The fact of the matter is that, as we move further along into this 21st Century of ours, the Nation-State is failing.
No, its failure is not at all imminent: for those of my generation (I am now in my late 50s) and older- and even the generation of the children of those in my own age group- will, far more likely than not, not live to see the truest end of the Nation-State as the principal, where not even essential, polity of Mankind; as for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren (especially those of same yet unborn) of those within my own generation seeing such a happening-- maybe (though much of this will depend on whether or not average Life Expectancy will have significantly increased by the end of the current Century). But none of this at all changes the fact- and, yes, it is fact!- that the concept of the modern Nation-State, as the same slowly approaches its 400th "birthday" come mid-century, is surely already in decline.
And this is an altogether frightening thought! For the whole of the repository of Constitutionalism and the concomitant ideal of Rule of Law within countries, as well as within that 'Law of Nations'-become International Law between them, has been primarily- if not even exclusively- predicated on Nation-States, with defined geographical jurisdictions, functioning as the principal Polities in which all peoples on the Globe live and work- regardless of the actual, practical or merely theoretical political organization within a given Nation-State, be it Federal or Unitary.
The very start-up point for such so-called 'Westphalian' Nation-States is that notion traditionally expressed, in Latin, as Cuius regio eius religio- "Whosoever's the country, his the religion". It was, first off, the very underpinning of the primary understanding embraced within the Augsburg Treaty of Religious Peace of 1555 (though the phrase itself does not at all appear within that treaty's text but, rather, first appears in a widely circulated- as well as anonymous- commentary on this "Augsburg understanding" between Catholic and Protestant princes [primarily within the Holy Roman Empire='Germany'], which eventually broke down with the outbreak of what became the Thirty Years' War). The Peace of Westphalia which ended that Thirty Years' War (in reality, this "Peace" was two distinct treaties negotiated within Westphalia- one at Münster, the other at Osnabrück- and, thereafter, also ratified separately some two months apart during the closing months of 1648) restored the efficacy of the original "Augsburg understanding" and, thereby, formally enshrined Cuius regio eius religio for the duration.
But there was always- pulled out of the concept via many an extrapolation from same over the years- more than merely "religion" at the heart of Cuius regio eius religio, although in the immediate aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, the concept was- at first- most simply applied (in an age of European/Western History still well under Absolute Monarchy): the religion (ever, of course, Christian at its core) of the ruler of a jurisdiction (whether Catholic or Protestant [or even, by later extension, Eastern Orthodox]) solely determined the 'State Religion' of that jurisdiction- whether the most petty of Principalities or the grandest of the Grand Duchies; sizeable Margravate or the largest Kingdom; or even an Electorate (the realm of one empowered to help [that is: whenever the time would come to] choose the next Holy Roman Emperor: indeed, the immediate impact of the Peace of Westphalia [as had, evidently, originally been intended with the Augsburg Treaty nearly a century earlier] was that it prevented the religion of said Emperors- the Catholic Habsburgs of Austria- from being imposed throughout the Empire [and, thereby, 'Nation-State' effectively replaced 'Empire']).
Yet, almost from the start, there was, indeed, far more within the concept than that which the mere wording of that concept directly expressed.
First off, the ability of the ruler to so establish the religion of his own domain also gave that ruler the power to tolerate- or not- those who did not, or could not, conform their own religious practices to those of the Church established by the ruler of the very place in which they lived. It was not all that much of a stretch to, thereby, interpret the concept so as to also include a notion that Cuius regio eius lex "Whosoever's the country, his the Law" (or, as most famously put by France's absolutist King Louis XIV [who had begun his reign, as a toddler, just half a decade before the Peace of Westphalia]: L'etat c'est moi, "The state is me"). Once that leap had been taken, the 'Westphalian' Nation-State could, thereafter, be as autonomous in Law as it might be in Theology (and, once it is seen that Law came to overtake Theology [that is: as the State became more and more secularized as regarded its own functions] over time, it becomes very clear how the modern Nation-State we ourselves can know actually came to be!).
