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Issues of Controlling State Borders

Can states really control their borders?


In the current era of economic globalisation, and the increase of the flow of trans-border trade between sovereign states has become the new norm. The trans-border trade has further challenged the capability of the state to control its territorial borders. As technological developments, unionised diplomatic cooperation and media transcends borders, becoming an indomitable part of individuals lives; the notion of independent sovereign states is slowly becoming outdated challenged by the rise of global connectivity and cooperation. This essay will outline the attributes of sovereign states, the impact of global trade, international politics and culture between sovereign states and evaluate how globalisation in particular through trade is affecting the control and definition of borders.

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The concept of state-sovereignty has governed the discipline of International Relations for a large period of time. Previous conceptions of an autonomous state, that is neither dependent nor subject to any other state or power is has been rapidly overtaken by the growing influence of international political, cultural or economic institutions on the state. When pursuing globalisation and analysing the impact of it on the sovereign state, we are faced with a tri-paradoxical situation whereby it can become increasingly difficult to ameliorate democracy, enhance national self-determination and achieve stronger economic outcomes through trade liberalisation [globalisation] (Rodrik 2011, p.9). The first two are attributes of what it is to be a sovereign state, however, the actual pursuit of economic betterment often comes and is often traded-off against, the self-determination of a state as it engages in freer trade, or becomes a member of economic-unions or trade-organisations that – through globalisation – exert influence and control over the economic power of a sovereign state. It is because of this that the partnership between the concept of globalisation and the state is a fluid one that will become less clear as economic and political borders continue to be transcended.

To understand the effect of globalisation on state sovereignty and in turn its borders; (Masahiro 2009) contends that it important to recognise that state sovereignty as determined by the Westphalian system considers the state to have supreme authority over domestic affairs without the interference of any external entity. Where the motive to formally recognise state-sovereignty may have been driven by a Machiavellian-esque desire to maintain security and stability in what was a tense period in Europe, the structure of the whole body politic of a state has contributed to the creation of an environment of increased international interdependency in terms of economics, trade, security and diplomacy. Indeed, the concept whereby all nation-states become a part of “a fully interconnected global order” (Held and McGrew, 1998) is evidenced by the fact that particularly since the fall of the iron curtain, tensions caused by political, economic and military difference that permeated throughout much of the 20th century have rapidly diffused as nations and international organisations seek to use international society to achieve varying outcomes for themselves and their trade and political partners.

Naturally, it is incumbent upon scholars to recognise that globalisation as the “qualitative and quantitative growth in the economic, political, social and cultural integration of the modern world” (Lakić, 2011) goes against the idea of state-individuality and autonomy that is entailed in Masahiro’s (2009) definition of what it is to be a sovereign state. This in itself – highlights a fundamental challenge to state sovereignty; through the fact that worldwide integration can theoretically limit the right of states to act on a unilateral basis. As globalisation has steadily penetrated the state-of-affairs of current and previous generations, Goksel (2004) suggests that declination of state-sovereignty – and thus, challenges to it – can be seen through the prism of three perspectives; Political, Security and Economic. Each of the three dimensions constitutes a worldly binary opposite to the structure of the state, and how it independently impacts its own affairs.

When considering the concept of political globalisation, Albrow and King (1990) suggest it is the “processes by which the peoples and governments of the world are incorporated into a single political society” furthermore it can also be suggested that political globalisation contributes to a shift of political power and authority towards a unanimous ideology and political system. At present, this is not to say that there currently exists a single world ‘government’; rather, it does suggest that it would be reasonable to hypothesise the dominance of a particular ideology and political structure in the governance of all people is emerging. In an inherently unequal international society, this would greater challenge weaker sovereign states than greater ones. Furthermore, the advent of a politically globalised society can cause any given state to relinquish control on social, economic or political policy in order to adapt to supposedly mutual international standards, thus hindering the states right to operate their state as individual circumstances dictate. Promoted by globalisation, the need to adapt to internationally mutual standards is enforced upon by stronger powers and non-state actors; many do so by meddling in a state’s domestic affairs, and thus challenging their sovereignty and lack of borders. Acknowledged by Clapham (2002) as being any entity different from the states, the non-state actor’s (like The United Nations, Concert of Europe or African Union) agenda can permeate through international society by creating institutions where member state policies are dictated by what is agreed upon at this cooperative level. This is a byproduct of political globalisation; and directly challenges the states sovereign ability to approach national problems in an independent manner.

The security perspective is perhaps the longest running form of globalisation; for, nations have long worked together under the leadership of a state or non-state power in order to achieve military outcomes that better all. In a world of sovereign states, military capabilities were deployed with the intention to meet national objectives; with Held (1999) suggesting this primarily being national security. Nowadays, the rise of globalisation has caused the goal of national security to be viewed and attained through international security, whereby global or regional alliances cooperate to widen the scope of security. In this scenario, globalisation suggests that sovereign-states lose a great deal of control of their security requirements; namely pertaining to intelligence and intangible resources that a state must oblige to share. To a lesser extent, security globalisation that is facilitated through organisations such as NATO prompt member-states to engage in warfare and security operations that they may’ve not otherwise participated in had they not cooperated in the globalised setting; thus demonstrating how autonomy of state insecurity affairs can be greatly hindered by the growth of globalisation as a regime.

