Why are there populists ? Populist movements stand up for the preservation of the sovereign nation-state. These movements fear that sovereignty will flow “abroad” or to international institutes and argue for the preservation of a strong national economy, a unified population and national culture. They also criticize migration and the influx of foreign people in general. Digitalization resulting in globalization has highly influenced the course of events in societies. It has led to the growth of international tech companies and platforms which in their turn have affected many national companies and sectors. Thousands of companies are phased out due to globalization. It also leads to rigorous changes in the labour market: many traditional professions disappear in favour of tech jobs. Digitalization leads to ever increasing migration streams. So the worries of many are understandable. Digitalization and related globalization affect the existing sovereign nation-state to the very core.
Digitalisation is a change agent. Ongoing digitalization and globalization will irrevocably change societies more in the coming period and have the tendency to mix people and cultures. Digitalization leads to a world that is interconnected via billions of invisible, active, digital links between people, systems and organizations. It is very important for citizens and companies alike that this international process of the hyperconnected world continues and is facilitated by political leaders. New technologies have brought humanity much good. Among other things much prosperity, better dissemination of information, more efficiency, more communication, higher quality of services. New technologies are also more friendly for the environment than old technologies. Internet access should become a fundamental human right for every citizen. Leaders like Trump or Xi cannot stop the digitalization process to go back to an authartic country. The benefits of new technologies for citizens, businesses but also society as a whole are simply too great and digitalization cannot be stopped at the border like a truck. In addition, everyone is eager to reap the benefits. But all nations struggle with the alleged disadvantages and government policies and structures have to change to cope with and absorb digital developments.
Global Platforms. One of the basic requirements for the success of both tech companies and global platforms such as Airbnb or Uber is the possibility of a global roll-out of their services. However, China and other countries with authoritarian governments fear the influences from other countries or foreign tech companies and try to stop these developments by building their own national internet infrastructures, social media and apps. Their reaction to the digitalization of society is to close their digital borders. The question is whether in the long term this can be sustained in a fluid society. The development of technologies and related sciences is in many cases too complex, too expensive, too much dependent on scarce knowledge, to be managed successfully in independency.
Why a nation state ? To understand today’s problems of the nation-state concept it is important to know the history of the nation-state. The establishment of sovereign states with a unified population, borders and – as a result – regular wars over territories or resources, is relatively new to human history. Before countries and later nation-states arose, people were small-scale farmers or nomads who moved on from place to place, normally avoiding other groups and not hampered by borders. Population growth, upcoming cities and landownership led to the situation that rulers started protecting their areas with borders and so the nation-states were born. Over the past few hundred years the densely populated “developed” nation-states, have been tending to nationalism, including feelings of superiority over other cultures, have fought other nations to protect borders and to keep foreign people and influences outside. An example of which is the two large-scale world wars in the 20th century. Today wars have become “civilised” and they are now called economic or technological wars. The political question is however: is today’s concept of the sovereign, autonomous nation-state with solid borders, a nation that cultivates national values and with a unified population a solid concept that fits in with an ever more digitalized and hyperconnected world in which international cooperation and exchange on every level are more than ever required?
Own people first. It seems that the best-performing and largest nation-states, China and the US, have unambiguously chosen to continue with the sovereign nation-state concept of international independence and competition between nations. They are both in the forefront of technology because they know that whoever controls technology will become the ultimate economic winner. Both countries are also working on liberating the country from foreign influences. Own people first seems to be the main motto and not only for these nations. We see that China and US are fighting each other for power and are increasingly forcing other countries to choose for “friendship” with the one or the other. This is illustrated by – among other things – the discussion about Huawei and more recently ASML. The US will increasingly force “partner” nations to abandon Chinese technology. In the meantime China is silently creating a group of loyal “partners” who depend on Chinese technology and financial credits.
The egocentric approach of China and US. Both the US and China have minimal interest in multilateral agreements which are so important for smaller countries. They conclude these treaties mainly to pacify or hamper other countries. For them it is much more profitable to conclude bilateral agreements with smaller countries on their own terms. Therefore neither of them wants a united and strong Europe. Strong and big nation-states lead to strong or authoritarian leadership. Big countries, big egoes. It is naive to assume that countries such as China and the US will be much concerned about the wishes or needs of small countries, take an interest in doing good for the world at large or will promote democratic behaviour. They only care about the “general good” as long as it fits in with their national interest. Neither China nor the US will abide by judgments of an International Court of Justice. Or will, against their alleged self-interest, participate in a climate agreement, the WTO, UN (United Nations) actions or whatever multilateral agreement. They simply will never allow the rules of an international organization to overrule their own national rules or policies.
