Nation-states and the challenge of globalization

Looking at the different summits that are taking place in our region this week, one cannot but be inspired by the high-mindedness that seems to have summoned the world’s most powerful statesmen to this part of the world at this time. Yet, one cannot miss the irony, too. Here gathered are presidents and prime ministers purporting to offer collective solutions to humanity’s most intractable problems — solutions that, alas, are ultimately drawn from the shallow well of their respective national interests.

And that is because, whether they like it or not, the participants in these leaders’ summits remain inescapably accountable to their national constituencies for what they commit at these international gatherings. On such occasions, they may be seen engaging in warm and courteous pleasantries with their hosts and interlocutors. But that’s the public side of these events. The text of the agreements they actually sign at the end of these meetings may often be so loosely worded as to yield nothing of any real consequence.

This is the paradox we confront today. The world’s political system remains segmented into unequal nation-states. Yet, the problems the global system generates have become far too complex for any nation-state, no matter how dominant, or, for any regional organization like Asean or Apec, no matter how encompassing, to manage in any effective way. When push comes to shove, every leader tends to fall back on his or her nation’s sovereign rights.

In most instances, behind the rhetoric of cooperation that permeates these gatherings, bilateral talks take precedence over multilateral discussions. Even where agreements are concluded, it is naive to assume that the personal assurances that leaders are heard to give to one another actually find their way into the final texts of binding agreements. The latter are typically negotiated long before any summit takes place. They are worked out in technical working groups by experts who come to the bargaining table with a hard-nosed view of their national interests.

Name any issue: trade and investment, migration, freedom of navigation, climate change, technical cooperation, terrorism, narcotics, human trafficking, etc. No position is conceded, no privilege is extended, and no access is given without something expected in return. In all these discussions, governments like to pretend they speak for the various interest groups in their countries as though they had full control over them.

The reality, however, is that in almost every conceivable field, nation-state boundaries have long been breached by the global nature of transactions and communications. Today, except in totalitarian states, it is difficult to imagine how a government can dictate where its nationals may work, or study, or live, or where they may spend, invest, or keep their savings.

A government may offer incentives, or provide strong moral or ethical reasons for its citizens to want to live and work in or even go to war for the country of their birth. But, in the modern world, where multiple affiliations abound, there is no guaranty that an individual will necessarily identify with the country in which he or she was born or raised.

For a long time, patriotism and attachment to family and community kept Filipinos from leaving their country despite the opportunities for personal advancement available elsewhere. But, chronic disenchantment and hopelessness, combined with a sense of insecurity in an unpredictable environment, crushed even the deepest attachment to family and nation.

At his speech in the recent Apec Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, President Duterte lamented the unabated flow of skilled Filipino workers to destinations abroad, and called upon the receiving countries to redress this loss by helping the country to develop its economic capacity. It is a touching message but, unfortunately, it carries no weight given that it is the Philippine government itself that institutionalized the whole process. The reality is that since Marcos, every administration in this country has knowingly acted as the principal merchant of Filipino labor in the global labor market. I doubt if it is possible to reverse the tide that has swept more than 10 million of our countrymen out of the country in the last 40 years. Mr. Duterte likewise pins some hope on the integration of the Asean labor market as a key to the region’s development. But, there is no assurance that Filipinos will find Asean any more attractive than the countless places in the world in which they have made themselves at home.

By the same token, it seems futile for US President Donald Trump to try to recover the jobs that Americans have lost over the years to other countries, notably to China—without a significant restructuring of the American economy and retooling of the American worker. Global corporations like Apple are artifacts of the modern capitalist economy; they are not bound by the code of patriotism.

It is pointless to blame globalization and advances in technology for humanity’s problems. These are integral aspects of society’s evolution into more complex forms. It is natural for society to react to the problems that its own evolution brings about. The duty of every generation is to understand these problems as outcomes of complex long-term processes, and to persevere in the building of an inclusive world on the back of past achievements, while refusing to succumb to the kind of quick-fix politics that feeds on popular outrage, resentment, and insecurity.