To what extent has the sovereignty of the nation-state been undermined by globalization?

There are some, they are often called hyper-globalisers, who are argue that we are rapidly moving towards a borderless world - a kind of global village - in which  nation-state institutions are powerless to control the flow of trans-national activity. At the other extreme, there are those, the sceptics, who argue that the decline of the nation-state has been greatly exaggerated. They argue that even within trans-national institutions, nation-states remain very powerful actors.

In the following essay, I shall argue for a third, alternative view. Following the perspective put forward by Held and McGrew I shall argue that globalisation has effected a transformation of the nation-state (Held and McGrew et al: 1999).  In other words, there has certainly been a significant re-drawing of the limits of state authority but this has not led to a borderless world.


The economic dimension of globalisation, it could be argued, has presented the most powerful challenge to the sovereignty of the nation state. This is because any undermining of the state's capacity to regulate economic activity also leads to an undermining of it's capacity to maintain political and cultural sovereignty. For example, if a government is limited in the fiscal and monetary policies it is able to pursue because investment, employment and spending levels within its own economy are determined by many actors or effects outside of its jurisdiction then it is surely less free to pursue certain programmes of social/public policy. The best way of illustrating this is to highlight the demise of the old social democratic/Keynsian model of economic and social policy. This model depended upon the government's capacity to control it's economy by influencing levels of demand. The problem, in an era of globalisation, is that level's of demand are more significantly effected by factors beyond the government's jurisdiction - such as the shifting fortunes of the stockmarket, international investment and even terrorism. It is true that these factors have been present for a long time. However, new communications technologies and more efficient methods of international transportation mean that economic activity is much more trans-nationally connected - which means that the economic fortunes of various parts of the world can have a greater impact trans-nationally (Held ed: 2000, 85-127).

Nonetheless, greater economic connectedness across borders effects different state's differently. The operation of multi-national companies on a global scale can be said to be far more threatening to the sovereignty of smaller nation-states than others. This is not least because many multi-nationals are wealthier than sovereign states. Their capacity to invest in, or withdraw from, certain countries will depend upon favourable economic conditions - such as wage levels, labour policies and even social policy. On the other hand, more powerful state's such as the U.S and the various members of the European Union have a much greater influence on trans-national economic bodies such as the IMF, the World Bank and the forging of important economic treaties.


This leads us to the second main way in which globalisation has effected a transformation of the nation-state, namely in political terms. Since the second world war we have seen the development of a number of important international political institutions which, to some degree, have legal and political authority over nation-states. The two most significant of these institutions have surely been the European Union and the United Nations. For member states of the European Union, European Law has precedence over domestic law and the citizens of EU states can take their grievances, perhaps concerning their government’s failure to uphold EU law, to the European Court of justice. Much of the authority of European Union, to be sure, has bee centred around trade regulations and migration but since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 the EU gained some measure of authority over areas of social policy. Ultimately, it is difficult to measure sovereignty, partly because there are so many conflicting interpretations of its meaning - the constitutional meaning of sovereignty differs in different countries - but if it means the capacity of the nation-state to influence economic, political and cultural activities within it’s own territorial boundaries then there has surely been a significant undermining of sovereignty for EU member states (Held et al: 2000, 127-169)

And their sovereignty has been further undermined, arguably, by the emergence of what is now fashionably called global governance. Many commentators are now referring to a whole array of global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, the World Health Authority and many others that have formed a complex network of global governance which is not centred in one central authority but which together have significant authority over individual nation-states. And in recent years we have also seen the emergence of what some writers have called ‘global civil society’. This refers to the rise of international non governmental organisations that put pressure on both individual states and international institutions in pursuit of different causes, and which interconnect, co-operate and conflict on a global scale. This ‘global civil society’ is beyond the jurisdiction of any individual nation-state and can also be said to have led to an undermining of nation-state sovereignty (Held et al: 2000, 127-169).


Global civil society also has cultural implications. Previously, it was often thought that the world divided up between national peoples whose principle identity was their national identity. But within a globalising world - partly driven by global civil society - people are increasingly exposed to forms of life, views and practices across the globe (Keane, 2003). To some extent, it could be argued, this has weakened many people’s sense of their own national identity.(Held et al: 2000, 47-85). This is because their attitudes and views are much more likely to be influenced by their experiences of diverse forms of life throughout the world and somewhat less likely to be determined by the values that form the national identity of the nation-state that is their usual residence. Indeed, it could even be said that in a globalising world identity has become even more localised - attached to particular aspirations or more localised geographical areas which makes them more open, on the one hand, to the other distant forms of life and on the other hand less strongly attached to a national identity. New communications technology has certainly has certainly had a powerful influence on this emerging condition. The internet and wider access to international travel has made the world a smaller place, as the cliche goes. Indeed, some commentators are now speaking of the emergence of a global public sphere - within which opinions are formed about matters of global importance by, or in front of, a global audience. Within this global sphere, the actions of nation-states are subject to a form of scrutiny that is beyond even the most authoritarian of states (Keane: 2003, 173-4)

However, talk of the undermining of the sovereignty of the nation-state should also be met with a note of caution. For whilst a transformation has surely taken place, the nation-state remains a very powerful actor both domestically and internationally. A good recent example is the British government’s consideration of ammending or withdrawing from article 3 of the Human Rights act - which prevents governments from deporting people who might suffer torture on their return. More generally, it must be noted that the decision-making structures of many international institutions continue to be dominated by nation-states. This certainly applies both to the European Union and the United Nations. And whilst undoubtedly many people feel less attached to a particular national identity, nationalism is by no means a spent force, as the various nationalist conflicts throughout the world should testify.


In conclusion it can be said that it is difficult to measure sovereignty. This is partly because the emerging conditions of globalisation are both highly complex and rapidly changing. Such is their novelty, indeed, that is might be said that we are still in the process of catching up to the new world order and have yet to measure it coherently. Nonetheless, sovereignty has surely been undermined by processes of globalisation. In economic terms this has taken place through the globalisation of economic activity which weakens the capacity of the nation-state to control economic activity within it’s own border. In political terms, the emergence of international institutions and global civil society has national state governments subject to authority and scrutiny at the international level to a significantly greater degree than was previously the case. And in cultural terms there is certainly a diminishing of national identity and far greater, global, cross cultural communication. That said however, the nation-state is still very much alive, functioning and very powerful.


  • David Held ed  (2000) A Globalising World, London: Open University Press.
  • David Held, Antony McGrew et al  (1999) Global Transformations: politics, economics and culture, Polity Press
  • John Keane, (2203) Global Civil Society, Cambridge University Press.
  • Manfred B. Steger (2003) Globalisation, Oxford University Press.

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