13 do nations coalesce into states from within?

Posted on May 14, 2011 by


Nations grow from within: or so the conventional historical trope goes. Nations coalesce around an idea, or a charismatic unifier, Mazzini and Garibaldi being two such personalities. The ensuing state may have to accommodate itself to the international political reality: hence the lack of congruence between nation and state, which is the cause of venomous squabbles with one’s neighbors.

This “virgin birth” view of nation- and state-building is being challenged by historical research. Here two examples.

The first area is the collapse of the Roman Empire under the onslaught of Germanic tribes – the Barbarians. The traditional view was that Germanic tribes emerged from the dark wilderness under charismatic leaders, battered down the Roman defensive walls, and swept through the empire.

Archaeological studies after WWII challenged this view. The Roman Empire was a centralized surplus extraction machinery in favor of the center and its legions. Its borders – the limes – were set at the point where the cost of conquest and control outstripped expected returns. The Romans had a swath of policies toward the groups beyond the limes. They were eerily akin to current immigration policies. Able bodies were needed – in particular after two bouts of devastating epidemics – to man the legions, to tend the fields and the factories. Immigrants trickled in unnoticed; larger groups were deported to the other end of the empire. Acculturation ensued. Trade was severely controlled: many of the border fortifications were established to manage trade, rather than to keep barbarians out. State-formation beyond the limes was encouraged – emerging elites were bribed to keep order among the masses as trade made them aware of opportunities just across the border. Bribery and extortion are two sides of the same coin: it all depends on the power relation between the two sides. Such dynamic policies were hard to sustain, and mistakes (the Romans blundered to defeat at Adrianopolis in 378) irreversible. The system eventually collapsed.

Nation- and state-formation in this perspective are the reaction of unstructured groups beyond the border to a nearby empire. They were the response to external factors. Their emergent political structures reflected this reality: “imperial confederacies”, autocratic and state-like in foreign affairs, but consultative and federally structured internally.

A similar pattern is found along the northern border of China. The nomadic tribes have been portrayed in the textbooks as acts of a malevolent (today of a climate-driven) god. This is not so. China’s central state formation during the Chin- and Han-, later the Sui- and T’ang-period created a centralized tax collection system. The nomads to the north promptly reacted by creating an extortion racket at the expense of the Chinese: nomadic imperial confederacies came into existence only in periods when it was possible to link themselves to a centralized Chinese economy (1).

Of course, the real history is much more complicated than this glimpse from a tourist bus careening at high speed through the dust of history. The lesson to be gleaned is nevertheless important. State formation may not so much reflect internal necessities as “opportunities” abroad.

This alternative view of state formation may be useful in addressing the failure of numerous states after they were granted independence after WWII. Furthermore, today’s “rogue states” may be naked models of extortionist structures having shed, like parasites in nature, all the trimmings of the modern state. And policies of the (imperial) core may not be naïvely judged as supportive of statehood beyond its borders. They may be in fact distortive of the state-building process. Foreign aid policies and their failures (2)  may find here an unorthodox explanation.

(1) Thomas J. BARFIELD (1989): The perilous frontier. Nomadic empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757. Blackwell, Oxford.

(2) William ESTERLY (2007): The white man’s burden. Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good. Oxford University Press, New York.