The World

The Decline of the Nation-State

Trump’s war with the governors hints at a new political order.

A construction crew works on a section of privately built border wall on December 11, 2019 near Mission, Texas.
A construction crew works on a section of privately built border wall on December 11, 2019 near Mission, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued something very close to a declaration of independence for the largest U.S. state while speaking on MSNBC earlier this month. Noting that California has been forced in a position of “competing against other states, other nations, against our own government” for badly needed personal protective equipment to fight the coronavirus, Newsom vowed to “use the purchasing power of the state of California as a nation-state” to acquire the needed supplies.

California is often compared to other countries—it would have the world’s fifth largest GDP if it were independent—but Newsom’s statement took on new meaning in the context of the escalating tensions between state governments and the Trump administration over the response to COVID-19. States have been forced to work around the federal government to access supplies and coordinate plans. Some states are reopening their economies ahead of schedule, also in defiance of the White House, while others are banding together into regional alliances to coordinate their eventual reopening. President Donald Trump may claim that he has “absolute authority” when it comes to U.S. pandemic response, but right now the country looks more like a patchwork of occasionally overlapping regional responses.

Trump has also encouraged protesters to “liberate” states with governors that plan to extend stay-at-home orders. In the case of Virginia, he came close to encouraging armed insurrection by invoking the Second Amendment. He has accused governors who defy his directives of “mutiny.” The president has often sounded more like a medieval monarch inveighing against rebellious noblemen than the president of a centralized bureaucracy. The question may be less whether California is acting like a “nation-state” than whether the United States is acting like one.

Similar dynamics are playing out elsewhere. In Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and India, state and regional governments are also charting their own paths in responding to the crisis, sometimes openly defying national governments. Some of the most consequential political actions—positive and negative—have been carried out at the local level. The virus may well leave behind a world where power is more diffused from the national to the regional level, and where the international political order is a lot messier.

This might seem counterintuitive, as the virus is also creating boom times for centralized state bureaucracies and traditional views of sovereignty. The quarantine, testing, and surveillance measures required to slow the virus’s spread have necessitated an extraordinary degree of state intervention in citizens’ lives in the world’s democracies, and allowed authoritarians to entrench their power. Globalization has ground to a halt as international borders have closed and hardened into the impenetrable walls of nativist dreams. Multilateral institutions have never looked less relevant: The U.N. Security Council is ineffectual; the EU may have been dealt a death blow; even the World Health Organization has become a political punching bag. Rather than cooperating to fight a virus that has no respect for national boundaries, nation-states are too often competing over valuable supplies.

In parts of the world where central governments’ legitimacy was already weaker, alternative actors are also stepping into the fray. As the Washington Post noted recently, “armed insurgents and terrorist groups and drug cartels and gangs” have formed a “parallel underworld of public health policy and strategic messaging.” Examples include the infamous gang MS-13 enforcing curfews in El Salvador; drug cartels distributing economic aid packages in Mexico; and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the group once known as al-Qaida in Syria, taking the lead on public health education within the areas it controls. Taliban personnel in medical gear have reportedly been quarantining people who’ve recently returned from virus hot spot Iran, something the Afghan central government has been notably unable to enforce.

In the absence of leadership from the top, it’s becoming clear which institutions, formal or not, are trusted by their communities. Even groups that are (for good reason) international pariahs can enjoy more local legitimacy than formal governments. It’s telling to see which groups take the lead in a crisis; in many parts of the world, it’s not the central governments.

If we think of the current international political order in terms of the familiar world map, with national governments enjoying complete and non-overlapping power over their own territories, the virus has exposed this view as woefully incomplete. Even the “map” itself is questionable: It’s worth noting that the country that has arguably been the most effective at controlling its COVID-19 outbreak—Taiwan—is one that officially doesn’t exist according to most other governments and international organizations, including WHO. The notion that international politics is defined by the interactions of the 193 governments with placards at the United Nations has never looked shakier.

In short, rather than a world of strengthened states contained within ever more impermeable borders, the pandemic could leave behind a much more complicated and messier political world, where power is contested in new ways—or perhaps in very old ones.

