Global politics refers to political relations and activities that stretch across state borders, and whose consequences are worldwide in scope. As such, global politics includes but is not limited to inter-state relations. The latter has traditionally been the focus of the dominant realist tradition of International Relations (IR). This has routinely assumed the primacy of sovereign, bounded territorial states, which act in their own national interest in a sharply demarcated ”external” political environment defined by zero-sum power equations. Many contemporary scholars of global politics argue that such realist views do not accurately reflect the new realities of what some have referred to as a post-Westphalian or post-international world, where the boundaries separating domestic and foreign policy are increasingly blurred.
Although the discourse on global politics only really takes off in the 1980s, it is traceable to many earlier intimations of a global political awareness. Karl Marx, for instance, had argued that capitalism is predisposed to expand beyond its geographical point of origin, to ”nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere” across the entire planet. For Marx and subsequent Marxists, such globalizing processes are inherently political. In more mainstream Political Science and IR, there were similar trends amongst scholars dissatisfied with the dominant realist paradigm. Modelski’s (1972) treatise on world politics was particularly significant in this respect, as it was one of the first works in the social sciences to deploy the concept of globalization. This was followed by Richard Falk’s (1975) appeal for mainstream Political Science and IR to take a more ”global approach,” and Keohane and Nye’s (1977) important contribution on ”complex interdependence.” These and associated analyses were premised on the view that world politics could no longer (if indeed it ever could) be understood exclusively with reference to the interests of competing states within a largely anarchic interstate order.
These new perspectives on politics were a response to several developments. One was the explosive growth of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) over the past century. These have arisen in response to economic, technological, environmental and security challenges that transcend the capacities of individual states, and thus demand new forms of transnational regulation and cooperation. There has also been a parallel growth of military and trading blocs that are widely viewed as being more than the sum of their national parts. Finally, the development of multi-layered governance, based on structures of overlapping and divided authority, is perhaps the key development to which theories of global politics has been a response.
Scholars who argue that such a new global political universe now exists typically emphasize four related points: (1) that state capacities and de facto sovereignty have been compromised in various ways by the globalization of economic, political and cultural processes; (2) that national borders are increasingly porous with respect to the movement of information, commodities and people across them, which contributes to 1 and problematizes the clear demarcation of domestic and foreign politics; (3) that politics has been partially ”deterritorialized” as a result of 1 and 2; (4) that taken together 1, 2, and 3 represent a qualitative break from the state-centric, international world order that is assumed to have characterized world politics for the 300 or so years following the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The latter concluded the Thirty Years War in Europe and is often taken to have initiated the modern era of state sovereignty, with its presumptions of absolute and indivisible territorial authority, and rights to non-interference by external actors. It has now, proponent of global politics argue, been transcended.
Many critics dispute these claims, and reject the whole idea of a post-international, global political environment. They point out that so-called Westphalian sovereignty was always more of a normative ideal than it was a political reality, with states throughout the ”Westphalian period” frequently having had their claims to absolute authority constrained and subverted by other states and non-state actors. Furthermore, the suggestion that state capacities have been uniformly eroded neglects the massive power discrepancies between different states, and glosses over the strengthening of some state capacities (the policing of immigration) even as others are eroded (the capacity to autonomously determine some aspects of economic policy). Given this, the idea that there has been a de-territorialization of politics is said to be out of step with both the past (where clearly not all political phenomena could be explained with reference to relations between territorial states) and with the present (where politics still has a demonstrable territorial dimension, as reflected in the continued salience of territorialized nationalist conflicts). In this view, global politics is, and will always remain, filtered through the prism of national institutions.
- Falk, R. (1975) A Global Approach to National Policy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Keohane, R. O. & Nye, J. (1977) Power and Interdependence. Little Brown, Boston, MA.
- Modelski, G. (1972) Principles of World Politics. Free Press, New York.