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Globalisation and the alleged demise of the sovereign state




While this article is a contribution to a topical debate about the limits of the sovereign state that draws on examples from a range of countries, including some references to the Pacific, it is not primarily a comparative discussion of states in the Pacific.  However, the topics discussed are vitally important to all the states in the Pacific region. The claims made for political sovereignty by small states, and their responses to the expectations and demands of larger and more powerful states, have intense and ubiquitous political impacts.

In the past decade and a half, there has been widespread academic debate[1] predicting the demise of the modern state. Unlike some earlier Marxist predictions that the end of the state would be the result of the collapse of the capitalist economy, this later representation of state obsolescence assumes the total victory of advanced capitalism in a post cold war global economy. Global economic and cultural forces have increasingly been successful, it is argued. Communication revolutions such as the World Wide Web have “shrunk” the globe, more than half of the top hundred largest economic entities are corporations, and societies are allegedly more homogenous and more connected to each other than ever before.

Other more radical criticisms point to the inequities of globalisation; for example, there are arguments that the international economy is now disrupted by massive speculative capital flows, or that the draconian policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund inhibit state economic performance as well as state independence. The apparent erosion of state sovereignty, it is argued, applies to both rich and poor states.  Rich states such as Australia and United Kingdom, for instance, make unreciprocated international arrangements with the USA, on extradition, for example. Of course, for poorer countries this lack of reciprocity presents an even more serious plight.  The interest repayments on international loans often economically cripple states dependent on international assistance and aid.  Political sovereignty may be valued even more if a state is economically weak and dependent. Witness the frustration about the perceived loss of sovereignty by Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, following Australian government attempts to tightly monitor Australian aid expenditures in 2003.[2]

Even more dramatically, the Australian 2003 and 2004 operation to assist Solomon Islands provides a clear example of military and police incursion in the affairs of a small pacific state. Although there are clear grounds for an argument about lost SI sovereignty here, a note of caution is required. A legal government that required substantial external assistance in maintaining law and order, and basic state institutions invited the military task force. If the bulk of the population and the government desire some form of outside intervention, it can hardly be seen as a return of colonial-type political power and the demise of a functioning sovereign state.[3] Also there may be relevant arguments here that external assistance is sometimes required to reclaim sovereign authority in circumstances where law enforcement and government authority have been seriously eroded. This points to a paradox that in the long-term sovereignty can sometimes be increased if it is diminished in the short-term. The case for strengthening central European Union institutions at the expense of the sovereignty of the constituent states can be argued in similar terms.  

Before further considering the concept of globalisation, I shall briefly consider the external and internal dimensions of state sovereignty, including the cultural dimension of sovereignty.



Externally, the concept of state sovereignty underpins the international state system that emerged from Westphalia and Versailles, and that found its high point in the second half of the twentieth century in European decolonisation and the multilateralism of the United Nations. In the Pacific, there is a range of sovereign entities. The most numerous are legally fully sovereign states. Since the rapid decolonisation of the last quarter of the twentieth century these states enjoy their own representation at the United Nations.  Other polities aspire to statehood. This category includes states colonised by old colonial powers, such as New Caledonia, as well as aspirant states seeking independence by breaking away from new states, such as parts of PNG, SI, and Vanuatu. Other polities, Niue and Palau for example, have the intermediate status of associated states, and there is little pressure for more independence. Tokelau, some would argue, is being pushed from being a colony of New Zealand to be an associated state, even though the people of the small group of atolls do not want increased independence.[4]

But whatever pressures are generated out of the colonial-nationalist struggle typical of the twentieth century, there are new tensions in world politics that have ramifications throughout the Pacific and throughout the international state system. Certainly this system is experiencing some recent dislocation.  For example, the USA mega-state under the presidency of George W Bush adopted a policy of unilateralism with regard to international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change eralism with regard to international treaties such as the [5], the International Criminal Court Treaty[6], the Biological Weapons Convention[7], and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty[8]. An American so-called realist view of national interest and state sovereignty is asserting itself after the shock of 9 /11.  According to this view, the USA and its closest allies can use a dispute anywhere in the world to justify an intervention in any country, using the so-called Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike for reasons of home security.  This argument for the special rights of the United States in international relations led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a coalition led by the United States, the subsequent military occupation of Iraq, and the United States claim in 2004 to restoring Iraqi sovereignty while the military occupation continued.[9] 

