21 February 2007

Will the Nation-State Be Obsolete by 2100?

I wonder if the nation-state hasn't outlived its usefulness.

City-states had largely disappeared by the time of the Enlightenment. By the time that Germany and Italy became nation-states in the late 19th century, most of the West had coagulated into nation-state form. A nation-state had more military power than a city-state and by eradicating trade barriers within the country, nation-states stimulated trade and prosperity. Conditions of the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to make the city-state obsolete; perhaps the conditions of the 21st century will make the nation-state obsolete.

In today's world, the nation-state seems increasingly ineffectual at dealing with real problems. It isn't particularly suited to the major issues of the present. Pandemics, terrorism, financial crisis, immigration, trade, economic prosperity and, of course, global climate change are all issues that thumb their noses at national boundaries. Already in Europe, nation-states are gradually giving more power over to the EU. I suspect that this is a trend (that will, as all such trends, suffer reversals).

It is difficult to think of what nation-states are still uniquely suited to do; they still seem to have a monopoly on starting truly horrific wars. We now have about 200 nations on this little planet. It's not obvious that we can afford for even 10 or 20 percent of them to be strutting around with nuclear-equipped armies. It might make sense to emasculate the nation-state before this creation of ours destroys us.

“If you said, ‘Let’s design a problem that human institutions can’t deal with,’ you couldn’t find one better than global warming.”
- Henry Jacoby, MIT School of Management


ThomasLB said...

I think the nation-states are already in decline, supplanted by multinational corporations. Organizations like the WTO were created not for the benefit of governments, at least not directly, but for the benefit of businesses.

You could argue that we're already at the point where if you want to change the world, don't vote- buy stock.

Life Hiker said...

This is your wildest prediction ever, and I can't see far enough into the future to a time when it may come to pass.

As you know from your consulting work, change is a really hard thing to accomplish, and the larger the organization the more difficult change seems to be. It usually takes a real crisis to spur change.

In the case of the EU, the crisis was economic. Their thicket of country-level trade barriers and their various currencies made them non-competitive in the world market.

It's unlikely economics will drive major additional consolidations because treaties and the WTO are breaking down trade barriers worldwide.

Vested interests in countries have much to lose from consolidations, so they promote nationalism. Even "progressive" movements like American unions have much to fear from consolidations that would open up the labor market.

What it will take to bring the human race closer together? Yes, a threat, a crisis, one so challenging that it must be addressed jointly by many countries. But must the threat become a reality before it is powerful enough to prompt a new order in the world? Most likely.

Ron Davison said...

LH, its less of a prediction than a speculation. And just as we still have cities, I have trouble imagining a world without countries. The question is whether they will be relevant.

Thomas, I agree with you. At to tie to LH's point, the erosion of national power will likely be accelerated by multinational corporations and agencies like the WTO. Nation-states already have to gain approval from the WTO for trade policies, for instance.

It seems as though the locus of power shifts about like the water above a bathtub drain, a force we try to institutionalize like a kid trying to catch the whirlpool funnel.

Dave said...

I don't see it happening soon; though, Carthage wasn't ready for Rome's power.

If it happens, I think it will be the result of economic evolution which will have to overcome religion and ethnic restraints.