25 March 1994 - 27 March 1994

The Nation State: What Pressures, from Above or Below, are Modifying it, and in What Forms can it Survive?

Chair: Sir Antony Acland GCMG GCVO

Several of our conferences over the past two years had addressed vivid examples of states struggling, for one reason or another, to maintain their efficacy, their authority, even their existence amid the pressures of a changing world. It seemed timely therefore to address the issues from a fresh and broader angle: did these various scenarios reflect just a chance aggregation of special and perhaps temporary problems, or was the concept of the nation state in its classical form undergoing a more general erosion?

We managed, with only occasional flickerings of difficulty, to avoid spending too long on conceptual theorising about precisely what sovereignty meant We mostly agreed that it included power to make effective laws for a particular territory and to claim a monopoly of certain kinds of force within it - and also to make mistakes and revoke international commitments. Some of us were wary about the term “nation state” itself, as linking two ideas that were distinct and (though settled history might over time aid convergence) by no means necessarily coincident; on any view of the imprecise term “nation”, there were more of it around the world than there were UN members, and one way into the discussion was to consider why some nations clearly were and some were not content to be without separate states of their own.

There was, we recognised, nothing new in the fact that states were limited - sometimes by choice, sometimes perforce - in the practical exercise of freedom; treaties and alliances went far back in history, and wide-reaching commercial and financial arrangements (the gold standard, Bretton Woods, free-trade deals) had become increasingly common in the twentieth century. The cumulative scale of such arrangements had however, for many countries, generated at least a perception of step-change. For many small states (though interestingly not all, as the Swiss example showed) the bargaining of national freedom for influence in larger groupings was readily undertaken, as yielding a net increment in real leverage; but for larger states, used to wide national manoeuvre space, the process was mostly uncomfortable, especially in the growing mismatch between what domestic electorates expected of governments and what they-had real power to deliver amid the constraining complications of economic interdependence.

This widespread problem was likely to grow more intense as a variety of new pressures breached the protective economic boundaries of the individual state - mobile capital, multinational firms, footloose business élites, easier transport, the ability to conduct large commercial and industrial support operations at very long range through the use of modern information technology. The agenda of free trade and of deregulation also tended, albeit in different ways, to weaken the directive power of national governments; the increasingly-pervasive GATT/WTO agenda (for example on intellectual property and on labour and environmental standards) implied a degree of international intrusion which several countries, notably the United States itself, might find uncongenial. At the political level, too, the ability of modern communications (often in transnational hands) to make events almost anywhere in the world rapidly evident everywhere, and to touch popular emotions and consciences accordingly, was making “far-away country” or “hands-off” attitudes harder to sustain among both watchers and watched.

The field of military security was an illuminating aspect, and perhaps indeed in some ways a defining one. The habit of alliance, with its implication of limited freedom and power, was deeply established, and NATO was a very vivid exemplar. It remained nevertheless an exemplar of cooperative organisation, not of surrendered sovereignty. The provision, by whatever chosen method, of external security was the state’s ultima ratio; and some participants argued that a state which had genuinely ceded to others the final right to decide whether its soldiers should be committed to war - or withheld from it - had in a crucial sense ceased to be sovereign.

The desperate wreck of Yugoslavia and the uneasy re-shaping of what had been the Soviet Union naturally bulked large in our exchanges. We recognised a variety of possible motivations for the desire of individual citizens - in whose will, most of us accepted, sovereignty should ultimately reside - to withdraw their consent from existing state entities: perception of injustice or oppression, reaching sometimes even to life-threatening scale; a sense of cultural remoteness and alienation; a more mundane belief, sometimes, that a particular state configuration had ceased to be the best vehicle for maximising economic and social well-being. We were minded to share the international community’s evident disquiet about letting any of these motivations precipitate general fragmentation of existing states or re-drawing of boundaries; but we recognised that no absolute prohibition on change could be either realistic or justified. Our search for tidy limiting principles faltered however amidst the huge diversity, present or past, of awkward instances - for every suggested rule there seemed a cogent counter-example, and no ready concept of “legitimate secession” emerged.

If, as we were minded, there was to remain a powerful presumption against radical boundary change, the international community should do what it could to reduce fissile motivations; and this was a special reason, additional to basic humanitarian concern, for providing - perhaps even, paradoxically, to the extent of less reluctantly entertaining the possibility of external intervention for enforcement - the observance of human rights standards, building for example on the Helsinki achievement. We acknowledged that within this broad approach the notion of group rights was often an awkward one, in potential tension with civic homogeneity. In general (though, as ever, not by way of exceptionless rule) we preferred the idea of the civic rather than the ethnic state; the world indeed was everywhere much too untidy for pure ethnicity to form a just and dependable basis for statehood, and in some areas - for example where national consciousness straddled state borders, as with the Kurds, or where majority changed with widening or contraction of the selected frame of reference - it could be a recipe for endless strife unless civic norms accepted as fair for all could channel and limit its urges.

