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Revenge of the nation state

States such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and China are showing a brazen disregard for the rules-based international order.

The gruesome killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the beginning of last month is but one symbol of the new era of realpolitik into which 21st century international relations is sinking like quicksand. The nation state is back with a vengeance, baring its claws and teeth, just as the soothing post-Cold War notion of an “international community” fades further from view.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, consumed by the Brexit process, is stuck in old and increasingly redundant modes of thinking about the world – torn between a brash, overconfident and underdeveloped idea of itself as a sovereign nation reborn, and a cosmopolitan lament about the passing of a liberal international order in which the boundaries between states were supposed to melt away and nationalism was to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Having covered its hands in blood, the Saudi regime has proved itself inept at washing it off. So flagrant was the violation of basic human rights and diplomatic conventions that it allowed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose human rights record is diabolical, to preach from the moral high ground. So cack-handed was the cover-up that even Donald Trump, with his famous brass neck, had to concede that his friends in Riyadh had made an awful mess of it.

At one level, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, has haemorrhaged political capital from what appears to have been a premeditated but self-defeating act. At another, the impetuous 33-year-old soi-disant reformer, known as “MBS”, is a fitting avatar for the modern age. He has spent millions of dollars promoting his image in the West, while showing himself prepared to use the full range of state power to deadly effect, from a brutal war in Yemen to the silencing of the mildest dissent.

To the joy of his enemies and the embarrassment of his friends, MBS has made Saudi Arabia a temporary pariah. Yet one reason the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has provoked such alarm is because it conforms to a general pattern of degeneration in 21st century international relations, in which respect for human rights is eroding, sovereignty is flouted and red lines are traversed on a whim. In truth, Saudi Arabia is just one of a growing number of states that have become increasingly brazen in their conduct, riding roughshod over basic international law and seemingly blasé about censure at the court of “civilised” world opinion.

At first, condemnation from the West was forthright. The sense of shock seemed palpable, even from a White House whose regional strategy has depended on improving relations with Saudi, as part of a united front against Iran. Within a few days, however, it became clear that there would be not be the unified response that Russia faced in the wake of the attempted murder of the former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. A few international luminaries – from IMF chief Christine Lagarde to UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox – pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s major investment conference, the so-called Davos in the desert. But new delegates from Russia and China were sent to fill the seats and take the contracts. This is one of many reasons that the umbilical cord from Riyadh to most major Western capitals – a conduit for money, arms and intelligence – is hard to cut. So far, it seems that Trump’s promise of “severe” punishment for the perpetrators will lead to very little of substance. Instead, international attention has shifted to the major American sanctions against Iran.

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Over the last two decades, we have griped at America’s pretension to moral leadership in world affairs. We are now presented with the reality of a world in which it is withdrawn. Let us not kid ourselves about the ways of the world, past or present, of course.

Violations of the much eulogised “rules-based international order” are in themselves nothing new; nor is the state-sanctioned murder or repression of journalists. Turkey, the unlikely arbiter in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, is a case in point. Erdogan’s Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world.

Needless to say, Saudi’s allies in the West can hardly claim to be squeaky clean. When it comes to backdoor dealing with blood-stained autocracies and theocracies, whether they are reactionary or revolutionary, Western governments from all sides of the political spectrum have a long and inglorious record. The ugly logic of realpolitik keeps reasserting itself. If the British do not sell weapons to the Saudis, someone else will snaffle up the contracts and pay even less attention to human rights.

Nevertheless, from the murder attempt on Sergei Skirpal to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it is hard to avoid the feeling that this is not just business as usual – that we are already peering through the other side of the looking glass. The recent passage of the one-year anniversary of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who broke the “Panama Papers” story and was killed by a car bomb, provides a stark reminder that the West is not immune to such dark arts. The sense of vulnerability in our polities has been exacerbated by a succession of unsettling episodes, from meddling in domestic politics by foreign governments to industrial-scale intellectual property theft, cyber-attacks, the deployment of nerve agents on our streets and the tragicomic Russian spy debacle in Holland, when two operatives were expelled while they were en route to a Swiss lab containing Novichok samples from the Salisbury poisoning.

Taking notice of the new age of realpolitik is one thing. Acting in a concerted way to address it is more challenging. The profusion of new misinformation tactics makes it harder to achieve a coherent or coordinated response. Post-truth politics places a heavy burden of proof on democratic states, whose legitimacy is frequently questioned. However painstakingly the evidence is collected, there are those who will never be convinced by its veracity.

