National self-interest remains the most important driver in global politics

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1 National self-interest remains the most important driver in global politics BSc. International Business and Politics Copenhagen Business School 2014 Political Science Fall 2014 Final Exam December 2014 Tutorial group XB 5 Number of pages 9 STU count Side 1 af 11

2 The significance of nations in human history as a driver in global politics can hardly be overestimated, and a piece of clear evidence of their remaining influence is the very name of the political organization, which intends to encompass humanity as a whole, the United Nations. National self-interest is what the countries bring to the table is in this organization, and national interest and nation-states are the political units of the global political system. However, their influence is slowly changing as interdependence fosters cooperation around the globe, most brilliantly exemplified is the European Union, a hitherto unseen political unit in political history, representing a free-trade are of more than half a billion people. Can it thus be said that the national self-interest is finally being replaced as the most important driver in global politics? This paper argues that national self-interest remains the most important driver in global politics, though its importance is slowly decreasing, being replaced mostly by supranational bodies and institutions with their respective self-interests, because the nation-state to this date remains the superior political unit of the global political system and the primary political unit, to which citizens of the modern world pledge allegiance. It also argues that the increasingly global scope of political problems significantly decreases the influence and success rate of policy conducted with national self-interest as the primary driver, leading to a deficit in public goods for nations, which could, at least in a liberal perspective of the future, be alleviated by stronger political actors with other drivers than national self-interest, namely the self-interest of entire continents or humanity as a whole. The paper begins by defining the essential concepts in the statement discussed, global politics and national self-interest. It then goes on elaborating about the nature of nations and nationalism. Since there can be no doubt about the fact that national self-interest is a major political driver, the paper then deconstructs the national self-interest s closest competitors as political drivers, namely regional organizations such as the EU. From that point, national selfinterest is related to theories of international relations and the concept of public goods and freeriding to investigate the normative implications of national self-interest as a leading driver in global politics and the future perspectives of whether it remains so or not. Global politics is the first concept to be defined in this paper, since the word global is inherently polysemantic and leaves great room for interpretation. The word obviously has its roots in the Side 2 af 11

3 shape our world, our planet the Earth, which is a globe. Therefore, one might consider global politics to be only the sphere of politics, which has relevance to the entire globe, i. e. politics which is conducted by international institutions defining the whole globe as the scope of their policies, most obviously the United Nations (Heywood, 2014, p. 3). This would be in contrast to national or regional politics, which would it that case not be truly global. Global can however, according to Heywood, also be interpreted as comprehensive meaning that it refers to all elements within a system, not just the system as a whole (Heywood, 2014, p. 3). In this case, global politics is not limited to whatever relates to the entire globe, but can be expanded to politics at all levels from local to global, making room for a more comprehensive analysis, since much of what is commonly regarded as the effects of globalization, such as the emergence of the EU and other such bodies, would in the former definition only be regarded as regionalisation and not a part of global politics. Thus, the broader definition is chosen to be able asses more movements of political power to and from the nation-states and not just the movements going between them and international organizations with the whole world as their scope of policies, such as the UN. The second concept to be defined is national self-interest. National underlines that the driver in question is concerned with what is of relevance to the nation. Self-interest underlines that the driver in question tries to advance its own interest in contrast to being for instance utilitarian, which one could argue that the interests of international organizations ideally are. But much more complicated is the concept alone of a nation. Nations can be thought of both as political and cultural communities, the former emphasizing citizenship and alignment to political ideas, the latter emphasizing cultural likeness and common descent, which tends to create more excluding nations (Heywood, 2013, p.111). This distinction made by Friedrich Meinecke (Heywood, 2013, p.111) emphasizes that nations can be very different in their origin, while they do have in common that they are in Benedict Anderson s words imagined communities (Heywood, 2013, p. 112). This means that nations might exist as some sort of communities, but this is rather a community taught by mass media and educational socialization than an actual experienced community, where the members know each other (Heywood, 2013, p. 113). In this case, it is important to distinguish between a nation and a state, since nations are (imagined) communities, while states are political, administrative units. Many states might be nation-states, blurring the picture even more, meaning that the borders of the nation and the state overlap. In this paper, the starting point for analysing Side 3 af 11