The Bush doctrine assumed that the United Nations has failed to provide multilateral security (although by 2004 there was some change to this as the United States attempted to secure the support of the United Nations in Iraq). However, some arguments for intervention in the affairs of other states do not assume that the United Nations has failed, or that state sovereignty has necessarily diminished. Gareth Evans[10] (former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs) puts a more limited view of external state sovereignty. He defines sovereignty as both an external respect for the sovereignty of other states, and an internal responsibility to protect the basic right of all people within the state. In answering the question, is it permissible to intervene in a state that fails to protect its people, Evans says this is justified only when it is authorized by either the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations. Evan’s position is one view among many.[11] Some continue to see any intervention as necessarily neo-colonial. Rhetoric about rogue states, failing states, and the war on terror, raises similar concerns about the alleged decline of state sovereignty.[12]

 Is outside intervention in the affairs of supposedly sovereign states an irreversible trend? And does the global reach of the current military strength of the USA mean that external state sovereignty is dead or dying? Another view, one that considers sovereignty to be adapting to changed conditions, but not under terminal threat, is that the diminution or even collapse of the sovereignty of weaker states is no more than the continuation of a fairly long term trend, already institutionalised in the world trade system, and in the institutions of the United Nations itself. According to this view economic independence for any state is almost impossible in an integrated world economy, but levels of dependence and inter-dependence vary greatly. Many states in the Pacific Islands, for example, are very aid dependant and are therefore in comparatively weak economic relationships with donor countries. However such external constraints are less apparent in their relations with other aid dependant states.



What is internal state sovereignty and how does it relate to globalisation?  Internal state sovereignty takes many forms.  One familiar view is that it resides, in the last resort, for ultimate legal decision, after all available avenues for appeal are exhausted. This linear idea has prompted generations of public lawyers to make claims about the indivisibility of sovereign power. For example, the British school of Dicey and Bagehot promoted the ideal of the absolute power of parliament and abhorred any attempt to share its sovereignty (viewing federal systems as illegitimate). Illogically, such a view persists, despite the near ubiquity of the competing concept of legislative constraint by a judicially interpreted supreme or basic law.

Also, non-legal notions of power need to be considered. For example, arguments about parliamentary sovereignty in the Dicey tradition fly in the face of the practical experience of the British state in sharing power. Power in the British state is certainly not contained within the institution of parliament although arguments differ about whether parliamentary sovereignty has been usurped by one or a number of the following centres of power: party, cabinet, prime minister, corporation, the USA, the United Nations, or the European Union. And despite legal acceptance of the theory of a unitary state under a sovereign parliament, there have in historical practice been many experiments with quasi-federal arrangements, with actual political power dispersed to Empire, Dominions, federal-type arrangements with respect to Ireland, devolution to parliaments in Scotland and Wales as well as to local government, power sharing with the European Union, and through international treaties of all sorts.

For most states, including those in the Pacific, the constitution rather than the parliament is the legal basis of internal state sovereignty. But other extra-legal matters also have a profound effect on the practical exercise of state power. The internal powers of states change over time. Factors affecting this include the degree of centralisation, the relative autonomy allowed for the peripheries, and the functions of the state itself. For most states these factors have changed enormously over time. For example, the public sectors of many developed states have grown, even as some economic functions are removed through the process of privatisation.[13]  But while power clearly has legal, political and economic components, we must remember that it also has a cultural dimension.  And if we also include the normative aspects of power, most typically arguments abut ethics and democracy and the legitimacy of state power, then the resulting definition of state sovereignty may be very wide indeed. Custom and traditional leadership, for instance, may sometimes compete with state power. For many Pacific states the reach of the government is very limited beyond the urban sector. In villages and the remoter islands of Vanuatu, for example, a level of local autonomy may almost amount to a local sovereignty at times.

