National self-determination is a vicious idea

“The Jews” do not have a right to national self-determination. “The Palestinians” do not have a right to national self-determination. Neither “Ukrainians” nor “Russians” nor “Estonians” nor “Chinese” have a right to national self-determination. There is no group or tribe called "the Americans" who have a right of national self-determination. There was no such thing as “the Germans” when Bismarck began to unite the state that is now Germany, which is not Austria or Denmark or Switzerland or Holland despite historical and ethnolinguistic entanglements.

“National self-determination” is a stupid, vicious, pernicious idea. It should be counted among the most destructive ideas in all of human history. The conceit that there are a priori nations to which some set of rights and dignities must inhere even at the cost of violent struggle pits human against human in the name of fabricated, ever shifting flags. However powerfully our emotions may become mixed up with these identities, they merit no moral deference. People engage in violence on behalf of sports teams. Their passions may be deep and sincere. But those United for Manchester have no right of self determination that justifies defiance of the laws of their state.

Nation is a flame that burns hot and fickle. It offers no foundation upon which to build a humane and peaceful world. Modernity is not built of or on behalf of nations. Modernity is built upon sovereign states.

States are constructed from boundaries that are at best arbitrary. There is no justice in the armistice lines of whatever ancient squabble defined the border of your state. There is no justice in lines drawn on behalf of colonizers by Sykes and Picot. But what is important is that there are lines.

The lines may be, they always are, wrong in some important sense. At a given moment, they may not match linguistic or perceived ethnic communities. They may have resulted from unjust conquest. But once they are mutually recognized, once states emerge that, however resentfully, accept this side of the line is ours, that side of the line is yours, then and only then is any kind of peace possible.

These lines divide, but they also join. We make them solid and they make us solid in much the same way as marriages. A much larger community than the states that coadjoin recognizes the lines, and promises to uphold them, to shame or shun or even to attack any party that should violate them. Like the topography of marriages in a medieval village, borders are simultaneously pure fictions and the solid foundation of communal life. They cannot be sundered unilaterally, and should not be redrawn lightly, but only with mutual accord of the parties most affected.

History offers ample evidence that deference to borders, however arbitrary and illegitimate their provenance, is far superior to rekindling conflict about where they should be drawn. States with stable borders, even borders unfavoraby drawn against their will, can live in peace and prosper. (Consider Singapore.) When borders are uncertain and violently contested, only the devil prospers.

States precede nations. That’s not a descriptive claim. Of course before the emergence of any given state, there would have been groups sharing language, customs, sentimental bonds. But there is neither peace nor permanence in stateless tribes. If you must call them nations, then they are the worst kind of nations.

E pluribus unum is the work of every state. If you think a state has succeeded because it is “homogeneous”, you've got cause and effect backward. The condition of humankind without organized states is tribal. When observed over time and at scale, you find not stable homogeneity but continual fluidity, as conquests and massacres and migrations and alliances and the simple lack of authoritative dictionaries mean everything from religion to race to language shift, diverge, and remix. For a state to survive and thrive it must, within whatever borders that emerges, forge a nation that will sustain the state, and vice versa. The French were never a nation until a series of events, over time and sometimes quite violently, created France as a shared polity to which its subjects owe deference, within which they accept a shared identity. States build nations much more than they emerge from them.

Nation-building is a continual process. The forces that render nations fickle and often violent in the absence of states continue in their presence. People continue to migrate. Citizens embrace multiple identities, some of which are shared across borders, others of which might fragment the polity. Ideas and new identities continually emerge. They vie for adoption, and become new bases for cooperation and competition that may threaten to destabilize the state.

Successful states work continually, assimilating, accommodating, and excluding (in the framework of Harris Mylonas, inventing and reinventing the nation in order to sustain conditions of effective coordination at scale. Traditions that might seem stable reflect continual reinvigoration, not mere passive inheritance. What is new and changing might represent decay, or else innovation and adaptation. We can only tell the difference ex post, when the nation coheres and the state functions, or not.

Even when borders hold and are not meaningfully contested, states can fail. A state is not only a territory, but a territory within which a monopoly of legitimate violence obtains. What does that even mean? In any state there is freelance violence. There is nowhere without crime. What renders violence "legitimate”?

Legitimacy sounds very subjective, almost populist. Is a state “legitimate” because the masses agree with it, because people like it? No. It’s nice when they do, maybe even helpful, but nice isn’t what we’re after.

We measure the legitimacy of a state by whether those on its territory both conform to it and resort to it. When the state commands, in the civilized tone of some legal notice (the threat of violence echoing faintly from the pages), do citizens obey? Or do various factions succeed at resisting, ignoring, and defying its edicts? When residents enter into dispute, do they draw their own weapons, or make use of the state’s courts and legislatures and police? Legitimacy is revealed by how people behave, not by what they say they think.

My country, the United States, remains for now not a failed state, despite emerging tribalisms which do threaten it if they are not addressed. There is crime, but it is idiosyncratic and freelance, or else small scale (like urban gangs). There may be neighborhoods where the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence is challenged, where people with gripes turn to kingpin rather than cop to resolve disputes, where locally organized violence compels disobedience of the state’s law. But overall, for now, there is a unified state, to whose edicts the vast majority however willingly or reluctantly conform, whose offices are called upon to resolve disputes in place of local violence.

Despite Israel's remarkable successes, the territory Israel/Palestine constitutes a failed state. There is no single government to whose edicts residents conform, to whose offices residents resort to resolve their deep and serious disputes. The failure should not be understood as the result of conflicts between two nations’ legitimate aspiration for self-determination. That is a poisonous framing. “Nations” unanchored to states always make claims that conflict profoundly with one another. Kurds and Uigurs and LGBT people and Turks and White Separatists and Pan-Africans and Jews and Christians and Arabs and Han and Hindu all make claims that would profoundly contravene the aspirations and asserted rights of one another. Even where nations are anchored by states, insulated by territorial isolation and civilized by formal governance, contesting claims emerge that threaten conflict and violence, internally and internationally. Wise states work to manage those conflicts. "Stateless nations" should be integrated, not be treated independently as objects of deference.

The territorial boundaries of combined Israel/Palestine are not meaningfully contested, thanks to the IDF. Other states meddle (hi Iran), but they do not invade. What remains is for a state to emerge on the territory that commands near universal legitimacy. Instead, egged on by foreign football fans masquerading as coreligionists or comrades, factions have worked to harden and heighten conflicts between pre-state conceptions of nationhood, rather than forge a state that could superintend a shared future.

I’m not trying to argue that uniting in a multiconfessional liberal democracy is the near-term solution for Israel/Palestine. That would be my preference, but given the actual passions of the communities who occupy the territory, it may not realistic any time soon. Maybe if the territory were cleaved into two (or three), successful states could more easily emerge on parts of it, with clear new borders that could be internationally enforced. I'm skeptical there too. I don’t have some brilliant solution.

But we can start by not pouring fuel on the fire. The Jews of Israel have no right to national self determination, any more than the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq and Iran do. (If you think the Kurds do have that right, if you are eager to fan the flames of violent decolonization there too, I have nothing to offer you but disapproval, despite my tremendous admiration for the Kurds.) The Palestinians have no right to national self-determination, not because they are somehow a fake nation (every nation is), but because that’s a stupid, incoherent, and destructive principle.

There are human beings. There is a territory. The humans could find civilized means of coexisting. Without an effective state, no one has any right to anything except death, sooner or later. The rest of us should stop fanning any party’s stupid self righteousness and do whatever we can to help them all choose later, much much later.