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Return of Nation-States Need Not be a Threat

Return of Nation-States Need Not be a Threat

Friday, 5 June, 2020 - 05:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Had things continued as before, that is to say before the twin pandemic and economic downturn, reporters would have been packing their bags to head for Washington to cover yet another of the G7 summits that have grabbed headlines since the 1970s.


This year, however, having being postponed twice, the annual ritual may not even take place at the new October date announced by the rotating host, US President Donald Trump.


I doubt if anyone, perhaps apart from a few Sherpas and bureaucrats, would regret the demise of the “summit” that pretended to sort out world affairs with a mixture of motherhood-and-apple pie inanities laced with bluff and bluster.


The ritual started as an initiative of then French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing in response to the first oil-shock in the 1970s in the hope of uniting the seven major economies, five Westerners plus Japan, in coping with its consequences. Over the years the summit stealthily acquired a political dimension and with the addition of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union became G8 and edged towards recasting itself as a kind of global Politburo.


Now, however, Trump says that the whole thing is obsolete, transforming the issue into another tussle between Trumpians and anti-Trumpians. There are those who think Trump can do no wrong and those who insist that whatever he does, or says, is wrong. Thus, promoting cool and rational discussion about the relevance G7 becomes harder than it should be.


But, let us try.


An argument could be made in favor of some mechanism that allows the major economies to exchange views and harmonize aspects of policy that need to be harmonized. But in that case, the G7 isn’t representative enough. The seven member-nations together account for just over 40 percent of the global economy and, while Canada and Italy are included, larger economies such as China, India and Brazil, to name just three, are not.


On the other hand, if one were to enlarge the club where would one stop? Invite many more nations and you already have the G20 which, on some occasions has brought together more than 50 nations. Enlarge the circle further and you will have the United Nations Organization with 193 members. In both those cases, G7 would be unnecessary.


However, the real problem may be elsewhere.


The trend we witness in world politics is away from the initial forms of globalization and toward a reassertion of the nation-state as one of the two key players in international economic and business relations, the other player being transnational businesses.


This does not mean that G7 and G20, which are supposed to be middling players, are no longer relevant but that the whole raft of international organizations, starting with the UN itself, are no longer able to play a meaningful role in the new emerging world order, or disorder if you like.


The disastrous performance of the World Health Organization (WHO) during the current Covid-19 pandemic is just one example of a more general malaise. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been shining in their absence in the looming economic crisis affecting every single nation on earth. As the World Trade Organization (WTO) fades into irrelevance, its director jumps ship to look for a more rewarding job.


A decade ago, forecasting the demise of the nation-state developed into a veritable industry. Jurgen Habermas, then Germany’s most fashionable philosopher even wrote a book as a sort of requiem for the nation-state. Others, French President Emmanuel Macron most prominent among them, envisaged a future in which ethno-cultural blocs, starting with the European Union would set the agenda for the future. Now, however, even Macron is forced to close his borders, hoist the tricolor, and adopt the slogan “our nation is at war.”


Apart from Trump, who won the presidency by adopting the nation-state mantra, albeit in his idiosyncratic style, nationalism has made spectacular comebacks in some other places, notably India, Brazil, Australia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and, with Brexit, even Great Britain.


To be sure the rise of a nationalistic discourse is a cause of concern for many. That concern is justified with the usual reference to Mussolini and Hitler, and, to a lesser extent, Franco and Juan Peron.


However, one must not forget that both Mussolini and Hitler, and to a lesser extent Peron, also waved a socialist flag while Franco claimed to be more of a protector of the Catholic Church than Castilian nationhood.


For more than three centuries, that is to say since the Westphalian treaties, the nation-state was the normal unit of international existence. Globalist trends started in the 19th century from two apparently opposite sides.


On the left, Marxists denied the existence of nations and saw social classes as units of human existence. On the other, growing capitalist multinationals saw the whole world as a reservoir of resources and a market. Lone might say the latter won the debate and paved the way for the creation of international organizations designed to manage a rule-based world order.


However, over the past three to four decades, internationalism has been replaced by trans-nationalism. In internationalism, nation-states interact in pursuit of both specific and shard interests. In trans-nationalism, multinational business giants, backed by huge international bureaucracies, and sometimes even governments, go around the nation-state to secure their own sectoral interests.


The return of the nation-state, if reconfirmed in the years to come, could lead to a revival of classical international cooperation that, taking shape after World War II, created the mechanisms which have helped keep the peace, spread prosperity and foster the rule of law as never before in human history.


In other words, the return of the nation-state, rather than leading to narrow-nationalistic retrenchment, could inject new energy into internationalism and give globalization a second breath. For that to happen we must do away with trompe-l’oeil devices such as G-7 which, at best, have never been more than insipid photo-ops for politicians caving for attention.


What is needed is a new spirit of international cooperation through patient, persistent and progressive diplomatic and political work by nation-states to shape a new architecture of human existence. Nations reasserting their identity need not be a threat to world order; it may actually offer a second youth to an ailing geriatric system.


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