4 national self-interest as a political driver will be nation-states because this is the most common form of state and ultimately the most influential kind, since most non-nation-states are former colonies in Africa. Furthermore, an analysis of the influence of the interest of nations not aligned to a nation-state would be far too extensive to encompass. Thus, national self-interest will in this paper be defined as the self-perceived interests of nation-states as imagined communities and political units, regardless of the political or cultural nature of these nations. Having defined these two central concepts, the paper will now further elaborate on the nature of nations, nation-states and nationalism, to asses why they may have such great political significance as the statement discussed implies and this paper argues. Nations and nationalism may be criticized for being nothing more than political constructs - abstractions, possibly made by elites to make the masses succumb to them and forget their class ties across national borders, as Marxists would argue (Heywood, 2013, p. 113). A more moderate and widely accepted critique might be that nationalism has created nations - not the other way around, as is it argued by Hobsbawm (Heywood, 2013, p. 112). Nevertheless, the nation-state offers a very compelling form of political organization, in that it offers the prospect of both cultural cohesion and political unity (Heywood, 2013, p. 124), signifying overlapping of imagined communities (nations) and the sovereign political community (states). This convergence is the core nationalist argument for the nation-state as the superior and natural unit of political organization, and the empirical evidence of the significantly increasing number of nation-states in the 20 th century gives it substantial impetus (Heywood, 2013, p. 124). Further arguments for the superiority of the nation-state are differences in languages, which prohibit the creation on an international general public as long as people prefer their news in their respective first languages. The uprising of English as an international lingua franca may in time decrease the influence of language barriers to the creation of an international or regional general public. However, the lack of a general public with communal media widely used across European countries persists, in spite of increasing political importance of the EU and generally high levels of English skills amongst Europeans, and this clearly shows the importance of the language barrier. In conclusion, the persisting importance of national self-interest in global politics relates greatly to the innate desirability of the combination the nation as a powerful imagined community and the state as a political unit. Side 4 af 11

5 Nevertheless, the importance of the nation-state is in decline. Though slowly and yet without overturning it in any foreseeable future, the nation-state is increasingly influenced by both international organizations, such as the UN and WTO, and perhaps even more importantly, by regional organizations, most prominently the EU, but also counting ASEAN, the African Union and many more. Furthermore, national self-interest might lose importance to more local self-interests as some states partake in acts of devolution (though others might centralize). This is all part of the movement towards so-called multi-level governance, which recognises that governance is increasingly taking place at many other levels except from just the national. In case of the regional integration and uprising of regional institutions, a good explanation is offered by functionalism and neofunctionalism, arguing respectively that regional integration is happening because of the effectiveness of regional organization of formerly state matters and that the path dependency of regional integration referred to as spill-over is what carries continued integration (Heywood, 2013, p ). In the first case, functionalism fluctuates well with the self-interest of nations due to the increased effectivity. The latter explanation, neofunctionalism, lacks the desirability of the former and this path dependency spill-over explanation of regional integration signifies the technical and practical rather than popular and nation-devised reasons for integration. The importance of the increasing regional integration can also be diminished due to the rather economic nature of such integration; most regional integration is largely concerned with trade and other areas of low politics, whereas regional integration in high politics such as foreign policy remains negligible (Heywood, 2014, p. 508). Finally, the increasing influence of regional organizations, still dwarfed by the influence of the nation-states, may be limited in the future, due to the fact that there is little evidence that regional bodies are capable of acquiring a level of political allegiance that rivals that of the nation-state, regardless of their functional importance (Heywood, 2013, p. 392). This points back to the formerly mentioned desirability of the nationstate, and it emphasizes the fact that lack of popular support does and will probably continue to limit the rise of regional and international institutions as major drivers of governance, in spite of their possible practical gain to the nations as underlined by the theory of functionalism. Due to this lack of popular support and the scope of predominantly low politics in regional integration, it does not at all seem fit to supersede the nation-state and national self-interest as the primary political driver. However, path dependency and spill-over as explained by neofunctionalism may Side 5 af 11

