The End of the Nation-State?

The New York Times |

By Parag Khanna

SINGAPORE — EVERY five years, the United States National Intelligence Council, which advises the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, publishes a report forecasting the long-term implications of global trends. Earlier this year it released its latest report, “Alternative Worlds,” which included scenarios for how the world would look a generation from now.

One scenario, “Nonstate World,” imagined a planet in which urbanization, technology and capital accumulation had brought about a landscape where governments had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws.

The imagined date for the report’s scenarios is 2030, but at least for “Nonstate World,” it might as well be 2010: though most of us might not realize it, “nonstate world” describes much of how global society already operates. This isn’t to say that states have disappeared, or will. But they are becoming just one form of governance among many.

A quick scan across the world reveals that where growth and innovation have been most successful, a hybrid public-private, domestic-foreign nexus lies beneath the miracle. These aren’t states; they’re “para-states” — or, in one common parlance, “special economic zones.”

Across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, hundreds of such zones have sprung up in recent decades. In 1980, Shenzhen became China’s first; now they blanket China, which has become the world’s second largest economy.

The Arab world has more than 300 of them, though more than half are concentrated in one city: Dubai. Beginning with Jebel Ali Free Zone, which is today one of the world’s largest and most efficient ports, and now encompasses finance, media, education, health care and logistics, Dubai is as much a dense set of internationally regulated commercial hubs as it is the most populous emirate of a sovereign Arab federation.

This complex layering of territorial, legal and commercial authority goes hand in hand with the second great political trend of the age: devolution.

In the face of rapid urbanization, every city, state or province wants to call its own shots. And they can, as nations depend on their largest cities more than the reverse.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City is fond of saying, “I don’t listen to Washington much.” But it’s clear that Washington listens to him. The same is true for mayors elsewhere in the world, which is why at least eight former mayors are now heads of state.

Scotland and Wales in Britain, the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, British Columbia in Canada, Western Australia and just about every Indian state — all are places seeking maximum fiscal and policy autonomy from their national capitals.

Devolution is even happening in China. Cities have been given a long leash to develop innovative economic models, and Beijing depends on their growth. One of the most popular adages among China watchers today is: “The hills are high, and the emperor is far away.” Our maps show a world of about 200 countries, but the number of effective authorities is hundreds more.

The broader consequence of these phenomena is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life.

Connected societies are better off than isolated ones. As the incidence of international conflict diminishes, ever more countries are building roads, railways, pipelines, bridges and Internet cables across borders, forging networks of urban centers that depend on one another for trade, investment and job creation.

Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have formed the East African Community to coordinate everything from customs to investment promotion to peacekeeping. If they can leverage Chinese-built infrastructure to overcome arbitrary political borders, (the ubiquitous and suspicious straight lines on the map), they could become a nascent European Union for Africa.

NOWHERE is a rethinking of “the state” more necessary than in the Middle East. There is a sad futility to the reams of daily analysis on Syria and Iraq that fail to grasp that no state has a divine right to exist. A century after British and French diplomats divided the Ottoman Empire’s eastern territories into feeble (and ultimately short-lived) mandates, the resulting states are crumbling beyond repair.

The Arab world will not be resurrected to its old glory until its map is redrawn to resemble a collection of autonomous national oases linked by Silk Roads of commerce. Ethnic, linguistic and sectarian communities may continue to press for independence, and no doubt the Palestinians and Kurds deserve it.

And yet more fragmentation and division, even new sovereign states, are a crucial step in a longer process toward building transnational stability among neighbors.

Even as there is a growing number of micro-states and para-states, one ancient state form remains with us more prominently than ever: empire. Twenty years ago the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his landmark essay “The Clash of Civilizations.” The word “empire” appeared just twice — only as a modifier, never a noun. Yet deeply diverse empires, not culturally defined civilizations, have always been the driving force of geopolitics.

Today continental-scale empires like the United States, China and Brazil combine large populations with the financial resources and ambition to reshape foreign structures to suit their economic and strategic goals. They are themselves public-private para-states, whose grand strategies are more about controlling supply chains in energy and technology than conquering new territories, which are just potential liabilities.

They think in terms of flow, friction and leverage. This is why weaker states must band together into regional groupings, or risk succumbing to the equally ancient principle of divide-and-conquer.

We cannot understand any state outside of the complex system in which it interacts with others in constant feedback loops. Hegel claimed two centuries ago that the state was a work of art; no two were alike. His observation is truer than ever. Yet no matter what their shape, geography or regime, states are also more connected than ever — and are likely to remain that way.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century” and “How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance.”

Image: Javier Jaén

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