The daily news shows frenzied people from Central America walking through Mexico to the United States border. Their own countries cannot or do not want to keep them. Mexico will not welcome them. They claim the right to enter the United States without having to go through the normal immigration procedures. We also see boat-loads of people from Africa seeking to enter Italy, Greece, France, Hungary, or Spain inspired by the same “right”.

With so many people in the world seeking residence in places other than in their present domiciles, we ask ourselves: “How does the world organize itself to take care of itself?” What are its ways of dealing with populations and their prosperity? The nation-state is the basic political unit into which everyone must fit.

The fact is that some seven-eighths of world population does live in relatively decent circumstances. In some ways, this latter achievement is more astonishing than the failures we see so often portrayed in the news. These failures are almost always portrayed as caused by those who have learned how to rule themselves rather than by the internal lack of reform of various homelands.

Immigration or refugees simply mean seeking residence in a nation-state not one’s own. A nation-state’s duty is to remain itself by caring for its own people and protecting its own frontiers. Who is responsible for caring for foreigners in need because of persecution or poverty? This is a question which must be answered with great circumspection. Great changes in population mix, as Aristotle himself saw, usually means a change in political structure within a country that has received, for whatever reason, large numbers of new people.

Australia, China, India, the United States, France, Britain, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Spain, and Germany can fairly be classified as relatively large nation-states that have succeeded in taking care of their own populations. The number of nation-states in the world is 195. The world’s population is given as around eight billion. India and China, each with over a billion inhabitants, are the largest states by population; Russia is the largest by area. Islamic states come to fifty with a combined population of 1.5 billion. The Vatican is listed as the smallest state. Small to medium sized states stretch across the world from Uruguay, to Poland, Tanzania, the Philippines, Greece, and Costa Rica. They compose the majority of states.

The world, in short, is divided into nation-states in which their concentrated police, military, and judicial powers are found and defined. The word “nation” in nation-states refers to those whose claim to belong is present because of blood or tribal origins. “State” refers to the rational order in which these states organize themselves.

The nation-state is largely a European invention now universalized. It is distinguished from a tribe, a theocracy, an empire, or a monarchy. Most states now call themselves “republics” or “democracies” no matter what form they actually take. Beginning about the 16th Century, the nation-state gathered into itself control over all smaller political entities within a given boundary. It also assumed many of the transcendent functions of church or culture, especially the educational system. The nation-state had sovereignty. It was the final say in the civil affairs and controversies of its citizens. Generally, a constitutional and a totalitarian form of the nation-state can be distinguished. The constitutional nation-state recognized some defined limits of state power. The tyrannical form did not.

Each of these nation-states has a concept of itself, of its uniqueness spelled out in written or customary terms. Each has a formal organization by which it is ruled. Each will speak a particular language, sometimes several. Each has a history describing how it came to be. Generally speaking, we will see a correlation between how people live and the configuration of their state. The classical divisions of monarchy, aristocracy, polity-democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, and a mixture of these still provide a good way to distinguish the spirit that animates these differing regimes. The United Nations is not itself a nation-state, but a body that seeks to adjudicate the relationships of the nation-state to one another. Some want a genuine world government to which everyone belongs; others see such a government as totalitarian in practice.

In the news in the past several years, we have seen streams of refugees-immigrants-invaders moving into Europe and the United States. These uprooted people claim the “right” to enter a better place. Their dire condition, it is claimed, overshadows all other considerations. To fail to accommodate them for whatever reason becomes a vice. Political unrest, economic crises, religious persecution, or military turmoil in one state causes the influx of refugees into neighboring or distant states.

These refugees and immigrants are a sign of what has been called “the failed states,” that is, states that have not succeeded creating a local life that would provide for the basic needs of its citizens. It does not follow that governments themselves are the best or primary instrument for providing these needs. In fact, the socialist notion that government is responsible for providing everything is often a major cause of the exodus of people from one state to another.

Some states encourage this emigration, while others seek to prevent it. Countries like India and China used to be counted here among the failed states, but they have, at least at the economic level, learned how to provide for the basic needs of the citizenry. China is an example of a country that has learned this lesson of development while retaining absolute control of its population. Other countries of South Asia have shown that this internal reform and discipline is possible without all of the trappings of the absolute state.