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The last perspective of globalisation is considered to both be the most contentious and prevalent in studies of international relations and global economics. Whilst referring to the basic concepts of production, trade and currency at a macroeconomic level, many purport economic globalisation to have contributed to the integration of economies and finance industry to a consentient standard to which Sassen (1996) suggests has consigned the notion of territoriality and sovereignty over economic affairs to the behest of monetary unions, or multinational corporations. Due to the development of technological capacity, the ability to make and communicate economic decisions involving trade (and therefore, revenue) between nations has caused the market to emerge as the dominant force in a state’s economy.

This directly contravenes the capacity a nation has to use monetary policy levers and trade barriers to protect and strengthen the domestic economy from external forces such as competition or market power. An example of where a state’s economic sovereignty has been challenged is the Eurozone Monetary Community; where the European Central Bank has established a single monetary authority responsible for developing monetary policy for most member states. Additionally, the growth of multinational corporations (MNC) and transnational (TNC) corporations is a direct consequence of the liberalisation of trade and removal of barriers to it. Strange (1994) demonstrates that the gradual movement of economic influence over aggregate supply and aggregate demand factors away from states, and towards firms has been driven from the rise of such multi and transnational corporations. Indeed, as financial interrelationships between states and organisations further develop, the market could potentially envelop all aspects of the sovereign state’s control over its economy (except policy concerning budgetary measures), and potentially, create a globalised economy “in which corporate resources dwarf those of nations” (Hertz, 2001) and where equity in the distribution of income is decreased. For example technology retailer Apple, would be ranked 47th in the world by GDP of 229 billion earned in 2017 in comparison to Portugal’s GDP in 2016 of 205 billion according to (Business Insider, 2018)

Whilst the impact of integration in the contexts of political, security and economic structures is demonstrable on the concept of state sovereignty over these three key dimensions, it is important to preface this essay’s conclusion with a declaration that it is impossible to hypothesise whether the decline of state (due to political globalisation) will lead to total abolition of the Westphalian system as a means for global governance, nor is it feasible to suggest that our economies will integrate to the point of total unanimity in terms of trade, finance and currency. Indeed, it is feasible to suggest that shortfalls of globalisation could cause a renaissance in the operation of sovereign states in the future. For example, Smith (2013) explores neo-marxist critiques of globalisation that emphasises inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

Ultimately though it goes without saying that the increased transience and porosity of borders due to technological, ideological and cultural advancements that precipitated the rise of globalisation has challenged and will continue to challenge the sovereign state’s ability to influence and alter activities within its own borders. Fundamentally, state monetary sovereignty is further disturbed over the basic need to attract revenue and maintain public expenditure; therefore, the introduction of policies due to intense lobbying or contributions from multinational corporations can determine policy, and thus further challenge the state’s ability to make decisions that are unilateral and undisturbed by market forces. In principle, it is important to recognise that whilst sovereign states continue to exist the rise of globalisation is a threat however, if embraced and directed appropriately, the challenge will not be one against sovereign states themselves, rather, it will be to ensure that it yields positive outcomes.

Reference List

  • Rodrik, D. (2011). The globalization paradox Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.1-3, 9, 15. Retrieved 2 May
  • Masahiro, M. (2009). Sovereignty and International Law. Professor Emeritus of International Law. University of Durham Retrieved 2 May, https://www.dur.ac.uk/ibru/conferences/sos/programme/1_april/track1_session1/
  • Held, D & McGrew, A n.d., ‘The end of the old order? Globalization and the prospects for world order’, REVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, vol. 24, pp. 219–243, viewed 3rd May 2019, retrieved 3rd May 2019
  • Held, D. (1999). Global transformations. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, Retrieved 4th May 2019
  • Sassen, S. (1996). Losing control? New York: Columbia University Press, p.31.
  • Göksel, N. (2004). Globalisation and the State. Ankara: Center for Strategic Research, Republic of Turkey, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, pp.3-5, 7, retrieved 4th May 2019
  • Lakić, N. (2011). Is globalization a challenge or a threat to nation-states as a dominant form of polity? WESTERN BALKANS SECURITY OBSERVER, 1(21), p.2., Retrieved 4th May 2019
  • Albrow, M. and King, E. (1990). Globalization, knowledge, and society. London: Sage Publications, pp.3-10, 81, 104-106, Retrieved 4th May 2019
  • Clapham, C 2002, ‘The Challenge to the State in a Globalized World’, Development & Change, vol. 33, no. 5, p. 775, viewed 5 May 2019, retrieved 5th May 2019
  • Sassen, S. (1996). Losing control? New York: Columbia University Press, p.31. retrieved 5th May 2019
  • Strange, S. (1994). States and markets. London: Pinter Publisher, retrieved 5th May
  • Hertz, N. (2001). The silent takeover, New York: Free Press, p.12, retrieved 5th May
  • Business Insider July 2018, ‘25 Giant Companies bigger than entire countries’, Business Insider, Retrieved 5 May 2019, Mayhttps://www.rt.com/business/434516-companies-countries-gdp-revenue
  • Smith, RG 2013, ‘The ordinary city trap’, Environment & Planning A, vol. 45, no. 10, pp. 2290–2304, viewed 5 May 2019, retrieved 5th May 2019, r<http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eih&AN=91705876&authtype=sso&custid=deakin&site=eds-live&scope=site>.


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