It is not difficult to recognise that the West is in flux. Eight months after the US presidential election, partisan rancour has reached a fever pitch and continues unabated. Europe seems trapped in a collective leadership paralysis in the face of the greatest mass migration crisis since 1945. Public anger against elites keeps rising. The people seem less and less willing to listen to the explanations and admonishments of their leaders and the media, or to accept that their nations are merely a transitional phase before the emergence of a multicultural globalised world.
Beneath the popular resentment and frustration bubbles a longing for a vanishing sense of community, mixed with an often deeply felt democratic impulse to reclaim ownership of the state.
Signs of a popular rebellion across the West abound. The Brexit vote in Britain, the Trump movement in the US and the emergence of national and populist parties across Europe (though their support fluctuates) are symptoms of a deeper yet seldom articulated structural problem that has been straining democratic politics in the West: the progressive fragmentation of the nation-state.
There is an ever-expanding terminology generated to describe the vortex engulfing the West, be it “illiberal democracy”, “populism” or (from the extreme left) “neo-fascism”. But all the terms are attempting to grapple with the same truth: consensus that the nation-state should remain paramount in world politics has weakened. It is this that lies at the base of the deepening political crisis in Western democracies.
Since patriotic civic education all but disappeared from US public schools as well as Europe’s government school curriculums, two generations of Western elites progressively have been unmoored from their cultural roots, often all but bereft of even a rudimentary sense of service to and responsibility for the nation as a whole.
As fractured group identities and narratives of grievance began to replace a sense of patriotism and national pride, university-educated elites across the West became ever more self-referential in their pursuits, locked in an exercise of inward-looking collective expiation for the centuries of Western racism, discrimination and “privilege” — all allegedly the hallmarks of the culture they have inherited, which they must redefine or repudiate altogether.
This decomposition of elite national identities across the West already has had noticeable security consequences in the US. After decades of debate over identity politics, collective group rights and cross-national institutions, the erstwhile assumption that, when it comes to national security, state sovereignty trumps other considerations has become ever more tenuous. The immediate result has been the declining systemic cohesion of democratic states and the diminishment across the West of the principle that democratic rights carry with them the obligations of citizenship.
Historically, a nation-state stipulated the primacy of a nation brought together by a common culture, which in turn went on to generate an overarching national identity strong enough to attenuate regional, ethnic or religious differences. In their US and European systemic varieties, democratic institutions have preserved and protected the rights of the people, while the culturally grounded dominant national identity has given the nation-state its requisite resilience, while also imbuing it with the power to make demands of its citizens.
So long as this shared national identity remained strong — call it patriotism, love of country or belonging beyond one’s immediate family and local community — the nation-state retained its cohesion, resting on a sense of reciprocity between government and citizen.
Today, after decades of espousing multiculturalism and group rights buttressed by the politics of grievance, the foundations of a larger shared national identity have eroded such that governance — or, better yet, governability — has become an increasingly scarce commodity across the West. We are at an inflection point, where a growing systemic disorder is stoked not just by shifts in the global power distribution but by the progressive decline in governability. The dismantling of the core principle that the national homeland should be under the sovereign control of its people lies at the root of this problem.
The hypothesis that institutions ultimately trump culture has morphed in the past quarter century into an article of faith, alongside the fervently held belief that nationalism and democratic politics are at their core fundamentally incompatible. The decades-long assault on the idea of national identity steeped in a shared culture and defined by a commitment to the preservation of the nation has left Western leadership frequently unable to articulate the fundamentals that bind us and that we must be prepared to defend.
The deepening fight over the right of the central government to control the national border, which is at the core of the Western idea of the nation-state, is emblematic of this situation. The deconstruction of the nation-state across the West has had consequences beyond the national security of individual states. It has directly diminished the durability of the liberal world order, which not so long ago was heralded as the zenith of our globalised future.
Though its fundaments are still in place, the era of the post-Cold War triumph of liberal internationalism is more than a decade behind us. The liberal international order cannot function without strong national communities acting as the baselines for democratic government. Regrettably, in the past half-century we have witnessed the gradual unravelling of the cultural foundations of this compact: the idea of the nation as an overarching identifier linking people across space and time.
Today, in addition to the shifting global power equation and surging transnational threats, a key factor in the deteriorating security of the collective West is our inability to appreciate the vital importance of the nation-state to the security of a self-governing people.
National identity, national culture and history, and the sense of belonging to a distinct community are not antithetical to the notion of an interdependent international system. On the contrary, when bereft of the core building blocks of consolidated nation-states, the system will grow less stable with each passing year.
Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies. This story first appeared in online journal The American Interest.