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Imagine There’s No Countries

August 16, 2014

Also published in The Algemeiner, August 24, 2014

John Lennon expressed an appealing dream: “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to live or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…” What a lovely idea – can we make it happen? Maybe it’s the answer to the endless strife in the Middle East, most notably between Israel and the Palestinians?

Israelis and the Palestinians are pretty distinct peoples; they have different ethnicities, languages, religions, and histories, and incompatible narratives. If we’re going to try and abolish nation-states, there might be some easier targets to pick for our initial kumbaya experiment. Merge the U.S. and Canada, maybe? (The phrases “Children of a common mother” and “Brethren dwelling together in unity” are already inscribed on one of their border crossings; how hard can it be to go all the way to unification?)

How about Australia and New Zealand? Germany and Austria? (Oops, that has been tried, and the outcome wasn’t so great.) The Baltic states? Do we really need so many Arab states in North Africa? Does anyone really know the difference between Bolivia and Peru, or Paraguay and Uruguay? When compared to this list, Israelis and Palestinians may as well be from different planets, not just different nationalities or ethnic groups.

Those who advocate for a world without borders typically fall into two geographic groups. Some are Americans, for whom the whole concept of nationalism is completely (pardon the pun) foreign, because the United States is one of the few non-ethnic (that’s different from multi-ethnic) countries in the world. Others are Europeans, who understand nationalism very well, and have a healthy fear of this social phenomenon, based in their history; nationalist strife almost destroyed their continent twice in the last century. (This is why Europeans are voluntarily moving toward diminished sovereignty in recent decades. But they have not abdicated their national identities; despite giving up border controls and currency, Europeans still very strongly identify as distinctly Norwegian or Dutch or German or whatever.)

In fact, the trend in the world in recent decades has been toward more nationalism, not less. The former Soviet Union is now fifteen independent states. The former Yugoslavia is seven countries; the former Czechoslovakia is now two. SyriaIraqLibya, and Lebanon are disintegrating – the first three have essentially ceased to exist as sovereign nations. South Sudan, the newest state, seceded from Sudan in 2011; the South Sudanese people self-identified as ethnically distinct from the northerners – African (not Arab) and non-Muslim. Crimea broke from Ukraine and re-joined Russia – with some help from the Mother Country, but not against the will of its residents. Scotland will vote next month on a referendum for independence, and Catalonia would do the same, if Spain allowed it. Even peaceful Belgium (the poster-child for the multi-ethnic state) and Canada (with Quebec) have separatist movements and nationalist tensions.

So when naïve Americans or fearful Europeans ask “why can’t we all just get along,” erase borders, and dissolve countries, it’s because they don’t understand, or don’t accept, a basic organizing principle of human societies. The collective identity of an ethnic group has found its political expression in recent centuries, embodied in the concept of a nation-state and striving for self-determination and self-governance. And this principle is gaining momentum, not diminishing.

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