6 slowly push regional integration further. Though the emergence of multi-level governance through international and especially regional organizations slowly diminishes the influence of the nation state, national self-interest is and will in the foreseeable future be the primary driver in global politics. Yet, one example of regional integration, the EU, dwarfs all the others and will therefore now be further examined. In the next paragraph, the EU and its ability to drive politics will be examined and compared to that of its member states. The EU is of particular relevance to this paper, because it is by far the most comprehensive transnational organization in terms of the sovereignty its member states has given it over themselves. The EU has an extensive bureaucracy, its own court and in a sense its own government, the Commission, all of which can make decisions trumping those of the national governments in certain policy areas. The EU members have even allowed certain policy-areas to become susceptible to (qualified) majority rulings in the union! Truly, this almost sounds like the replacement of the nation-state and thus the national self-interest as the primary driver of global politics. However, this is not the case, nor does it seem to become it, at least in the short run. Firstly, the EU does not compare with its member states in means of ability to drive politics, because of its limited scope of policy. While the low-policy area of trade is now almost completely conducted in EU institutions instead of its member states, high-policy, especially foreign relations and defence is very limited and voluntary (Heywood, 2014, p. 508). The integration has perhaps gone most far into high-politics in the question of the currency. However, the monetary union has dramatically failed at evolving into a fiscal union, which neofunctionalists would definitely advise as the next logical step on the integration ladder. This lack of sanctions in the fiscal area for breaching convergence criteria clearly diminishes the influence of the EU, compared to its member states, even though the currency itself is administered by the union. In many policy areas, the member states still retain veto rights. For instance, climate policy is repeatedly blocked by Poland, a major coal producer. These listings clearly show the limitations to the EU s formal power. Equally important, however, is the public perception of the union. The viability of the monetary union has been openly discussed during the recent years, and the existence of such discussions underline a fundamental difference in the EU s ability to drive global politics: it is, unlike its member states, continuously questioned on the very nature of its existence. Side 6 af 11

7 This means that the EU as a political driver is still heavily dependent on support from its member states, and the lack of a fiscal union clearly shows the limitations in this support. Taking into consideration that the EU is by far the most advanced and comprehensive union of states, these conclusions can be transferred to other regional integration projects. By underlining the advantages of the nation-state and deconstructing its primary rivals for being drivers in global politics, the influence of the national self-interest has now been cemented. This takes the paper to a short consultation of the international relations theories of realism and liberalism on the topic of national self-interest to pave the way for a normative discussion of the future implications of the concluded remaining power of the national self-interest. This also means that the word state will be used instead of nation-state, since states are strictly the actors of relevance to international relations. As we are presuming that most states are nation-states, this is mostly a formal question. Both of the two fundamental theories in international relations, liberalism and realism, agree, that national self-interest is a major (and in the case of realism, the one and only) driver in the actions of states. There is, however, a fundamental difference between what is perceived as in a nation s self-interest by the two. Realism considers politics to nothing but power, and this game of power is a zero sum one. Therefore, realists only consider relative gains, in which the nation in question gains relatively more from a given interactions than its counterparts, to be in the true self-interest of a state (Heywood, 2014, p.63). On the other hand, neoliberalism has put forward the argument that states are in reality interested in all absolute gains, also those giving relatively more to their counterparts (Heywood, 2014, p. 70). This obviously has huge influence on the opportunity of transnational political cooperation, and the multitude of such current cooperation may at first glance seem like a falsification of the realist approach to international relations. However, a reason why this may not be the case, is that the number of states is much greater now than at the time when realism originated. In the current situation, states A and B can cooperate to their mutual benefit, even though state B might gain more than state A, because they both benefit more than states C to Z, who are not part of the cooperation. In this perspective, realism has no explanation problem with regional cooperation, as its gives relative gains to the region cooperating in relation to the rest of the world. International, globe-wide cooperation of the same Side 7 af 11

