Globalisation: New Challenges for World Politics

The phenomenon of globalisation has sparked debate in recent years that a 'new world order' is upon us; that the world – its nation-states, citizens, economies, cultures, and political systems, among many others – are under pressure to 'evolve' or perish (Evans and Mooney, 2007; Keohane, 2002; Waters, 2001). Some fears are likely justified; others are perhaps exaggerated. Further, the character, qualities, and elements of 'globalisation' itself continue to be highly contested among scholars from a wide variety of disciplines (Munck, 2006; Prakash and Hart, 1999; Drezner, 2008; Held, 2004; Martens, Gaston and Dreher, 2008).

Some of those observing the rapid and often dramatic changes in social, economic, and political arenas have concluded that "...both the world arena and the study of world politics have been transformed." (Little and Smith, 2005:135). If true, the transformative processes we have been witnessing in recent years may suggest that our methods and abilities for observing and characterizing world politics are no longer useful as tools to make sense of this 'new world order'(Jaguaribe and Vasconcelos, 2003). Such concerns give rise to a question that is fundamental to the study of world politics in the future: "Has globalisation changed the basic character of world politics?"

While limitations of time and space here preclude us from considering a comprehensive definition of 'globalisation' or from discussing all the elements contributing to its existence and multivariate effects, this paper more modestly seeks to respond to the above question. By concentrating on the transforming challenges to nation-states, economic trade and interdependence, and the environment, the paper expects to conclude that while the basic character of world politics may not have yet been changed by globalisation in the present, the increasing effects of globalisation certainly do pose challenges for this and other disciplines in the near future.

Nation-States:

Nation-states, understood as the fundamental units of analysis in world politics for many years, have more recently been challenged by assertions that they ought not to be conceptualized as discrete 'players' in world affairs,  but rather more porous and dependant entities which no longer act autonomously. Increasingly, arguments are forwarded that a focus on the nation-state itself is no longer useful or informative as a way of understanding politics on a global scale (Held, 2004; Brennan, T 2002; Patomaki, 2001; Crawford, 2002). Much recent literature has focused on what is perceived to be a decline in sovereignty of nation-states; owing to a significant increase in international interdependence, multinational governing bodies, and human and environmental migrations which, combined with a multitude of other factors, reduce nation-states' autonomy in domestic affairs. (Lemert and Elliot, 2005; Hoffmann and Ba, 2005; Najam et al., 2007).

The sovereignty (i.e. the ability of individual nation-states to act autonomously in domestic affairs and assert themselves unilaterally in international affairs) of nation-states is eroded by globalisation, it is argued, due to the increasing interdependence between state actors on a global scale. The argument continues that this interdependence weakens the sovereignty of nation-states since international and particularly domestic policy decisions, can no longer be made without the consent and cooperation of other state or supra-state actors (Muppidi, 2004; Drori, Meyer, and Hwang, 2007). The necessity to consider other states, international agreements, and the influence of multinational institutions can often limit the domestic policy options of national and sub-national governments; thereby reducing the sovereignty policy- makers once more fully enjoyed.    

Some of those critical to the continued focus on 'the state' as an independent, autonomous actor whose actions and interplay with other states shape and define world politics have suggested students of global politics consider the increasing relevance of multinational organizations as the key 'players' in the world today (Hoffmann and Ba, 2005; Laidi, 1998; Crawford, 2002). Some of these institutions and organizations would include the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union, the International Court of Justice, and the various and sundry economic programmes and agreements that are administered internationally (Muppidi, 2004;  Nye, 2004; Higgott, Underhill, and Bieler, 1999). All of these institutions and organizations, among many more, have the ability to influence the actions and policies of individual states and, in some cases, prevent certain public policies from being enacted or administered.

As the numbers of new trade agreements, treaties, and multinational conferences rise, so too does speculation that the individual nation-state has lost much of its power to singularly influence world politics or act autonomously and rather, is subject to the necessity of acting in compliance to and conformance with international partnerships (Keohane, 2002; Lentner, 2004; Held, 2004). Such arguments increase support for the notion that the nation-state is being supplanted by multi-level governance and international institutions. These views lead some to conclude that the nation-state will eventually become extinct; supplanted by multinational or even global governance (Keohane, 2002; Held, 2004).

However, others are less convinced that the nation-state is becoming unimportant or even obsolete. They remind us that it is still nation-states that forge alliances and agreements and that such relations are rarely, if ever, imposed from above by some international institution or organization (Rupert, 2000; Holden, 1999;  Little and Smith, 2005). Nation-states, they argue, are still relatively sovereign in their ability to create and implement domestic policies while advancing their influence internationally through various exchanges and alliances.  Moreover, they argue, the international agreements to which states become signatories are ones that they have carefully negotiated and view as net benefits for themselves. Similarly, the international organizations to which states belong have been voluntarily joined and in which they can assert influence in international affairs are generally viewed as beneficial to the states' interests.

On the whole, it appears that individual nation-states are still useful entities of focus for students of world politics. They continue to be dominant actors on the global stage while maintaining relative sovereignty within their political borders. Never the less, those who study and observe world politics into the twenty-first century would be well-advised to note the increasing interdependence of nations-states to one another and to global institutions.      

