Certain nation-states, functionally speaking, do not actually exist. This has been argued with respect to former colonial territories or former Soviet states, whose modern political boundaries rarely reflect the cultural/ethnic/tribal boundaries that existed previously. The Western nations have yet to be examined in this light, but there is every reason to do so.
The idea of the ‘nation-state’ is rather a new one, perhaps a few hundred years old at most. Previously, Europe was divided into duchies, counties, and other feudal holdings, most (but not all) of which tipped their hat to a monarch. Even if the king was said to have ruled a kingdom, frequently it was these regional structures that did the legwork. To a farmer living in Northern France in the 14th century, the actions of the Duke of Brittany mattered far more in day-to-day life than those of the King of France.
Some peoples made the transition to nation-state better than others. William the Conqueror laid a fairly solid groundwork for a unified England/Britain, and France has its Revolutions and Napoleon to thank for its strong national identity. But notice that both of these ‘unifications’ were enforced, William by conquest and Napoleon by an active campaign of stomping out regional differences (local French dialects were actively suppressed under his rule). This suggests that something extraordinary needs to take place to unite nation-sized populations under a single banner. Left to their own devices, people will happily stick with local or regional governments.
Take, for example, Italy. This ‘nation’ was only created about 150 years ago. The struggle for Italian unification was not a grass-roots movement, but rather a series of attempts by the power brokers of the many duchies and city-states to join up the peninsula, each wanting a go at unifying Italy under them. Yet the regional identities continue to run deep. One rarely meets an Italian, although there are plenty of Milanese, Romans, Sicilians, or Neapolitans. Italy, quipped Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternic in the 19th century, is ‘a geographic expression.’ Thus when we hear the Italian Deputy Prime Minister talking about a split between Northern and Southern Italy, it is not hard to imagine such an arrangement working out fairly well when we remember that, for centuries, the Duchy of Milan and the Republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa ran just fine on their own while the Pope and the King of Naples ruled much of the south.
Belgium remains the unexpected poster-child of this phenomenon. It was ‘founded’ in the 1830s after a popular revolt resulted in five of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries, composed of both French and Dutch/Flemish-speaking peoples, were grouped together and given by the Congress of Vienna (literally created to re-draw the boundaries in Europe after Napoleon) to the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I. These regions, once duchies and counties and now Belgian provinces, still exist, flags and all, within the greater fabric of Belgium. Consequently, these local identities are rock solid, dating back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Thus when Belgium became the ‘world’s most boring anarchy’ earlier last year, it was these local levels that allowed the country to continue to function on the local level such that people on the ground feel little, if anything, of the lack of federal government at the top. I repeat: Belgium does not have a functioning centralized government, but the local and regional governments, divided along linguistic and cultural lines that pre-date Belgium itself, have allowed life to continue there with almost no disruption.
But even the US could be so examined. When factoring in the past of these former colonies and territories, where groups were forced to go it alone in a hostile environment far from established centres of power, is it so hard to imagine a New England Confederation, a Free City of San Francisco, or a Second Republic of Texas emerging from an impotent United States?
This viewpoint can also be applied to supra-state bodies. We can find earlier success stories from such organisations as the Hanseatic League, the international mercantile collective of the major cities along the coast of Northern Europe and the Baltic. As an economic powerhouse in Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries, the past decade has seen attempts to revive this economic alliance as a regionalized alternative to the EEA.
On the flipside of the coin, we can see precedents for the difficulties of the EU in the ultimately unsuccessful Pax Dei movement which attempted to unify and quell disputes within medieval ‘Christendom’. Inter-European warfare continued, and the idea of ‘Christendom’ only served to polarize Europe against the Muslim East during the Crusades. While direct parallels cannot be drawn, this latter point should be kept in mind with respect to the current climate of Western/Muslim relations. In both of the above instances we see people returning to older loyalties where new ones are proving inadequate, in the case of the latter, to our peril.
The lesson here is simple: examining the pre-nation-state boundaries and allegiances of countries, both cultural and political, will provide valuable insights into a) the lines along which things will fracture if the nation itself begins to decay and b) the ‘banners’ that people will flock to should the nation-state fail to provide support.