The Basic Requirements of Nationhood

Brad Patty

5 year ago

September 25, 2017

This is the opening of a series on the Security Studies Group’s first principles, as promised by President Jim Hanson.

One of the claims on our website is that it is crucial to operate from an understanding of “the most basic requirements of American nationhood.” The first article in this series will explore what the basic requirements of nationhood are, and how we have gone astray from them. A second article on American nationhood will follow.

The basic requirement of any nation is security. In order to make security possible, some system of justice must exist so that people from different families, tribes, or similar groups can trust one another enough to work together. There is, therefore, a tight mutual relationship between security and justice:  justice enables people from different groups to be loyal to one another, and mutual loyalty is what makes the security possible.

There has been in recent decades a break in the bond between the mutual loyalty of citizenship and the sense of national security. This has happened both in Europe and America. In Europe, not citizens but Americans have long provided the nation’s security. In America, the post World War II period has seen not just an end to but the rejection of the idea that citizenship entails military service at need. The military and police have come to be seen as a separate class distinguished by their status as government employees rather than as citizens.

Citizenship in both cases loses its connection to the necessary security of the state, and thus much of its value in the eyes of political leaders. As a result, they lose that bond of mutual loyalty that made the nation possible. As leaders no longer show loyalty to the citizenry, the bonds that hold the nation begin to fray. To avoid disaster it is necessary to restore the mutual loyalty between citizen and nation.

Security as the Basis of Nationhood

Some deny that strong borders are necessary for nation states.  A thought experiment will quickly show the necessity. How would you build a new nation today if you wished to do so? Say you wanted to do what the Founding Fathers did, and “dissolve the political bands which have connected [you] with another,” and “assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are supposed to entitle you. What must you do to “institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers [to best ensure] Safety and Happiness”?

Whatever else you do, you will have to secure a space in the world in which your new nation state can be sovereign. That means that you will need not only to find a place in which you can operate your new nation, but you will have to defend it against those who would prefer to subjugate you to their authority. If you cannot do that, you will never have a nation state to begin with. If you then cannot maintain the defense of this territory, your nation will not survive.

A very few nations have managed to defend themselves without reference to force of arms. The most obvious examples are island nations like Iceland, where distance and logistics puts them beyond anyone’s interest in subjugating them. On the other hand, even mountainous nations like Switzerland have needed strong systems of internal defense to remain free and independent. Tibet, even more mountainous, has failed to do so in the face of Chinese power.

Nation states therefore require security, which means some capacity to stake out a space in the world and hold onto it. Only rarely does geography provide that security. For the most part, it is provided by force. Security is thus one of the most basic requirements of any nation. Because it is, justice is too.

Why Justice Roots Security

For the purpose of this article, justice is what makes it possible for people not united by blood to trust each other with power. Justice is therefore pre-political, a feature that underlies the legitimacy of laws but that has priority over laws. A law is a good law if it contributes to justice; if instead it undermines justice, it is a bad law.

Good laws have an important role to play just because they restrain the human inclination to treat ‘our own’ better than others. The weightiest reason to prefer good laws to good judges, Aristotle says in the first book of his Rhetoric, is that good laws don’t show favoritism. Even a good judge will have friends, interest groups, and most especially family. The human inclination to favor one’s own is what a good law helps to restrain.

Of all the kinds of favoritism, blood ties are the biggest challenge to justice. As Aristotle points out in the first book of his Politics, political societies are formed chiefly from families. Families have a kind of natural authority. Everyone is born into the world from a mother, and while there are exceptions, most people are raised through their infancy and childhood by blood kin. Such families have an authority structure because they have to have one: children do not know how to survive in the world when they are born, and must be taught. Some of the lessons are difficult, but children must learn them. Thus, we come to adulthood having been brought up in an environment in which we have necessarily learned to submit to authority of this kind. It feels right to favor the family. It feels right, by extension, to favor the tribe. Ethnic groups feel kind of like family too, especially in a diverse state in which we meet others who are different.

You have to overcome this natural factionalism in order to create a stable state. Even the strongest family or tribe is going to need help to defend the secure borders that enable a nation state to survive. But why should members of one family give orders to another? If you want to have a state and not just a family exercising power, you have to have a system that justifies submission to the exercise of power by non-family members.

This was the breaking point of many states.

Ancient Greece’s numerous enemies eventually overran the 1,500 city-states because the Greeks were never able to sublimate their parochial, tribal, and ethnic differences to unify under a common Hellenism. The Balkans were always a lethal powder keg due to the region’s vastly different religions and ethnicities where East and West traditionally collided—from Roman and Byzantine times through the Ottoman imperial period to the bloody twentieth century.

This was true throughout the world and throughout history. For example, during the Middle Ages this tension sparked endless poetry and stories about the danger of family ties to feudal bonds between kings and lords, lords and knights. English-speaking readers probably best know the story of King Arthur being forced into a feud with Lancelot by his nephew Gawain,* which ultimately tore apart Camelot. The stories only dramatized a leading feature of political life. Favoritism of the blood tended to produce political factions, and those factions could rip apart the just peace on which stable nations were based.

Rights and Mutual Loyalty

Notice that, so far, the guarantee of just treatment by the state is linked to joining in that defense of the state. Greek citizens were expected to serve in the phalanx at war. Foreigners could become Roman citizens through a long period of military service. Medieval powers at war would make peace by swearing feudal bonds of mutual defense. The king would defend your interests if you defended his.

