The Nation-State as Chameleon?

flags compositeAny discussion of the foreign policies of modern states, and the “elites” who formulate and carry them out, must start with a recognition of three basic points. First, the creation of modern nation-states capable of conducting foreign policies in the current meaning of the words; second, the bureaucratic machinery through which, and only through which, such policies can be formulated and made effective; and third, the fundamental difference between the machinery, positions or appointments which allow public or private “elites” to operate, and the personages who may, from time to time, occupy such posts but, once they have left their positions, are apt to be quickly forgotten.

In that context there are certain characteristics that have given modern nation-statehood some chameleon-like features and produced the more important changes which these structures are undergoing in the twenty-first century.

It will be useful to start by considering some of the more important changes within these states in recent times; the background and training of modern “elites”; the relationships between domestic authority and various kinds of international constraints; the changing cultural and educational levels of modern populist electorates; changing public attitudes in many “advanced” countries to the basic risk-management machinery of modern military and intelligence capability; and finally perhaps to suggest certain conclusions.

The concepts of “nation” and “state” are relatively new and were largely created in Europe; and the idea of a nation-state is more recent than either. It was only towards the end of the Middle Ages that Europe emerged as a relatively united body called “Christendom” which had overlapping patterns of ecclesiastical and military organisations such that any knight or priest could travel all round the continent and feel a member of a single community with a common language and code of conduct. (It is no accident that the Christian churches speak of “principalities and powers”, not of “states”.) But of course Christendom needed to be defended, against the Norsemen from the North, the Magyars or Mongols from the East, and especially against the Muslims, whose empire from the eighth century onwards included Spain, the Balkans and most of the Mediterranean, and who besieged Vienna as late as 1683.

It was only from the early sixteenth century that European princes started to see themselves, not just as the owners of property but as the leaders of states. The concept of “nation” is usually dated from the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, and with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. The idea of a “nation-state” is more recent still, as is the gradual evolution of the criteria which any state should meet if it wishes to claim independent sovereignty and the status of nation-state. One of the most important has been the establishment and maintenance of clearly defined territorial boundaries. Another is the maintenance of a chief and dominant language, which all citizens are expected to be able to use. Yet another is, or was until the very recent introduction of an ill-defined “multiculturalism”, a common or at least dominant ethnicity. That, in turn, has come together with a broadly understood dominant culture, reflected in a great range of activities from speech or music to art, literature and forms of social organisation and political usage. In many and perhaps most cases that also came together with a dominant philosophical outlook or religion.

Progress towards that status was uneven. When Napoleon’s armies marched into Italy at the turn of the eighteenth century, the Breton or Provencal boys who had enlisted learned with surprise that the Italians saw them as “Frenchmen”, not as Provencals or Bretons. It was not until the very late nineteenth century that ordinary peasant Normans or Bretons started to see themselves as “Frenchmen”. When elderly women from the villages of Eastern Europe arrived as migrants in the United States, they learned with even greater surprise that immigration officials classified them as “Poles” or “Galicians”—terms they had never heard of.

At the level of state or inter-state politics, progress was, of course, more rapid, especially given the massive economic, social and technological as well as political changes that wholly changed the European balance. The single most important development was the change from a Germany divided among separate states, with Prussia and Austria competing for leadership, to a single and dominant German empire led from Berlin. That was followed by an unprecedented wave of industrial, technological and economic progress.

In the late eighteenth century, GDP per capita levels in the Yangzi River delta of China were much the same as in the wealthiest parts of Europe. A century later the most advanced areas of Europe had ten times the per capita GDP of China. In 1700, Asian powers produced almost 62 per cent of the world’s GDP and Europe only some 31 per cent. By 1913 Europeans had some 68 per cent of the world’s GDP and Asia only 24.5 per cent. By 1890 Britain alone was responsible for 20 per cent of the world’s industrial output while China produced a bare 6 per cent.

Industrial progress and the commercialisation and mechanisation of agriculture were largely responsible for the movement of people into cities. Between 1800 and 1900 the population of London grew from 1 million to 6.5 million, while Berlin’s population grew by 1000 per cent. Towards the end of the century Germany advanced by leaps and bounds on the basis of new sources of energy, advances in chemicals, pharmaceuticals and electronics and the development of ships and cars. Germany led in the emergence of industrial cartels which were closely allied with the state and took over entire productive processes, from raw material supplies to manufacturing and retailing.