Threat to small nations. Strong nations such as China, the US and to a lesser extent Russia and India are therefore increasingly becoming a threat to smaller nations or to progress on a global level. As with companies that have become too big, it would therefore be better for humanity if we could split these nations up into smaller countries. It is clear that it would be much easier to come to global understanding, multilateral cooperation and agreements. However, what is going to happen in the years to come is quite the opposite. China and the US will further cultivate their nation-state concept with their self-centred approach and will compete with each other and other nations for economic dominance.
Conflicting interests of China and US and their big companies. The result is that a controversy is growing between the policies of bigger companies and that of sovereign nation-states. Businesses flourish by international cooperation and exchange and not by competition between nations. Companies like Huawei are hampered by being linked with the Communist Party. And that applies to all companies in China. American companies want to do business with the whole world, not hampered by American sanctioning, security (Patriot Act) or trade barrier laws. Meanwhile, European companies, like ASML and NXP, are increasingly affected by the feud between China and the US.
Stuck citizens. Citizens are getting more and more stuck between two worlds. People embrace new technologies and all related possibilities like travelling and the use of social media. People are shopping around more and more – online, physically or in thoughts – in other countries and they see what might be lacking in their home country. In day-to-day reality they are sometimes confronted with all kinds of changes in numerous sectors, including the labour markets. It explains today’s dilemmas of almost all political parties. The division in left and right has lost its meaning in a world where the basic struggle is between national and short term needs versus globalization, ecological problems and long term issues. And in all cases digitalization is the major change agent.
Contradictions. If we want a peaceful world contradictions should decrease, which can be facilitated by the digitalization of society including digital international cooperation. Maybe we have to partly return to the situation before the upcoming of the sovereign nation concept. Instead of protecting themselves against “others” by means of numerous national regulations, nations should just facilitate free movements of people, should stimulate companies to cooperate internationally and should synchronize their laws and regulations with other countries. Politicians should understand that the aim is not to compete as nations-state to optimize their own state, but that nation-states should primarily serve, and facilitate their people and companies to freely cooperate internationally, within commonly agreed boundaries and regulations.
The fluid nation. So we need a new nation-state concept anticipating on the further digitalization of societies in which nations should synchronize their laws and regulations in order to facilitate citizens and businesses. The concept of a fluid nation state, liberal, open to external influences and internationally connected, but besides also preserving national or regional values or habits. Fluid nations in which the big cities can function as switchboards between the international exchange of people, organizations, economies and cultures. In most big cities you can already find almost every nationality, whereas the original local cultures are preserved in small cities and remote areas..
The European project. In this respect Europe is an interesting experiment. In Europe we see that major, international questions are more and more coordinated on a European level. For example climate issues, migration, food & agriculture, international defence, cyber criminality, long term research, etc.. It is generally agreed that these questions can only be adequately solved on an international – or at least European – level. Member states and the European Commission should unravel more precisely which tasks should be allocated to the European Commission (in principal long term policies of an international nature) and which ones to the member states (in principal typically regional questions). This will save money, give clarity, motivate people for Europe, increase efficiency. What sense does it make that each European country has its own foreign affair or defence policy? And different railway or telecom systems? Different national interpretations of European laws? Or thousands of national standards instead of clear European ones? More should be done by individual member states to promote the free flow of people, services and goods. Although written down in formal European laws, most countries are obstructing these laws in practice in an attempt to protect what they consider their national interests.
Europe can show the way to modernization of nation-states. If the European Commission functions well, Europe could become an example for other regions or the entire world as to how cooperate peacefully together on major international issues, while also preserving national independence. From Brexit we can learn that European countries are already much more integrated by European regulations than most people had realized before. Europe is taking major steps in reshaping the basic concept of a modern nation-state. Accountabilities should be further defined on a national and European level. However, we should be realistic and understand that Europe has still a long way to go. In particular Eastern Europe is far from ready to accept the free flow of people or from allowing “Brussels” to take the lead on international issues. On the other hand things have gone rather well so far: Europe has been free of major wars for over 75 years now. Quite an achievement for a region that used to have wars since nation-states have existed.
Some hope ? It is hoped that despite the opposition of many nations more national regulations and laws will be replaced by global regulations and rules. Or at least – for European countries – by legislation on a European level. We should also have some hope that the younger generations, speaking better English and travelling so much more, will understand each other better than older generations. This is the hope for the future and should create a more egalitarian world, which is better for everyone. At this moment particularly large nation-states like China and the US are major stumbling blocks for global cooperation in whatever form. But technological developments are unstoppable, thus also China and the US and some other countries with authoritarian leaders unavoidably will have to change their rules under pressure of their own citizens and companies. So it may well be possible that in 2117 there will be a fluid society in which today’s nation-states are differently defined and functioning. In which European or global entities govern in accordance with global rules and rulings for the benefit of every world citizen.