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Nations and Nation-States: A Question for National Conservatives

March 5th, 2020 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

Early in his book The Fate of Africa Martin Meredith describes the… we’ll call it “unconventional” method by which sub-Saharan Africa was divided in the late 19th century at the Conference of Berlin.

Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethno-linguistic groups. Officials sent to the Belgian Congo eventually identified six thousand chiefdoms there. Some kingdoms survived intact: the French retained the monarchy in Morocco and in Tunisia; the British ruled Egypt in the name of a dynasty of foreign monarchs in 1811 by Albanian mercenary serving in the Turkish army. Other kingdoms, such as Asante in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Loziland in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) were merged into larger colonial units. Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony. In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south—Sudan, Chad and Nigeria—throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.

That they were divided in such haphazard fashion is not surprising when one considers the relative ignorance of the European officials present at Berlin: “‘We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other,’ said Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister of Britain, ‘only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.'”

This arrangement had predictably dire consequences for the political life of many African peoples. How could it not? After all, in the words of one contemporary political philosopher,

The mutual loyalty of individuals to one another is the most powerful force operative in the political realm. Feelings of mutual loyalty pull individuals tightly together, forming them into families, clans, tribes, and nations, in much the way that the force of gravitation pulls molecules together, forming them into planets, star systems, galaxies, and systems of galaxies.

Those words are written by the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony in his much-discussed book The Virtue of Nationalism. They explain why Berlin would create such political and generational trauma in sub-Saharan Africa, for Berlin would dramatically reimagine the nature of political life for millions of people by breaking thousands of nations that already existed and replacing them with a far smaller number of utterly synthetic nations that only existed in the imaginations of greedy, ignorant, and indifferent European politicians.

To understand how this works, we can turn to Hazony himself. Hazony treats nationalism as a virtue because it is the tool that allows large groups of people unified around a common culture, rituals, and way of living to bind themselves together and preserve the goods that they enjoy collectively. So far so good. The difficulty is in the fine print. What exactly constitutes a “nation”?

In one sense, Hazony gives a clear answer—nations are a kind of aggregate of the various clans or tribes within a society that unite together as ‘nations’ in order to preserve a shared way of living. Thus nations are defined equally by their administrative structure for organizing and preserving life together and by the particular practices, customs, and rituals that define what their particular life together looks like.

Such structures are neccesary because another mode of political community, which Hazony calls “imperialism,” exists and routinely threatens the lives of nations. In contrast to nations, empires tend to be far less organic, usually being a means of consolidating power in the hands of a typically corrupt few who seek to expand their influence, wealth, and power through political, military, and economic might. If nations are diffused, unique, and governed largely by prudence, empires are, according to Hazony, homogeneous, centralized, and governed by a kind of case law, such that there is little room left for prudence or custom.

Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t quite work, as others have also noted. Hazony seems to envision ’empires’ as being a set mode of organizing political society and ‘nations’ as being another fixed mode such that any given polity can be either an empire or a nation, but never both. Yet the distinction between the two in practice seems to be one of policy rather than administration, such that a polity can behave like a nation at times and like an empire at other times. Britain is clearly a nation and yet at Berlin they behaved very like an empire. This issue undermines Hazony’s thesis by forcing the conversation away from artificial distinctions between ‘nations’ and ’empires’ and rather focusing it around the question ‘how ought nations to imagine their own lives in relation to the lives of other polities?’ The latter question is far more complex, of course.

Or we might put the problem this way: Can you have a “nation” without having a “nation-state”? And if you can have a nation without being a nation-state, what measures should these nations adopt to preserve their own shared way of living? By conflating the soft category of ‘nations’ with the hard category of ‘nation-state’ Hazony skirts past this point. This is not entirely surprising. Resolving this dilemma would force him to confront the quixotic way in which he speaks of ‘nations’ and to recognize that nation-states are often to nations what empires are to nation-states—a hostile invading power that seeks to enrich itself by crushing and absorbing the life of the nation it is assaulting.

That there is nothing inherent in the nation-state administrative model that makes it immune to the temptations of imperialism is something Hazony does not adequately address. He conflates the naturally occurring communities following from humanity’s natural sociability with ‘nations’ and the coercive tyrannies that follow from humanity’s greed and lust for power with ’empires.’ In other words, the argument rests upon semantics.

If you take away this sleight of hand maneuver, Hazony’s project would have to be considerably modified, though I suspect and hope it would still be salvageable. To understand exactly how sharp the problem is we might consider how those aforementioned African colonies, whose borders drawn at Berlin would become the boundaries of today’s African nations, managed the transition into post-colonial Africa.

Consider the case of Kwame Nkrumah, perhaps the greatest of the first generation of African political leaders. Ghana, which had been ‘the Gold Coast,’ under Britain, was the first colony to become independent. As such, it became one of the primary templates for how a nation would peacefully transition out of colonial rule and into self-rule.

As would be the case in many other former colonies, Nkrumah’s first task was to try and unify the people of this new nation that had so little in common historically. The destruction of Berlin could not be undone; it could only be managed. Toward that end, Nkrumah proposed naming the new nation “Ghana” in honor of the great pre-modern west African empire of the same name. He hoped that this new name would help his nation’s citizens develop a sense of pride in their heritage as Africans and would link them to a past that included more than just their particular ethnic groups.

