The history of the nation-state is largely the history of conflict, interspersed with periods of cooperation, sometimes occurring simultaneously. Indeed, our notion of the modern nation-state was born of conflict. At the same time, it appears that opportunities for international cooperation among nations and peoples are spreading.
Between 1618 and 1648, the European continent was engulfed in the Thirty Years’ War. Initially a struggle between Protestant and Roman Catholic nations, the Thirty Years’ War ultimately became a struggle among nations for influence and power. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the war, ultimately defined nations as sovereign within their territories. This, in turn, established that international relations and, thus, the basis for international conflict and cooperation, would largely be between nation-states.
Through much of the next three centuries, including some of history’s bloodiest wars, many of those nation-states were concerned with increasing their power and territory at the expense of their rivals. Although today there are still conflicts in many areas of the world, there are also many areas of international cooperation, both within and outside the framework of the nation-state.
For example, in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, a variety of nations provided assistance, with the United States dispatching naval and other military assets to provide humanitarian relief. This included both seaborne medical facilities and search-and-rescue platforms. Likewise, in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in 2011, the United States and other nations provided assistance.
In addition, a variety of permanent government-sponsored international organizations that promote cooperation have come into existence. These include various agencies of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Independent organizations, such as the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, also have come into existence.
Finally, individuals often contribute to international cooperation. In 1947, for example, individual Americans contributed money and gifts in a charitable campaign for France and Italy, which were still devastated by World War II. The Italians sent their gratitude in the form of four statues, which now stand on the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C. In 1948, the French replied with a “thank you” known as the “Merci train:” 49 boxcars—one for each state and the District of Columbia—filled with gifts of their own. (Also in 1948, the United States began executing the Marshall Plan, which provided billions in economic assistance to rebuild Western Europe.)
More recently, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, 38 aircraft inbound to the United States from Europe were diverted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. Seven thousand people were stranded—nearly doubling the town’s population—in a town with only 500 hotel rooms. The planes would stay five days before U.S. airspace was opened again.
Over the course of those five days, the people of Gander responded by providing needed supplies, spare clothing, medicines, and hospitality. They took the “plane people” sightseeing and hunting, and brought them into their homes for food and showers.
“We started off with 7,000 strangers,” the then-mayor of Gander said, “but we finished with 7,000 family members.”