Could 2017 become 1648 in reverse? Just as the 1648 Peace of Westphalia determined statehood in terms of nationality (that is, spawning the one-nation-one-state maxim), the year 2017 seems to be sticking out as a touchstone moment in the breakdown of nationality-based statehood. To be sure, not all developments leading to this hypothesis occurred during 2017; but the year seems to have been a converging point of both a devolving tendency within certain nation-states and an experimentation moment to look beyond the state.
Catalonia's independence referendum perhaps catalysed the hypothesis. Yet it was brewing from a similar referendum in Scotland in 2014, indicating how two of the original states (Spain, a nation-state; and Great Britain, of which Scotland is a component, a state-nation), have begun to fray where it matters the most: in wanting to shift top loyalty to a smaller entity than Spain, but within Spain, rather than to a larger one, like the European Union (EU), which has been an experiment since 1950.
Needless to say, it is a development of growing concern. Great Britain and Spain have denied and defied any wavering of the state as it currently stands; and both have shown double determination in nipping devolving identities within the state.
By extension, therefore, even the European Union is worried. Constituting a string of nation-states, including the first ones in history (France and Spain), it has more reasons to worry than any state: any ripple effect would run faster, cut deeper, and challenge EU existence more gravely than any intra-state separatist attempt would that particular state, since the state carries more effective countervailing instruments that the EU collectivity does not.
At a time of overburdened statehood and the first EU exit case of a member, more than any other state, West European states have to be overly concerned. Without EU viability, its weaker members may end up in a financial tailspin that could fragment society significantly, with Greece, Italy, and Portugal particularly vulnerable; but even the stronger members, like Germany, may find calls for small-scale identity more appealing given the populist, that is, nationalism/sectionalism-enhancing, surge. Elections this year in Denmark, France, Germany, and Austria, in that order, raises more than qualms about the future of identity at two hitherto prominent levels: state and European.
With the European state defenceless and European integration more rudderless than ever (albeit size may be one of the reasons why), a different kind of regionalism, that is, within any given nation-state, may be more primed than before, making 'defection' from extant identities more possible with each passing year under a 'populist' resurgence. Among other factors, populism portrays excessive individualism, itself the natural outcome of each of democracy and a neo-liberal economic framework. As one of the most popular forms of identity in this Internet-driven 'selfie' age, individualism provokes ethnic and regional differences within European countries almost as ferociously as racial and religious. If present racial and religious divisions stabilise, ethnic and regional divisions may get too primed, therefore too loaded, to stay silent.
Nationality may be faring worse outside Europe, in part, due to artificial construction. An Afghanistan without an Afghani plurality for identity, Iraq without Iraqis per se, or a Pakistan without equal Pakistani claims, even the most robust less-developed entity, India, without as many India-claiming subscribers as the number of Indians in the population tally. Almost all face the perils of a multi-nation-state, with a day of reckoning looming as to how those nationalities not behind the steering-wheel will continue in their subservient role: it may be less the Sikhs now than in the 1980s for India, with increasingly restive Seven Sister States in its Northeast Provinces; of Pakistan's People's Party-Muslim League political rift ending as a Sindhi-Punjabi showdown, not to mention the ever-persecuted Baluchis and Pathans prickling Pakistan; or Sunnis versus Shias versus Kurds in Iraq; or even Tadjiks versus Pashtuns in Afghanistan.
While these strengthen the nation-state at the expense of the state-nation or multi-nation-state, they also confront the new 21st Century challenges: the Internet-driven individualism that could make nation-state as much of a mincemeat dish as the nation-state can to the state-nation and multi-nation-state. Recently surging terrorist groups testify to the growth of this possibility.
More cancerous for Muslim states (of whatever stripes) is what extremism implies. Since Islam knows no political boundary (nor too, one supposes, other religions), with extremists stridently preaching its dissolution, Muslim countries face a more invisible and ephemeral threat to both their identity and existence. This is not a back-burner issue any more.
As the squashing of Islamic State across Iraq and Syria demonstrated in 2017, not only the countries Islamic State was carved out of, but even former superpowers had to get involved to eliminate it. Even then, the mission was not instantly concluded, instead got protracted and slipped for too long for comfort. If this rang alarm bells for territory-based states elsewhere, any revamped crusade to enhance state-nation or multi-nation-state identity further could corrode social cohesion within already fractured countries, inviting even more transnational movement and non-state actors to challenge the state.
At stake is not just identity yet again, compounded by such shifting sands as comparative economic advantage claims (which could be within an industry, for example, or sector, state, or even product-specific), but also the human mindset as it fluctuates based on expected rewards (that is, comparative disadvantage disintegrating into nationalism, and advantage sparking cosmopolitanism). Technological access, through which the mindset disseminates across national, ethnic, racial, or religious lines, factors into the equation by beckoning mercenaries the world over, or seeking transnational rewards as narco-traffickers have. Human migration may be one unsuspecting instrument, with many 'pull' factors stemming from technology-induced labour-shortages, assimilation deficits increasingly translating into 'push' factors, and a host of 'secular' factors based upon the inherent human capacity to consistently change loyalties, contexts, and identities intervening surreptitiously.
'After 2017, the deluge' may sound like a fitting epilogue to the phenomena being described; but sorting identities out may be too consuming to permit its full appreciation. What 2017 has exposed most dramatically is the panoply of players, predictions, and preferences, all expanding beyond manageable levels. The state has been the most effective (but not necessarily efficient) gatekeeper of them all. Yet it faces more gathering clouds globally than ever since World War II ended. 'Out with the old and in with the new' might be the most appropriate call of the day, were it not for all the marbles already put into play.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.