That was not all. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it became plain that the two powers on Europe’s flanks, Russia and the United States, were making huge progress in all industrial, technical and commercial fields and in ways that only the growing power of Germany, at Europe’s centre, might hope to match. In France and Britain there developed serious concern about how to balance these rising powers. Serious thought was given to the possibility of rallying the respective overseas empires to form much more united and coherent political units with the mother country. In Britain that meant, in the main, the major British dominion and Anglosphere elements—plus India—while the French thought of similar arrangements with the overseas empire in Africa and Indo-China. Ultimately, these efforts came to nothing. In many of the colonies or dominions the ideas of nationalism and independence took root; and in many cases it was only after long periods of domestic dispute, including occasional revolutionary upheavals, that parliamentary and representative democratic institutions were established, held together by an overriding collective self-consciousness and by a sense of patriotism among rulers, officialdom and most if not all citizens.

More importantly, the development of the nation-states of Europe, together with the competition in industrial and technical developments, led to a broader sense of political competition. That brought a gradual alignment of major states in potential and in time actual realignments of power that led, in turn, to the unplanned outbreak of war in 1914. The new German empire was created by Prussia’s victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870; but the Chancellor of this new empire, Otto von Bismarck, managed to conciliate Austria-Hungary by coming to an arrangement between the two emperors in 1879. Three years later he persuaded Italy to join the other two in a “triple alliance” with assurances of mutual aid against outside attack. He even managed to achieve a separate understanding with Russia in 1887 and good relations with Britain, all in the interests of isolating France. It was not a pattern that his successors managed to maintain.

The British, with worldwide concerns that went well beyond their capacity to maintain unaided, managed to build a remarkable alliance network. In 1902 came an alliance with Japan that would engage the new Japanese navy in looking after the Pacific balance and keeping Russia in check. In 1904 came the understanding with France that calmed colonial disputes, and in 1909 an understanding with Russia that deflated long-standing British fears about Russian intervention in India. The result was the creation of a “Triple Entente” of Britain, France and Russia that might balance the triple alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy (although in 1912 the British made it clear to France that they were under no obligation except to consult the French in case they were threatened).

This kind of alignment of nations ultimately proved unable to deal with the three major causes of the 1914 war: first, the conflict between the naval ambitions of the German emperor and Britain’s need to retain command of the sea approaches to the British Isles; second, the disproportionate growth of German power, which was threatening to destroy the balance of power in Europe; and, third, the nationality problems of the Slavs in the Balkans which threatened the cohesion, and even existence, of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In both theory and practice, therefore, the nation-state may have reached its most advanced stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, perhaps most visibly with the final disappearance of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial French power that had briefly ruled the continent. But its development only peaked early in the twentieth century, with the treaties that ended the First World War. The main ones were the treaty of Brest-Litovsk that Germany imposed on Russia in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles signed by a defeated Germany in 1919, the treaty of St Germain with Austria, also in 1919, and treaties with the Ottoman empire in 1918 and 1920.

Two of these treaties were keys to the settlement of Europe, and the subsequent political development of the continent and the wider world. The first was the peace settlement imposed on Germany, which had been until 1914, and potentially remained, the dominant economic, cultural, industrial and military power in Europe, but was temporarily hamstrung by the peace settlement imposed on it. Together with that came the disappearance of the other great European cultural and military power, Russia, which disappeared for the time being into the entirely unprecedented new politics of Lenin and administration by the Leninist political party.

At least equally important was the insistence of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, on certain principles of future international conduct. They were, first, that there should be no more secret treaties, whose provisions would mislead governments that were ignorant of their full contents. Second, countries must in future try to reduce their armed forces and their weaponry. Third, national self-determination should allow people of the same nationality to govern themselves and no one nationality should have the power to govern another. Fourth, all countries should belong to the new League of Nations.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the result of the Wilsonian ruling (embodied in the so-called “Fourteen Points”, and especially the point about national self-determination) proved to be an almost unmitigated disaster. It played a major role in leading to the breakup of all three—in the longer term all five—of the world’s major empires which, among their many other roles, had not only held together disparate nationalities and religions but had done so, most of the time, in relative peace and security. After 1920, it took long and usually bloody civil wars to hold together the ethnic and cultural groups that had previously lived together more or less amicably under a central imperial government.

The old Russia found itself replaced by a Soviet Union governed by a disciplined entity entirely unforeseen in the world’s previous history. The Ottoman empire disappeared, to be succeeded not only by a republican Turkey but also by a Middle East divided into states and statelets painfully designed by foreign bureaucrats and divided by economic and religious differences, from Libya and Egypt to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These regions remain unsettled a century later. The Austro-Hungarian empire also disappeared, leaving Central and Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, divided among small states which, as the following decades were to show, were neither economically viable nor militarily or industrially sustainable. Indeed, once Germany, in the decade of the 1930s and under a new National Socialist government, began its armed expansion into the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudeten German regions of Czechoslovakia, any suggestion of possible West European resistance to that expansion wilted in the face of the claim that Germany was only obeying the Wilsonian dicta about uniting one’s own nationality. It was not until the German occupation of a visibly non-Germanic Prague in March 1939 that France and Britain began to think seriously about political and military resistance. The United States waited even longer, until the very end of 1941, when it came under attack by Japan, and the German Chancellor, who was by then Japan’s ally, had the temerity to declare war on the United States.

