The Inescapable Nation

May 12, 2021   •   By James Barnett

IN THE EARLY 1970s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army was on the backfoot in its campaign against the British authorities and Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitaries. Under near-constant surveillance, the Provos needed a cost-effective innovation that would allow them to hit their enemies hard without exposing the clandestine networks that sustained their insurgency. They found what they were looking for in the US-made Armalite rifle, first smuggled into Northern Ireland on, ironically enough, the British cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II. Semi-automatic, light, and easy to conceal, the Armalite was the ideal weapon for urban warfare.

As the gun made its way onto the streets and the bodies began piling up, the graffiti in Belfast’s Catholic neighborhoods heralded newfound confidence: “GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS,” read one banner, “BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL.”

This cocksure turn of phrase, quoted in Patrick Radden Keefe’s new history of The Troubles, captures a narrative oft told in national histories: the belief in an underdog that uses whatever tools are available to rectify injustices wrought by rapacious neighbors or distant powers, the ultimate goal being to live undivided on one’s own soil. Substitute “Irish Catholics” with another nationality and “Armalite” with another lethal technology, and one could envision this graffiti in Palestine, Kosovo, or Kashmir.

Despite the ubiquity of nationalism throughout the late modern era, the five years since Brexit and the Trump election have seen pundits decrying the “return” of nationalism in the West, concern often grounded in a simplistic understanding of the phenomenon. Some reactions espouse denial (“This isn’t who we are”), bafflement (nationalism is silly because it is “made up” as one explainer put it in The New York Times), or thinly veiled contempt (this isn’t our fault; the masses are simply seduced by authoritarianism). For their part, many conservatives, following Trump, have sought to recast nationalism in a favorable light, reassuring their readers that they are, in their own way, on the “right side of history.”

If Western elites have frequently failed to understand nationalism in their own societies, then nationalism in the postcolonial world remains even more misunderstood. In discussions of Africa in particular, one still often sees ethnic nationalism portrayed as an antiquated tribalism. Yet Africa’s “tribal” conflicts often originate in the colonial era of divide-and-rule and the abrupt imposition of a Westphalian model of the nation-state onto societies that had previously organized along the lines of nebulous kingdoms, emirates, chiefdoms, nomadic societies, and the like. Now the formal architecture of global politics, the nation-state’s origins were parochial. Named after a region of Germany and the 17th-century treaties signed therein, the Westphalian system is the product of Europe’s unique early modern history. What began as a means of mitigating the destructive fallout of the Protestant Reformation now underpins everything from nuclear nonproliferation to international soccer. As the writer Nanjala Nyabola succinctly notes, “So much of how the world’s states function and fear comes from Europe’s bloody and violent history.”

Three important new studies scrutinize this relationship between European conquest and the modern state, each challenging the notion that our world of competing nation-states is the inevitable culmination of political development. Each book provides insightful case studies showing how diverse societies at various points in history have understood themselves in non-Westphalian terms, raising the question of whether a more cosmopolitan and perhaps more egalitarian political modernity might have been possible. Unfortunately, even if one believes that nationalism is a destructive social construct, it is far from clear that the genie can be put back in the bottle.


For more than three decades, the Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani has offered some of the most original and provocative analyses of the colonial origins of Africa’s postcolonial violence. He has also written polemics on just about any aspect of Western policy toward Africa, from Western humanitarianism to the War on Terror. In his new book, he takes aim at a bigger target: the nation-state.

In Neither Settler nor Native, Mamdani argues that the nation-state and the settler colony produced each other in tandem. Both the colonial state and the nation-state were constructed around the politicization of an ethnic or religious majority at the expense of an arbitrarily constructed minority. Mamdani examines five case studies that embody the interplay between colonialism and the nation-state: the genocidal conquest and internment of Native Americans, the Nuremberg and denazification processes in Germany, the transition from apartheid in South Africa, colonial rule in Sudan and South Sudan, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Mamdani traces the origins of the nation-state back to 1492, when a Castilian monarchy obsessed with limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) sought to homogenize Iberia by expelling Moors and Jews while establishing its first colony in the Americas. Rather than an engine of progress, Mamdani contends that the Westphalian model emerged at the heart of the postcolonial world’s ills. “While liberal tolerance took hold in the European nation-state,” Mamdani writes, “liberal conquest inflamed the colonies.”

