Analysis by Keith Rankin.
At the heart of the present geopolitical conflict centred on Ukraine is a divergent set of views as to what constitutes a ‘nation’.
Rival Views of Nationality
Firstly, ‘nation-states’ as we know them today arguably date to the 1645 Peace (or Treaties) of Westphalia, which negotiated the end of the bloody and chaotic Thirty Years War in Europe. Before that there was a mix of overlapping empires, kingdoms, emirates, and principalities. The empires (including caliphates) were often linked to a religion (eg the Holy Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Caliphate) subscribed to by the vast majority of the population; a hegemonic religion (such as in Mughal India; and a key to understanding tensions in India today); or a quasi-religious worldview (eg Confucius), as in the Celestial Empire (China) and the Hermit Kingdom (Korea). And, in the 1600s, there were the semi-secular nationalist republics of Japan (Tokugawa Shogunate) and Netherlands (Dutch United Provinces). Other empires – including emergent global empires – were linked to a hegemon sovereign; especially European kingdoms such as Spain, France and England.
It was in this time – from the 1600s – that national bureaucracies emerged, and with them de factoand de jure international borders. It was World War One – 1914 to 1918 – that, in its wake, ushered in the Wilsonian system of territorial nation states, including many new republics. This new system – named after United States President, Woodrow Wilson – in which territorial borders (rather than nationalities) defined nations, was in its emergent phase just 100 years ago. The Wilsonian ‘territorial’ system soon became sacred, reflecting the increasing dominance of the United States on the world stage. The United States was of course a nation with many resident nationalities, noting that, 100 years ago, a person’s nationality was the most important component of their ‘identity’. After 1918, an Italian American was first and foremost an American; secondmost an Italian (or perhaps secondmost a Sicilian, and thirdmost an Italian). Other important components of identity the were biological ‘sex’, ‘race’ and ‘religion’ (including denomination, such as Catholic or Shia). Within territorial structures, persons’ identity profiles remained a critically important component of their lives.
The forty years after World War Two (1945-1985), represented the heyday of the Wilsonian territorial system, with many new postcolonial nation states emerging – albeit with borders that were somewhat arbitrarily drawn, more reflecting colonial boundaries than local nationalities. ‘Assimilation’ of diverse identities into new territorial nationalities was the byword of the first post-WW2 decades.
The Tyranny of Borders
The new tyranny was a ‘tyranny of the borders’. For many people, their nation’s territorial boundary became a prison wall (a literal wall in the former East Germany). Otherwise, people’s freedom of movement was both increasingly restricted (more bureaucratic controls) and increasingly enhanced (lower travel cost; the development of the tourism industry). Bureaucratic controls initially allowed people to retain relative freedom of movement within the former imperial structures; eg passages were eased for some, based on individual or collective ancestry. By the 1980s and 1990s, economic criteria were largely superseding heritage criteria for immigration; and people from rich nation states were finding it much easier than people from poor ‘countries’ to get tourism permits. (A ‘country’ became the most widely used word for a territorial nation state, reflecting nations being increasingly defined by their countrysides, their landmasses, their territories.)
The Wilsonian system is widely loved by bureaucrats, especially foreign-office bureaucrats, because of the ease it gives to creating rules that form the basis of a ‘rules-based’ political order.
It was the 1980s that saw the first challenge to the Wilsonian system, under the rubric of ‘globalisation’. In the 1980s, finance and neoliberal economics superseded territorial politics. Followed in the 1990s by the communications revolution that was the internet. International borders effectively diminished, as financial capital, traded goods and services, and labour (to a lesser but substantial extent) moved at increasing scale across these borders. Nevertheless, to the foreign office bureaucrats, the national security institutions, and the international economists (who posited a world of trade between territorial nations rather than between businesses and their customers), the Wilsonian territorial world order continued. How else to occupy the machinators of Washington and other federal capitals?
The globalisation process – which some, especially left-wing critics, took to be an anti-state ideology – came to a semi-abrupt halt after the global financial crisis of 2008. Governments got their mojo back. Finance became increasingly subsumed to perceived national interests, and regulations. Territorial public debt reasserted itself as an issue through which national governments could regain control over their domains. And the developing international labour system became increasingly directed by the national immigration bureaucracies. Global ‘pipelines’ of extraterritorial workers flourished, largely but not only managed by the territorial authorities. ‘People-trafficking’ became an issue as two kinds of failed states emerged – those riven by ‘civil’ war or other problems such as ‘terrorism’ that generated a supply of refugees, and those riven by debt and austerity whose people turned to crimes such as people-smuggling and drug-smuggling as a means to provide for their families. With the re-intensification of the border-system, these smuggling operations became more violent, and less-evoking of sympathy.