The new wave of populism sweeping the West has certainly played a part in the general loss of faith in institutions and established information sources. But, in almost all of these cases, hostile state actors can be found looming in the undergrowth. Following a major internal audit of its platforms, under pressure from the US Congress, Twitter recently released a dataset that found more than 10 million posts by Iranian and Russian state-backed accounts dating back to 2009. It is absurd to say that such large-scale shifts in the national political mood can be engineered by external actors alone; but it is equally true that those in other national capitals have made it their business to find out which buttons to press.

There are always precedents in history, of course, even for the age in which we find ourselves today. We too easily slip into a “presentist” view of the world when the established order of things begins to unravel. Nevertheless, those precedents that exist – from past eras when there has been a collapse of civilised discourse in international politics and a rapid diminution of trust between states – give cause for concern. At the start of the 20th century, the English radical economist JA Hobson noted how growing imperial rivalries had created a “sliding scale of diplomatic language”. This was followed by the sharpening of elbows, double-dealing and secret diplomacy, contests for spheres of influence, the introduction of new economic tariffs, rearmament and preparations for war.

A quick survey of the international scene today provides some eerie similarities. Anyone looking at Sino-American relations, for example, would recognise that the same catalytic enzymes are shaping the course of great power relations today.

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There is no single explanation for this darkening of the international horizon. Nevertheless, future historians are likely to place great emphasis on the 2007-08 financial crisis as the moment at which the clouds began to form. The international political reckoning is told in Adam Tooze’s superb recent book, Crashed, which recounts the bonfire of world-views, technocrats and mainstream political parties that began on Wall Street before spreading to much of the rest of the world.

Specifically, there has been an emphatic discrediting of what might be called “free-market determinism”, where markets are seen as the petrol that fuels the engine of world affairs. At the end of the Cold War, there were many who had an almost providential belief that the future would be one of ever deepening global economic integration. This, in turn, fed the sense of confidence in the West that the major ideological struggles of modern history had been won. The imperfections of liberal democracy were admitted but it was broadly accepted – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – to be the least bad form of government, and the superstructure best fitted for a liberal-capitalist, free-market base.

Throughout the 1990s, the democratic dominoes fell eastwards at a rapid rate. They even seemed, for a time, to include Russia (as Morgan Stanley and other major American banks sprang up in Moscow, to help oil the wheels of the great state asset sell-off). The true test for that thesis, however, was to be in the future development of Chinese political economy, where the Communist Party still held the reins of state. It was at this point that the boundaries between hope and expectation became blurred. The name given to this organising assumption was “convergence”. It implied, in essence, that China could be coaxed into a politico-economic framework ready made in the West.

A quarter of a century later, my students read these debates with the benefit of hindsight. They do so through the prism of the wars that followed the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001, on which date very few of them had even started school. Typically, they are asked to compare Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the “end of history” with Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilisations (the book of the same name was published in 1996). The latter predicted a much bleaker future in which civilisational identity (bound up with culture, race, religion and region) would replace the ideologically infused struggle that had defined the Cold War. Other writers, such as Robert Kaplan, who warned about the “coming anarchy” in an increasingly claustrophobic world, were distinctly out of fashion between 1989 and 2001, a period described by economists as the “Great Moderation”.

In a recent retrospective on Huntington, to mark the 25th anniversary of his original article on the clash of civilisations in Foreign Affairs magazine, Fukuyama conceded that Huntington’s work had aged better. The number of democracies in the world begun to shrink from a highpoint in the early 2000s – the so-called democratic recession – as history started to take its revenge. Major great powers such as Russia and China, the second and third most powerful militaries in the world, had resisted the liberal democratic wave; more than that, they were increasingly willing to challenge what they saw as the undue and overbearing influence of the West.

Closer to home, Fukuyama also noted Huntington’s prescient warnings about the flimsier elements of the liberal-capitalist facade. Chief among these was the ascendancy of “Davos Man”, the symbol of a cosmopolitan capitalist elite increasingly detached from any sense of local or national identity. Sure enough, since the 2008 financial meltdown, Davos Man has faced pillory and guillotine as the pantomime villain of the populist surge.

The United Kingdom imbibed a considerable amount of the Davos draught and is still struggling with the hangover. Nor was it a passive participant in these debates about the future of the international system in the wake of the Cold War. In April next year, it will be 20 years since Tony Blair gave his famous 1999 speech to the Chicago Economic Club, at which he rolled out the so-called doctrine of the international community. On the eve of the new millennium, Blair proclaimed that a new world order had already come into being: “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper… We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”

Much of this analysis was accurate, even if the doctrine of international community now seems a little brittle in retrospect. Many of the challenges that we have faced since 1999 are a product of the increasing interdependence and connectivity of global economics, technology and politics. As Blair noted, crises of governance in the Middle East or Africa would have ripple-effects across the world. The Pandora’s box had already been opened.