8 magnitude as the EU would, however, be difficult to explain with this idea. This explanation allows for both international relations theories to perceive national self-interest as a primary driver of global politics in times of significant, yet somewhat limited, regional cooperation, which has important implications for the coming discussion of future opportunities for a decrease in national self-interest as the primary driver of global politics. Perspectives on the nature of human being often progress into perspectives of states in the theories of international relations, and thus this paper applies Mancur Olson s conclusions in his classic The logic of collective Action (Olson, 1971) to international relations to investigate to opportunities for and problems with transnational cooperation in a world dominated by national self-interest. Just like the individuals in groups that Olson investigated, states have significant incentives to cooperate to ensure public goods for themselves, for instance well-regulated pollution, cross-border crime and transnational corporations. (Though hard-core relative gain focused realists would limit the cooperation to a regional kind, as concluded above). The lack of cooperation in these policy areas hurts everyone, and cooperation could ensure these public goods for states. However, just as with Olson s individuals, states have strong incentives to freeride, that is, enjoying the benefit of a publicly ensured good without benefitting to its conservation. A great example of this is climate change and pollution, since clean air and a stable climate can be enjoyed by everyone, also by a pollutant whose pollution mostly blows over to its neighbours. Since the individual state can hardly (with a few exceptions) influence climate change alone, the collective action of a substantial number a states could probably prevent most of it. Yet exactly this nature of the problem prevents it from being solved in a world dominated by national selfinterest, since every nation will be inclined to pollute more because there individual part of pollution is not sufficiently significant for them to feel the consequences of their own pollution, let alone feel them in the short run. Like-wise, tax-havens free-ride on the value generated in other countries by effectively destroying their opportunities of taxing transnational corporations. The total tax revenue raised by states from TNC s could be magnified enormously with the cooperation of all states, but nations self-interests dictates a race against the bottom of tax rates, effectively cancelling the taxing of TNC s. Unlike polluting countries, the tax-havens have virtually no Side 8 af 11

9 incentive to change their ways unless put under significant pressure from the collective actions of other states, making this problem perhaps even more difficult than climate change to solve. These examples clearly show, how humanity (and thus also the individual nations) could benefit from cooperation and collective action to ensure public goods for themselves, if national selfinterest was not the primary driver of global politics. In a neoliberal perspective, there can be no doubt about the benevolence of such corporation, due to the acknowledgement of absolute gains as in a nation self-interest. Furthermore, liberal institutionalism, a belief in a functionalist increase of international institutions as a result of the gains acquired by everyone in creating them (Heywood, 2014, p. 70), offers a positive vision of the future in which the states may gradually give way to international institutions with increasing power to allow them to secure public goods for all states. Neorealists, on the other hand, do not envision such cooperation, because states are, in their view, more with engaged with self-reliance and relative gains than ensuring public goods such as a stable climate. An exception to this might be the point where climate change (or another unsolved public good) constitutes an immediate threat to the survival of the state, but in this situation it is of course too late to resolve any damage done to the climate. In conclusion, the decline of national self-interest as driver in global politics will be more much faster and more significant in a neoliberal vision of the future than a neorealist ditto, signifying two different answers to whether humanity as a whole can overcome challenges, which require cooperation, such as climate change, or not. Concluding, this paper shows that national self-interest remains the strongest driver of global politics in spite of international and especially regional cooperation. Most significantly, the EU represents an alternative to national self-interest, but as it is argued, the EU remains dependent on the support of its member states as has yet to gain the naturalness of the nation-state. This conclusion expands to other regional organizations, since the EU is by far the most comprehensive one. It is also concluded that the influence of national self-interest in global politics result in a lack of provision of public goods for states such as a stable climate, leading to free-rider problem in which challenges for humanity as a whole may be very difficult to solve. Finally, international relations theories give future perspectives on national self-interest, emphasizing a neoliberal belief Side 9 af 11

10 in the coming of institutions with increasing power and interests of there own and neorealist belief in the fundamental opposition to this, due to fundamental self-relying nature of states. Side 10 af 11

11 References: Burd, Devetak & George (Ed.) (2012) An Introduction to International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Caramani, D. (2008). Comparative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press Heywood, A. (2014). Global Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan Heywood, A. (2013). Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan Olson, M. (1971). The logic of collective action, public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press Side 11 af 11

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