A year ago, tiny Georgia tried to regain control over its breakaway enclave of South Ossetia. The Russians quickly expelled the Georgian army, to almost universal opprobrium from the West. South Ossetia, together with Abkhazia (combined population 300,000), promptly declared their ‘independence’, creating two new fictional sovereignties, and acquiring in the process all the official trappings of statehood: national heroes, colourful uniforms, anthems, flags, frontier posts, military forces, presidents, parliaments, and, most important, new opportunities for smuggling and corruption.
So far, only Russia and Nicaragua recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian recognition was widely seen as retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo (population 2 million), the breakaway province of Serbia, earlier last year.
A thousand miles to the west of Georgia is Moldova (population 3.5 million), which lies between Romania and Ukraine. Annexed by Tsarist Russia in 1812, joined to Romania in 1918, and re-annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, it seized its independence from Moscow in 1991. It is a member of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and various other prestigious international bodies.
Moldova’s claim to fame is King Stephen the Great, who defeated the Ottomans in a great 15th century battle. It also produces rather good wine. An enduring memory from my own recent visit to its capital, Chisinau, is the election poster of a local politician called Lupu, who holds a pair of spectacles to his eyes, whether to suggest visions or wisdom isn’t clear.
To get to Moldova from Odessa (now in Ukraine), one must drive through the self-proclaimed ‘republic’ of Transdniestria (population 700,000), a sliver of land on the north shore of the Dniester river. A clump of peeling buildings, rusting wire, and a filthy lavatory mark the start of Transdniestrian sovereignty.
Progress through this squalid, but well manned, frontier post involved the stamping of lots of documents and a liberal scattering of bribes, a process repeated on leaving the ‘republic’. A shadowy mafia-style company, Sheriff, owns most of the economy. It is said to have close links to the president and his family. It has built a giant football stadium in the capital, Tiraspol, which seems to be some kind of symbol of Transdniestrian virility. Unrecognised by the rest of the world, Transdniestrian ‘independence’ is secured by a Russian garrison.
The world’s population is about 6 billion. Suppose it was divided into independent political units of 2 million people each. That would mean 3,000 micro-States, each refusing to accept any sovereignty superior to its own. Of course, this would be a recipe for global anarchy.
Yet the trend over the past century has been towards a continuous increase in the number of small States, mainly owing to nationalist revolts against multi-national empires: the latest bout of state-creation followed the disintegration of the USSR. Even long-established States like the United Kingdom now have strong separatist movements. In its political life, the world has been regressing to a form of tribalism, even as its economic life has become increasingly globalised.
The equation of State with nation is the arch-heresy of our time. A ‘nation’ is, at root, an ethno-linguistic — occasionally religious — entity, and because it is through language and liturgy that culture is transmitted, each nation will have its own distinctive cultural history, available for use and misuse, invention and discovery.
The State, however, is a political construction, designed to keep the peace in an economically viable territory. There are simply too many ‘nations’, actual or potential, to form the basis of a world system of States, not least because so many of them, having been jumbled up for centuries, cannot now be disentangled.
Micro-States can never be made small enough to satisfy their advocates’ exalted standards of cultural integrity. So the unravelling of multi-national States is a false path. The way forward lies in democratic forms of federalism, which can preserve sufficient central authority for the
purposes of statehood, while respecting local and regional cultures.
Today’s upsurge of micro-nationalism is not just a consequence of the revolt against empires: it is also a revolt against globalisation. There is widespread resistance to the idea that the chief function of modern states is to slot their peoples into a global market dominated by the imperatives of efficiency and cheapness, heedless of the damage to non-economic activities. This feeling is strengthened when the global economy turns out to be a global casino. National assertion is a way of combating impersonal forces and remote authorities.
Globalisation promises too much in terms of welfare gains, particularly to developing countries, to be abandoned. But the lesson from the current crisis is that we will have to develop styles of global economic governance to manage, regulate, and mitigate the creative, but often disruptive forces unleashed by the global market. In the absence of an actual world government, this can be done only through cooperation among States. The fewer ‘sovereigns’ there are, the easier it will be to secure the necessary cooperation.
The Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, which laid the institutional foundation for the post-war World War II economy, was made possible because the United States and Britain called the shots. When objections were raised to Cuba being put on the drafting committee, Harry Dexter White, the American representative, remarked that Cuba’s function was to provide cigars.
Such a cavalier attitude to the demands of lesser powers to be heard is no longer possible. But all this means is that the facades will have to be more subtle and the fictions more elaborate. Provided we do not deceive ourselves about where real power lies, let presidents and parliaments be three a penny if that is what makes people feel good about themselves.
Robert Skidelsky is a Member of the British House of Lords and Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University Project Syndicate