The Nation-State Is Swimming Against the Currents of History

David Chadwick


As Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan explains, the key tenet of the nation-state is its ability to protect its citizens. People, Hobbes surmised, are prepared to surrender their liberty in exchange for security.

Since Hobbes published his book in 1651, the established political unit for providing security has been the nation-state. But owing to the global evolution of communication and security threats, the supremacy of the nation-state is beginning to crack. Its ability to protect its citizens without hampering their prosperity is diminishing rapidly.

Undermining the traditional Hobbesian argument for their existence; nation-states are no longer fully capable of protecting their citizens in a globalised, 21st-century world. No nation-state can solve climate change alone, nor international crime, nor safeguard international transfers of personal data.

Surmounting these third millennia challenges requires a grander Leviathan, a higher level of governance.

For example, the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), approved in April 2016, demonstrates how a supranational organisation is better placed to provide security for European citizens from 21st-century threats.

The GDPR is the EU’s legislative response to privacy and security concerns arising from international transfers of personal data. The GDPR aims to promote and protect the free-flow of personal data in ways beneficial for nation-states, businesses and individuals, while simultaneously guarding the fundamental rights of EU citizens.

When the GDPR comes into force in 2018 any entity that processes the data of European data subjects (people living inside the EU) will have to abide by its stipulations, regardless of where in the world the organisation is based — prompting serious headaches for organisations such as Facebook and Google, whose business models depend on processing the personal data of millions of Europeans.

To ensure compliance, the GDPR contains severe sanctions: organisations can be fined up to €20 million or 4% of total worldwide annual turnover, whichever is greater.

Sources suggest that to avoid such nasty ramifications some multinational corporations plan to adopt the GDPR as global practice. Quite a coup for the EU’s legislative power.

The EU was able to persuade powerful international companies to agree to substantial safeguards for consumers because of the supranational strength of its hand — access to a lucrative market of over 500 million people.

Evidently the growing benefits of safety in numbers were not enough to sway British voters before the European referendum. In the build up to Brexit, eurosceptics played heavily on the theme of the dreaded ‘European super state’.

The super state bogeyman preyed upon the idea that the natural unit of political organisation was the nation-state. This chimed with British voters, who as Stephen Greene described in The European Identity, struggle to grasp the notion of a multi-tiered identity surpassing national affiliation. For 17 million Britons, the proper sort of community was the nation-state.

For life to function effectively in a national community, people need to want to fight, trade and belong together.

Yet the sense of national community upon which nation-states were built is fragmenting. According to Benedict Anderson’s print-capitalism hypothesis, nationalism developed in tandem with the advent of print-capitalism. As books became cheap to produce, people began to communicate via print in their vernacular languages, and national communities developed, often along linguistic lines. A similar motion is in process today, now unravelling the cohesion of national communities.

Technological advances in communication, (television, the internet, social media) allied with the emergence of English as a global language, have connected humankind, creating global forums for communication.

Gulfs are growing within countries, rather than between them.

Does a university graduate from London have more in common with a pensioner from Sunderland or a fellow student from Berlin?

Age-old national rivalries are slowly being replaced by divides along new forms of identity; young versus old, global versus local, open versus closed. This development challenges the very basis of the national community upon which nation-states were founded.

Although nothing is inevitable in history, it is hard to foresee these two processes foundering. Already it is estimated that one in six marriages in Europe are between members of different nation-states.

Which country do their children belong to?

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