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'The Big View' July 2011 (Part 2)

Frankenstein or Pygmalion: The Complex Relation between States and Regions

Luk Van Langenhove

For many years now, sovereign states are the prime actors in international relations and geopolitics. It is hard to conceive a world without states and at first glance that world of states is stable. Nevertheless, the number of sovereign states on the planet is not stable at all: between 1950 and 1990 their number has more than doubled. Only in the last two decades new states have hardly emerged, Sudan being the most recent exception. The universe of states together with the intergovernmental regimes and organizations they created, form together the present ‘Westphalian’ world order. That world order looks again pretty stable, but just as any other human endeavour, it is subject to changes both as a response to external forces and as a result of its own internal dynamics. In my recent book Building Regions (Van Langenhove, 2011), I have claimed that one major ongoing change process is that other territorial entities than states – regions – are becoming ever more important as loci of governance and statehood properties are shifting from state-level to other regional levels of governance. At the supra-national level, there are different varieties of regional organizations, such as the EU, the African Union, ASEAN, Mercosur, the League of Arab States and so on. Processes of regional integration are indeed increasingly affecting and even shaping international relations. Trade and economic cooperation, as well as coping with transborder issues and problems such as managing water basins or illegal trafficking, are dealt with more and more at a regional supra-national level. The number of regional trade arrangements (RTAs) notified at the WTO is a significant indicator of this trend: In 1950 no RTAs were notified at WTO, in 1990 their number was 20 and today it is close to 400! In some cases the economic integration is also related to peace and security issues. As a consequence, the UN is increasingly collaborating with supra-national regional organizations. Meanwhile one can also witness a trend to shift power from the state level to the sub-national level. A recent study by Hooghe, Marks and Schakel (2010) indicated that in the last fifty years, 29 out of 42 highly developed states became more regionalized and only 2 less regionalized. To this needs to be added the many different forms of cross-border cooperation that result in the emergence of cross-border regional governance, such as for instance the so-called Euregions or the greater Mekong Delta. Together these trends point to a greater integration and devolution of state power. We are, however, not entering some kind of post-Westphalian world order in which states are disappearing or becoming irrelevant. On the contrary, states remain important for identity and local governance. But the Westphalian world order has become a very complex system, where states do not necessarily act homogenously, where there are other global actors such as regional organizations, and where complex interdependencies rather than simple linear causality models shape the world. As such one can say that the Westphalian world order is going through a major transformation as it becomes more and more regionalized. It is becoming a neo-Westphalian world order as it still builds upon states, but also complements it with a growing role for regions as geopolitical entities with Westphalian statehood properties.

The Global/Local Duality

Processes of integration and devolution are the result of a number of driving forces. Obviously globalization can be considered as a major push towards integration. National states undergo pressures toward international cooperation and globalization surely magnifies those pressures. But the impact of globalization on integration is more complex than that. Symbolized by the changing conceptions of time and space, the accelerated process of global restructuring of the last decades has fundamentally altered social interactions blurring the lines between markets, politics and civil society. The blending together of local, national, and global dynamics is generating new paradoxes that are extremely difficult to conceptualize. A major paradox refers to the duality of global and local pressures for change. Demands for global policies and global governance are being juxtaposed with demands for regional devolution and for the respect of local autonomy and identities. Also, globalization processes and the uncertainty they bring to people, seem to fuel new feelings of nationalism.

Contradictions such as these unveil the double edge nature of the process of global restructuring. Globalization is undoubtedly generating a wide range of new opportunities for sustainable progress and for a more equitable distribution of world resources. However, it is also straining the institutional fabric of society by affecting the relative significance of traditional structures of governance (states) and of orthodox concepts of authority (sovereignty). In short, the global/local duality is ushering a new phase of complex social change that exhibits great uncertainties about the future configuration, development, and management of societies. The processes of regionalization are therefore to be linked to these changes and to how states deal with globalization. As for supra-national regions, the region-building processes need to be understood in terms of a set of conditions and instruments without which integration cannot be realized. Integration can only be achieved if there are voluntary decisions of states to sign an integration treaty. But signing a treaty does not automatically produce integration. For this to happen the promises expressed in the Treaty have to be implemented in a series of day-to-day action by governments and people. So even if states can be considered as main region-builders, it is at the end of the day civil society that plays an important role as well. Without sufficient civil society support, a regional integration process will lack legitimacy and political support.

