The Idea of the Nation-State as an Obstacle to the Right to Global Development

Author: Rajesh Sampath, Brandeis University, United States of America
Published: October 2015

Citation: Sampath, R. (2015). The Idea of the Nation-State as an Obstacle to the Right to Global Development. IAFOR Journal of Arts & Humanities, 3(1).


A stark question remains with us today. Has the idea of the nation-state always sought to conceal an illusion? For over four hundred years, since Westphalia of 1648, thinkers have probed the mystery of the nature and existence of "sovereign, independent nation-states" within an international system. Positivism is one epistemological framework underpinning international relations theory, which studies the relations of independent nation-states within the international system. Positivism attempts to adopt the mindset and methods of the natural sciences to study the balance of powers, structures, processes and interactions of nation-states, and the size and impact of militaries to wield and yield power within the international system. Post-positivism is another epistemological framework, which rejects the realism of the positivist world view and contends that the phenomenon of an "international system of nation-states" cannot be represented in an objective, neutral and scientific way. This study will not explore the positivist and post-positivists world-views. Rather, I will submit the central issue of IR — namely the relations and interactions of nation-states within the international system—to a critique while assessing how certain theoretical assumptions in IR obstruct, hinder and ultimately stymie the realization of a right to global development/poverty alleviation. My central question is what if the nation-state is really an arbitrary, historically constructed culture or civilizational set of values based on the illusion of geographic boundaries, which masks itself as a sovereign entity that possesses an invisible existence within international law? How do we reflect on our own moral grounds and the reasons for justifying such a critique of the idea of the nation-state? The nation-state in that case is an illusion, and the illusion that persists is precisely what prevents the realization of a right to global development and poverty alleviation, which would free two thirds of the world’s population from unnecessary suffering and deprivation. This paper will use an analysis of Rawls’s The Law of the Peoples by the eminent moral philosopher Thomas Nagel as a point of departure of separate and independent reflections on how the idea of the nation state obstructs the possibility of a real right to development.


nation-state, development, positivism, The Law of the Peoples, Thomas Nagel