Vaarwel and au revoir to Belgium?

The FT’s Gideon Rachman weighs in on the Belgian “crisis” in a piece called “For Nations, Small is Beautiful.”

(I realize that this has little or nothing to do with Japan, a country Edwin Reischauer once suggested “may be the world’s most perfect nation-state,” although with Okinawa as a prefecture, Japan is not nearly as perfect as the late ambassador would have it.)

In it, Rachman dispels some of the irrational fears that have marked responses in the outside world to the prospect of Belgium’s splitting into two countries. Namely, that in the twenty-first century, the idea of agglomerating more and more land and people under one government is outdated, and, indeed, counterproductive.

But taking pride in the sheer size of your country is increasingly anachronistic.Traditionally it has been good to be a big country for two main reasons: prosperity and security. A big country meant a bigger market and so more trade and wealth creation. A large nation was also more powerful and less likely to be invaded.

But in the modern world, both these advantages seem to be diminishing.

Globalisation has opened up markets across the world. China and India are getting richer largely because they have access to the markets of the developed world, not because of the size of their domestic markets. Small countries can trade their way to success even more swiftly. Think of Singapore or Switzerland.

Small is also no longer synonymous with insecure.

In Europe, many minnows have enhanced their security by joining Nato. This is sometimes denounced as free-riding. Belgium or Luxembourg can afford to be small, secure and smug – because they are under the security umbrella, proffered by big and generous Uncle Sam.

But joining a collective security organisation is not an absolute necessity for a small country. Ireland and Switzerland are not members of Nato – and neither appears to be in imminent danger of invasion.

The fact is large countries are now less instinctively expansionist than they were in the days of empire. These days, invading and occupying small countries can be a massive pain in the neck – as the US has discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the traditional disadvantages of being a tiddly country are disappearing, you are just left with the advantages.

As Beijing understands, at some point there are diminishing marginal returns for population size. At some point, an extra 100 million people who have to be fed, housed, clothed, and employed create more problems than the contributions they make in terms of taxes and productivity. Why else would the CCP have initiated the one-child policy? In terms of territory too, at some point the costs of policing a territory are more than the territory’s returns for a government.

And the feasibility of small countries should finally mean the end of Europe’s nationalities problem, in that every nation that desires autonomy can survive in its own national home. Scotland? Fine. Catalonia? Go ahead. As Rachman suggests, the existence of NATO and the European Union ensure the survival of small states in Europe. With a security guarantee from more powerful states, the security benefits derived from expansive territory and a large population are superfluous, while the EU’s single market makes possible economies of scale that states once sought in large continental or overseas empires.

So should Belgium, the product of a political settlement among the great powers in 1831, break, I won’t shed a tear, especially since the Walloons and the Flemings have been sleeping in separate beds, so to speak, for years. I’m sure both will be fine.

The larger idea here is that we should not be so wedded to the idea that the nation- and multi-national states that exist today will be around forever. The map will change; arrangements were the product of either political convenience or the contrivances of empires will break down, hopefully peacefully. This trend may prove to be one of the most significant of the century.

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