Globalization is a relatively new concept. As little as ten years ago, the term was hardly used. Today globalization is being discussed everywhere; by businessmen, politicians, economists, academics, right through to the average person on the street. It affects all aspects of our modern lives, from what we eat, to what we watch on telly, to the type and amount of crime we experience and to how much money we have in the bank. In this essay I intend to briefly define globalization, explain the term nation state, describe how globalization is manifesting itself and discuss from three differing standpoints the impact that globalization is having in relation to the autonomy and sovereignty of the nation state.
Although globalization can be perceived in many different ways, it is essentially the term used to describe the way in which all manner of people’s lives are crossing national boundaries at an ever increasing speed and transforming the way in which we live. Different cultures are becoming increasingly accessible and interconnected. Modern technology now enables us to access information and communicate with people from the other side of the world virtually instantaneously. News is published and broadcast to us about distant places around the globe. Pollution in one country can affect the environment of another. Fluctuations in the financial market of one nation can affect the value of currency in another. Globalization describes the growing interconnectedness of the world. It is a multi-dimensional process, which encompasses economic, political and cultural aspects. It is important however, to understand that the affects of globalisation are geographically uneven due to the enormous inequality and imbalance of power between rich nation states and poor.
The system of states commonly known as the ‘Westphalian system’ (due to it’s origins in the signing of the ‘Peace of Westphalia’ treaty (1648), when Europe’s monarchs all agreed to recognize each other’s rights to rule their own territories without outside interference) is now a worldwide practice of modern political life. These states, which have specifically defined borders and have exclusive authority and supreme jurisdiction over political, social and economic activity within its borders (sovereignty), are known as nation states.
The frequent disputes regarding the interference of the EU in British domestic affairs, demonstrates how feelings run high when it comes to sovereignty and the right to self-governance, and typifies the way in which nation states jealously guard and protect their sovereignty. The impact of globalization on the sovereignty and autonomy of nation states is a hotly debated issue with greatly differing viewpoints from globalists, traditionalists and transformationalists. What is not argued is that there has been a vast expansion of international governance at regional and global levels. There has been immense growth of intergovernmental organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), including Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) such as Greenpeace and the World wildlife fund. These organizations have been created to deal with matters that transcend national borders and represent the interests of a huge variety of causes from the environment, to the worldwide drug problem, to child welfare.
In addition to these formal bodies, we have seen a dramatic increase in the formation of informal networks which link businesses and an array of various communities, from drug cartels to central bankers, to pressure groups, across national boundaries. This has facilitated the transnationalization of politics and the growth of new centres of authority above, below and alongside the nation state, e.g. the UK government may be subject to the actions of other bodies such as the EU, the UN, the WHO, the NATO, the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies and multi-national corporations. Alongside global polity is a developing system of a transnational civil society, which represents the collective activity of all NGO’s collaborating across borders to bring their own interests to the political arena and bring pressure to bear on governments to be accountable for their activities. Governments and their citizens have become enmeshed in a new and evolving system of global politics and multi layered global governance.
Globalists argue that the sovereignty and autonomy of the nation state has been eroded so much by the interconnectedness of world organizations and their politics, that national boundaries of nation states are becoming insignificant. They see the emergence of a new global structure that will control and determine how countries, organizations and people operate, as inevitable. They do not see any opportunity for nation states to exercise agency in the intervention of what they see as the emergence of a new world capitalist order. They see the US intervention (with the help of the IMF) of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which prevented a global recession, as an example of the existing system of global governance providing a structure for the promotion and legitimisation of a global capitalist society. Pessimistic globalists see the new global governance system as automatically privileging the interests of global capital at the expense of the welfare of nations, their people and the environment. Optimistic globalists see globalization as having the potential to raise living standards, improve quality of life and unify people.
The traditionalist viewpoint is from the other end of the spectrum and suggests that the impact of globalization on the sovereignty and autonomy of the nation state has been grossly exaggerated. They believe that most economic, political and social activity is regional, citing the EU as an example of regionalization rather than globalization. They see the sovereignty and autonomy of nation states as being relatively intact and believe that nation states are still the masters of their own destiny with plenty of scope to determine their own political and economic priorities. Central to the traditionalist argument is the belief in a hierarchical system of global governance (hegemonic governance or governance by the most powerful nations), with the US intervention of the East Asian crisis demonstrating this perfectly. It is not that the great powers like the US directly legislate or dictate policy, rather that they have the ability to reject or sidestep the decisions of international bodies with relative impunity that gives them enormous influence over global affairs. Traditionalists see globalization as being tantamount to westernisation or more specifically, Americanization.
Transformationalists agree with the traditionalists that the nation state remains militarily, politically and economically powerful, but do not underestimate the potential impact that globalization can have on it’s sovereignty and autonomy. They believe that the consequences of globalization are complex, diverse and unpredictable. Along with globalists, they believe that the autonomy of nation states is structurally constrained by transnational powers that reflect the interests of commercially driven corporations, either because of their pursuit of interests for their own gains, or because of the dominant need to remain competitive in the global market.
However, they do not agree that the consequences of global interconnectedness are inevitable. They believe that rather than nation states losing their sovereignty and autonomy, they will have to adjust and adapt to the changing shape of power, jurisdiction and authority, but will still have significant scope for agency to shape the conduct and context of global governance whilst retaining the ability to legislate for the interests of their own citizens. The transformationalists’ slant on the management of the East Asian Crisis indicates the ability of global economic governance to maintain the stability of the world economy and demonstrates the shifting balance of power between global markets and nation states.
Globalization is a complex issue, open to a variety of interpretations. The way in which the significance of the management of the East Asian crisis was interpreted to suit the agendas of all three viewpoints, demonstrates this clearly. From my viewpoint the structural inevitability of the globalist interpretation is too extreme and the traditionalist argument underestimates the impact that globalisation is having on the sovereignty and autonomy of the nation state. The Westphalian system of states is being superseded by a system of multi-layered governance and authority is organized on a varying scale of local regional and global governance. The contemporary system of states is best described as a heterarchy. National boundaries are still important but no longer define political containers and communities.
Sovereignty is being redefined but not necessarily eroded. States now use sovereignty more as a bargaining tool rather than a legal claim to supreme power. The states autonomy and capacity for self governance is being compromised by the necessity to engage in multilateral collaboration with transnational bodies of authority, in order to serve the best interests of its citizens. To take the UK as an example however, far from the nation state being in decline, one could argue that the British government is more powerful today in terms of it’s capacity to raise taxes, intervene in its citizens’ lives and threaten its enemies with nuclear obliteration, than ever before. What is clear is that we are living in a diverse ‘risk society’, in an age of change and uncertainty. From this standpoint, it is apparent that my views closely adhere to those of the transformationalists’.
Held D (ed). (2000) DD100. A globalizing world? Culture, economics, politics. Routledge/ Open University. London.
Kelly B. (2000) DD100. Workbook 4. Milton Keynes. The Open University