If I tell you to imagine a world with no countries, it might sound like a cheesy John Lennon song. But I say this not to indulge in idealistic dreaming—it might not even be a good thing in totality—but because I believe it to be the case. Our concept of 'country' is fading from the affairs of the world and nationalism is becoming, to many, a dirty word connoting unthinking conformity and ugly militarism. How did this happen, and what will happen?
Historians, social historians of all stripes, and economists have many words to describe change at macro levels, that is, change affecting entire societies or civilizations. Toffler, in The Third Wave, sees social change in giant economic waves, from hunter-gather societies to agricultural to industrial, and to post-industrial societies. Diamond, in Guns, Germs & Steel, sees a sort of boom-and-bust cycle. He explains how some civilizations win over others as a result of the technological weapons which more advanced social development brings.
What's the point? If this is so, that western civilization and perhaps eastern as well is moving slowly, but inevitably, towards the next wave of post-industrialism and knowledge economies, then the 'country' is doomed. By this I don't mean literally that the citizens of any particular state or their standards of living are imperiled, but rather the concept of borders and nationalism and all that countries imply. If the base of our economies is no longer producing and trading things but producing and trading information, then our modern tools of global communication (such as the internet) can quickly nullify borders. The next time you surf the internet, think about where the page you are watching physically comes from—or if it's even worth caring about.
There will, of course, be winners and losers. Nations which embrace the free exchange of information and become quickly wired will win in terms of the rapid synthesis and expansion of knowledge which will occur between scholars and businessmen in different countries. The losers will, first, be the societies which are closed to the world. But forbidden knowledge of the outside world helped bring down the Soviet Union, and that was pre-internet; the pervasiveness of electronic communication now nibbles away at even super-xenophobic societies such as North Korea, and who knows how long China will be able to maintain its balancing act of globalizing its economy but not its citizen's access to information. It's hard to build a Starbuck's without the ideas behind it seeping in.
Other losers will be failed states which frighten off foreign investment, or nations who are victimized by unfair trade and can't afford to modernize. But there are even surprises here. India, which has little infrastructure but a talented pool of well-educated entrepreneurs, has bypassed Toffler's 'second wave' of industrialism and is moving from an agricultural to a post-industrial economy without bothering to ever build those expensive, noisy factories. If Cuba liberalized it would have similar conditions and could very quickly boom once internet access spread. Of course, we are talking about elites. Not everyone in India has their own e-mail address, and much of the third world (and some in the first world too) won't benefit from globalization of information.
Of course, globalization has been going on for a long time. Free trade, in fact, is more of a vestige of industrialism than post-industrialism, and countries have been signing trade agreements long before ARPnet was born. In my short life I have already seen an explosion of new products, foods, styles, and ethnicities that my ancestors would have been baffled by. Opponents of globalization can gripe that some people are left behind, but the complaint that it's only Coca-colonization isn't true. Most countries of the world which have globalized to some degree have also been more Americanized; but the street has been two-way as well, and north America, at least in places, is far more worldly-looking than it has ever been before. Some predict that English will kill all other languages and dialects. But the European experience is that it's not a zero-sum game; many simply speak English and several other tongues. And there's no guarantee that English would be the global victor, anyway.
So how does this diminish the role of countries? What it means is that national governments are pinched from three directions. First, they are pinched from above. Free trade, as a classical economist will state, is good for the economy but bad for federal autonomy. The powers of a national government are curtailed by free trade agreements and by the shared interdependence of economies. Nations which get along, such as Canada and the US, suddenly find that they are impotent to make legislation in areas that affect trade, and there are many. And nations that don't get along, such as the US and China, find that political sanctions can be costly when both nations have invested heavily in the other's economy. Supranational organizations such as the United Nations further restrict countries' actions.
Second, federal autonomy is undermined from below. Countries may have to sacrifice regional interests for a free trade compact, as the US recently did in backing down on punitive lumber duties against Canada which benefited border states. The opposite may also happen when regions favor free trade and national governments don't; my province of Alberta in Canada was prevented from selling oil freely in the late 70's as the central government demanded special prices favoring the nation. Both sorts of conflicts cause independence movements, or at least bitter alienation from national governments and demands for greater self-determination.
The third threat against national governments is the deterioration of a shared culture. North America no longer has common national goals. The US is now made up of various sub-nations; southwest Mexamerica, which speaks more Spanish than English and is ethnically alien to powder-wigged founding fathers; the agricultural Farmerica of the Midwest; and the eastern seaboard zone of Greater New England, to name a few. The states are less 'united' than perhaps at any time since the Civil War. Canada has an Anglo-Gaelic Atlantic section, French-speaking Quebec, which calls its government 'the national assembly', and a western part which increasingly does business in US dollars and watches a great deal of Fox and very little CBC, the 'national' television channel. These aren't trifling cultural distinctions. California has an economy larger than most countries, and Governor Schwarzenegger was treated with more regard than the president on a recent tour of China.
These three threats put together weaken the concept of nation-states, and there may be others. Countries haven't always been around; Germany was only unified a little over a century ago and was previously an assemblage of kingdoms and ethnic groups. Many country names originally describe a people, not a fixed place. Countries might not always correspond to ethnic groups or religions, and Africa is presently rearranging itself bloodily and slowly to tribal borders which don't match national borders imposed by colonial powers. Arab countries might see themselves as more of a pan-Islamic polity than a grouping of sovereign states.
As time goes on, the list of countries which aren't sure they're countries grows. No one agrees presently whether or not Ireland, Scotland, Quebec, Taiwan, Guam, Greenland, or a laundry list of others are countries or not. In time, no one may care. Some may continue as cultural entities but not political ones, as the member states of the European Union may turn out to be. Is Italy now a country or is it a part of a greater whole, sharing currency and immigration policy with a central authority, and yet also divided into provinces or city-states, each claiming local rule and self-government?
Groups of countries all seem now to rush into currency and trade agreements, partly because it's good economics for the winners, but also because the game is up for countries. Macro trade zones weaken a national government's power to make international decisions, and the ability for goods and information to move freely and cheaply strengthens local authorities once a central government can't control one seaport. Further, the ethnic and cultural unity that used to define a nation's core values is disappearing, eating away at the shared community project of the country itself.
Is it all a good thing? Should I now imagine a world without possessions, a brotherhood of man? Not yet, at least. The potential for city-states to become totalitarian corporate-states is there, as is anarchy. Rest assured that someone will still be there to tax us. And—bang!—the old-school, less global-looking forces of terrorism or tribalism or fanaticism could reduce all plans to nuclear rubble—if the last drop of drinkable water hasn't already been polluted by then. Wars have also echoed human development. Wars in our agricultural phase were usually over land; in our industrial phase they were over industrial ideologies, such as communism; post-industrial war will continue as well, likely on an international scale and involving international issues.
And it isn't necessarily good for the individual to be atomized, to no longer have a common sense of belonging or ancestral purpose. How do we define ourselves, and who are we? Korea, and perhaps some European states, might be one of the lucky countries which retain a strong sense of shared ethnic or cultural identity while economically and politically globalizing. Other people will have to build a new identity based on local community or faith or ethnic ancestry, or a mix—or else become citizens of the world, with a passport to 'Earth'; it sounds romantic but also a little lonely. As the Chinese would say, we are cursed by living in interesting times.