Why we need to talk about the state in globalization

Globalization everywhere

One of the buzzwords of International Political Economy (IPE) research in the last two decades is surely “globalization”. Intuitively, it is the concept that drives and shapes global economic discussions like no other (check out this telling figure from Rasmus Christensen on keyword occurrence in articles of one of the leading journals in the field, Review of International Political Economy). In a nutshell, advocates of a strong understanding of globalization stress the qualitative change that happened in the global economy during the 1980s and 90s: the rise of a truly transnationally integrated (or global) economy as opposed to the “old” world of the interdependent world economy (Robinson 2004, pp. 9).

Figure 1:. Global mergers & acquisitions 1985–2017 (bn USD). Source: Babic et al. 2017, p. 25. Original figure by @fichtner_jan (University of Amsterdam)

But then there is the state

Literally every phenomenon related to globalization involves a more or less prominent reference to the concept of the state. Terms like jurisdictions, cross-border flows, country-by-country reporting, territoriality and space-time compression refer implicitly to the question of how to think about the state now that it seems to fade away, fragmented and dissolved by the adamant forces of globalization. Thinking dialectically, it is thus not a surprise that state (power) seems to be back on the table in international studies research, as a series of publications in the recent years suggests (e.g. van Apeldoorn et al. 2012; Starrs 2013; Stephen 2014; Bremmer 2010; Starrs 2017; Finnemore and Goldstein 2013; Babic et al. 2017).

How can we think about the state?

The consequential follow-up to this demand would be a research agenda or some kind of proposed solution. Instead, I want to point out in brief central ambiguities within the concept we face today, which can help to locate and better integrate particular discussions in the field.

IR and IPE. Or: states and markets

The first point I want to address is maybe the least “problematic” one, because the concerned ambiguity results from different theoretical perspectives of International Relations (IR) and International Political Economy (IPE) research. Although it might appear that there are some clear distinction lines between them (such as the role and weight of economic issues in international relations), both disciplines get intertwined when it comes to questions of statehood and state power in international politics. Classic IR scholars might see the rise of China and other “statist” forces as a clear sign of a comeback of the state, but they do so mostly based on impressive economic numbers that challenge Western dominance in the global economy. On the other hand do IPE scholars engage in interesting debates about whether the rise of statist economies accordingly implies a challenge to neoliberal globalization. With a grain of salt: there is a state-centric and a more market-centric perspective on these developments.

State theory and globalization studies

Another important ambiguity concerns the ultimate drivers of globalization as a historical structure: is it state or corporate power? In everyday research, we often find both narratives and angles to be present, varying with factors such as the specific area of inquiry, the existing literature and problem focus as well as the available data (e.g.: is the data aggregated at the country level or not?). In fact, it makes a lot of sense to take either perspective and try to make sense of globalization by explaining variation in outcomes by examining the agency of states and/or corporations. What is usually problematic is the fact that ascribing core agency to one social force makes it hard to plausibly integrate other aspects that would contradict the initial theoretical decisions.

Nation states and states as actors

The last point I want to address is one that goes a bit into the specifics of our empirical frameworks for research. When we talk about states as actors, we usually treat a complex social phenomenon as an unity or agent. This can quickly be associated with a tendency towards methodological individualism, rational choice assumptions or treating the state like a subject in the great game of globalization. The other perspective would be to understand states as nation states with a specific historical record, a particular set of cultural aspects and domestic politics; of a political culture, a shared territory and ultimately a sense of (social) solidarity that rarely transcends national borders. In short, there are people living in this thing called state.

Conclusion: From ambiguities to acceptance

An interesting and often underestimated aspect of globalization is the fact that we cannot really come to grips with who its actual agents are. Whereas previous transformations of the international environment were led by more or less recognizable actors (mostly nation states), today´s transformations seem to be anarchic, multidimensional and awfully complicated: multinational corporations make investment decisions, drive technological revolutions and conquer the globe with their products. But states (un)do trade agreements, open or close borders and exert authority beyond their territories. And what about other non-state actors? We face these intricacies perhaps just due to the fact that we are in the midst of a transformative process and cannot look at it in retrospective in order to determine who is driving it and to what extent.


Babic, M., Fichtner, J. and Heemskerk, E. 2017: States versus Corporations: Rethinking the Power of Business in International Politics. The International Spectator 52, no. 4: 20–43.



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Milan Babic

Milan Babic


PhD Cand. @UvA_AISSR | @UvACORPNET | Theorizing about Capitalism&writing about it occasionally.