But the problem was actually harder. It wasn’t simply that Nkrumah had to make a nation out of a synthetic nation-state. Nkrumah knew that a balkanized Africa would continue to be exploited by the colonizers via economics and trade policies. (This, of course, is precisely what eventually happened via the World Bank and IMF decades after Nkrumah’s death.) What was to be done to protect against that exploitation, which Nkrumah termed “neo-colonialism”? Nkrumah proposed the creation of a union of African nations that would, collectively, be able to order their lives together as a people and that would be strong enough to resist the exploitative forces of Europe. This proposed union was established in 1963, six years after Ghanaian independence and was called the African Union, the AU, and it is in some ways a prototype of the European Union which would be established 30 years later. This is an ironic and shocking outcome if you read Hazony, who sees the EU as the archetypal imperial power. Yet the institution designed to protect the integrity of African nations was also the prototype for Hazony’s quintessential example of an anti-national imperialism.

This movement that sought to emancipate Africa both politically and economically from European control mostly failed. This was due partly to unsuccessful attempts at economic centralization in a number of nations, including Nkrumah’s Ghana, partly due to corruption, another feature of Nkrumah’s Ghana, and, partly because of the design of the nation-state itself.

This brings us to another oddity about Hazony’s vision of the nation when we attempt to apply it to instances besides the relatively unique examples he cites in his argument. The problem is that the nation-state, which Hazony holds up as exemplary by citing almost entirely European examples (alongside the highly quixotic examples of the United States and Israel), developed in very particular circumstances in those places. When deprived of that process of development, by which actual nations would over many centuries codify their life together via the creation of nation-states, the nation-state model loses its coherence and ultimately becomes another variant on what Hazony would term “empire.”

The Ugandan political theologian Emmanuel Katongole explains the problem well in The Sacrifice of Africa:

The nation-state institution would be perceived as some kind of ‘supreme problem-solving formula’ in European social history, that is, in the history of a people ’emerging from the dead hand of tyrannical and foreign rule, whether Austrian or Russian or Turkish or other.’ In any event, European nation-states are inconceivable except in terms of a process of transformation in a local history, in which the social struggles were the crucial factor, exerting from below the force of nationalism that shaped and legitimated nation-state ideology.

It is precisely this bottom-up process—the valorization of local history and the social struggle it embodies—as a force for nation-state formation that is completely missing from the story of the nation-state in Africa. Where nation-state formation in Europe was a process, in Africa it became a project, which both the departing colonalists and their nationalist-bourgeois successors assumed to be inevitable for African modernization and independence. … The social struggle was not just smuggled out of hearing; it was from the very start intentionally trivialized and dismissed as both irrelevant and a nuisance. … As a result… the African nation-state (is) the successor institution, successor, that is, to the colonial project.

In other words, the process of creating nation-states in Africa does not only have different historical roots than the European project, it actually has opposite roots. The European process is one of gradually discovering the nation-state, you might say, as a useful administrative structure for organizing nations.

The African project, in contrast, is an outside imposition that obliterates the historical roots of African common life—usually by simply denying their existence—in favor of an utterly artificial administrative structure which African politicians than had to work with in their attempts to create coherent nations after colonialism. Thus, to again quote Katongole,

the phenomenon of widespread violence in postcolonial Africa, military coups, civil unrest, state repression, insecurity, must itself be placed in the narrative of the politics of competing elite interests and power struggles. The nation-state project in Africa has not questioned this story of colonial violence and dispossession, but has, in fact, neatly reproduced it.

Thus we come to the challenge for the conservative nationalists: It is good to argue for a politics ordered to local concerns and built largely via prudential reasoning based on a set of limited principles. It is, likewise, good to insist that nations are real things, that man’s natural state is not that of the autonomous, buffered self. And, of course, it is good to attempt to define real political structures that can provide the counsel and aid necessary to maintain a community’s life together. On all these points, it seems obvious to me that thoughtful Christians can and should align themselves with Hazony’s political vision. Indeed, the greatest strength of Hazony’s work is that it provides a theory of power and political order to supplement the instinctive localism of many traditionalist conservatives who often suffer from an under-developed theory of politics proper. (This is one of the most astute criticisms of my book, actually.) This is why I say that I suspect and hope Hazony’s project is still workable after fixing this issue with his understanding of nation-states. Much of what he criticizes is very real and needs to be attacked. But it needs to be attacked more carefully than he does in his book because his current proposal for understanding nations simply doesn’t work when translated outside of the cases of western Europe, the USA, and Israel.

Indeed, by foregrounding the nation-state as the center of his political philosophy, I worry that Hazony actually short circuits the entire system. The nation-state is not a universal good. Rather, to succeed nation-states must arise organically from the life of people bound together by mutual loyalties and mutual loves. Yet globally speaking this refers to a relative minority of the world’s nation-states. The majority of nation-states, it seems, are synthetic forms imposed upon peoples by outsiders, forms which often, it must be said, seem to enrich the outsiders and a select few elites within the nation-state while leaving the actual nations destitute which, of course, is the very accusation Hazony throws at empires in his book.

To whatever extent Hazony’s project is merely a restatement of classical principles concerning subsidiarity, natural law, and the natural sociability of human beings, we should welcome such a project. But to whatever degree it proceeds by relying upon a kind of political fideism concerning the innate goodness of nation-states, we should steer clear of it as a viable path forward out of our decadent present.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).