In an influential 1998 article, the Wharton School professor Stephen J. Kobrin wrote that thanks to emerging threats to the authority of nation-states—multinational corporations, transnational terrorist groups, nongovernmental organizations—the world could be entering a “neomedieval” period in which global politics is more complex, with more diffuse sources of power, than the modern system of “fixed, mutually exclusive, geographically defined jurisdictions” known as nation-states. He meant “medieval” in the sense that “medieval European borders were diffuse, shifting and permeable; it is anachronistic to see them as modern jurisdictional limits.” It was a world in which political power was based more on family ties or religious authority than geographic territory, one in which “the King of France might have sent letters to the count of Flanders, who was clearly his vassal; the count of Luxembourg, a prince of the Empire … and the king of Sicily, who while a ruler of [a] ‘sovereign’ state, was also a prince of the French royal house.”

As late as the 17th century, the king of Spain was also the king of Portugal, Naples, and Sicily as well as the duke of Milan and Burgundy. The historian Derek Croxton has likened this arrangement to “the EU in reverse,” in that all these countries shared an absolute ruler and foreign policies but had their own protectionist trade policies. A traveler from Lisbon to Barcelona at that time would need a separate passport for each kingdom they passed through along the way, even though they technically never left the dominion of the king of Spain.

To put this in modern terms, one could imagine a scenario not far off where a road tripper driving across the United States would pass through a series of quarantine-induced border controls defining “open” states and “locked-down” states, with different rules and cultural norms (mask on, mask off) depending on the region.

Kobrin’s essay predicting the end of an era where the sovereign nation-state is the defining unit of international politics is very much a product of its time: The post–Cold War era was a boom time for predictions of the decline of the nation-state, from John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” to Robert D. Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy.” As Kelsey Atherton recently noted for Slate, the speculative fiction of this period depicts a world in which governments have withered away to insignificance. Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash depicts a future in which people live in neighborhood-size, politically autonomous, usually ethnically homogenous “burbclaves” with their own laws and security forces.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Nation-states responded to the threat from nonstate actors—symbolized most vividly by the 9/11 attacks—with a massive expansion of the security state and surveillance capabilities. Information and capital may move rapidly across borders, but people’s political rights and their ability to travel are still organized by the country on their passport.

I’ve reported on a number of alternatives to a world dominated by nation-states over the years, from the quasi-anarchist confederacy concept favored by Syrian Kurdish leaders, to digital citizenship programs, to “ex-situ nationhood” arrangements for islands lost to climate change, to the seasteading dreams of Silicon Valley.

I’ve always found ideas like these to be fun thought experiments, but not particularly realistic. As the philosopher of nationalism Ernest Gellner wrote, we live in a world where “a man must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears”—the current political order seems so entrenched that it’s hard to even imagine an alternative.

I’d always assumed it would take a global disruption on the order of a world war to make any sort of alternative arrangements plausible. Could a pandemic be that sort of disruption?

Perhaps. These are clearly exceptional times. Depending on how long the current state of emergency lasts, we could soon live in a world where a number of previously extraordinary things are normalized. Maybe we’ll see interstate checkpoints within the United States, international organizations working with sanctioned terrorist organizations to deliver medical aid, or the right to travel and work being determined not by governments but by an app developed by Google and Facebook.

This would be a more chaotic world, to be sure, but it would also be a world rife with possibilities. Already, some voices on the left have been arguing that we’re entering a “municipalist moment,” one in which progressive movements will be “looking to the local as a place to build power,” as a recent article in Dissent put it. This new municipalism has manifested itself in the mutual aid groups that have sprouted from London to Washington to deliver aid to front-line workers and economically vulnerable people who have been failed by the government.

Mutual aid is not just a local phenomenon; people are also collaborating across borders. As the New York Times recently noted in an article on scientific cooperation, “while political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.”

It’s not just the scientists. About 2.6 billion people, or more than a third of the world’s population, are currently under some form of lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. This is more people than were alive during World War II, and this time they’re in every region of the world. This many people around the world have never been involved in a common project like this before in history. A “neomedieval” world of more fluid borders and political organization is not necessarily a more antagonistic one.

None of this is inevitable. There are powerful actors that are already using this crisis to build stronger states and harden borders. But the moment of crisis is also opening up the possibility of transformative change that lingers even after the quarantine orders lift.

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