Nationalist leaders fail to create an international system for everyone | Nadine Gordimer

The road to national sovereignty has not always been smooth. At the heart of the European project, today’s political alliances have often looked more like a family quarrel than a serious management of the continent’s social and economic contradictions.

It is an indisputable fact that the modern state system evolved out of the backlash against communism, the utopianism of Hegel, the motivations of Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes and Locke, the conflicts of the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath, and the reactions to the defeats of Napoleon in France and Russia. The time after the first world war was the decisive turning point, but it was followed, in the French proverb, by a feast of paupers. The era of economic internationalism opened the door to an explosive mix of national movements: national liberation and nationalism that saw a political character and spawned social movement in their wake; the ongoing quest for national prestige; nationalism on the rise in the 1920s, presided over by the Bourbon monarchy, and into the cold war; and finally, during the Soviet era, the creation of state capitalism as the revolutionary basis of national divisions.

The revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to transform power or produce tangible security. Instead, all six continents of the Americas became colonies and the twentieth century witnessed bloodletting across the world in wars that ended on the battlefields of the 20th century, from the Boer war in South Africa to the Second world war and, just recently, the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

In the last century, for better or worse, nationalists did dominate Europe, and yet a new international system of nation-states in the globalised world does not exist.

Having brought peace to the world and opened the doors to a process of transfer of power, successive leaders in Europe placed it beyond their control. One cause of European crisis is that all leaders wanted to remain in power, and yet opted for leaving the European Union in an attempt to reinvigorate their careers at a time when they know the destination of their careers is a dead end.

Shaping global power: Why the multipolar future of international politics is already here Read more

National leaders are fearful of their own vulnerability; national pride is the great strength of a political system that has existed on the planet for almost 5,000 years, a system that has been tested, suffered great setbacks, undergone dynamic changes but still refuses to accept failure.

Today, if we took a common oath as the Greek citizens of 1821, it is as a collective, positive undertaking to build a world “for the citizens of all”.

And yet, in the face of the present global realities, it would be foolish for we to think that we shall alone solve these challenges. Building a better world is not one member of the community of nations determined to look after its interest. The upcoming outcome in Italy also indicates that the European project is liable to suffer the same fates as the postwar European states, especially in a world without the Soviet enemy or the state-dominated system.

The global system of nation-states must stop being in the business of “one global Britain” or in the “national service of one Germany”. It must shift direction, and offer opportunities for people and nations that would enable them to regenerate their systems, educate their communities and transform the world.

• Nadine Gordimer’s The House of Mirth is published by Hamish Hamilton

Leave a Comment