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A new globalization; borders and the role of the state

When people started talking about globalization in the seventies, there was a kind of messianic view that it would change everything; that globalization would sweep the state away, making it no longer the main actor on the global stage. When I taught international relations thirty years ago, and discussion of globalization was taking off, people were predicting the end of the state. There was this vision of global power like a continuum through history; the state was a temporary phase, existing from 1648 through to the late part of the 20th century – at which point it would be swept away. In its place, multinational companies, terrorist organizations, and international organizations would take over the landscape, and the state would be relegated to a position of much less importance. However, that is not what happened. Because what has actually happened is that globalization has, simultaneously, strengthened some forces in society and weakened others. What this has done is create a resistance to the ideas and practices of globalization, which attempts to buffer against its sweep.

This has created a paradox in the state. Because just as the state is less able, now, to control what happens to it – in particular, to control its borders – its populations are more acutely aware of what is happening, and therefore call on the state to manage particular aspects of society even more. Thus, the paradox: as globalization is seen to sweep the state away, this very perception, in some ways, strengthens the state. People demand a reaction to globalization from the state; to “control our borders,” to “stop these cheap goods coming in,” to “disallow these people to come into our country without the right visas,” to “stop letting terrorism in.” People are looking to the state, and needing it more. And yet the paradox is, just as people are saying “protect us from terrorism,” it’s actually more difficult to do precisely that, because globalization makes it easier for all these international, transnational forces to operate. Therefore the state is at the same time more needed, yet less autonomous, and the result is that globalization transforms the state into one that has to operate under an inherent contradiction.

The contradiction that states have to bear affects, most notably, the public discourse regarding the control of their borders. The subject of borders and control is a critical one in politics today. Populations now want their states to control their borders as much as ever, and elections around the world – particularly in North America, Europe, and Australia – have been fought, won, and lost on this worry about migration. Populations say to their governments, “you are our government; we elect you, so control our borders.” The difficulty is, it is now almost impossible for states to control them in the way they used to. There are two main reasons for this: one, international travel is a lot easier. Governments cannot build walls in an age of relatively easy global travel, whatever some politicians think. A state cannot isolate itself. Governments therefore find it more difficult to physically control their borders. The other issue is that, of course, large parts of the world are involved in arrangements whereby control of borders simply does not operate on a national level anymore. The classic case is the Schengen Area, which allows for free movement.

So what does it mean, in Europe, to control the border? It is not easy, once someone enters the EU, to control where they end up. So governments are being called upon by their publics to control the borders, but it is more difficult than ever for them to do so. Globalization has made that happen.

How does globalization respond to this challenge? Well, I don’t think globalization is reversible. Rather, globalization will change and adapt, almost like a virus. At first, people thought globalization meant that actors other than the state – multinationals, international organizations and so on – would become more and more important. But as globalization has developed, what we see is a much more complex network of interests, like a cobweb. The rich in poor countries have the same interests as the rich in rich countries, but the poor in the poor countries may not have the same interests as the poor in the rich countries. Globalization adapts to this complex interplay of interests as they themselves continually shift. After researching over many years, we’ve observed the way in which it has altered. Now, it is not about the domination of organizations like multinationals; it is about forces that represent certain interests, such as capitalism and international violence, which are working through the state, companies, and other organizations to affect world politics.

With this in mind, I still believe that the future of world politics involves more interdependence and more interconnectedness. But it is not the same as what was originally envisaged. It is not reversible, but that does not mean it stays the same.

Featured image credit: English Defence League march in Newcastle by Gavin Lynn. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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