In this way, nations guaranteed their security by ensuring just treatment for those who would defend them. Loyalty from the defenders was earned by justice from the state. By the same token, justice can only exist within a context of loyalty: the legal order that made justice possible would cease to exist if people ceased loyally defending it.

This role of mutual defense in establishing justice explains an interesting fact: most of the rights Americans have today were first liberties of feudal knights. In “Liberty and Democracy,” (in Feudalism and LibertyJohns Hopkins Press, 1961) the late historian Sidney Painter explains the connection.

When William the Conqueror took possession of the English crown he organized it as a complete feudal state. But England had a large population of freemen in addition to the mass of the unfree and the Norman kings never made any legal distinction between knights and other freemen. The freedoms which were inherent in feudal vassalage went to all freemen as vassals, direct or indirect, of the king…

The right of all freemen to the privileges of vassals was clearly accepted in England from the Conquest, but found its first clear expression in the Magna Carta. This document was stated to apply to all freemen. It also contained in specific form a statement of the most basic of all liberties — the right to due process of law.

Thus in England as the unfree became free they acquired the same legal status as knights of the feudal world. Individual liberty was part of the fundamental law.

This does not apply to every single right that Americans enjoy — religious liberty, for example, was a later vintage. As late as the establishment of the colony of Georgia, founder Sir James Edward Oglethorpe forbade Catholics from entry. Several American states had official religions even after the US Constitution was ratified. Freedom of the press is also later, as the printing press did not exist until the late Middle Ages.

All the same, this underlines the connection between rights and citizenship. Rights may, as the Declaration of Independence says, pre-exist the establishment of any nation and be grounded in divine will. However, they come to be actual rights only when people come together to defend each other’s rights. It is only in the context of a mutual defense that our rights are real things we can depend on, rather than ideas we can only wish were real. Citizenship is about more than voting rights, or immigration: it is the most basic institution for the mutual defense that makes it possible to realize our rights.

A citizenry whose members are loyal to each other is the foundation of justice. Justice is real only if loyalty to each other is real. If justice fails, loyalty will also fail. If loyalty fails, justice will also fail. The way to strengthen either is to strengthen the other.

Breaking the Connection

Notice that the Norman Conquest changed the direct connection between justice and security. Before, knights got liberties because they defended the king and his state. After, all free men got the same liberties whether or not they actively defended the king as knights. This was still done for reasons of national security. The Normans made this concession to avoid an insurgency among Anglo-Saxon free men. The guarantees of Magna Carta were won from the king by a later insurgency, following the Battle of Runnymede.

Once liberties no longer had to be paid for by active service, they transformed from “liberties of knights” into the “rights of free men.” Transforming liberties into rights has been a good thing for the most part. All the same, it endangers the recognition of the tight mutual bond between the receipt of liberties and the defense of the security of the nation. Governments end up protecting the rights of people who are not good citizens, even bad citizens, on the same terms as good citizens who contribute to the common defense. There are positive consequences of that, but it also tends to result in citizens losing some of the sense that good citizenship is crucial to the state.

It also endangers the sense among governments that good citizens are crucial to the state. In the last two centuries, the government’s interest in devoted citizens has been maintained by military affairs. Napoleon’s revolution in war created, for the first time, giant citizen armies instead of professional forces made up of groups like knights or mercenaries. Through the Second World War, then, governments were not inclined to forget the central role of citizens in the defense of states because they had to be able to deploy large citizen armies to defend themselves.

Since the end of that War, however, the West has seen the defense of all of its states increasingly carried out by only one of them:  the United States of America.  This has occurred alongside the weakening of democracy in Europe in favor of the European Union. Citizens are less capable of attaining the justice of having their interests defended by their states, because the states have ceded power to a distant elite with no bond of loyalty to those citizens. As long as the security is being provided by another distant power, the United States, European governments have felt little reason to think of people as citizens rather than subjects — or, even more preferably, taxpayers.

Within America itself, a similar shift has occurred. Since the rise of the all-volunteer military, the state has begun to see its defense not in terms of justice for citizens, but in terms of a professional class thought of chiefly as government employees. It has ceased to be a priority to ensure that ordinary American citizens are fairly treated compared to wealthy and well-connected citizens, banks, and corporations. It has ceased to be a priority to favor citizens over non-citizens. Some political leaders have even begun encouraging the dissolution of the citizenry into feuding ethnic and interest groups.

This shift represents a dagger aimed at the heart of America and the West. It has come to threaten the just relationship between citizen at state without which nations tear themselves apart. Without that justice, too, the ability to defend ourselves will collapse. People will see no point in defending an unjust order, and will fall increasingly back on factional, family, or ethnic divisions instead.

Our nations are falling apart because our governments and our citizens have lost sight of all of this. Mutual loyalty arising from a just relationship between citizens is the bedrock principle on which nations are based. Those who have been our leaders in recent years have forgotten this, forgotten even how to say it. The current turmoil is that of citizens trying to command a return to these principles.


* The details are a little complex, as medieval audiences were more practiced at following family dramas. Lancelot was having an affair with Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, which was discovered and led to Guinevere’s death sentence. Lancelot rescued her, accidentally killing Gawain’s brothers. This touches off a feud between Gawain and Lancelot’s families which Arthur joins reluctantly on Gawain’s side, being his uncle. Thus, the family ties pull apart the feudal ties.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on tribal affairs and information operations over more than a decade. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. He is the author, most recently, of Free Americans: Essays Towards a Rebirth of Liberty. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.