First of all, I would like to express my gratitude and admiration to Dr. Moradian for organizing this conference again here in Herat. Over a very few years, this conference has become an important arena for discussions – not only of Afghan affairs, but of wider problems troubling us all wherever we live.
And I am grateful to Dr. Spanta, for his very kind words – and for a long-lasting friendship. It is based on shared values, shared convictions and shared experience, which makes it special.
I am happy to be back in Afghanistan – after four years of absence. But I am not happy with everything I see. During my first visits, in 2003, I remember walking down the road from the guest house to Lakhdar Brahimi´s office and then walk back again in the evening. Today, I have problems finding my way in a city I thought I knew. The concrete barriers have become so high and so many that I am sometimes unable to see the buildings behind them. That illustrates well the precarious security situation. The city is the same, but it is different.
But these few days have also brought moments of encouragement. On Wednesday, I met Nader Naderi, a friend from years back. He briefed me about the comprehensive reform efforts that are underway in the civil service. And we talked about the recent revision of the penal code. Such reforms were long overdue. In a sense, it is now a race against the clock.
Then to the topic of this Conference; the future of the nation state. I will provide a few reflections. But I have no answers to the many questions confronting us. Hopefully I can contribute usefully to the discussion.
I will not describe the history of the nation state over the last couple of hundred years or more. Nor will I try to define the nation state other than to emphasize one fundamental element; it has never been defined as a state composed exclusively of one nation. It has been seen as an entity, which could include several nations or ethnic group often with different languages. This is important - as Afghans will know well. Most Afghans understand the value of Afghan patriotism and the sense of belonging together. Anything that would put this sense of a common Afghan identity - shared by all ethnic groups - at risk would be dangerous.
When the nation state order gradually emerged, members of empires and tribes became citizens of nation states. By the middle of the 20th century the global transition was almost complete. By that time, the world of nation states had already experienced an economic and technological development never witnessed before.
Then came the Great Depression and the Second World War. An era of multilateralism was ushered in; a set of new organisations were established, following the Bretton Woods conference, to regulate the international financial system, and the European integration project was launched. It was a system intended to revitalize international trade and to prevent European states from repeating the disastrous mistakes of previous decades.
It was the beginning of a period of unprecedented economic growth, and tremendous technological development – albeit unevenly shared. And it was a period of relative political stability. In spite of regional and local wars and conflicts, we have not experienced the all-out wars that had shattered almost the entire global community during the first half of the 20th century.
However, this was also a period where economic control was sifting fast away from nation states to currency markets and multinational companies with assets that by far exceeded those of most nation states. Power shifted sideways to the private sector and upwards to international markets. Government authority was reduced and transferred to multilateral institutions and frameworks in an effort to regain some level of political control. Since then we have witnessed an ever-expanding transfer of competences and sovereignty from the nation state to the multilateral level.
In Europe, the European project – under different names – first established standards for coal and steel production, then for agricultural and manufactured products and gradually regulations affecting almost all parts of the political and economic life of nation states. Today, a very significant part of the legislation passed by national parliaments in Europe have their origin in Brussels. And even if they are EU regulations, no other European government with extensive trading relations with the EU can afford to ignore them.
Now the challenges that require common answers are again rapidly increasing in numbers and magnitude:
The threat of international terrorism is growing and manifesting itself not only in the Middle East and in other war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan. International terrorism has become a serious threat across Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, our common response is fragmented and inadequate. There is a tendency to hide behind national walls rather than to invest in further cooperation.
The climate and environmental challenges are becoming more evident every year and expressing themselves in more unpredictable and brutal weather conditions, growing desertification and polluted oceans. Yet, science – the very basis for informed responses – is increasingly under siege and international commitments are questioned or – even worse – set aside.
Cyberspace is uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable. When faced with a cyberattack we do not know where it originates. It could be launched from a foreign country, but also from a house down the street. Efforts to regulate cyberspace have been modest. An agreement was concluded in 2015 between China and the US to prevent industrial espionage. A UN group of Governmental Experts have proposed the elaboration of norms for limiting conflict and for confidence-building measures. But no efforts have so far been made to investigate further if such norms can be established to avoid or control international cyber conflicts – even if the likelihood of attacks against critical infrastructure is very significant.
