Why are there populists ? Populist movements stand up for the preservation of the sovereign nation state. These movements fear that sovereignty will flow “abroad” or to international institutes and argue for the preservation of a strong national economy, a unified population and national culture. They also criticise migration and the influx of foreign people in general. Digitalisation resulting in globalisation has highly influenced the course of events in societies. It has led to the growth of international tech companies and platforms which in their turn have affected many national companies and sectors. Thousands of companies are phased out due to globalisation. It also leads to rigorous changes in the labour market: many traditional professions disappear in favour of tech jobs. Digitization leads to ever increasing migration streams. So the worries of many are understandable. The digitization and related globalisation affects the existing sovereign nation state in the core.
Digitalisation is a change agent. The ongoing digitalisation and globalisation will irrevocably change societies more in the coming period and have the tendency to mix people and cultures. Digitalisation leads to a world that is interconnected via billions of invisible, active, digital links between people, systems and organisations. It is very important, both for citizens and companies, that this international process of the hyperconnected world continues and is further facilitated by political leaders. New technologies have brought humanity much good. Among other things much prosperity, better dissemination of information, more efficiency, more communication, higher quality of services. The new technologies are also more environmentally friendly than old technologies. Internet access should become a fundamental human right for every citizen. Leaders like Trump or Xi cannot stop the digitization. The benefits for citizens, businesses but also society as a whole of the new technologies are simply too great and digitization cannot be stopped at the border like a truck. In addition, everyone is eager to reap the benefits. But all nations struggle with the alleged disadvantages and government policies and structures have to change to cope with and absorb digital developments.
Global Platforms. One of the basic requirements for the success of both tech companies and global platforms such as AirBNB or Uber is the possibility of a global roll-out of their services. However China and other countries with authoritarian governments fear the influences from other countries or foreign tech companies and try to stop these developments by building their own national internet infrastructures, social media and apps. Their reaction to the digitization of the society is to close their digital borders. The question is whether in the long term this can be sustained in the fluid society. The development of technologies and related sciences is in many cases too complex, too expensive, too much dependent on scarce knowledge, to be managed successfully in independency.
Why a nation state ? To understand the today’s problems of the nation state concept it is important to know the history of the nation state. The striving for sovereign states with a unified population, borders and – as a result – regular wars over territories or resources, is relatively new to human history. Before countries and later nation states arose, people were small-scale farmers or nomads who peacefully moved on from place to place peacefully not hampered by borders. Over the past few hundred years the densely populated “developed” nation states, tending to nationalism, including feelings of superiority over other cultures, have caused nations to fight other nations to protect borders and to keep foreign people and influences outside. This has led to large-scale wars culminating in two world wars in the 20th century. Today this kind of wars have become “civilised” and they are now called economic or technological wars. The political question is however: is today’s concept of the sovereign, autonomous nation state with solid borders, an nation that cultivates national values and with a unified population a concept that fits in with an ever more digitized and hyperconnected world in which international cooperation and exchange on every level are more than ever required?
Own people first. It seems that the best-performing and largest nation states, China and the US, have unambiguously chosen to continue with the sovereign nation state concept of international independence and competition between nations. They are both in the forefront of technology because they know that whoever controls technology will become the ultimate economic winner. Both countries are also working on liberating the country from foreign influences. Own people first seems to be the main motto and not only for these nations. We see that China and US are fighting with each other for power and are increasingly forcing other countries to choose for “friendship” with China or the US. This is illustrated by – among other things – the discussion about Huawei and more recently ASML. The US will increasingly force “partner” nations to abandon Chinese technology. In the meantime China is silently creating a group of loyal “partners” depending on Chinese financial credits.
The egocentric approach of China and US. Both the US and China have minimal interest in multilateral agreements which are so important for smaller countries. They conclude these treaties mainly to pacify or hamper other countries. For them it is much more profitable to make bilateral agreements with smaller countries on their own terms. Therefore neither of them wants a united and strong Europe. Strong and big nation states lead to strong or authoritarian leadership. Big countries, big egoes. It is naive to assume that countries such as China and the US will be much concerned about the wishes or needs of small countries, have interests in doing good for the world at large or will promote democratic behaviour. They only care about the “general good” as long as it fits in their national interest. Neither China nor the US will abide by judgments of an International Court of Justice. Or will, against their alleged self-interest, participate in a climate agreement, the WTO, UN (United Nations) actions or whatever multilateral agreement. They simply will never allow the rules of an international organisation to overrule their own national rules or policies.
