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Analysis by Keith Rankin.

Keith Rankin.

We have this pretty fiction that the world is made up of approximately 200 politically autonomous nation-states. This in the entrenched ‘Wilsonian’ view of the political world that, in particular, was sort-of realised after World War One; a view that rendered the national empires (such as the British Empire) of the past obsolete.

In the liberal world order, the ideal structure of international polities would be 750 nation states each with between (say) three million and twenty million people. (OK, the Olympic Games and the United Nations would struggle to cope with 750 independent members; but that’s not a problem for a liberal order. In a true liberal order, each entity is too small to influence the order itself. In such a liberal order, the collective good is meant to happen through a kind of international marketplace; in marketplaces, properly understood, ‘competition’ and ‘cooperation’ are more like synonyms than antonyms.)

The twenty-first century is a quasi-liberal ‘rules-based’ order of nation states with populations ranging from about 1,000 to 1.5 billion, with a number of hegemon states. At present the major hegemons are: Washington, London, Berlin, Moscow, New Delhi, Beijing, Tehran, Riyadh. Minor hegemons include Paris, The Hague, Copenhagen, Addis Ababa, Ankara, and Wellington.

Nation States: Peoples or Territories?

Historically, a nation was a group of people – an uber-tribe – defined by ethnicity, language and culture. Thus, in the early days of nations, there were no formal territorial borders; though certain geographical features formed practical borders: seas, rivers, mountain chains, deserts. At some times in history, seas were the principal borders; at other times, seas became highway connectors leaving mountains and deserts as the main dividers.

Following World War One, and indeed through until the 1970s, the concept of nations as peoples (rather than as territories) remained dominant. Thus, while New Zealand became politically autonomous from Great Britain, New Zealanders continued to be British. (In my first passport, I was listed as a ‘New Zealand citizen’ and a ‘British subject’.) The practical extent of New Zealanders’ Britishness gradually diminished over the twentieth century; indeed when I sailed to the United Kingdom in 1974 – my ‘OE’ – my automatic right of permanent residence there depended on me having a British born grandparent. (I presume that would have included an Irish-born grandparent, given that Ireland was part of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1921.)

The main point is that Anglo-Celtic ethnicity, English language, and recent history of empire all contributed to my being a part of a British nation. I even got to vote, in 1975, in the first Brexit referendum (though it wasn’t framed as Brexit then.) And in April 1976, with my then partner and on my trusty Honda 175 motorbike, I embarked on an all-Ireland tour. In Belfast and especially Derry, I ventured into a Civil War zone; the hegemony of London in Derry was not the benign British hegemony I grew up with in Palmerston North. Yet, even the independent Republic of Ireland was in many ways still British; the pound sterling circulated as equivalent to the Irish punt, there was no passport requirement of entry, and it was only in County Donegal that I heard the Irish language spoken in a natural setting.

The change came mainly in the 1980s; nationalism can be fuelled by economic hard times, and modern ‘territorial’ nationalism reflects the growth of liberal identity politics in a decade in which fresh thinking about capitalism and economics just got too hard. Then in the early 1990s, the cold war ‘evil empire’ that was the Soviet Union collapsed into constituent territorial nation states, as did the satellite empire of Yugoslavia. Some said that this was the ‘end of history’; the world order by 2000 was made up of about 200 nation states defined, not by ethnicity, language, or culture, but by (often arbitrary) territorial boundaries.

The 2000s’ decade represented the pinnacle of ‘globalisation’, a word interpreted in a number of ways, but whose key theme was the subjection of nation states to an imperfectly competitive global marketplace, through a mixture of neoliberal ideology and internet-based technology. The remaining substantially incomplete part of the globalisation ‘project’ was to liberalise the flow of people.

In the 2010s’ decade, however – the post global-financial-crisis decade – this era of international ‘market cooperation’ came to an end; most clearly within the European Union, and more latterly with the reassertion of Chinese and Indian hegemony within their extended territories. Nevertheless, by regarding most people as ‘labour’, certain free international flows of people expanded in the 2010s.

