Networking Nation-States

Networking Nation-States

Mini Teaser: The nation-state is not dead, but technology is leading it down a very different road.

by Author(s): James C. Bennett

Additionally, it has replaced some of the barriers with which small
states have tried to insulate themselves from economic reality by a
new, Union-wide set of more insidious non-market barriers,
particularly in the area of rigid and expensive standards, and
subsidy programs that have the same ultimately futile goal in the
world economy. By trying to maintain an already strained entitlement
and dirigisme-based political and social model, the EU will find
itself under ever-increasing pressure in the coming decade because of
these structural weaknesses, aggravating an increasing demographic

The Rise of the Network Commonwealth

In discussions about these changes and their effects, two schools of
thought seem to have emerged to date. One is a gloomy and apocalyptic
vision of many small, essentially unconnected mini-states engaged in
intermittent low-level conflict and confrontation, reminiscent of
Hobbes's "War of All Against All." It is a vision of a few rich
Singapores and many poor, conflict-torn Kosovos. This view is
reflected in political works such as Robert D. Kaplan's The Coming
Anarchy, and in the imagined worlds of futurist fiction such as Neal
Stephenson's The Diamond Age.

The other could be described as a "One World via Internet" vision of
increased communication (with English as the universal language),
omnidirectional cooperation and networking on a world scale. Its
proponents, such as the cyber-futurists of Wired magazine, envision
that lowering the transaction costs of cooperation to a uniform level
worldwide will make it equally likely for any one person anywhere to
cooperate with any other person anywhere else.

In many versions, less futurist, less libertarian, but more typical
of Hegelian-Kantian internationalists, it leads to a vision of world
governance--of increasing integration into regional transnational
organizations, such as the European Union and NAFTA, in parallel with
single-purpose world-level structures such as the World Trade
Organization, ultimately all merging into a mode of world governance.

If the one vision leads to a few Singapores and many Kosovos, the
other, it is thought, will spawn a multicultural Golden Era, benignly
presided over by an enlightened United Nations and its international
organs. Neither vision is likely to be realized. The breakdown of the
old structures need not, and probably will not, continue infinitely.
If it were to persist, the ongoing division of national communities
would result in an undifferentiated and disconnected mass of
ever-smaller nation-states--or, more honestly said, tribal states.
The dissolution of the USSR and of the Socialist Federative Republic
of Yugoslavia show what the human costs of such processes can be.

Equally, there is an inherent limit to the prospect of any form of
universal or global governance in the near future. Such a government
(unless it is a disguised empire of a major power imposed on the
rest) would have to be constructed on a lowest-common-denominator
basis to include a substantial collection of hapless dictatorships,
rotten oligarchies and shabby kleptocracies. One need only look at
the ineffectiveness of the United Nations in coping with many global
issues to see the limits of this approach.

In between the old natural unit marking the limits of easy
cooperation, namely the nation-state, and the distantly (and perhaps
chimerically) glimpsed vision of universal civilization, we must
interpose a middling form: a set of like, but not identical,
societies sharing a number of common characteristics, within which
social cooperation bears significantly lower transaction costs than
without. This now-emerging entity is the network civilization--a new
civilizational form enabled by networks.

Consider the visible effects of the current phase of the
scientific-technological revolutions: the Internet; the communication
satellite and high-bandwidth fiber-optic cable; fast, cheap
intercontinental air travel; and all the rest. Even today, these have
brought geographically distant areas into close proximity for many
purposes. The acceleration of these technological and economic trends
will make this "tele-proximity" even more significant. Collaboration
in all areas--economic, educational, political--is becoming
relatively easier at a distance. But asthe old natural barriers to
trade and communication--mountain ranges, wide oceans, and other
natural barriers--no longer need be borders, the next most
significant set of barriers remains--differences in language,
customs, legal systems, religions, and other significant values, and
particularly things like trust.

The network civilization is associated primarily on the lines of
cultural contiguity: groups of nations sharing language, customs,
legal systems, religions and other significant values, most
specifically, trust characteristics. It has sometimes been asserted
that the global adoption of English will abolish transaction costs of
cooperation between civilizations, or that automated translation will
do so. Although both phenomena are real, it is unlikely they will
have the expected effect, for it is precisely the unexpressed web of
assumptions behind the formal words that create the barriers between
cooperation. "We must make an accommodation" has a different nuance
in a business discussion in Lima, Ohio from one in Lima, Peru.

