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After the Nation-State

In an interconnected world constantly beset by global crises, the primacy of the nation-state has consistently been a hurdle to effective collective action. Fortunately, the same imaginative narrative processes that entrenched the nation-state in our consciousness could also sustain a more cosmopolitan identity.

CAMBRIDGE – Imagine being regularly beset by viruses for which there are no vaccines. Such is life under the current structures of global governance and international law. Our problems are international, but our solutions are national. Our world is interconnected, but our institutions are siloed or toothless. Under these circumstances, crises are inevitable, chronic, and potentially irresolvable.

Thus, on February 24, 2022, the Russian army invaded Ukraine, violating the supposed sanctity of borders and inaugurating a new era of conflict unlike anything seen since the Cold War, or perhaps even World War II. In or around December 2019, a novel coronavirus surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan; rather than notifying the world, Chinese authorities initially hid the outbreak, precipitating a pandemic that ground the global economy to a halt. On September 15, 2008, the collapse of a financial services firm, Lehman Brothers, exposed a systemic risk that no global-governance body had considered, triggering a global cascade of dominos that would take years to clean up. The list could go on.

Social scientists describe these situations as “collective action problems”: everyone has a long-term interest in cooperating but a short-term incentive to act selfishly. Such problems must be addressed with institutions and organizing systems that change individuals’ incentives. Solutions range from privatization (“pay per use” arrangements) to the Leviathan (a strong state that can enforce norms through law) to the emergence of a shared morality.

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