Today, the western liberal view of a nation state is that it is a tightly-bordered territory in which all resident citizens are equal beneficiaries of that state (territorial insiders), and with seven broadly defined groups of other people having lesser rights with respect to that state. New Zealand in 2021 represents a particularly extreme version of a territorially fundamentalist state; where, on the inside, any ‘unkind’ expression of traditional identity differences is virtually outlawed, but where it is open season to be unkind towards defined outsiders by virtue of their status as outsiders. This 2020s’ extension of deglobalisation in New Zealand is the ‘immigration reset’, which is being implemented under the cover of the Covid19 pandemic.

The seven outsider groups are:

  • People currently living in New Zealand, but without political rights and subject to temporary permissions (some undoubtedly already expired) with respect to their legal right to be in New Zealand, and to pursue an economic life while in New Zealand. They are denizens rather than citizens of New Zealand.
  • People who have the legal status of citizens or permanent residents (‘New Zealand insiders’), but who are not currently inside New Zealand. (We may include ‘realm citizens’ in this group, such as Cook Island or Niuean citizens.)
  • People not in the former categories, but who have a familial relationship with New Zealand insiders, or have current or prospective employers (or education providers) in New Zealand, or are Australian citizens.
  • People not in the former categories but who are in a position to buy their way into some form of residential status.
  • People not in the former categories but who are in a circumstance to plead their way, as refugees.
  • People – especially younger men – in the RSE (recognised seasonal employment) countries: Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati. This is, formally, a labour relationship associated with New Zealand’s Pacific hegemony. Of these, Samoa has a further relationship with New Zealand; unlike the others, it was member of the ‘New Zealand empire’ in the mid-twentieth century. New Zealand continues to have a closer hegemonic relationship with Samoa than with the other RSE countries. Tonga is of particular significance, because most of the victims of the ‘dawn raids’ of 1975 and 1976 were Tongan citizens who had overstayed their temporary work permits.
  • Everybody else in the world, including people from places such as Great Britain, South Africa and India who previously had favourable access to New Zealand through their empire links.

Thus, discrimination at present is based almost entirely on a person’s current location and their immigration status. That is the meaning of ‘territorial fundamentalism’; a nation state becomes simply an enforced piece of real estate, defined by its borders rather than by its people. That and nothing more.

We may note that Jacinda Ardern’s ‘Dawn Raids’ apology (1 August 2021) was carefully worded to emphasise the “discriminatory” nature of those raids (which mostly affected Tongan overstayers, people who had worked in New Zealand on RSE-like contracts), not their brutality. Essentially – and from today’s standpoint of territorial fundamentalism – that apology was for the failure to deport enough people whose passports were not of Pacific Island countries. We should have deported more Canadians, for example.

As noted (by the various bullet points above), New Zealand’s territorial fundamentalism has some exceptions, or at least gradations. One of these involves money; there is a suggestion that semi-billionaires will have privileged future access to New Zealand (although, within this group, the non-discrimination principle may be tested; will a Chinese semi-billionaire face more difficulties than an American semi-billionaire?). Another discrimination is that most citizens of most counties in close proximity to New Zealand will have less unfavourable future access to New Zealand than someone from, say, the United Kingdom; the most obvious example being Australian citizens.

Australia and United Kingdom

Australia and the United Kingdom are, like New Zealand, leaders in territorial fundamentalism, although I sense that both are more discriminatory than New Zealand on matters other than a person’s current location or immigration status. There is a sense that Māori in Australia are more likely to run foul of their ‘good character’ laws than are pakeha New Zealanders in Australia. Another difference in Australia is that most New Zealanders there form a whole category of denizens, essentially tenured guest workers.

For a few years now, especially after the 2015 refugee crisis (mainly characterised by boat-people – ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ – coming out of Turkey, headed for the European Union; also a year of accelerated boat-people arrivals from Africa), BBC-type television dramas have highlighted the cruel interactions between vulnerable people and government bureaucracies. (Examples of such dramas are Collateral, and the black comedy Years and Years; we also see patterns in which most TV lead-detectives seem to be women, and in which Britain is an overtly multiracial society to the extent that even ‘white’ historical figures are depicted by ‘black’ actors.) Being British is now solely about the legal right to occupy British real estate; a right that is getting ever more difficult to secure. Anyone presently in Britain who does not have a legal right to be there is vulnerable to deportation, preceded by police raids at dawn, dusk or any other time of any day. While I am not clear about the current status of Irish citizens living in the United Kingdom, I suspect that it is not unlike that of New Zealanders in Australia.

