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Picture: 123RF/ BANNOSUKE
Picture: 123RF/ BANNOSUKE

A combination of factors is dragging the global political economy backwards, back to the early postwar years, reeling in the globalisation we’ve seen since the early 1990s. This is throwing up questions that are leaving some thinkers bewildered and others in a state of mild panic.

Amid all this one wonders about the countries, or the states, we have in the world and how long, for better or for worse, they can be expected to undergird a stable state system.

There are about 195 countries today. But let’s step back 30 years or so. Thirty-four new countries were established after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Eritrea gained independence (from Ethiopia) in 1993, East Timor in 2002 and South Sudan in 2011. These examples are used here simply as an indication of the way new countries have opted into the existing (Westphalian) state system. 

A question that sneaks into my mind is: will we continue to hold on to the current system of states, or will there be a proliferation of nation states in 50 or so years where the state is congruent with “the nation”? Consider that South Sudan broke away from the Arab north, East Timor essentially established itself as a Catholic country, and Russia has claimed that its special military operation is limited to protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population from repression.

Said Russian President Vladimir Putin: “We have been left no other option to protect Russia and our people ... The people’s republics of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help.”

Suddenly, or not so suddenly if you look back over the past 30 years, there has been a proliferation of new independent states (after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), some peeling away from others (East Timor from Indonesia, for instance); irredentist claims (Russia took the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, and now wants to “reclaim” the eastern regions). And do let’s bear in mind places such as Transnistria on the eastern flank of Moldova, which has claimed independence but remains unrecognised.

There are several other examples across the globe. There are separatist movements in Spain (Catalonia), Argentina (Patagonia as a proposed new state) and Colombia (San Andrés y Providencia), the dispute over Taiwan will not go away, and the East Turkestan independence movement also wants to break away from China.

Here we are then. Globalisation, which was always intended to integrate independent countries into a global whole while each state retained its independence, seems to be in retreat. There is a clear danger of global recession, food shortages and famine in parts of the world because of Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people.

Already some food prices have increased up to 60% since the start of the year. At the same time, as we have witnessed over the three decades of globalisation “nations” — groups of people who imagine themselves part of a community — have petitioned for statehood, thereby making the state system more fissiparous.

This brings me to the idea of the state as we have known it since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (which in effect abolished the medieval system of centralised religious authority) and, of course, after the French Revolution (1789), which gave momentum to the shift in the European system from the dynastic territorial states to the nation state as the dominant model.

In this latter incarnation the “nation” (as described above) was not always congruent with the state. A state such as Nigeria has at least 250 ethnic groups. Perhaps more significantly, Russia has about 120 ethnic groups, many of which have claimed their own national territories, with about 100 different languages spoken within Russia's borders.

Should the pace of making the state congruent with “the nation” (South Sudan, East Timor, Russian claims in Ukraine) gather pace, globalisation continues to go into retreat and a global recession starts to bite, can governments of existing countries hold together state and society?

We have a sense that the retreat from globalisation arising from people feeling let down by its promises of prosperity, has resulted in a return to subnational groups (language groups, tribes, ethnic groups), which has sparked searches for exclusivity and “purity”, with insider/outsider populism gaining momentum.

And so, in the current state of the global political economy we get to what IMF head Kristalina Georgieva described as “the most destructive forms of fragmentation” in the world today.

It makes you wonder whether the state as we have come to know and accept it — for the most part a secular, republican entity that is home to several ethnic, racial, language or racial groups (with a few notable exceptions), with open societies and political economic activity that is functionally integrated into a whole (and workers of the world uniting) — will remain intact over the coming decades. I guess it’s too soon to say.

• Lagardien, an external examiner at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.

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