The Comeback

The world’s political landscape in 2030 will look considerably different to the present one. Nation states will remain the central players. There will be no single hegemonic force but instead a handful of countries – the US, Russia, China, Germany, India, and Japan chief among them – exhibiting semi-imperial tendencies. Power will be more widely distributed across non-state networks, including regressive ones. And vast conurbations of mega-cities and their peripheries will exert ever greater influence. The post-war order that held since the middle of the 20th century is coming unstuck. Expect uncertainty and instability ahead.

Nation states are making a comeback. The largest ones are busily expanding their global reach even as they shore-up their territorial and digital borders. As the onslaught of reactionary politics around the world amply shows, there are no guarantees that these vast territorial dominions and their satellites will become more liberal or democratic. Instead, relentless climate change, migration, terrorism, inequality, and rapid technological change are going to ratchet up anxiety, insecurity, and, as is already painfully apparent, populism and authoritarianism. While showing cracks, the four-century reign of the nation state will endure for some decades more.

The End of The End of History

Rumors of the nation state’s death were greatly exaggerated. The end of history, famously predicted by Francis Fukayama, has not arrived and liberal democracy is not on the ascendant.

Far from experiencing a decline in hard power, larger nation states are steadily shoring up their military capabilities. The top 10 spenders in 2015 included the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, and Germany. Some of these countries – along with major purchasers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – are clearly preparing for confrontations in the coming decade. They are not alone. Global defense expenditures have increased steadily since the late 1990s, topping $1.6 trillion last year. These trends are set to continue into the next decade.

These same nation states will continue dominating economically. Countries such as the US, China, Japan, Germany, India, and, to a lesser extent, Russia registered among the largest GDPs in 2015. These countries are also likely to remain the top performers in 2030, alongside Brazil (if it gets its house in order), Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Indonesia, and others.

Nation states are clearly not the only forms of political and economic organization. They are already ceding sovereignty to alternate configurations of governance, power, and influence. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is hastening this shift.

Vast metropolitan regions are increasingly rivaling nation states in political and economic clout. Take the case of Mexico City, which fields roughly 100,000 police – a larger force than the national law enforcement departments of 115 countries. Or consider New York’s annual budget of $82 billion, bigger than the national budgets of 160 countries. Meanwhile, the populations of mega-cities like Seoul and Tokyo are larger than those of most nation states. Many cities are rapidly forging cross-border partnerships and integrating transportation, telecommunications, and energy-related infrastructure. And citizens are expressing novel forms of belonging – or city-ness – spanning the digital and physical realms and challenging traditional notions of national identity.

Four threats to the nation state

Most nation states will endure in the coming decades. There are, however, a number of ways in which they will come under strain.

First, the redistribution of power among a handful of nation states is profoundly disrupting the global order. Established 20th century powers such as the US and EU are ceding importance and influence to faster-growing China and India. Old alliances forged after the Second World War are giving way to new regional coalitions across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. While these reconfigurations reflect regional political, economic, and demographic shifts, they also increase the risk of volatility, including war.

Second, the de-concentration of power away from nation states is giving rise to parallel layers of governance. Indeed, nation states themselves are busily establishing legal and physical enclaves to contract out core functions to private entities. There are already more than 4,000 registered special economic zones – ranging from free trade and export processing zones to free ports and innovation parks – spread out around the world. These para-states deliberately fuse public and private interests and test the purchase of state sovereignty.

Third, nation states and para-states will come under pressure from decentralized networks of non-state actors and coalitions, many of them enabled by information communications technologies. Large multinational companies are already heavily involved in shaping national policy. So are constellations of non-governmental organizations, unions, faith-based groups, and others. Working constructively with, rather than against, these digitally empowered networks will be one of the key tests for nation states. The spread of new technologies offers up new ways of imagining deliberative democracy – but also tearing it down.

Fourth, nation states are seeing power devolved to cities. The relentless pace of urbanization is partly to blame. The number of large and medium-sized cities has increased tenfold since the 1950s. Today, there are 29 megacities with 10 million residents or more. And there are another 163 cities with more than three million people and at least 538 with at last one million inhabitants. Cities are no longer just norm-takers, they are norm-makers. A new generation of mayors and literally hundreds of city coalitions is emerging, busily ensuring that our urban future is embedded in international relations. Not surprisingly, the geography of power is also shifting with cities increasingly competing with each other and nation states, including over water, food, and energy.

There are myriad challenges facing nation states in the coming decade and a half. Having survived 368 years, they have proven to be remarkably resilient modes of political, social, and bureaucratic organization. But given the scale and severity of global challenges – and the paralysis of our national and multilateral institutions – there are dangers that nation states are becoming anachronistic and hostile to humanity’s collective survival.

The potential for the world’s most powerful nation states to be held hostage to nativist and protectionist interests are more obvious than ever. On the other hand, cities and civil society networks constitute powerful political and economic nodes of power and influence. The question is whether they will be any better at channeling collective action to address tomorrow’s threats.

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