Nation-States: Where we stand today, and … Where we could go

It’s a human tendency to imagine that things must have always been how they are today. Most of us live an average lifespan of 80 years and meet people from around the last 80 years or so only, and are prone to the same 9-5 routine. And since most of the historic changes take time – the kind of changes that are visible and tangible – it is also normal for us to imagine things will mostly remain the same in future too. Therefore, just as earth seems flat from where we stand right now, purely because our point of horizon is vastly dwarfed by the circumference of earth, historical changes feel static too, purely because our time and experience on earth is vastly dwarfed by the grand scale of millennia of history.

And the changes seem even more improbable if it happens to be about something that we have accepted as basic truth ever since birth – like the changes in the Nation-State’s structure. But just as we have seen, things do evolve, and changes do happen, and just like there were no modern-day 200 odd nation-states 200 years ago, the world map could be totally different in the next 200 years. Maybe the changes won’t be massive, but small gradual changes will occur; and if we really think about it, changes are happening even today in relation to the structure and influence of Nation-States.  

If one were to think of changes in our 200 odd Nation-States world, one way to imagine that change would be in the number of Nation-States in future. We have already seen formation of new Nation-States in the 21st century (like Timo-Leste 2002, Kosovo 2008, South Sudan 2011). And if we were to go just 10 years before the start of the 21st century, the world saw the creation of a host of new Nation-States after the disintegration of USSR and Yugoslavia. 

But these are still just changes in number, rather than structure. What I want to talk about in this final piece is about the possible changes in structure in future. Like maybe the end of the concept of Nation-States itself, like the merging of Nation-States into one global village, or devolution of Nation-States into several smaller independent local units. And if one were to think of the whole world as one nation or village, there is one word that comes to our mind – Globalization. 

Globalization is not a new phenomena, and as we have seen in our articles, be it the early days for formation of Silk Roads, or the peak Mongol Empire, or the peak Colonial era, the world had seen little glimpses of globalization earlier too. However, globalization today has become an absolute reality. With modern technologies in transportation and communication – like the flights ensuring you get from one hemisphere to another in just a few hours, or internet ensuring you receive live feed of an event from any corner of the world – we are living in a world of unprecedented flow of goods and information where we can wake up to alarms apps developed in India in a phone made in China, and then have breakfast with cereals made in America and go to a German office in Nepal in a car made in Japan all the while listening to some Spanish songs. 

Globalization has become a powerful phenomenon that strives to provide the same experience to people all around the globe irrespective of the Nation-States. Globalization in that sense is also considered as the threat to the influence and eventual structure of the Nation-States. As globalization also often leads to the formation of transnational organizations that transcend boundaries, these transnational organizations could provide a competition to Nation-States in exerting its influence in the world stage. We already have institutes that give the feel of transnational government, like the United Nations, World Banks, European Union, etc. European Union in particular has already stamped its mark in functioning as a de facto unified Nation-States in many respects, so the world could see similar de facto transnational unions in future where people identify themselves more as a citizen of EU or similar organizations, and not as that of some Nation-States.  

The threat of globalization through these transnational organizations might still feel like less of a threat, as they are after all organizations made up of Nation-States. But the real threat of globalization could come not from these transnational organizations but from the actual drivers of globalization. Because the actual drivers of globalizations, the ones that not only dwarf the power of these transnational organizations, but also some Nation-States on earth, are the Multinational Corporations. After all, it is Multinational Corporations that ensure we get all of these services from different corners of the world seamlessly, not the transnational organizations like the UN. 

With some of the big MNCs and big techs today – the likes of Google, Amazon and Walmart – the ones that are generating more revenue than most of the Nation-States on earth, the increasing power of these MNCs could pose a threat to Nation-States in future. Most of the MNCs have the power to make or break the economy of many Nation-States, and that power is only going to increase with time. 

When you think about Big Tech, the power they possess because of our sheer dependence on them at times already weigh more than that of our own Nation-States. Be it our use of Social Media (which you could still consider a luxury) or our use of Emails and Messaging Services (which have become a necessity), our reliance of these companies in both our private and professional sphere is of total dependence. Even for Apps and Websites that we personally create, we have to ultimately rely on the App Store and Cloud Servers owned by these big companies.

And here is the tricky part, these services and facilities that we take for granted, because they are (in most cases) free and easy, these are still owned by private companies. The emails and the cloud servers that we use are not public roads and public electricity that are controlled by our Nation-States and built out of tax. 

