Does globalisation undermine the nation-state and national identities? Essay

It has been over half a century since Charles P. Kindleberger’s statement triggered a debate as to what the future held for the nation-state and national identities in a globalising world, yet there is little to suggest that either’s entire existence will be entirely eradicated in the near future. Few would question that globalisation is to some extent eroding the nation-state and national identities, and few would be as cavalier as to suggest they have both been entirely wiped out. Instead, we must determine degrees of relative causality and significance.

In the case of the nation-state, many of the state’s traditional roles have been removed. Yet we should not expect them to wither away altogether; indeed, in some ways it has and will continue to expand and develop its tasks, roles and activities in place of those that have been removed2. One of these new roles is the preservation of the state’s national identity. This has proved to be an increasingly difficult task in light of the rapidly increasing rates of population movement across the globe.

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Consequently, many have moved away from identifying with the nation, a trend which has often led to the formation of competing subnational identities. The future of both nation-states and the national identities that accompany them is uncertain, yet if developments continue down the same path it will be crucial for nation-states to modify their roles in order to prevent them slipping towards becoming obsolete. An examination into how the nature of the nation-state has changed as a result of globalisation demonstrates that it has been undermined in a number of regards.

Globalisation has advanced in almost every respect – economically, technologically, culturally, even linguistically – yet this has not proved to be the case politically and militarily to the extent that ‘territorial states remain the only effective authorities’3. Nonetheless, the suggestion that the central dynamics of economic life now transcend national borders and so have become uncontrollable for national governments4 somewhat overstates the lack of economic power which remains with nation-states.

Their ability to control has now declined to the point where they are unable to dictate economic developments in the majority of cases, yet they are still able to influence and promote their agendas5. Only a very small minority of countries are economically powerful enough to hold any real sway over the globalised economy, and so nation-states are left to try and create favourable conditions for them to operate within6.

Fortunately for the survival of the nation-state as an entity, this process has developed to the stage where, although the system is ‘economically efficient’, it is ‘incapable of giving meaning to people’s lives’7. The nation-state is therefore required to act in much the same way as municipalities within states traditionally had to. For the nation to prosper, it is essential for the state to continue to provide the infrastructure and public goods that businesses need in as efficient way as possible8.

Nation-states have also had to accept further erosion into their traditional role by surrendering a degree of their autonomy in order to join international organisations, thus enabling their nation’s businesses to operate within the global framework9. As much as this has resulted in the loss of some of the nation-state’s powers, the nature of organisations such as the United Nations means that there is little chance of undesired shifts of power away from the nation-state. These organisations have no independent authority or power and are entirely dependent on the collective decisions of states10.

Since national and inter-national networks are ‘constituted or fundamentally constrained by the nation-state’11, it is unsurprising that the majority of power ceded to international organisations is economic, with nation-states remaining essential to all other forms of co-operation within the global framework. Without effective institutions of complete global governance, and with little prospect of this issue being addressed in the near future if at all, the nation-state will still play an important, if substantially eroded, role in the globalising world.

As much as the nation-state has seen this undermining of its traditional roles through globalisation, the new international system has brought with it a number of new functions for the nation-state. Globalisation by definition requires increased international interdependence, and the nation-state is the means through which this co-operation across borders can be achieved12. Through its constraint of the nation-state’s ability to control individual policies, globalisation has shifted its role to building the political arena for these global policies to be formulated and then influencing their outcome.

The nation-state’s economic success and therefore its ability to influence such outcomes will be driven by their ability to create conditions for growth and compensating for the effects of economic competition. Globalisation has ensured that the nation-state is now the enabler rather than the enforcer of economic activity and policy that it once was, meaning that its task is now to act in the ‘public interest’ and allowing the market to operate freely13.

The argument that the increased intervention of state authority in the daily lives of citizens has been to hide the state’s loss of significance14 is unfounded, as it is exactly this intervention which citizens rely on to be able to compete in the globalising world. In addition, the legal right to cross frontiers is still controlled by states15. This responsibility has always been, and will remain, one of the state’s most important functions and decades of globalisation have failed to erode this importance.

Increased population movement is one of the driving forces of globalisation, yet as long as its control is still conducted by the nation-state, the role of these states will remain. The significance of the role played by populations and their movements as a result of globalisation should not be underestimated. Nation states are still of central significance with regard to the representation they offer for their populations on the world stage and the legitimacy that they provide to the entire system16.

