Identity and Power
Political power is most effective when the source of power matches the identity that people relate to. In the United States, people identify first and foremost with their country. And most of the power comes from the national level, which is why the federal government is able to govern effectively. If people felt a closer identity to the state they live in, and the state was always being told what to do by the federal government, the federal government would have a hard time maintaining control.
In Sir Paul Collier’s MOOC “From Poverty to Prosperity” from Oxford on EdX, he uses the Roman Empire as an example of the imbalance between power and identity. The Roman Empire was a supranational structure that ruled over many smaller regions and tribes. These smaller groups did not feel loyal to Rome; they felt loyal to their own people. The Roman Empire therefore had to spend a lot of energy controlling these subnational groups. When an entity has power, but not authority, it has three choices in how to attain authority from its people. First is repression, usually by force. This method is expensive, and if the constituents have a strong enough force to fight back, it can lead to open conflict. The second method is to block a group out the way Rome did to Scotland with Hadrian’s Wall. And the third method is just to continue issuing directives and pretend you are in power, even when you and your subjects know you are not. Collier says that Rome actually ruled in this way in much of the land it controlled.
What about in Africa, where many people feel more loyal to their tribe than their nation? After all, the national borders were mostly drawn arbitrarily, whereas people have been loyal to their tribes for centuries. There are two approaches to deal with this imbalance between a national power structure and a sub-national identity among the people. One approach is to shift people’s sense of identity toward their country, rather than their tribe. One way to do this is to heavily promote national symbols like the flag and national anthem. Another approach is to accept the sub-national identity and create a more decentralized power structure. Countries like Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada have all done this very successfully to accommodate their diverse populations. An example of a successful approach in Africa has been Nyerere’s efforts in Tanzania. He combined the two approaches by going on tour around Tanzania to unite the tribes and then creating a presidential system that alternates between a Muslim and Christian leader of the country. Tanzania opted not to allow for different political parties, because Nyerere was afraid the parties would form along tribal lines, which would lead to conflict. This has worked pretty well over the long run. In Kenya, political parties have done just what Nyerere feared. The president in power along with his party usually favor their own tribe, which leads to conflict. In 2008, this conflict boiled over in the presidential election and lead to over 1,000 deaths.
The principle of identity and power explains a lot about supranational structures like the UN and the EU. The UK recently left the EU because the people of the country didn’t like being told what to do by a larger-than-nation entity. This is further evidence that power and identity should be aligned, or else people may reject the power structure. The UN is another supranational structure that receives a lot of criticism and pushback from its member states. Critics argue that the UN does not “have enough teeth,” and is “overly bureaucratic,” and “is unable to get anything done.” These problems all stem from its supranational nature. Although, maybe these characteristics of the UN are not really problems at all. If there UN were to begin wielding more power and enforcing rules and regulations on Member States, they would undoubtedly resist. The imbalance between supranational power and national identity would again get in the way. So the UN really cannot exist as a potent power structure. It must be a convener, a coordinator, a thought leader, and a forum for dialogue. Those who complain does not do enough would probably be the first ones to complain if the UN began extending its control and imposing its influence on Member States.