by Jonathan Movroydis

In this interview, Senior Fellow Russell A.  Berman describes how the global COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the nation-state’s re-emergence as a dominant actor in international politics. He also discusses historical perspectives on the nation-state; the viability of international organizations such as the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization; and what the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda means for the future of globalization.


Russell Berman

What defines the modern nation-state?

Berman: The modern nation-state evolved over the course of the 18th century. Certainly the United States is a prime example, but the full modern sense of national identity emerged somewhat later, effectively out of the experience of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic

Wars, and that national framework dominated much political thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet an alternative parameter of 18th-century thought pushed toward the concept of “universalism,” a model of a global politics that would surpass individual nationality. The relationship between the paradigm of the nation-state and the paradigm of universalism varied over two or three centuries. However, one can certainly say that the appeal to universalism generated various models of antipathy toward national sovereignty and borders.

One version of universalism was communist internationalism. The communists argued that the worker had no homeland. Borders were disdained as provincial and retrograde, only serving the interests of national elites. In theory, this communist version was about the international solidarity for the proletariat class. In practice, however, for the lion’s share of the 20th century, this rhetoric was just a cover for Soviet-Russian imperialism.

At the same time, in a very different corner of sociopolitical thought, models of capitalism developed that had been and remain similarly suspicious of borders, along with protectionism, tariffs, and other barriers to trade. It comes out of the classical political economy that David Ricardo wrote about in the early 19th century and continues today. As globalizing neo-liberalism, it argues for an integrated global economy rather than one that is defined by the interests, institutions, and traditions of distinct nations. Hence a certain tension is inescapable between a democracy understood in terms of national political communities and an economy unencumbered by national borders.

How did those two ideologies fare in a system largely composed of nation-states?

Berman: The communist ideology was consistently critical of nation-states and national identity, unless they could be manipulated for Soviet gain, which took place again and again, particularly when the Soviet Union supported so-called “wars of national liberation” around the world. The real issue today came later, with the turning point being 1989: when Communism as we knew it was defeated; when the Berlin wall fell; when the Soviet Empire began to crumble in the subsequent years.

This led some Western intellectuals to celebrate what they regarded as the conclusive victory of liberal democracy and market capitalism. As I mentioned before, these ideas drew on the legacies of enlightenment optimism. In this case, they formed the component parts of globalization, which would give prominence to international organizations over sovereign states. A subsequent problem, however, involves the difference between sovereign states, which today generally find legitimacy through elections, and international organizations, which seem to stand outside democratic processes: hence the frequent critique of their opaque bureaucracies.

Since the end of the Cold War, how have nation-states grappled with globalization and increased power to international organizations?

Berman: The most salient example is the European Union, which was built on a legacy of the common market, formed during the post–World War II period with the hope of integrating Europe’s economies. However, not until the 1990s did Europe start to move at an accelerated pace toward political integration. This has generated problems.

Germany is a complicated case. On the one hand, reunification following the Cold War meant the restoration of national sovereignty. On the other hand, Germany’s entry into the European Union meant that it should abdicate part of that regained sovereignty, at least nominally. The Germans still have yet to figure out whether they are as normatively committed to the European Union as they claim, or whether the European Union is alternatively serving as a vehicle for German national interests, which is what many Europeans have come to believe.

A similar tension between integration and independence is playing out in the countries of Central Europe, from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. The EU expects these states to relinquish aspects of their sovereignty, even though they achieved their independence just three decades ago, after over 70 years of living under Soviet Communism.

The same dynamic between integration and sovereignty works in different ways in other parts of Europe. In Italy, which has been impacted most severely by the COVID-19 pandemic, people self-isolating in their homes sang their country’s national anthem from their balconies. This singing reflected both an expression of pride in country and a gesture of criticism toward the EU for mishandling the crisis and, so many believe, for failing to offer a helping hand to Italy.

Institutions of aspirational international governance do not have a good track record in enforcing their mandates. In past crises, the United Nations has acted with considerable hesitation and often ineffectively. Due to Russia’s veto power, the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful governing body, has not been able to support efforts to stop ethnic cleansing in Syria. Similarly, because of China’s seat at the table, the Security Council cannot act to stop the genocide of the Uighurs in Northwest China.

