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7 October 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:20pm

Why states must adapt for this new age of disorder

The pandemic has illustrated the need for public authority, but at the local and international levels as much as at the national level.    

By Jan Zielonka

The return of the state is said to be the foremost geopolitical phenomenon of our time. Gone is the absolute commitment to globalisation that shaped the post-Cold War order. National borders are being reinforced, not just to halt the spread of Covid-19, but to “protect” citizens from external competition, regulations, goods and labour.

Huge state infrastructure projects are being launched, such as the digital connectivity programme in Italy and the National Infrastructure Mission in Scotland. Across the world, unilateralism has prevailed over interstate cooperation in the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Leaders from countries such as the US, France and the UK have called for a national, war-like effort against the virus.

The once-heralded virtues of privatisation, deregulation and international integration have been replaced by national retrenchment and the heroic struggle for state survival.

The role of the state is emphasised in different ways depending on location and political ideology. Right-wing politicians in Hungary or Poland, for example, regard the state as a way of uniting their respective nations. For left-wing politicians, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France or Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, the state is a vehicle for defending welfare systems from privatisation. For populist parties in Italy or Holland, the state stands in opposition to the neoliberal constraints imposed by Brussels. Politicians in Denmark or Belgium see the state as vital for a functioning democracy, while those in Latvia and Cyprus seek strong states to defend against more powerful neighbours – Russia and Turkey respectively.

But across the political spectrum, from far left to far right, governments and political movements have struggled to make their visions of the state come to pass. The unifying ambitions of nativist politicians in Poland and Hungary, for instance, have left their populations more divided. The fault-lines are familiar: younger and older generations have different views of the good life, while people from cities and the countryside seem to belong to different nations altogether.

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Left-wing protectionist views of the state have failed to capture popular imaginations across Europe. In 2019, the German Social Democratic Party and the Labour Party in the UK suffered their worst electoral results for decades. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party in France was barely able to retain 10 per cent of its National Assembly seats in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

European progressives are right to argue that meaningful social policy is difficult to implement in a world of weak states and porous borders. But gaining control over international markets and migratory flows requires a transnational authority rather than national autarky. Even Germany, by far the largest economy in Europe, is a minor economic player on the global stage. Reducing international supply chains and nationalising utilities may well be sensible for providing public goods, but it will never deliver economic sovereignty. States need to reconcile themselves to fuzzy borders and an ambiguous relationship with markets.

As for Eurosceptics, there is growing evidence that their visions of post-European life are failing to resonate beyond their core supporters. Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Holland’s Geert Wilders, both of whom castigate the hegemonic power of Brussels, have been outflanked by more liberal prime ministers – Giuseppe Conte and Mark Rutte respectively – who argue that the EU is the agent of member states, not a super-state in the making. Britain will soon become a cautionary tale of cutting ties with the EU.

The problem for champions of the nation-state as a bulwark of democracy, such as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, is that national democracy is scoring poorly on two counts: citizens’ participation, which usually increases at the municipal and regional levels, and system effectiveness. National governments are failing to deliver on electoral promises because many powerful forces – from financial markets to internet giants such as Google and Facebook – exist outside national jurisdictions. Surveys show growing public dissatisfaction with democracy in most European states.

States also used to be the sole providers of defence, but today they are better at organising military parades than shielding their populations from cyber-attacks and the potential threat of orbital weaponry. In Europe, no state can credibly protect its people on its own, which is why the Baltic nations in particular want to maintain Nato despite Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw the US from the military alliance. The illusoriness of a strong “national defence” especially applies to smaller states such as Cyprus or Latvia, where politicians legitimise state power by projecting external threats. Meanwhile, national armies are ill-suited to address threats such as pandemics or climate change.

States are not withering away, then, but neither are they returning to their legendary glory. Covid-19 has illustrated the need for public authority, but at the local and international levels as much as at the national level.

In many cases, the US most prominent among them, states have long acted out of narrow self-interest rather than global cooperation. The primary geopolitical challenge today is to construct a transnational public authority to cope with mounting global and regional pressures.

Another priority should be the empowerment of sub-national actors such as cities and regional authorities. Local bodies are not only closer to the daily experiences of citizens, they are often better at political innovation: accommodating migrants, developing climate-friendly policies and providing security and healthcare.

States need more intelligence and purpose, not muscle. Public administration ought to be transparent, non-partisan and committed to realising some notion of the common good.

If nations want to have global influence, they need to think beyond traditional nation-state structures based on centralised governments and large armies, and become smarter through collaboration with NGOs, city authorities and transnational markets. Cultivating a nostalgic vision of states will hamper our efforts to make the post-Covid world a better place. 

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid