A New York Times essay earlier this week suggesting that the idea of the nation-state was growing ever more obsolete didn’t contain any explicit policy recommendations. And even though this omission raises the question of why the piece was published in the first place, that was actually all to the good.
Author Taiye Selasi, identified as a “writer, photographer and globetrotter,” as well as novelist with a highly cosmopolitan background, unquestionably falls into the “Open Borders” camp on immigration policy. But she seems to have (reluctantly?) realized (along with Times editors in this case?) the complete irrelevance to decision-makers of observations like “the discrimination experienced by dark-skinned [African] refugees migrating to the West and dark-skinned Italians migrating north [within Italy] is the same.” Why else would the author not explicitly have called for a country suffering its third recession since 2008 to indiscriminately admit everyone who crossed over the Mediterranean fleeing indisputably genuine poverty and hopeless in their own homelands?
To be sure, Selasi did condemn what she views as the (sometimes, in her view, unwittingly) hypocritical practice of people from countries whose national identities have continually changed due to cross-border migration flows using the idea of nationality to “justify barriers to citizenship.”
“Who better,” she asked indignantly, “than the Italian citizen, the all-American, the East Berliner, to understand that a country that has perpetually expanded to include new complexions, inflections and politics might (lo, must) expand once more?” Yet she never insisted that these countries tear down all of their physical and administrative barriers to entry, and keep them down in perpetuity.
There’s an even broader reason for Selasi’s failure to relate her other major observation to major questions before U.S. and other leaders. But unfortunately, at least when it comes to the American foreign policy establishment, it’s much less obvious. In addition to defining nationality and citizenship, the author also focused on the claim that “The idea of the modern nation-state — a sovereign state governing a cultural nation — [is] just that: an idea, 350 years old and showing its age. There [is] nothing eternal about nations, nothing biological about nationality.”
In fact, the view that nation-states are receding in importance is central to a long and deeply held beliefs among American internationalists on the right and left alike – that the political structure of the world is something that is unfinished and in a constant state of flux, and indeed moving, however unevenly and haltingly, towards ever greater degrees of integration. As a result, American internationalism holds, the nation’s diplomacy should try to nurture this process – even, at least in some instances, if it means sacrificing American interests.
As with other tenets of modern U.S. internationalist thinking, the belief in an unfinished global political structure first took meaningful form under President Woodrow Wilson in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when he sought to prevent another such conflagration by encouraging creation of a League of Nations. His own country, of course, rejected joining even the weakened version of the organization that eventually was formed, as Congress and the public feared being drawn into all manner of foreign conflicts that did not directly threaten American security. But this decision has since then been villified by internationalists as the height of disastrously narrow and shortsighted thinking, and turned into a pillar of the national conventional wisdom.
After World War II, Congress certainly learned this supposed lesson, as it strongly supported creation of the United Nations and other international organizations (nixing only U.S. membership in a proposed International Trade Organization, and thereby killing this predecessor of the World Trade Organization).
It’s easy to point out that during the subsequent Cold War decades, this unfinished world thinking was reduced to boilerplate. Washington did indeed dominate the new World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and ignored the United Nations and other principles of international law whenever convenient. But it’s just as important that, nearly as soon as the Cold War ended, integrationist talk was back with a vengeance. Not only was it epitomized by President George H.W. Bush’s references to a “New World Order.” It was made concrete by Washington’s agreement to create a World Trade Organization with strong enforcement authority that regularly ruled against the United States. And it was fueled continually by the global ideological defeat of communism, the movement of so many national economies toward free market practices and principles, the surge in global trade and investment flows that bypassed borders with remarkable ease, and the emergence of digital technologies that positively seemed to mock them.
More recently, it’s become clear that strong beliefs about benign changes that are shaping the international system have powerfully influenced President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry – and in particular muddled their initial responses to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to suppress the revolt against his brutal rule in Syria, and to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine. Stunned that these dictators didn’t care about global norms against certain weapons of mass destruction, and didn’t agree that new, “21st century rules“ had rendered obsolete aggression and subversion against neighbors, the president and his top diplomat were caught flat-footed.
The reason, it’s clear to me, anyway, is that Kerry and Mr. Obama went further in their minds than Selasi did in her Times article, and did try to draw dramatic policy conclusions from their related beliefs in the nation-state’s decline and the strength of integrative forces around the world. More specifically, they wildly conflated the two, and in the process overlooked a far more important reality: Whether the nation-state is fading or not, for the foreseeable future, the world’s population will continue to be divided into numerous discreet units. And because consensus on acceptable behavior (norms) will remain elusive at best, these units – no matter their appearance or composition – will find themselves trapped in a struggle for both security and prosperity.
By no means does that mean that all forms of international cooperation will be impossible, whether ad hoc or even more systematic. But it does mean that Americans leaders’ supreme challenge will long remain ensuring the nation’s safety and well-being in the here and now, in the largely conflictual world they’ll be stuck with. As for wracking their brains on the long-range-at-best objective of trying to turn that world into something significantly more pleasant — that’s likeliest to remain a dangerous distraction.