Why nation-states are good
The nation-state remains the best foundation for capitalism, and hyper-globalisation risks destroying it
is the Ford Foundation professor of international political economy at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was previously the Albert O Hirschman professor in the school of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (2013-2015) and is president-elect of the International Economic Association. His new book is Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017).
The populist revolt of our day reflects the deep rift that has opened between the worldview of the global intellectual and professional elites, and that of ordinary citizens. These two groups now live in parallel social worlds and orient themselves using different cognitive maps. Yet the intellectual consensus that brought us to this chasm remains intact. Proposed remedies among mainstream thought leaders rarely go beyond an invocation of the problem of inequality, and a bit more focus on compensating the losers.
But the problem lies deeper, in elites’ attachment to a globalist mindset that underplays and weakens the nation-state. Without a shift, we might find not only our open global economy, but also our liberal, democratic order swept away by the backlash wrought by the blind spots and excesses of this mindset.
Among the intelligentsia, the nation-state finds few advocates. Most often, it is regarded as ineffectual – morally irrelevant, or even reactionary – in the face of the challenges posed by globalisation. Economists and centrist politicians tend to view globalism’s recent setbacks as regrettable, fuelled by populist and nativist politicians who managed to capitalise on the grievances of those who feel they have been left behind and deserted by the globalist elites. Last October, the British prime minister Theresa May ignited an outcry when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,’ she said, ‘you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ …
Historically, the nation-state has been closely associated with economic, social and political progress. It has curbed internecine violence, expanded networks of solidarity beyond the local, spurred mass markets and industrialisation, enabled the mobilisation of human and financial resources, and fostered the spread of representative political institutions. Failed nation-states usually bring economic decline and civil war. Among intellectuals, the nation-state’s fall from grace is in part a consequence of its achievements. For residents of stable and prosperous countries, the nation-state’s vital role has become easy to overlook.
The world more or less has reached the “broad, sunlit uplands” that Churchill talked about in his “finest hour” speech in 1940. Advanced countries don’t go to war with each other anymore, obesity is becoming more of a problem than hunger, and so forth. It would be stupid to take the system of nationalism under which this has been achieved and blow it up out of boredom and malice.