The World in Transition: Relevance of Nation State Concept in the Era of Global Interdependence

Posted on: 23-01-2018

By Gen. Rajiv Narayanan

**The contents of this piece were presented at the Herat Security Dialogue – VI (13-14 October 2017). Note that references have been omitted here to help with the flow of the text.**

The extant World Order is in a state of flux in this ‘Age of Strategic Uncertainties’, with the US in strategic retrenchment and the EU in an economic slowdown and internal dissonance. In this vacuum a rising, revanchist China seeks to gain more geo-strategic and geo-political space using geo-economic coercion to achieve its phase one of the Chinese Dream – a unipolar Asia within a multi-polar World. China reckons that the ‘Shi’, i.e. the ‘Strategic Construct of Power’, is now flowing in its favour but it opines that this window is narrowing as other Middle and Rising Powers (like India, Japan, Russia, etc.) exert their own ‘Shi’ to carve out their respective space in Asia.

The recent events and trends show that the emerging World Order is tending towards multi-polarity leading to another period of jousting due to the ‘balance of power’. However the world today is very different from the previous centuries wherein such a change was preceded by a bloody carnage from a clash of arms – the ‘Thucydides Trap’. In this flux come other Middle and Rising Powers with their own national interests to guard and expand their influence creating a combustible environment.

This compels the review of the extant narrative of sovereign nation states, as this has not protected the South from being able to exercise their sovereign autonomous right to protect their national interests, due to the geo-strategic and geo-economic coercion by the ‘Core’ and ‘Peripheral’ powers (North). With the World in transition, and tending towards multi-polarity, there is a need to relook the Westphalian construct of the nation state concept in the present era of global interdependence, to ensure that the South does not suffer, should the North get into an ‘Economic Thucydides Trap’.

This paper aims to look at this aspect and revisit the federative and confederative principles to suggest a model for the extant International Institutions to be able to provide a balance, buttressed by a general union as subjected to some central political control; a move towards multilateralism or regional multilateralism. It would analyze the level at which such union and control would function better and the degree to which the ‘sovereignty’ needs to be ceded (if any) to such Institutions, leading to a balance of ‘Sovereign Regional Power’ that would ensure an era of reduced strife and increased prosperity across regions and the World. It would ensure a better balance for the Semi-Peripheral States with the Peripheral States and the Core, thereby ensuring a balanced covariance of rewards to all.

Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity.The concept of absolute, unlimited sovereignty did not last long after its adoption, either domestically or internationally. The growth of democracy imposed important limitations upon the power of the sovereign and of the ruling classes. The increase in the interdependence of states restricted the principle that might is right in international affairs. Citizens and policymakers generally have recognized that there can be no peace without law and that there can be no law without some limitations on sovereignty.

The genesis of sovereign nation states can be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the end of the Thirty years’ War. The traditional view of the Westphalian system is that the Peace of Westphalia was an agreement to respect the principle of territorial integrity. In the Westphalian system, the national interests and goals of states (and later nation-states) were widely assumed to go beyond those of any citizen or any ruler. States became the primary institutional agents in an interstate system of relations. The Peace of Westphalia is said to have ended attempts to impose supranational authority on European states, and led to the concept of balance of power to maintain peace and stability. Yet as early as 1760 it was noted that such balance of power, however operated, merely preserved the states and would not guarantee peace. To be lasting, such balance needs to be buttressed by a general union subjected to a central political control. The subsequent Wars – The Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars are some examples of the failure of this system.

A state is specifically a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. The term “nation-state” implies that the two coincide, in that a state has chosen to adopt and endorse a specific cultural group as associated with it. The concept of a nation-state can be compared and contrasted with that of the multinational state, city-state, empire, confederation, and other state formations with which it may overlap. The key distinction is the identification of a people with a polity in the nation-state. Thus a nation state meets the following criteria:

  • A defined territory;
  • A permanent population;
  • A government; and
  • A capacity to enter into relations with other states.