China and India

These are hegemonic powers with a very strong sense of what constitutes their own territory, with the only blurs being their borders with each other (either side of Nepal and Bhutan). India has recently asserted its sovereignty over Kashmir, and China over Hong Kong.

The rise of territorial fundamentalism in the west has enabled China to accentuate its own form of territorial fundamentalism, with the once blurred boundaries in China’s far west now being claimed as inextricably Chinese territory, and fully subject to the imposition of Han Chinese culture and bureaucracy.

Hegemonic boundaries

Modern hegemonies are territorial nation states with significant fringes-of-influence. China’s inclination is to absorb those fringes into its formal territory, when they become troublesome. In addition to its Indian borderlands, those remaining fringes include Hong Kong, Macau, Laos, Myanmar, Mongolia, Taiwan, North Korea, and islands in the South China Sea. And, one small step removed from these, is South Korea.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes before Hong Kong and Macau switch to driving on the right-hand side of the road; that will be a practical symbol of their full incorporation into China.

American hegemony was – in the Cold War period – the entire cultural west. Thus, the Chilean coup of 1973 was largely instigated in Washington, as was the bloodless Australian coup of 1975. New Zealand largely wriggled out of that hegemony in the 1980s, and now constitutes an independent hegemon (albeit a minor hegemon) in the southwest Pacific. While the United States of America does have a formal realm (including Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Marianas Islands – and noting that Hawaii was incorporated into its core territory much as Tibet was in China), its main ongoing hegemonic interest is informal and in the western Pacific (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines). Also, Israel.

In the 1990s, Berlin effectively freed itself from American hegemony, and extended a process of asserting hegemony over the rest of the European Peninsula. Thus, in the 1990s, Eastern Europe largely – and in accordance with its history – once again flipped between Russian and Prussian influence. Further, as the European Union became increasingly a Prussian hegemony, the United Kingdom – especially England – wanted out.

The United Kingdom

London remains a particularly interesting, and enigmatic territorial hegemon. The United Kingdom is itself a formal hegemony ruled from England. The United Kingdom has three further layers, all formally constituted. The first layer includes the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, both tax havens. (Indeed all aggregated financial data for the United Kingdom is severely compromised, mostly because of these Switzerlands of the Irish Sea and the ‘English’ Channel.) The next layer is Britain’s realm, which includes a number of Caribbean tax havens and mid-Atlantic islands, as well as Gibraltar and Pitcairn. The final layer is the Commonwealth, although this expanding club (which now includes Mozambique and Rwanda) is largely a symbolic community of nations, and no longer reflects any realpolitik.

While there has been much recent focus on the status of Scotland, and of the impracticalities of a hegemonic boundary through Irish farmland, the really interesting case here may well be the Republic of Ireland, caught between – though geographically to the west of – two rival hegemons: London and Berlin. Dublin was similarly caught, as an uneasy neutral, during World War Two.

The twentieth century in Irish history represented a struggle for the political independence of the Irish people (an ethnicity which did not include the Scottish ethnics in the north), and was for a while resolved by Dublin and London both being subject to the hegemony of a union (EU) whose real political centre had become Berlin. The present arrangement – with a ‘forward border’ in the Irish Sea is unsustainable.

Further, I’m not really clear that the people of Scotland will openly favour a switch to Berlin instead of London as its political bedmate. A geopolitical land border along the River Tweed could be even more problematic than one in Ireland.

What I can see is – in a few decades time – Ireland rejoining the United Kingdom, albeit on different terms to those of the 1801 to 1921 period. We have seen in covid times that Scotland is already substantially independent from England. What needs to happen is for Westminster to become a solely English parliament, and for somewhere like Peterborough or Swindon to become a kind of federal capital city, accommodating a British Council that coordinates fiscal and foreign policy throughout a British realm that would naturally include both parts of Ireland.


