Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The End of the Nation-State
By Jean-Marie Guéhenno
Translated by Victoria Elliott
University of Minnesota Press, 145 pages, $19.95

This is a very small book with very large aspirations. As a display of intellectual panache, it is also unmistakably European—the literary equivalent of a sleek fashion model gliding down the runway in Paris or Milan: thin, elegant, insouciant, slightly world-weary, and quite without visible means of support.

Unencumbered by evidence, data, or corroboration, The End of the Nation-State is an exercise in Big Think. The stated aim of Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a senior member of the French diplomatic corps, is to divine the zeitgeist of the new age emerging from the political and cultural upheaval revealed by the end of the Cold War. The result is less a tightly argued brief than a jumble of audacious speculations and bold assertions—some quite intriguing. In short, for those not put off by a whiff of Continental affectation, this book merits careful reading.

That 1989 marked an abrupt turning point in history has already established itself as a familiar cliché. Guéhenno accepts the cliché but gives it his own twist. What came to a halt in 1989, in his view, was not simply the Cold War or communism, but the era of the nation-state. We find ourselves today, writes the author, “living in the prehistory” of a new epoch, the product of economic globalization and the rapid spread of information technologies.

In the United States, figures as dissimilar as Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, and Al Gore hype these phenomena as unalloyed blessings. Guéhenno is not so sure: Rather than perfecting our dreams of peace, prosperity, and freedom, in his view, they will subvert a political order that we have come to take for granted, ending the dominance of the nation-state just as the nation-state once superseded the authority of the Church.

With the onset of a global information society, according to Guehenno, boundaries become meaningless. The importance of territory dwindles. Belief in a collective destiny linking those sharing a common past disappears. As a result, traditional precepts rooted in that destiny become obsolete. Only information retains value. Calcified by habit and routine, the nation-state is ill-equipped to cope with this radically transformed environment. Even now, according to Guéhenno, the power formerly claimed by the state is shifting to a new medium of influence and authority: an impalpable but pervasive network of networks.

This demise of the nation-state signals the demise of conventional politics, a process already well advanced. What we mistake today for politics is mere procedure, activity with “no other object than the preservation of the rules of the game, the only agreed operating standard of a society without a goal.” Politics survives only to the extent that it facilitates the operation of the network: reducing uncertainty, lowering transaction costs, and increasing “transparence.” Thus, in the age of the network—“a world that is at once unified and deprived of a center”—process replaces purpose.

Indeed, process is just about all that counts. Real influence resides in the hands of the lobbyists and lawyers who shape the intricate regulations that facilitate the network’s unimpeded operation. We live in an age, observes Guéhenno, in which “the deal is hallowed as the only truth.”

The role of professional politicians and their collaborators in the media is hardly more than theater, the management of “an ephemeral succession of perceptions, as the media choose to stage them.” Yet this theater is not entirely without purpose. Proffering a constant diet of novelty and trivia diverts those who might otherwise be tempted to question the new status quo. After all, “an issue not talked about does not exist.”

This emasculation of politics reflects the network’s aversion to disruption. The new age places a premium on teamwork, uniformity, and passivity. For advanced societies, according to Guéhenno, “conformity is not an accident [or] a regrettable weakness . . . but a necessary condition of their smooth operation.” The functioning of the network itself helps to reinforce conformity. “In the place of a structural hierarchy, it offers the benefits of teamwork. Instead of the polarity of power, it prefers an ever more advanced circulation of information, the object of which is to dissolve conflict by a multitude of precautionary microadjustments.” The effective operation of the network—the highest imperative—demands that the individual be subsumed. Where Christianity teaches that “each man . . . is a consciousness, and that this consciousness is irreducible,” the new age of networks requires the surrender of autonomy. As dedicated servants of the network, we become “people without principles.” Our networked age functions “better than any human organization has ever functioned, but no one knows to what end.”

Thus, the rise of the network perverts the concept of freedom. Although the advocates of the network promise ever expanding choices, freedom is actually emptied of content. “We are deprived not of liberty,” writes Guéhenno, “but of the idea of liberty.” “We have the feeling that we have never been as ‘free,’ and we pity our forefathers, who were subjected to all kinds of constraints that no longer bind us.” Living in a time when “there are almost no taboos left,” we take pride in having extricated ourselves from the bondage of intolerance and narrow-mindedness. Why then, the author asks, “does this liberty leave a taste of ashes in the mouth?”

For Guéhenno, therefore, the advent of the network gives rise to a system he does not hesitate to brand imperialist. Although velvet-gloved by the brutal standards of the twentieth century, this new imperialism is nonetheless insidious and dehumanizing.

Throughout his book, Guéhenno treats the triumph of this new imperial order as all but foreordained. As “nomads of modernity,” we are no match for the technology that we have developed and unleashed. As a result, the author’s conclusion—an abrupt summons to the barricades—comes across less as a ringing affirmation of man’s primacy than as a forlorn attempt to offer a few crumbs of consolation.

“We have a revolution to accomplish,” Guéhenno announces, “and this revolution is not of a political order, but a spiritual one.” In the age of the network, he writes, religion must become “the last refuge of meaning.”

Alas, the spirituality he proposes is patently bogus. For in calling for a spiritual revolution, the author patiently explains, “one must understand not the belief in a transcendence, a God, of principles, but far more modestly, that sum of rites and what might be called habits . . . [that] shape our behavior.” As if to complete the circuit of ironies that will describe this new era—a world without a center, inhabited by people without principles, gagging on freedoms that have lost all meaning—Guéhenno offers this remedy: “religions without God.”

“Virtually no one declares himself ‘conservative’ today,” Guéhenno observes at one point, “for no one feels assured enough of the principles worth preserving.” No one? As an admission that the last traces of conviction have disappeared from a once-proud intellectual tradition, the remark is a revealing one, perhaps more so than the author intends. Yet for a reader otherwise dazzled by grand pronouncements and pithy aphorisms, it puts the book nicely into perspective. Although The End of the Nation-State stands as a tribute to a residual capacity for analysis, it also constitutes a final abdication of any European claim to intellectual authority. “No one” will want to take its bleak diagnosis or insipid prescription too seriously.

A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.