The remarkable events of recent times have given substance to the idea that the world is in a new age of International Relations. The spread of ‘Globalisation’ has resulted in a much more integrated ‘Global Interdependence’, that has resulted in the use of geo-economic coercion and geo-strategic compulsions to gain strategic space,  and a declining use of conventional full scale war. Nonetheless, it still has perpetuated ‘Small Wars’, insurgencies, terrorism and asymmetric wars. As such, this interdependence is not balanced and skewed heavily in favour of the ‘Core and the Peripheral’ states being more strong economically as compared to the ‘Semi-peripheral or smaller’ states, some of whom have borne this brunt (West Asia).

Two countries are considered economically interdependent if any change in one causes a predictable change in the other. If the change affects both in a like manner it is termed as positive interdependence or having a ‘positive covariance of rewards’. If the effect on both is diametrically opposite it is termed as negative covariance of rewards’. Strong positive interdependence tends to support solidarity, while negative tends to prompt conflict; weak interdependence tends to make but little difference either way.

This global economic interdependence will invariably lead to a clash of ‘perceived’ national interests, leading to the economic coercion of the Third World countries as many of these are resource rich and depend upon the demand from the North for their economic survival.

The International Institutions established by the ‘society of nations’ (UNO) is propounding /deemed to support contradictory principles – sovereignty of states versus such geo-economic coercion that it cannot prevent, and the equality of states versus the special privileges of the P-5 (geo-strategically and geo-politically) and the G 7 (geo-economically and geo-politically). The lack of capability to enforce the rules / decisions it ratifies leaves the South at the mercy of the North. The skewed covariance of rewards in favour of the North, leads to the geo-strategic and geo-economic coercion of the South, or economic imperialism.

While earlier there were one or two players in this game of geo-strategic or geo-economic coercion (Cold War and thereafter), with the rise of other Powers in this Age of Strategic Uncertainties, the South would face multiple such challenges. The impact of ‘Cold War’ biases is still extant, in the manner in which the US, West and their allies deal with the other countries, resulting in the South being forced into strategic and economic coercion due to the instabilities created by this ‘Balance of Power / Economic Power’ and unfair trade agreements forced upon them. In Asia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are facing geo-economic crunch with respect to China, while elsewhere the Middle East is facing upheaval due to military interventions for regime change, by the USA – strategic coercion.

Ever since ‘Pax Romana’, such geo-strategic and geo-economic coercions have only led to penury of the vassal states (Global South), rise of new powers and a clash of arms resulting in the change of guard. Be it ‘Pax Britannica’ or ‘Pax America’, the Thucydides Trap has only spread chaos, bloodshed and strife. Considering this is the World ready for a new version of ‘Pax Sinica’?

The World is at the threshold of a new dawn and needs a fresh breath of air, akin to the Westphalian Treaty of 1648, but going beyond it, to usher in an era of tranquillity and balance.

The federal principle has been applied to integrate state polities since the classical days of Roman Empire. It has proved its ability to solve integration problems of legally and politically autonomous communities that, in order to confront mutual challenges and problems, face the necessity to become a new entity without losing their own political and legal identity (examples, USA and Great Britain). While within the ‘state’ it was found feasible, amongst states it was found to be incompatible in that era of mutually exclusive sovereign states.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the idea of federation amongst sovereign states was no longer feasible even to avoid conflicts. The primacy of perceived national interests over any mutual accommodation precluded the formation of any Institution based on rigid federative principles. As tensions between states grew, the need for ‘détente’ became more urgent than ever. Thus was born a system embodying a type of International Association requiring merely voluntary co-ordination of measures to prevent conflict – based on Confederative Principles. Such structures tend to provide frameworks within which International relations are conducted on the basis of power politics. Both the League of Nations and the UNO have failed to deliver due to this phenomenon. This ideology of ‘harmony of interests’, which subsumes the UNO decisions is out of tune when applied to interactions between developed and underdeveloped countries. It serves to promote and favoured position of the powerful, the P-5 and G-7, and is not in synch with the changed geo-political scenario of the 21st Century.

This leads on to the dilemma, what next? The prospect is best explained by the most self-conscious apostle of realism - Hans Joachim Morgenthau. He placed little hope in the ability of devices like balance of power, international law or force of world opinion to maintain peace. Permanent peace, he held, was dependent on a ‘World State’, which however had to be preceded by a ‘World Community’. In effect the sovereignty of nation states had ceased to be relevant in the environment of global interdependence.

