Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Long Live the Nation-State

(Wodicka/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Recently, Singapore celebrated 50 years of nationhood. The success of this remarkable country is a vivid exemplar of the proposition that we still live in a world of nation-states.

Singapore’s birth in August 1965 was traumatic. It was a tiny country with no natural resources, a land area of less than 1,000 square kilometers, and a population of only 1.9 million. Effectively, it had been ejected from the Federation of Malaysia because the pro-Malay policies of the Federation discriminated against the ethnic Chinese who constituted the bulk of Singapore’s population.

Under the energetic and visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporeans set about building a powerful city-state. Half a century later, Singapore’s per capita income is the envy of the region. Its economic stability is a magnet for capital investment from around the world.

As the current Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, once remarked to me, “The only resource we had was our people.” More specifically, Singapore was nourished by four crucial elements. First, there was the ferocious work ethic and belief in the importance of education, derived from the Confucian tradition. Then there was a strong commitment to free and open trade. In addition, English was taught in schools and maintained as the language of commerce, which bound Singapore’s three ethnic groups — Chinese, Malays, and Indians — together. Finally, preserving the essence of the British judicial system cemented the nation-state’s unity and stability.

Singapore has played a role as an active regional citizen, but it has also pursued an independent foreign policy unbeholden to other nations or groups. It is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but it has been more openly pro-American than the other members of that group.

In an era in which too many nation-states have preached the virtues of multilateralism and pooled sovereignty, Singapore has remained both independent and highly successful, proving that with the right skills and leadership, the nation-state can not only survive but prosper.

Ironically, the past few months have seen the stirrings of nation-state passions in the very country that was once Singapore’s colonial master, the United Kingdom. There is a growing prospect that Britain will vote to leave the European Union, something that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Much will depend on what emerges from Prime Minister David Cameron’s negotiations with EU leaders as the terms on which Britain might remain in the EU.

Those who are horrified at the prospect of a “Brexit” usually base their arguments for Britain’s EU membership on economics. Important though this consideration may be, it doesn’t address the growing sense in the United Kingdom that key features of EU membership constitute an affront to British sovereignty.

It was always understood that Britain would have to surrender some sovereignty when she joined Europe. Yet in the halcyon pro-European 1970s, this didn’t seem to matter so much. There were to be massive benefits — and wasn’t the world moving toward greater multilateralism in any case? Forty years on, as Britain faces different challenges, such as homegrown terrorism and pressures from unchecked immigration, a very different attitude prevails.

Contrary to what the advocates of the European project asserted, the European Union has reduced, not increased, Europe’s global power. Consensus to act is difficult to achieve among so many nations. And membership in the wider group constrains initiatives by individual states or is used as an excuse for inertia.

It rankles many Britons that their nation’s courts are subjugated to the European Court of Justice. Likewise, Britain is unable to negotiate her own trade agreements directly with other nations, especially in the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region. These considerations, coupled with almost daily reminders that Britain no longer controls her own borders, have fueled a growing belief among Britons that their elected government is no longer in charge of certain key policies. Of course, they are correct: As part of the European Union, it isn’t.

The trade issue provides a stark example of lost sovereignty. In the past year, Australia has negotiated free-trade agreements with China, Japan, and Korea. Negotiations for one with India have begun. It would literally be impossible for Britain to make any such agreements, as Brussels controls all such negotiations for EU member states. That may not have seemed to matter several decades ago, when multilateral free-trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Agenda were in vogue. But Doha has failed, and, increasingly, bilateral agreements that reflect international norms of openness are the preferred route.

Thus, a celebration of a half century of Singaporean success as a nation-state, together with a growing resentment within Britain that she no longer has all the attributes of a nation-state, reminds us that we still live in a world of nation-states. To pretend otherwise is delusional.

In my time as prime minister of Australia, I measured the foreign-policy successes of my government according to the health of a series of important bilateral relationships, not by the intensity of our multilateral activities.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia have always been problematic. That country not only is our nearest neighbor but is fundamentally different from us in population, culture, religion, and political heritage. It is the most populous Islamic country in the world. Guiding Australia’s relationship with Indonesia through such difficult challenges as the Asian financial meltdown, the independence of East Timor, and the terrorist attacks in Bali was in every way a bilateral challenge. In each instance, it was a case of two nation-states reaching an understanding with each other. The cooperation between our security forces in fighting Islamic terrorism, for example, was due entirely to the negotiations of the two nations, their leaders, and their government agencies. It owed nothing to regional associations, valuable as those were in other contexts.

