The contemporary shape and form of world politics is somewhat curious. To say that it is fluid would amount to stating the obvious but to employ an analogy and a metaphor of the amoeba to describe its nature might me more apposite. Amoebas, it may be recalled, have no definitive shape or form, among other things. But, yet again, this analogy tells us nothing; it is merely indicative. If prognostication is not a mug’s game, can anything substantive be gleaned from the amoeba analogy with world politics and international relations? Perhaps.
A digression into history is warranted here to put into the nature of amoeba like international relations here. The state , being the fundamental unit of international relations, and its various forms might have existed much before the discipline got “reified” but its concomitant, sovereignty, formalized in the Treaty of Westphalia, inaugurated the modern avatar of international politics. Sovereignty entail(ed) a tight compartmentalization of the state , with the domestic out of the pale of international politics and , in the main, interstate relations characterized by a balance of power. Thus, began the life of modern international relations which was complemented by the First Industrial Revolution, powered as it was, by the steam engine and the spinning jenny. Another important concomitant to these structural trends of historical import was nationalism.
Together, these determined the thrust and tour de force of international relations and political economy. In terms of the former, raison d’etat(reasons of state) , its structural complement, balance of power comprised the locus of international politics and in terms of the latter, protectionism and mercantilism ruled the roost, so to speak, with the nation state at the apogee. With the passage of time, which included decolonization and the isomorphism of the state form of political organization, and multiple wars, especially world wars, some changes could be discerned in the tenor of world politics , but these were at the margins.
It was the end of the Second World War that far reaching and significant changes occurred that laid the foundations of the post war order superimposed by the ideological conflict called the Cold War. The order in contention had both economic and politics components that, in the “Western bloc” created an “order” with an institutional ingress comprised of various global governance organizations like the United Nations , all sat atop by the United States. The primacy of the nation state remained but was challenged by the large mega historical trend of globalization that entailed a structural shift in the traditional concept of the state as a neat container of peoples, capital and trade with a corresponding reflection in the foreign policies of states. These were now held to be in the meshes of a complex interdependence paradigm which, in turn, gave short shrift to the balance of power politics , a revised definition of the national interest and thereby their national security policies. Nationalism was ameliorated by forces of globalization and transnationalism, the identity of states was in flux , and the quasi closed model of political economy gave way to a more open one. In the meanwhile, the industrial revolutions gathered steam apace with the commoditization of information giving way to a “knowledge economy.
This era, the apogee of globalization , that created new bases for foreign policies of states, was or is being confronted by the recrudescence of nationalism, identity politics, populism and mercantilist populism. Or, in other words, it is said that the world is in the midst of “deglobalization”. If this condition holds, does it mean that we are back to square one with the national state’s primacy as the “new old” reality of politics? Would it herald another age of balance of power politics? And, would foreign policy revert to the narrow conceptions and definitions of the national interest?
Truth be told, raison d’etat as the organizing principle of international relations and world politics , never disappeared. Yes, it was ameliorated with the incorporation of “low politics” and issues and opportunities that globalization begat but it always hovered in the background. There were new issue linkages, new themes, new set of problems and challenges but the cardinal premise of raison d’etat and balance of power politics were the central axes around which foreign policies of states were conceptualized, formulated and implemented. However, its salience somewhat declined. But, if the nation state is making a comeback, and if the world is indeed becoming “deglobalized”, then what would foreign policies of states look like in the 21st century?
The answer calls for a brief delineation of globalization. This phenomenon is structural and has occurred in waves, historically. And, in some senses, it predates the modern state. The current phase of “deglobalization” from a macro historical perspective, in all likelihood, will be transient. Globalization, after an adjustment period, whose span may last years, will revert and regain traction. But, it is the interim period that is of import and significance. What, the question is, will happen , in this span of time? While nothing can be foretold definitively, but based on extrapolation of trends and technological developments, it appears that the world and its politics will gyrate to rhythms of balance of power politics, the primacy of hard power, a political economy paradigm defined by mercantilism and populism. The overall consequence might be Great power conflict and even war around the United States, China and Russia axis with others balancing and bandwagoning according to their perception of national interest and security.
But, this period of intense churn will, to repeat, be in the nature of an adjustment period. Globalization will reappear albeit in a different form, avatar. In fact, from a long duree perspective, the ultimate name of the game and struggle will be the nature of globalization and influence over it. This is not to say that the state will disappear; it will remain the unit of international relations but its overarching reality will be determined by what the world is going through albeit in a zigzagged nature: another fundamental transformation that is in its incipient stages- the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is this revolution that, in the final analysis will, with its concomitant impact on the state form, that will be the causative and determinative influence on international relations and foreign policies of states. Interesting times lie ahead!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org