Globalization, War, and the Withering Away of the State

By Lowi, Theodore J. | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Globalization, War, and the Withering Away of the State


Lowi, Theodore J., The Brown Journal of World Affairs


While preparing this essay, I chanced upon an article in a news magazine, which provided a brief history of European states since 1500, when there were approximately 500 political, state-like units. By 1800 there were "a few dozen," and during the second half of that century the unification of Germany and Italy further reduced the census of officially defined European states. After World War I, the census of states was 23, having been reduced significantly by the absorption of many states into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and others by the new Yugoslavia. By 1994 there were 50 states, arising out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. There is now a movement to reduce that number by 27, in a new megastate called the European Union (EU), that "has a flag that no one salutes, an anthem no one sings ... 27 different national memories and more than that number of durable ethnicities."1 And, as measured by UN membership in 2006, there were 192 states in the world.

Things do change, even nation-states. Some decline. Some disappear. Others become super-powers. But all states are vulnerable. And as a state's power increases, so does its vulnerability. For example, on 11 September 2001 three jumbo jets were hijacked in the air over Boston and were flown into two buildings in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A mere 3,000 people were killed without impairing a strategic target. And the USA, a superpower, was brought to its knees.

The United States was not at war with any Islamic state. However, our interests in trade were extensive in the era of globalization, and globalization is war by other means. This is highlighted by two distinguished political economists, one, Karl Polanyi, focused on the "great transformation" through the 19th century to World War I, and the other, Jonathan Krishner, a much younger political economist, focused on the 60-70 years since the end of World War II:

Every war, almost, was organized by financiers; but peace also was organized by them.2

Bankers dread war. More precisely, financial communities ... are acutely averse to war [but] to policies that risk war ...3

The contradiction is explained away by the factor of penetration: the principal threat to the state. The autonomy in which sovereignty resides is compromised by penetration. With or without war, Adam Smith and David Hume were and still are correct that international commerce is the sine qua non of "the wealth of nations;" but "free trade" is not free. Penetration, once in play, does not limit itself to commerce in goods and services. It also means commerce in ideas, morals, rules, and, in particular, ideologies and religions. The mixture of these interests and passions has been the recipe for war as well as wealth, peace as well as poverty.

In fact, this contradiction is inherent-today as well as in the past. But every active state seems to have a theory or rationale, to explain away the cost of vulnerability. The United States has staked its defense of sovereignty on democratization, democratic imperialism, with the popular argument that "by promoting democracy we promote peace because democracies do not go to war against each other."4

But note the cost in diminished capacity-never mind the money. The United States made democratization its rationale but it cannot cover-and no longer tries to hide-the complete agenda: the fear of blackmail through withholding strategic resources, and the prospect of colonial-type trade advantages.

This is not a US phenomenon. It is a universal state phenomenon. In this era of globalization, many states are under-performing, illegitimate, and threatened by real decline. To demonstrate the universality of diminished sovereignty, I scanned the front page of recent major newspapers: Georgian forces invade a breakaway region, which brings Russia into the fray, as though a "state of war" between Georgia and Russia. …

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