The Nation-State and Its Discontents


February 2012 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

The Essay: "Against Cosmpolitanism" by Michael Lind.

The Responses:

Nils Gilman & Michael Costigan: "The Arbitrage of the Nation-State."
Ulrich Beck: "The Reality of Cosmopolitanism."
Michael Lind responds.

When the eurozone was on the brink last fall, Michael Lind's summer Breakthrough Journal essay, "Against Cosmopolitanism," appeared prescient. What just a few years ago seemed to be the permanent alignment of interests between the radically different economies of Germany and Greece was replaced by an awareness of the currency union's fragility and contingency. Economic integration had outpaced political integration. The nation-state wasn't giving way to global governance. It was prevailing everywhere.

Not so fast, say Ulrich Beck, one of the world's most influential living sociologists and author of the landmark 1986 tome, Risk Society, and Nils Gilman of Monitor 360 and Michael Costigan of Global Business Network. Cosmopolitanism may not be up to snuff but the nation-state isn't doing so hot either, they argue in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today.

Just look around. Outside the United States, Mexico and Central America are being ravaged by drug cartels that have done more to undermine those nation-states than the civil wars of the 1980s. It's a problem that can't be solved without greater transnational coordination and integration.

Meanwhile, the American nation-state finds itself more vulnerable than ever to globalization. Global banks are bailed out before American homeowners, and little was done to mitigate the financial risks that brought the 2008 crash. Congress's near-failure to raise the debt ceiling last summer brought the global economy to the edge.

Mexican drug-traffickers and Wall Street bankers thus have something important in common. "Unlike the cosmopolitans," write Gilman and Costigan, "these actors do not have as a goal the usurping of the nation-state either individually or as some form of conspiratorial group. Rather, degrading the capacity and legitimacy of their 'host' nation-states is simply an emergent, unintended, and indeed unwanted byproduct of their activities."

The nation-state may not be withering away, says Beck, but it is being transformed as the global "other" arrives at its doorstep. Meanwhile, a new class of risks -- environmental, financial, pandemic -- problematize the "national communities of fate" that once defined politics and statecraft at the national level. This demands a shift of perspective: "Our focus should be on that global power game, not the nation-state."

How can these new global threats to the nation-state be overcome if not through greater global integration? What's needed is "careful transnational coordination and organization across governments, underpinned by a democratic shift in citizen values away from instinctive nationalism that empowers governments to enter into such agreements," conclude Gilman and Costigan.

There's less to these concerns than meets the eye, Lind argues in response to the Beck and Gilman and Costigan essays. Nation-states become stronger, not weaker, as they assimilate immigrants and minorities. The failure of Mexico and Central America to deal with their drug gangs is the fault of specific governments and cultures, not the nation-state. "The global deregulation of finance and industrial outsourcing, far from being imposed on a weakening nation-state," notes Lind, "have been enthusiastically promoted under Democratic and Republican administrations alike for decades."

We should take care not to lose the perspective history offers, Lind concludes. The global transformation from feudal, agrarian societies to urban, industrial nation-states is still recent, and still underway. "Truly epochal transformations of global society are few and far between," Lind writes. "Nobody has yet provided any compelling reason to believe that we are living in the twilight of the nation-state era rather than in its dawn."