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Why We Still Need the Nation State

Overshadowed by international organizations, global commerce, and even individual cities, the nation state still has a vital role to play.

Illustration by alextrims/Shutterstock

With the Scottish Independence referendum still reverberating, the nation state is back on the front burner of global politics. While in the end Scottish voters opted to stay inside the United Kingdom, the issues raised by “yes” voters aren’t going anywhere, either.


The Scottish secession discussion wasn’t about close-minded nationalism. Instead, the “yes” vote argued against the brutal austerity policies imposed by the U.K.’s Conservative government and for a fuller, more robust democracy. These shared values and the political action they sparked nicely illustrate the essentials of a nation state: geography, politics, and culture.

But, your inner Thomas Friedman is wondering, isn’t the nation state out of date in a globally interconnected world, anyway? Aren’t we attempting to replace the dangerous nationalism that sometimes accompanies strong nation states (thinking back to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s) with global institutions and solutions?

There have been numerous predictions about the death of the nation state, including one by my friend Parag Khanna, who suggested in his 2011 book How To Run the World that we were entering a new medieval era and that cities and regional economic groupings, not nations, would shape the future. But, not so fast.

The 2008 economic crisis and the ongoing fallout of subsequent austerity policies the European Union imposed on its southern zone have shown that transnational institutions can still lose touch with the needs of local populations. While global capital and institutions grow ever more powerful, national politics can still provide a vital check, especially in regulating financial markets and technology innovations. Without representative input, the complete (and continuing) lack of accountability from global finance shrinks the ability of nation state citizens to respond to the fallout from economic decisions over which they have little to no control. In comparing the stimulus’ effects on the American economy versus the pain of EU-imposed austerity on countries like Greece and Spain, it also seems the nation state may best determine its own economic investments.

Jonathon Shafi of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign called last week’s vote a “huge opportunity to restore democracy.” Clearly this isn’t simply about having a Scottish Parliament making Scottish laws, it also reveals a desire to create a politics that is truly responsive to the needs to the nation’s population.

Of course, there is no guarantee that nation states will play a more constructive, empowering role simply because they exist. Plenty of nation states today employ no version of true democracy whatsoever, making the international organization appear like the more legitimate enforcer and protector of people. But, there is a way for nation states to make themselves indispensible.

It’s time for governments to go back to the trust-busting model that U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt pursued in the early part of the 20th century. While international and transnational bodies contend with war, terrorism, and other violence, the concentrated power of incumbent players and monopolies in industry is sharpening inequality, leaving millions, if not billions, impoverished and blocking needed innovation. More than a century after Roosevelt’s term ended, according to analyst Matt Stoller, Zephyr Teachout rallied voters around her insurgent campaign to oust Andrew Cuomo as the Democratic candidate for governor of New York by telling audiences “it’s time for some good old-fashioned trust-busting.” That’s exactly right.

In order for the nation state to make a comeback, its focus should be on confronting and taming the power of monopolies and unaccountable capital. That’s no easy task given the amount of corporate special interest and money in politics, but it’s also apparent that corporate bureaucracy is in the end less accountable than government bureaucracy. It’s time for nation states to confront the global monopolies and reassert their power for a commons good. In this way, the nation state is poised for not only a comeback but maybe even a retro cool one, as well.

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