Neither Settler nor Native offers valuable insights, particularly for readers who are unfamiliar with Africa’s historical trajectory. In his chapter on the Sudans, which draws heavily from his previous book on Darfur, he traces the roots of today’s ethnic violence to the ways in which colonial authorities imposed racial and territorial categories upon a diverse population. The violence, far from being rooted in “ancient tribal animosities,” constitutes a competition over resources and belonging in the modern state.

If there is a shortcoming with Mamdani’s central argument it is that he seems to believe that national identity, by virtue of what he believes is its arbitrary and artificial nature, could be effectively removed from the political equation if humans were only so enlightened. He holds out hope for an “epistemic revolution,” in which humans come to see themselves as common “survivors of history” rather than victims in an endless cycle of violence. This conclusion seems incomplete since Mamdani does not offer much of an explanation as to the psychological or social factors that underpin nationalism in the first place, leaving the reader to wonder why, if nationalism is so counterproductive, the phenomenon persists.

Mamdani’s dismissive treatment of nationalism does not prevent him from offering excellent analysis in many places, particularly when examining the logic of colonizing powers. But he sometimes appears at pains to fit complex history into a neat, theoretical box. His first chapter, “The Indian Question in the United States,” offers an excellent overview of the legal gymnastics the US government employed to deprive Native Americans of citizenship, paving the way for forced removals and internment. Mamdani draw parallels between the North American colonial experience and that of Africa by applying his theory of colonial indirect rule to North America. He notes, for example, that the Indian reservation system would later influence the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa.

Unfortunately, Mamdani takes the analogy too far, dismissing two centuries of Native American efforts to negotiate their status in the United States and preserve their heritage as merely mimicking the colonizer’s mindset, claiming that Native Americans have uncritically assumed the tribal identities assigned to them by Washington. Discussions of Native American societies often reflect this lack of imagination, treating Native Americans as the ur-victim of settler colonialism and little more. In his brilliant new book, the Ojibwe writer David Treuer rejects the notion of Native Americans as a people robbed of their way of life, passionately arguing instead that “our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed.” Similarly revisionist histories have begun emphasizing the geopolitical successes of Native American polities such as the Lakota, Comanche, and Odawa, demonstrating that North America’s westward expansion was neither smooth nor inevitable.

In this sense, Mamdani’s treatment of Native Americans is emblematic of a shortcoming seen in many otherwise compelling works of political theory: the erasure of human agency and failure to acknowledge contingency in history. For Mamdani, the colonized individual is entirely captive to larger structural and abstract forces. Like Charlie Chaplin getting swallowed into the assembly line, they must abandon their original forms and contort themselves to fit within the contours of power, lest they be crushed. Theoretical framings such as this are not without their value, as seen in Mamdani’s groundbreaking study of the Rwandan Genocide, which showed how colonial constructs regarding race and ethnicity laid the groundwork for otherwise inexplicable violence. But theory is an insufficient guide to history. Any effort to improve public education with regards to the Native American experience — which Mamdani correctly notes is overdue — must present such societies in all their complex and contradictory humanity.

Mamdani’s chapter on the Nuremberg trials and denazification, though analytically acute, belies his overly optimistic view of how nationalism could be transcended. He argues that the Nuremberg rulings represented thinly veiled victors’ justice. The Allies created ex post facto statutes regarding “crimes against peace” that exempted them from facing questions about their own conduct during the war. Mamdani also details how the Allied denazification process, which the West German government abruptly reversed after 1949, was riddled with hypocrisies driven by Cold War priorities.

The Nuremberg precedent — focusing on the crimes of specific individuals and leaving the surrounding political context unquestioned — has become the favored approach of the “international community” in postcolonial civil wars. Yet Mamdani explains that this approach works against the victims of such conflicts. For starters, those European Jews who survived the Holocaust mostly left for Israel, while in a civil war, both victims and perpetrators must continue living together.

This critique is quite compelling, but the alternative that Mamdani presents — initially proposed by Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse, who worked as analysts for the Office of Strategic Services during the war — is not convincing. The plan would have initiated the socialization of German heavy industry along with sweeping political reforms led by German antifascists — except these antifascist forces were a scattered, divided lot lacking strong popular support. The GDR pursued socialization, causing an exodus of two million refugees to West Germany. And East Germany’s national mythos of antifascist resistance, far from exorcising all Nazi demons, precluded any notion of collective guilt and arguably led to the emergence of a far-right counterculture in the last years of communist rule. We see the aftermath today in the strong support that the far-right AfD and Pegida enjoy in the East.

