So let’s go over precisely what a nation-state is. It’s gotta be hyphenated for a reason. The first word, nation, means a common cultural group – the nation of France loves wine, cheese, and hates the nation of England but not enough to go to war over it.
When building a nation-state, the first thing you need to find is a group of people who are more or less able to communicate with one another and who won’t get into fights over stupid shit all the time, like the nature of God or who you can have sex with under what circumstances.
You then have to build a government around that group. This is the ‘state’ part. This government should be able to deliver simple services, like building roads and schools, and ought to be able to keep other governments from wandering in and taking stuff. A government that can’t do that is considered a failed one – hence the term, “failed state.” Somalia is still a nation because it’s got a common culture, but it’s a failed state because its government can’t do much besides get bombed by rebels and beg for foreign aid.
The nation-state is the most durable state entity humanity has yet come up with. We’ve tried some ridiculous things, like saying some dude on a big chair is a representative of the sun and that’s why we should listen to him no matter what stupid things he says. It was and still is relatively easy to undo a state. All you have to do is remove the top leadership and shut down the government’s ministries in the capital city. Conquering a state is as simple as rolling into Baghdad. Conquering a nation is a whole other matter.
Nation-states are, like all things made up of humans, obsessed with their survival. Their number one priority is always security. Some nation-states, like the United Arab Emirates, are geographically isolated and strategically vital, so they’re able to outsource their security to bigger powers. Others, like Rwanda, are in crowded neighborhoods and are completely on their own, where the law of the jungle literally prevails.
A nation-states security is dependent therefore on where they are and what they have. A Gulf Arab country sitting on tons of oil can get free security from the West because they have something the West wants. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, America rode the rescue. When Rwanda invaded Congo in 1997-8, America yawned.
A nation-state’s place in the world, therefore, dictates their obsession with security. A nation-state like the UAE can sit tight and enjoy the sights. A nation-state like Rwanda must push the enemy’s frontiers back using any means necessary.
Rome’s republic acquired an empire nearly by accident. Each war was an attempt to settle the frontier. But by acquiring new territory and new buffer zones, the Romans encountered new enemies they then had to settle. Defeating the Italians meant having to face down the Celts and Carthaginians. Beating those two meant facing the Greeks and Gauls. Over the course of five centuries, the Romans slowly built a superpower.
All nation-states do the exact same thing. Beating one enemy simply means having to beat another. America defeated Mexico and became supreme in the Americas. It then had to face down European and Asian rivals. With the fall of the Soviet Union, America largely won Europe, but now has foes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
America cannot physically dominate the Earth in the next century, but will attempt to do anyway because that’s the nature of a nation-state. What’s the safest place for any person to be? At the top of the pyramid. America will continue to scramble for the top because that’s the best guarantee of survival. It will attempt to stop a multi-polar world at all levels and it will work to remain the hegemon for as long as possible.
It won’t matter if there’s a multi-lateral president in the White House. That person may manage to give other nation-states some breathing room, but they will eventually give way to a more aggressive president who will undo all their work.
Thanks to nuclear weapons, America cannot do this in the traditional way of empire-building and conquest. It must be far more subtle. Additionally, breaking a nation is incredibly difficult and often isn’t worth the expenditure. Far better to co-opt the state part through foreign aid, alliances, and soft power. Occasionally, states, like Saddam’s, will have to be broken to put the fear of God in everyone. But otherwise, America will balance powers against one another to its own benefit.
This cycle cannot end until the nation-state system is discarded. Nation-states must behave this way; it’s like asking a dog not to bark. What’s the option besides the nation-state? Well, communism, despotism, and monarchism have all already been tried and found shit. The most likely way forward is a globalized world culture, one that essentially makes all humans into one “nation” by binding us through a common language and way of life. This process is well underway. It will be a common globalized nation that may one day give way to a single world state.