Globalization and National Autonomy

Political Scientist Robert Gilpin (1987: 389) defines globalization as the increasing interdependence of national economies in trade, finance and macroeconomic policies. Globalization is a process fueled by, and resulting in, increasing cross – border flows of goods, services, money, people, information, and culture. It, offers extensive opportunities for truly worldwide development but it is not progressing evenly. Some countries are becoming integrated into the global economy more quickly than others. Countries that have been able to integrate are seeing faster growth and reduced poverty. Outward oriented policies have brought dynamism and greater prosperity to much of East Asia, transforming it from one of the poorest areas of the world 40 years ago, into one of the most vibrant economies.

By contrast, when many countries in Latin America and Africa pursued inward oriented -policies in the 1970s and 1980s, their economies stagnated or declined, poverty increased and high inflation became the norm. In many cases, especially in Africa, adverse external developments made the problems even worse. The Fragmented, discontinuous, contradictory and contingent nature of globalization invites skeptics to make argument that it is not proceeding as fast as generally believed, that it is not spreading uniformly across the globe, or that it is not strong enough to erase cross-national differences. One of the key issues surrounding globalization is whether this process has outgrown the governance structures of the international system of states; and whether the process of globalization is undermining the authority of the nation state.

Economist Raymond Vernon (198: 249, 256-270) for example, has long argued that the spread of multinational corporations creates “destructive political tensions” and there is need to reestablish balance between political and economic institutions. Historian Paul Kennedy (1993: 53-64, 122-134) asserts that governments are losing control, and that globalization erodes the position of labor in developing countries, and degrades the environment. “Today’s global society” he writes, “confronts the task of reconciling technological change and economic integration with traditional political structures, national consciousness, social needs, institutional arrangements, and habitual ways of doing things” (Kennedy 1993: 330).
In a similar vein, Kobrin (1997: 157, 159) argues that globalization challenges both autonomy and independent decision-making of the state and “raises questions about the meaning of sovereignty in its external sense of a system ordered in terms of mutually exclusive territoriality.” Political Scientists Yoshikazu Sakamoto (1994) and Robert Cox (1996: 26-27) concur in arguing that globalization generates problems of international governance and reduce the regulatory power of the states. Rodrik (1997) argues that globalization creates social and political tensions within and across nation-state. Political theorists Michael Mosher (1999:35)asks, “Is there a successful way of reconciling the boundary transgressing character of markets with the boundary maintaining activities of nation-states?” He further notes that globalization has placed two liberal practices the Liberalism of the market and the Liberalism of democratic citizenship on a collision, raising the dilemma of whether “moral concerns stop at the national border” (Mosher 1999: 25).

The analysis by British political economist Susan Strange is perhaps the most sophisticated articulation of the position that the international system of nation -states and the nation-state itself are coming under fire in a global world. She writes about the “declining authority of states,” and preempts several possible criticisms. First, she argues that the state interventionism is on the rise, but it mostly has to do with increasingly marginal matters. Second, she argues that there are more states in the world, especially after 1989, but that most of the new ones are weak and lack control. Third, she points out that the effectiveness of the East Asian State in orchestrating economic growth was only possible in post World War II order in which protectionism of the domestic market was acceptable and mature technologies were available ( Strange 1994: 4-6) She further observes three power shifts in the global world, namely, from weak to strong states, from states to markets, and from labor markets to financial markets, and argues that some power has evaporated or dispersed (Strange1996:189) Some Scholars have argued that globalization is a feeble process.

They maintain that it can be easily handled by nation-states. For example, Hirst and Thompson (1996: 143-149, 179-194) assert that states can cope with globalization, although they have lost some freedom of action, especially concerning financial flows. Feeble proponents, however, are not the only ones against the claim that globalization undermines the nation-state. Neorealist International Relations Scholar Robert Gilpin (1987:389-406) points out that globalization has reinforced the importance of domestic policies, as countries engaged in regionalization, sectoral protectionism, and mercantilistic competition during the 1980s in response to changes in the international location of activities, resulting in a “mixed system,” increasingly globalized and at the same time fragmented.

