2016 and the return of the nation-state

21 december 2016

Helen Thompson  - Honorary Research Fellow, SPERI, Professor in Political Economy, University of Cambridge

Whilst the turbulence of this year has caused political shocks the apparent resurgence of the nation-state should be no surprise

Much of the political rhetoric that has been deployed during this period of political turbulence can make 2016 appear as the year the nation-state returned.  Yet for all the shock value associated with the year’s political events this apparent resurgence of the nation-state should not surprise us since underneath the surface nation-states never went away.  Even as politicians on the left and right frequently talked as if time had rendered the nation-state redundant, the nation-state always remained the decisive site of political agency in the West because it is the one place that joins together legal authority, coercive power, and a political method for determining who commands that political apparatus.  What has happened in western politics this year is not a function of the failure of alternatives to the nation-state, but of the inability of individual nation-states to uphold their positions in the international and European orders in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

In the US President-elect Trump is a product of the calamitous failures over the past decade of US policy in the Middle East and the economic difficulties for the US created by China’s rise.  Trump could successfully assert that the American nation-state should refocus on advancing the interests of American citizens because for the last decade the American government has proved unable to shape significant parts of the rest of the world to its will, and the failures of its attempt to exercise power in the Middle East has directly led to the strengthening of groups who are enemies of the US.  Moreover, the failed wars in the Middle East have cost the US state billions of dollars whilst the US’s domestic infrastructure meanwhile crumbled from neglect.  The US is now a declining power.  Leaving Trump’s personality aside, it is not historically surprising that when the whole foreign policy-making establishment that had presided over this imperial overshoot lined up behind a candidate who wished the US to continue abroad as if nothing had changed, enough voters chose a political neophyte who repeatedly pointed out that the US could no longer afford to play unsuccessfully at being the world’s policeman.

In the case of Britain, the terms of the state’s EU membership deteriorated from 2010.  Starting with the Maastricht treaty, British governments had over several decades procured a succession of opt-outs from EU policy structures.  However, from the onset of the euro zone crisis they were unable to secure any further singular arrangements.  As a non-member of the euro, Britain simply became irrelevant to the most fundamentally pressing questions at stake within the EU.  Consequently, when David Cameron sought to protect the City of London’s position in December 2011 by wielding a veto on what became the Fiscal Stability Pact he ultimately achieved nothing.  Even more significantly, when he tried to persuade Angela Merkel to give ground on freedom of movement as part of his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership he came away with scraps.  Having assumed the German government would not risk Britain’s exit from the EU, Cameron succeeded only in demonstrating in emphatic fashion just how weak Britain’s position was in a union in which Britain lacked common policy interests with other states at just the moment he was asking for democratic support for staying in that union.  Again, it is not really surprising that, whatever the immediate economic risks, a majority of British voters chose instead to reclaim authority for the British nation-state.

Photo by K8 on Unsplash

For its part the French nation-state too has lost political influence.  Within the EU the euro zone crisis has exposed the structural weaknesses of the French economy that have increasingly displaced France from the core of the euro zone around Germany.  Certainly in the early stages of the crisis French and German banks had sufficiently shared exposure to the euro zone periphery to maintain the Franco-German axis over the terms of bailouts.  Since 2012, however, the French government has shaped little of the EU’s response to the euro zone crisis or indeed on other matters.  When the German government decided to end the Dublin convention during the refugee and migrant crisis of summer 2015 it did so unilaterally.  Whilst President Hollande later staged a joint appearance with Angela Merkel at the European Parliament their shared language could not disguise the fact that Hollande was lending rhetorical support to a German-driven policy that his government did not in terms of practical measures actually support.  Meanwhile the French position on Russia – a country which in the past French governments have been generally unwilling to confront at times of severe tension between Washington and Moscow – has moved since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis much closer to that of the US and Germany, leading Hollande to cancel the sale of warships to Russia against considerable domestic opposition.  In this context we again should not be surprised that the French presidential election in 2017 will most probably be contested by two candidates who want to reassert the national independence of France whether in regard to foreign policy or the euro and EU membership.

By contrast, the influence of the German nation-state within the European order has grown over the past decade.  The euro zone crisis has established Germany as the decisive EU state because the policy remedies that have been applied have required German money and German acquiescence through the German Constitutional Court.  Certainly these remedies have entailed substantial compromises with long-standing German monetary preferences and the disquiet these concessions generated has fuelled the rise of Alternative für Deutschland.  Yet the accommodation of a European Central Bank that supports government debt has also allowed the German government to manage its own banking crisis without a second round of bailouts.  In this sense it is unsurprising that Germany remains the one western country where the prospects of a government coming to power that will upend the state’s position in the present international economic and political order remain slight.

Whether any of a Trump presidency, Brexit, or a more sovereignty-focused French President will yield any of their supporters’ hopes remain to be seen.  The external weaknesses that led, or is likely to lead, to each of them will certainly continue to constrain the policy options available.  But the very nature of nation-states that have to derive their power from the consent of the people means that we cannot expect democratic political stability when the position of nation-states in existing external orders break down.

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