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author (with George Lakoff) of Where Mathematics Comes From; Philosophy of the Flesh
The Death of Nations

The Death of Nations

For centuries societies have organized themselves in terms of kingdoms, countries, and states. Towards the second half of the recently past 20th Century these geographical, cultural, and political "units" acquired a more precise meaning through the establishment of modern "nations". The process was consolidated, among others, through the creation of the so called United Nations, and the independence of most colonial territories in Africa during the 60's. Today, we naturally see the world as organized in clear-cut and well-defined units: the world's nations (just check the colors of a political atlas). Nations have their own citizens, well established territories, capital cities, flags, currencies, stamps and postal systems, military forces, embassies, national anthems, and even their own sport teams competing in the various planet-scale events. This widespread view not only has been taken for granted by most sectors of the public opinion, but also it has served as the foundation of the highest form of international organization — the United Nations. The most serious world affairs have been approached with this nation-oriented paradigm. But the reality of our contemporary global society (which goes far beyond pure global technology) is gradually showing that the world is not a large collection of nations. Nations, as we know them, are not anymore the appropriate "unit of analysis" to run the world, and to deal with its problems. Here is why.

• Environmental problems: Purely national/inter-national efforts to avoid the pollution of rivers, to protect the ozone layer, to manage (and avoid) environmental disasters, and to protect endangered species and biological diversity, have not given good results. New forms of global organizations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, have emerged to deal with these problems in a more efficient manner.

• Natural resources: The management of the world's forests, the Antarctic ice, and fishing resources, has shown that they don't belong to the national/inter-national realm. Again, new and more efficient forms of global organizations have emmerged for addressing these problems.

• Sovereignty: The relatively recent arrest in London of the ex-chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (facing a potential extradition to Spain), has raised unprecedented and deep issues about the sovereignty of nations. The Chilean government claims that Pinochet should be judged in Chile, but international laws seem to be gradually evolving towards a form of jurisdiction that is above the sovereignty of nations. The role of supra national organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is becoming extremely prominent in redefining these issues.

• Neutrality: The complexity of contemporary world organization is leaving almost no room for neutrality. Contemporary Swiss society, for instance, is experiencing an important identity crisis, since their traditional neutrality is no longer tenable in the new european and international contexts. One of their essential aspects of national identity — neutrality - is collapsing. A simple fact illustrates this crisis. In 1992, during the World Expo in Seville, the official Swiss stand exhibited the following motto: "Switzerland does not exist".

• Ethnic groups representation: Many ethnic groups around the world whose territories extend over several nations, such as Kurds (who live mainly in Eastern Turkey, Westren Iran, and Northern Iraq) or Aymaras (who live in Eastern Bolivia, Southern Peru, and Northern Chile), have had almost no representation in international organizations. Their problems haven't been heard in a world organized under the nation-paradigm. These groups, however, have been in the news on the last decade bringing their issues more to the foreground, thus relegating the traditional nations to a less prominent role.

• Epidemics: Serious epidemics such as AIDS and new forms of tuberculosis, are spreading at alarming rates in some areas of the world. The cure, the study, and the control of these epidemics demand organizational efforts that go well beyond national/inter-national schemas. The emergence of many NGO's dealing with health issues is an attempt to provide more appropriate answers to these devastating situations.

• Civil wars and ethnic cleansing: The stopping and control of ethnic massacres such as the ones observed in the former Yugoslavian regions, and those between Tutsis and Hutus in Africa, demand quick intervention and serious negotiation. A heavy nation-oriented apparatus is usually extremely slow and innefficient in dealing with this kind of situations. It can't capture the subtleties of cultural dynamics.

• Ongoing separatism and proliferation of nations: The world has more and more nations. Only a few dozen nations founded the United Nations half a century ago. Today the UN has around two hundred members (The International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the World's Football Federation, have even more!). And it is not over. Former Soviet republics, Slovenia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and so on, already created new nations. Many others, such as the Basque country, Quebec, and Chechnya, are still looking for their independence. An ever increasing number of nations will eventually collapse.

• Loss of national property and national icons: The openness and dynamism of international markets, as well as the globalization of foreign investment have altered at unprecedented levels the sense of what is "national". For instance, many airlines (to take a very simple example) usually seen as "national" airlines, today belong in fact to extra-national companies. Such is the case of Aerolineas Argentinas, LOT Polish Airlines, TAP Portugal, and LAN Peru, to mention only a few. National airlines, which in many countries have been seen as national icons, are simply not national anymore. Of course, the same applies to fishing waters, mines, forests, shopping malls, vineyards, and so on.

These are only a few examples. There are many others. Very serious ones, such as the primacy of watersheds over national borders in solving serious problems of water distribution. And less serious ones, such as the potential collapse of one of the Canadian national sports (ice-hockey), if their franchises continue to move to more profitable lands in the United States. All these aspects of our contemporary societies challenge the very notion of "nation", and reveal the primacy of other factores which are not captured by nation-oriented institutions. The world is now gradually adjusting to these changes, and is coming up with new forms of organization, where nations, as such, play a far less important role. Such is the case of the formation of the European Community (which allows for free circulation of people and merchandises), the establishment of a "European passport", and the creation of the Euro as common currency. After all, many national borders are, like those straight lines one sees in the maps of Africa and North America, extremely arbitrary. It shouldn't then be a surprise that the world divided into nations is becoming an anachronism from the days when the world was ruled by a few powerful kingdoms, that ignored, fundamental aspects of ethnic, cultural, biological, and environmental dynamics. We are now witnessing the death of nations as we know them.

RAFAEL NUNEZ is Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg, and a Research Associate at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-editor (with Walter J. Freeman) of Reclaiming Cognition: The Primacy of Action, Intention, and Emotion.