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by Sam C. Holliday

A frequent contributor on Middle East topics takes a broad brush to paint a future for international affairs in the 21st century. Whether in this opinion piece he proves to be an accurate or an unrealistic prognosticator must be left to the future to determine. –Ed.

Events in North Africa and the Middle East suggest a fundamental change in international relations. This is a tsunami far greater than that caused by the earthquake off the coast of Japan—it foretells a new world order.

It is clear that many think the nation-state and nationalism are relics of the past and discredited political concepts—a legacy of 19th Century nationalism. However, there are four possible world systems for the 21st Century—one of which is a new version of nationalism.

1. The United States might remain a super power.

2. China, Europe, Russia, India, Brazil and an Islamic Caliphate might challenge the United States, creating a multipolar world of great powers.

3. The United Nations might become a world government.

4. Or, as suggested here, a new version of nationalism might provide stability, security, peace, and a better quality of life.

The United States is unlikely to remain a super power. Recently the United States has not demonstrated the will and determination to hold that status. From 1500 until 1914 European nation-states became the great powers of the world and together they were a super power. After World War I Japan became a great power and the United States surpassed all of them. However, since the 1960s there has been a weakening of the will and determination of the American people, even though the armed forces of the United States have been unchallengeable in conventional war. More telling has been an unwillingness to do what is necessary to maintain financial and economic superiority. Of added concern are the erosion of self-reliance and virtues (shared moral, ethic and religious beliefs), and an increase in bureaucracy.

Will future political leaders and the American people have the needed courage when faced with domestic and foreign threats? Or will they go wobbly? There is a movement to restore pre-1960 American exceptionalism, yet it probably will be defeated by postmodernism. Therefore, the United States is unlikely to remain a super power.

Since Charles De Gaulle there have been European leaders who wanted to challenge U.S. policies. Russia, China and Islamists have had the same goal. If they are successful, and are able to create their own spheres of influence, the result would be a multipolar world system of competing great powers. This would be a dangerous world since each of these powers might trigger a conflict capable of destroying most of the world. Such an outcome is unlikely to provide stability, security, peace, and an improved quality of life throughout the 21st Century.

Many dreamed of the League of Nations evolving into a world government—and that dream continued after 1945 with the United Nations. This dream is enhanced by unquestioning belief in “the rule of law” as a replacement for the use of force, by improved communication through technological changes, and by the desire of the elites to centralize power. If this dream became a reality it would mean the end of sovereignty, and an end of national interests as the key factor in international relations. The advocates of world government see a centralized world system as the only way to achieve peace and security.

Can we realistically expect an international system of many small sovereign nation-states to develop in the 21st century? Can we expect supranational organizations to be content with power limited to the regulation of commerce and communication within parameters prescribed by the nation-states? Can we expect nation-states to be the final authority on all matters of civil rights, civil responsibilities, education, justice, security, health, and welfare? Can international law be limited to law between sovereign nation-states–rather than aspiring to be a global legal system? Can we expect nation-states, as components of federations, to provide regional stability, peace and security? Probably the answer to all of these questions is no, unless there is consensus on the ideal international system of sovereign nation-states, plus considerable effort over many years to achieve that goal. The purpose of this essay is to present such an ideal and to suggest a realistic path to that goal.

Nationalism and Multilateralism
Some have claimed that much of what the U.S. has done since the Cold War was illegal since many operations by U.S. armed forces were not sanctioned by United Nations resolutions. Those who would give the U.N. sole authority on issues of international security and peace are convinced that nationalism is a cause of war; they do not see nationalism as a means for achieving stability, which is a prerequisite for peace and security. Those holding such views also propose strengthening the military capability of the U.N., and giving the U.N. taxing authority. They also want universal human rights to replace civil rights, and for human rights violations to justify the use of force.

Multilateralism is based on a utopian dream of a world of compassion and harmony—a world without oppression and inequality. During the 1940s and 1950s many saw nationalism as the cause of two world wars, the Holocaust, and other barbarism. By the 1960s the unilateral pursuit of national interests had become an evil in the minds of the enlightened. Therefore, for many policy makers multilateralism became the way to restrain the brutal consequences of nationalism. Multilateralism — not national interests – was their guide. However, by discrediting nationalism one of the most effective ways of solving problems is lost. On the other hand, nationalism for the 21st Century must be different from 19th Century nationalism.