However with the ‘concept of sovereignty’ so deeply engraved in the psyche of the polity of the nations, a jump to World Community would not likely succeed and would be short lived. World has progressed by surrendering some degree of sovereignty at every level since millennia – family to clan to tribe to principalities / city states/ kingdoms to sovereign states to empires and colonies (wherein the colonised society was deprived completely) to present day nation states. At every level, each entity did surrender some degree of its sovereignty for the larger good of the expanding society (ies).

The nations of the region need to come together to form a ‘Regional Multilateral Federal Structure’, wherein each nation surrenders some economic, diplomatic, political, defence and socio-political sovereignty for the larger interest of the region. It would interlink the region as one entity, for any outside state to enter into any agreement with, thereby providing it security in numbers. The region would have economic, commercial, infrastructural, socio-political, socio-economic and security architectures that would be interconnected, without losing their overall political identity that would enable and strengthen them to better face the challenges of geo-economic coercion and geo-strategic compulsions. For it to be successful, it would need to include at least two Rising Powers, who would need to sacrifice that much more for the larger good of the region and to maintain a balance. The Major Powers would NOT be part of such a regional construct, since it would unbalance the structure.

The emergence of such regional blocs around the World would provide for a more stable environment ensuring reduced strife and increased prosperity –a ‘Balance of Sovereign Regional Power’. Development of domestic economic strength trade and commerce, integrated infrastructure development and connectivity with socio-political and socio-economic cohesion would inhibit conflicts and increase incentives for regional prosperity.

The major issues of Economics, Commerce, Energy, Security, Environment and Diplomacy that impact the region should be co-ordinated by this Regional Federation, and the rest can be left to the respective nation / member states. Such regional federations across the globe would be better able to achieve stability and order and maintain geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic balance to a large extent. Multilateral trading would now be done between the regions, or between the regions and the North, rather than individual countries, thus ensuring that the interests of the smaller nations are better protected.

Expansion makes a negotiation more complex. Any controlled enlargement as a means of finding a trade-off and any exclusion of an essential negotiant is likely to worsen conflict. All such eventualities appear to be overcome by this proposed system. Such a system is more likely to facilitate order at the global level since agreements / decisions can be more easily negotiated and its implementation overseen.

The Age of Strategic Uncertainties, brings with it the opportunity for lateral thinking to evolve a new system of World Order for the present to transition to. A World Order that would provide stability and security where the rule of law is perceived to be fair and just to all, whether at the Core, Semi-periphery or the Peripheral States. The Westphalian concept of the ‘Sovereign Nation State’ appears to have outlived its utility in the 21st Century environment of global interdependence. Hence the need to look beyond for a new dawn and a fresh breath of air- akin to the Westphalian Treaty, to usher in an era of some tranquility and balance.

The proposed ‘Regional Multilateral Federal Structure’ seems to provide such a change, a change that is built on the ‘Federative Principles’ of yore. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville (a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian) – ‘It is unbelievable how many systems of morals and politics have been successfully found, forgotten, rediscovered, forgotten again to reappear a while later, always charming and surprising the world as if they were new, and bearing witness, not to the fecundity of human spirit, but to the ignorance of Man’. The theory proposed here is not new, but built on the foundation of the old – Federalism. It is based on the reality that the days of self-seclusion and national self-sufficiency have given way to global interdependence. Such notions however will not be readily acceptable since, unlike domestic politics, International politics in modern times is incompatible with progressivist theories, wherein theories and convictions precede evidence. In International politics conviction depends on evidence, as the nations would need to ascertain that their perceived national interests are still being met.

The proposal would have different shades as per the political, economic and security compulsions of the region. However, the guiding principles would remain the same wherein the system should facilitate economic growth, stability and peace by integrating the following,

  • Maintaining an integrated infrastructure and energy grid to facilitate economic integration.
  • Maintaining a common integrated domestic base for economic, socio-economic and socio-political strength.
  • Maintaining an integrated geo-political and geo-strategic balance.
  • Better managing the open International Trade and Multilateral regimes.

It is just the beginning – a step towards what Morgenthau had visualised as a World Community. It will not occur overnight, nor in a hundred days, or even a thousand. But to quote the late John F Kennedy – Let us begin.

Major Gen. Rajiv Narayanan is a Distinguished Fellow at the United Services Institute India.

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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.