 The cultural dimension of sovereignty is worthy of some consideration in this context. Most states in the modern world are made up of people from many backgrounds, with different languages spoken by migrants and by people in different regions, for example.  There are few countries where there is not considerable diversity. Claims to a homogenous culture within a state are often nationalistic simplifications of complex histories. In Pacific Island states, for example, the word culture may denote a variety of practices and beliefs, from the most general, as in Melanesian culture or even the Pacific Way, to very specific beliefs and practices common to very small sub-set of people within one village. Claims to a national culture are necessarily contestable in this regard. For example, Benedict Anderson argues that the most important feature of postcolonial states is the exact replication of the colonial boundary with the boundary of the newly independent state. In many cases this is a more important factor, says Anderson, than geography, religion, language, culture, or ethnicity.[14]   States such as Indonesia and Nigeria have their colonial origins in boundaries drawn by ill-informed colonial officials, ignoring linguistic and cultural differences. According to Anderson, it was local leaders, mostly educated in Europe, who made these diverse areas into independent nations. The reason for this is that the experience of empire by the colonised local educated elites included a metropolitan training in ideas such as political freedom, democracy and nationalism. Thus, according to Anderson, European empires created their own opposition, consisting of those who campaigned for colonial independence using imported ideas of nationalism. Anderson’s views on the origins of modern states, and the views of others who argue that nationalism is a modern European phenomenon, have been criticised for their eurocentrism. Partha Chatterjee, for example, argues that the modern Indian state is not a mere copy of a pre-existing European political module, and its specific history is not merely a replication of modes of state experience already found in Europe. [15]



Economic, technological and cultural change across the globe is not a new phenomenon, although the current rate of change may be novel. The huge economic changes that transformed eighteenth and nineteen century Europe led to a world economic system of trade based partly on the exploitation of plantation economies around the world. Communication revolutions allowed capital and labour to move around the globe at an unprecedented rate. In the centuries before this European domination other waves of expansion, migration and development transformed cultures in all inhabited continents. In more recent times the United States has become the new centre of western global economic power. In all these changes there is a process and also a range of reactions that may be called globalisation. The pace and the pattern of change may be new, but the process of globalisation is very familiar. All of these historical changes have also involved enormous cultural transformations. They have also caused conflicts between the victims and the beneficiaries of rapid change. In particular, cultural conflicts have been evident between the values of the modern enthusiastic advocates of change, and the values of the traditional or the atavistic opponents to the modern threat.

In many countries an unlikely combination of conservatives, especially in remote, rural and regional areas, and urban radicals, deplore globalisation. It is seen by them to be inimical to the interests of local, regional communities and also to national or international interests. It allegedly destroys local cultures. Such beliefs are not unusual. For example, the Vanuatu Daily Post[17] reports the leader and son of the founder of the Santo-based separatist Nagriamel movement, Chief Frankie Moli Sakene, commenting inter alia on the meaning of ‘Sovereign’ in the Vanuatu constitution.  A sovereign, he says, is a gold coin, a unit of currency. The Chief believes that the collective of all the citizens of Vanuatu should own these coins.  He believes that this would provide a (gold) standard for financial security and opportunity for all citizens.  The issue of coinage and currency control is a familiar emblem of financial independence. The current nationalistic furore in the UK over replacing the pound sterling with the euro is a case in point. Importantly, the Nagriamel argument is also a variation on the theme that the intersection of the international and the national economic environment, the capitalist global economy, benefits only the richest, and such global forces should be resisted by state regulation, control and protection.

Deregulation of the economy, the removal of tariff protection, trade liberalisation, economic rationalism, and the belief in unfettered markets, are all under attack in a sustained anti-globalisation protest. Internationally, the advocates of the cult of the market place and free trade have been under more direct physical attack at meetings of world leaders to discuss deregulation of tariffs and industry protection. Such resistance is not new.  Perception of the “modern” as the major threat to traditional ways of life is a very familiar historical narrative. In nineteenth century Europe, for instance, conservatives deplored the loss of traditional ways of life as industrialization destroyed the harmonious landscape of old England. Similarly, and at the same time, in British colonised India the nationalist reaction to westernisation often followed a similar trajectory. In many other parts of the world, local, regional and national reactions to the cultural dominations of the west could be expressed in ambiguous ways that rejected the idea of a heartless, soulless, materialistic oppressor. Today this defining of a local, regional or national culture by explicit comparison with its alleged oppressor culture is a key feature of many critiques of globalisation.

