The Stubborn Nation-State

Nation-states won’t yield to global solutions, but they can still ignite world wars.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The American southwest is on the brink of a climate change-driven megadrought at a scale not seen for a thousand years, with more devastating wildfires to come. Ever stronger and more severe hurricanes blast through Central America, pulverizing whole communities and sending refugees fleeing north to the overwhelmed U.S. frontier. Thousands of cremation pyres burning from New Delhi to Varanasi, like an apocalyptic scene right out of Dante’s circles of hell, are harbingers of fast-moving COVID mutations bound to spread beyond India’s borders.

It is abundantly clear that such global problems require global solutions. But the stubborn nation-state just won’t let in. It is even a stretch these days to get resistant constituencies within the nation-state to wear masks and get vaccinated, no less curb their fossil-fueled consumption. Governing authority is already so diminished inside the long-established sovereign confines of democratic nations that it is nearly impossible to imagine how power can ever be legitimately delegated to a supranational level to address the mounting planetary challenges ahead. 

That is the conundrum discussed in Noema with political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “I just don’t see a practical and legitimate means for delegating decision-making power to some kind of a planetary body that stands over the nation-state,” says the noted author of “The Origins of Political Order.” “The question is: Who controls actual power? Even if in theory you could design such a supranational body, as long as nation-states control the ultimate means of coercion, how is the supranational power going to get its will enforced when it doesn’t have independent power on its own?”

One thing that could change, Fukuyama acknowledges, “is people’s perception of the urgency of some of these threats. That hasn’t happened yet in either the case of climate change or pandemics. The problem with climate change,” he observes, “is that, politically, it’s exactly the wrong kind of threat. Mitigating the threat requires a lot of payment upfront. Oftentimes, you will not feel the benefits. They’ll be felt by somebody in another jurisdiction or by somebody who is not yet alive and voting. There’s little incentive to move in that direction.”

What’s clear is that while nation-states are not yet ready to yield to global solutions, their us-versus-them sense of collective identity is still powerful enough to ignite world wars. “If anything,” says Fukuyama, “those narratives have become a little too powerful, with nationalism again on the rise.” And, as French President Francois Mitterrand once put it when making the case for an integrated Europe that could tame sovereign rivalries in the wake of the horrors of World War II, “nationalism means war.”

This is what worries Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), a former supreme commander of NATO. In an interview this week in Noema, we discuss his new novel with Elliot Ackerman, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” This fictional account, which reviewers have described as “chillingly authentic” and “brutally plausible,” imagines cyber and naval battles between the U.S. and China over Taiwan that escalate into a nuclear exchange. 

Stavridis’ concern is that the U.S. and Taiwan at present have only a “slight” military edge against China, which is on track in the next decade to surpass America in cyber capabilities that can blind satellites, disable avionics and cloak the movements of its own fleet. He agrees with former leaders of Australia and the just-retired commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command that President Xi Jinping seems intent on taking Taiwan by force as the capstone of his drive to “rejuvenate” and reunite the Chinese nation once humiliated by Western subjugation.

To avoid inviting such a move short of war, Stavridis argues “we should bluntly communicate to China that an armed invasion is unacceptable” and make Taiwan a “harder target” through a buildup of its defenses. “Think of Taiwan as a porcupine — it won’t defeat the dragon of China, but it could be very hard to digest,” he says. “That might create real deterrence.”  

Stavridis’s hope is that fictional literature can help avert a disastrous reality in the making. “Part of why we wrote ‘2034’ was to provide a cautionary tale that ought to inspire us to take steps to avoid sleepwalking into war as the Europeans did in 1914. The purpose of ‘2034’ is to show how miscalculation — a faulty understanding of controlling the ladder of escalation and an inability to understand what the other side aims to accomplish — could lead the U.S. and China into a war that would be, to say the least, in neither side’s interest.”

In the end, as Stavridis sees it, we need to go beyond waking up and proactively collaborate with adversaries where interests converge to avoid the new all-out Cold War that is heating up. “My approach to both China and Russia is pretty simple: confront where we must — interference in our elections, human rights violations, claims of ownership of the South China Sea, threats to Taiwan — but cooperate wherever we can. That can include climate but also cooperation in preparation for the next pandemic, humanitarian operations, arms control and at least discussions about creating a deterrent regime in cyberspace.” 

Given the stakes, even Fukuyama admits we must remain open to the possibility and even likelihood that rival nation-states must not only cooperate in the ways Stavridis suggests, but ultimately cede some sovereignty to new supranational institutions that can cope with planetary issues beyond their limited capacities. It is time, he says, to start thinking about how such institutions can be designed, replete with the kinds of checks and balances on power that have evolved over the last 300 years in nation-states.

For now, we are suspended in that intermediate zone where what is no longer fit for purpose has not yet died, but what is necessary has not yet been born. All hope for the future rests in that generative space.