So far as the disappearance of empires and the development of nation-states is concerned, the story of the next half-century is not much more than a coda to the story of the Wilsonian experiment. The remaining old empires, those of France and Britain, and the new one, that of Japan, fell before the continuing advance of national particularisms. Neither Britain nor France survived the Second World War in an economic or political condition able to maintain what had been built up a century earlier. Perhaps more importantly, feelings of national separateness had by 1945 taken root almost everywhere, from India and South-East Asia to the depths of Africa. Often they had been encouraged, if not inspired, by the very educational efforts that the imperial powers had spread among the locals. (In India, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi had done his legal studies in London while Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to school at Harrow followed by Cambridge University.) In East and South-East Asia these trends had been especially promoted by the wartime Japanese occupiers, to encourage views about “Asia for the Asians”. These proved to be effective “poison pills” to returning imperial powers after the Japanese surrender of August 1945.

No less important were the strong anti-imperial views of the Americans, not least those of President Franklin Roosevelt. Once the war was over, the Americans used the large British wartime debts to put irresistible pressure on London in the matter of imperial policy. At the same time, however, Roosevelt followed Wilson on another global issue, to do with keeping America free from foreign entanglements. Where Wilson had tried (and ultimately failed) to promote an effective League of Nations, Roosevelt began as early as 1942-43 to plan for the foundation of what became the “United Nations”. He was certain that, within at most two years of the end of the war, American public opinion and Congress would demand that he should “bring the boys home”. In other words, no long-term military deployment overseas would be feasible. But Western Europe and China would still need a protection that Britain and France would by then be too weak to give. Even in Europe, these two would have no hope of stopping the enormous Soviet army’s advance to the Channel, if Stalin was so minded. China could, and therefore should, be restored to self-reliance (including freedom from Soviet domination), especially once the Nationalist–Communist civil war was ended, while Japan could be disarmed and occupied, at least for a while, by the Americans. But fundamentally, and everywhere, the answer to American withdrawal homewards must be found in a peaceful, rule-bound international union that included Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The outcome was the creation of new international organisations, in Europe, in the Pacific and the world at large. In Eastern Europe, states were reorganised more or less in their pre-war borders, but as clients of the Soviet Union. They were supervised and guarded by the presence of large Soviet armies not only on Soviet soil to their east but in the new East German state to their west. Western European states, by contrast, began recovery under the guardianship, and with the economic support, of the US. A few years later, and with strong US encouragement, there began the formation of special links between France and the Western part of Germany that would, within a decade, lead to the creation of a new “European Union”. By contrast, in the Middle East, India and South-East Asia, American anti-imperialism combined with European weaknesses and post-war exhaustion to speed the departure of Britain, France and the Netherlands from their previous possessions, and the cultivation of new nation-states largely on the political, parliamentary and military organisation that changed not only the shape of world politics, but also the economic patterns that had earlier prevailed in Europe.

One was the creation of a Western alliance under the aegis and guidance of the United States. The second was a similar pattern of organisation in Eastern Europe and Asia, headed and guided by the Soviet Union. It included a close alliance between China and the Soviet Union that produced, in turn, a Western determination to “contain” what might otherwise have been an almost unstoppable advance by a Sino-Soviet communist alliance which would, in its turn, have threatened the political and economic systems prevailing in the West. As it was, the huge economic and military power of the United States made America, in effect, the dominating power, not only in relation to these regions but in the United Nations, its “Security Council”, and the general world order. In spite of minor amendments, that pattern lasted for the next half-century.

Still, no sooner had this new world order been created than major weaknesses began to appear. One, and by no means the most important, was the appearance of post-imperial mini-states, which found themselves with nowhere to go. All they could do was to claim a place as new and “sovereign” nation-states, but with no serious claim to an economic or political status or strength that might have enabled them to attain an independent, let alone a defensible, position. Almost all of them, sooner or later, became clients of stronger entities. That created obvious contradictions. One contradiction was between the claim for diplomatic and political equality between each of these small entities and their guardians and protectors and, on the other hand, their requirement of protection and economic and trade benefits. A second was the contradiction in international forums, especially the UN, between the claims of “one nation, one vote” and the reality of who could give what kind of support to a new state that had very little territory or economic base of its own. A third was the temptation for both the media and the spokesmen of small states to behave as if some statement by the latter, or even a group of minor states, was tantamount to an exercise of serious influence or power. Another again was the contradiction between the creation and maintenance of rules and regulations by international forums and the willingness of the governments and parliaments of major states to incorporate such dicta into their domestic legislation. Or even the assumption that a vote by some majority of members of the UN General Assembly amounted to an expression of “world opinion” to which one’s country ought to defer. The list goes on.