Likewise, Australia’s success in strengthening her relations with both China and Japan, despite ongoing tensions between those two erstwhile enemies, has derived from a capacity to deal in a successful bilateral way with each of them.

The refugee crisis now burdening Europe is a humanitarian disaster. It flows directly from the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, for which the murderous behavior of the Islamic State is primarily, although not solely, responsible. The failure of the West several years ago to decisively support moderate opponents of the Assad regime played a large part in producing the havoc Europe is now experiencing.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees’ desperately seeking admission to European countries paradoxically requires both compassion and hard-headedness. The most needy deserve shelter and comfort, yet a completely open-door policy will only magnify the problem.

This refugee challenge reminds all European nations that the right to control one’s borders is a basic element of national sovereignty. Fourteen years ago, I declared, during an election campaign, that “we will decide who will come to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” It struck a chord with the Australian people. It came at a time when unauthorized asylum seekers were threatening the historic support of the Australian people for high levels of immigration to our country, as well as the maintenance of a generous and humanitarian refugee policy.

My government’s policy worked. The illegal arrivals, often on fragile boats — many of which sank, taking lives with them — were stopped. This was done through a combination of intercepting and turning around boats when safe to do so, as well as processing asylum seekers offshore from Australia. A subsequent government reversed this policy, with disastrous consequences. But when a later government restored our earlier policy, the Australian people felt that their government again controlled their borders.

Support for immigration continues to be strong in Australia, and our people continue to support a generous refugee policy. A measure of this generosity is the willingness of Australia to receive 12,000 Syrian refugees.

There is a basic public-policy point here. My long experience in Australian politics has been that whenever a government is seen to have immigration flows under control, public support for immigration increases. When the reverse occurs, hostility to immigration rises. With this in mind, I am sure that many of the member states of the European Union now wish that they still had complete control of their borders.

The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, established the nation-state as the main organizing principle of world affairs. Across the world, there is plenty of contemporary evidence that the instinct to preserve that principle remains as strong as ever. 

– Mr. Howard is a former prime minister of Australia.

In This Issue

Features

Politics & Policy

The Twitter Trap

Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A die-hard progressive living in a liberal enclave (usually when this story is told, it’s about the late New Yorker film critic Pauline ...
Politics & Policy

The Apology Policy

President Barack Obama strutted into the Oval Office utterly convinced of his moral rectitude. Unlike his predecessors, Obama would make policy based on an exquisitely calibrated conscience, sensitivity to constitutional ...
Politics & Policy

Climate Coercion

Predicting catastrophe is a lucrative business. By doing so, the big environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Sierra Club, have grown ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Onward

Sixty years ago, WFB said of this brand-new journal that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” — in the spirit not of a bearded zealot carrying a hand-lettered sign, but ...

Most Popular

Sports

It’s Time for Colin Kaepernick to Move On

Colin Kaepernick. Remember him? Below-average quarterback. Above-average poseur. Not “activist,” not really. Activists actually say stuff. Kaepernick almost never says anything. He’s like the Queen or most popes — you have to read the deep-background musings of supposed members of his inner circle to get ... Read More
U.S.

What The 1619 Project Leaves Out

“The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” The New York Times Magazine editors declare. “Doing so requires us to place ... Read More
Elections

Trump and the Black Vote

"Donald Trump is a racist, white supremacist, white nationalist. So are his supporters." Some version of that refrain is heard almost hourly somewhere in mainstream media. Democratic politicians seem to proclaim it more often than that. Listening only to the Left, you'd conclude that more than half a ... Read More
PC Culture

Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness

This might come as some surprise to observers of our campus culture wars, but there was a time, not long ago, when the situation in American higher education was much worse. There a wave of vicious campus activism aimed at silencing heterodox speakers, and it was typically empowered by a comprehensive regime of ... Read More
U.S.

The Age of Miscalculation

On August 7, 1998, more than 200 people were killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Americans learned three names most of them never had heard before: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda. On August 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered a ... Read More