Cosmopolitanism and the evolution of the Nation State

A review of “Sail on, o Ship of State”

"Sail on, o ship of state", Eds. J. Möhring and G. Prins, Notting Hill Editions, 2013

“Sail on, o ship of state”, Eds. J. Möhring and G. Prins, Notting Hill Editions, 2013

Sail on, o Ship of State is a compilation of short essays about the nation-state – its past, present, and future. Written by 13 experts and topped with a preface by Michael Gove it represents, as a whole, a strong defence of the nation-state in the face of globalisation.

The book gets its pro-nation-state slant from the majority of contributions which come from ardent believers in national independence and autonomy; a school of thought known in International Relations circles as “Realism”. The contrary view, that of the Liberal (and the Cosmopolitan) traditions is comparatively under-represented. This makes for a somewhat lop-sided view of the nation-state in the 21st century.

For Realism, globalisation poses a dilemma because it brings nations ever-closer together. As firm believers in independent, competing nation-states, Realists see any further evolution towards the global as suspicious because it implies cooperation and what they see as a lessening of national independence and autonomy. Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, believe that in our increasingly interconnected world, in which we face common threats like climate change, forms of global cooperation and governance are both desirable and necessary.

Being skewed towards the Realist view, the book risks misrepresenting the position of many Cosmopolitans by suggesting they believe nation-states will (or should) disappear. Right on the front cover, the book declares that “The nation state has refused to shuffle off the stage of history”. But is that really what Cosmopolitans are suggesting?

Who, one wonders, would advocate such a ridiculous thing? No sensible Cosmopolitan would even see the disappearance of nation-states as desirable, let alone feasible. Indeed, many Cosmopolitans see nation-states as the necessary building blocks upon which global cooperation needs to be constructed. In seeing nation-states and global cooperation as allies, they encompass the vital phenomenon of paradox in their thinking. Far from greater international cooperation diminishing national autonomy (as Realists suppose), Cosmopolitans see cooperation as a way of enhancing it.

Of the 13 essayists, only one―Dr. Garrett W. Brown of Sheffield University―defends the Cosmopolitan position. Brown does a great job of explaining the paradox to his Realist critics.

He points out, following Dworkin,

“if the idea of consent, in some form, to the rule of law makes sense, if we can legitimately think of the sanctions as being self-imposed, then autonomy has not been impaired.”

In other words, just as within a nation-state our consent to cooperate with the law affords us the maximum freedom consistent with our fellow citizens, so too can be the case if states cooperate internationally. Putting it simply, cooperation can mean more autonomy, not less. This is nothing more than common sense; the realisation that the flip-side of unfettered autonomy for all, is the tyranny of the few over the many.

We may suppose that Realists will be unlikely to heed Cosmopolitans like Prof. Brown. But Cosmopolitans have the force of evolution on their side. That is, the timeless cycles of competition and cooperation that have driven – and will continue to drive – human societies towards ever-larger scales of cooperation. It is this dynamic that has caused us to move from families to tribes to larger Middle-Age small-states to today’s still-larger nation-states. Who are we to suppose that this evolution towards ever-larger scales of societal cooperation will suddenly stop there?

Just as nation-states evolved to cooperatively govern the counties or sub-states they now consist of, why should some form of global cooperation not come to cooperatively govern the nation-states that it, too, would consist of? Done right, global cooperation would actually enhance each nation’s autonomy. Not to put too finer point on it, it would, for example, enable them to deal with the many global problems they manifestly cannot deal with today – from solving climate change to re-regulating financial markets. Cosmopolitans, then, are just as interested in autonomy as their Realist counterparts. But they see that, to achieve it, cooperation can be in our self-interest.

One comment

  1. Garrett Brown

    The modern conception of autonomy suggests that to be autonomous an entity should have the opportunity to be a self-law giver in relation to others. This is strongly part of Kant’s metaphysics, but it is also the basis of all democratic theory. So the question arises. If states are truly representatives of their people, and if states exist within an international legal framework (which grants them sovereignty, by the way), and if globalisation has altered the ability of the state to represent the interests of people effectively in light of global collective action problems, and if the meaning of autonomy requires opportunities for self-law giving in relation to others, then logic suggests that something more in the way of global governance is required. As was rightly pointed out here, this does not mean that states are irrelevant. Indeed, the opposite is true. States are valuable associations for collective action, yet, that action must also be reconciled and coordinated with the actions of other states. This, it seems to me, requires thinking beyond the status-quo in order to allow state autonomy to actually have some meaning. It also means that we need to think more cleverly about the idea of responsible cosmopolitan states. I am pleased that this chapter was picked out among the sea of national perspectives contained within this book. For it is important to remember that something came before the state and that it is fairly certain that something will come after the state (or that the state will be something much different than what it is now). So, perhaps it’s time for us to be a bit less defensive about change, and a bit more creative with our thinking about how states and cosmopolitan governance can be mutually co-constituting.


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