Is the state meant to remain central in tomorrow’s world?
By Laura K. Salemi
Throughout human history, many major forms of political organisation have arisen and failed, ultimately leading to the state that we know today: a central political authority of a defined territory, who has established a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Its aptitudes and its effectiveness made the state the central concept of international relations. The rise of major non-traditional security (NTS) issues, because of their fundamental transnational characteristics, strongly challenge the state’s position and its limited capacity to efficiently respond to these cross-border threats.
The objective of this article is to think ‘outside of the box’.
The nation-state started to develop its roots long before the well-known Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and the birth of the sovereign territory was the outcome of a long process of change rather than a clear-cut break occurring in the space of one year. Nation-states have been created and transformed through contested processes which gradually took place over time. The modern state really appeared as a historical outcome of a “complex relation between production, classes, political power, and territoriality” (Robinson 1998: 567). Economic resources were an important factor for the rise of the nation-state, but less direct factors were also crucial such as intellectual breakthroughs (from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Weber…) and the Black Death that helped disaggregating the feudal system (Ruggie 1993).
The fact that the state has become the predominant political form across the world reflects the beginnings of globalisation, where ideas spread on a large-scale. This same phenomenon conveys many complex characteristics that eventually affect a state’s integrity, like the permeability of boundaries or intergovernmental and even supranational governance. Global institutions have subsequently brought global and transnational concerns, and the disruptions to national governments is now being felt by many multilateral interests which lay between state borders. Whether these “non-traditional” issues (which will later be explored) are a result of emerging global institutionalisation, or on the contrary, global institutions gained importance because these issues appeared, is a question likened to the chicken and egg dilemma. They seemingly just come together.
The historical process that made nation-states the predominant political unit today is still happening, and requires the analyst to continually adapt to new perspectives. This shift necessitates a paradigmatic reorientation that could bear new logic on non-traditional security issues, gradually crossing sovereign boundaries and requiring more than ever transnational arrangements. The state is not meant to remain central, or at least unchanged, forever. Structures can be challenged, and what we consider as prerequisites today might not always stay in place.
Non-traditional security (NTS) issues increasingly gain importance in security agenda of states. Nation-states are centralised actors, defined by territorial boundaries, and sovereignty over it. Whereas transnational concerns precisely operate across borders, are decentralised and are a primarily stateless phenomena. National governance seems slow to adapt itself to a new environment that is less influenced by interstate conflicts than by intrastate and trans-border problems.
If globalisation did not create transnational issues, it triggered their rise and significance. Globalisation is a paradoxical notion: it aims at erasing borders between states and people while at the same time, it facilitates the rise of economic exchanges, resource depletion, environmental degradation, the spreading of disease, a drastic deepening of inequality, international criminality and even smuggling (Smith 2000). All the consequences of globalisation, and therefore, globalisation itself, have created “a series of ‘disjunctures’” cutting across states. Terrorism, organised crime, or trans-border pollution are examples of these disjunctures, where the state ends up increasingly powerless. International security becomes more diffuse and uncertain, and so the states system itself is eroded by its growing inability to deal with transnational complex issues, leading to a new security dilemma. Transnational threats cannot successfully be addressed purely through military means, they require post-national responses (Hameiri & Lee 2015). That is to say more flexible and decentralized approaches, combined with a high capacity for adaptation to each particular issue (fighting terrorism, climate change, or another state all need very different types of responses).
Regional organisations seem to be a wise compromise between national and global governance. Regionalism is a means for states to address social, economic and political needs by standing together on the global scene and raising their voices, contingently they are a practical tool for global institutions to efficiently tackle security crises that are primarily regional rather than local, national, or global. Transnational security issues are approached with a better-balanced interpretation by regional organisations because they enjoy the benefit of hindsight that local groups do not, as well as more experience and accuracy than global ones.
Naturally, regional organisations are not expected to be flawless. Tenacious regional rivalries, lack of structure and resources, constraints imposed by limited regional charters, occasional aloofness from UN ‘universal’ principles, fears to lose sovereignty within national borders, the remaining large influence from Great Powers, and prominence of sub-national rebel movements, are realities that prevent regional organisations from reaching a maximal optimal efficiency
The state’s problem to manage transnational issues does not necessarily mean that it should be replaced by another ‘upgraded’ entity (e.g. a regional organisation). A transformation of the state would be more interesting, as Hameri and Jones argue, by building a State Transformation Analysis (2015). The capacity to adapt, to challenge itself and, eventually, to evolve, is the key for the state to survive. There are no ‘miracle recipes’ to manage NTS and they are difficult to handle at every level of governance. However, the state seems to have built its own prison: alone, it cannot overcome these transboundary problems. It is only through cooperation at a global or regional scale, that the state can tackle these issues. Yet, as we have seen, it often hinders the correct functioning of regional organisations by appearing unwilling to commit to them. I will conclude on this famous quote often attributed to Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”.
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Hameiri, Shahar and Jones, Lee. 2015. Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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