It is hard to imagine that German nationalism could have been permanently buried after the war. The center-right governments of Konrad Adenauer and his CDU, rather than holding Germany back from a radically progressive future, likely hindered fascist tendencies: surveys taken soon after the war showed an alarming degree of Nazi sympathy among the German public. Mamdani sees this as proof that Allied denazification failed. The more troubling reading suggests that only so much genuine self-reflection and atonement is possible in a given generation, no matter how grave the crime.


Where Mamdani sees the nation-state as a burden forced upon the non-Western world through colonialism, those more sympathetic to the model have seen it as a blessing bestowed by colonial powers. In this narrative, Western imperialism diffuses Enlightenment ideals, such as the right to self-determination, giving colonized peoples the intellectual tools necessary to achieve their sovereignty. Following this logic, the 20th century anti-colonial activists of the Third World were nationalists first and foremost, and the struggles of the postcolonial era have been ones of state-building and nation-building: how to create a distinct and unifying “Kenyanness,” for example, out of dozens of ethnic groups pitted against each other under colonial rule.

In Worldmaking After Empire, University of Chicago political scientist Adom Getachew seeks to overturn this narrative and recast many of the leading anti-colonial activists of Africa and the Caribbean as more radical worldmakers. Decolonization required more than merely achieving recognition in the United Nations. To quote Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first post-independence leader, “independence means much more than merely being free to fly our own flag and to play our own national anthem. It becomes a reality only in a revolutionary framework.” In order to achieve full sovereignty, new nations needed an international order free of domination.

For some anti-colonial thinkers, regional federations across Africa and the West Indies provided the potential solution to colonialism and neocolonialism. These organizations would have created larger, more diverse domestic markets and provided common security. In the 1970s, after these federations had failed to materialize, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Jamaica’s Michael Manley proposed a New International Economic Order, which would have treated raw material–producing developing nations as an exploited working class with the goal of redistributing wealth toward the Global South. Whatever their approach, these anti-colonialists sought more than mere integration into the existing Westphalian system on Western terms.

Getachew is not the first to highlight these figures’ revolutionary visions, but her work offers an original and incisive intellectual history of the Black Atlantic as well as a deeply researched examination of the ways in which the architecture of international order has entrenched colonial hierarchies. Her chapter on the League of Nations illuminates the racism implicit in Woodrow Wilson’s notion of self-determination. The fact that two African states, Liberia and Ethiopia, were admitted to the League is not the hallmark of progressivism that many have claimed, given that the states were clearly subordinate members and that the League did little to save Ethiopia from Italian aggression in 1935.

Getachew does not claim that anti-colonial leaders rejected nationalism but that they envisioned nation-building proceeding in tandem with revolutionary worldmaking. These visions often clashed. As a new multi-volume biography of Nyerere shows, the man affectionately known in Swahili as Baba wa Taifa (father of the nation) prioritized building an independent, self-reliant Tanzania over a socialist one. Though he was a committed Pan-Africanist who supported numerous armed liberation struggles across the continent, Nyerere also had an exceptional sense of national duty. Unlike most of his peers, Nyerere voluntarily stepped down from office after his socialist “self-reliance” programs failed. And Tanzania still benefits from the late leader’s efforts to build a common national identity, evidenced by the relative lack of intercommunal conflict in the country. (The authoritarian side of Nyerere’s legacy is unfortunately all the more visible today.)

In Ghana too, nation-building was seen as part of a larger project of African liberation. As Getachew details, Nkrumah frequently prioritized African federalism over national autonomy in the hopes of staving off foreign intervention and neocolonial dependency, envisioning a somewhat contradictory United States of Africa. Despite focusing on the international cause, Nkrumah helped create a relatively cohesive Ghanaian society through anti-colonial ideology and deliberate nation-building policies. In contrast to Nkrumah, the Nigerian activist Nnamdi Azikiwe was skeptical of federalism and concerned about the internal challenge of nation-building as much as the broader Pan-African struggle. He feared that the sovereignty of the African state faced as great a challenge from internal instability as from foreign intervention, a prediction soon borne out as his own country erupted into civil war.

In other words, a commitment to Pan-Africanism neither prevented nor guaranteed a successful nation-building project: “successful” nations seem to be the product of the right circumstances and leadership rather than a specific worldview. The Pan-African vision, on the other hand, failed to materialize in its more radical forms. Constructing a nation may be no small task, but history suggests it is more feasible than revolutionary worldmaking.