In any event, the 1980s and 1990s began to see yet another and quite different kind of sea-change in the world order, and chameleon-like changes in the patterns of politics. Far-reaching technical revolutions in transport, communications and economic links, not to mention political psychology, made global issues a necessary part of everyday comment and planning for most governments and even corporations. They had enormous effects in a variety of directions. The transmission of information and news has become instantaneous not only across borders but across continents. Whole libraries are available on the internet. (Given the speed and power of “internet hacking” technologies, this means that almost no information can be guaranteed to remain secure. Perhaps old-fashioned letter-writing will once again become the means of “secure” communication?) The rate at which old and new businesses and corporations appear, or disappear, has greatly increased. So has the rate at which, whether in management or at desks or the work-bench, new skills are needed and old ones become useless.

Similarly, permanent employment has declined and temporary or “consultancy” agreements have multiplied. That, in turn, has increased the sense of impermanence not only among employees of substantial entities, whether public or private, but in society at large. That has necessarily diminished any sense of loyalty or “belonging” to a corporation or to a governmental entity or, importantly, even to a particular city or country. It has also promoted dramatic shifts of population from the country to the cities, where multiple kinds of jobs and a variety of facilities may be available, albeit often at a cost to social cohesion. For instance, these social and population movements strongly tend to replace the old “agreements by handshake” among village neighbours, by careful legal documentation. Overall, employment in the new tasks has increased by leaps and bounds, everywhere at a cost to job security, not to mention older forms of social organisation. China’s population movement to the cities has been dramatic and in a country like Australia the percentage of the GDP now provided by the “service” sector of the economy is around 75 per cent.

At the same time, greater weight has begun to attach to rising states heading regional power blocks conscious of their reach and influence. That fact alone could multiply general political and security problems. There has also been a tendency on the part of some states to develop “compatriot” policies in support of real or alleged fellow groups living as minorities within other borders. Russian activities in Central Asia, the Baltic and Ukraine are cases in point. Further complications seem to arise in spaces and populations that are, in effect, ungoverned, as in large parts of Africa, from the Congo to Somalia or Libya; or difficulties in relation to nations that have no state of their own, as was the case with European Jews up to 1948, or is currently with the Kurds, who mainly inhabit northern Iraq, south-eastern Turkey and some other nearby Asian regions, but who cannot, as a group, seek firm and recognised borders or membership of the United Nations.

By the turn of the twenty-first century the world also began to note that US activities abroad were now often hampered, even blocked, by fiercely partisan disagreements at home. Yet a relative American withdrawal from the guardianship of Europe, the Middle East and even the Pacific has been coupled with even greater concentration on global ascendancy in technology, economics, fiscal and currency matters. Although some other countries (Germany and China spring to mind) undoubtedly have excellent science and technology and other sectors—Germany’s excellence in some kinds of engineering is a case in point—the American ascendancy in most essentials seems clear. That is where most Nobel prizes in economics and the sciences end up. That, too, is characteristically the place where individual genius can be most successful, economically and otherwise.

Meanwhile in Europe, leadership in both politics and currency matters has begun to shift to a united and economically robust Germany. In spite of Berlin’s visible reluctance, the Germans have begun to accept political and diplomatic leadership in the EU and beyond. They have even revived, especially in economic forms, some of the old pre-1914 links with Russia.

In the Middle East, it has begun to seem likely that a measure of US-Iranian co-operation might yet set limits to the fierce religious and military disputes of that region. Of more immediate concern, Washington has unmistakably indicated that (with the possible exception of looking after Israel) it no longer wishes to be a guardian of the Middle East but will increasingly engage with a rising Iran. There might even be some re-emergence of the old imperial reach that Persian leaders have sought since the 1950s. It has also seemed possible that East Asia and the Pacific could see closer economic and fiscal links between the US and China developing into a kind of duopoly between US sea, air and space-based power and China’s continental eminence, to the benefit of both parties.

In all these matters, scientific and technical developments have brought greater changes than those that might have been required by the subtleties of earlier inter-state politics. In 1945 the United Nations began with some fifty members. Since then the number of allegedly sovereign “nation-states” has increased to some 200 members of all shapes and sizes, and of real or alleged competencies.

