The Changing Role of the Nation-State

Looking at the bigger picture, the U.S. has its troubles. But the U.S. also has many unique economic, cultural and historical strengths — if the national leadership can keep its eye on the ball. Thing is, we’re in for some tough innings.

The world is experiencing what some commentators call “the rise of the rest.” Growth in China, India, Brazil and smaller actors is creating a world where many other countries are moving up to America’s level of economic clout and self-assertion. No other one nation can challenge the U.S. at every level. But many nations can, and do, challenge the U.S. at one level or another.

A key development is that the very role of nation-states is becoming less defined. Non-state actors are wielding more and more clout. Examples include Al Qaeda in terms of a military and terrorist challenge, displaying the sharp edge of militant Islam. Or there are the Mexican narco-gangs that are engaged in a quiet civil war within Mexico.

On the more benign side, there are non-government organizations (NGOs) such as those that are driving much of the world environmental movement. Indeed, near 25,000 NGO representatives were registered at the recent Copenhagen climate summit talks.

In a recent book entitled Superclass, author David Rothkopf argues that the influence of nation-states is waning on many of the most critical issues of our time. Rothkopf argues that the traditional systems for addressing global issues among nation-states are more ineffective than ever. Thus there’s an emerging power void.

This power void is being filled by a small group of players, which Rothkopf refers to as “the superclass” — a new global elite who are much better suited to operating on the global stage and influencing global outcomes than the vast majority of national political leaders.

It makes for a two edged sword. Some of these new elite are from business and finance, and are subject to traditional forms of influence and suasion, not to mention the rule of law. “Some,” writes Rothkopf, “are masters of new or traditional media, some are religious leaders, and a few are top officials of those governments that do have the ability to project their influence globally.”

Others of the superclass, according to Rothkopf, are members of “a kind of shadow elite — criminals and terrorists.”

In both leadership and accountability, there’s quite a difference between what we’re dealing with in the developed world versus the developing world.

Nation-states in the developing world are having an increasingly hard time fulfilling the expectations of their citizens. Thus more and more, and the international system is undergoing an almost lawless evolution.

We see examples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where small fiefdoms and powerful warlords rule much of the day. Or we see it in the broken system of governance in Nigeria, where armed rebels are wreaking havoc on oil production. Or close to home, we have to wonder how things will play out down in Mexico.

This crisis of instability and lack of control is compounded by the absence of a global strategy to combat the asymmetric threats that the U.S. and other major players face. It’s going to make for many more interesting developments — and investment opportunities — as we turn the page on the calendar and enter the new year.

Until we meet again,
Byron W. King

January 8, 2010