But, secondly, there was also another factor that came to expand the very definition of the 'Westphalian' Nation-State:
Prior to the Peace(s) of Westphalia, rulers ruled Peoples (as they continued to do so, for no little time after 1648, outside a West more and more under the influence of Westphalia). A "People" was a collection of (more often than not) Tribes, themselves made up of interrelated Clans, in turn groups of (almost always extended) Families which had so regularly intermarried so as to produce the clannish interrelationship itself: a single male with children was, more usually, pater familias of the Family; one of these would be the Chief of the Clan to which his Family belonged; and a Clan Chief of particular renown (almost always one that was, quite literally, "battle tested" in some form or fashion) would be hailed as the Chieftain of the whole Tribe; often, the entire People might elevate one such Chieftain amongst them as their King, who functioned as military "Commander in Chief" as much, if not more, as a political executive.
An Empire might emerge if and when the King of a particular powerful, expansive People gained (or, often as not, compelled through force) the loyalty of- and, almost always, collected tribute from- many a King of other Peoples: the ruler of said Empire would now become that which the Achaemenid Persians of the mid-1st Millennium B.C. came to call Shahanshah-- "King of kings". But, where such an Empire became geographically much too large (that is: relative to the transportation technology- which, in turn, affected the potential projection of military power [not to also mention effective governance of more distant provinces]- of the times), the King of kings himself often became more suzerain than Sovereign and, as a result, many a conquered (where not voluntarily allied) People within said Empire, often even ruled by a descendant of their one-time independent Royal Family, yet retained much political autonomy. Most ancient Empires of such scale are, therefore, far more accurately described by the German term Reich which, despite its being regularly translated into English as 'Empire', is much better translated as "Domain" or "Realm" (thus, in German, a Kingdom is a Königreich- that is: a "King's Realm": while a German Kaiserreich is- or, at least, was- the Domain of a modern 'Caesar' [even a German Kaiser or a Russian Czar])
The classic ancient Empire was, of course, the Roman Empire (which, in German, is much more truthfully described as das Römische Reich- "the Roman Realm"): the Romans themselves referred- that is, whenever they (rarely) deigned to do so- to their own 'Empire' as Socii et Alii Romanorum- "the Partners and others [poetically: Friends and allies] of the Romans"- because, in fact, the Roman Empire itself was but a somewhat amorphous amalgam of Imperial and Senatorial Provinces, Military Governorates and autonomous Protectorates, all recognizing Caesar as Imperator. Where what we, nonetheless, call the Roman Empire had its firmer outer borders, it was principally because Roman Legions defended same and those legionnaires carried standards bearing the initials S.P.Q.R., for they marched onwards in the name of Senatus Populus que Romanus- "the Roman Senate and People", not their socii et alii! Therefore, Rome was- in all too many ways- far less that Imperium with which legend has ever imbued it and, thereby, much more reflected the very essence of far more typical ancient rule (such as it might be) from a central metropole over various and sundry- not to also mention rather disparate- Peoples.
Such Peoples were, far more often than not, identified- where not also named (and often not very complimentarily)- by outsiders, much in the manner of those cultures in which a given People might refer to itself by its own language's term for "Man" or "Human Being" but not at all grant the same status to those it would perceive as "Others". This practice is, for example, seen in the ancient Hebrew goi which meant (as it is, indeed, translated in the King James Version of the Old Testament) both "Gentile" (that is: someone not a Jew) and "Nation": Nations, therefore, were other Peoples, not the Jews themselves (Hebrew had other words for 'the Nation' of ancient Jewry itself) and this notion was carried over into the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible- the Septuagint- where the Greek ethnos was also used for both 'Gentile' and 'Nation' (a practice retained in the Greek of the New Testament of early Christianity).
Thus, Nations were Peoples (and vice versa) in both the Ancient and Medieval periods; but the State during those same times could well be one of many Peoples/Nations and, thus, there was no real 'Nation-State'.