Threat to small nations. Strong nations such as China, the US and to a lesser extent Russia and India are therefore becoming an increasing threat to smaller nations or progress on a global level. As with companies that have become too big, it would therefore be better for humanity if we could split these nations up into smaller countries. It is clear that in that case it would be much easier to come to global understanding, multilateral cooperation and agreements. However what is going to happen however in the years to come is quite the opposite. China and the US will further cultivate their nation state concept with their self-centred approach and will compete with each other and other nations for economic dominance.
Conflicting interests of China and US and their big companies. The result is that a controversy is growing between the policies of bigger companies and that of sovereign nation states. Businesses flourish by international cooperation and exchange and not by competition between nations. Companies like Huawei are hampered by being linked with the Communist Party. And that applies to all companies in China. Also American companies want to do business with the whole world, not hampered by American sanction, security (Patriot Act) or trade barrier laws. Meanwhile, European companies, like ASML, NXP, are increasingly affected by the feud between China and the US.
Stuck citizens. Citizens are getting more and more stuck between two worlds. People embrace new technologies and all related possibilities like travelling and the use of social media. People are all the time shopping around more and more – online, physically or in thoughts – in other countries and they see what might be lacking in their home country. But on the other hand they are sometimes confronted with problematic changes in all kinds of sectors, the labour markets included. It explains the today’s dilemmas of almost all political parties. The division in left and right has lost its meaning in a world where the basic struggle is between national and short term needs versus globalisation, ecological problems and long term issues.
Contradictions. If we want a peaceful world contradictions should become less, what can be facilitated by the digitization of the society. Maybe we have to go partly back to the situation before the upcoming of the sovereign nation concept. Instead of protecting themselves against “others” by means of numerous national regulations, they just should facilitate the free movements of people, should push companies to cooperate internationally and should synchronise their laws and regulations with other countries .
The fluid nation. So we need a new nation state concept anticipating on the further digitization of societies in which nations have to synchronise their laws and regulations in order to facilitate citizens and businesses to work fluently together internationally. The concept of a fluid nation state, liberal, open to external influences and internationally connected, but besides also preserving national or regional values or habits. Fluid nations in which the big cities can function as switchboards between the international exchange of people, organizations, economies and cultures. In most big cities you can already find almost every nationality, whereas the original local cultures are better preserved in small cities and remote areas.
The European project. In this respect Europe is an interesting experiment. In Europe we see that major, international questions are more and more coordinated on a European level. Such as climate issues, migration, food & agriculture, international defence, cyber criminality, long term research, etc.. It has become a common conclusion that these questions only can only be adequately solved at an international – or at least European – level. Member states and the European Commission should unravel more precisely which tasks should be allocated to the European Commission (in principal long term policies of an international nature) and which ones to a member state (in principal typically regional questions). This will save money, give clarity, motivate people for Europe, increase efficiency. What sense does it make that each European country has its own foreign affair or defence policy ? And different railway or telecom systems ? Different national interpretations of European laws ? Or thousands of national standards instead of clear European ones ? More should be done by individual member states to promote the free flow of people, services and goods. Although written down in a formal European law, most countries are obstructing these laws in practice in an attempt to protect what they consider their national interests.
Europe can show the way to modernization of nation states. If the new European Commission functions well, Europe could become an example for the world or other regions how to cooperate peacefully together on major international issues, while also preserving national independence. From the Brexit we can learn that European countries are already much more integrated by European regulations than most people had realized before. Europe is taking major steps in reshaping the basic concept of a modern nation state. Accountabilities should be further defined on a national and European level. However we should be realistic and understand that Europe has still a long way to go. In particular Eastern Europe is far away from accepting the free flow of people or from allowing “Brussels” to take the lead on international issues. On the other hand things have gone rather well so far: Europe has been free of major wars for over 75 years now. Quite an achievement for a region that used to have wars as long as nation states exists.
Some hope ? The hope is that despite the opposition of many nations as more citizens travel and companies do more international business more national regulations and laws will be replaced by global regulations and rules. Or at least – for European countries – by legislation on a European level. We should also have some hope that the younger generations, speaking better English and travelling so much more, will understand each other better than older generations. This is the hope for the future and should create a more egalitarian world, which is better for everyone. For the time being, particularly the large nation states like China and the US are major hurdle blocks for global cooperation in whatever form. But technological developments are unstoppable, thus also China and the US and some other countries with authoritarian leaders unavoidably will have to change their rules under pressure of their own citizens and companies. So it may well be possible that in 2117 there will be the fluid society in which the today’s nation states are differently defined and functioning. In which European or global entities govern global rules and rulings in favour of every world citizen.