’s and Japan’s inability to assimilate immigrants as successfully as the republics of the New World.

The chronic bouts of fascism afflicting Latin America (and FDR’s United States) are largely the result of attempts to create a nation out of citizens.

In the Old World not consisting of Europe and Japan/Korea (i.e. the developing, post-colonial world), there is a small number of Western-educated elites who have been attempting, like the caudillos of Latin America, to create nations where there are none. These nation-builders are, consistent with their conformist Western education, national socialists. They borrow from liberalism its secularism but not its other laissez-faire underpinnings.

The advocates of Western military intervention, including Dr van de Haar and Dr Delacroix here at NOL, firmly believe that replacing the “bad” national socialists, such as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar al-Assad, with “good” national socialists will bring about viable, meaningful change in the region. Just sprinkle some fairy dust and – poof! – the new batch of national socialists will behave differently.

When pressed on this inevitable scenario, libertarian-ish military interventionists will renege on removing a dictatorship and replacing it with an alternative (which, again, will itself inevitably become a dictatorship). They recognize the futility of such an enterprise. Instead, they change tact and argue that a protracted bombing campaign would be a better option. This option, of course, has the effect of prolonging a conflict, which is blatantly at odds with the supposed humanitarianism of a military intervention in the first place.

The military interventionist simply assumes that a nation actually exists in these post-colonial, developing states, but nationhood is a concept that is limited to a small elite. An elite, I might add, that is just as illiberal as its Islamist (and other conservative) enemies.

Historians have long attributed the rise of the nation-state in Europe to wars and the absence of a hegemonic power. The decentralized nature of Eurasia’s backwater western region created the nations and states of Europe. Wars forced states to harness the potential of their citizens through political, economic and social nation-building. The lack of a hegemon forced these same states to compromise in otherwise uncompromisable situations.

Prolonging the war in Syria through a protracted bombing and arming campaign against ISIS, as military interventionists advocate, will not only keep the blood flowing, it will prevent a clear winner from emerging. “Humanitarian” intervention will prevent dialogue about what it means to be a nation. Indeed, it will prevent dialogue period.

If military interventionists truly want freedom and a lasting peace for the Middle East (and it is not clear that this is what they want) they would do well to stop relying upon the logical inconsistencies that they have fed to themselves over the past century. No amount of fairy dust or unicorn shit will be able to compensate for their fatal conceit.

What is missing from the Middle East is a vibrant sense of nationhood. It is no accident that the peoples in the Middle East with a strong sense of nationhood – the Turks, the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the Israelis – have had to fight for survival over the last 100 years or so to create, to retain, and to promote the cause of their nations.

Preventing dialogue, preventing compromise, and preventing victory in Syria by inadvertently playing different sides off on each other is not a humanitarian option. It’s not even a good “smart power” option. The military power of the West has been overrated for about a hundred years now. Its true power rests in the international institutions – international governmental organizations (IGOs) – it has been creating piecemeal over the past five hundred years. I blogged about wielding this influence most recently here and here. (and here is an older one). Also, open borders is an option that is never entertained by the international relations community (which is probably because it can only be implemented with some sort of political integration).


8 thoughts on “Nations, States, and Foreign Policy Fantasies

  1. Just so I understand your argument, what is the key characteristic of ‘nation’ such that Japan is a nation and Columbia is not? Is it cultural homogeneity, ethnicity, something else?

    BTW, I think I may have discovered that which prevents me from ever becoming a libertarian. “When libertarians point out that the world is composed of individuals he is correct, but when he brushes aside any and all attempts to understand collectivist ideas such as nationalism he puts himself at an intellectual disadvantage.” This suggests to me that libertarians have a fundamental misunderstanding of human evolution.

    PS You should edit that sentence above before Jacques does it for you.

    • A good question, Dr A.

      I would define ‘nation’ as a large body of people that believes it possesses some sort of unity, and that this unity separates them from other bodies of people.

      The ‘unity’ can be virtually anything. It could be language (but doesn’t have to be). It could be ethnicity (but doesn’t have to be). It could be territory (but doesn’t have to be).

      I don’t understand your human evolution point. Could you elaborate?

      Thanks for the grammar heads up. It’s ben ficts.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

        As for human evolution, I’m interested in the species I belong to, homo sapiens. Homo sapiens is a social species and evolved as a social species. Libertarians [as you describe above] appear to believe in the fantasy species of homo economicus.

      • I’m not sure how much of a clarification it really was, but you’re welcome.

        I look at homo economicus the same way I look at nation-state: A useful tool for helping me to better understand the world around me. The problem comes in, I think, when people start to use these tools to do a job they aren’t meant to do.

        Individualism, for what it’s worth, is a social system. Many a man made of straw has been burned by claiming otherwise.

  2. I greatly enjoyed reading this. Let me summarize some points of your argument to make sure I got them right, before I comment further. Your central contention in the second part seems to be that Western policy makers are blind to the “realities on the ground” in post-colonial states – these are not nations, defined in the above comment as groups of people with a sense of unity, but groups of people who happen to live together without cohesion – and so they try to create regimes based on a national concept that does not exist. Which, if true, would doom all their efforts to failure.

    That seems true enough to me, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the total history of the region. The question that naturally comes after, though, is not so clear: if we accept this model as true, what can we productively do in the region? That is, how can we deal with states that have no nations? I think colonialism, war, and bombing campaigns have played themselves out, but I am humble enough to admit I have no idea what should take their place.

    • Bless your heart, Matthew.

      One quick note about nations: One of the easiest ways that post-colonial strong men try to mold nations out of populaces is through xenophobia and the creation of an Other. So, for example, the war between Iraq and Iran (and funded – on both sides – by the United States) stirred a sense of Iraqi nationalism within large swathes of the populace. So my description of nationalisms in the post-colonial world is not meant to be a rigid one, but rather a crude tool I can use to better understand how the world works.

      As to what we can do, trade is an avenue we should pursue further although Edwin’s point about trade not leading to peace is one we should all keep in mind. Edwin’s post sparked me to ‘comment‘ on the necessity of political integration that must occur along with economic integration. Trade should be pursued because it will raise standards of living, not because it will lead to peace between states. (The rest of the dialogue sparked by Edwin’s post is well worth the read, too.)

      On political integration – which is what I think will be the best (and most libertarian!) option for interacting with the post-colonial world – see my posts (and the dialogues they produced) “The New Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same)” and “What Would A Political Union of the EU, the NAFTA States and Japan-South Korea Look Like?”.

      • It seems to be a matter of scale. It’s not that there are no social groups with a sense of unity, they’re just much smaller than the nation-states that they are embedded within.

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