The nation-state was a seventeenth-century European invention that spread to the entire world through the various waves of colonization and decolonization; seven people out of ten in the world have a colonial past, and so-called failed states testify to the difficulty of making this model systemic. Former colonial ties endure in different forms, nationality and citizenship rarely overlap, and some peoples are still hoping for a state of their own.

Grandes découvertes et premier partage du monde

Source: authors’ compilation

Comment: The map was drawn up from a compilation of several historical atlases. It uses a projection showing the Atlantic area where the dividing line was situated, and arbitrated by the papacy, between the two late 15th-century colonial powers (the Spanish and Portuguese empires). It shows two different land masses: the global network of Portuguese trading posts extending as far as China on one side, and the Andean territory resulting from the Spanish conquests on the other.

The nation-state was a European invention of the seventeenth century that matches up a territory, a nation and a government. Colonization and decolonization processes were responsible for the spread of this model throughout the world, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Its French-style version, in which the nation is the product of the state and jus soli applies (citizenship being granted to anyone born on state territory) often proves to be ill-adapted to states whose borders were carved up by colonial powers. Its German-style version, based on the sharing of a “hereditary” culture and on jus sanguinis (nationality being conferred by descent) led to ethnic purges and massacres during the twentieth century. In fact, nationality and citizenship rarely overlap. The tempos and means of disseminating the principle of the state have varied according to the continents, objectives and practices of both colonizers and colonized. Latin America has been divided into territorially stable independent states since the early nineteenth century.

Ends and traces of empires

With or without a war to obtain freedom from colonial rule, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed at the end of the First World War. During the second half of the twentieth century, the British, French, and Portuguese empires suffered the same fate. Finally, the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia during the 1990s produced about twenty new states. Altogether, almost 150 new states emerged from fourteen colonial or multinational empires.

African colonies and independence

Sources: F. W. Putzger, Historischer Weltatlas, Berlin, Cornelsen, 1995; J. Sellier, Atlas de s peuple s d ’Afrique, Paris , La Découverte, 2011.From Afrique contemporaine, 235, 2010

Comment: This series of maps shows how Africa was carved up from the late 19th century to the present day. The first represents the early colonial rivalries just before the Berlin Conference (1885), during which the European powers shared the continent; the second shows the territorial result of this on the eve of World War Il, a war which was partly due to the intensification of these imperial rivalries; the third illustrates the end of the process with the more or less violent decolonization that has taken place since the late 1950s, drawing the map of present-day African states.

Throughout the world, seven people out of ten have a colonial past. Former colonial links endure and survive in different forms: public partnerships, direct foreign investment, migratory flows, national minorities, diasporas, cultural and linguistic diplomacy, academic ties and military and police support. This cooperation can be constructed or perceived as a new form of imperialist allegiance, or even interference. Since the 1980s, approaches designed by the discipline of postcolonial studies were instigated in Anglophone countries and former British colonies and have contested Western ethnocentrism, restoring a place to the history and culture of formerly colonized countries and reassessing the cultural consequences of colonial action (encountering otherness, inter-race representation, hybridization, transculturalism, etc.).

“Failed” states?

With the ending of East-West polarization, the decline of Third Worldism and the difficulties of postcolonial states, the notion of collapsed state has emerged (an expression coined by the American political scientist William Zartman in 1995), of which Somalia is an example. Over the course of the same period, the World Bank appealed for good governance in countries of the South (in its 1997 Report). Then the notion of failed state was used to describe those states that were unable to ensure control over their national territory, to provide basic services for their populations (water, education, health, etc.), and protect them from outside interference.

From September 11, 2001, this notion was increasingly instrumental in the fight against terrorism, thought to be fostered by failed states. Faced with this threat to peace, all backers and international organizations had to act in order to rebuild these states (state building). These ideas were the result of expert assessments designed for conservative governments, but were criticized by many social science researchers for their lack of clarity, their ethnocentric and ideological bias, and their lack of interest in the social pathologies undermining the countries concerned. The Failed States Index, devised in 2005 by an American think tank, combined 12 variables relating to society, economics, and politics, in order to describe and classify states said to be fragile, failed, or failing. Since then, many other more complete indicators have been put forward, but these do not stray from the concept of universalizing a classic Westphalian model, the failure of which is precisely demonstrated by these new states. Accelerated globalization, the increase in cross-border flows of people, the growing role of non-state actors, the failure of development policies, and worsening inequality all condemn the failure of these rebuilding and action programs by states whose social problems generate conflicts that then become international ones.

The General Assembly of the UN declared in 1960 that all peoples have the right to freely determine their political status and economic, social, and cultural development. Today, not only does the process of decolonization linger on, but many peoples do not see themselves as belonging to the states whose territories were carved up by colonial powers in disregard for their differences and rights. There are numerous minorities (quantitative or qualitative, according to language, ethnic group, religion, etc.) of very diverse status throughout the world. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2006-2007) reaffirmed these principles and rights, but its effects have been slow to materialize. Stateless persons have tried to organize themselves worldwide to make their voices heard, particularly since 1991 within the UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) which in 2017 stated it had 44 members ranging from indigenous peoples to minorities, non-recognized states and occupied territories.

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