Add to that the enormous amount of Data these companies extract from public, and the groundbreaking changes in AI that are coming up everyday, the big techs in future could have power not just to shape and influence ‘how we work’ to ‘how we think’ and ‘what we think’, but also who controls the Nation-States and what gets controlled. And ultimately, maybe even the overall structure of Nation-States. 

And while the battle between the MNCs vs the Nation-States that we pinned above could take time, the combo of Big MNCs and Super Powers influencing and in some instances controlling the weaker Nation-States is already happening today. The story of Capitalism driven Corporations and Super Powers exerting their influence and control in smaller nations might feel like the one from the Imperial past that we talked about in our earlier story, but it is a story that is going on even today, albeit with slight changes in style. 

Globalization and presence of MNCs are usually considered beneficial for weaker Nation-States too, as it not only means the influx of large capital, development of infrastructure, and increase in employment, but also leads to the transfer of knowledge and innovation to the less developed parts of the world. Specially in relation to Corporations related to technology and research, presence of MNCs can lead to the creation of tech hubs in developing nations, as we have seen from instances in India and Brazil. 

But it is not always all good and rosy with these MNCs and MNCs driven globalization. As MNCs see poor countries with relatively weaker forms of regulation as reservoirs of cheap labor and raw materials, it often involves extraction of natural resources from a poor country, with not much regard about the degradation of the environment or the safety of workers. While it might seem like the use of cheap labour is still not that cheap, as most of these MNCs still pay higher than local companies, these MNCs eventually drive local companies out of the system, thereby creating the problem of dependency for the weaker nations, and long term insidious effect in terms of both economy and employment. The extreme form of MNCs driven globalization is even referred by some critics as a form of Neo-Colonialism. 

Neo-Colonialism basically refers to the use of globalization, economic activities, foreign aid, and even culture in some cases by a stronger nation to influence and control a relatively weaker and poorer nation. Unlike the use of direct imperial measures like military control during colonial times, neocolonialism is focused on developing a relationship of dependence and subservience towards the weaker poorer nation, often through policies involving aid and loan, and eventually debt obligation and debt trap. 

Remember, it was the Corporations more powerful than Nation-States that had driven the era of Colonialism, be it the Dutch East India Company (VOC) or the British East India Company. And while I am not calling today’s Corporations a new form of VOCs and Colonizers, it would be naive to overlook the undue influence and control these Corporations already have in our world. Be it through their lobbyists, special interest people, or just funding (bribing) of politicians, the big corporations in the world, even in the most powerful states of all, already function as the chief architects of plans and policies. So, one can just imagine the undue influence and control these corporations can have on a smaller weaker nation, like let’s say Nepal. In fact, if you think about it, the story of Britain taking over the control of Suez Canal from the debt ridden Egypt in 1875 does not feel like a story 200 years old, as our modern world is still rife with news of Super Powers debt trapping weaker nations and then taking control over its resources in return. 

Even the undue influence of Culture of developed nations over that of smaller less developed nations – often in the form of pop culture to influence the perceptions of smaller nations – is perceived by some critics of globalization as the form of Neo-Colonization, using a term aptly coined as Coca-Colonization. Coca-Colonization is a concept that requires deeper introspection, as it is arguable how insidious some of these popular pop cultures around the world are, but one thing we all can admit is that we have ourselves not only seen the rising influence of Western Culture all around, but also lived and experienced it. 

Just from what we have talked till now, it might give an impression that the world is heading more towards the direction of one global village. But just as often with nature, there are opposing forces that always try to counter, and the force that has countered the growing influence of globalization is the growing rise of Nationalism in recent years.

Since Globalization and the rise of Nationalism seem two opposite forces, it seems a bit counterintuitive at first to see the rise of both in recent years. But it is globalization that has actually led to the rise of Nationalism in many parts. As Western Culture and its influence has touched many other cultures of the world, it has led to the rising fear of eradication of local traditions and cultures – products of thousands of years – which has meant people becoming more protective than ever about their local cultures and identities. And since the concept of nation is founded on culture, tradition and identity, and culture, tradition and identity themselves are rooted in religion in many parts of the world, it has meant the growing rise of religious nationalism, be it in the West like the US and Europe, or powerful countries like Turkey and India in Asia. 

