The nation-state's last hurrah


Dani Rodrik defined 'inescapable trilemma' of our world system back in 2007: That a globalised economy, democratic politics and nation states can't possibly coexist. (See here his post in 2007 on this) We could have, he said, two of the three, any two, but not all three.

The last five years - the Brexit-Trump years - should have settled the matter. Democracy and nation state trounced global economy, putting one demagouge after another at helm across the world. Democracy's forward march was portrayed as the nadir of globalisation as we knew it. We were, as it seemed, destined to live in an age of ultra-democratic nation states.

It indeed seems so, living through the pandemic. The system of 'each country for itself', with populists and ideologues running the show, showed a range of responses, from virus denial, vaccine nationalism and isolationism. The concerted effort of avert the global financial crisis in 2008 was totally missing this time around.

Yet, as the pandemic rages on and national economies are seriously strained, as inflation makes a comeback, it may equally appear to be the nation-state's last hurrah! Governments across the world defaulted to the medicine they knew - quantitative easing, easy loans for employers, furlough - but failed to coordinate actions in terms of testing, vaccination and isolation. This was all common sense until it was not. These measures created huge amounts of debt (and some, like Britain's, an overheated property market, a national apathy towards work and even a second wave engineered through an ill-fated 'eat-out-to-help-out') and inflation and shortages. Australia's attempt to close the doors to keep the virus out came down to a resounding flop, because one still has to allow freight in and the crew carried it around. The mindless custom of naming viruses after countries - China virus, UK variant, Indian variant etc. - encouraged xenophobia and national dumbing-down, but did not solve anyone's problem. Almost two years into the crisis, the virus seemed to have learnt faster than the leaders who run the countries.

I admit that doom-mongering because some pubs are running out of beer is overdone; there is much more at stake in a world where many people don't have enough to eat. But it is, at one level, show the futility in the search for national normalcy. That some challenges are global - and have to be tackled globally - is now obvious. From the rapid mutation of the virus, which still has a lot of people to infect as much of sub-saharan Africa remains unvaccinated, we should have seen that the nation-state thinking may not be able to solve our most important problems. 

A hundred and some years ago, the prevalent notion in international politics was that a balance of power among the empires would keep things generally peaceful: It took millions to die for us to start thinking beyond. Nation state system was the solution; the transformed empires were supposed to be 'empires of the mind' (and of money) and everybody should have been happy ever after. But it seems we overreached - we are again coming to a moment of breaking of the systems. There are already 4.5 million dead (with many millions more uncounted) to show that the system is not working.




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