In the past the state has been viewed as the most powerful political community in our understanding of the world political map, but today many factors threaten to change the nature and organization of the state. Politics in entering a new era spurred on by the collapse of the bi-polar world at the end of the Cold War. Power balances have altered as a result of emerging global forces and ideas of identity and difference have now become key considerations in state policy making.
The hegemony of the contemporary state is threatened by the emergence of ethnic groups and minorities who are becoming increasingly influential in their calls for autonomy. Growing regionalism and devolution is another significant factor which needs to be explored and offers part of the explanation for fears that state power is retreating. These key challenges, the impact of globalization, the rise of nationalism and regionalism are contributing to the breakdown in territorial boundaries and provide the driving force behind the postmodern debate as to whether the state is today undermined by these forces.
The question at hand is to what extent these forces undermine state power and legitimacy and is the state able to now and in the future resist this competing power battle in order to retain state sovereignty. Firstly there are arguments put forward by Globalists like Ohmae who argues that non-state actors have recently materialized and are able to manipulate and destabilize state power on both a political and economic level.
They see state power declining; and view the rise of private global corporations as leading to a ‘borderless world and an economic level playing field. They argue that the state has been reduced to a unit which merely exists to provide goods and infrastructure needed by these transnational corporations. 1 Ladeur carries this idea further by concentrating on the geographical role of the state. He maintains that states are essentially territorial in nature so the decreasing importance of geography is deemed to make them obsolete. 2 Internationalists on the other hand maintain that the state remains the most powerful political unit in our society today.
Hirst and Thompson believe that the economy is predominantly international, not global, and subsequently they believe states play the central role in governance. 3 Here it is argued that the state still holds a foundation of power which is unique to any other non-state entity. These two concepts take extreme stances but other theories have developed which take a more middle line. It is difficult to cast generalizations on such a complex issue as state power varies throughout the world, and in some state legitimacy is very stable, whilst in others states have clearly lost power in terms of both politics and economics.
In order to understand changes in state power it is important to understand how the state was defined traditionally. In the past we as citizens handed legitimacy to the state. Weber defined the state as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. ‘4 Weber demonstrated that the state holds both power and authority over its citizens within defined boundaries. One important aspect of the state is its territory and boundaries. Traditionally the state governs a territory and subsequently the population within those defined boundaries; this is where problems may arise.
In some cases these citizens all share a national identity, whether it is culture, religion or language and there is congruence between citizens and the state. In these circumstances the state truly represents its population resulting in ultimate stability. Incongruence arises when the state and its nation are not perfectly aligned, this is a common problem but varies in extremities, the most extreme happens where a national identity is not represented by the state and may be split amongst several different states. The Kurds for example have been split between five states.
The Kurds are unable to express their political needs as according to Short ‘the forum of world opinion is more responsive to states than to dispossessed nations. ‘5 This is where ideas of identity and difference play such a key role. Rising nationalism from ethnic groups and minorities poses a greater threat to state security today than any other time. The importance of ‘peoples’ cannot be doubted in modern politics. 6 It is the citizens who hold the power as workers, tax payers, residents and users of services. Recently theories have emerged raising the idea of the ‘imagined community. Newman a proponent of this image maintains that conflict may arise when the position accorded the state does not necessarily coincide with the preferred location of the state as reflected in geopolitical imaginations.
Today the state is no longer concerned with the idea of space but instead place has become the prime focus in geopolitical postmodern studies and people’s preferred identities are now of prime importance. The idea of a nation today and the sense of belonging have become according to Cox a social construct. By this he implies that identity is something which is made rather than inherited. Someone of Scottish origins born in England may view themselves as one of many identities, English, Scottish, Britis. Difference is consequently becoming a challenging issue for the state in its ability to relate to its people. Another matter of significant concern is the rise of non-state actors who are beginning to play a role in global politics and economics. The materialization of private bodies such as Trans and Multinational corporations are exercising huge amounts of power which is able to rival that of states.
These companies are controlling more and more of the economy and are now also providing their own goods and services. The state is needed to co-ordinate with these private equities but it could be argued that that is where the state’s limits lie, playing a role of co-ordination rather than that previously of production. Is it accurate to say however that these global companies can wield enough power to compete and even rival state power, or are states able to resist these global forces?
There are some schools of thought who view globalization as a ‘myth’, others however accept the existence of these new global forces and support the idea that new global forces are emerging which will ultimately break state boundaries leading to new global forms of political organization. Ohmae is a proponent of this view, and he asserts that ‘states have become impossible business units in a global economy. ‘9 Are states being undermined to such an extent that they are now obsolete? At this point states are still able to play a role in governance.
Yeung takes up a middle ground view point arguing that globalization is an issue which is challenging the state but that does not mean that this is the last we have seen of the state. He maintains that the state and global forces do not have to be set in conflict against each other but can in fact work together. To back up his response he draws on cases where states have aided transnational corporations in their development. The French state for example backs transnational projects including Renault and the finance company, Credit Agricole.
Political global networks provide another revealing example, although they operate on a global scale they are made up of a coalition of independent nation-states. 10 Members of these global networks however are subject to regulations and compromise; members of the EU for example are subject to decisions made in Brussels. One key problems in these networks is that some states are able to exert more influence than others, this is particularly apparent in the UN where matters regarding the Iraq War have to be passed through the UN, it is evident that within the decision making some states have been forced to concede to US interests.
As the most important political concerns in our world today are global issues, the threat of terrorism and the rise in environmental problems, states invariably have to cooperate with other states. Fields such as economics, politics and territory cannot be limited to a nations boundaries, states need to interact with other states and other institutions, a states foreign policy has a definite impact on internal politics.
In the case of the introduction of the euro, states have been challenged as they have to think about their own national interest rates. At the same time as the power of the state leaking away to transnational corporations, there is also an evident shift in certain parts of the world to more regional autonomy. Close to home the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales have taken power from Whitehall, and are using it effectively to gain more control over the lives of their citizens.
Likewise the evolution of the English regional administrations might well be the pre-cursor of a similar shift in the longer term. As the state’s influence declines in these circumstances, citizens seem to aspire to a more regional approach, led also by the power of the internet, where social networking and on line polling exerts considerable sway over opinion and policy makers in the state government machine. The internet acts outside of state control to reach people all over the world and is impossible to police and censor.
Weiss believes that states have in the past faced challenges and will continue to be restructured yet they still retain significant importance. 11 Ultimately sovereignty resides with the people, and at this moment we continue to hand sovereignty to the state but the emergence of non-state actors will continue to emerge and threaten state power. Private companies and rising nationalism are increasing their holds on power and their influence within politics and with these forces at work the sovereignty of the state looks set to continue in its retreat.