Doubts about the credibility of the World Health Organization [WHO] are current front-page news, because it has appeared to follow distorted information from China. What is particularly breathtaking in this COVID-19 crisis however is that the United Nations, aside from the WHO, has been absent without leave. Neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly has provided meaningful relief efforts for the global pandemic.

If the United Nations, the primary international organization, cannot act in the face of an international crisis of this scope, why does it exist? At the very least, our expectations about its impact should be ratcheted down significantly. Yet  as international organizations have failed, national governments have frequently acted with great vigor and alacrity.  What this shows, in my opinion, is that the state, the nation-state, the sovereign state, retains a credibility and a sense of responsibility for the protection of its citizenry.

That's the return of the nation-state.

Could you give some examples of how the nation-state has responded effectively during this crisis?

Berman: In East Asia, the governments of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have all capably led their countries through this crisis. (That Taiwan remains excluded from WHO in order to mollify Beijing remains a scandal.)  In Europe, Austria was also very forward leaning in its response, but others followed suit in distinct ways. The Trump administration was severely criticized for issuing a travel ban by the European Union, which then however imposed the same measures a week later. In general, any significant actions taken by European nations were decided and carried out on the national level.

States made decisions about managing containment, sourcing medical equipment, and providing economic relief. Thus, the nation-state’s ability to exercise authority has been more integral in managing this crisis than have international organizations.

Can an argument be made that the nation-state was already on its way to regaining prominence, and the COVID-19 crisis was a tipping point that accelerated this rise?

Berman: It may be a tipping point, and you are raising a very interesting methodological question for historiography. Historians talk about these turning points, these profound caesurae that transform the world, but when one looks closely, there were already prior currents which were only amplified by the crisis.

The globalization paradigm that was celebrated so optimistically after 1989 as “the end of history” had already run into several phenomena that resisted it. One was 9/11, which demonstrated that other interpretations of the world and human existence retain credibility, even if they are far outside of the post-enlightenment framework. The second was the financial collapse of 2008, which exposed the fragility of the global economic system. The third was Europe’s immigration crisis of 2015, which became a turning point in the West and caused many of its leaders to embrace their respective national identities more strongly and consider tougher border-enforcement measures. Even Germany, which is often seen as the gold standard for accepting refugees, has in fact enlisted Turkey to guard the borders to the EU to forestall future immigration waves. This is homologous to current arrangements between the United States and Mexico. Borders matter.

These aspects—9/11, financial crisis, immigration—have all put pressure on the globalization model, but there is also a different but related phenomenon. The re-emergence of the nation-state has gone hand in hand with an increased prominence of executive authority in government. In the face of an emergency like COVID-19, it has been ultimately the president, the prime minister, or the chancellor who makes decisions, perhaps because they are subject to elections, unlike leaders of international organizations. In any case the crisis has pushed, at a faster pace, the whole world toward an increasingly “decision-ist” model of politics.

The increased empowerment of executive authority was a trend that predated COVID-19. I argue that the socioeconomic and deep cultural shifts since the end of the Cold War, probably before that as well, have led to situations in many countries in which the established political parties have not been able to adjust with sufficient suppleness and alacrity. The parties have not kept pace with the experience of the population. This has led to a decline in voter loyalty and the rise of new party formations, or in the United States it has led to intra-party revolts against the respective establishments.

The new parties are sometimes extreme populist parties, on both right and left of the political range, but the point is that the whole spectrum has been impacted. If one thinks about Europe, the parties that dominated Italy for decades after World War II have all disappeared. In France, the one achievement of President Emmanuel Macron has been to erase the inherited political party landscape. West Germany had a fairly stable political party landscape of two big parties and a small one for decades, but now in unified Germany there is a six-party system that engenders a new kind of instability. My point is that the reorganization of the parties has often weakened them and the legislatures, leading to the prominence of stronger executive figures. This description does not hold for only populist leaders, who are typically pointed out, but also for Macron or even German chancellor Angela Merkel, who both have been able to shape political climates in which they face barely any parliamentary opposition. Therefore, in Western liberal democracies, we can see an amplification of executive authority and a dilution of the legislative process. The United States may represent the least of all Western democracies that have become increasingly executive oriented, since its two-party system in Congress still plays a significant role, and of course the Obama administration made exceptional use of executive orders. The stronger executive goes hand in hand with the re-emergence of the state, which of course raises concerns about liberty and rights.