For as long as everyone could feel that they had a share in the fruits of globalisation, this new international social contract held firm. But a greater appreciation of the costs began to take hold in the years between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 crash. Inevitable frustration grew among populations as they were told that they could not possibly turn their backs on the world, retreat into isolation, put up the ramparts, tighten borders and press the pause button on this trend towards ever greater connectivity. A once attractive bargain was now presented as a fait accompli: the tide of globalisation was too strong to turn back or to allow “cherry picking” of its good elements while rejecting the bad. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer,” Blair said in his Labour party conference speech of 2005.


Turmoil: demonstrators outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul protest Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. Photo: Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu/Getty

It is the collapse of this international social contract that frames our world today. To those who saw the future in terms of increasing integration and supranational governance (through the UN, EU or World Bank), the events of the last few years have been hard to accept. And yet, in the midst of these countervailing winds, jolting technological modernisation and successive crises of governance, one entity has proved surprisingly resilient: the traditional nation state. Indeed, it has been put back under the spotlight as successive electorates have demanded that national governments take back control.

Predictions of the demise of the nation state were embarrassingly premature. After all, this unit of government was no dinosaur from history but a relatively recent creation, bound up with modernity, democracy and self-determination.

As the cracks have appeared in the edifice of internationalism, so more atavistic forms of identity have bubbled up to the surface and seeped through the cracks. But if Fukuyama was wrong about the triumph of liberal democracy and free-market globalisation, the clash of civilisations thesis does not quite capture today’s world either. Rather, we find ourselves dealing with ideas regurgitated from the past, such as “America First”. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK?” Donald Trump recently told a rally in Houston, Texas. “Nationalist. Use that word, use that word.” 

Globalism and the “doctrine of international community” is under assault from many angles at once. Nation states look after themselves. Commitments made to a broader community of nations – on rights, trade or security – only survive if they pass the test of utility to the nation state. At one level, this may appear horrifyingly retrograde. At another level, Trump is able to point out, with some justification, that others have already been playing this game for years.

The Chinese state purports to have inherited a civilisational mission stretching back 2,000 years. But its sense of itself as a modern nation state is a newer phenomenon that emerged in response to colonial interference and fears of dismemberment in the late 19th century. As such its perception of its interests today is defiantly unsentimental and its fidelity to rules – particularly those made in the West – is selective at best.

Other states – from Russia’s oligarchic kleptocracy to the Saudi regency – barely maintain the pretence of standing for a higher cause. The experience of the Middle East is particularly striking, where fragile and artificially created nation states have so far proved resistant to transnational forms of identity that have challenged their legitimacy. Authoritarian governments have survived insurrection in Egypt, Iran and Syria, and even Iraq has held together, albeit at huge human cost. As the Syrian civil war reaches its end, it is the nation states – and not the non-state actors, or millennialist ideologues – who are the main protagonists in a series of proxy wars.

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Rather than positing a grand new theory in place of Fukuyama or Huntingdon, it is more accurate to say that we are in the midst of a historical cycle. A rather more traditional paradigm is reasserting itself: the revenge of the nation state. The starting gun on the new age of competition has already been fired. What remains to be seen – and the Brexit process gives little reason for confidence so far – is whether the nation state is up to the task.

As the United Kingdom wakes up to this new dispensation, it is now becoming clear that other nations have had a considerable head start. For example, while reaping the benefits of capitalism, the Chinese state has long been more cautious about leaving its fate to what former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan called “global market forces”. Its “Belt and Road” initiative, a vast state-driven programme of central planning and infrastructure development, has been described as Keynesianism on steroids. Launched in 2013, with projected costs of $900bn, it embodies the Chinese conviction that security, prosperity, politics and territory cannot be disentangled. It is eerily reminiscent of the heartland theories associated with the English geographer, Halford Mackinder, the so-called father of geopolitics, at the start of the last century.

The road ahead is unlikely to be smooth. China has many future challenges looming. With its property bubble and precarious credit boom, these include the very real possibility of a major economic crash that would cause ripple-effects across the globe. In every scenario, however, the Belt and Road initiative will have huge geopolitical implications that the West has not yet begun to grapple with.

One aspect of the project, the new Silk Road to Europe, has effectively been completed already. A four-lane motorway running from the Yellow Sea to St Petersburg – a ten-day drive, covering more than 5,000 miles and linking Russia and China through Kazakhstan – opened last month. The road deliberately avoids Afghanistan but the Chinese state is getting increasingly sucked into that country because of expanding Chinese interests, as lucrative contracts and security concerns become harder to disentangle. And Chinese inward investment in Europe is also on a sharp upward curve.