One of the problems that the sheer variety of political entities has accentuated is that of refugees. The immediacy of news reports, the ease of travel by sea or land and especially by air, the skills of refugee-exploiting groups and the often skilful “human rights” reporting of contemporary media, have multiplied the numbers fleeing from the more difficult parts of the world or simply seeking more congenial surroundings. That has been enhanced by historic memories of “racism” and, more importantly, the competition between states in attracting the best and most innovative brains and other capabilities from anywhere to achieve economic advantage. The result has been that in almost all the more “advanced” countries, old notions of “patriotism” have been undermined, if not replaced, by ill-defined “multiculturalisms”, often to the benefit of economic and productive processes, but to the serious detriment of national and even cultural identity and or cohesion. The United Nations refugee authorities have counted well over 50 million refugees across the world, and many countries, including Australia, Britain, France, Germany and the US, have started to develop “border closing” policies of various kinds, many of them at the price of creating inter-state friction.

These global and regional changes have also helped to bring significant, if sometimes subtle, changes to domestic politics. Perhaps the key issue in both governmental and business spheres is the visible contemporary move away from the nineteenth-century concept of a truly liberal democracy. The essence of the older structure was outlined in a famous address of Edmund Burke to his Bristol electors in November 1774. As he explained to them:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The fathers of the US Constitution adopted not dissimilar views on limiting power, on balance and counter-balance as between citizen, Congress, the law and executive action.

Today, few members of parliament, let alone leaders of contemporary democracies, would address their constituencies as Burke did. In quite recent times, that “Burkean” view has been supplemented by the strength of political parties in organising particular views and promoting particular policies, instead of leaving the parliamentary floor to a potential cacophony of contending individual views. The larger recent changes can be briefly summarised under six headings: the fragmentation of party political systems; the advance of populist and individualist rather than established liberal politics; the erosion of family cohesion; the declining coherence of public thought, language and education; the sea-changes that technology has brought to issues of national defence; and the growing scope, power and complexity of regulatory and state bureaucracies.

First, then, political fragmentation. There are, of course, large differences in the political systems of virtually all the major and even minor states of the UN. The ways in which they were created, are governed, and are regarded by their own citizens have often changed, sometimes radically. However, a few generalisations seem tenable. Not all members of the United Nations can be said to be democracies. Even fewer can be said to be liberal democracies if by that we mean political systems with regular and peaceful changes of government produced by well-understood, regular and legal parliamentary or congressional processes. Even those that might be classified in this way have achieved their position in varying ways.

In any event, in recent times there have been marked changes in the functioning—and even the forms—of political systems. In Australia, Britain, France, Germany and many others, a parliamentary system based, in the main, on alternations between two main contending parties is visibly giving way to multi-party or group representation. Not only that, but there is considerable evidence that the discipline and cohesion of parties are giving way to still smaller groupings, either within or beyond the party fold, and individual demands by individual members based on particular wishes by their constituents, or the requirements of debate with political opponents of all kinds.

These phenomena tend to multiply the possibility of various forms of coalition government. It seems clear that coalition and its need for multiple compromises often weakens the authority of party leaders and ministers and their capacity to control events. The main oddity of these developments is that inter-party or group disputes can remain surface phenomena which beguile the media and the public while power, instead of switching between alternative leaders committed to clearly distinct policies, tends to come into the hands of several competing groups. An even greater oddity can be that various “party” groups, each with a different electoral base, can coagulate in a variety of ways so that, in practice, the governing group or coalition barely changes. Indeed, it is easy to imagine an election resulting in most of the old political figures being returned—merely in a somewhat new “coalition” form.

What this means is that party politics of the accustomed kind is giving way to a populism made possible by such factors as speed of communication, ease of access to information and social media, and the multiplicity of individual demands on government regulations and capabilities. Of course, populism, with all its dangers, is not new. We need only think of it, in its more extreme forms, as in Demosthenes in the Athens of 300 BC or, rather later, Martin Luther or the leaders of the French Revolution, not to mention Lenin or Hitler.

What history suggests is that populist policies, however well they may cater to momentary public passions or demands, are unlikely to lead to wise policy, especially on the details of economic and fiscal issues, not to mention foreign policy. Indeed, a counterintuitive convergence of pressures from different groups can merely serve to hide the earnestness of one group or just provide cover for the avarice of another; so that politics can be substantially shaped by an unexpected combination of moral persuasion and economic forces. Or there are problems of foreign relations which, all too often, find themselves treated as mere projections of domestic views and values. What then tends to happen is that genuine and complex policy issues are argued out and decided “behind the curtain” of government, while the media and the public are beguiled by more exciting “news” on less important matters.

