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Recovering the Nation, Part 2 : The Persistence of Nationalness

August 29, 2014

In the previous post I pointed to the centrality of the ‘national’ in the French account of influence. Although I’ve focused on France because of the relatively coherent theory you can extract from Foucher’s Atlas, the national cultural view is strongly present in the approach of many other countries large and small. Germany is the obvious example but I’d particularly emphasize that the post socialist reconstruction of Chinese and Russian external outreach has taken on board national models, not least in the emphasis placed on language.

From the perspective of a think tank in Washington or London the French discourse of influence with its discussion of the national and geopolitics may sound quaint next to the post international politics of global governance, climate change and the internet revolution. The response from Paris would be might be something like this:

Firstly, : “countries will always advance an agenda that is important to them. Why do you assume that your agenda is the only one? What about our agenda ? for instance of cultural diversity.”

Secondly, “the new agenda of global politics is an addition not a replacement. New issues will always be refracted through the lens of national differences. Nations are permanent issues and regimes change”   It’s noticeable that while ‘Europe’ is frequently invoked in Foucher’s book it is seen as an atout (an asset or even trump card) for French influence not as something that replaces France or its project of influence.

We don’t have to buy into a Gaullist metaphysics of the nation to recognize that they may have a point. The nation may be socially constructed but some social constructions cannot be dismantled in any politically feasible way.   Nationality does not mean a self conscious effort to assert or promote the nation but the existence of particular ways of seeing the world. As Billig argued in Banal Nationalism everyday life is shot through with assumptions of the national. This isn’t just confined to old nations. The most recent wave of the World Values Survey asked individuals in a variety of countries whether they were proud of their country;  in many former colonies or post communist countries 95% or more answered that they were proud or very proud. As might be expected answers in ‘post national’ developed countries were lower: Germany could only muster 70% and the Netherlands 81% but asking whether people felt part of the nation added another 10-20%.  Even a large part of the minority who refused national pride could not escape the nation as a social fact.

If we move from individuals to institutions the national remains important. Institutional models in government, law, and business are endure.   What the French see is that Anglo Saxon or French institutional models give advantages to some actors and disadvantage others (see for instance this issue of Mondes). For instance structuring contracts for major infrastructure projects on Anglo-saxon models tends to disadvantage firms that operate under a different legal system. In a 2012 book Sarah Stroup shows that British, American and French transnational NGOs remain closely linked to their countries of origins and operate in distinct ways. From my own work on PD institutions it is also clear that national models are highly persistent.

This suggests to me that it’s less the French insistence on the continued relevance of the national that looks odd but the refusal to recognize its significance.

In the final part of this series I’m going to point to some theoretical sources of this failure to recognize the national

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