Virtual Nationhood? Not Really. (Commentaries and Response)

By Coates, Vary T. | The Futurist, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Virtual Nationhood? Not Really. (Commentaries and Response)


Coates, Vary T., The Futurist


National sovereignty is grounded in history and in ethnicity; it is a remnant of the "sanctity of kingship" and liege loyalty. Rooted in raw, bloody acquisition of power through war, it has taken on as well the scarcely more benign power of religion. Enshrined in law and in the rites and rituals of diplomacy, it is also wrapped in patriotism and jingoism, and it is bound up with personal identity. When one declares "I'm an American," the proud echoes of "I am a citizen of Rome" can still be faintly heard.

One must therefore doubt that virtual nations can ever take on the aura of legitimacy, power, and authority of nation-states. "Virtuality" is a condition that lacks formal reality, recognition, and credibility. For that reason it is apt to be mutable and ephemeral. It also lacks territoriality, whereas we are, individually, physical beings located in physical space and vulnerable to the very real and necessary physical power with which a state enforces its laws.

An association that we freely join, and that is an amorphous network of other free agents, may indeed arouse passionate loyalty and evoke actions of tremendous force and even total self-sacrifice. But it will do so only within some chosen and defined realm of purpose and action, aimed at one common but narrowly focused goal. It can enjoy total loyalty only so long as the individuals within it are not forced to respond to other compelling needs and not distracted by other interests--their total loyalty is voluntary. The proper analogy for al Qaeda, it seems to me, is not nationhood but the Crusades or world communism.

And yet it is impossible not to see that national sovereignty is being gradually and subtly subsumed under a larger entity, global governance, that is still barely emerging.

Beginning about 1870, international shipping conferences, the International Meteorological Conference, the International Telegraph Union, the International Postal Union, and the International Meridian Conference marked the beginnings of international regulation of some economic activities: steamship rates, weather reporting, telecommunications, and time zones. Each was a giving-over of previously national authority to meet the requirements of world commerce. They began as "international," the voluntary cooperation of sovereign nations, but inevitably and almost imperceptibly, the authority wielded by such organizations became "supra-national. …

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