Today we examine the forces that affect the evolution and development of states. Of special interest are the forces like nationalism, institutions and the rule of law that either at centripetally, keeping states together – or centrifugally, pulling states apart.
Under a mercantilist economic system, gold is money and gold is power. States were focused on acquiring as many colonies as possible, to act as captive markets for the mother country’s finished goods and as a cheap source of raw materials. Superior European technology made it easier for European states to take the lead in acquiring colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Most of the 1700’s and 1800’s can be characterized by this scramble of European states to gain colonies.
After World War II, as the gold standard gave way to fiat currencies, there was no more advantage to controlling a colony. Beginning in 1945, former colonies were made independent states, separate from their mother countries. Whenever possible, nations that had been part of a multi-nation state or empire, fought for and gained their independence. The number of states increased from several dozen to just under 200. By the way, China does not recognize Taiwan as a state and claims their territory as its own, so depending on who you talk to, Taiwan both is and isn’t an independent state.
As the costs of global travel, communication and distribution has dropped, an American brand of popular culture has spread around the world. Another impact of falling transportation and communication costs is the rise of the multi-national corporation. Take Apple for example – they are physically based in California, they have their financial headquarters in Ireland (for the low corporate taxes) and they do most of their manufacturing in China. For a company like Apple, states are a hindrance, not a help.
Migration has also gotten easier with declining transportation costs. And the Internet makes it possible for migrants to stay in touch with their home country. This reduces the pressures on migrants to assimilate. Also, it is usually the best and brightest that migrate, leaving a “brain drain” in their source country. This can destabilize the source country over time. Further, unstable countries have unstable currencies. Sometimes an unstable state will give up its own currency and switch entirely to the stable dollar. This is known as “dollarization”.
Many states have a clearly-recognized “core” region which is recognized as the source of the state’s culture and the center of its economic activity. Think Rome for Italy or Paris for France. If a state has a clearly-recognized core and a strong central government based in the core, we call such a state “unitary”. Occasionally, states may have two areas with equally-valid claims to beng the core (example: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam). This is a multi-core unitary state.
Most states have a system in which power is shared between the national government and regions or provinces. We call such a system “federalism”. Here, the capitals are picked for political reasons and the capitals are often not a core for the state. Washington DC is a great example – the location was picked because it was a geographical compromise between the Northern colonies and the Southern ones. Australia’s capital Canberra was chosen as a similar compromise between its two dominant cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
In some federal states, the decision on where to place the capital is not a compromise, but a calculated strategy to unify a country in which the core may be on the border of the state, not near its center. For example, the historic core of Turkey has always been Istanbul (Constantinople) but this city is located on the extreme western border of the Turkish state. To demonstrate the government’s commitment to the interior regions, the Turks moved their capital to Ankara, located in the middle of Asia Minor.
Sometimes a state may devolve more power onto some provinces when compared to others. In the United Kingdom, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are given more power, more control, more autonomy from the British government when compared to other regions. This creates an asymmetry in the way power is shared between the federal government and the regional governments and thus, is known as asymmetric federalism. It is often done to acknowledge strong feelings of nationalism in the affected region and is seen as a compromise that allows the region to enjoy more self-control while still keeping the federal state intact.
In physics, centripetal forces pull you back towards a center while centrifugal forces push you away from the center. On human geography and political science, centripetal forces are those that act to keep the state together and strengthen it, while centrifugal forces work to tear a state apart. The same force can be either centripetal or centrifugal depending on the situation.
Many federal states create a popular, mass culture that everyone in the state can be a part of. The United States is a good example. We use the iconography of our flag to unite a very diverse group of cultures behind one shared consensus culture. This unifying nationalism can be a centripetal force as it helps hold the state together. Shared experiences in public schools or in the military (especially via the draft) can given citizens a common ground and help create the consensus culture.
Good roads and infrastructure can help people move away from economic hardship and towards economic opportunity, reducing geographically-based income inequality and helping to hold a state together. In corrupt states, the courts only exist to help the elites in control. In a country with the rule of law, the justice system is transparent, impartial, reliable and fair. A fair justice system reduces inequality and helps hold the state together.
The current brand of nationalism, exemplified by the Alt-Right and their frog mascot Pepe, is a centrifugal force, tearing the state apart. Current nationalists identify fellow citizens from different cultural backgrounds and identify them as undesirables. When Donald Trump, in 2016, infamously said that Mexican immigrants did not represent the best and brightest of Mexico and claimed that many immigrants were rapists and killers, he was tapping into this type of nationalism. In Europe today, organized groups of ethnic Germans or ethnic French rally for reducing immigration, especially from Muslim countries. The Brexit vote in June of 2016 is representative of this type of centrifugal nationalism.
Poor roads, poor infrastructure makes movement within a state difficult and can create a class of people permanently bound to an economically depressed region. Corrupt institutions can increase inequality and act as a centrifugal force on a state. If, as in the case of Egypt, the armed forces contain primarily members fom only one political subgroup, then institutions like the military can also become centrifugal.
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