The Nation-State and Self-Sufficiency

With Russia’s war on Ukraine, the ever-present availability of cheap gas, warmth, and electricity got questioned in many European countries. On the one hand, governments suggested ideas for individuals to save energy by using a wet rag instead of a warm shower. However, it raised claims of energy self-sufficiency. Hasn’t Europe relied on Russia too much in the past? Shouldn’t energy supplies have been diversified before? Most governments unanimously answered yes and turned to alternatives. Now, the US exports liquified gas to Europe while its states also explore deals with other actors. Germany, for example, pleaded with Qatar for a gas contract.[1,2] But not just diversification, as one might call it; projects suggesting “real” self-sufficiency are discussed. Building huge solar-panel parks and transforming wind into energy and biological waste into fuel might finally lead to a glorified future of fully independent nation-states.[3] This vision goes hand in hand with clean energy, but this is not to be questioned here. Instead, this discussion draws on an outdated idea of nation-state independence that has been and is nowadays more outdated than ever. 

How individual agency depends on the structure 

First, on a micro level in social sciences, it has been stated for years that free decision-making depends on various socially constructed factors, like age, gender, health, income, and more. These factors determine one’s agency as an ability to make decisions. But one does not make decisions in a free-floating space. People tend to live in societies, areas, and particular structures that shape their decision-making.[4] One cannot vote if there are no elections, one cannot buy groceries if there is no supermarket, and finally, one cannot invest if there is no stock exchange. Thus, people and their decision-making depend on a structure.[5] Free decisions are therefore co-determined by various enabling or disabling factors. Completely independent decision-making would consequently suggest an individual being no one and nowhere. 

The state is an actor disposing of agency and operating within a structure

If one agrees until this point that people usually are someone and somewhere, one might expand this logic to the nation-state. As in social sciences, individuals in political sciences nation-states are actors disposing of an agency and operating within a particular structure. Decision-making in nation-states works differently based on their political form, the individuals constituting it, and its acceptance as such. But since we live in the era of nation-states, we must accept that these are the agreed-on decision-making units of communities. But nation-states do not just defend their sovereignty or fight with each other and serve themselves. They empower the people constituting it, contributing to their structure, connecting with other nation-states, and by different means, changing world affairs.[6] 

Globalization makes independence impossible 

One might be tempted to argue now that nation-state cooperation is just one working mode and that separation from other territory-and society-organizing units. Thus nation-state self-sufficiency is therefore very well possible. Couldn’t Europe build a lot of Solar-Parks until 2050 as planned?[7] Also, some wind turbines in case the sun is not shining. Of course, it could and probably will, but these resources come somewhere. From 1450 on, the world became more and more entangled. People exchanged goods and knowledge alongside the silk road. ‘The “Atlantic slave triangle” that included Asia and its demand for rich metals tied the international welfare together.[8] One can argue about the exact date but for hundreds of years, escape from international entanglements has been impossible without suffering harsh consequences. 

Let’s dive into the current phase of globalization. Most metals are co-produced for renewable energy, namely “(…) indium, germanium, and cadmium with zinc, and tellurium and selenium with copper.”[9] Asian and South-American countries increasingly produce these metals.[10] If Europe wanted to become self-sufficient in creating these, it had to change vast parts of its economic structure and employ its labor force differently. Also, it would have to recycle raw materials or invent different production methods to become independent from imports. Of course, going back to a subsistence mode of production would be possible. But all these acts would drastically decrease the living standard people are used to. 

The nation-state, welfare, and individual agency  

Thus the nation-state is reciprocally constituted by the people believing and being rewarded by it. These individuals make decisions based on their agency and surrounding structure, partly formed by the nation-state. The current nation-state also operates in a broader system and relies on other nation-states and actors to reward its citizens and employ a certain standard of living. If true self-sufficiency were employed, this standard of living people are used to would change dramatically. Therefore it is unlikely and yet not observable that such would ever be established beyond a discussion about self-sufficiency. The trend nowadays points to a change of entanglements but no loosening of the knot.

[1] Freitas, Gerson. ‘The US Is Now Sending the Bulk of Its Export Gas to Europe’., 7 June 2022.

[2] Focus online. ‘Wegen Katars Gas-Abkommen mit China hat Deutschland nun ein Problem – Video’. FOCUS online.

[3] Alkousaa & Reichert 2022, online.

[4] Alsop and Heinsohn, pp. 4-7.

[5] Sen 1999, pp. 5, 10.

[6] Acharya 2014, pp. 651-652.


[8] Christian 2000, p. 22.; Middel 2019, pp. 38-40.

[9] Elshkaki & Graedel 2015, p. 4.

[10] Mohr et al. 2018, p. 4.

Max Gärtner

Max Gärtner

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