Although the nation-state has been the predominant unit of political organization for most of the last few centuries, its future is uncertain. Two trends point to the nation-state as receding in importance, but these trends sometimes contradict each other. Still, globalization and devolution continue to occur at a rapid rate throughout the twenty-first-century world, and both will affect the future of nation-states.


The first major trend is globalization. Over the last few decades, national boundaries have broken down in a variety of ways, including economically. In today’s truly global economy, money and goods travel across borders in huge quantities and at great speed. Many corporations build parts in a variety of countries, then assemble them in yet another country. Most goods are no longer “made in America,” for example, because much of the manufacturing often happens in other places, whereas final assembly occurs in the United States. The rapid growth of international investing has further globalized the economy. Globalization often leads to transnationalism, so should this globalizing trend continue, the nation-state might give way to the transnational government.


Transnationalism has also occurred at the political level. International organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, play an ever-increasing role on the political stage, and nations join them for such benefits as military protection and economic security. In the case of the European Union, national boundaries have very little meaning. All citizens can travel, live, and work freely throughout the European Union, and all internal tariffs and trade restrictions have been abolished. Some residents see themselves as citizens of a new European Union nation, not of their smaller countries. Transnational governments and groups literally transcend geographical and political boundaries.

Example: The World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank are just a few examples of international organizations that sometimes act like governments or play a substantial role in international relations. Other examples include the Organization of American States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The fact that increasing numbers of people around the world speak the same language demonstrates the transnational trend. English has become something of an international language, but other languages (such as French, Chinese, and Russian) are also spoken by many around the world. Overall, the total number of languages spoken is decreasing, while the total number of speakers of certain dominant languages is increasing.


The second trend that marks the recession of nation-states concerns the increase in political power being given to local governments, sometimes to the point of autonomy. This trend is sometimes called devolution because states are said to devolve power back to local governments. In the United Kingdom, for example, Scotland has been granted a great deal of autonomy, as has Catalonia in Spain. Should this trend continue, local governments would replace national or central governments.

The table below summarizes the trends of globalization and devolution.




Power flowsOutward, away from the stateInward, down from the central government
Power belongs to International organizations and transnational governmentsRegional and local governments
Power is lost by The state The central government
Sometimes known asTransnationalismSubnationalism
ExamplesThe European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade OrganizationNew Federalism in the United States, increased Scottish autonomy in the United Kingdom, in-creased study of local and regional languages (such as Breton in France)


Accompanying devolution has been an increased identification with and interest in subnational groups. The prefix sub means “below” or “beneath,” so the term subnational indicates a smaller division of a larger national group. Many people are working to preserve the language, culture, and history of subnational groups. Some in France, for example, are learning to speak Breton, a language that had largely disappeared. In a number of countries, local dialects that were suppressed under dictatorial governments have reemerged after a transition to a more democratic government.

Example: With the breakup of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of subnationalities emerged. In the Baltic states, for example, students learned native languages rather than Russian. Czechoslovakia went so far as to split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Balkans, the emergence of subnationalism turned violent as Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, and others fought over the remains of Yugoslavia.

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