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 criticize migration and the influx of foreign people in general. Digitalisation resulting in globalization has highly influenced the course of events in society. It has led to the growth of international tech companies and platforms which in their turn effected many national companies and sectors. Hundreds of companies are phased out due to globalisation effects. It also leads to rigorous changes in the labour market: many traditional professions disappear in favour of tech jobs. Digitalisation leads to ever increasing migration streams. So the worries of many are understandable. The digitalisation and related globalisation affects the existing sovereign nation state in the heart.
Digitalisation as change agent. The ongoing digitalisation and globalization 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 inherently interconnected with billions of invisible, active, digital connections between people, systems and organizations. It is very important, both for citizens and companies, that this international process of the hyperconnected world continues and be further facilitated by political leaders. New technologies have brought humanity much good. Amongst others 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 entrance should become a fundamental human right for every citizen. Leaders like Trump or Xi cannot stop the digitalisation. The benefits for citizens, businesses but also society as a whole of the new technologies are simply too great and digitalisation cannot be regulated or stopped at the border like a truck. In addition, everyone wants to reap the benefits. But all nations struggle with the alleged disadvantages and should change government structures to cope with digital developments.
Global Platforms. One of the basic requirements for success of both tech companies and global platforms a la AirBNB or Uber is the possibility of a global roll-out of 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 on the digitization of the society is to close their digital borders. The question is whether that can be sustained in the long term in “the liquid society”. The development of technologies and related sciences is in many cases too complex, too expensive, too much depending on scarce knowledge, to be able to manage this 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 moved on from place to place peacefully not hampered by borders. It are the densely populated “developed” nation states, tending to nationalism, including feelings of superiority over other cultures, that causes nations over the past hundreds of years 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. These wars are today mitigated and “civilized” into economic or technological wars. The political question is however: is the today’s concept of the sovereign, autonomous nation state with solid borders, cultivating national values and a unified population a concept that fits in a ever more digitized and hyperconnected world in which international cooperation and exchange on every level is more required than ever?
Own people first. It seems that the best-performing and largest nation states, China and the US, have however 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 freeing up 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 so important for smaller countries. They conclude these treaties are only hampering them. For them it is much better to make bilateral agreements with smaller countries on their terms. Neither of them is thus also waiting for a united and strong Europe. Strong and large nation states lead to strong or authoritarian leadership. Big countries, big ego’s. 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 general interests to do good for the world at large or will promote democratic behaviour. They only do “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 that the rules of an international organization will overrule their own national rules or policies.
Threat for small nations. Strong nations such as China, the US and to a lesser extent Russia and India are therefore becoming an increasing threat for smaller nations or progress at global level. As with too large companies, it would therefore be better for humanity if we could split up these nations into smaller countries. It is clear that in that case it would be much easier to come to global understanding and agreements. What is going to happen however in the coming years 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.
Opposed interests of China and US and big companies. That is where a controversy is growing between the policies of larger 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 or trade barrier laws. Meanwhile, European companies, like ASML, are increasingly affected by the feud between China and the US.
Stuck citizen. Citizens get more and more stuck between two worlds. People embrace new technologies and all related possibilities like travelling, the use of social media. People are also more and more shopping around (online, physically or in thoughts) in other countries and learn what is lacking in their home country. But are at the other hand confronted with sometimes problematic changes in all kinds of sectors inclusive related changes in labour markets. It explains the today’s struggle of almost all political parties. The division left and right has lost it’s meaning in a world where the basic struggle is about local or sectorial interests sometimes short term versus globalisation and ecological requirements, more long term issues.
Contradictions. Digitization and globalisation have led last decades to populist movements and authoritarian leadership. Promises are that these leaders will protect the people against foreign influences. The question however is whether this attitude serves the people in the longer run. This inward looking attitude is getting more and more in conflict with the wishes of knowledgable citizens, businesses that want to cooperate internationally and with countries that realize that global cooperation is needed to solve the many global issues. If we want a peaceful world contradictions should become less, what also can be facilitated by digitization of the society. Partly we have to go back to the situation before the upcoming of the sovereign nation concept. Governments should instead of protecting themselves against “others” by numerous national regulations, facilitate the free movements of people, push companies to cooperate internationally and synchronize their laws and regulations with other countries .
The “liquid nation”. Don’t we need by the way a new nation state concept anticipating on the further digitalisation of societies and in which nations will synchronize laws and regulations in order to facilitate citizens and businesses to work fluently together internationally ? A “liquid nation state” concept, liberal, open for external influences and internationally connected, but next to this nevertheless also preserving national or regional values or habits ? “Liquid nations” in which the big cities can function as the switchboards between international exchange and national economics and cultures. In most big cities you can find already almost every nationality, while in the small cities and remote areas you normally find more the original local cultures.
The European project. In this respect Europe is an interesting experiment. In Europe we see that major, international questions are more and more coordinated at European level. Like climate issues, migration, international defence, cyber criminality, long term research, etc.. It becomes a common conclusion that these questions only can be adequately solved at international, at least European, level. Member states and European Commission should unravel more precisely what tasks belong 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). What sense does it make that each European country has it’s own foreign affair policy ? Different railway or telecom systems ? Different national interpretations of European laws ? Or thousands of national standards instead of clear European ones ? More could 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 this law in practice.
Europe can show the way for modern nation states. If the new European Commission is governing well, Europe could become an example for the world or other regions how to cooperate peacefully together on major international topics, 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 realized. Europe is making major steps in reshaping the basic concept of a modern nation state. Accountabilities should be further redefinated at national and European level. However we should be realistic and realize 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 “Brussel” to take the lead in international issues. On the other hand so far so good: Europe has been free of wars over 75 years now. An exceptional result for a region that used to have wars as long as nation states exists.
Some hope ? The hope is that as more citizens are travelling and companies do more international business that despite the opposition of many nations, that nevertheless more national regulations and laws will be replaced by global regulations and rules. Or at least (for European countries) by ones at 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 will 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 citizens and companies. So it may well be possible that in 2117 there will be “the liquid 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.