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What Catalonia’s vote says about the world order

Sholto Byrnes writes about the idea of nation states and the non-state world.

Could Spain be falling apart? Is the EU about to suffer even greater challenges to its already fragile unity as one by one its members sunder? Judging by some of the reactions, Sunday’s vote – in which a separatist bloc won a majority of seats in the Spanish region of Catalonia – was cataclysmic.

It is true that the leaders of the separatists declared that they will see the region become an independent state within 18 months and that the government has warned that this course would be fought in the courts. So, significant and dramatic, yes, just as the rise of Scottish nationalism has been in Britain, and the “reclamation” of Crimea by Russia was for Ukraine.

These changes matter in particular if they involve the breaking of laws: because upholding the inviolability of agreements that support and circumscribe our liberties is in the interests of all. But the instances I mention above seem to have been greeted with another, rather emotional response – horror at the very notion that anything might alter the nation state.

That we have made such a fetish of this construct is curious. True, it is on the basis of nation states that diplomacy and trade agreements are conducted. Membership of the UN General Assembly is constituted similarly, with all states’ votes equal. Thus tiny Tuvalu, all 26 square kilometres of it, officially carries the same weight as China.

But many are recent creations and the result of imperial retreat and coercion. There was never an “India” or a “Pakistan” in their current shapes before 1947. Indonesia is the successor state to the Dutch East Indian possessions and while it is a vibrant collection of islands, it is questionable whether all its peoples have embraced their absorption into the new country with equal enthusiasm.

The Westphalian nation state is, in any case, a very Eurocentric notion. Historically borders were much less clear cut in many countries. In fact, the idea that there might be a line and, if your feet were either side of it, one would be in one country, and the other in another, would have made no sense to many.

In The Wandering Falcon, Jamal Ahmed, a chronicler of the post-war Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, beautifully described the incomprehension of a nomadic tribesman on being asked if had heard the frontier was to be closed in 1956, the first year that the international boundary was enforced. “It would be impossible to do that,” he replied. “It would be like attempting to stop migrating birds or the locusts.”

Likewise, the Westphalian concept of sovereignty sits uneasily in regions with more recent histories of tributary systems. In the 19th century Cambodia, for instance, was under the joint vassalage of both Siam and Vietnam – an arrangement completely at odds with Westphalian principles of national self-determination, equality between states and non-intervention in the affairs of others.

The supposed sanctity of the nation state is contradicted, too, by very recent events. A glance at maps over the years shows new countries popping up – the successor states to the old Yugoslavia, or Timor Leste – and others dividing, such as the Czech and Slovak Republics, and others disappearing.

The USSR sprawled over Eurasia in atlases throughout my childhood (it was not quite technically a nation state, perhaps, but it acted like one). It seemed impregnable, a superpower. And yet its lifespan was a mere 70 years, no more than a blink of the historian’s eye.

Moreover, both regionalism and devolution, and international actors – businesses, NGOs, banks, global bodies and others – have already changed the world into one in which the dominance of the nation state is arguably already over.

The recent coup attempt in Burkina Faso might have succeeded in the past, but regional entities showed unexpected teeth, with the African Union issuing an almost unprecedentedly vehement statement and the Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas) mediating the coup leader’s withdrawal.

When the UN is finally overhauled for the 21st century, it is not implausible that regional blocs, including Ecowas, the GCC and Asean, should be granted places on the Security Council.

Within states, local autonomy has grown to the extent that, as the global strategist and author Parag Khana put it: “Our maps show a world of about 200 countries, but the number of effective authorities is hundreds more.”

In 2013, a US National Security Council report raised the prospect of a “Non-State World”, and the Indian academic Amitav Acharya argues that we are not in a multipolar world – too state-centric an idea, he says – but what he calls a “multiplex” world. In this many different “movies” are playing at the same time, and multiple key actors are in “complex forms of interdependence”.

In this context, Catalan desire for independence – if that was what the vote represented – may be a problem for the Spanish authorities. But if, far from compromising, the government wishes to reassert its writ: doesn’t that also suggest a railing at the wind, an attempt to prop up a construct – the nation state – whose continued existence is predicated on it, fitting new realities, even if that means weakening?

Lampedusa’s dictum, “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same”, has never felt more apt.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Updated: September 29, 2015 04:00 AM

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