On the other hand, the unprecedented rapidity, cheapness and ease of
use of modern telecommunications, particularly the Internet and World
Wide Web, knits together culturally similar societies into what is
rapidly becoming a single cultural artifact subdivided along many
different lines. Consider one example: the changes in the public
debates in the English-speaking world at the time of the Gulf War,
the Balkan interventions of the mid-1990s and the Iraq War. The
debates over the Gulf War were overwhelmingly conducted in the
traditional style of the 20th century, somewhat accelerated by
satellite television. That is, America, Britain and other nations
each witnessed a debate among their traditional policy elites in
legislatures, the media, and academic circles. The American media
analyzed, summarized, and then presented their summary of "British
opinion" on the matter; the British media likewise encapsulated their
impression of American debate and presented it domestically.

During the Balkan crises, Americans began to be able to follow
lengthy sections of the British parliamentary debate directly on
cable television; the proliferation of cable services and cable
channels, particularly ones devoted entirely to news and politics,
suddenly made it possible for millions of Americans to follow a
debate that previously would have been scrutinized in such a level of
detail by mere hundreds, or at most thousands, of diplomats and
academics. Although the speed at which events unfolded was far
faster, Americans and British debaters spoke as much for and from
their national communities as an Athenian or Corinthian might have 22
centuries previously.

By the time of the Iraq War, the proliferation of the Internet and
such phenomena as Web logs--individually produced Web diaries updated
daily or even hourly, with direct links to other "blogs", often
linking to eyewitness accounts to current events, and to a huge host
of media sources--created a situation in which political debate
effectively occurred seamlessly across the English-speaking world
without the intervening mediation of cultural and political elites.
It was a debate segmented primarily by political position rather than
by nationality. In fact, both pro- and antiwar opinion was often
elaborated by group blogs, each of which were collaborative efforts
stretching from London to Sydney and everywhere in between. Both
because of direct contact across the Web, and by the indirect effect
of subjecting traditional media to criticism and feedback of a scope,
level and intensity never before experienced, political debate over
the Iraq War has experienced a remarkable degree of disintermediation
and popular involvement. This experience promises to become a new
benchmark for future reportage and debate.

All indications suggest that these patterns will intensify rather
than abate. Network civilizations appear to be the next step in
expanding the circle of civil society, which has elaborated itself
over time from local and regional networks of commercial,
intellectual and civic collaboration, to networks of national scale.

The Industrial Revolution made continent-spanning nation-states
possible. The Information Revolution offers the possibility that
civil societies may link themselves on a globe-spanning--although not
universally inclusive--scale. Such is the network civilization. It
can hardly fail to call forth political and economic forms to
parallel its effects. The Network Commonwealth is an effort to name
an equivalent form for the network civilization, and to identify its
emerging precursors in existing institutions. Just as the ethnic
nation was the raw material from which the classical nation-state was
built, so the network civilization is the raw material from which the
Network Commonwealth is being built.

This facilitates the movement of people, goods and services across
borders, forming and strengthening shared cultures (both elite and
popular) and experiences--for example, common publications read by
the publics of all of the nations of a particular network
civilization. In turn, this lays the foundation for greater
institutional cooperation (in the form of common markets, permanent
security alliances and joint scientific and technological projects).
A Network Commonwealth would build on these existing forms of
transnational cooperation and thus emerge along existing
information-oriented lines of linguistic and cultural affinity. It
would be defined by close trading relationships and substantial
military cooperation and intelligence-sharing among its constituent
states, as well as a high degree of intra-network flows of migration
and investment.

The Network Commonwealth is not a nation-state of the historical
type. It is not a state at all, although it has the potential to
offer an alternative means for fulfilling some traditional functions
of economic states. It is a means of linking smaller political
communities so that they can deal with common concerns. It is a way
to provide opportunities to their members--opportunities that cannot
be provided

Essay Types: Essay