Don’t venerate the nation state

‘The nation state is not the endpoint of history, nor is it even a basic fact of human history’

Guest Speaker

Donald Trump’s 2007 book Think Big and Kick Ass is not normally cited in the study of international relations. But it contains a pithy summary of the zero-sum worldview of the most powerful man on the planet. “Win-win,” he wrote, “is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

Expressed in more measured terms, such as in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, the Trump doctrine is that the future belongs to “patriots” not “globalists”. But the current turn of centre-right politics towards single-minded nationalism draws on more than just the US president’s intuitions. In 2000, for instance, the former US National Security Advisor John Bolton warned against a “worldwide cartelisation of governments and interest groups” that results from attempts at pooling national sovereignty. John O’Sullivan, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, who now defends Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán, claimed that “global governance . . . seeks to take ultimate political power (sovereignty) from democratic parliaments and congresses accountable to national electorates in sovereign states and vest it in courts, bureaucratic agencies, NGOs and transnational bodies that are accountable only to themselves or to other transnational bodies.”

Foreign-policy realists would agree. They typically see international institutions as a mere veil for the ruthless pursuit of power. A less extreme version of such “realism” exists in Europe too. “The ‘liberal world order’ was neither liberal nor an order,” the irreverent former French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, quipped recently on Twitter.

Yet the nation state is not the endpoint of history, nor is it even a basic fact of human history. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe’s evolution reflected efforts to balance unity, provided by a common religion and set of cultural references, against diversity. What resulted were forms of governance that combined a significant degree of decentralisation with overarching frameworks of rules—the Holy Roman Empire, the Hanseatic League, or even the classical gold standard count as examples. By contrast, the modern nation-state is a relatively recent and by no means a “natural” creation. Rather, it has been a result of conscious, sometimes violent efforts at ethnic and cultural homogenisation, the results of which have been decidedly mixed.

When the Lippmann Colloquium, a group of classical liberals, gathered in Paris in August 1938, its participants foresaw the destruction brought about by unfettered national sovereignty. Without shared, enforceable rules, nothing stopped nations from pursuing destructive protectionist and militaristic policies. Those attending, including Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Roepke, became vocal proponents of international federalism—an intellectual project aimed at taming the nation state through political integration. Unlike the prominent World Federalist movement, which enlisted centre-left figures such as Albert Einstein in a quest to supersede nation states with a new global government, they did not deny the reality of national loyalties.

But the advocates of world government got nowhere. Today’s “globalist” reality corresponds far more to the constrained classical liberal vision. Instead of a single, top-down global government, a plethora of mechanisms, treaties, international organisations, and informal rules have emerged. True, the EU has taken on some important federal state-like properties but it remains an outlier in the world of international organisations.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), for example, is an association of airline carriers which sets standards and regulations—while lacking any political mandate. The highly influential International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission  (IEC) are also private-sector creations. Local governments create associations that transcend national borders—Canadian provinces and US states, not the American and Canadian federal governments, stand behind the Great Lakes Charter, which commits them to sustainable management of water resources.

Globalism is best understood through the prism of polycentric governance, a term associated with Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in economics, and her husband Vincent, a scholar of American federalism. She studies bottom-up governance, such as local irrigation systems, identifying a handful of design principles that make them work. These include: limited mandates (unlike the open-ended EU), mechanisms for rogue actors, ease of exit and dispute resolution. These, she argued, applied at the international level too. Her husband saw successful international institutions not as technocratic creations but as organic extensions of existing polycentric governance.

It is true that many international agencies have outlived their original rationale and have silently reinvented their mandates, with mixed results. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has played an important role even after the demise of the Bretton-Woods system of fixed exchange rates it was originally set up to manage. The role once played by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in contrast, has been largely taken on by the EU, yet the agency continues to linger lushly in Geneva without a discernible purpose.

More importantly, political regimes matter to the functioning of international organisations. Democratically elected leaders and authoritarians follow very different ends both domestically and internationally. For that reason, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the Russia-dominated International Investment Bank (IIB) are not “normal” multilateral organisations. The staff and agents of IIB, a Soviet-era holdover that has recently set up its new headquarters in Budapest, enjoy alarming immunities. The AIIB, in turn, makes it easier for China to engage in debt-trap diplomacy, through which lending is used as a tool of leverage in order to extract concessions from cash-strapped countries.

Conservatism used to be defined by prudence. In today’s age of extremes, conservatives have to rediscover that quality, particularly in global affairs. We have learned a lot about the functioning of international institutions and their flaws since 1945. Ignoring these experiences to recreate an ahistorical utopia of autonomous, harmonious nation states is deeply unconservative.