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Maps of the world are deceptive. By showing neat borders, they trick us into believing countries are independent and separate from each other. They also suggest countries and governments are the main forces in world politics. That was the case for a few centuries, but it won’t be for long. National sovereignty is so yesterday.

States are slow-moving behemoths. Few are nimble enough to adapt to a rapidly changing world. State power, which used to be nearly absolute, is withering under a sustained assault from increasingly empowered forces like corporations, terrorist groups, mercenary armies, and international organizations.

The decline of the nation-state, already well underway, will be one of the most important developments of the 21st century. National borders are likely to change. Places we now know as Spain, Nigeria, Libya, Russia, and Saudi Arabia may cease to exist in their present forms. More important than possible changes in borders, however, is their decreasing importance. Local governments will become more influential than national ones. Tribalism will return, as disparate peoples forced together by brutal nation-building processes will separate.

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This is not as radical a transformation as it seems. In fact, it is a return to the way the world was run for most of human history. The idea of sovereign nations, which was based on the belief that long-existing forms of group identification would fade away, is a modern construct. It shaped global politics for nearly 300 years. That era is slowly ending.

The first sustained assault on the nation-state came when multinational corporations began to emerge a century ago. They considered themselves entitled to resources and markets in foreign countries. Today, these corporations command more resources than many nations. Their wealth and power allows them to tell governments what to do. Those that comply remain in power, though with limited freedom of action. Those that resist risk destruction.

The creation of the United Nations in 1945 marked the beginning of an era in which global organizations undermined national sovereignty. The UN, and the concept of “international law,” embody the seductive dream that countries can be persuaded to live according to rules set by others. This principle was embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It continued with UN-sanctioned wars against countries like Yugoslavia that were deemed uncooperative.

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Today, it finds its most radical expression in the concept of “responsibility to protect,” which holds that faraway nations or groups of nations can decide whether a particular government is good or bad and, if it is too bad, attack and seek to crush it.

Nongovernmental organizations have jumped onto this bandwagon. Many consider themselves defenders of the oppressed. Regardless of whether one approves of their work, it is indisputably an attack on the idea of national sovereignty. Denouncing governments that are judged unfair to dissidents, women, religious minorities, gays, children, the handicapped, or anyone else is based on the premise that outside forces know better than local leaders how a country should be governed.

The most striking proof of the decline of the nation-state is the dramatically growing power of mercenary armies. Some countries — notably, the United States — now contract out much war-fighting to private corporations. Global charities like World Vision and Save the Children routinely hire “security contractors” to protect their enclaves. German mercenaries are reportedly fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Nigeria has hired South African mercenaries to fight the terror group Boko Haram. Private armies are the wave of the future.

To any student of ancient history, or even the history of the Middle Ages, this world order looks very familiar. Outposts such as the Venetian Republic and cities of the Hanseatic League were established mainly for trading purposes. Ottoman principalities were small and mostly homogenous, governed by local satraps within guidelines set by a distant potentate. The British hired German mercenaries to fight colonists in North America. National armies, where they existed, paled before the power of Crusaders, and armies-for-hire like the Knights Templar — not to mention rampaging hordes bent on conquest for looting.

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In a world of true national sovereignty, every country would be free to set its own domestic and foreign policies. We pretend that we live in such a world. That is a delusion, as any Tibetan, Ukrainian, or Guatemalan could attest. The idea of nation-states with territorial integrity seemed like a good answer to the chaos of the 17th century. It may not survive the 21st.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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2011 | Ideas: How to build a nation