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Do nations coalesce into states under internal or external influences?

Published on 14 May 2011
Updated on 01 November 2023

Nations grow from within, or so the conventional historical trope goes. Nations coalesce around an idea or a charismatic unifier, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi being two such personalities. The ensuing state may have to accommodate itself to international political reality, hence the lack of congruence between nation and state, which is the cause of venomous squabbles with one’s neighbours. Nevertheless, this ‘virgin-birth’ view of nation- and state-building is being challenged by historical research. Below are two examples.

The Roman Empire and Germanic tribes

The first is the collapse of the Roman Empire under the onslaught of Germanic tribes – the Barbarians. The traditional view was that Germanic tribes emerged from the dark wilderness under charismatic leaders, battered down the Roman defensive walls, and swept through the empire. Archaeological studies after WWII challenged this view.

Map of routes taken by Germanic peoples across Europe during the so-called barbarian invasions.
Map of routes taken by Germanic peoples across Europe during the so-called barbarian invasions (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The Roman Empire was a centralised surplus extraction machinery in favour of the centre and its legions. Its borders – the limes – were set at the point where the cost of conquest and control outstripped expected returns.

The Romans had a swath of policies toward the groups beyond the limes. They were eerily akin to current immigration policies. Able bodies were needed (in particular after two bouts of devastating epidemics) to man the legions, to tend the fields, as well as factories. Immigrants trickled in unnoticed, and larger groups were deported to the other end of the empire. Acculturation ensued.

Trade was severely controlled: many of the border fortifications were established to manage trade, rather than to keep barbarians out. State formation beyond the limes was encouraged: emerging elites were bribed to keep order among the masses as trade made them aware of opportunities just across the border. Bribery and extortion are two sides of the same coin: it all depends on the power relation between the two sides. Such dynamic policies were hard to sustain, and mistakes (the Romans blundered to defeat at Adrianople in 378) irreversible. The system eventually collapsed.

Nation- and state-formation in this perspective are the reaction of unstructured groups beyond the border to a nearby empire. They were a response to external factors. Their emergent political structures reflected this reality: ‘imperial confederacies’ that were autocratic and state-like in foreign affairs, but consultative and federally structured internally.

China and nomadic tribes to the north

A similar pattern is found along the northern border of China. The nomadic tribes have been portrayed in textbooks as acts of a malevolent (today of a climate-driven) god. This is not so.

China’s central state formation during the Chin- and Han-, and later the Sui- and T’ang-periods, created a centralised tax-collection system. The nomads to the north promptly reacted by creating an extortion racket at the expense of the Chinese: nomadic imperial confederacies (alliances of various nomadic tribes) came into existence only in periods when it was possible to link themselves to a centralised Chinese economy, as Thomas J. Barfield wrote in The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China 221 B.C. to AD 1757.

The Han dynasty expanded the boundaries of China and further extended the Great Wall along its northern frontier for protection against the formidable Xiongnu.
The Han dynasty expanded the boundaries of China and further extended the Great Wall along its northern frontier for protection against the formidable Xiongnu (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Barfield’s thesis is that these nomadic empires developed a strategy of violently raiding for loot to terrify the Chinese court, alternating peace and war to increase subsidies or trade, and refusing to occupy Chinese land. In his view, one of the primary objectives of the ruler of a nomadic confederacy was to extort wealth from China which he then divided up among his tribal retainers in return for their allegiance. Thus, a disunited, less prosperous China would not serve his political and economic interests.

Of course, the real history is much more complicated than this glimpse from a tourist bus careening, at high speed, through the dust of history. The lesson to be gleaned is nevertheless important: state formation may not so much reflect internal necessities as ‘opportunities abroad’.

This alternative view of state formation may be useful in addressing the failure of numerous states after they were granted independence after WWII. Furthermore, today’s ‘rogue states’ may be naked models of extortionist structures having shed, like parasites in nature, all the trimmings of the modern state. And policies of the (imperial) core may not be naïvely judged as supportive of statehood beyond its borders. They may in fact distort the state-building process. Foreign aid policies and their failures (see The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly) may find here an unorthodox explanation.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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