In the ruins of Empire

Globalisation is such a fascinating and powerful idea that it never fails to evoke a strong reaction, either supporting it with a missionary zeal or opposing it with the passion of a suicide bomber. In the avalanche of rhetoric, facts inevitably get blurred; false hopes and dreams hold sway among some, while paranoia and nightmare grips others. To make sense of the ongoing churning, one needs to move away from these two extremes – to look at the fact more closely, provide a historical perspective and caution the rest of us about the pitfalls. Senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha has now taken up that task. While the neo-evangelists of globalisation may term his voice as that of a doomsday prophet, a closer reading of The Twilight of the Nation State reveals that Jha is fulfilling the first rule of good journalism: that of a timely whistleblower.

The post-Cold War transformation of the global economy and politics has centred on three utopias: democracy, liberalisation and globalisation. Jha brings to the fore his concern for the unsaid – the pain of transition, and the inherent contradictions in the transformation. Drawing heavily from the works of historian Eric Hobsbawm (who provides an introduction to this volume), as well as social scientists Giovanni Arrighi and Fernand Braudel, Jha places globalisation within the context of the development of capitalism, and helps readers appreciate how much wishful thinking actually underlies the belief in human progress.

Like any good storyteller, after expounding the basic template of the book Jha moves into two narratives. First, a chronological account starting from the emergence of city-state capitalism in Italy during the 14th century, to George W Bush's extreme form of unilateralism seven centuries later. Second, the author punctuates this chronology with a discussion of the systemic chaos the world is witnessing today. This provides an immediacy that both allows insight into the limitations of the ongoing debate, and draws the reader's attention to the simplistic assumption of a linear flow of politics and global economic transformation. The interweaving of these two narratives helps to keep the focus on the larger picture, without loosing sight of the details.

Westphalian meltdown

The Twilight of the Nation State pays particular attention to those thinkers who have realised the failure of the current global politico-economic model. "This is not how it was supposed to work," Jha writes. "For generations, students were taught that increasing trade and investment, coupled with technological change, would drive national productivity and create wealth." But instead the opposite was happening, and few in the developed economies seemed to have noticed the reversal.

Jha poses a series of questions for which economists do not yet have definitive answers:

If the neo-classical theory on wage flexibility had been correct, it still evaded answering the key question: How had the US and Europe achieved very high rates of economic growth with very low rates of unemployment in conditions of equal or greater wage rigidity between 1945 and 1973? What had changed since then? What was the engine that had driven high economic growth in the earlier period but ceased quite suddenly to do so in the 70s?

The chapter "Growing Obsolescence of the Nation State" is also a grim reminder of the limitation of the Marxist reading of the dissolution of the nation state in favour of a proletarian regime. The nation state is weakening not in favour of proletarian capitalism, the author says, but in favour of neo-conservative capitalism.

The present idea of the nation state flows from the Franco-Spanish treaty signed at Westphalia in Germany during 1648 to end the Thirty Years' War. Almost three-and-a-half centuries later, the end of the Cold War started the erosion of the Westphalian nation state. But instead of a rollback in military bases belonging to the sole remaining superpower – the US – more began to sprout. In addition to US bases that were created during the Cold War, from NATO bases to Japan to South Korea, the first Gulf War gave birth to an American military presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt and Djibouti. The break-up of Yugoslavia led to more US bases in Kosovo and Bosnia. The collapse of the Soviet Union helped the US to open bases in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. After 11 September 2001, three cities in Pakistan – Jacobabad, Quetta and Pasni – have become US airbases. During the Afghan war, the US acquired three airbases in that country, at Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kandahar.

Jha takes pains to explain the intricacies of the US's military expansionism, and contends that the NATO air strikes on Serbia were in fact a rehearsal of empire-building. According to the author, the 350-year-old Westphalian international order came to an end on 19 March 2003, when the US and UK invaded Iraq.

Despite the desire of Washington, DC to exert its global hegemony, the US empire is facing a gradual erosion of power. Instead of creating an alternative space for stability, peace and mutual dependence, Jha notes, this erosion is generating anarchy and chaos. In the face of the world's darkened future, the author pins his hopes on two particular documents – In Larger Freedom, produced in 2005 by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the International Labour Organisation's 2004 A Fair Globalisation: Creating Opportunities for All.

At this point, however, The Twilight of the Nation State suddenly fails to live up to its full promise. Although these two documents are denouements of the US's neo-conservative policies, they are not potent enough in their imagination to make even a symbolic dent in the empire's armour. The soft, liberal political-correctness that governs the narratives of In Larger Freedom and A Fair Globalisation softens their critique, offering the usual homilies about development, security, human rights and the rule of law. The lack of vigour, passion and political sharpness – which could hypothetically create an international movement that could dissolve the empire – makes these dissents tame. Ending on such a flat note also gives an unfortunately anticlimactic end to an otherwise a path-breaking book.

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Himal Southasian