These changing policy styles necessarily occur under the leadership of elites with widely varying objectives and, perhaps more importantly, with fairly rapid changes in the key persons occupying “elite” positions. American presidents, British, French and Australian prime ministers, chancellors of Germany and, perhaps surprisingly, post-Mao Chinese leaders, have usually been confined to predictable periods in office. The leadership of states in Africa or Latin America has often been far less assured. The presidency or chairmanship of major corporations around the world has also in recent times been relatively brief. Inevitably, there are exceptions. Lee Kuan Yew headed the government of a markedly successful Singapore for thirty-one years. Jack Ma founded and has headed the Chinese internet merchant behemoth Alibaba for many years, as Warren Buffett has done with Berkshire Hathaway and Steve Jobs did with Apple in the United States. But in very many cases, frequent changes in the leading personnel of governments and corporations can serve two entirely different decision-making processes. One—and possibly the most frequent—is an effective transfer of greater decision-making power into the hands of an experienced and usually unpublicised bureaucracy. The other is an inability to adjust in a wise and timely fashion to changing circumstances. Either way, policy-making can suffer.

Insofar as it may be possible to generalise about political, business and bureaucratic grandees, three general observations can be offered. The first is that there is no common ground among them in the matter of training or preparation for office. A second is that if there can be said to be a single characteristic that is (or at least should be) common among them, it is an extreme sensitivity not just to the technicalities of budgets or politics, but to the personality traits, outlook, preferences, desires and wishes of the people around them who hold corporate or official power and on whose good will their own future may depend. What they need, whether in politics or commerce, is insight, an appreciation based on instinct as much as on knowledge, that adjustments here or there have become possible, and a sense of what the fears, desires and ambitions of others really are. Unsurprisingly, political leaders and parties with such subtle requirements tend to recruit careerists rather than figures broadly concerned with “morality” or the “public good”.

Meanwhile, serious political and economic power is apt to produce increasingly complicated laws and regulations that remain very much in the hands of the civil service which produced them in the first place and which is almost the only body of experts who can produce satisfactory interpretations. They constitute the body on which any government or opposition or even ad hoc group of legislators must rely; or on the equivalent higher staff of a corporation. Even here, of course, inter-departmental or other rivalry will affect methods and outcome.

But even this category of management problems may be confined to the “Western” world. Very different ones may occur in, for example, the Arab world, large sections of which have never seen liberal democracies and have now moved from the relatively torpid rule of individual “strong men” to fragmented governance by varying militia groups. The cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria make the point. However, in most cases, whether in “advanced” countries or others, political and bureaucratic grandees and, even more so, commercial giants, are soon forgotten once they leave office.

Fragmentation and individualisation are, of course, far from confined to political or corporate systems. Indeed, they have become commonplace not only within groups but within families. Not long ago, the standard family unit across all classes of society in the West comprised three generations, more often than not with grandmothers looking after children, and wives managing the (sometimes quite extensive) households. More recent patterns—to be sure, in an age of significantly longer life expectancies that necessarily alter family patterns—tend to confine the old to “old people’s homes” where they are looked after by salaried strangers. At the same time, both “feminist” arguments about the need for women to have their own separately paid employment or equal access to senior posts, and broad economic arguments about the need for more and cheaper labour to increase the national GDP, have increased the trend for societies to see married couples less as a unit than as economic and social associates or allies. Not only may a couple be employed at widely divergent places, but jobs and distance cannot avoid attenuating the links, both educational and familial, between parents and children. One result appears to be an alarming drop in the birth rates of advanced Western countries. Another is an extension of the nineteenth-century higher society practices of having children cared for by paid nurses and teachers (who often establish closest personal ties with the children concerned) to much broader sections of society but everywhere with some, in places considerable, erosion of family cohesion.

These phenomena are accompanied by a decline in the sophistication, even coherence, of speech and language. For most people it is an everyday experience to see students of all ages oblivious to their surroundings and entirely focused on their electronic communications. Similarly, workers in many kinds of offices can be found focused, not on their colleagues or associates or even superiors, but on their computers or the smartphone with which they can communicate with friends on topics far distant from their proper tasks.

The difficulties that arise from such a separation between the individual and his or her surroundings are many. It can lead an individual to try to cross a road entirely oblivious to oncoming traffic. Other problems may be even worse, if less obvious. The loss of command of meaning in most major languages has become notorious. Pupils emerge from many years of schooling in a number of societies—including England, France and Germany—not only entirely ignorant of the most famous poetry or events of their own society’s constitution or laws or history, but unable to write coherent sentences in what is supposed to be their own language. The impoverishment of the contemporary use of these languages is startling by comparison with the writing in working-class letters and other documents of the Victorian era. It is, however, promoted by the regular use of abbreviated messages on Twitter or Facebook and has become a major impediment to normal social communication and even more so to any kind of business dealing or negotiation. The need for proper schooling from an early age is only one sign of the decline in understanding of the written word, of the inadequacy of teacher training, and of the dangers of allowing “egalitarianism” to overwhelm every critique. The more so since messages can be sent anonymously.