Thus far, it is the maritime dimension of the Belt and Road project that has caused the greatest panic in the West. The claims of a rising Chinese nation state in regional waters threaten the freedom of navigation that the United States and its regional allies hold so dear. At least one of the UK’s two new aircraft carriers has also been committed to going to the Asia-Pacific region to conduct exercises and help uphold what is the clearest symbol of the “rules-based order”.

Other nation states in the region have been jolted into action. This can be seen in the willingness to consider the types of grand strategic projects that liberal capitalist economies used to forgo.

On 9 October, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced a multi-billion dollar infrastructure development project of his own, in the Mekong Delta (benefiting Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar). The condition was that the recipients of the funds would lend their weight to the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”, concocted by Tokyo and Washington to blunt the ambitions of Beijing. Meanwhile, the Build Act making its way through the US Congress would transform the overseas development capabilities of the American government, to allow it to contribute to major infrastructure projects in the region.

Once again, this is happening against the backdrop of the Belt and Road. It remains to be seen how successful such initiatives are. But it is worth noting that Britain’s considerable development budget – one of the biggest in the world – remains detached from the broader goals of its foreign policy.

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Is the UK prepared for the return of a world in which a “blood and iron” logic is present once again, from Istanbul to the South China Sea?  A depressing but revelatory article in Prospect magazine recently painted the picture of a Foreign Office suffering a crisis of identity, quality and purpose. An institution that was once the envy of the world is in decline, having had a number of its limbs lopped off. The decisions to create separate government departments for International Development in 1997 and for International Trade in 2016 have taken away two core competencies that are fundamental to any effective foreign policy. Whereas once the Ministry of Defence was the little brother to the Foreign Office, it has become the better-fed behemoth next door.

Our thinking about international affairs is stale and unimaginative. The UK has world-class universities with huge reserves of expertise about the world. But not enough of this is filtering through to the people who control our foreign policy. Just as the nation state is called upon to take back control, we are beginning to see how bare the cupboard has become. The malaise cannot be laid at the door of the Brexiteers alone, although they have inspired a revolution for which no one was prepared.

It is more accurate to say that Brexit has revealed something that has been true for some time: we have lost the habit of thinking strategically about our place in the world, of combining all our attributes together in pursuit of a coherent goal. Another trend that has left us unprepared for this new reality is our narrowing conception of “national security”.

This increasingly looks like something the Americans call “homeland security” (with the overwhelming attention given to the threats posed by terrorism). Such a focus has encouraged the tendency towards short-term crisis management. When we do cast our eyes beyond our immediate environs, we tend to talk in abstract terms about values and rules, without clarity about what we mean or the wherewithal to bring about our desired goals.

A quick scan of the international scene poses several future dilemmas for which we are not prepared. How far are we willing to stretch to support our allies when challenges arise, such as preserving freedom of navigation on the South China Sea? What happens if our vessels are charged by Chinese fishing boats – a potentially
minor incident that could provide the spark for a major conflict? For how long can we hedge between the US and China, as they enter into what looks to many like a new cold war?

In a less turbulent era, before the US embarked upon a trade war with Beijing, it was possible for the UK to sign up the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and court inward Chinese investment, only provoking mild grumblings from the US Treasury.

In its current mood – with a heightened sense of its national interest in operation – the Trump administration will be less forgiving. On the prospects of a post-Brexit UK trade deal, all the noises from Washington, DC have been encouraging so far. But in the last few weeks, Trump officials have begun talking about a “poison pill” clause that would allow an American administration to renege on any such arrangement if its co-signatory sought a deal with China of which it did not approve.

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The fundamental pillars of British foreign and defence policy have remained remarkably consistent since the Second World War. These are to seek to amplify our influence through collective security and alliances with like-minded nations, and to seek to preserve rules that we, from our position as one of the victors in 1945, did much to write. The aim is, as Tony Blair put it in 1999, to be a “pivotal” nation in the international system.

But the general success of this approach – and the overconfidence that it encouraged in the post-Cold War era – is now beginning to clash with these new realities. It is increasingly apparent that some enemies (such as Vladimir Putin) remain implacable, and that some rising powers (such as China) cannot always be bought over to our worldview as easily as it was once, rather arrogantly, presumed.

Wherever one stands on Brexit, it is time to recognise that the nation state is back, if it ever went away, as the defining unit of international relations. Multilateral cooperation is no longer de rigueur. Many of the UK’s rivals have grasped the nettle already and our closes allies have followed suit, as they jostle for competitive advantage. When we wake up from Brexit, we will discover that the new order is already upon us.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state