Op-ed

The_nation-state_strikes_back_Montages.jpg

The nation-state strikes back

by Robert Muggah

iPolitics
December 21, 2016

he world’s political landscape is undergoing seismic changes.

Nation-states are likely to remain the central actors in the coming decades. There will be no single hegemonic force but, instead, a handful of countries — the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, India, and Japan chief among them — with semi-imperial tendencies. Power and influence will be more widely distributed across non-state networks, including vast conurbations of mega-cities and their peripheries.

Nation-states are making a comeback. The largest ones are expanding their global reach even while shoring up their territorial and digital borders. There are no guarantees that these vast territorial states and their satellites will become more liberal or democratic. Mega-trends like climate change, migration, terrorism, inequality and rapid technological change are bound to ratchet-up anxiety and, as is already painfully apparent, reactionary populism.

It was not supposed to be this way. Throughout the 1990s, scholars predicted the decline and eventual demise of the nation-state. Globalization was supposed to hasten their progress towards irrelevance. With the apparent triumph of liberal democracy, spread of free-market capitalism and minimal state interference, Francis Fukayama prophesied the end of history and, by extension, the end of authoritarian nation-states.

Yet rumors of the death of nation-states turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The end of history has not arrived and liberal democracy is not ascendant. According to British journalist Misha Glenny, Fukuyama and others under-estimated Western hubris and the greed of financial capitalism that contributed in 2008 to one of the most serious political and economic crises since the Great Depression.

“These shocks”, he argues, “enabled alternative (governance) models to reassert themselves … China and Russia most importantly … and the consolidation of illiberal democratic nation-states.”

Far from experiencing a decline in hard power, the larger nation-states are shoring up their military capabilities. The top ten spenders in 2015 included the U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan and Germany. Some of these countries are clearly preparing for confrontations in the coming decade. They are not alone. Global defence expenditures increased steadily since the late 1990s and topped $1.6 trillion last year. These trends are set to continue.

These same nation states are also continuing to dominate economically. The above-mentioned countries also registered the largest GDPs in 2015. If adjusted for purchasing power parity, China comes out above the U.S. and Russia also rises up the rankings.

he world’s political landscape is undergoing seismic changes.

Nation-states are likely to remain the central actors in the coming decades. There will be no single hegemonic force but, instead, a handful of countries — the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, India, and Japan chief among them — with semi-imperial tendencies. Power and influence will be more widely distributed across non-state networks, including vast conurbations of mega-cities and their peripheries.

Nation-states are making a comeback. The largest ones are expanding their global reach even while shoring up their territorial and digital borders. There are no guarantees that these vast territorial states and their satellites will become more liberal or democratic. Mega-trends like climate change, migration, terrorism, inequality and rapid technological change are bound to ratchet-up anxiety and, as is already painfully apparent, reactionary populism.

It was not supposed to be this way. Throughout the 1990s, scholars predicted the decline and eventual demise of the nation-state. Globalization was supposed to hasten their progress towards irrelevance. With the apparent triumph of liberal democracy, spread of free-market capitalism and minimal state interference, Francis Fukayama prophesied the end of history and, by extension, the end of authoritarian nation-states.

Yet rumors of the death of nation-states turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The end of history has not arrived and liberal democracy is not ascendant. According to British journalist Misha Glenny, Fukuyama and others under-estimated Western hubris and the greed of financial capitalism that contributed in 2008 to one of the most serious political and economic crises since the Great Depression.

“These shocks”, he argues, “enabled alternative (governance) models to reassert themselves … China and Russia most importantly … and the consolidation of illiberal democratic nation-states.”

Far from experiencing a decline in hard power, the larger nation-states are shoring up their military capabilities. The top ten spenders in 2015 included the U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan and Germany. Some of these countries are clearly preparing for confrontations in the coming decade. They are not alone. Global defence expenditures increased steadily since the late 1990s and topped $1.6 trillion last year. These trends are set to continue.

These same nation states are also continuing to dominate economically. The above-mentioned countries also registered the largest GDPs in 2015. If adjusted for purchasing power parity, China comes out above the U.S. and Russia also rises up the rankings.

These countries also are likely to remain the top performers in 2030, alongside Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Indonesia and others. Barring a spectacular collapse of global markets or armed conflict, they will continue laying the rails of international affairs.

Nation states are clearly not the only forms of political and economic organization. They are already ceding sovereignty to alternate configurations of governance, power and influence, including digitally enabled networks. These include vast metropolitan regions that are rivaling nation states in political and economic clout. Many cities are rapidly forging cross-border partnerships and integrating transportation, telecommunications and energy-related infrastructure.

Most nation-states will endure in the coming decades. There are, however, a number of ways in which they will come under strain.

First, the reconfiguration and redistribution of power among a handful of nation-states is already disrupting the global order. Established 20th century powers such as the U.S. and EU are ceding importance and influence to faster-growing China and India. Old alliances forged after the Second World War are giving way to new regional coalitions across Latin America, Asia and Africa. While these reconfigurations reflect underlying economic and demographic changes, they also increase the risk of conflict breaking out.

Second, the de-concentration of power away from nation states is giving rise to parallel layers of governance. Indeed, nation states themselves are busily establishing legal and physical enclaves to contract out core functions to private entities. There are already more than 4,000 registered special economic zones spread out around the world. While some have been more successful than others, these para-states deliberately fuse public and private interests and pose interesting questions about the purchase of state sovereignty.

Third, nation-states and para-states will come under pressure from decentralized networks of non-state actors and coalitions. Alongside large multinational companies are constellations of NGOs, unions, religious groups and others. Working constructively with, rather than against, these networks will be one of the key tests for nation-states. The spread of new technologies offers up new ways of imagining deliberative democracy. They also carry risks of disruption, ranging from the elimination of low-skill jobs to the facilitation of new types of warfare, terrorism and crime.

Fourth, nation-states are seeing power devolved to cities. The relentless pace of urbanization is partly to blame. The number of large and medium-sized cities has increased tenfold since the 1950s. Today there are 29 megacities with 10 million residents or more. And there are another 163 cities with more than three million people and at least 538 with at least one million inhabitants. Not surprisingly, the geography of power is shifting, with cities increasingly competing with each other, and with nation-states, over water, food and energy.

There are myriad challenges facing nation-states in the coming decade and a half. Having survived 368 years, they have proven to be remarkably resilient modes of political, social and bureaucratic organization. But given the scale and severity of global challenges — and the paralysis of countries and multilateral institutions in the face of those challenges — there is a risk that nation-states are becoming anachronistic and hostile to humanity’s collective survival.

Cities and civil society networks constitute powerful political and economic nodes of power and influence. The question is whether the latter will be any better at channeling collective action to address tomorrow´s threats.

Image: Crafthubs

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