Nations are, by necessity, people united by common mythology. Sometimes that mythology arises from ethnic solidarity. Sometimes it is the product of a shared ideology. Others, as in the case of many post-colonial states, it derives from the mere legal fiction of internationally acknowledged boundaries. But nations do not exist without some kind of common purpose.
This is a problem that has particularly vexed the nations of the new world. Old world states define themselves in ethnic terms, and date the birth of their nation to the creation of their ethnic identity. This is the case with the French, the Russians, and the Japanese, and it is a conception of nationhood untroubled by sects who do not consider themselves bound by it, be they Basque, Chechan, or Ainu. The equivalence between nationhood and ethnicity is the reason why these societies have, in various ways, had such trouble adapting themselves to receiving immigrant inflows: if to be a French citizen is to be of Gallic heritage, what is one to make of French from North Africa or the near East? Should the nation continue to be ethnically defined, or can it find a new (excuse me) raison d’être?
The problem is both alleviated and compounded for states of the new world. The citizens of nations like the United States and Australia cannot with any awareness of history claim their nationhood derives from ethnic commonality. In such countries, settlers displaced, and now exist alongside, indigenous populations. Immigration has created culturally and racially pluralistic societies. There are not ethnic Australians the way there are ethnic Swedes or Thais or Greeks. Our nationhood cannot be defined by the forefathers of our citizens.
Being the first country to sever its ties with the British Empire, and having done so through armed rebellion, the United States was among the first modern societies to consider this conundrum. Its determination, haltingly applied — through the inconstant expansion of citizenship and personhood to blacks, to its indigenous peoples, to immigrants — was that theirs was a nation founded upon an idea. To be American, unlike to be Portuguese or Dutch, is to find nationhood in the state’s civic religion, and especially, in the documents that express it: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, among others.
Australia, since its inception, has faced a similar problem to the United States, but we have not so readily found a solution to the conundrum of our nationhood. We are clearly not an ethnically united population: our continent’s original inhabitants are Aboriginal; our numbers have included Irish since the 18th century and Chinese since the early 19th century. And yet we feel ourselves to be more than a legally defined entity: we are a people with a common culture, common ideals, and common patriotic symbols.
The United States found its identity in rebellion and, later, in internal conflict. Australia, however, has experienced no great unifying upheaval. Its birth was legalistic, not military. Edmund Barton is no George Washington. Indeed, the story of our nation has been one of the slow process of creating a nation. When we ask who we are, we are answering the question even while we pose it.