For many such cultures the definition of their own distinctive qualities can be defined and measured against the perceived culture of the United States, and in particular, American-based multi-national corporations can stand as the essentialised enemy. However, there is no necessary contradiction between the local and regional and national cultures on the one hand and the process of globalisation on the other.  Indeed, resistance to perceived global cultural forces can reinforce local regional and national cultures. Of course, local perceptions of globalisation are often of a rival and foreign culture, based on perceived ways of life in New York or Los Angeles. But local culture bearers who see local and global cultures as entirely fixed and in permanent opposition to the culture of globalisation may have misread both cultures. Cultural change, according to cultural critic Homi Bhaba, is more complex.[18] It implies neither social antagonism nor contradiction. Negotiation and translation in the space of hybridity are the building blocks of Bhaba's understanding of cultural theory and practice. Hybridity, he asserts, allows for negotiation, rather than negation between cultures.

Narrow binary views of cultures in permanent opposition are not usually helpful explanations of complex phenomena, although they most certainly do motivate political action. The perception of economic, military or cultural threat is a powerful incentive for groups to unite behind a nationalist cause.  Arguably, this quality of opposition to global forces is integral to the sentiment of a nationalistic support of state sovereignty, where perceptions of failure may unite groups more than does their apparent success. For example, a nationalist resistance to the provision of aid, particularly conditional or tied aid, by powerful neighbouring states may be represented as an assault on national culture by insensitive outsiders. For instance, then Vanuatu Prime Minister Serge Vohor, speaking on the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation (VBTC) said that his government sought aid that was requested by his government, rather than aid imposed from the outside. [19]

There are many different points of attachment and loyalty to the idea of any particular state. These nationalisms include some sense of what a particular group of people think is important about themselves and their differences from others, almost always articulated as a series of essentialised oppositions, and in many cases these are enlisted in arguments about the basis for setting up or for maintaining a set of political institutions recognized in international law as a sovereign state.



The current debate about the end of state sovereignty as a response to globalisation takes a very narrow time frame in which to locate both state sovereignty and globalisation. The view that globalisation has caused the erosion, or even the inevitable extinction, of state sovereignty, depends on seeing globalisation as an entirely new phenomenon, apparent only in the past twenty or thirty years, and in seeing state sovereignty exemplified by a few advanced industrial states, with highly regulated economies, typically in Western Europe, in the approximately thirty year period following World War Two. Such a narrow basis of comparison is probably the conceit of an intellectual generation for whom the Western Europe or Australia of the mid-1970s was the norm, the comparative benchmark, rather than an atypical period of state development, when measured against the wider geographical and historical experiences of most states, or emergent states, in the last century or more.

Although the total independence of states remains a highly debatable notion, it has not diminished the desires of people around the world to argue for their own distinctiveness, and for their need to assert themselves, particularly in opposition to the most powerful and the most economically advanced states in the world. To some extent we may see this process both as a threat to, and a reworking of, notions of state sovereignty. But reduction in state power is not inevitable. If we compare the situation, not over the last thirty years, but over a much longer time frame, and across the territories of all the states now represented in the United Nations, the erosion of state sovereign power is not dramatic. In many cases it has dramatically increased, and its future may lead in finding more creative ways of seeing cooperative regulation internally and externally.

While globalisation is not an entirely new phenomenon, it does have sufficient distinctive contemporary features to make difficulties for even the very strongest state, both domestically and in the international arena. And for weaker states (or failed states as they are sometimes denigrated) globalisation does not only offer difficulties of the “economic imperialism” type, but arguments abound about their permeability to terrorism or crime. For example, ‘[t]he Pacific could be viewed as a soft target by terrorist groups including Jemaah Islamiah, a senior United States government official has warned. He said the threat of terrorism was a daily reality. "Any country may be a target of terrorism and terrorists are likely to focus on ‘soft targets’," he said.’[20]