Westphalia not only changed all this but also mixed up the very concept of the 'Nation' component of the modern Nation-State: after all, most of the signatories to the Peace(s) of Westphalia were of the same ethnicity (Greek ethnos again)- that is: German- yet they represented many different German 'state's (not until 1871- with the proclamation of the Second 'Reich' of the Kaisers- would there truly be a single German Nation-State and, even so, it may fairly be said that Germany never became truly unified until 'Reunification' in 1990 in the wake of the ending of the Cold War [some even argue Germany is not really unified still!])...
simply put: a 'Nation-State' autonomous in Law as much as (if not even more than) in Theology was- and is- not necessarily made up of all those within a single Nation=People; likewise, a 'Nation-State' might also well become inclusive of two, three- or even a multitude- of Peoples (without necessarily developing the characteristics of an ancient 'Empire')...
and it is this last that makes such as a pluralistic, where not also multicultural, Nation-State like the modern United States of America even possible!
Of course, it is that very possibility that, in turn, creates the very interrelationship between two of the most influential political dynamics within the aforementioned USofA-- the primarily sociocultural tension between being "One Nation, Under God, Indivisible" on the one hand versus also- at the same time- being, in essence, a "Nation of nations", itself always in relation to the mostly politicoeconomic (but, yes, also sociocultural) tensions between Sections and Regions of the country (as these, for example, are outlined and explained in relation to such tables as the ones on this website re: the Congressional Political Party Breakdown by Section and Region or the State Legislative Political Party Breakdown by Section and Region). So far, at least, the Constitution of the United States (with, perhaps, the most glaring exception of the American Civil War a century and a half ago now) has held the American Union together, despite such dynamic tensions within this particular polity for the now over two centuries and a quarter since American Independence.
But if there ever linger such- if only potentially- damaging politicoeconomic and sociocultural tensions within such a Nation-State as is the early 21st Century United States of America- a generally stable, historically speaking, federation despite the aforementioned tensions within- what can one really expect, when it comes to overall political and social stability, in a country like Iraq?
Americans, all across the ideological and political spectrum, are now tearing their hair out over Iraq being a "failed state" (just as they've also been recently doing so as regards neighboring Syria)... yet, in a sense, Iraq (as well as Syria) was set up to, more or less, eventually fail!
In the aftermath of World War I, the British- in particular- purposely sought to separate those regions of the Ottoman Empire (one of the so-called 'Central Powers' against which the British had lately been fighting, after all) with primarily Arab populations from the core of the Ottoman Sultanate (which, in turn, would soon re-emerge as the modern Republic of Turkey). The grand British scheme was to, first, declare the sharif of Mecca- Hussein bin Ali (head of the Hashemites, direct descendants of Islam's Prophet Muhammad)- "King of the Arabs" (while the 'Great War' was still being fought) and, thereafter, carve up Arab-populated regions up till then within the Ottoman Empire but yet outside of the Arabian Peninsula into more easily manageable (where not even also malleable) small states- Iraq, Syria (including, at the time, Lebanon) and the TransJordan (now simply 'Jordan')- each with its own Hashemite King (each one a son of Hussein who, in the end, would- as "King of the Arabs"- be merely left to ostensibly rule 'Arabia' from his base in the Hejaz along the eastern shore of the Red Sea)...
any dream "sold" to Hussein bin Ali of a large pan-Arab Nation-State during that war was, therefore, honored primarily in the breach once the war had ended.
The French- who were granted the eventual League of Nations mandate over Syria (and Lebanon)- would, however, have nothing to do with monarchy in Syria (Democracy- as the Encyclopedia Britannica of that era so well put it- being France's own "militant creed"): thus, while Abdullah bin Hussein got to sit on his throne east of the River Jordan, his brother Faisal bin Hussein (originally intended as King of Syria) would simply replace the third brother, Ali bin Hussein, as King of Iraq (Ali would, thus, have to wait for his father's death before becoming King of the Arabs=Hejaz only to, soon enough, be deposed by the forces of the Sultan of Nejd [in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula], Abdul Aziz bin Sa'ud, who- in turn- would thereafter establish Sa'udi Arabia)...