Will the re-emergence of the nation-state also mean the re-emergence of economic nationalism?

Berman: Economic nationalism certainly predates COVID-19. One could read President Trump’s agenda within that framework. It certainly represents the economic agenda of China. In Europe, the economic agendas of the individual countries still appear to be wrapped up in the integrated market system of the European Union, but one has to look more closely, behind the rhetoric. On the surface, many European leaders talk about the urgency of multilateralism and international cooperation. However, they pursue their national interests quite intensely. The French are doing all they can to protect their national defense industry, while the Germans pursue an energy relationship to Russia, despite protests elsewhere in Europe. In my opinion, many European leaders talk more about multilateralism than really pursue it.

In addition, within the European Union, there is a constant tension between the northern and southern countries. The Northern Europeans, particularly Germany, resist what they call a “transfer union.” They don't want to provide economic support to the Southern European states, which have faced extraordinarily high levels of unemployment, even before COVID-19. Unless the European Union changes course and allows for much greater support for the south in the face of the imminent economic downturn, the north-south tensions that emerged around the Greek debt crisis will return again, with a vengeance. This could threaten the coherence of the EU or at least the Eurozone.

Does China’s recent behavior provide a convincing case for the re-emergence of the nation-state?

Berman: This is another example of the prior existence of a phenomenon, which became enormously clear in the wake of a crisis. During the past decade, opinion-making circles of the United States and Europe have been growing increasingly skeptical about China. Now that skepticism has amplified significantly on both sides of the Atlantic.

The globalization model, the “end of history” model, argued favorably for an integrated world economy in general. What this really meant in particular, however, was integrating China into the free-market economy. China is not just any other country;  it is one very big country, and its integration into the world economy was always at the core of the globalization agenda.

Globalization proponents believed that as China became increasingly integrated into the capitalist world market, it would adopt liberal principles and would become politically liberalized as well, much as when Mikhail Gorbachev adopted glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s before the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

What happened instead was an enormous integration of the supply chain that advantaged China relative to the rest of the world with no political liberalization of the country whatsoever: no freedom of speech, no independent courts, no free multiparty elections. If anything, China has regressed to its early days of Maoism under the increasingly regressive communist political culture dominated by President Xi Jinping.

The tipping point in evaluating China took place before COVID-19. President Trump deserves a lot of credit for calling out China. He was the first president to do so, although even under the Obama administration the doubts about China were beginning to appear.

Skepticism about China is no longer only about unfair trade practices, it is also about a repressive regime that hid the truth about a very contagious and lethal virus and therefore exported it to the world. If the Beijing regime had been honest about the outbreak in November or early December, if it had admitted that the disease could be transferred via human-to-human contact, then the epidemic might have been contained within Wuhan. At a minimum, China could have given the world ample warning about COVID-19 so that countries could have taken steps to slow its spread. However, well into mid-January the line from the China-dominated WHO was, “No human-to-human contact, no problem.”

Do you think there's still a useful role for international organizations?

Of course, but we have to be realistic about our expectations as to what they can achieve and not let them burgeon into threats to national sovereignty and independence. We have to recognize that they are not very well equipped to protect nation-states from external threats. The United Nations may produce some good on lower-level humanitarian projects, although there too bureaucratic culture, endemic politicization, and manipulation efforts by our adversaries distort the UN’s achievements, rendering them often questionable. More saliently however, as I mentioned earlier, its most powerful authority, the Security Council, has proven incapable of addressing major crises.

I think the question for the United States moving forward is this: facing failed international organizations like WHO or the UN Human Rights Council, is the right step to withdraw and defund, or is the right step to stay and try to reform? This is not a matter of general principle; this is a matter of pragmatic political calculation in each specific case. If the judgment is reached that an international organization is indeed irredeemably dysfunctional, despite having a mission that is important, then the United States should withdraw and set up an alternative organization. However it is not productive simply to withdraw and just cede ground to our adversaries, who will be happy to fill the void left in these organizations and then use them for their own political purposes. If the United States leaves rotten international organizations, it should provide leadership to solve the respective problems by other means.

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