What all this leads to is a change in the nature of domestic politics that is proving to be of major importance. The changes are driven by factors ranging from globalisation to technological and economic competition, in which many individuals are less and less equipped to participate. They therefore have to do with major changes in the outlook, expectations and intentions of the citizen and voter. Not long ago voting was, as we have seen, choosing a party or group that proposed, or supported, a particular set of policies or national needs and for a member of parliament on whose judgment the voter was willing to rely, at least for the next parliamentary or congressional term.

But voter judgment has become altogether more volatile, as have voter demands. More often voters—and by derivation the major media—demand instant action on matters that have stirred their emotions or their sense of morality. Or, of course their economic interests, since both public and media tend to assume that knowledge and skills are only valuable insofar as they contribute to the nation’s GDP; that no person or activity has objective value; and there can and should be severe limits to the autonomy (especially financial autonomy) of the individual.

In other words, what was once an expression of views within a liberal democratic and parliamentary context has moved far towards a simple emotional populism whose outcome is much more likely to be dangerous and imprecise than focused and thoughtful. That may include less obvious facts, such as that competition is not at all the same thing as innovation, whether in technology or economics or education. But it does bring increased sensitivity to dissent, not only from states or governments but from groups of all kinds, including NGOs like self-appointed “human rights” defenders, far-Right nationalists or far-Left anti-globalists, devoted to causes such as “fighting American hegemony” or hobbling various kinds of development under the heading of “protecting the environment”.

Such changes come together with a loss of trust in the political leadership of the country as well as the leadership of most of the media. As Stanley Fish has argued in the New York Times, even free speech is just the name we give to verbal behaviour that serves the agenda we wish to advance. It is, therefore, not an independent value but a political prize. Given the power of massed public opinion, voters are often apt to see government less as guardian or even provider than as a service entity to be commanded by voting groups, often with absolutist demands relating to “compassionate” decisions or to security issues. Not surprisingly, political opinion pollsters are often seen as providing instant instructions to political or governing groups. In other words, advanced societies are experiencing sharp changes from representative to populist and participatory politics.

Such moves towards populism have at last two other consequences. One is the growing importance in the popular mind of the major media and of the media’s major and most familiar figures. That allows great scope for propaganda of all kinds. That includes not only commercial advertising or support for non-economic competition such as football or cricket, but government propaganda in support of patriotism as, for instance, in the disproportionate reverence displayed for the centenary of the 1915 Australian Gallipoli campaign—whose British, French and other participants are almost always ignored. The other, arguably of even greater weight, is the way in which increasing individualisation within the population increases the scope and weight of aggregate popular demands and therefore, unavoidably, the importance of the central bureaucracy which, alone, is capable of catering to them.

In other words, the very growth of political populism is likely to lead, not so much to the fulfilment of a greater variety of demands but, on the contrary, to an ever more complex system of regulations and laws whose design and interpretation will inevitably be in the hands of senior bureaucrats. That power is much increased by the sheer volume of decision and legislation emanating from contemporary governments, a volume that all too often leads to verbal (and therefore also legal) imprecision when it comes to deciding on some piece of legislation. On the one hand, the increasing number and complexity of new or revised regulations at all levels of (political or corporate) government turns into automaticity much of what might have been innovative or creative if left to the individual. On the other hand, the Twitter-fed population is forced to recognise that emotional calls for the country to adhere to every attractive international agreement will not do. Decisions about the country’s obligations as between international agreements that parliament has incorporated into domestic law, or those which it has not, and those which the government has decided are not binding, but which it would be convenient to follow, have to be left to the legal or public service professionals.

There are also changing attitudes towards the local national culture, which the Chinese refer to as the “spirit and soul of the nation”. National culture and sense of cohesion have become increasingly vulnerable to a welter of announcements about “multiculturalism”, a concept that remains remarkably ill-defined. It is promoted on several grounds. One, mentioned earlier, is the wish to attract to the country the cleverest young people from around the world, largely in order to widen and deepen the country’s capacity for economic progress, invention and innovation. Another is the wish to raise population numbers in a world where small populations almost always (with some exceptions like Switzerland or Singapore) seem to imply economic and military weakness. Another again is to deepen the country’s cultural base as well as its athletic and sporting capabilities. And there is the humanitarian wish to couple the growth of population with relief and succour for some categories of refugees. It remains to be seen whether the measures to expand the population will prove to be compatible with the ethnic and cultural cohesion of the national society.

Given these new factors in the political forms of modern societies, there is also the question of how to maintain and defend the nature and character of modern nation-states, especially one’s own. The point is of greater importance than might appear at first sight. There are dozens of small political entities, from South-West Pacific islands to African mini-states, that claim to be “sovereign” but have no serious means of sustaining themselves without outside help, whether from other states or from international organisations. There is much to be said on this problem but at its core are always likely to remain the central issues of defence and economic survival.

