In the 1950s, there were 102 widely recognised sovereign states. In 2020, there are 195. The number of nation states has almost doubled since World War 2, but the number of interstate conflicts has declined dramatically.
The notion that the very existence of nation states inevitably leads to bellicose nationalism, xenophobia, and conflict is not only flawed, but it is empirically and demonstrably wrong.
More interestingly, the worst conflict in Europe since World War 2 occurred when Yugoslavia disintegrated.
It’s worth recalling that Yugoslavia was a country forged after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire out of separate national groupings and with the explicit aim to promote Pan-Slavism, overcome feared “nationalisms”, and act as a bulwark against incursion from surrounding powers.
On paper, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which went on to become Yugoslavia was far less ambitious than the European Union’s drive for political union between 27 (and counting) disparate member states to act as a bulwark against China, the USA, and Russia.
The notion that the EU has maintained peace since the end of World War 2 is also obviously false. Europe was in no position to go to war after the defeat of Nazi Germany, although serious consideration was given to continuing the war eastwards to combat communism. Germany was occupied until the creation of the Federal Republic (West Germany) and subsequently the Democratic Republic (East Germany), in response, in 1949.
The European Coal and Steel Community came into existence in 1950, assembling the basics of what was to become the European Economic Community. French foreign minister, Robert Schuman’s, intention was to make the prospect of war between France and Germany economically unthinkable.
Franco-German rapprochement was, in any case, already underway thanks to the efforts of Konrad Adenauer on the one hand — the first Chancellor of the FRG and a strong advocate of the FRG’s alignment very firmly with the USA, UK, and France, and as a member of NATO; and General de Gaulle on the other, who rather saw rapprochement with Germany as the basis of a strong alliance in Europe to counteract American influence.
The EEC, formed between the ECSC members (France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries) didn’t come into being until the Treaty of Rome came into effect in 1958.
Peace was maintained, initially through the presence of the western allies on the one hand counterbalancing the Soviet bloc on the other, ultimately becoming the NATO alliance on the one hand and the Eastern Bloc on the other.
By the end of the Cold War, the largest threat to peace in Europe in terms of interstate conflict was over. At that stage, the EEC comprised only 12 member states in western Europe and can hardly be given credit for maintaining peace across the whole continent!
It would naturally be unfair to claim that the European Union and its predecessors have played no role in maintaining peace in Europe. The mere reality of economic interdependence, growing free market capitalism, social democracy, and European reconstruction, have all played their part in enriching the lives of citizens and of making the prospect of armed conflict both undesirable and unthinkable. But the EU does not have a monopoly on this state of peaceful coexistence between westernised states.
Separate, peacefully co-existing stable, democratic, free-market economies don’t have a habit of going to war with each other. Wars are more common and nationalisms become more violent when naturally occurring differences and desires for self-determination between different peoples are suppressed. Witness the actions of a certain Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914.
In Europe, we no longer live in the world of the 19th and early 20th century, where empires disintegrated and territorial disputes were common. The borders of Europe are largely settled and established since the end of the Cold War and democracy and capitalism has (re-)established itself in eastern Europe.
And yet, it’s a recurring trope that nationalism – indeed the mere existence of nation states – can only lead to increasing xenophobia and bellicose sentiments.
Even the narrative that Nazi Germany is the product of nationalism is deeply flawed and betrays a wholly ignorant understanding of what Nazism entailed – an anti-democratic, racial-supremacist, collectivist ideology, which was perfectly happy with the concept of supranationalism. Indeed, Hitler realised the 19th century idea of Großdeutschland (Great Germany – the annexation of Austria), before taking further steps to expand German territory into areas which had, at first, historically been ethnically German (the Sudetenland), and finally dropping any such pretence of confining territorial ambitions to ethnically German territories. The Nazis openly embraced the idea of a united European front against Bolshevism.
Ultimately, it was defence of ‘home’ and the nation state which inspired not just Britons, but several other nations to take up the fight against Nazism. It was the defence of nation states which saw people sacrifice their own lives to defend their families, their homes, their customs, and their social norms — and, when the battle was lost in their own countries, to continue the fight to free their homeland from another country.
The Polish, Free French, Czechs, and Belgians, just to name those from occupied European nations who fought among the “Few” in the Battle of Britain, were inspired by the desire to defeat the common foe and regain their countries’ liberty. They were all fired by patriotism.
But I’d dare anyone to look one of them in the eye and tell them their patriotism was inherently negative and dangerous.
The notion that love of one’s country is intrinsically bad is one especially common among English (not Scottish or Welsh) middle classes. We’ve all read or heard the comments from people who misunderstand Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” We’ve seen their comments, bestowing the worst motives of xenophobia or dreams of empire on those who merely support the notion of the nation state. It is ironic that many of these same people advocate the creation of larger, more powerful, political entities, replacing smaller nationalism with, well, larger nationalism!
I tend to think these projections of the worst motives on others betray deeper, darker fears and motives in the heart of these same people who all too willingly and ostentatiously accuse others.
It’s as ridiculous to claim that love of one’s country must entail dislike or even hatred for other countries as it is to claim the special love we hold for family and friends necessitates hatred of people outside our nearest and dearest. Everyone understands the term “nearest and dearest” and yet nobody would suggest that the very existence of this concept implies discrimination against others — even though in literal terms it actually does. Caring predominantly about our kin doesn’t mean we wish harm on or dislike strangers, so why do people assume that caring about one’s country means we wish harm on or dislike other countries?
George Orwell identified the tendency for patridophobia among fellow English middle class socialist intellectuals decades ago… the kind who preached socialism while sneering at actual working people for the latter’s poor manners, poor speech, and patriotism.
“England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.”George Orwell from “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”
This chasm in the attitude towards patriotism between middle class nominal socialists and actual workers was no better encapsulated than in the Tweet posted by senior Labour Party MP, Emily Thornberry, back in 2014.
Thornberry’s sneering tweet and clear distaste for any signs of patriotism were a PR disaster for the Labour Party, already suffering from the perception that it was dominated by the kind of people Orwell had identified decades ago.
So while other nations are perfectly happy to fly their flags, a certain kind of Guardian-reading Englishman or Englishwoman will sneer at the very idea of an “unfurled colourful rag”. Unless, of course, said colourful rag is a Saltire, Irish tricolour, Palestinian tricolour, or the flag of the Council of Europe (latterly adopted by the EEC/EC/EU). Those symbols of (supra-)nationalism are, of course, perfectly acceptable.
It would seem that some nationalisms are more equal than others.
And therein lies the English Left’s muddled thought on nation states.
But nation states don’t cause wars any more: religious conflicts and supranational political break-ups do. And we have the data to prove it.