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Tyylitelty kuva toisiaan tarkkkailevista Pohjoismaista.
When in politics or law-making debaters use other countries as benchmarks, models are taken from the country’s own reference group, ie countries that are often geographically close. In Finland, other Nordic countries are regular benchmarks.Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Nation states thought to be unique copy each other

Political trends travel from one country to another like street fashion. Everyone wishes to be modern and nobody wants to be left behind. And the global circulation of ideas did not start in the 20th century; it was endemic already in the early 19th century.
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5 min
Published:
03.05.2019

What do politics and fashion have in common?

Nothing at first glance or perhaps some stylish MPs in the President’s Independence Day Reception. However, the spread of political ideas resembles fashion trends so much that politics may be researched with concepts borrowed from fashion theory. Just like in fashion, the same political ideas travel from one country to the next.

“When we identify a new phenomenon in Finland, we should look around us and ask what it is a part of. It is very likely to be part of a wider international trend,” says Academy Professor Pertti Alasuutari from Tampere University.

There are topical examples. According to Alasuutari, businessman Hjallis Harkimo’s Movement Now tries to copy the success of the En Marche movement in France. Italy’s Five Star Movement was the model for Paavo Väyrynen’s Seven Star Movement.

A basic characteristic of human nature explains the reasons for copying ideas. We are characterised by conformism ie the desire to be the same as others, or at least not to be too different. At the international level, this means that states want to be acknowledged by other nations.

Competition is another motive. Similar reforms are undertaken everywhere in the name of modernisation.

“We believe that others know better where modernisation is taking us; that we will lose out if we are left behind by modernisation,” Alasuutari says.

An alien would have another perspective

Let’s imagine that a stranger, an anthropologist from another planet, lands on earth. At the end of field work, the anthropologist would probably have found that the earth is inhabited by a tribe called “the moderns”, which has about two hundred clans called nations. The states formed by clans have their own parliaments, governments and ministries – which often go by the same names. The tribe is called the moderns because all nations want to be part of the modern world.

We earthlings and citizens of nations see things quite differently. We imagine that our nation has something that sets it apart from other nations.

“Nation states have a firm belief in their own uniqueness. That is why it is seldom noticed how much countries resemble each other,” Alasuutari explains.

For example, the basic Finnish message is that going to the sauna is our own unique feature and that having a summer cottage is in the heart of the original Finnish culture. However, holiday homes are found globally wherever people can afford them. Even the belief in the uniqueness of the summer cottage culture is not a Finnish characteristic because both Canadians and Norwegians share it.

A state is open to influences

Even mainstream social theory considers states as their own, closed economic, political and cultural entities where new ideas are innate. With a closer look, this is not actually the case.

“Looking back, it is easy to notice that the history of an individual country follows global trends,” Alasuutari says.

Alasuutari’s research group found a way to investigate the phenomenon by collecting debates related to the introduction of legislative bills from 14 countries for over twenty years. The Parliamentary debates were studied for references to the international community, international recommendations or other countries. The data comprised debates from all issue areas.

Nation states have a firm belief in their own uniqueness.

The researchers noticed that the legislative debates were quite similar in structure as were the arguments used in different countries. In addition, roughly 85 per cent of the debates contained examples from other countries as grounds to support or reject bills. For example, the Finnish government bills have a point where, as a rule, reference is made to relevant legislation in the other Nordic and OECD countries.

There were statistical differences in how frequent it was to refer to the international context. The United States represented one extreme. Of the parliamentary debates occurred in 1994–2013, only roughly 45 percent contained a reference to the international community. Instead, of all the studied debates, the US debates had most frequently references to national self-image. Especially liberty and family values were mentioned as cornerstones of being American and the bills were weighed against their conformity to American values.

“However, even these values cannot be regarded as being very original. One can ask where those countries are that do not appreciate liberty and families,” Alasuutari remarks.

History of an individual country follows global trends

  • The Tampere Research Group for Cultural and Political Sociology (TCuPS), led by Alasuutari, has found means to study the phenomenon.
  • The team collected parliamentary debates on new legislative intitiatives from 14 countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Finland, Kenya, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Kingdom and United States) for a period of two decades.
  • The Parliamentary debates were studied for references to the international community, international recommendations or other countries. The data was collected for the period from 1994 to 2013 and it comprised debates from all issue areas.
Pertti Alasuutari
If you hear talk that something needs to be done suddenly in a new way because everyone else is doing it, you should put the brakes on. “Research results make you take any given truths with a pinch of salt,” Academy Professor Pertti Alasuutari says. Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Models adopted from others

When in politics or law-making debaters use other countries as benchmarks, models are taken from the country’s own reference group, ie countries that are often geographically close. In Finland, other Nordic countries are regular benchmarks.

Since the 1950, there has been talk about political models. According to Alasuutari, using models to conceptualise political alternatives most likely started from physics. During the 1950s, the concept spread to economics, social sciences and wider political thinking.

The post of a children’s ombudsman or commissioner is an example of a model that spread across the world quickly. The first such post was established in Norway in 1981. Now nearly half of the world’s countries have a children’s ombudsman.

For example, the United Kingdom and New Zealand first experienced a child abuse scandal after which a committee was appointed to look into ways to prevent similar events in the future. The committees recommended setting up a post for children’s commissioner. This was proposed as a great invention even though the model already existed in Norway and people were aware of it.

“There was no such scandal in Finland but there was political pressure to set up the office because the other Nordic countries already had appointed an ombudsman,” Alasuutari says.

Thus, ideas are borrowed from others but they are domesticated into the own culture. When Finland undertook the Competitiveness Pact following the Danish example, people started to call it the Finnish model.

“When politicians introduce ideas to the wider audience, references to the source of the original idea are usually forgotten,” Alasuutari points out.

International organisations play a key role in disseminating ideas. They set up norms, create practices and, when countries introduce new bills, they are appealed to.

Globalisation is an old phenomenon

The study on political models also revealed an interesting aspect related to globalisation.

The debate on globalisation began in the 1990s. At the time, it was suggested that ideas spread from one country to another, the dependence on other countries was increasing and the different corners of the world were becoming alike.

However, the research data did not show any growth in referring to other countries from 1994 to 2013. Globalisation must thus be an older phenomenon.

It is wrong to say that states were separated until globalisation came.

Determining how old the phenomenon is was helped by studying the online archive of the British Parliament, which contains all its documents from 1803. By using corpus linguistics suitable for the analysis of large data, researchers in Tampere searched for occurrences of speakers justifying their opinions by using other countries as examples. The most references to other countries were found in the early years of the material, the beginning of the 19th century.

“It is wrong to say that states were separated until globalisation came and that we are internationalising only now. That is not true,” Alasuutari remarks.

“The globe is divided into national states that all copy each other. How could this have happened if there were no international community where decisions are justified by how others have acted?” Alasuutari says.