28
Nov

Is the state making a comeback? It can certainly look like it. Old-fashioned interstate conflicts are roiling the China Sea and Russia’s western borders. Inter-governmental meetings such as the last Apec conference and the Group of 20 leading economies in Sydney took on an unwonted urgency. More positively, it is old-fashioned diplomacy that is making the running on issues from Iran’s nuclear programme to global warming.

Yet the dominant view since the early 1990s has been that globalisation meant the transformation of the world through non-state actors. The end of the cold war ushered in an almost Marxist expectation that the state would wither away – overshadowed by free flows of money and goods, undermined by non-state actors of which terrorist groups were only the most obvious. It was an expectation shared right across the political spectrum.

On the left, critics of market globalisation anticipated the rise of people power. Non-governmental organisations would supersede the supposedly worn out institutions of the nation state and create new, more vibrant forms of political activity. Technology would bring better solutions to old problems, bypassing stagnant state institutions.

The neoliberal right hailed the rise of global finance, the dismantling of capital controls and the deregulation of banking, not least because all of these weakened national governments’ capacity to control markets. In manufacturing and services, enormous new powers accrued to corporations able to take advantage of differing tax regimes and wage levels across the world.

Yet these hopes underestimated the sheer staying power – indeed the legitimacy – of the state and its institutions, and the extreme difficulty of creating new ones from scratch. NGOs remain on the sidelines: international organisations are vehicles for clusters and coalitions of national states to act in concert where they can. To that extent they are essentially derivative, reflecting the wishes of their most powerful members. The idea that they could be freed from the clutches of national governments was a pipe dream. Read more…

 

Published in the Financial Times on 26 November by Mark Mazower.

The writer is professor of history at Columbia and author of ‘Governing the World: The History of an Idea’

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