Today we hear advocates of so-called world citizenship denouncing nation-states. Everyone, it is maintained, has a “right” to a good and happy life. They are “victims” of successful states if they do not have it, no matter what they themselves hold or do. If someone does not have what he wants, someone else is responsible for his problem. Other people have the obligation of taking care of him. It does not matter if one’s condition is caused by his own ideas about polity, religion, or economics and what it presupposes. The drama we see regularly on television shows various national states seeking to remain themselves before the flood of refugees and immigrants who naturally only go to places that are seen to be better than what is being left behind. All of this becomes grist for various ideological explanations about human well-being.

As we would expect, most of those who leave failed states do so either to escape persecution, to improve their living condition, to worship as they think fit, or to invade another country to bring it into the sphere of some religion or ideology. Islamic immigration into a non-Muslim country often seems to bear this undertone of cultural-religious conquest.

The question of the rise and fall of nations occurs in this background. Many philosophers from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero have sought to develop ways to prevent or control radical political changes. The very notion of “revolution” means coming back to a beginning spot. Nations are thought to pass through a regular cycle of change in the course of their history.

We can learn from the ancient world.

An empire is a form of political organization with historical origins in ancient Persia, Rome, and Greece. The empires of Greece and Rome were usually acquired by force. The Roman Empire claimed to rule over both its own city and the world. Generally speaking, all well-governed political entities have some sense of the universal application of their own form of rule. The problem that empires faced was how to rule these newly conquered peoples or new invaders, all of whom had different ideas about how to live. The Romans tried to leave as much autonomy with the conquered people as possible, while claiming a universal brotherhood, law, and religion. Our notions of federations or confederacies, wherein the universal and particular were to be deftly balanced, arose out of this background. Modern institutions like the League of Nations or the United Nations were attempts to combine this local autonomy and diversity with a common good or rule wherein everyone belonged.

We see in Rome’s dealings with ancient Israel the difficulty in balancing these notions of common humanity and local differences. We read in the Gospels that Jews shouted “We have no king but Caesar.” Yet, Israel itself, with its claim to a divine founding, still conceives itself as something of a model of a country with universal influence but with a small state structure. Indeed, a very active view in modern Jewish thinking sees the abidingness of its divine founding. Israel is a model to show how the world should be organized.

The classical Greek city state brought up the question of the best size for a nation. States could be too large or too small. A colony was an effort to deal with a state that was becoming too large. A city-state would set up a replica of itself someplace else rather than double its size at home. Aristotle noted that a world government or empire was a dangerous thing because of its complexity. It would most likely become a tyranny because no human authority could justly manage its needs and conditions. Only a divine ruler-ship could do this. Thus, it was best to have numerous smaller political entities than one huge one that included everyone.

The Augustinian notion of the City of God arose from the realization that it is not possible that what this life offers is sufficient for man. This view was an extension of Plato’s notion of the city in speech. There were things no political society could properly deal with. But not everything was political. The Church was not conceived to be itself a political society. It was established primarily to inform man of his final end and the means of achieving it. This revelation relieved the state of the claim that the state itself had all the power to make man happy. This City of God is the grounding of limited government—the government that limits itself to a temporal common good.

Today, the nation-state is what we have to work with.

When a nation-state fails, many are drawn into its consequences. The solution to these failings is not to force others to deal with these consequences and thereby themselves become failed states. The principal task of failed states is to reform themselves. There is some room to deal with extreme cases. Many countries are themselves built from the failure of other states.

The fact is that some regimes are better than others. No regime is perfect. The nation-state is a human artifact built on the ground of man’s social nature. What we witness today when we see floods of immigrants, refugees, and invaders represents the general view of which states are better than others. The flow does not go from badly governed state to another badly governed state. It forces us to ask why one state is well-governed and another is not. If we cannot answer this question, we will only have badly governed regimes.

A nation-state has to decide who is eligible to become a member of its citizenry. It must enforce its own rules and estimates of the numbers of people it can or will support. We see in the West today the phenomenon of declining local populations as a result of birth control and abortion, together with the need of new labor. We also see efforts to destabilize nation-states by means of immigration. The nation-state can fail with the wrong political organization of its affairs.

The nation state and its integrity remain the best hope for both citizens and refugees and exiles. The major enemy of the nation-state today is the theory that the nation-state is obsolete, that everyone belongs to one state and that smaller states are immoral. In the light of experience, the opposite seems true. The common good of the world depends on the autonomy of many nation-states, themselves capable of ruling themselves.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. This year he has published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.  

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.