The Season Of Revolts And The Future Of Nation-State



The Arab Spring is now well underway and appears to have spread to other continents as well. Early signs of a European Spring are visible in UK and Greece, and an American version in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Meanwhile, Anna Hazare provided a glimpse of how an Indian Spring may look like. The underpinnings of these protests may be different but at a broader level they signify the widening gulf between governments and their citizenry. In other words, hidden in these protests is a modern crisis of the nation-state system.

This article reviews the forces that are acting upon a state from with in and externally, including the role of Wikileaks and social media, in order to understand what may have triggered these revolts and what may lie ahead.


What triggered these public uprising is a hotly debated topic. However, in the context of the Arab world and Pakistan, the WikiLeaks disclosures may have played a major role. These secrets revealed how governments are playing a duplicitous role with their public, especially about their dealings with the US.

The nations at the forefront of the war on terror in these regions are wedged between representing the sentiments and welfare of their public, and on the other hand serving the US interests. Many of these weak regimes have traditionally relied on US support to extend their otherwise untenable reign. The variance between the two tangents has progressed overtime, as public anti-Americanism grew. This resulted in an especially awkward position for the Sunni autocratic regimes of the Arab world, particularly when it comes to, for example, the Palestinian issue. The following comment that Prince Turki bin Faisal made during the Gaza crisis, reflects on the level of angst created by this disequilibrium. He wrote in The Financial Times on January 22, 2009:

“So far, the Kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain. When Israelis deliberately kill Palestinians, appropriate their lands, destroys their homes, uproot their farms and impose an inhumane blockade of them; and as the world laments once again the sufferings of the Palestinians, people of conscience from every corner of the world are clamoring for action. Eventually, the Kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel. Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: “‘I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake the Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more.’ ”

In short, Wikleaks has put these governments on a collision course with their public, while increasing pressure to justify the variance between their public and private faces. To avert this public pressure, Pakistan has also asked US to not criticize its role in the war against terror publicly. For example, when it comes to the drone attacks, the government publicly criticizes it but privately condones them.

On the other hand, the difference between the public and private stances of these actors makes the US unsure of its allies and results in mistrust. Furthermore, it indicates that these countries have been unable to garner public support for their participation in the campaign against terror, and this has pushed the US to now fight most of this war covertly.

In discussing the implications of the documents leaked by Wikileaks, PoliTact noted in December 2010 that at a macro level, the leaks represent a reset button in international relations, especially, ties of different countries to the United States. From the American perspective, in the emerging multi-polar world, the status of the US as the sole super-power is being challenged, and it is not clear if traditional alliances can be relied upon in the future. It is crucial for America to narrow down the variance in public and private stances of various governments and leaders, and to create a realistic assessment of where these countries actually stand on policies and matters of international significance.

Nonetheless, the relentless American pursuit and the inability of its allies in the region to generate pubic support for the war against extremists, will likely result in the unraveling of many a nation-state.

There are of course additional factors that can cause a state to crumble. One of the essential responsibilities of a state is to protect the life and property of its citizen and provide opportunities for their economic wellbeing. The former director of the Kennedy School’s Program on Interstate Conflict, Robert I. Rotberg, presented the following characteristics of a failed state in his article “The New Nature of Nation-State Failure”, published in Washington Quarterly of Summer 2002:

“The absolute intensity of violence does not define a failed state. Rather, it is the enduring character of that violence (as in Angola, Burundi, and Sudan), the direction of such violence against the existing government or regime, and the vigorous character of the political or geographical demands for shared power or autonomy that rationalize or justify that violence that identifies the failed state. Failure for a nation-state looms when violence cascades into all-out internal war, when standards of living massively deteriorate, when the infrastructure of ordinary life decays, and when the greed of rulers overwhelms their responsibilities to better their people and their surroundings.”

This characterization matches the conditions in many third world countries, and the last part dealing with ‘greed’ also helps explain the present economic crisis in Europe and the US. Although, the description still misses an even more fundamental role a state should be performing, to epitomize the sentiments and aspirations of its citizens. Revolts and Revolutions result from this deeper level of disconnect and disillusionment between the people and the rulers.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan summed up this point in the following fashion when he wrote about the causes of the Indian Revolt of 1857 against the British, for which Muslims were implicated:

“The primary causes of rebellion are, I fancy, everywhere the same. It invariably results from the existence of a policy obnoxious to the dispositions, aims, habits, and views, of those by whom the rebellion is brought about. From this it follows that widely-spread disaffection cannot spring from any solitary, or local cause. Universal rebellion must arise from universal grounds for discontent or from streams deriving from many different sources, but finally merging into one wide-spreading, turbulent water.”

Like many other outcomes of the linked and globalized world, these public revolts are also transnational in nature. There appears to be two contradictory forces at work, on the one hand the technological advancements and social media are making the borders increasingly irrelevant, and on the other, worsening economics is causing nationalism to resurge. The future of nation-sate structure is dependent on how it reconciles the pulls and tugs that emanate from with in, with those that act upon it from outside.

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