The marketing of nations is hot stuff right now. On its end-of-year list of Big Ideas the New York Times Magazine included "nation branding," a notion that has been heavily promoted by Simon Anholt, a marketing consultant who specializes in advising governments on the branding of their nations, regions and cities. Anholt's proposal is that nowadays every serious country needs a ministry of branding, in charge of protecting and promoting the country's image and identity.
While it's all a bit creepy and Soviet-sounding, the basic idea is nothing new: behind every strong national identity is a successful marketing campaign. Many of the countries we take for granted today as legitimate, long-standing political communities were actually more or less invented not that long ago. Bismarck's Germany, Atatürk's Turkey, or, in a different vein, Mugabe's Zimbabwe are countries shaped in large part through deliberate branding: the creation of unifying myths, new languages and symbols, and rediscovered customs and traditions. It is largely a testament to the success of these branding attempts that we take them to be more historically rooted than they really are.
But the architects of these countries also had heavier tools to work with. For serious national-identity engineering, there are four major instruments:
Potter goes on to identify four tools use by states to build national identities: policies on an official language; rules for immigration and the acquisition of citizenship; the setting of school curricula, especially civics education and the teaching of history; and, peacetime compulsory military service. Apart from the question of whether the state with its coercive powers should use these tools--if, perhaps, the construction of a state recognized as legitimate is more important than allowing more traditional forms of cultural pluralism to remain dominant--Potter notes that none of these strategies work in Canada.
Here, in Canada, every one of the big four nation-building tools is a site of friction and division, rather than unity. We are an officially bilingual country. Education curriculum is a provincial responsibility. We've never even been able to have compulsory service in wartime without tearing ourselves apart, while our current immigration policy has the effect (damaging, if you believe its critics) of undermining, not supporting, the historically dominant culture. Or is that cultures? You can see the problem.
Whither Canada? Potter allows that this decidedly soft-edged approach to nation-building does position Canada as a post-modern society, but wonders how much legitimacy the Canadian state has among its constituents. This has obvious implications for Québec, which doesn't have a military but which does have an official-language policy, a separate educational system, and immigration policies tailored to support the Québec nation-building project. But Canada as a whole? Little, yet.