Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced recently that she would back a second referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. Facebook and Google are continually sued and fined for privacy violations by European governments. An American pharmaceutical conglomerate makes several attempts to avoid paying taxes in the US by merging with British or Irish corporations. France has reportedly ‘targeted’ mosques funded by foreign backers as a way to stop the spread of radical Islamism. These seemingly unrelated events all share a common theme: they involve entities which operate globally, across national boundaries. National governments are increasingly having to adapt to a world rife with non-state actors, be they multinational corporations, terrorist groups or criminal enterprises, or sprawling, bureaucratic customs unions. We are entering a new era which presents a plethora of new challenges and new opportunities.
Naturally, this is not a new phenomenon. Non-governmental entities have wielded immense political power for centuries. The Catholic Church, which still influences hundreds of millions of people today, was one of the most powerful European institutions since the Middle Ages. In 1602, investors in the United Provinces founded the Dutch East India Company, which was given permission to rule vast territories in Africa and Asia. Its British counterpart of the same name ruled the Indian subcontinent for decades before a brutal rebellion forced the Crown to take direct action.
More recently, there is no better example of the tail wagging the dog than the policies carried out by successive American administrations in Iraq. After the country’s dictator was toppled in 2003, the U.S. outsourced much of the reconstruction work to companies such as Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) — a subsidiary of Halliburton, of which Former Vice President Dick Cheney was a former member. The Financial Times estimates that KBR has been given almost forty billion dollars in federal funds in the past decade. Private contractors from the U.S. and Kuwait have been made responsible for ‘everything from diplomatic security to power plants and toilet paper’. The former CEO of Blackwater, a private military contractor, has gone even further, proposing a complete privatization of the war in Afghanistan, with a ‘viceroy’ overseeing the entire operation. This is hardly a far cry from the old days of the Dutch East India Company. The rise of the Internet and an increasingly globalized economy and culture has led to a situation in which organizations and individuals are able to wield far more power and influence than ever before. One way governments are trying to tackle this problem is through international cooperation.
Crime and terrorism are two of the things governments are often most keen to cooperate over. When terrorists use Saudi money, Russian-made firearms, and French recruits to carry out an attack in Belgium, it’s impossible to solve the problem when you’re constrained to your own national borders. This is why the U.S. spends as much (if not more) time and effort trying to stamp out terrorism on the steppes of Central Asia as in its own backyard. This is also why such organizations and agencies as Five Eyes — a body comprised of the intelligence agencies of the U.S., Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia — and Interpol — a sort of liaison between national police forces — have been created. When crime and terror go global, so must the policeman and the spy.
Sometimes, however, international or multinational unions are created not for the purposes of security but for economic and political reasons. Or, as with the European Union, they are created for the purposes of peace and security but later evolve into something else. Originally an attempt to make war between France and Germany impossible by placing both country’s coal supplies under joint control, the fledgling Union’s member states found that they had a lot to gain from increasing economic and political unity. Today the EU is continually under threat from populism in the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Hungary and elsewhere. People are generally happy to accept the economic benefits but resent the freedom of movement which allows low-wage foreign workers to flood more highly-developed job markets, and of the political consequences which strip their national governments of some degree of autonomy. Elsewhere, institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been at the forefront of international politics, with mixed results.
What, then, to make of this complex phenomenon? National governments find themselves forming large international unions like the EU and NATO in order to band together against larger global forces — like terrorism and multinational corporations — only to realize that their membership in those unions and institutions presents wholly new problems. A prime example is the question of Scottish independence: SNP believe Scotland should gain more control of its own affairs by leaving the United Kingdom but would also like to remain bound to the rules and regulations of an even larger multinational union. More questions abound: would Scotland join NATO? Would it rely entirely on what remains of Britain for its defence? Such questions only scratch the surface. The planet is becoming ever more interconnected, allowing smaller and smaller groups of people to effect more and more outsized influence. Governments must find a way to work together without alienating the citizens they are obligated to serve.
Banner Image: Image Courtesy of freeimage4life via Flickr © 2016, some rights reserved