For most of history, humans have not understood themselves as linked to a specific territory distinct from others by virtue of their blood or culture. Instead, many societies approached the question “Where are we?” with a relatively simple and satisfying answer: the center of the universe.

The World Imagined is an impressive, interdisciplinary work by Northwestern University professor Hendrik Spruyt that examines how several pre-Westphalian societies understood political order: the Islamic world (represented by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires, along with smaller polities), the Chinese tributary system, and the “galactic” empires of Southeast Asia. These polities did not share the territorially rooted historical consciousness of modern nation-states. Rather, their leaders laid universal claims to authority and understood their civilizations as superior to all others.

The Islamic rulers saw themselves as world conquerors and Sahib Qiran (lords of the Auspicious Conjunction). Despite the doctrinal and juridical differences within the Islamic world, the fact that each regime legitimated itself through Islam and structured society around some form of Sharia law provided a lingua franca between states. In China, the emperor governed “all under heaven” (Tianxia) with power flowing in concentric circles from the imperial core. Despite the lack of a common religion, the rulers of various Southeast Asian kingdoms presented themselves as Chakravartin, a Sanskrit term referring to the ideal universal ruler who connects “the sacred and the profane.”

These imperial systems generally allowed for a greater degree of heterogeneity than the modern nation-state. “Universal empires had to be many things to many people,” as Spruyt notes. Accepting a certain worldview and set of collective beliefs about political authority — for example, agreeing to live under Sharia law and recognizing the Ottoman Sultan as supreme — integrated people into the political community; questions of blood, birthplace, language, culture — and sometimes even religion — were secondary. In contrast to the territorial colonialism common in the late modern era, universal emperors frequently forsook direct territorial control in favor of a tributary system that exerted influence over weaker, neighboring polities. Spruyt does not argue that these imperial systems were necessarily superior to the modern nation-state: they were feudal, repressive, and often warlike in ways that modern democracies are not. But their cosmopolitanism should not be overlooked.

While Spruyt’s focus is the Middle East and Asia, one could add that many Europeans once admired the heterogeneity of imperial systems. In the aftermath of World War I, many intellectuals looked with nostalgia at the remnants of a Habsburg Empire torn apart by nationalist forces. In his 1932 masterpiece, The Radetzky March, Jewish novelist Joseph Roth saw the late Emperor Franz Joseph as a tragicomic figure, aloof and anachronistic in the modern era but paternalistically committed to the welfare of his diverse subjects — a stark contrast to the antisemitic forces that were ascendant in Roth’s Weimar Germany. Of course, this diversity came at the expense of the human yearning for freedom of association and expression: you were free to be Polish in Tsarist Russia, so long as you did not ask for the schools to teach the vernacular. It is unsurprising then that the 19th century saw an explosion of nationalist sentiment as Europe industrialized, nor that nationalism was often seen as the bedfellow of liberalism in a struggle to wrest power from empires to the masses. The historical symbiosis of nationalism, liberalism, and industrialization is often overlooked yet is all the more relevant today given the intercommunal tumult that many postcolonial states are facing as they “modernize.”

Where Spruyt discusses the West it is in the interaction between the emerging Westphalian system and the international societies he examines. One would assume that universal rulers should have balked at the Western officials who claimed international politics to be a game of sovereign equals. In fact, the Padishahs of Constantinople and Huangdi of Beijing increasingly adopted Western diplomatic protocols in recognition of the West’s economic and technological power. These imperial rulers often sought to appropriate elements of Western modernity, like military technology and bureaucratic practices, while retaining their universal claims to authority.

Whereas Mamdani focuses on how Western colonialism transformed the non-Western world, Spruyt is interested in the ways in which “the rest shaped the West.” Spruyt argues that imperial logic helped drive the articulation of the nation-state system, which was still in its incipient stages in the early 19th century. European powers justified their encroachments into the Islamic world by exempting the Ottoman Empire from the “civilized” Congress of Europe until the mid-19th century. Even the Sultan’s allies in World War I, Austria and Germany, rejected Constantinople’s demands to end extraterritorial agreements until 1917. A similar process played out further east, where Europeans, eager to force unequal treaties on China and to colonize Southeast Asia, argued that tributary systems were uncivilized because they were unequal, unstable, and economically stagnant, in contrast to the formal equality among European states. International law thus developed to carve out exceptions that aided the colonial interests of Western powers.

