The nation-state is making a global comeback—and we should all be very afraid

Happier apart?
Happier apart?
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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The British people have spoken. And the old European Union and the particular international order of which it was a part is now a thing of the past.

What has brought us to this point is a crisis of national sovereignty, the sudden realization that the borders we have erected to differentiate between internal and external realities are all illusory. Globalization is the underlying driver of this change, as connected economies reshape local markets, as natural and human-driven climate catastrophes sweep across the seas, and as the reach of militaries and militants expands with apparent ease.

It is now clear, of course, that Britain’s Leave campaign succeeded in large part through deceptive propaganda, stoking people’s basest fears and darkest impulses and unleashing waves of openly racist and xenophobic hostilities. And yet, Leave also played to a highly charged crowd, already tense with anxiety and on edge emotionally. This was a group of people worried about being left behind in a fast-changing world and resentful of those they believe are benefiting at their cost.

In the face of such fears, Britain and democratic societies more generally have responded with calls to action. But the threats we face only seem to be getting larger. This realization, in turn, is shaking people’s faith in the legitimacy of their systems and institutions. Zika does not need a passport to travel. Fukushima’s radiation will not be stopped by customs. Financial contagion cannot be halted by screening agents. And multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund, meant to manage such things for us, have seemed woefully inadequate.

The European Union in fact epitomizes this modern form of diminished globalism. It is primarily a common marketplace. Travel for citizens of its member states is unrestricted. But there is little in the way of social and political integration. There is no core, regional identity. The purpose of the mobility of people is to facilitate the mobility of capital, not the other way around. And that, in short, is the problem. Rather than having disposable income, we have made people disposable in the service of capital.

While EU member states are democratic and there is a functional European Parliament, too much of the EU is built on an intricate arrangement of appointments made by constituent leaders. This has made matters worse, as the elites and committees of experts who run affairs appear aloof and arrogant, insulated from the people they are supposed to serve. To top it off, they remain impervious to criticism and calls for change, even when they grudgingly admit to errors. We saw all this play out recently with the Greek debt crisis. It might be happening again in Spain.

This does not mean that we are helpless. In the aftermath of World War II, there was remarkable consensus around the idea that the nation-state was a restrictive and ethically dubious organizing principle, and that federalizing some powers globally would ultimately be necessary to prevent future war, promote human rights, maximize freedom, and build a lasting peace. Advocates included everyone from Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to Albert Einstein and Hans Morgenthau. Critically, there was significant popular support for this vision.

Of course, there were opponents as well. They ultimately carried the day, and their choices laid the groundwork for the delimited form of internationalism we have currently. But perhaps it is time to reconsider and reevaluate. Perhaps it is time to create a truly responsive and democratic form of globalism, one where the voices of localities and regions as well as nations actually give rise to the international policies that affect them. To have global government and not just global governance.

The alternative is waiting in the wings: a range of carnival barkers, snake-oil salesmen, and outright strongmen ready to usher in a new age of authoritarianism. We must choose—and quickly.