In our current age, we just assume that the world is organized into countries. Look at any map and there is no place on earth that is not part of a country. The exceptions are the Arctic and Antarctica. They are governed by a coalition of countries, but they lack more than a sprinkling of people. Otherwise, every bit of the world, that has people, is part of a country. More important, a bedrock assumption of the people who rule over us is that countries are a permanent part of the human condition. Countries are forever.
Nothing is forever, of course, but we can get a sense of how durable the current country model is by looking at some recent examples. The war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein revealed that Iraq was not a unified country. The big sectarian divisions of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish became a problem as soon as Saddam was toppled. Then, within those larger divisions, there were smaller groups with other loyalties. There are 150 tribes in Iraq and below that are hundreds of clans and thousands of houses. Iraq is a complicated place.
After the fall of Saddam, we learned just how complicated. It turned out that keeping Iraq together required a very strong central government with the ability to balance the various tribes against one another to keep the peace. Even after the US military figured it out and pacified most of the place, the government did not fully control all of the country. The only reason it remains an intact country today is the surrounding countries prevent it from breaking up and the West provides money and material so the government can survive.
The fact is, Iraq is a country only as long as the rest of the countries accept it as a country and help it keep together. If Iran decides it wants to annex part of the country, a part with coreligionists loyal to Iran, there’s not much Iraq can do about it. Joseph Tainter explained this in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. In the modern age, a society is unlikely to collapse, because of the surrounding countries. like Iraq, a country can go through a very difficult period, but ultimately survive, because there is no other option.
At the other end of the country scale, in terms of internal stability, we have some good recent examples in Eastern Europe. The Visegrád Group, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have managed to stay together, despite enormous external pressures. Just surviving the Soviet Empire is something close to a miracle, given what happened to Russia proper. Now, under enormous pressure to allow millions of foreign invaders into their countries, they ostentatiously ignore the demands of Europe.
This is not hard to understand. Poland is 98% Polish. They speak Polish in their homes and see themselves as Polish by ethnicity. The tiny minority communities, like the Silesians, have been there for as long as anyone knows. Slovakia is 80% Slovak, with another 9% Hungarian. Again, the minority population has been there forever. The Czech Republic is 95% Czech. These countries are not just arbitrary markings on a map. They are nation-states that share a common language and a common heritage.
The peculiar history of these countries may explain why they have survived as nation-states, but also why they resist the calls for open borders. All of these nation-states have been absorbed by empires, but they have never been on the other end. Poland never tried to conquer Europe. Still, the core reason they have managed to survive through conquest and division is they are nation-states. What this says is that countries can come and go, but the nation-state has permanence. As long as there are people, there will be a Poland.
That brings us to another type of country, the United States. At the founding, calling America a nation-state was a bit of a stretch, but not unreasonable. The overwhelming majority of the people were English and spoke English. There were some Dutch and Indians, with some French sprinkled in, but the only other ethnic group of any consequence were Germans. They were about 10% of the population at the founding and clustered in the midland states, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.
That’s not the America of today. You can probably just lump in the whites as a single ethnic group, the White American, but we have large numbers of non-whites now. Then you have those old regional cultures that are still lurking in the background, creating new divisions among the newcomers, as the newcomers magnify those divisions. Somalis dumped in Maine are going to change the state in a different way than those dumped into West Virginia. America is looking more like Iraq than the Visegrád nations.
A reasonable person should wonder how long before America starts to have the same troubles as we saw in Iraq. The central government is better organized and more capable than the Iraqi government, but there are limits to everything. The Federal government largely depends on the states voluntarily going along with what the Federal legislature decides is the law. But as we see with California, states are starting to buck this trend, mostly due to their new citizens. California is really not America now, in reality.
This brings us back to Tainter. His conclusion, after reviewing and analyzing why complex societies collapse, is that the modern age has too much inter-dependency for a society to collapse. Every country has deep connections with neighboring countries. Everyone agrees upon the borders and that the country system must be maintained. The thing is though, the primary force behind this is the United States. Without American economic and military might, the country system probably falls apart, at least at the fringes.
That’s not to say America is headed for a collapse or even a crackup. Maybe as the country turns into Brazil demographically, it will avoid becoming Brazil economically and culturally. The bigger question though is when does the internal cost of keep this country together, cut into the resources needed to keep the country system together? At what point does the vibrancy of America make it impossible to keep an Iraq together or a Mexico from dissolving into chaos? Someone should think about that.