Ultimately, there remains what the chief of Britain’s defence staff has called “the country’s risk-managers of last resort”—the military. In public it seems to be widely believed that political and diplomatic activities are simply alternatives to military action: where military action begins, politics has ended. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the great nineteenth-century German military thinker Clausewitz put it:

War is only a branch of political activity; it is in no sense autonomous … It cannot be divorced from political life—and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed, and we are left with something that is pointless and devoid of sense.

The recent American interventions in Iraq and Libya, however painful it may be to record the fact, were obviously staged with no serious conception of what a political resolution could or should look like.

It is true that in the new world of global politics, many people will say that military strength and alliances are of growing irrelevance to a world whose changes are being determined by social, economic, technological and ideological developments which are beyond the power of even the greatest states to affect more than marginally. It seems an attractive view, but the reality is not so simple. There are too many countries, from the South-West Pacific to Africa, from Central to South-East Asia, from Central and Eastern Europe to Central America which, while claiming to be “sovereign” members of the United Nations, are quite incapable of coping even with medium-sized natural disasters without outside help. Still less can they cope with the protection of their national territories or populations against bandits, drug traffickers and other criminals, let alone with serious foreign demands or attacks.

Yet many governments appear to have discovered, as the general public probably has not, that the strategic world, too, is changing in major ways. Russia has gone some way to restoring the “great power” position it lost, first in 1917 with Lenin’s revolution and the defeat by Germany, and once again with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It has built up a network of relations not only with immediate neighbours but also with powers like China, Iran and, in some measure, a Germany that is once again united and reluctantly resuming the position that it first earned in 1871, that of Europe’s dominant economic and political power. It is no surprise that Moscow and Berlin once again have a relationship of some warmth. The United States has signalled that it will concentrate on expanding its economic and technical eminence and maintaining its prime position across most of the Pacific, together with close relationships with Japan and, within certain limits, with a China that is itself concerned with reassertion.

But beyond general strategic alignments, there are the technological and often dramatic changes in military and quasi-military powers and potential. These changes are at least as dramatic as those that occurred in the later stages of the First World War: the shift from mass infantry assault to small, highly trained and machine-gun-equipped attack groups; the use of aircraft for bombing and reconnaissance; from soldiers whose morale was organised by class to classless groups; and from mass armies to small special-forces groups. The new changes have to do, among other things, with the dominant role of electronics at all levels of information and operation; the growing importance of logistics and precision drones instead of fleets of bombing aircraft; the growing role of robots; the growing and often decisive importance of the command of space and superiority in intelligence matters; a general change from human to mechanical conflict. They all demand entirely new perspectives not only on military deployment and use but on training, education and the relationship between the military and the public, both their own and foreigners. Here lies, among other things, the critical relationship between the military on one hand and the morale and good will of the civilian population on the other.

What conclusions might one draw, however tentatively?

First, it seems reasonably clear that representative liberal democracy, at least in the forms in which we have known it for some two centuries, is drawing to a close and being succeeded by a frequently aggressive populism, seriously at variance with a “Burkean” view of democratic duties and obligations. The contemporary representative is much more likely to have to focus, at short notice, on whatever the media constituency has decided to want. Hence also the growth of the power of major figures in the media world.

Altogether, we are likely to see sharper conflict between public and political demands on the one hand, and bureaucratic power and analysis on the other. There seems likely to be an increasing volatility of domestic politics as well as of international influence, and certainly a briefer “life span” of grandee elites, whether in the commercial or governmental worlds. There also seem likely to be major changes in migration policies in major recipient states; in officially approved school and university curricula (for example, from emphasis on culture and learning how to think, towards nothing more than what to think); and a kind of apprenticeship for jobs. We shall see growing gaps between public demands and the details of governing policies, especially in matters of public spending on the individual’s health and comfort, not to mention employment and wages. Together with that is likely to come some erosion of the powers of central media, as the more intelligent members of the public become increasingly disillusioned with their offerings.

Finally, there may also be some further multiplication of detailed trans-national and international “rules”, among which governments will select whatever may be convenient at the time. If national democracy is to be maintained in any recognisable form within self-sustaining states, the power and claims of international rule-making will have to decline. In the 1640s, in the run-up to the English civil war, the Puritans decided to resist the growing powers of King Charles I. Perhaps the time has come to echo their words when we say that the powers, in our case of the international media, “have increased, are increasing, and ought to be diminished”.

Harry Gelber is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Tasmania.


One thought on “The Nation-State as Chameleon?

Leave a Reply