There is no question about extreme nationalism being evil, but the same can be said about any ideology carried to the extreme. Therefore, how integral nationalism differs from sovereign nationalism needs to be defined.

Integral nationalism is intolerant and ethnocentric. Integral nationalism is linked to totalitarianism, and demands the highest loyalty be to the state. Integral nationalism seeks cultural and religious uniformity, plus institutional and economic unity. It tends to arise from religious or utopian beliefs, internal economic and political difficulties, or historical rivalries. The goal of integral nationalism is uniformity of purpose, appearance, beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices. It must be avoided in the 21st Century.

Sovereign nationalism is an expression of the human desire for freedom and self-government. It places an emphasis on popular sovereignty, a constitution, decentralization, and civil rights—it is legitimized by a social contract between a people and their state. Sovereign nationalism is often a melting pot resulting in E Pluribus Unum. It can create emotional ties, a common sense of identity and loyalties among the citizens of a nation-state. It is sovereign nationalism that offers hope for peace, security, self-government, and stability in the 21st Century.

Nationalism has a complex history. While a state is a political entity or polity, a nation is an emotional community. Yet a nation differs from a tribe, cultural (ethnic) group, religion, or civilization, which are also emotional communities. Sovereign states govern territory and are expected to have a monopoly on the use of force within their borders. A state first must achieve stability; after that the state can develop into a nation-state. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia established the state linked to a nation as the master political institution.

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama presented his views on mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. Recently in The Origins of Political Order he has stated that the three components of political order are: (1) a strong state, (2) the rule of law, (3) government accountability to its citizens. While his history of politics and his insights are useful, they fail to adequately explain the role of national identity or outline an ideal new world order.

Nationalism has its roots in the consolidation of feudal units in Europe and Japan into emotional communities that coincide with state borders. French and Prussia created their versions of nationalism in the late 18th century. However, nationalism only became associated with the common citizen after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when nation-states replaced monarchies. Japan went through a similar evolution. This transformation made the state, rather than many cohesive social factions, the primary focus of loyalty.

To see the future clearly we must free our thoughts from 19th Century nationalism, and realize that the “master-institution” of the 21st Century needs to be smaller—not larger. Our hope for a better future rests in decentralization and self-government–not in centralization. We must not seek uniformity of ideology and political institutions within an integrated world system. We must seek self-determination and diversity among nation-states. This is the new world order suggested in this essay.

The Three Factors of National Identity
Communication/economics is one of the three factors that constantly recur in the formation and preservation of communities. Technology has expanded communication, travel, trade, and economic activity beyond current political boundaries. The Genie cannot be put back in the bottle. As far as can be determined globalization of communication, transportation and commerce is here to stay. Also in many countries the other two factors, kinship (cohesion) and ideology (including religion), eroded as those states became too large for all of its citizens to feel a common sense of identity. These facts do not mean that kinship and ideology cannot be the bases of national identity. It does mean that the three factors of 19th Century nationalism can not be used in 21st Century nationalism; it must rely on only two factors: kinship and ideology.

The globalization of communication, transportation and commerce has seen the emergence of non-state factions with their own agenda that cross all state borders. This was very evident in the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East during the first part of 2011. These non-state factions do not limit their activities to lobbying, but are self-defining political entities. These factions (e.g. Face book and other social networks, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, etc.) challenge the power of all governmental structures and processes since they are able to influence hearts, minds, and policy, yet they have no accountability.

There are also non-state movements advancing their agenda. Of these the Islamists – both those who use terror and those who use subversion – pose the greatest challenge. Their goal is to reestablish the Caliphate; to do this they must drive the U.S. out of lands controlled by the first and second Caliphates, and remove all leaders of Muslim countries that do not accept their versions of Islam. This means there will be Irregular Warfare in all of these lands. Since the U.S. is the primary target of the Islamists the U.S. needs to improve its ability to shape minds, attitudes and behaviors in those lands—and among Americans and all allies.

