Seeing the Bigger Picture (Part 2)

This is the second part of the "Seeing the Bigger Picture" series by Louis Drounau, a journey through history that shows how a more united Europe would benefit us all (read the first part here).

In this second article, Louis explains how it is normal to fear change and to be attached to what we’ve always known. But at the same time, the possibility of a change for the better should be encouraged and regarded as an opportunity for us to seize.

Why are we so obsessed with our borders?

In Part 1, we discussed the never-ceasing, disruptive changes in socio-political structures and borders that have affected our countries throughout history. With so many changes, what is it that makes us so attached to our present countries?

From Trump’s “America first” policies to Brexit to endless quarrels at the United Nations, both governments and citizens are currently eager to protect their national sovereignty, seemingly an ideal of independence and shield against outside interference.

While States often enter into bi- or multilateral treaties, they do their best to maintain their national prerogatives. Of course, for some themes, like the Right of the Child or prohibition of biological weapons, it may be relatively easy to reach a cross-border consensus. But, for a multitude of other measures, such as limitations on conventional, nuclear weapons or financial regulation, States are suddenly not so keen on shared goals anymore.

The best example for this? The construction of the European Union: despite a heavy corpus of common norms and regulations, States have so far stayed far clear of a political union.

Stability through predictability

We have previously discussed the demise of Alexander the Great’s empire. Why do we not mourn it? Why do French people neither lament the Roman invasions nor the fall of the same Roman Empire? And how come the strong opposition to the Federal Constitution in the United States in the late 1780s still made way to a passionate nationalism today?

The answer is simple: because we now take all of this for granted.

Social interactions rely on predictability. They work best when individuals know and abide by a set of social norms. This predictability implies stability: if society’s norms were to change regularly and substantially, there’s no way individuals could internalise and respect them. Therefore, social norms are more prone to gradual evolution than complete overhauls. Their changes usually result from a long-term dialectic between conservative and progressive camps.

Similarly, socio-political structures pursue durability to secure the social interactions of their citizens. Their institutions tend to evolve slowly over time. Sometimes, however, a breaking point is reached and a revolution is inevitable. Once the revolution is over, society seeks a new equilibrium and structures itself around a new set of norms.

As societies, we are therefore naturally, and irrationally, attached to the structures we belong to – both at the local or national levels. We see them as the bedrock of the social interactions that we wish to maintain. Still, if our system were to change, we would eventually grow just as attached to it until we considered it the norm.

Socially, this constant pursuit to preserve and celebrate current structures is a basis for the development of traditions and the insistence of a group to preserve its identity. In the case of nation-States, this penchant helped give rise to nationalist feelings.

Strong national attachment = strong short-sightedness?

Today, the idea that an independent country like Italy or Germany would cease to exist seems unthinkable. But many forget that these countries did not exist as they do now a mere 200 years ago, and many more European countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, were created in their present political form even more recently.

Nevertheless, we feel a strong emotional attachment to these structures − strong enough to die and kill for them throughout history. An attachment that seems to grow stronger with greater knowledge of and increased civic involvement in them. Yet, we easily forget the structures that came before them and often lasted much longer. Thus, we take our countries for granted and refuse to consider their possible disappearance or otherwise evolution.

Just like us, our predecessors took for granted their own countries, kingdoms, and empires. And while, in practice, handover to another royal family often hardly affected the population, the threat of invasions was often feared as the end of their world. A glimpse into history makes it easy to realise that all did not turn out for the worst, and that we are now generally better off than our ancestors were. Maybe our own reluctance to changes in our sovereign States is not so well-founded after all, either?

It’s the end of the world as we know it

What does it actually mean for a State to be sovereign? What does it mean for a people to be independent? Put simply, sovereignty is the ability for a group of people to make its own choices according to its goals and values, unconstrained by outside forces. From a realpolitik perspective, national sovereignty means independence from other States and non-State institutions. That’s for the theory.

In an interconnected world, however, national sovereignty is increasingly restricted by the economic power of and a dependency towards outside actors − from States to private multinationals. Indeed, what good is it to be nominally independent from third-parties, yet unable to freely make your own choices because of economic constraints? To be at liberty to follow any path, yet remain unable to bear the consequences of these choices? You are like a man choosing to live alone in a forest because he is independent and free; in effect, even when we are independent and free, we choose to live in societies because we rely on and deeply need each other.

As we look to the future, two main possibilities present themselves: mankind ceases to exist, either through war or major environmental degradation, or we manage to continue on. In this latter scenario, it seems both historically and logically impossible that our current nation-States would endure the way they are, forever.

Somehow or other, our countries will continue to evolve: some will change in their institutional form or geographical reach, while others will disappear and new ones take their place. With an open-ended future, it may take decades, centuries, or millennia but it will happen. Overall, it is fair to say that every single one of the structures we know will end or change to the point of being unrecognisable. No more United States, no more China, no more France − at least, not as we currently know and cherish them.

Let’s not be fearful of these changes; after all, historical cycles are natural parts of life. We have witnessed them in the past and things haven’t turned out so badly. Like a child growing into an adult and an adult evolving over time, social structures won’t lose their identity but evolve. Only the strict opposition to change – like a child refusing to grow up – is destined to failure.

By focusing on maintaining our countries intact, by prioritising form over content, we are destined to become a thing of the past, sacrificing our identity and values for the sake of our borders or institutions. Indeed, this is not to say that every change is for the best, and progress is never a straight line; but opposing the very idea of change is a vain effort.

The prospects that our nation-States will evolve and may one day disappear should not be feared and blindly opposed – after all, as we have seen, the thousand-plus-year-old French monarchy disappeared and it is this disappearance that gave way to a more just republic. On the opposite, this prospect of change should be envisaged as an opportunity we must seize, guide and encourage.