this scramble for the Middle East, as it were, on the part of Great Britain and France simply replayed- albeit over a much smaller area- the "Scramble for Africa" amongst the European 'Great Powers' a generation earlier and the boundaries of the Nation-States thereby created made about as much sense as those imposed on Africa- straight lines cutting across tribal areas and the like. Shi'a and Sunni alike- not to also mention those dreaming of a never-to-be independent 'Kurdistan'- were simply shoehorned into Iraq, with its capital at that same Baghdad that had once also served as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate of the Medieval period: a place located in the vicinity of that very Babylon which had, long before, given rise to the Chaldean Empire of Nebuchadnezzar which was to destroy Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
The entire history of Iraq down to the present day, then, is itself very much a legacy of what had been artificially imposed on the map nearly a century ago now!
There was an all too brief "window of opportunity" for Iraq to became, at the least, a nascent democracy in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein and- along with him- a Ba'athist regime that itself had at least roots going back to 1958 (when King Faisal II of Iraq was assassinated and the Republic first declared): future historians (many, likely, not yet born) will be left to sort out the reason(s) for the failure to take advantage of said "window" in a manner in which current agenda-driven politics here in America cannot...
suffice it to say, however, that Iraq is- right now- fairly reaping the proverbial "whirlwind" of just such a failure!
Yet it is a failure becoming most apparent just as the very concept of the 'Westphalian' Nation-State is beginning to show its own cracks, suggesting eventual- although, as I've said, not at all imminent- failure, the result of what has come to be called Globalization (which, by the way, is nothing all that new, although the term itself is relatively so; as I replied- a few years ago now- to an e-mail from an 'Occupy Wall Street' supporter who wrote me about, among other things, "stopping Globalization before it really gets going": "Oh, you have a Time Machine? Make sure its dial is set to no later than '1650'!").
The Internet- along with its bastard child, Social Media- is as much responsible for the decline of the Nation-State as might be International Law, the United Nations (or, for that matter, the 'World Court') and inter-National geopolitics, diplomacy and military maneuvering and, as a result, at least one pertinent question of moment is, already, "What will (someday) replace the Nation-State?". Will it be some kind of World Governance?-- or more and more conflict between regional Hegemons themselves dominating one or more of the "World"s (that is: great Civilizations) currently still found across the Globe?-- or will Mankind merely drift back(wards?) towards that looser concept of 'Empire' once so much more prevalent in ancient days (as already has been described above)?
Into this very equation now enters ISIS- the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (aka the "Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant" [ISIL]: the Arabic ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-'Iraq wash-Sham translates to either in English [as noted earlier in this piece, the one-time French mandate of Syria included all of The Levant (that is: Syria and Lebanon)]): but, gentle reader, don't get at all hung up on the group's name-- just think "al-Qa'eda with an army"!...
ISIS/ISIL having taken over, as the first major city in Iraq to fall to its fighters as this whole Iraq Crisis got well underway, Mosul is- in fact- most telling, for Mosul- like Baghdad- is also located very near an important city of ancient times: in this case Nineveh, one-time capital of the Assyrian Empire. Indeed, it is most striking- to me- that the geographical area in which ISIS/ISIL has been most able to act with impunity of late happens to be just about the same territory as the core of that very Assyrian Empire circa 825 B.C. (as outlined in more than one Atlas of the Bible or general Historical Atlas in my own home book collection)-- that is: Assyria before it had even embarked on the main portion of its history of expansion (which would, eventually, take the Assyrians as far north as Armenia, as far east as what is now western Iran and as far south and west as Egypt: Sargon the Assyrian would conquer, and subjugate, the Northern Hebrew Kingdom [hence the story of the "Ten Lost Tribes of Israel"] in 722 B.C.; Sennacherib, in 689 B.C., would destroy Babylon [again, very near the site of today's Baghdad (although the 'neo-Babylonian' Chaldeans would pay this back by destroying Nineveh itself- and bringing the Assyrian Empire to an end- come 612 B.C.]; Esarhaddon would end up conquering Egypt by 671 B.C. [he sacking Memphis and his son, and successor, Ashurbanipal destroying Thebes- both cites each having been the capital of Pharoanic Egypt- by 663 B.C.])!
So: does what goes around most truly once again come around?