A Crisis Of The State? The End Of The Post-Westphalian Model

Carlo BordoniBefore we delve into the reasons for the crisis of the state it is necessary to clarify the meaning of ‘nation’. Nation has a cultural connotation and its distant origins are historically much older than state: it is still recognisable as a nation even when its borders have not been marked out and, at least formally, it is still not a state with its own laws. A population that is recognised as a nation feels free in the territory in which it lives and does not need to set limits on their freedom of movement within that space that they feel belongs to them.

And yet a country can continue to exist only if it exists as a state, that reinforces its identity and ensures precise territorial limits, because while the idea of “nation” is a feeling, the state – more pragmatically – needs a territory in which to take root. According to Jürgen Habermas, on the other hand, “national community does not precede the political community, but it is the product of it” (The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, Polity Press, 2000, p. 76). A statement which is partially accepted, if we admit that the idea of nationality can mature only within a state, which, however, does not take into account the presence of a core of national feeling (although not institutionalised) on which to build a state.

State and nation go together and support each other, but something began to change in the late seventies and subsequent decades, in correspondence to the dissolution of modernity.

The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai was the first to report that the concept of nation is entering a crisis (Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota, 1996), because it is the very cultural identity that is first damaged by the change taking place. What is called into doubt is the idea of the national community, based on the same language, same customs, same religion, same culture.

The opening of borders is preceded by a cultural openness that upsets the age-old certainties. The idea of nation endures while the presence of linguistic, religious or political minorities is “confined” temporarily or geographically in “enclaves” in ghettos, in refugee camps or in shelters. Then, when the diasporic communities begin to see recognition of their rights as citizens with full rights, and then demand recognition of their “diversity” with respect to the obligation to integrate (the customary path towards equality), the ‘unity of the nation begins to crumble.

Already in the nineties, Appadurai talked about post-national states, where diasporic communities are no longer occasional or temporary events, but long-lasting ones built into the system, which have become an integral part of the culture and history of a country. The term post-national better defines the earlier concepts of multinational and international, that remain fairly strongly related to economic, legal and practical dependence with the state as reference, until the entire system is weakened.

We live in a constant state of crisis, and this crisis also involves the modern state, whose structure, functionality, effectiveness (including the system of democratic representation) are no longer suited to the times in which we live.

There are many critical issues facing the modern state and the causes are many: some induced by deep historical and cultural changes that took place between the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the third millennium, others by political and economic choices that led to consequences in people’s daily lives, further exasperating the distance from the institutions.

In the first place, the end of the post-Westphalian model. It appears crucial to an understanding of the present condition starting from the loss of meaning of this model of balance between states, which has stood for centuries and has been the cornerstone of international relations. The Treaties of Westphalia (Münster and Osnabrück) in 1648 (then essentially reconfirmed by the statute of the United Nations) have established some basic principles on which to base the rights and limits of the modern state, the new civil system that was born from the ashes of feudalism and that Hobbes represented as metaphoric in Leviathan: a form of monstrous strength made up of all the men who gathered together and recognised each other in a superior unity.

Based on the principle of limited sovereignty, the post-Westphalian model recognises in the modern state absolute and indivisible sovereignty over its territory and ownership in international relations, of which it is the sole subject.

If for a long time the state and nation have been able to live together, united on a historical and legal level by the insolubility of the fundamental principles that modernity assured, it was thanks to the agreements made in the Treaties of Westphalia, at the end of the long religious war, that had shattered Europe for thirty years. Since then, modern states, in the form that we have known for centuries, have standardised the so-called “post-Westphalian model”, which sets down the rules of universal stability and recognises the full sovereignty of a state within its own borders.

In the third millennium, it is the very post-Westphalian model that enters into crisis, dragging with it the crisis of the modern state, which is determined not only by the opening of borders, but by the inability demonstrated in maintaining its commitments to its citizens. In this phase, it is the “internal” boundaries that create problems. Security, defence of privilege, identity, recognition and cultural traditions, which once coincided with the boundaries of the post-Westphalian state, are now altered, uncertain, liquid. They are no longer reliable.

The dissolution of geographical or temporal limits imposed on diasporic communities determines the well-known phenomenon of the turnaround: if in the past it was the majorities that enclosed the minorities in “enclaves”, now it is the same majorities that shut themselves inside the “gated communities”, guarded by private security guards, by electronic control and security systems; jealous of the privacy that is no longer guaranteed on the outside.

Now it is clear how this model entered into crisis with the development of globalisation, whose explosive force has erased the boundaries between states and undermined any claim of absolute sovereignty. But the consequences of globalisation are not limited only to undermining the rules of international relations; they have led to a further upheaval, removing the power and raising it to a higher level. Now it is distant and spread on a global level, thus separated from politics, with which, up to now, it had been intimately linked. Hobbes’s Leviathan, deprived of its operating arm, is reduced to a mutilated body that wallows in its impotence. It gets agitated, argues and proclaims, but can not do anything even when it has made momentous decisions because the operational side is the responsibility of others. This no longer belongs to it.

The separation of politics and power is lethal to the modern state. Especially if it is a democratic state, whose constitution has promised its citizens to let them take part in common decisions that but now are taken by bodies that are non-democratically appointed or controlled from the bottom. The tragedy of the modern state lies in its inability to implement at a global level the decisions taken locally. The citizen, for example, elects their representatives to the European Parliament, who, in turn, elect committees and subcommittees, where executive decisions are taken by the last organisational bodies, formed on the basis of a series of institutional changes, the complexity of which should be a guarantee of impartiality and independence.

If it were just a matter of bureaucracy, complicated by the presence of more than one body, the system would still retain some form of democracy, although there is no direct relationship (no feedback, no opportunity to reply) between the last of the voters of a small European country and the drafter of a Community regulation. The problem is more serious, from the moment when the most important decisions on an economic, financial and developmental level are taken not by institutional bodies, as required by a democratic system, though it be a rather loose network, but by groups of power, by holding companies, multinationals, lobbies and the so-called “market”, that is by a summation of personal actions, technical consequences, emotional reactions, political will and particular interests that overlap in a very confusing manner and determine the fate of millions of people without any liability. Everything seems to happen because this is how the world turns and no one is able to oppose it. Not the people taking to the streets, protesting, whose only result is, at best, to sensitise public opinion that is otherwise distracted by an excess of information. Not even the nation-state, which does not have the instruments needed to operate at global distances and never had, since the issue had never been raised before.

Before being physical, political, legal and economic, in compliance with the post-Westphalian model, borders have always maintained that balance of strength and relationships which now no longer exists.

The crisis of the state coincides with the crisis of the post-Westphalian model, whose certainties have been swept away by the opening of borders, by increasingly more rapid exchanges of communications, by an economy at a global or supranational level and, not least, by a culture which is no longer at a local level, and is deeply influenced by suggestions, information, and comments from all over the world. The global village of McLuhan was created (or is being created) thanks to economic and cultural exchange, but at the expense of system-states that it is no longer in line with the changing times.