The Beginning of the End of the Nation-State

The Syria intervention was a first blow against the inviolability of the nation-state.

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The most significant international development of 2013 may well prove to be the agreement to disarm the Syrian government of its poison gas stocks, even though in many ways it bordered on farce.

Not unlike Wilton Parmenter's sneeze that turned retreat into victory in the 1960s TV show "F-Troop," an off-hand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, seized upon by the Russians and Syrians as a golden opportunity to help themselves, handed President Obama both a diplomatic coup and a successful escape from a position the White House was eager to jettison anyway. Whether or not this ultimately proves important to the outcome of the war in Syria (doubtful), it may prove significant in a much broader and longer-term way – as the first official breach in the concept of the nation-state's inviolability.

To end a century of ruinous warfare stemming from transnational religious divisions, the Peace of Westphalia more or less created the modern nation-state in 1648. It carved the map up into distinct territorial divisions whose leaders, essentially, could treat the people within their borders however they wanted in return for keeping such unhappiness to themselves. External conflict would be avoided through internal sovereignty.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In case you hadn't noticed, the world of Westphalia has not in fact been devoid of interstate conflict. But a government's right to treat its own people however it pleased has basically never been challenged, even as a pretext for fighting a war for other reasons. Abusive regimes have been attacked and overthrown, perhaps even because of their abuses, but – from Iraq to Serbia to Rwanda and elsewhere – human rights have never really served as the stated casus belli and often have been expressly disavowed as an adequate basis for action against a national government. Despite the advances of human rights law in the post-World War era, the Westphalian moral partition – governments may not mess with other governments' peoples, but may treat their own however they wish – has held, at least normatively.

The continued viability of this principle is now of central importance to tyrants the world over. The Chinese and Russian governments are vehement defenders of the principle of state sovereignty – and of the rights of abusive regimes everywhere – for obvious reasons: They don't want supranational human rights principles ever to be suggested as constraints on their own behavior. Such supranational constraints have been growing in recent years, as global governance organizations pose growing challenges to traditional sovereignty from "above" (and other nonstate actors, from cities and regions to corporations and terrorist groups exert similar pressures from "below").

That the Russians have now agreed to the legitimacy of international interest, and intervention, in how a government treats its own people is a large step for mankind – even if in this case it was tactically self-serving, avoided the (unlikely) prospect of actual enforcement through use of force, and came in the context of a norm (the unacceptability of poison gas) uniquely (if erroneously) treated as universal. In the long run, it may – and hopefully will – prove far more important than the actual, cynical resolution of the standoff itself.

[See a collection of editorial c.artoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

How far can this breach in state sovereignty extend? In the short run, not very far. There is little likelihood of anyone holding large, powerful states such as China and Russia themselves to account for their abuses of their own people. But the difference between these two countries' trajectories is itself instructive.

Russia, despite its prior status as and continued pretensions to be a great power, is imploding demographically; it, and its president, Vladimir Putin, can maintain their position on the world stage only as a petrostate. Like virtually every other bad government on the planet, Putin's depends on resource extraction – the revenues from which finance the state largess that buys acquiescence from a public otherwise ground down by the low-margin, undemocratic nature of a commodity economy. It is only in such economies – where land and the resources it contains, not people and their brains, are what still matters – that the traditional territorial state of Westphalia is still the model.

China, in contrast, hopes to join the community of global economic powers. To do so, it will need to conform to global economic norms. The view that economic growth will force China to democratize is probably wishful thinking, and the Chinese Communist Party clearly thinks so – but it will require China as a state, if it desires to join the club, to play by the rules. Pirating may be a successful short-term strategy for a developing economy; longer-term, Beijing will come under increasing pressure to comply with World Trade Organization standards, to temper its currency manipulation and to discourage hacking (if not to end its own).

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

China, in short, is on a path to accepting the reality of the modern, integrated, post-Westphalian world: that globalization fractures sovereignty. A state cannot be both fluidly linked to the international economy and hermetically sealed. As Paul Krugman has observed, in the new global economy, "you can't have it all: A country must pick two out of three. It can fix its exchange rate without emasculating its central bank, but only by maintaining controls on capital flows (like China today); it can leave capital movement free but retain monetary autonomy, but only by letting the exchange rate fluctuate ... or it can choose to leave capital free and stabilize the currency, but only by abandoning any ability to adjust interest rates to fight inflation or recession."

And that brings us to the real bottom line: The engine that drives not just the world's economic, but also its political, structures is finance. This is the true meaning of the global meltdown of 2008 and the aftermath with which we've been living in 2013. Not just financial markets, but also scholars, polemicists and jihadis have all been pointing to the end of the nation-state's inviolability; Russia's acquiescence makes the Syria deal the first formal recognition by the community of states itself that the role of the nation-state is, if not disappearing, at the least evolving. What this means for government from here on – including domestic U.S. politics – will be the subject of my next post, to kick off 2014.

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