Russia and China

Within Russia there is a strong sense of ‘Greater Russia’ which incorporates, in particular, Slavic and Tatar ethnic territories. While there has never been a sense that Russia has sought world dominance – there was once a sense that a Marxist worldview (a view formerly associated with Russia) did seek such dominance. Likewise, an American interpretation of consumerist liberal democracy also reached out to the entire world, and that kind of cultural hegemony was often associated with the United States as a powerful territorial nation state. Neither view really holds today. (Nor does anyone seriously think that Han Chinese culture or Islamic culture will ever prevail much beyond their present hegemonic boundaries.)

Nevertheless, Russia’s strong hegemonic attachment to a Greater Russia (and China’s to a greater China) will continue to create geopolitical tension. Indeed, there is a sense of foreboding at present that George Orwell’s book 1984 is becoming an uncannily accurate projection of our human future this century. In that book, the world was a surveillance society of manipulated truth, and politically dominated by three hegemonic ’empires’: Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia. In Orwell’s story, Oceania would flip between cynical alliances with Eurasia or East Asia. (In the 2020s, we may see ‘Eurasia’ forging such an alliance with ‘East Asia’.)

We can expect that, as in the past, Moscow will resist any attempts for nations under its influence on its western fringe (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova) to further distance themselves. And Moscow can be expected to be welcoming towards any Eastern European nations presently within the European Union who show signs of distancing themselves from Berlin (especially Poland and Hungary), and to develop political institutions more in line with the present Moscow model.

And we can expect the far east Asian nations (especially South Korea) to develop through the tension of being on a major hegemonic boundary.

Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific

One key area to watch will be Southeast Asia. Already the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is becoming the new geopolitical buzz phrase. Southeast Asia (even including Philippines with its entrenched post-colonial links with the United States) is a mix of independent and contested territory; by the latter I mean that it is contested for influence by different religions as well as diverse regional and post-colonial polities.

Hopefully, Southeast Asia – as a region – can remain relatively free of those hegemonic influences, and can flourish as a kind of ASEAN commonwealth; and keeps itself free from the territorial fundamentalism, where borders and visas – and only borders and visas – matter.



The system of territorial nation states has evolved, since the Post-WW1 Treaty of Versailles in 1919, towards its textbook optimum; a world of many independent territorial states, indeed a change from the recent globalised world of interdependent administrative states. The human world will always remain a mix of big states and small states; there is no prospect of the breakup of China, India, USA, Russia or any of the other G20 territories. (Though if my speculation re the United Kingdom comes about, I think it would have to become a British Union in which England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland etc. are recognised as separate countries, as they are indeed by FIFA.) And there’s no obvious prospect of any of today’s small nation states merging into any union beyond the scope of the present European Union.

Covid-facilitated (and GFC-facilitated) ‘Territorial Fundamentalism’ is an excessive backlash from the globalisation epoch of the 1990s and 2000s. After-all, humanity is a dispersed though connected fraternity of nearly eight billion people. Border-controls of the types that are emerging are fundamentally cruel; and cruelty towards any of us is ultimately cruelty to all of us.

Despite our present zenith of territorial independence, many nations are significantly influenced by regional hegemons; a few countries find themselves caught between two regional hegemons. New Zealand is one of those hegemons, in the south Pacific; albeit a minor hegemon. Indeed countries like Tonga are not only pulled towards New Zealand.

The wider solution to the problems of humanity is to develop a concept of global human rights – for example, through a public equity framework – while acknowledging a wide plurality of social and territorial identities. While movement across the global human landscape should be as politically free as can be practically managed, the economic, political and climatic incentives that persuade people to seek refuge from certain places need to be addressed and understood. Regional hegemons can choose to play benign rather than malign leadership roles in this process. And human rights principles should prevail over administrative rules. We need an order based on principles rather rules.


Keith Rankin, trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

contact: keith at rankin.nz



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