Mattli (1999) has argued that two sets of conditions must be satisfied if integration is to succeed: demand-side and supply-side conditions. On the demand-side one can see theories and opinions about the positive effects of integration. Supply conditions refer to the conditions under which political leaders are willing and able to accommodate demands for deeper integration. This points to the limits of states to act as region-builders and to the possibility of change in the position of states. At one time they can be defender or promoter of integration. At another occasion they can object to a further loss of sovereignty. So integration is not a mechanistic process and the position of states towards integration can – even dramatically – change. But once an integration process is started, it gives rise to a regional form of governance that has some statehood properties. A regional organisation is not a state, but it can have quite a lot of state-characteristics or institutions such as a parliament, a foreign affairs’ service, a judicial system and so on. This implies that once constituted, a region can become an actor as well that can influence the supply conditions. In other words, states and the regions they have built can either reinforce their actions or they can become each other opponents!

But, as noted by Hameiri and Jayasuriya (2010: 2): the relationship between state and region is not to be seen as a ‘zero-sum game’ where one is strengthened as the other weakens. On the contrary, what seems to be happening is that states engage themselves in region-building because they have good reasons to shift the scale of governance downwards or upwards, according to the policy issue at stake. But this is not to say that region-building by states is a harmonious process. States and the regions they have created are subject of continuous political conflicts.

The European Laboratory


Competition, conflict and cooperation between states and regional forms of governance will for sure shape the future of the Westphalian world order. And one can reasonably expect a crucial role in this for Europe as it is the most regionalized part of the world in two ways: the EU is the most stake-like regional organization of the world and it has firmly institutionalized sub-national regions within its patchwork of states. On top of it, the different forms of regionalization can reinforce each other: more Europe can weaken the positions of its member states and meanwhile the EU supports the sub-national regional level which again can contribute to a weakening of the governance space of states. Imagine that the EU one day becomes a truly federal state. It would then perhaps be possible to accommodate different break ups in some its member states. And perhaps, this could contribute to a better (more autonomous) function of the European level. After all, the federal state of the USA consists out of 52 states and that does not prevent it from functioning as a unitary entity. But the question is how far do states let his happen. Europe, as any other part of the world, therefore faces a crucial challenge: how far can the integration and devolution processes go without threatening the stability of the states who have been in the driving seat of the region-building activities so far? The recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state illustrates this point well: only 22 out of the EU’s 27 members have recognized Kosovo and some of those who did not (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania) had domestic secessionist issues as a reason not to do so. The failure to come to a European Convention rather than the watered-down Lisbon Treaty is another illustration of how a lot of European states are reluctant to let their power further dilute. Europe can therefore be considered as a laboratory of the ongoing transformation of the Westphalian world order. But, outside Europe, states operate in much the same way. Russia, China, India, Indonesia to name a few have not recognized Kosovo either for the same domestic secessionist concerns. But meanwhile regionalization advances everywhere. Take India, in 1976 it had 16 states. Today it has 28 of which three were created as in 2000. These regions have in some cases quite some important statehood properties.

Two Senarios

There is no point in trying to predict which way the evolution will go. But to the extent that the regionalization of the world is likely to continue and to the extent that states will continue to exist as major actors of governance, one can safely say that the governance of relations between states and regions will be a major force in determining how the world will look like.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: or the New Prometheus might contain a good metaphor to picture the complex relation between states and regions. The story is well known: Dr. Frankenstein creates a being modeled after himself, but larger than average and more powerful. But the creature turns against his creator. The novel’s subtitle refers to the Greek mythology of Prometheus who was the Titan who created mankind. States could perhaps be compared with Titan or Frankenstein: they also create entities modeled after themselves. And once created these entities might turn against their creators… In the case of states, the entities are regions. I would not go as far to call them monsters as Dr. Frankenstein called Victor! But the paradox is there: states create regions to cope with the forces of globalization and the regions they built, challenge that world of states. Therefore, the future world order will very likely be one with increased conflicts between states and regions. But it also holds the promise for new forms of cooperation. The Pygmalion story might be an appropriate second metaphor to capture this. George Bernard Shaw wrote this play in 1912 that tells the story of professor Higgins who educates a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle so that she can pass for a duchess. The story is based upon the Greek methodological figure Pygmalion who fell in love with a statute he sculptured. Both the myth and Shaw’s play deal with the complex business of human relations in a social world. The metaphor towards regions and states could be that they both can, notwithstanding conflict relations, reinforce each other.

