The Return of the State: Recovering State Efficacy for Global Solutions

By Grewal, David Singh | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Return of the State: Recovering State Efficacy for Global Solutions


Grewal, David Singh, Harvard International Review


If there is one important trend that seems likely to shape world order over the coming decades, it is the "return of the state." This may be an unfashionable thing to claim because the state is not an important new idea, but rather an important old one. And what has been in vogue in discussions of globalization has been to claim that something excitingly new has replaced or sidelined the state and its traditional role in the international system: novel networked technologies, cross-border financial flows, transnational regulatory regimes, or non-state terrorist violence. All these dynamics not only challenge the administrative capacity of the state itself but also pose an intellectual rebuff to the idea of the global order as a necessarily state-led one.

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Globalization is alleged to present new problems and opportunities, in the face of which the interstate system of the mid-century proves outdated. What is meant by "globalization" in this narrative of state-decline is the spread of global relations of civil society outside organized politics; importantly, globalization (conceived broadly) can take many different forms, including new forms of international organization. Yet in the wake of ongoing security crises and the dramatic financial meltdown and subsequent bailout--and with climate change at last at the forefront of public concern--it seems increasingly obvious that the state will not, and cannot, go away. We should be relieved as well as unsurprised. The most serious problems we face can only be addressed by a new kind of global order: a form of globalization that takes politics seriously, meaning one that is mediated through the state system. Indeed, the failure of organized politics to cohere at either the supranational or subnational level is on vivid display in those lands where "failed states" and warring factions daily and tragically confirm Thomas Hobbes's vision of non-political life as "poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

What would a globalization that took politics seriously look like? In important respects, at least, it would look very much like the old international order that followed World War II and introduced widespread interstate regulation of global activities, particularly commerce. Curiously, it is not the first time that we have required the "return of the state" as the underwriter of global order. The postwar regime of "embedded liberalism" involved precisely this kind of state-centered international politics, put in place to tame a previous episode of runaway globalization. The most important question facing the reform of globalization is the relationship between national politics and international commerce, especially finance. While the mid-century system made commercial relations across borders subject to political oversight and scrutiny, the "globalization" of the past few decades has generally reversed that trend, with consequences we are only now beginning fully to register.

What the " return of the state" will likely require is a new regulation and re-regulation of domestic and global affairs. More specifically, a politically managed globalization will require the regulation of "transnational" civil society through renewed governmental oversight at the domestic level and the global coordination of these domestic activities through new international agreements and re-energized multilateral organizations. Students of international politics may also expect to see a renewed focus on the state as the central concept in the analysis of globalization.

The Double-Wave of Globalization

Much of the celebration of globalization over the last two decades has been based on the idea that the global order is made not through politics and states, but through the entrepreneurial energies and border-crossing ambitions of private individuals and companies. Globalization thus presents an ideology of what we might call "transnational civil society. …

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