A Return to Identity Nationalism
At the same time, a new threat to the rules-based territorial world order has emerged, especially in the ‘new world’; with Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada, and South American territories leading the way. This process epitomised through television programmes such as Nations Without Borders, on Māori Television. Thus, this new development focusses on indigenous peoples representing themselves as ‘nations’, and as such represents a return to ‘identity’ rather than ‘territory’ as a basis for the way nations are defined. In my memory, this idea of ‘nations within nations’ began in apartheid South Africa, when the ruling race-based minority defined the indigenous majority as a set of semi-independent subject nations. (We may note that, in 2004, then National Party leader Don Brash made his infamous Orewa speech expressed concern about the threat – as he saw it – to New Zealand as a singular territorial nation within a world order of territorial nation-states. Notethis recent  commentary in stuff.co.nz.)
In Aotearoa New Zealand, this is taking an interesting turn, on account of the bi-national Treaty of Waitangi as the national foundational document, and, as such, the basis of an inchoate constitution. The possibility emerges of constitutionally equal co-nations within a single territory. Indeed, such an arrangement clearly fits the present philosophy of the leadership of New Zealand’s governing Labour Party. While the government is absolutely committed to territorial sovereignty – as per the Wilsonian post-WW1 system – it is flexible about internal nation-building based on partnership rather than the apartheid-like subservience of one domestic nation to another.
Further, we can already see how this concept of nationhood based on identity rather than territory may evolve, away from being strictly internal to territorial borders. We may consider the international labour system, which has been compromised but not eliminated by the Covid19 pandemic. This system is predicated on international labour contracts, with limited rights and obligations between contract workers and host nations; last century the labour system had been based much more on emigration/immigration, with eventual rights to permanent residence in host countries.
In New Zealand there is an RSE scheme (recognised seasonal employer), which is essentially a way in which territorial states such as Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga export services to foreign host countries. These workers cross New Zealand’s territorial border with strictly limited visas, which are completely dependent on the terms of pre-arranged labour contracts. So, within its territorial boundary, New Zealand is moving towards two (or more, if tribally-based) nations with citizenship rights, and denizen enclaves of foreign nations providing labour services to citizens.
In Australia we see similar patterns, although indigenous nationhood there is much less advanced. Australia contains large denizen enclaves which include both indigenous and non-indigenous New Zealanders. The rights of New Zealanders in Australia have diminished since 2001; New Zealanders, in recent years, have been detained in and deported from Australia on various grounds, including ‘bad character’. Thus, the emerging perception is that New Zealanders living in Australia belong to the New Zealand nation, not the Australian nation. This is part of a process whereby ‘people’ are morphing into ‘labour’. In ancient Rome, even former slaves had rights of host citizenship.
Background Understanding of the Geopolitical Crisis centred on Ukraine
The central problem here is, firstly, that the political leader of Russia – and his subjects, by and large – adhere to a pre-WW1 view of nationhood. Clearly Vladimir Putin has pretensions of being an emperor; an emperor of the Slavs, in essence. That does not mean he wants to incorporate all Slavic people into a greater Russian national territory; ie there is no evidence that he wants a return of the ‘Iron Curtain’. But it does suggest that ‘Slavic nations’ seemingly form a natural family of nations, with shared interests through shared identity. This is not a nationalistic view as in the Indian sense (whereby Indian nationals would reserve citizenship only to people of the Hindu faith); it’s fully inclusive of ethnic minorities within both core and peripheral ‘Slavic’ territories.
Secondly, the central problem is that the United States’ federal bureaucrats – as self-appointed custodians of the rules-based system of nations – hold to a purely territorial view of what constitutes a nation. Thus, to them, officially recognised borders – even accidental borders – are sacrosanct, and defensible by military means.
The United States geopolitical strategy – of facilitating, through sanctions, the creation of an “axis of evil” out of countries that refuse to conform with its vision of a territorial rules-based world order – is very twentieth century; is ‘Cold War’ without the explicitly ‘Communist’ bogey. While the Russian imperial worldview is also outdated, it might be slightly more in tune with an emerging twentyfirst concept of nationhood based foremostly – as pre-twentieth century – on identity rather than on the sacrosanctity of national borders.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.