John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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The Decline and Fall of the Nation State

Posted on February 14, 2011
In the 19th century, empires fell and in their place arose nation states.

The last of the empires, the Hapsburgs, Ottomans and the Romanovs, were wiped out in the first two decades of the last century, decimated by the First World War.

The nation state arose, based on the ancient Athenian concept of the City State. The idea was that nations of people would organize into representative democracies and that these democracies would somehow band into a league of nations that would make war a thing of the past. As Wikipedia pointed out, “the most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation-states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.”

The nation state was always better in concept than it was in reality.

Europe never quite got the nation state right in the twentieth century. First, came the fascism of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Tito. When they were defeated, a cold war and the Americans held the European continent together. When the Cold War ended, the Europeans briskly moved to establish the European Union, which aimed to tame nationalism once and for all.

Africa simply could never adjust to the idea of the nation states, as tribalism still largely triumphs over national identity.

The Middle East, neatly organized by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire into various nation states, never quite bought into the concept. The Persian empire still competes with the Arabs, as do the Sunni compete with the Shia.

This is not to say that the nation state didn’t have a good run. Nor is it to imply that it is impossible to move beyond tribalism.

Indeed, the last days of the Mubarak regime seems to hint at the future, a future that moves past tribalism and nationalism and into a brave new world of instant communications, transparency and bottom up power.

The stunning thing about the Egyptian revolution was where it started, which of course, wasn’t in Egypt. It started in Tunisia. The Egyptians threw off their chains of bondage because they figured out that they could by watching the Tunisians. It is as if we all started playing better golf by watching Tiger on the tube.

The true power players in this new political universe are not Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. They are the guys at Google and at Twitter. The googlers and the twitters don’t represent a nation state; they represent a technology. They don’t have any standing armies, but they can mobilize armies of protesters at a moment’s notice.

In the old days, it was awfully easy to clamp down on the media, repress dissent, control the marketplace and assert the will of the government over the will of the people. My guess is that Middle East revolution won’t just be contained to the Middle East. If I were part of the Chinese governing class, I would be afraid, very afraid.