A losing politics

July 9, 2004

Karen Gold and David Bell get too bogged down in whether nationalism is a deep structural or a modern-day phenomenon (Features, June 25). They underplay its role as a political project, its success shaped by the capacity of political actors ("political entrepreneurs" and "modernising oligarchies") to use nation-state-based institutions, ideologies and social structures to address crucial problems - security, industrialisation, welfare - more effectively than through loose empires, city-states and so on.

However, nationalism is losing its effectiveness as a political tool, eroded from above and below. In terms of security, territorial stalemate and multilateralism constrain it from above, while ethnic and religious conflict, civil wars and terrorism undermine it from below. Crises and collapses in postcolonial states are undermining claims that nationalism creates political stability, democratisation and welfare; indeed, it often leads to the opposite.

International economic interdependence means that national development strategies and welfare priorities are being discarded by today's modernising elites for trade, financial and productive integration into a more open, post-Fordist world. While "global governance" is still fragmented and embryonic and most developed nation-states have been able to manage change by "reinventing government", for example, national autonomy is challenged everywhere.

Nationalism as a political project is neither "a given" nor "modern". The paradox of nationalism is that although it has become, in Bell's phrase, "a fundamental principle of world order", the nation-states on which that order is based are being eroded and snared in transnational webs of politics, society and economics.

Phil Cerny
Professor of international political economy
Manchester University

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