Nation-states are able to do this in a way that no other agency can; they are ‘pivots between international agencies and subnational activities because they provide legitimacy as the exclusive voice of a territorially bounded population’17. Although we have seen that through their control of these movements the nation-state has sustained one of its most important functions, there have been some notable developments with regard to national identity.

Globalisation has ensured the rapidly increasing mobility of people across national borders. Large scale migrations of all kinds have been indicative of globalisation: temporary and permanent movements; labour migrations and refugee exoduses; individual and family flows; as well as highly skilled specialists and manual workers18. The idea of global citizenship for individuals as a result of the economic, technological and cultural trends that are indicative of globalisation has developed as a concept as a result of these movements19.

These migrations have led to widespread settlement in both highly developed countries and less developed regions, bringing with it the inevitable mix of cultures and so the weakening of individual national identities that accompanies these trends. As is often the case with such developments, cultural difference and social marginalization have created ethnic minorities with disadvantaged and relatively isolated positions in society20.

However, as much as there are vast movements between developed countries and some movements between rich and poor countries, the overwhelming proportion of global citizens are prevented from crossing these frontiers that are so carefully controlled by nation-states21. Labour is ‘both nationally located and relatively static’22, yet as much as this has prevented the complete destruction of national identities, we can observe numerous ways in which national identities are being transformed and replaced.

It may be true that globalisation has not resulted in the complete destruction of these entities, but it has become apparent that substantial shifts in the characteristics of national identity have occurred and are likely to continue to do so. Increased population movements across the globe have drawn many different ethnic groups together. If the nation-state is to succeed in sustaining a national identity, it is vital for the incoming ethnicities to be integrated into the existing society23.

However successful a state may be with this process of integration, it is inevitable that some ‘religious, ethnic and lifestyle pluralism’ will develop, which has the potential for groups within the nation-state to grow in significance as an alternative focus of allegiance for their members24. This struggle has resulted in state’s being less able to maintain national distinctiveness and cultural homogeneity. Increasingly, nation states resemble each other in their cultural forms25 as a result of the diffusion of ‘specific values systems connected with consumerism, individualism and US lifestyles’26.

National cultures effectively become squeezed between the global and the local. Nonetheless, suggestions that a truly global culture is developing ignore important aspects of these shifts. For a true identity to develop, some form of ‘common integrated cultural experience’ is required. As this level of binding is not globally present, a ‘global culture is necessarily a ‘constructed’ culture and that is ahistorical, timeless and memoryless’27.

Therefore, as much as differences between national-identities are becoming less apparent, these similarities are only at a very shallow level. More importantly, the increasing diversity between populations within a nation has often resulted in a ‘re-ethnicization of culture at a subnational level’28. Groups have often identified with those of the same ethnicity, regional location, gender, sexual preferences or lifestyles than with the nation as a whole.

This suggests that as much as the concept of national identity has not been completely undermined, globalisation has often eroded its significance and forced individuals to forge alternative identities within, rather than outside of, the state. The role of the nation-state and the significance of national identities have undoubtedly altered greatly as a result of globalisation. Many aspects of the nation-state have been undermined and, more noticeably, there has been a move away from citizens identifying primarily with the nation as whole.

In the case of the nation-state, various traditional roles have moved to international organisations and been replaced by new responsibilities to ensure that the nation is able to operate effectively within the developing global framework. The future of the nation-state is largely dependent on its ability to continue to adapt as the world continues to globalise. As much as this should mean that the nation-state as an entity remains a crucial participant within the globalising world, the fate of national identities is less certain.

Increased population flows have led to numerous ethnic minorities and contrasting cultures developing within nations, causing many citizens to identify on a subnational rather than national level. As the world becomes even more globalised this trend is likely to develop further. Although the idea of a global culture is currently misplaced, further improvements to technology and a prolonged period of population movement across borders could well make the concept a reality as the common experience of globalisation bind citizens of different countries together.

As Eric Hobsbawm observes, ‘our era is still one of nation states – the only aspect of globalisation where globalisation does not work’29. As much as aspects of the nation-state have been undermined by globalisation movements, so long as the state is capable of continuing to adapt to the new challenges it faces and the world lacks an effective global organisation that can achieve requirements on national levels as well as the international stage, the nation-state and the national identity look likely to avoid complete eradication.


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