Resistance to international globalisation of power is central to internal state development, especially in the states that were previously parts of world empires. At the state institutional level, and at the economic and cultural levels, such concerns are evident within states as well as between states. The same sorts of argument, about the threats to the national economy and culture from the international global order, are often replicated by the local reactions to the national, where the state system of previously colonised states (in relation to the peripheral territories of such states) replicates the patronising assumptions and methods of the old colonial powers. Resistance to the perceived potential loss of sovereignty is often vigorous, and through the negotiation of difference, new forms of culture, economy and state institution, are being formed.  Such transformations are not necessarily improvements or worsening of previous positions, of course, nor are they inevitable. Political action can affect outcomes. State sovereignty has changed over time and place for several centuries, and new state arrangements continue to present major challenges for public policy and international law. Academic obituaries for the sovereign state are, to say the least, a little premature. But when a particular state’s sovereignty is transformed, as it adapts to changing external and internal, legal, economic and political conditions, and to new cultural negotiations, another vital question arises. Are the resultant new and changing state arrangements perceived to be legitimate, efficient, democratic, ethical, or equal, and if so, by whom?


s An earlier version of this paper was given as a seminar paper to the School of Law, USP, Vanuatu, in August, 2003.

Jeff Archer is Associate Professor in Political and International Studies and Head of the School of Social Science at the University of New England in NSW, Australia. He has published many articles in political science and related disciplines.

[1] See for example, Joseph Camilleri and Jim Falk, The end of Sovereignty: the politics of a fragmenting and shrinking world (1992).

[2] The first significant proposal to increase intervention at the expense of sovereignty was found in Susan Windybank and Mike Manning, ‘Papua New Guinea on the Brink’ (Issue Analysis No 30, Centre for Independent Studies, 12 March 2003) www.cis.org.au/IssueAnalysis/ia30/ia30.pdf  (Accessed 27 September 2004); For reaction to proposed Australian interventionism see, for example, ‘Australia, PNG swap barbs over aid’ 3 Sept 2003, CNN online edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/auspac/09/03/papua.australia.aid.reut/ (Accessed 26 September 2004).

[3] For further discussion see Sinclair Dinnen, ‘Lending a Fist? Australia’s Interventionism in the Southwest Pacific’ (Discussion Paper No 2004/5 State Society and Governance in Melanesia Project, Australian National University, 2004).

[4] See, for example, Michael Field, ‘The UN’s misguided plan to cut Tokelau adrift’ Pacific Islands Report 15 September 2004 pidp.eastwestcenter.org/pireport/2004/September/09-15-com1.htm (Accessed 27 September 2004).

[5] Opened for signature from 16 March 1998 to 15 March 1999. Parties that did not sign the protocol may accede to it.

[6] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Opened for signature 17 July 1998. Entered into force, July 1 2002.

[7] Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction Opened for signature April 10, 1972.
Entered into force March 26, 1975.

[8] The US withdrew from this treaty on June 13 2002.

[9] The legal implications of the Bush doctrine are potentially wide reaching. For discussion see the ‘Agora: future implications of the war in Iraq’ in (2003) American Journal of International Law 97(3) & 97(4).

[10] Quoted by Kelly above, citing Foreign Affairs, 2002, November, December.

[11] See S. Makinda, ‘Debating Sovereignty  and Intervention’ (2004)  Australian Journal of Political Science 39(2) 430.

[12]  See, for example, the discussions of this in I. Molloy (ed)The Eye of The Cyclone: Issues in Pacific Security (2004).

[13]  For example, the changes to the internal dynamics of the British state are chronicled in P. Harling, The Modern British State: an Historical Introduction (2001).

[14] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). 

[15] Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1993).

[16] Parts of this section of the paper draw extensively on my work previously published in (2001) Australian Folklore 16, 77.

[17] 14 August 2003 p.4.

[18] Homi Bhaba, Location of Culture (1994) 25.

[19] ‘Vohor calls for sense of nationalism’ Vanuatu Daily Post, 4 August  2004.

[20] ‘Pacific a soft terror target’ Port Vila Presse Online, 11 August 2004 www.news.vu/en/news/RegionalNews/pacific-a-soft-terror-tar.shtml (Accessed 27 September 2004).

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