One of the central ideas of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment era that followed was to place human reason above supernatural beliefs. The Enlightenment faith in rationality and in evidence that had been gathered from painstaking investigations based on the scientific methods were the harbinger of political notions such as equality, liberty and justice.
While the Enlightenment brought ideas about universal moral and political values which transcended borders, ideas of citizenship were also being promoted and were adopted by modern states to protect the interests of individuals living in certain geographic areas. Eventually, ideas about linkages between people who shared common languages and cultures were used to provide the intellectual underpinnings for the birth of the modern nation-state.
By the late 1800s, nationalist values were considered to be the outcome of human reason and science. Later still nationalism was considered by many to have become the cornerstone of modern society and polity.
However, the modern state has not been completely successful in weaving together modern norms of equality, liberty and justice with primordial notions of national identity.
Scientific and rational elements within various religions and cultures and their ability to give deeper meanings to social actions have prevented some modern states from jettisoning or rejecting older traditional notions. For instance, the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which was inspired by the Buddhist tradition, still has far more rational appeal to many Bhutanese people than does the modern concept of gross national product (GNP).
By the 20th century, nation-states had become an almost universal ideal pursued relentlessly in almost all parts of the world. While the nation-state model of governance has been promoted for many noble reasons, it has also resulted in real, conceptual and normative barriers to cosmopolitan thinking.
The past exerts a powerful hold on us all through symbols, myths and memories and all of these still play significant roles in the construction of national identities within modern states. A shared national identity is considered to be crucial to securing political obligations, to building social solidarity and to mutual respect between fellow citizens. Shared identity and values can also help to prevent arbitrary abuses of power and authoritarian rule.
The quandary for modern states is how to reconcile individual needs, as defined by moral and political universalism, with the collective impulses of the nation-state. Some liberal philosophers even contend that a state must be a more or less homogenous nation for there to be really effective governance.
The evolution of norms in international politics now defends pluralism in sovereign nation-states as a way to provide spaces for individual liberty and by seeking to prevent the accumulation of uncontrollable political power in global political institutions.
Hard borders in South Asia
The process of decolonization as Britain left the Indian subcontinent in 1947 led to the formation of two new nations. This has undeniably had a lasting effect on everyone in India and Pakistan and on the political processes of both states. Neither of these post-colonial states has been able to find an alternative to the nation-state system that developed in the West, against which both struggled for self-determination.
Critical questions of state-formation such as which factors should underpin national independence, nation-building and state-building were left unresolved. India and Pakistan, the two major powers in South Asia, simply adopted variants of the institutions and the processes of state formation that had developed in the West.
The questions of self-determination, irredentist claims and unresolved questions of nationalities were mostly addressed by mass emigration and by people changing their citizenship.
The hard borders set out in 1947 that were supposed to be a recipe for effective governance have actually become instrumental in supporting old-fashioned chauvinistic thinking
The hard borders set out in 1947 that were supposed to be a recipe for effective governance have actually become instrumental in supporting old-fashioned chauvinistic thinking. Observers have noted that the hard borders between India and Pakistan have failed to prevent the emotional bonding of people across the borders. In one case a Pakistani national called Akbar Durani fell in love with an Indian woman called Sofia and he moved to India to marry her, but he had to spend a year in jail because he overstayed his tourist visa.
In 2015 an Indian national called Hamid Nehal Ansari faced two years of investigation and three years in jail after he entered Pakistan through the northwest of the country to meet a friend without valid documents. Similarly, political and economic integration within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been marred by bilateral disputes between member states. These spats are a reminder of the recurring role of hard borders in international politics. Getting rid of borders, as the EU did, is often seen as a surefire method of increasing trade.
The integration that gripped Europe from the 1980s on was primarily spurred by the increasing pressures of globalized markets. European states believed that they could avert trade pressure and better deal with the global economy by formulating common economic policies and moving towards a borderless free trade area. So, unlike the quarrelsome South Asian states, the EU managed to stay with the nation-state system, while also promoting free movement of people, free trade, and political participation among the member states through soft-borders.
However, even regions like Europe where political as well as economic integration has been achieved to a large extent have still not been able to avoid the resurgence of nationalism.
The current debate about whether the United Kingdom would be better off leaving the European Union or remaining within it by changing the terms of its EU membership has made the world aware of just how resilient the idea of the nation-state remains and just how problematic it is.