LONDON — A French philosopher remarked some years ago that national politics had become “a secondary activity.” What he meant was that, with the globalization of finance and economic forces, and with the citizens of the world linking up across borders (700 million people will be linked to the Internet worldwide by next year, according to a recent U.N. report) the doings of governments at the national level would become of decreasing importance and significance.

The great principles of liberty, power and justice are no longer being debated at national level. The body politic has dissolved into innumerable lobbies and warring interest groups. This is the end of the nation-state.

The analysis in this argument has some truth in it, but the conclusion seems badly astray. Nation-states still clearly have a lot of life in them, and if anything are acquiring more significance in people’s everyday existence as the need for a sense of identity and for local loyalties grows amid the impersonal swirl of global forces.

In modern Europe one can detect three trends on this front. First, there is the German-led view that nationalism is a bad thing and that the old nation-states of Europe must be submerged in a higher sovereignty, that of a single state of Europe, where wars will cease and all will pursue a common and higher interest, establishing Europe as a vital space and grouping to rival the United States and Japan.

This, of course, is one of the political driving forces of European integration and arises, very largely, from German (and French) memories of World War II and Adolf Hitler’s nationalism gone mad.

Then, second, there is the traditional English view that, on the contrary, nationalism is a fine and binding force and has served the nation well. The ancient sovereign states of Europe remain the juridical and political areas and entities within which democratic legitimacy can be exercised. To undermine the liberal nation-state is to take away democracy and reinforce the reign of remote and unaccountable bureaucrats at supranational level.

It is also to weaken the bonds of history that hold diverse “tribes” and peoples together in a single political embrace, and thus to pave the way not only for less democracy, but also for fragmentation and anarchy.

This leads to the third kind of nationalism, which has been so evident in the Balkans in recent years, but is visible in other parts of Europe. This is the straightforward tribal and ethnic imperative, a terrible force that says different peoples cannot mix, that each region “belongs” to one tribe and that all strangers must be driven out by ethnic cleansing.

In Kosovo and Bosnia this tendency has been demonstrated in its most violent form. Nationalism has again gone berserk. In Spain, Italy and Britain there have been milder forms of this splintering trend, with mini-nations reasserting themselves within the larger sovereign whole. Thus Britain, which for many hundreds of years has been a unique construction of three nations within one — England, Scotland and Wales — is now confronted with powerful centrifugal tendencies through which it will take the most skillful statesmanship to steer, so as to preserve the union and the larger nation-state.

It is no wonder that the British, preoccupied with holding themselves together, should be unenthusiastic about submerging their nationhood, meaning their sovereignty and their domestic law, in a higher Europe-wide arrangement, and about visions of Europe becoming again a patchwork of regions, as it was in early medieval times.

It is noteworthy that all these dilemmas are a peculiarly European debate. The U.S. seems to be able to combine a high level of nationalism (note the stars and stripes behind every official’s desk) with Continental openness and local loyalties.

Lately, it is true, there have been some renewed rumblings about the rights of individual states to pursue their own concerns and pass their own laws within the U.S. federal structure. A landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has greatly increased the muscle of the states in these matters.

But it would be a wild exaggeration to suggest that this presages the breakup of the U.S. into individual sovereign bodies again. Of that there is no sign.

The European mind, so filled with anxieties about nation-state coherence and survival, finds it hard to grasp what holds Japan together. Using the German analogy, it might be expected that there would not only have been a rejection of nationalism in Japan over the last half century, but a desire to merge the nation-state into some larger union.

But no such union is on offer in Asia, despite talk about closer cooperation between leading Asian states. Besides — and this is a point that the British can understand more easily than their Continental neighbors — Japan is an island, or group of islands, with its coherence very strongly molded by a long and vivid history, which even the disasters of the militarist period and WWII could not disturb, beyond generating a strong preference for a pacific national strategy in the world.

Japan can count itself fortunate that it is free from this very European debate about nationhood and sovereignty. But there is a further reason why it is also advantaged in the modern world.

Economics may have gone global, but democracy and politics have not, whatever the gurus and futurologists may assert. In the age of the global communications network, visions of world government and lofty supranational bodies have grown less relevant, not more. The desire is not for more grandiose global “solutions,” but for more accountability and more intimate and tangible forms of government. People want their government to be closer, not further away.

National administrations, far from being dismissed because they no longer have the powers of domestic economic management they were once believed to possess, are now looked to for a much stronger and more effective role in protecting persons and property, upholding and enforcing laws, attacking monopolies and protecting the local environment.

Far from being displaced by the global order, it seems that nation-states are turning to be the building blocks of the global order, the safe islands of human-scale democracy and law in an unsettled and ungovernable global system.

So, happy the society that can keep its sovereign nationhood intact, its democracy and politics lively and its liberal values fresh and vigorous! And lucky Japan since it is spared the challenges to nationhood that beset the Europeans!

Gentle, moderate nationalism remains the best cement of the social order and the best basis on which to build effective international cooperation. It is the Europeans who have been left behind in this debate, not the Asians or the rest of the world.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.