Spruyt is fully cognizant of the irony of our present international order, a world premised on state sovereignty built by Europeans depriving the rest of the world of their sovereignty. In his conclusion, he considers what this contradiction means for the legitimacy and future of the Westphalian system. As always, the question is one of alternatives.


Since the end of the Cold War, academic and media circles have consistently discussed a post-Westphalian world brought about by globalization. If Mark Zuckerberg controls what a third of the world sees in their newsfeed, climate change threatens shorelines from Finland to Fiji, and NATO has been repurposed to wage a nebulous “war on terror” against Pashtun tribesmen, then perhaps the nation-state is not the best way to understand international politics.

Many African scholars have long argued as much. Shell, the International Monetary Fund, and Boko Haram have all, in their own way, eroded the sovereignty of West African states while the “international community” holds inordinate (some would say neocolonial) authority over South Sudan. Tanzania and Ghana stand out as relative exceptions on a continent where many countries display a disconnect between national identity and international boundaries. Africa has long been more Westphalian on paper than in practice.

But how states exist on paper matters. Though sovereignty is unequal (has it ever been otherwise?), the nation-state remains the formal architecture of international relations and diplomacy. Even in supposedly enlightened Europe, Brexit attests to the crises of legitimacy engendered by supranational governance, while the COVID-19 pandemic makes clear the persistence of the nation-state. Vaccine nationalism, border closures, xenophobia, a bungled EU response: we do not yet live in a truly post-Westphalian world.

What might such a world look like? Each of the authors has their hopes.

Mamdani’s case study of South Africa, his most compelling, begins to show what an “epistemic revolution” might entail. He credits the end of apartheid not to Mandela and the African National Congress but to the Black Consciousness Movement as well as labor organizers and multiracial student movements of the 1970s. These movements urged South Africans, with notable success, to forsake the racial categorizations of apartheid and reimagine an inclusive political community. South Africa, where enemies agreed to live together as political adversaries, thus points to the way forward.

But is South Africa no longer a nation-state? South Africa’s elite speak of a pan-ethnic “rainbow nation” in a manner similar to Nyerere, not a state sans nation. Even as it has made progress on racial issues, South Africa has seen an increase in xenophobic violence against fellow Africans in recent years. Is it possible then that the contours of the nation may shift while the nation remains, acting as a force for both cohesion and discrimination? This is not to diminish South Africa’s progress but to recognize its limits and question how other nations might undergo such a transformation in the absence of a one-size-fits-all blueprint. In a similar vein, we should not assume that because ethnonationalism appears subdued in a society it has disappeared altogether: consider Germany’s multidecade transition from Blut und Boden (blood and soil) to Wir schaffen das (Merkel’s “we can do this” attitude toward migrants) and the potent nativist backlash it engendered.

Getachew is not interested in the specific political arrangement of a given state so much as the institutional and informal frameworks that manage international relations. She argues that establishing a domination-free international order remains our goal today, pointing to contemporary racial justice movements as examples of how to carry the torch forward.

Spruyt, for his part, remains sympathetic to the Westphalian model. He notes that appeals to Westphalian sovereignty may be a weak state’s best defense against aggression from more powerful states and that hybrid structures, such as regional confederations, might provide better order and stability than homogeneous nation-states in certain instances.

These goals are all appealing, if understandably vague: a more tolerant state, a more equitable international order, more flexible regional orders where appropriate. How likely we are to see any of them materialize is another matter. After all, the most powerful challengers of the international status quo are not activists and progressive intellectuals but illiberal powers like the People’s Republic of China. This does not mean we are entering some grand global contest between liberalism and authoritarianism nor a “clash of civilizations.” Consider, for one, that a Hindu chauvinist government looks set to become one of Washington’s key partners in confronting Beijing. Rather, there is every reason to believe that our future, uncertain as it is, holds more competition and domination than cooperation and convergence. This, at the very least, is what our recent past suggests.

“In history there are no control groups,” muses one character in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. “There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.”

We are free to consider how humanity might have been better served with some alternative to the nation-state, which we should never mistake as the unquestionable terminus of political development. History does not march in so straight a line. But imagining a truly non-Westphalian modernity requires half a millennium of compounded counterfactuals, rendering our conclusions highly tenuous and speculative. All we know for certain is that this system helped bring about our world, in all its beauty and barbarity.


James Barnett is a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies at the University of Lagos and a non-resident research fellow at the Hudson Institute. His research focuses on international relations and security in Africa.


Featured image: "Ghana's flag" by Gerry Dincher is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.