The Return of Nationalism 

Regions should thus be understood in relation to statehood: it is by emulating statehood properties at regional level that regions are built. In doing so, a clear distinction can be made between state and nation, the latter being described as a concept related to the political claim of nationalism. While some will claim that all states need to be a nation, a different position can be taken, namely that states as not being synonymous to nations. One can even question if something like a nation actually exists. But what certainly does exist, is nationalism and this can play a role in region-building processes. There are indeed examples where the region-building process is not only about acquiring statehood but also driven by a nationalist component. One could label this ‘nationalist regionalism’ where the télos is the transformation of a region into a full-fledged state based upon a nationalist ideal. In other words, here the region-building process is used as a tool in a nation-building process. Especially in Europe, one can identify several examples of such a nationalist regionalism. A special issue of the Catalan International Review, published in Autumn 2010, mentioned Catalonia, Scotland, Flanders, Northern Ireland, Greenland and Euskadi and labeled these regions as ‘NEEWS’: New Emerging European Western States. Such nationalist regionalism is in principle also possible at the supra-national level but are far less evident. One can for instance hardly see any form of European nationalism. But some former attempts to create an Arab federation or a pan-African state could qualify as such.

Region-building is, however, also possible without such a nationalist component. Even more, it could contribute to moving away from nationalism by creating a more cosmopolitan vision on governance. Such a cosmopolitan regionalism could be characterized as a region-building process that has no nationalist télos and that goes beyond existing nationalist movements. Most regional integration processes do have such a cosmopolitan dimension as they involve different states with nationhood properties and as the integration télos is not to build a new nation. The EU is a good example of this. Such cosmopolitan regionalism is also possible at the sub-national level. It is then driven by efficiency motives that brings certain aspects of statehood to what is seen as the most optimal level of governance, without even questioning the existence of the existing state(s) to which the region belongs. This is what currently seems to be happening in Quebec.

There are no signs that the trend towards regionalization will end. On the contrary, regions seem to become more and more assertive in demanding their place in the governance system. And states alone seem to be less and less capable of managing their internal affairs in an isolated way, as well as managing the growing global challenges. The rise of regionalism therefore seems to bring with it a number of potential advantages. The first being that it allows to increase the ‘localism’ in a globalized world. Edgar Morin once called this the démondialisation of the world, the favouring of local (regional) communities (Morin 2010: 13). The second advantage being the possibility of overcoming the limitations of a world carved up in small and big states. Global governance organized in a democratic way will only be possible if ‘the building blocks are more or less equivalent units. Such units have to be multinational, federal, regional, continental or sub-continental units’ (Brugmans 1970: 7; translated from Flemish by the author). This is how Hendrik Brugmans, one of the architects of the European integration process saw the future of global governance. Today his dream seems to be more possible than ever. But at the same time the challenges have never been bigger either. And the biggest challenge is perhaps to turn away from nationalist regionalisms and opt for a cosmopolitan regionalism.


Brugmans, H. (1970). “Europa federaal: bouwsteen voor wereldorde”. Ondernemen, 26 (1).

Hameiri, S. And Jayasuriya, K. (2010). “Regulatory Regionalism and the Dynamics of Territorial Politics: The Case of the Asia-Pacific Region”. Political Studies, 1-18.

Mattli, W. (1999). The Logic of Regional Integration: Europe and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morin, E. (2010). Ma Gauche. Paris: François Bourin.

Van Langenhove Luk (2011), Building Regions; The Regionalization of the World Order. London: Ashgate.

Hooghe, L. Marks, G. and Schakel, A. (2010). The Rise of Regional Authority. London: Routledge.