Especially in countries with colonial past where people still have scars left from the past western colonies, encroachment of their culture and religion in the name of globalization and secularism often reminds people of their colonial past, which is the reason why even some of the well-intentioned INGOs are perceived with suspicion. And while it is easy to throw everyone suspicious of globalization and secularism in one common basket as “extremists”, that type of blanket generalization is not only hasty and unfair, as it fails to understand the root behind that suspicion, but even dangerous as it further incites that “insider vs outsider” sentiment of people. There are after all organizations that are still involved in one way or another of erosion of local cultures, like the mass religious conversion in the exchange for money. The relative failure of transnational institutes like the United Nations in many parts of the world has also compelled people to more rely on their popular national politicians known for their populist nationalist ideas. 

But here is the irony, the same force of nationalism that hinges on a feeling of unique identity, could actually lead to disintegration of a Nation-State into further units in future, in a phenomenon known as devolution. As a Nation-State can have many subgroups within their country with shared shared culture, identity, history and language, the extreme form of Nationalism which is on the rise can lead to these subgroups further striving for their own nation-states. The voice of new nation-states is not actually new though, as there have long been nations fighting for their own nation-states, like Kashmiris in Indian Subcontinent, or the Kurds in the Middle East or the Catalans in Spain. But the growing rise of Nationalism could further fuel these internal voices of separate statehood. 

So, globalization, rise of nationalism, and possible devolution in future, while all seemingly contradictory to one another, are actually part of a feedback loop where they catalyze one another. And while it might seem like they can not co-exist together because of their contradictory nature, they could actually all co-exist and have their effects together. History is often marred with ironies and contradictions, and our world and its future in that respect could be no different. We could as well have a fragmented world with many smaller decentralized units or nation-states in future, each unit with a strong sense of nationalism, all while also reveling in some common global culture, with a few 10-20 global MNCs controlling all the big shots. 

As you might have noticed by now, the fate of our third character Nation-State will be heavily shaped by our two main characters – religion and money – in future too. It is money after all which is the ultimate driver of MNCs driven globalization, and religion that is often linked with the rise of Nationalism. While influence of money over Nation-States is more ubiquitous and more pronounced than religion today, religion could also again take the central stage in future. It is in chaos or disarray where I think religion could shape the fate of Nation-States the most, and even take over in extreme cases. We should keep in mind that the Nation-States, and for that matter Nationalism, are both relatively new constructs, whereas religion and culture have had its root for thousands of years. So, as often it happens in chaos where the strongest force takes control when the pieces start to unravel, any chaos in the structure of Nation-States could see the comeback of religion in playing the central role, as it will be religion that will take the role of giving the fragmented groups their identity. It could take control as the binding force between the warring nation-states with common religion, like the idea of Pan Islam or Pan Hindusim, or could even lead to extreme scenarios, like the formation of Islamic State which we have already seen, in what was a chaos and power vacuum in Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately, religion and money – our two main characters – are both time-tested constructs which have survived all highs and lows of human history, and have themselves gone through thousands of years of evolution. As we stand on a crossroad today, where the future of Nation-States could take any route, be it the route of one global village or devolution into many smaller units or both combined, I expect these two characters to have bearings in future too, no matter what form or structure the Nation-States could take.

I sometimes think it is because of our vacillating human nature that we always end up living on the crosswords. We can just take our own individual self for a reference here. We sometimes start our day with a dream of a no-visa, no Nation-States restrictions world, strive our day as a normal global citizen, and yet at the slightest provocation or threat to our culture or nation resort back to peak Nationalism. We want easier immigration policies for other countries where we want to go, and yet take umbrage at the idea of loose immigration policy of our own country, and some of us even dream of our own new nation-state before sleeping and dreaming again of a no-visa, no Nation-States world. 

Maybe it is this motley of our vacillating nature and behavior, and situations which in themselves are not black and white, that makes up the world where we often live in crossroads, and even shapes history. History, after all, is created like that. While a simple glance of it could give us the impression that history is shaped purely by a few influential figures, history overall is shaped by us commoners, and our nature, decisions and actions. It is history that shapes us commoners and us commoners that shape history. 

And just as history aids us in knowing the possible root causes of events that have shaped us, it also gives us the impression that we can know the future from what we have known from the past. But talking about the future is a very daunting task, as we do not get to enjoy the benefit of hindsight in drawing the narratives which we can do while talking about the past. But again, talking about the future for me is less about trying to be right in predictions, and more about trying to be aware of the possible routes the course of time could take. History, in that sense for me, is the journey of time and space to connect the past with present, in a quest to understand how we reached ‘there’ in future, even if we do not know the ‘there’ part yet, including the structure of our very own world and the Nation-States. 

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