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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The limitations of the nation-state
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

The most popular article on the Washington Post website at the moment of this writing is a depressingly poorly written bit of fluff on the Occupy movement by Anne Applebaum. The article, entitled What the Occupy Protests Tell Us About the Limits of Democracy, is so full of holes that a point-by-point rebuttal of all its false assumptions is scarcely worth the time.

But the kernel of truth Ms. Applebaum was trying to get at is an issue that is an increasingly troubling and complicated part of the political landscape. The reality is that the nation-state as an institution is increasingly limited in its ability to resolve problems that are truly global in scale. Obviously, national policies can still have considerable effect, and national politicians--contra Ms. Applebaum's thesis--do have significant power to tame international problems and render life better for their citizens. Even so, a few examples of the problems facing nation-states are readily apparent:

1) Global Finance. Part of the reason that financial regulation isn't as simple as putting Glass-Steagall back in place is that Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are global congolomerates now. A new Glass-Steagall would stop their American divisions from playing casino games with their banking operations, but not their foreign divisions without such rules. Keep in mind that German banks were a big buyer on on the long side of the credit default swap market. And conservatives are sadly right that any moves to ban high-frequency trades in the U.S. wouldn't prevent those trades from being made, but would simply push those trades off Wall St. and into London or any other exchange that allowed them, with concomitant benefits for financial sectors abroad at the expense of the domestic financial sector.

The international financial elite wrecked the entire world's economy, and the effect of that destruction are still rocking the globe from America to Europe to China. Each nation can and should attempt to regulate their financial sectors, but ultimately the big banks will play nations off of one another in a race to the regulatory bottom unless some sort of supra-national architecture is established to regulate them.

2) Climate Change. The impossibility of nation-states alone to deal effectively with climate change is evidenced at nearly every turn. Attempts to create global protocols for dealing with the issue in a serious way are regularly scuttled by intra-national gamesmanship, as each nation plays a game of chicken with the others to make the first commitment. China and the U.S., meanwhile, show little in the way of willingness to deal with their massive emissions. Nowhere is the dark comedy of national vs. international climate change regulation more evident than in the airline emission regulatory scuffle between the U.S. and Canada on one side, and the E.U. on the other. To make a long story short, the E.U. wants American and Canadian airlines that travel to E.U. nations to abide by its emissions regulations. Washington and Ottawa claim that the regulations should only apply to air miles traveled directly over the E.U. nations--which would make sense if the issue were regular pollution. But carbon emissions are international pollutants. It doesn't matter if carbon produced by an American Airlines jet is emitted in Cleveland, over the Atlantic, or in Madrid. It contributes to climate change just the same in any case. And yet nation-states are playing semantic games with one another as the world burns.

3) Terrorism and WMD proliferation. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been plagued with difficult choices concerning what to do about international terrorism. In a world where a loosely affiliated group of individuals not wearing a nation-state's uniform can be capable of massive destruction, traditional rules of engagement and policing must change with the times. Terrorism does not always or even usually rise to the level of a military problem, but it is also a significantly greater problem than a simple national law enforcement issue. It's an in-between zone. The Bush and Obama Administrations have reacted by simply declaring a global war on terrorism that largely ignores national boundaries--or even, as with the recent case of Al-Awlaki, national citizenship. As a matter of legal precedent, the assassination of Al-Awlaki is terrifying in that we've essentially given carte blanche to the President of the United States to murder American citizens at will. But from a practical standpoint, it's hard to argue that Anwar Al-Awlaki was acting as a citizen of any particular country, any more than one can argue that Mr. Obama was acting as the "American" president. Mr. Al-Awlaki was affiliated with a global terrorist movement, and Mr. Obama acted as head of an international military organization with an undeclared yet official war against that terrorist movement. The identity of each man as "American" is almost--and terrifyingly--quaint in this context.

In the absence of coherent international regulations and protocols for dealing proactively with terrorism and WMD proliferation, American presidents have now taken it upon themselves to act instead. Those actions have often been greedy, rash, bloodthirsty and ultimately counterproductive, but they have been enabled by a vacuum of international power to deal with a legitimately significant global problem that lies outside the power of any individual nation-state to deal with effectively, even linked by treaties.

4) Global labor arbitrage. It's a traditional refrain among progressive politicians that American jobs are being outsourced to India and China. It's become a national joke in the U.S. that technical support calls are now answered by people in India. But now the outsourcing plague has hit India because of high wages. Yes, that's right: India is increasingly seen as too expensive a country to do call center business in, so Indian call centers are themselves outsourcing to Malaysia and the Philippines. The power of multinational corporations to place global downward pressure on wages by shifting operations sequentially to next cheapest labor pool is an international problem by definition. No one nation can solve it without those same corporations taking punitive action by stripping jobs from that nation. The international community is left either with acquiescence to the phenomenon, or some sort of international regulatory framework to deal with it.

There are no easy answers to any of these issues. But it's time the world's citizens realized the truth: our planet is economically dominated by organizations with global reach, largely run by a new global elite. The Bilderberg conspiracy theorists have predicated much of their beliefs on the implications of this David Rockefeller quote in 1991:

"It would have been impossible for us to develop our plan for the world if we had been subjected to the lights of publicity during those years. But, the world is more sophisticated and prepared to march towards a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national autodetermination practiced in past centuries."

To the ears of many (especially those who listen to politicians wax eloquent about their own nations), this sounds treasonous and earth-shakingly conspiratorial. But to those paying attention, this reality has been out in the open for some time now. It's Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches theory writ large. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to know that this supranational sovereignty is an open reality.

Rockefeller was right about one thing: in the modern world, the ability of nation-states alone to tackle global challenges is limited. Tea Partiers and anti-globalization protesters alike seek a return to a simpler time when nations controlled their own destinies. But that's not really possible anymore. Global elites, particularly in the financial sector, have stepped in to direct the world's traffic largely for their own benefit. The question now is whether they will continue to be allowed to do so, or whether a more democratic and more transparent set of international institutions will step forward to rein them in. As young people around the world see themselves increasingly as global citizens more than citizens of their nations, hopefully many of those who are protesting the global financial elite today, will step forward to lead a movement of global citizens to tackle global problems democratically in a global way tomorrow.