Irish Times

Nation state model no longer works in today’s complex world

COPENHAGEN IS a symptom of a wider failure – the failure of the nation state as an organising principle for today’s world, a world that is radically different from the one in which the nation state principle was devised, writes JOHN BRUTON

This is closely related to two other modern dilemmas. Why do people get so angry with their politicians? Why is there such a big gap between the way people spend their scarce time and money, and the things they say they believe are really important?

The failure of world leaders to come up with a meaningful and binding agreement on climate change at the long-planned meeting in Copenhagen means that the binding, if incompletely applied, agreement in the Kyoto protocol will now expire and will not be replaced in time, if ever.

People get angry with politicians because they see them being unable to match their words with deeds not only on climate change but on other issues too. They are also powerless when trying to eliminate other global problems, such as financial booms and busts and the international narcotics trade.

But perhaps it is the gap between people’s own beliefs and actions, as much as the failings of politicians, that is at the heart of the problem.

If people did not buy bigger cars, bigger houses further from town, and buy more and more food that goes to waste, there would be less climate change.

If people did not borrow so much, banks would not lend so much, and taxpayers would not have to bail them out.

The gap between what we do, and what we say, has become wider because we live in a world that has become so big and so complex that often we see no link between our own acts or omissions, and what happens afterwards.

This is because what is done or not done in China affects what happens in Cork; what happens in Afghanistan affects what happens in Atlanta or Antwerp, and vice versa in all cases.

That was not always so.

When the concept of the modern nation state was devised in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, what happened in China had little or no effect on what happened in Europe, and Atlanta was not even a mark on a map. Then the nation state was a perfectly workable means to organise world affairs, and remained so for centuries. That is no longer the case.

Frustration with politicians grows, and people do things that do not match their beliefs, because there are no globally effective rule makers powerful enough to set minimum global standards that will govern behaviour in China, Cork, Antwerp, and Afghanistan. The failure in Copenhagen is a failure to make a rule that would have applied to the whole world.

Hundreds of nation states, meeting at the highest level in Copenhagen after years of preparation, were unable to make a deal on an urgent and relatively simple matter for the whole world.

Other similar failures are in prospect in regard to world trade and in making an international court on war crimes globally effective.

These failures are failures in modern conditions of nation states as a means of getting what the world needs to do done.

They show that the ideology that says the nation state is the sole repository of the people’s sovereignty does not live up to all modern challenges.

Small nations saw that and banded together in groups, like the European Union, in an effort to pool their sovereignty so they can make global deals.

The US Senate was a big obstacle to President Barack Obama making a legally binding deal in Copenhagen because many in the US Senate are still wedded to the idea that international rules should not bind the United States and should never override US law.

And the 18th-century United States constitution insists on impossibly large majorities in the Senate to ratify an international treaty.

The dramatic failure in Copenhagen should remind the world that we need a new system for global decision making, and should prompt European nation states in particular to give up some of their disproportionate representation in some global bodies, so we can get others to accept rules that apply to them as well as everybody else.

Full article


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