Even with glob­al­i­sa­tion, the idea of a na­tion-state is still alive and kick­ing

The National - News - - OPINION - Sholto Byrnes is a com­men­ta­tor and con­sul­tant in Kuala Lumpur and a cor­re­spond­ing fel­low of the Eras­mus Fo­rum SHOLTO BYRNES

In 1992, Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Fran­cis Fukuyama fa­mously de­clared “the end of his­tory”. Now the for­mer Bel­gian prime min­is­ter Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt has made a sim­i­larly bold claim: he has pro­nounced the death of the na­tion-state.

Just as Mr Fukuyama did not lit­er­ally mean that time had ceased its on­ward jour­ney and that hence­forth year would not fol­low year, so Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt is not sug­gest­ing that na­tional borders have melted away overnight. But his case is nearly as star­tling.

In a re­cent in­ter­view in the New York Re­view of Books,

Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt stated that the world to­day was “dom­i­nated by civil­i­sa­tions, not na­tion-states”. He cited China, In­dia and the US as ex­am­ples and he pointed to their dif­fer­ence from other coun­tries in his book Europe’s Last

Chance. In­dia, for ex­am­ple, he said, had “2,000 na­tions, 20 dif­fer­ent lan­guages, four dif­fer­ent re­li­gions but one sin­gle democ­racy”.

By con­trast with the “civil­i­sa­tions”, Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt con­tin­ued in his in­ter­view, a con­ti­nent of na­tion-states like Europe “will mean some­thing only if it acts to­gether”.

If he was only mak­ing the point that smaller coun­tries are likely to achieve more if they ally with a com­mon pur­pose, Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt would have been stat­ing the ob­vi­ous. But he went far fur­ther.

“Sovereignt­y doesn’t ex­ist in a glob­alised world. Sovereignt­y means that you can de­cide your own path.” Smaller states such as those in Europe, he added, “are not able to do that”. Thus Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt ef­fec­tively read the last rites of the na­tion-state – for, devoid of sovereignt­y, it can hardly be said to ex­ist in any mean­ing­ful sense.

This is provoca­tive in­deed and would, I imag­ine, be fiercely dis­puted by nearly ev­ery coun­try in the world, small or large. Even a tiny prin­ci­pal­ity such as Monaco ex­er­cises a de­gree of au­ton­omy that con­trib­utes to its sovereignt­y. And the vast ma­jor­ity of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries in Asia and Africa, many deeply con­scious that they have only been mas­ters of their own sovereign de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the five or six decades since they won in­de­pen­dence from colo­nial pow­ers, are deeply pro­tec­tive of that self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Of course, sovereignt­y for any coun­try that en­gages with the world is rarely com­plete. Ev­ery na­tion has to make com­pro­mises; they are usu­ally termed “agree­ments” or “treaties”. But a jeal­ous guard­ing of their own supreme au­thor­ity is the pre­cise rea­son why the mem­ber states of other re­gional bod­ies such as the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean), the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (Ecowas) and the South Amer­i­can trade bloc Mer­co­sur will never con­tem­plate the loss of their own pow­ers that the Euro­pean Union (EU) route to a fed­eral su­per­state – or civil­i­sa­tion – de­mands.

Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt says that these coun­tries have no sovereignt­y. I sug­gest he tries telling them that.

Fur­ther, the idea that these group­ings have no in­flu­ence be­cause they have not be­come “civil­i­sa­tions” is just not true. Asean, for in­stance, is of­ten crit­i­cised for mov­ing too slowly or not do­ing enough. But it has con­trib­uted enor­mously to largely keep­ing the peace in a re­gion of 650 million with pos­si­bly the great­est mix of re­li­gions and eth­nic­i­ties on the planet. And much of the se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture of the greater Asia Pa­cific, like the 18-mem­ber an­nual East Asia Sum­mit, has been built and led by Asean.

One could also add that smaller na­tion-states should con­tinue to be able to “de­cide their own paths” if the in­ter­na­tional rules-based or­der means any­thing and if global bod­ies such as the United Na­tions are even re­motely do­ing their jobs.

So why would Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt make such ve­he­ment as­ser­tions? Well, he is a fer­vent be­liever in the EU and has long been a prom­i­nent fig­ure in its par­lia­ment. Ide­o­log­i­cally, he is pre­dis­posed to be­lieve that sovereignt­y can only be prop­erly ex­er­cised through its in­sti­tu­tions and of­fi­cials. Per­haps he is right about Europe, a con­ti­nent in long-term rel­a­tive de­cline that is pre­dicted by Price­Wa­ter­house­Coop­ers to make up less than 10 per cent of global GDP by 2050.

But he is surely wrong about other coun­tries. What about In­done­sia, Brazil and Mex­ico, ex­pected, ac­cord­ing to the same sur­vey, to be the fourth, fifth and sev­enth-largest economies in the world by mid-cen­tury: will they not be sovereign – mas­ters of their own des­tinies?

True, Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt is not alone in tak­ing such a dim view of the idea of na­tional sovereignt­y. Es­says pre­dict­ing its demise have been pub­lished for many years. But he is un­usu­ally dis­parag­ing about its fu­ture. He might con­sider this to be hard-headed re­al­ism, or he might be an ide­al­ist for a bor­der­less in­ter­na­tion­al­ism. De­scrib­ing na­tion­al­ism as a “spec­tre” that “is haunt­ing Europe, our val­ues and our fu­ture” – as he did in a tweet last year – sug­gests that he has lit­tle at­tach­ment to the no­tion of the po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence that many trea­sure; and quite in­no­cently, too, for there is noth­ing in­her­ently ma­lign, racist or na­tivist about na­tion­al­ism – a love of one’s coun­try that I do not dis­tin­guish from pa­tri­o­tism.

Many of the tow­er­ing fig­ures of the 20th cen­tury were, af­ter all, na­tion­al­ists of an al­most mys­ti­cal va­ri­ety. Gen­eral Charles de Gaulle had “a cer­tain idea” of France. Ea­mon de Valera said: “If I wish to know what the Ir­ish want, I look into my own heart.” Ma­hatma Gandhi said that he called him­self a na­tion­al­ist “but my na­tion­al­ism is as wide as the uni­verse; it em­braces all na­tions”.

I think Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt un­der­es­ti­mates this spirit and the ex­tent to which it un­der­girds the fierce­ness with which na­tion-states will fight to pre­serve their sovereignt­y. They be­lieve it ex­ists and they be­lieve they them­selves will con­tinue to ex­ist. I could be proven wrong. Per­haps war and con­quest will pro­duce “a world or­der based on em­pires,” as Mr Ver­hof­s­tadt has also put it. But I hope not. As an op­ti­mist, I would say that it is far too pre­ma­ture to pre­dict the end of the na­tion-state.

The for­mer Bel­gian prime min­is­ter is over­look­ing the rules-based or­der keep­ing the dom­i­na­tion of civil­i­sa­tions in check

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