Today’s world of states is the result of complex trade-offs between economic size and heterogeneity, and is also the result of a process where the concept of national sovereignty successfully competed against other forms of governance. Ever since the landmark Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the building blocks of the world order have been national sovereign states on the one hand, and international multilateral international arrangements created by them on the other.
The Westphalian order that emerged in Europe and now spans the world proved to have a stabilising effect, making it difficult to change borders to create bigger units, especially now that war has largely been abandoned as a means of expanding territory. But some existing states are under pressure to split up as a result of nationalism and calls for cultural autonomy. Large countries where centralised government is under fire may face demands for devolution. So although existing states do not favour the creation of new states, they will probably continue to emerge.
Bigger entities of governance continue to be created, however, as a result of regional integration, including trade arrangements, security alliances and even political co-operations. A new world order seems to be emerging. Along with states and global institutions the building blocks include regions and regional organisations. The trend towards global governance clearly has enormous implications. In an article in the UN Chronicle in 2004 I hinted at the possibility of a UN reform in which regional organisations would be given seats in the Security Council along with states. It looked like social science fiction then, and some will probably say it still is. But Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, posed much the question in the last issue of Europe’s World in his article “Countering globalisation’s dark side”, when he asked whether at some point in the future there could be seats for regional organisations in the Security Council.
The EU is the world’s most advanced form of supranational regionalism. It has managed to develop a model that incorporates political elements in a deep economic integration, and challenges existing assumptions about governance. Although not the model for the rest of the world, its underlying idea of a regional integration with co-operation over culture, politics, security, economics and diplomacy, has to be an incentive for political and economic efforts in other regions to achieve stability and prosperity.
"A new world order seems to be emerging. Along with states and global institutions the building blocks include regions and regional organisations"
European integration has been accompanied by “de-federalisation”: the emergence of sub-national regional governance. The EU is not just a collection of 27 member states; it is also an association of hundreds of local regions. Regions can be found at all territorial levels. One could organise nice academic debates about what a region actually is, but a more pragmatic approach is just to accept the plurality of the concept and focus on what regions are not. They are not sovereign states! But regional governance does seem to be related to what is happening with and within states. Some will argue that we are witnessing a decline of the importance of states for many issues of governance, and that regions of all kinds are filling the gap.
The view that regions as entities of governance could or should complement or even replace states is shared by a growing number of scholars. Kenichi Ohmae argued in his book “The End of the Nation State” that regional economies are the new engines of prosperity while “traditional nation states have become unnatural, even impossible, business units in a global economy.” Robert Cooper in “The Breaking of Nations” noted that “the deconstruction of the modern state is not yet complete, but it proceeds rapidly” through the European Union and movements towards greater local regional autonomy. And Mark Leonard in “Why Europe will run the 21st century” called for a “regional domino effect” that should lead to a world of interdependent regional clubs.
I myself believe that an announcement of the “death of the state” is – to paraphrase Mark Twain – gravely exaggerated. In the foreseeable future, states will remain important centres of governance. But in an attempt to face the challenges of globalisation, states can – on a voluntary basis – turn to world and local regions to complement and even strengthen their power. As such, the world of states would gradually become a world of states and of regions.
"An extension of this idea might suggest that regions themselves could replace states as centres of governance"
Such a transformation has two main drivers. One is the diminishing capability of states in the global age to deliver good local governance. The other is the growing limitations of multilateral organisations to deliver good global governance in dealing with global threats. The pillar of the Westphalian world order, the state, and the pillar of multilateralism, the global international organisations, are both under siege. But states and international organisations can adapt and give birth to innovations that provide better governance. A world of states and regions could well be such an innovation that holds the promise of a renewed and better system of global and local governance. An extension of this idea might suggest that regions themselves could replace states as centres of governance.
For the EU to have a key role in this process, it has to have the internal mechanisms and institutional arrangements that will give it an effective presence on the world stage, as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty. Promoting regional integration and strengthening regional organisations needs to be high on the EU’s agenda. But support for sub-national regional governance and the forces of devolution must be handled with care. Kosovo has shown that the process of state building is not yet over. Recent developments in Belgium also show how quickly legitimate claims for cultural autonomy and regional economic governance can trigger separatist claims.
This role of the EU, assisting regional development both in Europe and globally, would not be a movement against states. It is a way for states to respond better to the challenges of globalisation. In that sense one could say that we are not moving towards a post-Westphalian world order but towards a neo-Westphalian world order.
The old world of states has made positive developments in governance, but has also created what Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen called an illusion of destiny that has resulted in incredible violence. The multiple world of regions could be a way to replace the illusion of a single national identity with the more realist view that people hold plural regional identities. As such, the world of regions might not only be a more complex world but also one with more chances of peace and freedom. Europe can help to make this challenging vision real.