In 1648 the ﬁrst modern diplomatic congress established a new political order in Europe, based for the ﬁrst time on the principle of “national sovereignty.” This principle drew a sharp dividing line between foreign and domestic affairs. Each “national sovereign” was given free rein within the internationally recognized borders of his state. No outsider had any right to interfere. Recognized borders were inviolable. The “sovereign” was originally simply a prince; later the term was applied to any effective government.
National sovereignty facilitated the undisturbed development of separate national capitalisms - British, French, German, American, and so on. Interstate boundaries were stabilized. Governments were able to take protectionist measures to defend home manufacturers against foreign competition.
Even today the principle of national sovereignty is far from dead. It is enshrined in the United Nations Charter: Chapter VII authorizes the Security Council to impose sanctions or use armed force only in the event of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.”
National sovereignty undermined
But in practice national sovereignty has been deeply undermined - ﬁrst of all, by the emergence of a global economy dominated by huge transnational corporations. International ﬁnancial institutions such as the World Trade Organization and IMF have largely taken over economic policy making. Indebtedness leaves many states with merely the formal husk of independence.
Some groups of states have “pooled” part of their sovereignty in supranational regional institutions. The prime example is the European Union.
The old interstate system has also been destabilised by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the USSR into 26 new states, four of which lack international recognition. The decision of the West to recognize the independence of Kosovo from Serbia has set a precedent that makes it easier to carve up other states. Of course, the “independence” of Kosovo - occupied by NATO forces, governed by ofﬁcials from the European Union, its constitution drafted at the US State Department - is purely notional. Russia has now retaliated by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although this will encourage secessionist movements inside Russia, blocking Georgia’s accession to NATO is evidently a higher priority (see September’s Material World).
National sovereignty is not only undermined in practice, but also contested in theory.
Thus, in recent years the United States and its closest allies have sought to legitimise their military attacks on other states. True, such attacks are nothing new. What is new is open advocacy of the principle of aggression. The main rationales used are the prevention of nuclear proliferation, counter-terrorism and humanitarian intervention (see August’s Material World).
It is instructive to compare the Gulf War of 1991 with the current war against Iraq. The Gulf War, at least ostensibly, was launched in defence of the principle of national sovereignty, violated by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The elder Bush resisted pressure to “ﬁnish the job” - occupy Iraq and throw out the Ba’athist regime - out of concern that it would lead to the breakup of Iraq and, in particular, a new Kurdish state that would destabilise the whole region. Such considerations have not deterred his son.
Globalisation of capital, fragmentation of states
Paradoxically, the fragmentation of states is a natural corollary of the globalisation of capital. From the point of view of the transnational corporations, states no longer have important policy-making functions. It is enough if they enforce property rights and maintain basic infrastructure in areas important for business. Small states can do these jobs as well as large ones. In fact, they have deﬁnite advantages. They are more easily controlled, less likely to develop the will or capacity to challenge the prerogatives of global capital.
Global versus national capitalism
All the same, there is nothing inevitable about globalisation. It has lost impetus recently, and may even have passed its zenith. One sign is the disarray within the WTO. Another is Russia’s change of direction: in contrast to the Yeltsin administration, which was politically submissive and kept the country wide open to global capital, the Putin regime reasserted national sovereignty, expelled foreign firms from strategic sectors of the economy, and ensured the dominant position of national (state and private) capital.
Global versus national capitalism has emerged as an important divide in world politics. This divide exists, ﬁrst of all, within the capitalist class of individual countries. Thus, even in the US, the citadel of globalisation, some capitalists - currently excluded from power - are oriented toward the home market and favour national capitalism. And even in Russia some capitalists support globalization.
Nevertheless, the pattern of political forces differs from country to country, and as a result the global/national divide is reﬂected in international relations. Here the “globalisers,” led by the US, confront in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China and the Central Asian states) an embryonic alliance of national capitals bent on restoring the principle of national sovereignty to its former place in the interstate system.
A different perspective
This context clariﬁes the difference between our perspective as socialists and the attitude of anti-globalisation activists. Being against capitalist globalisation is not the same as being against capitalism in general. We have ample past experience of a world of competing national capitalisms - quite enough to demonstrate that there is no good reason for preferring such a world to a world under the sway of global capital. The main problem with the movement against globalisation is that it can be mobilized so easily in the interests of national capital, whatever the intentions of its supporters.
To be fair, some anti-globalisation activists are aware of this danger. Acknowledging that humanity faces urgent problems that can only be tackled effectively at the global level, they emphasize that they are not against globalisation as such: they are only against the sort of globalisation that serves the interests of the transnational corporations. This then leads them to explore ideas of globalisation of an “alternative” kind. These ideas at least point in the right direction. Socialism is also an alternative form of globalisation - a globalisation of human community that abolishes capital.