The lack of alternatives to the state as the building block of international order is distorting politics, complicating policy cooperation and aggravating extremism.

Remarkably, as national governments find their policy options increasingly limited by the external forces of globalization, ‘demand’ for statehood appears robust. From separatist movements in the West to ongoing civil wars, the prize is almost always control of a state, whether asserting authority over an existing entity or creating a new one. The reason why is clear: even diminished, the sovereign state has no ready competitor as a generator of political legitimacy for a group or regime, and of the power that accompanies it. The problem is, in many cases, this pursuit of statehood causes or aggravates existing political problems. While states are not going away any time soon, there is a need to think creatively about new models of political organization.

The modern state has been around since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. For most of that time, it has coexisted with other forms of political organization, including feudal and imperial systems. It was only really in the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars that states gained the currency they have today across the world as the primary and ultimate form of political authority. The modern state system compares favourably with the imperial one it replaced, but it has also made it difficult for different and overlapping structures to take hold.

Today, there is simply no alternative model. For instance, the European Union has often been lauded as a new model of political relations, but its member states retain many of their key sovereign prerogatives, and the Union itself has made its most dramatic strides by aping the trappings of statehood, often to its detriment. The contradictions of the common currency – which was always known to be, at least in part, a political project – now threaten the stability of the entire edifice.

This primacy of the state can make less radical political solutions seem untenable. Separatist movements throughout the West, though couched in nationalism, are often driven by dissatisfaction with political outcomes. For a group that feels it is not getting what it wants out of politics, statehood can seem like the only option. In last year’s Scottish referendum, some of the most popular reasons ‘yes’ voters cited for wanting to separate from the United Kingdom included dissatisfaction with Westminster politics, the National Health Service, tax and public spending. Implicit in this was the idea that it was near-impossible to change or affect these things without the power of statehood.

Such insistence on sovereign power also leads to more alarming and absurd trends. Even as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is violently erasing the colonial-era border between Iraq and Syria, there has been no serious discussion of the possible political shape of the region if ISIS forces are defeated, though it is growing ever more obvious that reconstituting Syria or Iraq as the states that they resembled before their civil wars is unlikely. Meanwhile, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has manoeuvred to create a new sub-state system in eastern Ukraine in a shape that benefits him. The international community’s failure to consider different types of political organization that could peacefully be integrated into the global order, combined with the unsatisfying status quo, means that the terms of the argument are ceded to extremists and challengers.

Instead, reform of the international system could better incorporate varying levels of political entities and representation. Though some supranational bodies are now invited to participate in major international groupings, in very few are they members in their own right, and always heavily outweighed by state representatives. One of the problems for the EU in claiming its own explicit legitimacy alongside its member states in international forums such as the G20 is the lack of a distinct ‘European polity’. This is even more problematic for international organizations and other actors that have no ‘citizens’.

Other sub-national entities, such as cities or regional governments in federal states, are rarely represented at all except through their national governments. This could change if, as seems possible, central governments are forced to cede more power to cities and regions. Among other factors, the difficulty of managing increasingly complex policy dossiers for better-informed and more engaged citizens could encourage such decentralization.

However, even if states change the balance of political power within their borders, it will still be very difficult to replace sovereign state governments as the prime players in world affairs in the near future. Major powers such as China and the United States will jealously guard their sovereignty and seek to check any efforts by sub-state actors to acquire rights to international rule-making.

For their part, non-governmental organizations, which are increasingly present at the fringes of major international negotiations, such as over climate change or the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals, find that their influence is undercut by the fact that they do not command the explicit loyalty of their own constituencies, with the added complexity of identifying where those constituencies are.

Despite these many obstacles, one of the few ideas on which there is a growing global consensus is that the international system needs to reform so as to become more representative of the people it is meant to protect and support. Openness to a world order beyond the current state-dominated system could help correct some of the imbalances in outdated post-Second World War institutions, without having to take on in each case the actual balance of state-to-state power. A more open world order might help alleviate the political gridlock and atrophy that risk delegitimizing both the international system itself and the governments that cling to its state-led approach.