To be successful Americans must understand why strategic communication is so important during Irregular Warfare. Strategic communication requires effective ways to counter those who would replace national interests with other interests. It requires ways to prevent intellectuals, the media, human rights lawyers, and opposition politicians from providing aid and comfort to those that want to weaken the United States. It requires a strong sense of common identity among Americans; it requires a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, rather than the pursuit of narrow self-interest, factional interests, an ideology, or some utopia. It requires power as a result of self-confidence, duty, being feared, being respected, and having faith; it requires realization that there is no such thing as “soft power”. It requires less concern for equality of outcomes, human rights, multiculturalism, and compassion for the disadvantaged. It requires a reversal of fragmentation, i.e. an end to political correctness and multiculturalism.

If we are prepared to adapt our institutions, rethink our philosophies, and accept fresh ideas, the factors of cohesion and ideology can revitalize nation-states. The world system can evolve into many unique, vibrant, stable nation-states existing in a peaceful world. This will require determination to revitalize the nation-state and nationalism. However, on the current path the world system probably will evolve into: (1) several great powers, which influence how the weak think and live, or (2) a new world order dominated by an all powerful world government.

The Revitalization of the Nation-State
Some (United States, Canada, European Union, India, Pakistan, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria) have attempted to become “multicultural nations”. However, “a multicultural nation” is an oxymoron since it cannot achieve the emotional community of a true nation, except when facing an existential threat. Internal stability is much more difficult to achieve when primary loyalties are to factions, rather than to a nation-state. To achieve internal stability others have used totalitarian measures to enforce uniformity—producing the evils of integral nationalism.

Ideally those in each nation-state would use a common language, but in the future all of those speaking a language will be too numerous to be united in a nation-state. Ideally there would be some “natural” geographical frontiers since attachment to a specific territory facilitates a feeling of belonging. Although a sense of kinship is a prerequisite for citizens of self-governing 21st Century nation-states, there is no single way this is achieved—each nation-state must create its own sense of kinship and ideology. Therefore, the basic challenge is for people of each nation-state to create a unique culture that will provide the bonds of kinship.

To achieve a sense of common identity, the nation-states of the 21st Century must be much smaller than the nation-states of the 19th and 20th Centuries. States have become too remote and impersonal for people to feel a kinship with all others within the territory of their state. Without a sense of common identity, individuals have become disinterested and apathetic. Civic pride has often been replaced by self-interest. Rather than working, and voting, for the common good, allegiance increasingly goes to factions struggling for a larger share of the benefits government can provide. Citizenship is usually taken for granted—it is rarely a focus of reverence, respect, and sacrifice. It is too often seen only as a way to obtain rights and benefits. It is rarely seen in terms of responsibility and duty.

Kinship (a sense of common identity or cohesion) can only be provided if those activities that concern the behavior of individuals are decentralized as much as possible—creating true nations. The sovereign states of the 21st Century would have to become the highest authority for all matters of civil rights, civil responsibilities, justice, education, local security, health, and welfare. And the laws of such states would have to reflect the values and attitudes of the nation within its borders. No federation, or supranational organization, should have authority to change decisions made by sovereign nation-states.

Reestablishing the sovereignty of nation-states will require a reversal of the pressure, from advocates of centralized authority through the “rule of law”. Behavior of individuals will have to be controlled as much as possible by national “custom and tradition”, and only when such Sacred Authority is ineffective would state prescribed law (Secular Authority) be used. Behavior of individuals should never be controlled by international law, which should be limited to the mediation of disputes between nation-states or federations of nation-states.

Federations of nation-states should have authority to regulate, and adjudicate, commercial activity, foreign relations, and the use of military force; they would be responsible for international security and peace. A new United Nations Charter would be required and the UN would be a forum for debate and diplomacy; it would not have supranational authority.

Although everyone living within the territory of the state should enjoy the rights and benefits offered by that state, governance should be limited to citizens, i.e. those who form the nation. Citizenship would be a privilege for those who earn it through supporting the kinship nation, not a right for anyone born within a state’s territory. Also civil rights would be linked to civil responsibilities.