Economic Trade and Interdependence:

A related but further 'threat' to understanding world politics in terms of sovereign nation-states acting relatively autonomously is the rapidly increasing phenomenon of economic trade and interdependence between countries globally. Within the past two decades, a plethora of new trade agreements and various economic associations have been formed internationally between a large number of nation-states (Cameron and Zinn, 2006; Mittelman, 2000; Lachapelle and Paquin, 2005). These new economic relationships have often been experienced both as new ways of increasing economic prosperity and decreasing economic flexibility at home. As states agree to join these new economic associations, they increase their potential to 'tap into new markets' and increase trade; but they can also find that they are bound by certain restrictions within these agreements. GATT, NAFTA, European Union Monetary Policy, and even the most recent agreement, the PTT, to name but a few, all advance in various ways the amount and types of trade between nation-states and simultaneously restrict or eliminate such things as tariffs and domestic environmental policies (Brysk, 2002; Reitan, 2006; Kahler and Walter 2006).

State and business leaders commonly refer to the 'pressure' or 'need' to join ever-expanding and deepening international trade agreements in order to 'remain competitive' in global markets (Acocella, 2005). However, new trade and economic agreements can often cost jobs, economic security, and environmental degradation within the signatory countries (Labonte, et al, 2005; Brennan, 2002). For some, the inability of state leaders to protect domestic social, economic, and environmental concerns after entering international economic agreements is an indication that such arrangements erode sovereignty and threaten individuals and groups within the nation-state (Weiss, 2003). Conversely, those who are 'pro-trade' and value such agreements and treaties counter that domestic markets and economies tend to prosper from trade deals with other states through increased demand for products and services.

The Environment:

While globalisation is often understood to refer to the increased interconnectedness of nation-states and regions globally, and to the expansion of trade and markets throughout the world, a broader definition might also consider the existence and impact of environmental effects due – directly or indirectly – to the growth of neo-liberal economic activities in the world (Najam et al, 2007). Environmental scientists and activist groups have been warning global populations for a generation of the effects of large-scale, industrial operations and trade (Brennan, 2002; Drori, Meyer, and Hwang, 2007;  Lemert and Elliot, 2005;  Reitan, 2006). The consequences of such environmentally detrimental activities, they argue, may even threaten the continued existence of human and other life on the planet in the decades and centuries to come (Labonte, 2003; Mazlish,  2006).

Perhaps most alarming of all is the growing volume of evidence that environmental destruction and pollution is not limited to areas of heavy industrialization or large-scale commercial operations alone. Increasingly, scientists and others are observing how deforestation, toxic waste, air and water pollution, as well as human and animal transmitted diseases are impervious to the political boundaries of nation-states (Martens, Gaston, and Dreher, 2008; Munck, 2006; Rosenau, 2005). How does a consideration of the environmental impacts of globalised activities bear upon the question of whether or not globalisation has changed the basic character of world politics? Perhaps it is simply this: The future (and perhaps present) study of world politics will need to consider a more complex and elusive set of variables and elements than previously. The changing environment and its consequences for the health of the planet are highly likely to also impact not only how world politics is practiced in the future, but how it must be studied and understood (Meckling, 2001). Given the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming, habitat destruction, environmental degradation, and loss of species, a wide variety of hazardous variables could foreseeably alter politics throughout the world in the near future. Taking account of these variables may be essential to understanding how nation-states manage (or not) the new challenges posed by environmental changes. 

Conclusions:

By most accounts, it seems clear that globalisation – understood here as a sharp upshift in a wide variety of global interactions between nation-states, various institutions and organizations – is having an impact upon both how world politics will need to be studied and understood as well as how its primary unit, the nation-state, may be forced to 'evolve' or perish due to the transforming pressures of globalisation itself (Whitman, 2005). In brief, the answer to the question of whether globalisation will change the basic character of world politics, is a tentative "No" – for now. However, there appears to be little question that world politics will be severely challenged in the years ahead. It will be confronted by the need to observe and explain the complexities of globalisation and their impact on the nation-state itself as well as a need, perhaps, to reconsider this fundamental unit of analysis in light of an increasing propensity towards 'global governance' and 'cosmopolitanism' (Held, 2004). 

The modern nation-state has served the purpose of representing and asserting the interests of national groups for centuries. In this capacity, nation-states have created international and even global institutions and organizations in order, in part, to develop avenues of trade, mutual cooperation, and even international laws. In the twentieth century, the League of Nations and the United Nations were formed as vehicles for international negotiation and cooperative efforts towards security and economic trade (Cameron et al, 2006; Drezner, 2008). More recently, some observers have viewed such institutions as the genesis of a new global governance system which may make nation-states unnecessary or even obsolete. If these prediction are realized, world politics will require a reassessment of its methods and focus in order to more fully comprehend the new multivariate global realities.

While, at present, it seems unlikely that globalisation has changed the basic character of world politics, those critical of a state-centered approach to understanding politics on a global scale are making strong arguments in support of taking a much broader approach to the subject. It seems clear that a variety of factors present in the contemporary political world are now at play, and challenge students of world politics to consider their effects. As globalisation continues to develop and evolve, so too must world political studies. We ignore these challenges at our peril. 

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