Sovereign states are facing increasing competition from supranational and sub-state actors and networks. The forces of globalization, from increasing digital connectivity to changing patterns of migration, are testing national governments even further. Can states prevent fragmentation, or should they focus on improving policy-making in a fragmenting world? 


Video highlight

‘I don’t see the world so much as fragmented as networked.’  

Dr Shashi Tharoor , MP for Thiruvananthapuram, India and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs; Minister of State for Human Resource Development (2012—14); Minister of State for External Affairs (2009—10)

‘Migration policies are always about [migrants] never with them.’

François Crépeau, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, United Nations

Key discussion points

There is a disjunction between supply and demand for governance. At both the state level and in the international system, public expectations of institutions have gone up while the policy levers available have gone down. This has contributed to dissatisfaction and disillusionment with politics.

Like in 1914, there is now a sense of complacency in the West. Wars have mostly been fought elsewhere and people have forgotten the key drivers in establishing the United Nations and European Union, and why these were broadly supported at the time. People are thus quick to criticize the UN systems despite the success they have had in providing a stable system through which states can operate peacefully. Despite the criticism, there is a sense that the system can be pushed to the edge and still be quite safe.

Globalized trade does not make war impossible. Indeed, resistance to globalization can help foster small nationalisms, as it did before 1914. As people see the world transform around them, they can cling to smaller and smaller indicators of identity. And to dismiss war as economically irrational discounts the many misjudgements and emotional cases that have often triggered war.

Globalization has created a new superpower: public opinion. As issues of public concern become globalized, governments may need new mandates that go beyond working for their own constituents and territory but have an ethical element similar to corporate social responsibility.

Public opinion can be used for good or ill: International action is often constrained by dysfunctional national politics. While there is progress being made on issues like migration in international forums, internal populist discourse based on myths about migrants constrains national debates and makes democratic governments resistant to holding multi-lateral discussions and creating agreements which see migration in a positive light.

Specifically, the conversation on migration must change. There is an acceptance of discrimination against migrants within Europe and the West, and that policies can be designed without migrant representation. Governments and citizens need to re-examine the moral dimension of migration and have a conversation about human rights and the responsibilities owed to migrants.

Global politics may be networking rather than fragmenting. Though many rising and established powers are still concerned about state sovereignty, this does not preclude cooperation. Countries like India that have gained sovereignty only relatively recently are understandably protective of it, but can also participate in many different coalitions of states to deal with different issues. (For instance, India moves between the G77, BRICS, BASIC [Brazil, South Africa, India, China], IBSA [India, Brazil, South Africa], etc.)  More concerning would be states that, rather than trying to leverage their sovereignty within the established groupings and systems, try to work outside of it.

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