International Relations: A Brief History of Nationalism and the State-Centric System

We imagine states to be the significant entities in the world today. What states do determines what happens in the world. That’s a pretty interesting story, because it wasn’t always the way it is now… That state-centric system was a purposeful construction by the states themselves. The world moved from loose territorial groupings and kingdoms, through a period of huge empires, to the establishment of individual states. That doesn’t mean the concept of state-centrism is “wrong” or inaccurate, it just means it’s terribly interesting!

Welcome to the first post inspired by my political science minor! I’d intended to blog more closely with our schedule, but it turns out that schedule was pretty packed already. In hindsight, I totally should have done this BEFORE midterms as a review. Anyway, the very first thing we did in International Relations was cover this history of nations and states, basically how we got where we are now. (I’m speaking of course in the academic sense of national governments, not American-style states).

a legal entity with a permanent population, a well-defined territory, and a government capable of exercising sovereignty (supreme authority within the state).

At one point, world regions were very loosely defined. Kingdoms were interconnected, had constantly-changing borders, and things were pretty personal. If you look at a map of the world now, you see big black lines marking out borders. Some of these borders are still in dispute, but that kind of supports the point — we put those big black lines down anyway. Scholars generally start this trend with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. (Also called the Peace of Westphalia on Wikipedia, but I’m going with the term we used in class).

The Treaty of Westphalia marked the end of the Thirty Years War, a Europe-wide conflict between Protestant- and Catholic-identified kingdoms. About a third of central Europe’s population died in this war — not just a third of the soldiers, but a third of the population. Several thousand people were burned at the stake for heresy and witchcraft, huge swathes of Europe were devastated by rampaging armies, and kingdoms were bankrupted in the effort. It was basically a big deal. While some grievances lingered on, as you might expect from a war that took thirty years, the Treaty of Westphalia established each monarch’s right to determine his or her country’s religion, without interference from other countries. This was basically the foundation of that concept of sovereignty, intrinsic to the modern concept of a state. It sets up boundaries between states that other monarchs don’t have the right to cross.

Political world map with borders

Fast-forward a few hundred years. Mass media, specifically newspapers, became commonplace. Public education became expected. Both of these are tools for creating national identity. When people read newspapers, they connect themselves to others in their own country and contrast themselves with people in other countries. They start to care what’s going on in the world, not just in their own hometowns. Newspapers do engender fellow-feeling, but seem to promote nationalism more. With public education, the state could tell national founding myths, teach pledges of allegiance, and cultivate skills that society deemed to be useful. States invented the virtue of patriotism. (Napoleon is one guy who saw this happening and new exactly how to use it. He created armies of patriots instead of mercenaries and took violence to a new scale).

When you have a state, and add cohesive nationalism/patriotism, then you have a nation-state. Add imperialism, and, well, you have imperialism. (Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but so are most things). States competed for wealth and status by accumulating imperial/colonial possessions. The world wars took place between massive empires.

Now, there are as many causes for World War II as there are analysts, but the newspapers–nationalism connection is the little element that’s interesting to me at this point. From what I’ve been reading on my own:

At any rate, in 1945 those huge empires gave way to national independence movements and scattered away into many smaller countries, following the modern concept of states. Each country is supposed to be an actor on its own, sovereign in its territory. However, national identity versus imposed state identity is a big story in international politics now, in no small part because of arbitrary borders created after World War II. WWII victors carved the losers up into a variety of smaller nations, mostly based on their own convenience and preferences, ignoring local ethnicities and historical considerations. When the official state and the people’s nation don’t line up the state can have big problems, like Turkey’s ongoing struggle with Kurdish people living in its borders — the state decreed that Turkey existed and everyone living in a certain area was now Turkish, but the Kurdish people didn’t see it that way. The ongoing issues in Israel and Palestine are another example.

It’s not just WWII, there’s the Soviet Union breaking up into lots of smaller, mostly-ethnically-delineated countries around 1990. (That big crumble basically finished off the last official empire and completed the state-centric system). There’s Scotland holding referendums on separating from the UK. People seem to want their nations and states to line up. My professor termed those “strains from below,” while there are also “strains from above,” like the movement toward large multi-state associations like the European Union. We’ll have to wait and see how those trends develop.

3 thoughts on “International Relations: A Brief History of Nationalism and the State-Centric System

  1. Hi Hannah, this was a great article, well written and well thought out. I just have one nit-picky thing about one of the examples you used. Napoleon’s armies were (especially in the later years) primarily composed of conscripts, not volunteers, And were finally defeated on the Peninsula by an army of paid volunteers.

    sorry to be an ass and i truly thought that the main thrust of your piece was accurate, just one of your examples could have used a little work is all.


  2. I do hope you continue with this. We could do with some exploration of nationalism, media, and the changing definition of sovereignty.

    A few things you might like to think about that I was taught in my own studies:

    “Peace of Westphalia” is a more comprehensive term, and refers to the larger settlement. Not only the Treaty of Westphalia, but also treaties signed at Osnabruk and Ulm. There may have been others, I can’t remember.

    If you’ve never read The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu, you definitely should. He’s as astute on the big-picture stuff as Machiavelli, and he says the king needs to be “The King of France,” not merely “The King of the French.” That’s an important distinction. It’s a move toward constructing a national identity based on territoriality and not simply ethnicity. He also moved France toward having a standing army rather than relying on feudal relationships for military power.

    In my International Organization course, one of the last units was called “New Actors.” It dealt with IGOs, NGOs, and groups like Hamas. It also discussed mass media organizations as political actors rather than merely observers or transmitters of ideas. I think what you’re saying here about newspapers generating nationalism (Remember the Maine!!!) goes right along with that.

    I can’t wait to read what you have to say about novels, and about social media. This is definitely worth devoting further time and attention to.


    1. Great info, thanks!

      Dr. T asked the class to give examples of non-state international actors, and we spent about half the class discussing them. Common examples were international corporations, the EU, NGOs, and terrorists. No one mentioned mass media organizations in particular, but that’s such an obvious connection now that you mention it, especially with the newspapers-nationalism factor!

      I’d be interested to find out if international media still fosters nationalism in individual countries or if it helps promote international solidarity, and how the slant of the organization affects that. I’m thinking of a project I did a few years ago about Egypt and some stuff I was reading about how Egypt is the big exporter of media in northern Africa so people often follow its lead, and the little wave of revolutions going on at that time from country to country. It was just some passing references in an overall discussion of the riots in Egypt that were happening that weekend, but I’ll have to see if I can find that stuff again.

      Anyway, I’m not sure how/when I’ll go about researching this at the moment, but I’m sure there’s preexisting research and it goes along with my research on novels and human rights, so I’ll keep an eye out. (That topic is getting bigger and bigger, as of right this second I’m thinking about making it my senior project for next year…)



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