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Copenhagen Is a Symptom of a Wider Failure

Why is the nation state no longer an effective organizing principle for today's world?

December 22, 2009

Why is the nation state no longer an effective organizing principle for today's world?

The failure of the nation state as an organizing principle for today's world — a world that is radically different from the one in which the nation state principle was devised — is closely related to two modern dilemmas: Why do people get so angry with their politicians? And why is there such a big gap between the way people spend their scarce time and money, and the things they say they believe are really important?

The failure of world leaders to come up with a meaningful and binding agreement on climate change at the long-planned meeting in Copenhagen means that the binding, if incompletely applied, agreement in the Kyoto Protocol will now expire and will not be replaced in time — if ever.

People get angry with politicians because they see them as being unable to match their words with deeds. They see that they are also powerless when trying to eliminate other global problems, like financial booms and busts and the international narcotics trade.

But perhaps it is the gap between people's own beliefs and actions, as much as the failings of politicians, that is at the heart of the problem. If people did not buy bigger cars, bigger houses farther from town and buy more and more food that goes to waste, there would be less climate change.

If people did not borrow so much, banks would not lend so much, and taxpayers would not have to bail them out. If people did not buy narcotics, there would be no international drugs trade, no drug lords and no Taliban either.

The gap between what we do, and what we say, has become wider because we live in a world that has become so big and so complex that often we see no link between our own acts (or omissions) and what happens afterwards. This is because what is done or not done in China affects what happens in Cork, Ireland — and what happens in Afghanistan affects what happens in Atlanta, and so forth. We are all affected by forces we cannot see or control.

In addition, in our daily spending decisions all of us create forces whose effects in other places we neither see nor control — and often do not want to see or control.

That was not always so.

When the concept of the modern nation state was devised in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, what happened in China had little or no effect on what happened in Europe, and Atlanta was not even on the map. Back then, the nation state was a perfectly workable means to organize world affairs, and remained so for centuries. That is no longer the case.

Frustration with politicians grows, and people do things that do not match their beliefs, because there are no globally effective rule makers powerful enough to set minimum global standards that will govern behavior in China, Cork, Antwerp and Afghanistan. The failure in Copenhagen is a failure to make a rule that would have applied to the whole world.

A couple of nation states, meeting at the highest level in Copenhagen after years of preparation, were unable to make a deal on an urgent — and relatively simple — matter for the whole world. Other similar failures are to be expected with regard to world trade and in making a global court on war crimes globally effective.

These failures are failures in modern conditions of nation states as a means of getting done what the world needs to do. They show that the ideology that says the nation state is the sole repository of the people's sovereignty, does not live up to all modern challenges.

Small nations saw that and came together in groups, like the EU, in an effort to pool their sovereignty so they can make global deals. But big nations, like the United States and China, clung to the old and bankrupt notion than nations should be absolutely sovereign inside their own territory and should not be bound by global rules.

For example, the U.S. Senate was a big obstacle to President Obama making a legally binding deal in Copenhagen because many in the U.S. Senate are still wedded to the idea that international rules should not bind the United States and should never override U.S. law.

This is ironic. It was the United States that pioneered the idea of a League of Nations, and later of the United Nations, as global rule makers.

But now, along with China, it is holding out for non-binding political agreements and understandings rather than binding rules. Anyone who studies the history of Europe between the years 1900 and 1914 will see how dangerously weak and ineffective such political understandings can prove to be.

As in 1914, we now live in an a interdependent world, but one where no one power is any longer completely dominant — and where there is no agreed-upon and properly functioning system for making binding decisions collectively between nations.

We are now relying on a series of ad hoc arrangements of the very kind world leaders tried before the Great War. Those arrangements did not suffice when crisis erupted between Austria and Serbia in July 1914.

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Takeaways

The ideology that says the nation state is the sole repository of the people's sovereignty, does not live up to all modern challenges.

Perhaps it is the gap between people's own beliefs and actions, as much as the failings of politicians, that is at the heart of the problem.

When the concept of the modern nation state was devised in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, what happened in China had little or no effect on what happened in Europe.