The former Soviet Union, we realised, posed a range of special problems, as an empire broke up with little or no bequest of working political and economic institutions or even attitudes to its successors. Russia aside - so it was powerfully contended - none of these successors was yet a fully-working state in the normal sense; they differed hugely in character and capability, with some drifting into further fragmentation and others back almost toward integration; it might be that re-shaping had a long way to go yet. We touched on, without resolving, difficult questions about whether or how far Russia inescapably had, and should be so accepted as having, a special role in the processes of state development around its own borders. At a near-opposite pole, the European Union, exemplifying not just wider aggregation but the increasing replacement of diplomacy and power-balance by agreed law and process, was an important testbed of new concepts still maturing, sometimes with difficulty amid high-profile pressures of competing hopes and preferences.

None of us ultimately seemed disposed to argue that the core idea of statehood was passé - indeed, the manifest aspiration of more and more peoples to achieve that status suggested just the contrary. But at least in the more developed world (a qualification that highlights our awareness that discussion had mostly ignored the alarming spectacle of the greater part of Africa) we looked to a future in which there might be greater diversity in political forms. Existing states would perhaps need a greater and less anxious disposition to accept that their identity and coherence was not essentially threatened if, in a complex and shifting environment, they became to some degree coordinators and brokers rather than sole authorities and autarkic enforcers, with some of their classic functions better exercised for their citizens’ benefit and contentment (whether by delegation or by outright cession) in groupings moving tasks upwards or in subdivisions moving them downwards. As with other settings, flexibility and adaptability were probably the keys to successful survival.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Sir Antony Acland GCMG GCVO
Provost ofEton College


Mr Allan T Griffith AM
Author, at present preparing a book on UN Peace Settlements

The Rt Hon The Lord Bethell Bt MEP
Member of the European Parliament (Conservative), London North-West

Mr Michael Charlton
Writerand Broadcaster, BBC World Service

Mr Nicholas Colchester OBE
Editorial Director, The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd

Sir John Coles KCMG
Permanent Under Secretary of State Designate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr James Gow
Department of War Studies, King’s College, London University

Professor Harold James
Associate Professor of History, Princeton University

Mr Calum MacDonald MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Western Isles

Mrs Sally Morphet
Senior Principal Research Officer, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Mr Edward Mortimer
Foreign Affairs Editor, Financial Times; foreign leader writer, The Times

The Rt Hon Sir Michael Palliser GCMG
Deputy Chairman, Midland Montagu (Holdings) Ltd.

The Rt Hon The Lord Pym MC DL
Life Peer (Conservative)

Ms Glenys Roberts
Author; columnist; publisher (Libri Mundi Books)

The Rt Hon The Lord Tugendhat
Life Peer (Conservative)

Mr George Haynal
Head, Policy Staff, Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trad

Dr Michael Ignatieff
Author; Presenter, The Late Show, BBC T
Mr W G Robinson QC
Executive Director, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto

Herr Berndt von Staden
Co-ordinator for German-American Co-operation in field of Inter-social Relations, Cultural and Information Policy

Mrs Marzenna James
SSRC-Mac Arthur Fellow in Peace and Security in the Changing World, working on a dissertation, Department of Politics, Princeton University, on foreign relations in post-1989 Eastern Europe

Professor Andranik Migranyan
Member of President Yeltsin’s Advisory Council

Professor Thomas J Biersteker
Henry R Luce Professor of International Relations and Political Science, Brown University

Professor David P Calleo
Director of European Studies, Dean Acheson Professor, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Professor Gidon Gottlieb
Leo Spitz Professor of International Law & Diplomacy, University of Chicago

Dr Michael H Haltzel
Chief, European Division, Library of Congress

Professor G John Ikenberry
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania;

Mr Mitchel Levitas
Editor, Op-Ed Page, The New York Times

Mr Frank E Loy
President and Trustee, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Washington DC

Mr Charles W Maynes
Editor, Foreign Policy

Professor Deborah Duff Milenkovitch
Columbia University: Director, Institute on East Central Europe, and Soviet and East European National Resource Center

Mr Andrew Nagorski
Joined Newsweek 1973: Bureau chief: Warsaw

Dr Ángel M Rabasa
Director, Regional Security Strategies (Europe & the Americas), Policy Planning, Department of Defense