A related, though distinct, argument against the presumed loss of state power in the wake of globalization comes from Political Scientist Leo Panitch (1996: 84-86). He argues that “today’s globalization is authored by states and is primarily about reorganizing rather than bypassing them.” Another influential Political Scientist, Saskia Sassen (1996: 25-30), maintains that the state does not lose significance. Rather, there is a redefinition of modern features of sovereignty and territoriality, a denationalizing of national territory.” According to most political scientists, therefore, the nation-state is alive and well, and the Westphalian order is unlikely to be replaced by a fragmented medieval one.

Finally, the world-society view also rejects the claim that globalization undermines nation-states. Noting the expansion of state bureaucracies since World War II, Meyer (1997: 157) writes that “globalization certainly poses new problems for states, but it also strengthens the world-cultural principle, that nation-state are the primary actors charged with identifying and managing those problems on behalf of their societies.” This argument is strikingly similar to the one offered by Panitch (1996: 84-86). The modern nation-state, world-society scholars conclude, “may have less autonomy than earlier but it clearly has more to do.” The analysis and critique presented in this reaction paper indicates that globalization, far from being a feeble phenomenon, is changing the nature of the world. However, it is neither an invariably civilizing force nor a destructive one. Political Scientist Ngaire Woods (2003) cautioned that “Governments need delicately to balance sovereignty and reaping the benefits of globalization.”

In his earlier publication of the Political Economy of Globalization (2000) Woods had asserted that “Globalization does not prohibit strong governments from maintaining welfare and good working conditions and how governments can cooperate to manage the flow of goods, people and problems across the borders.” He also asserted that surrendering some sovereignty and submitting to global rules will unshackle global commerce from messy national interventions; the result he claimed will “benefit all countries.” In Globalization and National Autonomy’ Woods (2003) seemed to be reversing his position on the issue of Globalization and National Autonomy’ study he had published in The Political Economy of Globalization” of the benefits of nation-states giving up national autonomy in a globalize economy. In his (London 2003) Review, he does not seem to be the optimist he once was in his earlier publication. He asserted that “the evidence of the impact of liberalization in countries across the world economy gives pause for thought to governments considering giving up national autonomy to integrate further into the world economy.” Woods concluded this time with less enthusiasm “evidence has been adduced to show that liberalization and globalization have been bad for developing countries.”

In conclusion globalization is neither a monolithic nor an inevitable phenomenon.
Its impact varies across countries, societal sectors and time. It is fragmented, contradictory, discontinuous, and even haphazard. It is centered on cross border flows and global communication and has affected two distinct features of the modern state: sovereignty and exclusive territoriality. In many nation-states, globalization has been accompanied by the creation of new legal regimes and practices. To many observers that process has been U.S. driven. In many countries, international or transnational has become a form of Americanization. Global capital has made claims on national states, which have responded through the production of new forms of legality. Globalization has undercut the social bargain that many nation-states in the developing countries have adopted since they became a nation-state after colonialism.


Cox, Robert W. 1996. “A Perspective on Globalization.” In Globalization: Critical
Reflections, edited by James H. Mittelman. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Gilpin, Robert. 1987. The Political Economy of International Relations.
Princeton, NJ: University Press.
Kennedy, Paul. 1993. Preparing for the Twenty-First Century.
New York: Random House.
Kobrin, Stephen J. 1997 “The Architecture of Globalization: State Sovereignty in a
Networked Global Economy,” Government, Globalization, and International
Business. New York: Oxford University Press.
Panitch, Leo. 1996. “Rethinking the Role of the State in Globalization Critical
Reflections.Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Rodrik, Dani. 1997. Has Globalization Gone too Far?
Washington DC: Institute of International Economics.
Sakamoto, Yoshikazu. 1994. Global Transformation: Challenges to the State System.
New York: United Nations University Press.
Strange, Susan. 1996. The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in World
Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sassen, Saskia. 1996. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization.
New York: Columbia University Press


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