Migration has reached a level where countries of destination cannot cope. In 2015, Germany received 900.000 asylum seekers, and Sweden 165.000 – mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. And even if the influx from these countries in conflict has slowed down, migration will continue. Nigeria´s population will grow from 220 to 420 million over the next 30 years or so. That of neighbouring Niger from 22 million to 70 million in little more than 3 decades. Many will seek to escape poverty and despair through Libya or other North African corridors. During 2015, Europe failed to mobilize the solidarity required to handle the crises. Can we reach some kind of common policies that would place us in a better position to meet future waves?
Globalisation and the development of modern technologies change the workplace in a fundamental way. Entire industries disappear as do professions. According to McKinsey almost 50% of today´s jobs in advanced economies could be replaced by robots. More than half of those who now start their education will end up in jobs that today do not exist. More and more people are employed in part-time jobs of some sort, leading to down-ward pressure on salaries, pensions, etc. Social mobility has come to a halt. Many consider globalisation to be a project of the elites and see themselves alienated and excluded.
Of course, modern technologies bringing great news; diseases without cure can now be cured. You don´t have to go to your doctor to be checked. Instead you can be monitored via a sensor on your body linked to a screen at your doctor´s office. Smart entrepreneurs can launch their products and services from almost anywhere in the world and immediately reach a global market. For each and every-one of us, the audience is no longer our family around the kitchen table or colleagues at work. We are all constantly linked to a global audience.
We are all interlinked and we all feel the impact of new and emerging challenges. But the processes of governments are not interlinked. The result is a growing sense among ordinary people that they no longer have control over their own destiny – and nor do their governments.
It has become commonplace to say that we are entering the fourth industrial revolution. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Foreign Minister, recently stated that this description is inaccurate. It does not tell us what this is really about: We are entering a new era, the digital era. And the transformation from the industrial to the digital era can only be compared to the transformation from the agricultural to the industrial society.
This transformation and the challenges I mentioned fuel the nervousness we now witness in so many societies. It is the fear of those who believe that they are left aside or falling behind, who are deeply worried about their and their children´s future. I am convinced that during the Brexit referendum, the US elections and the German elections - with so many voting for the AfD – there were millions who – with their vote – were saying: “Can you finally hear me now?”
However, these voters are not saying; we need more Europe or more multilateralism to cope with the problems. They do not believe that investing more power in multilateral institutions or cooperation will solve their problems. Most of them are saying exactly the opposite. They are turning away from multinationalism and back towards the nation state. Towards nation states that have – long ago – lost their ability to control the situation.
And they are tempted by politicians who often give them a false belief that if we build new walls, if we decide to stand on our own, then we can do better. The crisis of confidence is very real, and accelerating. And it affects a great number of countries, where mainstream parties are decimated or at least suffer serious setbacks.
As a result of these trends, there is a turn away from the liberal international order and away from the liberal democracies that have formed the basis for our current way of governing. Values, international commitments and institutions are under pressure. President Macron said recently that never has the world been so divided, never have the centrifugal forces been so strong and never have our values been under such pressure.
Some European governments openly question the values we have based ourselves on over the last decades. In a number of other European states, anti-liberal forces have also been gaining ground. Add to this the election of a new US president who questions some of the fundamental components of our liberal order and thereby stimulates anti-liberal forces across Europe and elsewhere.
Finally, we experience a global power shift that compounds the problem. Russia has re-emerged as a significant global player. That should not surprise anybody. Those who believed that Russia would remain weak made a serious miscalculation. Personally, I am not as worried as many about Russia´s military power. But I am concerned about its readiness to use the means at its disposal to influence European politics by supporting anti-liberal parties. China is expanding fast. By 2050 its economy may be twice the size of the US economy and its economic and political model will increasingly be seen as attractive by countries on several continents. The US under president Trump has become more inward-looking and questions values, commitments and institutions that have shaped our liberal order. When Francis Fukyama wrote –in the early 1990s – that history had come to an end, he referred to the conviction he shared with so many; that all societies would strive to copy this liberal order. That would be the end station in our search for the ultimate model. The last 15 years have provided evidence to the contrary.
When technologies change our world so fast; when we experience so many new challenges that transcend borders, when so many people – for good reasons - tend to look back and not forward – often influenced by misguided politicians; when there is such pressure on values, commitments and institutions: Can we then continue to govern in the same way? If not, how do we adapt our system of governance to a new reality while maintaining its core values? And what would be the role of nation states? Currently, the political discourse is mainly focussed on the national level. There is a dangerous mismatch between the national political debate and the actual global realities, a mismatch that could quickly lead to further frustration and destabilisation of the political system. A broad discussion of these questions is now urgently required.
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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS