Globalisation and the Nation State

Globalisation And The Changing Role Of The Nation-State

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Will the nation-state geo-political structure survive the onslaught of the juggernaut of globalisation? Most scholarly articles take the ‘to be or not to be’ approach in addressing this question. Occasionally, some authors also take the more subtle and diplomatic approach of ‘whatever will be, will be’. However, in this essay I distance myself from popular literature in that I take a subjective yet historically sound position. The stand taken in this essay neither pleases the die-hard nation-state proponents, nor does it echo the predictions of the globalization-will-lead-to-one-nation theorists. Rather, I simply put forward historical evidence to draw our attention to two key trends: the evolution of the nation-state, and the progress/process of globalisation since antiquity. And, in the light of these historical trends I propose that the process of globalisation neither marks the end of the nation-state, nor does it strengthen its position as a constructing unit in world geo-politics. On the contrary, current trends of globalisation clearly mark the transformation of the role of the nation-state in international relations, which can be clearly seen in the gradual shifting of sovereignty from nation-states to mega-corporate states/entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the World Bank.

The Rise Of The Nation-State

The basis of the current nation-state model of world organisation lies in the Westphalian principle of sovereignty (Croxton, 1999). However, the concept of sovereignty as the aforementioned article claims is itself not a creation of the Westphalian model. Rather, the question of sovereignty is as old as the first war ever found between human forces. Nevertheless, to put things into perspective, the evolution of governance and sovereignty can be traced in a sequential pattern starting with tribal governance and city-states leading ultimately to nation-states (Brinkman & Brinkman, 2008). In fact, as Brinkman (2008) puts it, “Over time the locus of sovereignty evolved along with the evolution of governance in the form of city-states, nation-states, and on to nationalism.”

In other words, as people began living together in growing numbers they organised themselves into small nomadic tribes whose sovereign was often the tribal leader, or the family patriarch or matriarch (whichever may be the case). Over time, these tribes settled into towns and cities. With increasing population, the sovereign authority gradually shifted from the head of the tribal family onto a ruling family, i.e. a system of monarchy. Unlike tribal leaders who were chosen from among the clan, the rulers were born into the royal family. This system was necessary to avoid bloody clashes and in-fighting among the populace. However, as time went by and knowledge became widespread, the time was ripe for the birth of the nation-state. The genesis of nationalism took place when the transference of loyalty of a given nationality became directed toward “we the people, via the formation of a republican form of government (Brinkman & Brinkman, 2008). The people who had given up their individual sovereignty, first to the head of the family, and later to the rulers, decided to take it back in the form of democracy where the sovereignty rested with “we the people”. The collective identity of “we the people” manifested in the form of the nation-state.

This brings us to the present times. The world is rapidly changing in many ways: technically, socially, culturally, intellectually, and so on. However, when we look at geo-political organisation of the world we can observe a trend towards a larger governing body that transcends the conventional limits of the nation-state units. The world is increasingly being controlled by mega-corporate entities like the IMF, WTO, and the World Bank. Nation-states are, either willingly or by compulsion, compromising their sovereignty in order to survive the onslaught of globalisation.

So, does that mean that the nation-states are nearing their shelf-life? Did the individual-self completely and permanently sacrifice itself when humankind first decided to appoint tribal leaders? Likewise, did the ruling class become an extinct breed with the dawn of democracy and the birth of the nation-state? The answer is an emphatic no. Rather, these constructing units took on different roles in the organisation of the society as the locus of sovereignty shifted and new constructing units were formed to accommodate the growing populations and rise of civilizations.

So, what does this mean for the future of the nation-state? In the last century we have seen the birth of a new political unit that transcends geographical limits: the mega-corporate state. However, for the new order to exist the old one must give up that which in the first place called it into existence: sovereignty. The sovereignty of the nation-state is in conflict with that of the megacorporate state (Brinkman & Brinkman, 2008), but we can already see signs of transference of this sovereignty from the former to the latter. Once the process has been completed, the world might function with completely new dynamics, with the nation-states playing a key role in the new world-political mechanism. In other words, the nation-state would undergo a transformation in that its role in world politics would change in order to facilitate the rise of the megacorporate state.

The Progress/Process Of Globalisation

Having drawn our attention to the rise of the nation-state and its changing role in present times, let us now look at the cause behind the change. Globalisation, as many believe, is not a phenomena nor is it a product/consequence of the industrial revolution, technological advancements, or the enlightenment of humankind in the last couple of centuries. Rather it is a human-initiated process that began in antiquity when our species first began to spread across the face of the planet earth. Globalisation is a journey (Wolf, 2001) that began as long ago as when the first traders/merchants began setting out on adventurous journeys in search of fortunes in unchartered foreign lands, and even further back to when flourishing civilizations began forming ancient world empires. However, in order to put things into perspective and to keep the essay short and to avoid the risk of digressing, let us look at the process of globalisation in the context of the last couple of centuries.

Globalisation as a process has always been at work in the march of human civilizations, however it has only been observable in recent times due to various developments that are intrinsically linked to innovation and technology. As Martin (2001) puts it, over the past five centuries technological advancements have progressively reduced the barriers to international integration. Rapid and affordable means of transportation as well as widespread communication networks offering real-time access to information have significantly and undeniably accelerated the pace of globalisation, especially over the past century. However, the globalising trends of increased trade, huge investments in foreign markets, as well as rise in immigration rates are not unprecedented. Martin (2001) compares statistics from pre-World War I period as well as from the late 1800s to that of current times to show that all these trends were almost at the same levels are they are today. Yet, there is something substantially different going on today than a couple of centuries ago. The accelerated pace of globalisation has created the need for the birth of megacorporate entities. This is particularly true since the 1970s when nation-states around the globe began adopting liberal economic policies, and started opening up their markets to international trade and investment.

The rapidly integrating world has exposed the inadequacies of the nation-state model in that the sovereignty of the nation-state is in direct conflict with the progress of the human society. This realization has initiated world leaders to afford policy changes that mark the shift of sovereignty to entities that transcend geo-political boundaries. So, is the nation-state dying? An emphatic no again. On the contrary, nation-states are evolving into more efficient geo-political units that have a greater role to play in international relations. However, the cost of international integration and progress must come at the expense of national sovereignty.

The rise of the megacorporate state can be seen in the active role that its precursors like the IMF, WTO, and the World Bank play in international politics. In order to govern a world that is increasingly becoming inter-linked and inter-dependent it essential that sovereignty be shifted to a governing body that isn’t bound by geo-political boundaries. However, nationalism has taken deep roots in the peoples of all nations, and hence it would not be without much blood shed and war that nation-states can be destroyed to form a one-world order. Fortunately, there is an alternative to war: the megacorporate state that delegates with nation-states on – not completely but only certain aspects – the sharing of sovereign much like that in current day federal states. In other words, the world is moving to organising itself into a world federation of nation-states.

Another question arises here. Is globalisation destroying the capacity of governments to form national policies? Quite the contrary. As Martin points out, “Globalisation can progress only as far as national policy makers will allow.” He goes on to argue the proposition that globalisation will make the nation-states unnecessary is even less credible than the idea that it makes them impotent. Martin puts forward three defences for his arguments. First, the ability of a society to take advantage of the opportunities offered by international economic integration depends on the quality of public goods, such as property rights, an honest civil service, personal security, and basic education. Removing the nation-state from the equation would necessitate the redundancy of creating an equivalent unit to fill in the vacuum left by the nation-state in the first place. Second, the nation-state offers the members of a society a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. While not entirely impossible, finding a global-identity that is agreeable to all peoples would again be a redundant process. Rather, it is more logical and natural to develop parallel identities of belonging to a nation that is itself a part of the world. Third, international governance depends on the ability of nation-states to provide and guarantee stability. As Martin puts it, “The bedrock of international order is the territorial state with its monopoly on coercive power within its jurisdiction.” In simple words, the nation-state has a slightly different yet vital role to play in international governance.

As Martin (2001) rightly argues, technology while pointing towards greater international integration, was – in and by – itself not responsible for the changing dynamics of world politics and geo-political organisation. “Policy, not technology, has determined the extent and pace of international economic integration.”(Wolf, 2001).


Globalisation is not necessarily an evil like some of us perceive it to be. On the contrary, it is a necessary process for the progress of human civilizations. While some of us believe that globalisation marks the end of the nation-state, I strongly believe that the nation-state will continue to play a vital role in world organisation and politics, albeit in a different role than that of a sovereign power. Nation-states are and will continue to be vital for people to be able to successfully benefit from the opportunities afforded by international integration (Wolf, 2001). I further agree with Martin (2001) in that global governance will come not at the expense of the nation-state but rather as an expression of the interests that the state embodies. I also agree that globalization is a choice and not a matter of destiny. “It is a choice made to enhance a nation’s economic well-being.” (Wolf, 2001)


Brinkman, R. L., & Brinkman, J. E. (2008). Globalization and the nation-state: Dead or alive. Journal of Economic Issues, 42(2), 425-433.

Croxton, D. (1999). The peace of westphalia of 1648 and the origins of sovereignty. The International History Review, 21(3), 569-591.

Wolf, M. (2001). Will the nation-state survive globalization? Foreign Affairs, 80(1), 178-190. doi: