The pandemic has led to a serious relapse of pure nationalism. This is the diagnosis that now seems to apply. Closed borders, lack of solidarity in the distribution of vaccines, suspicion of nations perceived as `guilty` of the origin and spread of the virus. Maybe all this will disappear when the pandemic is over (when?), Maybe not.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic means a significant setback for the seventeen global goals set by the world states in 2015. It is estimated that half a billion people have fallen below the poverty line and that eight hundred million are chronically malnourished. Several vaccination campaigns have stopped, which leads to the traditional epidemics gaining new momentum. The closure of schools affects about 1.25 billion children, of which 86% are children in developing countries. The 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy have suffered the most from the repercussions of the pandemic. 

Many international institutions have been forced to restrict their activities.

There is a risk that humanity and the world community are entering a period of dwindling cooperation, new border barriers and reduced coordination to combat global scourge. Some will consider these developments favourably because “the nation” means security for them, while the outside world - with its crises and epidemics - is threatening. Others will emphasise that the pandemic itself shows the need for more cooperation, better coordination of the earth's resources and greater trust in the international institutions.


Restart required

It is quite simple to justify why the world and we need new structures, stricter rules, and better coordination. The reasons are the three existential threats that can only be averted through cooperation: the climate catastrophe, a nuclear war, and the next mega-pandemic. Nevertheless, there are doubters and deniers who, consciously or unconsciously, underestimate the risks.

The problems are global, but globalization itself is controversial. If you believe that the future of humanity lies in an eventually emerging world community with credible rules maintained and monitored by supranational institutions, you must first examine the forces that have made nationalism so strong. One can hardly imagine a functioning global world without incorporating the nation state into the calculation.

A resident of an independent state has good reasons to support a solid world order. This especially applies to residents in small and medium-sized states, i.e., in the majority of the world's almost 200 states. These are in dire need of safety nets and security guarantees against dangers and abuses. They seek protection and guarantees through changing alliances, but a supranational legal order would be more than welcome for them. Two-thirds of all states cannot do without support and contact with the outside world.

Two attempts at a fresh start have been made in the past century: the League of Nations and the United Nations. Although the times and ambitions have been the best, the results show that more binding and monitored agreements are needed, but also that a global mindset is gaining a deeper foothold among the citizens of nation states.


The nation state is still important

Many people perceive the idea of ​​nation and the global community as opposites of each other and thus incompatible. I do not think it has to be that way. You can support the nation state as a necessary building component in a functioning world community. It makes sense to distance oneself from exaggerations in the style of the need for a world government with far-reaching powers and its own power apparatus that can mix in large and small. What sensible supporters of global cooperation should work for is gradual but binding progress, a step-by-step development towards the central goal, a peaceful and stable world.

Politicians like Trump and his associates want to restore the nation state to its alleged lost status. But the question is whether it is even necessary. Trump himself showed how easy it was to break free from current international obligations. Within the EU, it is more a matter of delegating certain tasks, not of a real loss of power. Member States have the last word on all key issues.

The fact that voters in the Western world believe in the loss and blame globalization is, in my opinion, partly because the countries have not learned to master the downsides of globalization and have been able to create new rules of the game in step with rapid technological and economic globalization. Of course, states have become increasingly dependent on each other through world trade, but above all through the three existential threats that apply to everyone, small and large. It is hard to believe that one wants to give up all the benefits that international division of labor has brought, and even harder to believe that smaller states would be more successful within closed borders.

In fact, the emergence of the nation state is a good model for global integration. A few centuries ago, the map of Europe looked like a patchwork of mini territories. In today's Germany, there were hundreds of government units with their own customs tariffs, coins, and laws. Italy as a state did not exist, French was not the only language in France before the revolution. The nation-states arose as an idea, but also through the need for rationalisation and reforms. Language, religion, and territory became the glue of the nation state.

State formations such as China and India are other examples of units that have been gradually welded together. Today, there could have been a dozen Chinese states with different languages. India is a conglomeration of languages, religions and cultures, but eventually became a cohesive state in a historical process. Latin America could have formed a federal giant, but geography and communications posed too great an obstacle two hundred years ago, despite the common language and religion.

This does not mean that federal states such as the United States and India are natural models on a global level. But together with the EU, they show that it is possible to create higher-order entities, even when linguistic, religious, and cultural factors do not support it. In addition, the EU is a historic experiment with independent states that have painstakingly created a union in which its members are constantly negotiating the next step of cooperation.


The world is growing together - slowly

In fact, the world today is not at all as fragmented as one might sometimes think. Some general trends indicate an interest in the global dimension. World history is a popular subject and Yuval Noah Harari has sold millions of copies of his books. Different art and cultural forms are today cross-border. Modern visual art has no specific homeland. People talk about world literature and a good movie is rarely nationally introverted. There are thousands of international organisations for cooperation in as many areas. Not everyone is as efficient and as coordinated as they should be, but they are there as useful networks.

In a way, nation states have extended their social safety net throughout the world in the form of comprehensive assistance. This is proof of the fact that we are gradually moving towards global responsibility.

Despite these positive signs, there are many obstacles on the way to a genuine solidarity and a binding form of cooperation. More about this in part two.


Pär Stenbäck

Reference work: Hassan Damluji: The Responsible Globalist (2019)

This is a first part of a two part column. The second part can be read here.


Pär Stenbäck is a former Finnish politician who has been an MP, Minister of Education, and of Foreign Affairs in the years before 1985. For a period of twenty years, he held leading positions in the Red Cross movement, among these as Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Geneva). He is a founding member of ICG and the European Cultural Parliament ECP. He received the honorary title as Minister in 1999. Today he is chairing the New Foreign Policy Society in Finland (NUPS) since 2017. He contributes regularly to news media.