Over the past few weeks, I've outlined the basic structure of the world system. The New Zealand flag debate now offers a case example of how this country is part of the underlying system.
Digging through the layers of geopolitics, the structure of the world system is built on the twin concepts of the “international community” and the all-important difference between being a “legally” independent country and one which is “illegally” independent. As globalisation accelerates, those two concepts have never been more important.
The idea of the nation-state was constructed in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. In that German town, the various European powers decided there were so many other things worth fighting over that religion should no longer be one of them. An understanding emerged that people should be defined by where they were born, not by what language they spoke or what god they worshipped.
The resultant border system has oscillated over the intervening centuries, countless times, but the idea of a country spread over the entire globe. It is now so deeply part of the world system that the world’s great powers mutually decided to avoid conflict over Antarctica by refusing to fragment the ice-shelf with new artificial borders. This international treaty reflected not power, but parity. After all, a global power would not hesitate to claim Antarctica if it possessed the power to do so.
On a map, New Zealand doesn’t appear to be a country with borders. Homogenous islands generally don’t. Yet this landmass is indeed part of the larger international community and therefore is legally independent. This has a specific meaning for the present debate about New Zealand’s flag.
In order to squabble about the design of any flag, a large number of basic assumptions must therefore be made by everyone living on a given landmass. This essay is too short to list every assumption, but a few are worth teasing out.
For instance, to decide on a new flag a person must implicitly appreciate the flag is a symbol both for describing themselves and something intangible and which exists only in the mind of an individual. In this case, the flag represents the idea – not the reality – of a human’s country. This concept is not biological, and no one is born with the idea of “country” loaded in their brains. It is entirely conditioned.
This implies that the mere possibility of debating the idea of a flag can only be possible in a Westphalian world system. And to debate a flag in the 21st century will only be accepted by other countries if the result is the country’s continued participation in the “international community” and whether it remains “legally” independent.
In other words, before the debate even began a few months ago it could only exist in a state of advanced civilised thought. New Zealanders are spending mental energy focusing on the form of the question. The flag design is possible to discuss strictly because each person implicitly accepts the default assumptions of being part of a nation-state.
This debate is a concentration on symbols without the ability to discuss why we need a flag in the first place. That question does not even occur to people because it cannot. According to the Westphalian world system, there is no other way to legally exist unless people classify themselves as inside the international community while using an accepted symbol of a nation-state.
After all, the first question people are asked in initial introductions is which country they were born in. This sentence is so rich with default assumptions about modern Western thought it would take tens of thousands of words to unpack and deconstruct. But clearly an answer to the question offers a package of presumed identity for the individual which is easily transferred between humans. That’s why we keep the concept going.
Does a person come from this country or that country? This is the form of the question no one is allowed to alter. For the eternity of our lives, none of us can ask: are these the only two options available?