The twilight of the nation state Globalisattion, chaos and warnews
07 July 2006

Prem Shankar JhaMy unease began more than a decade ago, in 1995, when I spent half a year at the Centre for International Affairs (now the Wetherby Centre for International Affairs) at Harvard University. In those days Harvard was a heady place to be in. The Cold War was over and democracy was sweeping the erstwhile communist and much of the post-colonial world.

Trade barriers were going down, currencies were being released from the straitjacket of central bank control, and private capital was flooding into the erstwhile developing countries. It had already transformed a few of them into industrial giants within half a generation. There seemed to be no reason why it could not bring prosperity, at least, to the rest. Prosperity was releasing pressures for democratic reform in formerly authoritarian countries. A wonderful new world was therefore being born, and Harvard was a crucible, perhaps the single most important one, in which the ideas that would determine its shape were being forged.

But as I attended more and more seminars -- on shock therapy versus gradualism in economic reform; state-society relations in a globalised world; the decline of the nation state and the resurgence of ethnicity; the origins of rogue and backlash states; the justification for and limits of military intervention in defence of human rights; China, the Balkans, US foreign policy after the Cold war, the break-up of the Soviet Empire, the crisis in Russia, the clash of civilisations and the end of history - I grew increasingly uneasy, not about what was being discussed but what was being left unsaid.

If there was anything I had learned from four decades of daily involvement with nation building in the largest and most complex democracy in the world, it was that the political and economic transformation of a society is never smooth. On the contrary, it tears apart existing relationships and creates great insecurity. It sets off struggles between different groups as some try to increase their share of the cake while others struggle to retain theirs. This struggle in turn gives birth to new alliances that tilt the balance of political power and cause sudden and often counter-productive changes of policy.

In the very first book I ever wrote, I had described the political struggle for power unleashed by economic development in India, and ascribed it's very slow economic growth between 1956 and 1975 to the anti-growth policies that developed out of that struggle . I also knew, from a lifetime's experience, just how powerful a force nationalism was. For better or for worse, it was the moving force behind the formation of modern states in the post-colonial world. The glib assumption that the nation state was headed for oblivion and nationalism was destined to become a spent force, seemed unreal, to say the least.

But at Harvard, although we were discussing social change, and advocating social engineering on an unprecedented scale, there was a worrying absence of concern for , and therefore of debate on, the perils of the transformation process itself. The underlying presumption in nearly all the discussions and lectures was that the transition the world was going through would be painless. Economic barriers would fall, the nation state would die and a global polity would replace it without too many hiccups along the way.

There would be problems, of course, such as the ethno-national conflict let loose by the break up of the Soviet empire, and the emergence of backlash ideologies and states. But these were aftershocks that would eventually die away. No one remembered, or showed an awareness of, the profound insight articulated by Karl Polanyi half a century earlier, that even potentially beneficial social change can destroy society if it occurs too fast.

My unease crystallised into three articles written for The Hindu, in June and July 1995. In then I wrote:

Discussions of international security after the Cold war are nearly always held within a particular framework of assumptions. These are, first, that the end of the Cold War has eliminated the potential for major global conflicts of the kind that led to the first and second World wars, and the Cold War itself. Second, that the main sources of tension in future years will be sectarian and ethnic violence born out of a worldwide resurgence of such sentiments. Third, that since such conflicts tend to be localised, their resolution is essentially a local matter, preferably pursued bilaterally, or at the regional level. And fourth, that since the older industrialised countries of the West are not embroiled in these conflicts, they are qualified to act as referees, and suggest, or even decree solutions.

These assumptions are flawed. Far from having been eradicated, the seeds of future global conflict have begun to sprout afresh. Neither the form nor the intensity of the conflict can be predicted at this stage. Nor can it be specified whether conflict will be primarily economic, or will spill over into a military confrontation. What can safely be said , however, is that it will not be initiated by the ethnic-violence prone nations of the 'third world', or the flock of transitional, unstable regimes that have been hatched by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but by the industrialised nations of the West".

This was written three years before Operation Desert Fox in which two 'industrialised nations of the West' bombed Iraq incessantly for more than a year on the basis of pure, unfounded, paranoia and because they could do so with impunity; four years before NATO bombarded Serbia and Kosovo for two months, and six and eight years before the American and the Anglo-American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unlike Huntington, I did not locate the cause of conflict in a clash of cultures. "Ironically", I wrote, "the seeds of future global conflict lie buried in the very development that led to the emergence of a global marketplace, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This is the (re-) emergence, not long after the Second World War, of technology as the driving force behind social and economic change. Technology has unified markets, through revolutions in information gathering and dissemination, brought transport costs down to a fraction of what they were in the '50s, and thereby created a global market. Technology has also given countries the means to exploit that market. But since technology only thrives under conditions of fierce competition, it has also rung the death knell of economies that chose to shun competition. These were, notably, the centrally planned economies of the socialist countries.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is difficult not to wonder whether the twenty-first will be a century of promise fulfilled or belied: whether it will see the fruits of industrial progress spread across the entire globe, or be wasted away in another even more devastating holocaust than the two that we have seen.

These articles were to become the kernel of the present book. In 1995, I sensed the potential for global conflict and suspected that far from being referees the industrialised countries were likely to be its initiators. But I had only a tentative idea of the shape that the conflict could take. The only cause I was able to identify was the growing social stress in the industrialised countries and the possibility that governments would try to turn the anger it generated among the dispossessed outwards.

I did not realise that trans-national investment would create a powerful new motive to forcibly reshape and eventually destroy the Westphalian state system. I saw, hazily, that global economic integration was bound to be followed by social and political integration, but (in retrospect surprisingly) failed to see just how much resistance that would generate. I also did not make the connection that if the international state system collapsed in the face of overweening military power, terrorism was the only shape the resistance could take.

(See: Full excerpts of The twilight the nation state
Gobalisation, chaos and war
Publihed by Vistaar Publications, New Delhi. Price: Rs480

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

(The author's articles can be read at

also see : Other articles by Prem Shankar Jha

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The twilight of the nation state Globalisattion, chaos and war