Demise of the nation-state as we know it

September 06, 1998|By Walter Truett Anderson

THE STATE of undeclared war between the world's most powerful country and Osama bin Laden, a messianic loner with a grudge against Americans and Jews, demonstrates decisively that the age of all-powerful nation-states is drawing to a close.

For some time now, students of international politics have said we are in the midst of a huge historical transition -- as huge as the transition in the early 17th century, when the treaties of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and legitimated the power of sovereign national governments.

Seizing power

That arrangement allowed the monarchs to consolidate both their power over obstreperous nobles within their own borders and their ability to resist international meddlers -- notably the Roman Catholic Church -- beyond. The principle of sovereignty proved so powerful that it survived the transition from monarchy to democracy in Europe, and became the model for national governments around the globe. For more than two centuries, nation-states have held a virtual monopoly on governmental power.

'Post-national' world

No more. Now, as globalization and technological change run rampant, we find ourselves entering a new era, one in which all kinds of entities have a piece of the governmental action -- intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of all kinds and sizes, multinational corporations, religious movements, mass media, international crime networks,

markets of all kinds.

Political scientists use new terms and metaphors to describe this state of affairs. Some speak of national governments "leaking power in three directions" -- upward to international organizations, sideways to multinational businesses and associations, downward to cities and subnational communities. Others call this a "post-national" period. Many use the term "nonstate actors" to describe the new players in the game of global governance. Until recently that referred to organizations, but it is now clear that individuals can be nonstate actors as well. All it takes is a powerful personality, a strong political agenda and a whole lot of money.

Ted Turner flexed his "nonstate actor" muscles last year when he announced he would donate a billion dollars to the United Nations -- just about the organization's annual budget, and a lot more than it gets from most of the sovereign states that are its members and (until now) main source of support.

Financier George Soros is another one-man show. Acting through a far-flung network of foundations, he has become his own foreign aid agency, providing support to a broad range of international initiatives stretching from economic development to drug policy to immigration.

With opinionated multimillionaires acting like national governments, it's hardly surprising to see one man organizing an army and an intelligence agency and, in effect, declaring war on the United States. Mr. Bin Laden has now emerged as another nonstate actor.

There's nothing new, of course, about wealthy individuals meddling in international politics. William Randolph Hearst did that 100 years ago when he used his newspapers to help precipitate the Spanish-American War. But Hearst was trying to get one nation-state to declare war against another. Mr. Bin Laden knows he has no need for such formalities. He just declares his own war.

Pentagon response

What does all this portend? One answer is clear to the Pentagon. It portends a change in U. S. military policy, as formally declared hostilities between nation-states no longer present the only kind of armed conflict we need to prepare for. Indeed, they are probably not even the most important.

It's not so easy to say what this may mean for the rest of us, but it looks like an insecure future, one in which we don't even have the luxury of knowing with certainty whether our country is at war or at peace.

Walter Truett Anderson, author of "Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be" (W.H. Freeman), is a political scientist who writes widely on technology and global governance.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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