As a consequence of citizenship in a nation being a privilege, sovereign nation-states would have three classifications of people within their territory: (1) citizens (those that have earned citizenship), (2) residents (those that have not yet earned, or have lost, citizenship), and (3) aliens (citizens of other states). There would be no universal “human rights” which apply to all people, but only civil rights derived from a contract between citizens and their state. Advancement and status would go to those accepting the cultural norms of the nation, and those rejecting such norms would be denied societal rewards—in other words there would be discrimination based on identification with the nation. These changes are a prerequisite for citizenship being the focus of reverence, respect, and sacrifice. However, those seeking a utopia with equality of outcomes (neo-Marxists), no oppression (Idealists), or conformity with ideologies of either the left or the right will always oppose such changes.

These changes will not come easily, since they will require fresh thoughts about old truths and convictions that originated with the Enlightenment. Universal suffrage, which was a ploy to weaken the power of the ruling class, should be replaced by citizenship based on merit: “one man, one vote” being replaced by “one citizen, one vote.” The concept of progress, as continuous betterment toward a messianic end, should be replaced by the concept of cycles through which nations form, grow, decay, and collapse.

An Ideal New World Order for the 21st Century
In a 21st Century of small self-governing nation-states, the citizens of each kinship nation should have their own sense of identity, and their own view of transnational religious, political, and economic ideologies. The citizens of each kinship nation must have their own unique way to give meaning to life and purpose to their community. Each nation-state would establish its own roles, rules, and standards.

Throughout history there has been a great variety of ideologies, each with its own track records. This provides adequate material for the citizens of each nation to create the ideology they consider best—an expression of self-determination. Some might build on existing economic or technological structures. Some might be guided on history and evolution. Others might build on Locke’s natural rights and Smith’s free market theories. Others might seek the utopia of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad, Hegel or Marx. All will either grow or decline.

Any realization of a new world order of smaller nation-states in the 21st century must start with the current international system. The larger countries (United States, European Union, Russia, China, India) would have to evolve into federations of nation-states. The small countries would have to be combined into regional federations. These federations would be the members of the United Nations, and they would be responsible for international relations and security. Each nation-state, and each federation, would have its own constitution, which would specify its institutions and processes of government. Armed forces would be furnished by the nation-states, yet they would be organized, trained, and under the operational control of the federations. Taxing authority would reside in the states, and the states would grant the necessary funds to the federations. There would be no other institution (including the UN) with the authority of governance; however, there would be treaties among the federations that could regulate matters of common concern, and the federations would fund all non-governmental organizations (including the UN). The UN would be a forum for the discussion of issues of international concern, and for the supervision of non-governmental organizations.

The Achilles heel of the world system described in this essay, as all international systems, is how to achieve security and peace. If the system cannot insure security and peace it will become irrelevant—no matter what else it might be, or do. In the proposed system, internal security would be the responsibility of each state; if any state could not provide internal security, it would be the responsibility of its federation to take the necessary step to insure security. The first such step would be through collective security arrangements among all states in the federation, and the second step would be through using the armed forces under the control of the federation. The United Nations would be a forum for debating any issue of security, but the use of force would have to come from decisions by the federations, in response to perceived threats to their own security. At each level the aim would be stability as a perquisite for security and peace.

History shows repeated efforts to centralize power, either by military force or economic influence. In the past centralization has been limited only by technology, communication, and transportation; however, since World War Two changes have created what some call a “global village”. But these changes have also destroyed the true strengths and benefits of a village — kinship and a common sense of identity. Centralized government serves the interests of an elite; it gives power to those factions that control the government. Decentralization serves the interests of the people, and allows the bonds of kinship to develop.


If an international system of many small sovereign nation-states is not realized what kind of world can we expect? It probably will be either (1) several competing great powers with spheres of influence—and nuclear weapons, or (2) an all powerful world government.

Since human beings do not like to change their institutions, or re-think their philosophies, can such obstacles be overcome and changed? They can, and this is what is required in order to achieve stability within and between nation-states. In order to reap the benefits of stability:

  • An ideal and a path to that goal must be proposed.
  • Then, after debate and modification, there must be acceptance.
  • Finally, there must be political action to create a new reality.End.

Sam C. Holliday is a graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, a former director of Stability Studies at the Army War College, and a retired army colonel. He earned a master’s in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in international relations from the University of South Carolina.

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