people at underground station [Free Range photos]

[This is an excerpt from an article published in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs in 1994.]

Change is intrinsic in nature and in evolutionary life itself; what is new is its sweep and speed. While everyone is for change, no one wants to change, especially if it means sacrifice and disruption. As the poet Maya Angelou put it, when people say they are for change, they mean exchange. Although there is a broad consensus that everything the world has so far known is radically changing, there is very little clarity about the direction and destination of current convulsive change. Is the world experiencing a quantitative change—in rates of economic growth or pace of technological development and diffusion—or is it a qualitative catharsis—a new paradigm of a new society, governed by different values and ethos. Some like Daniel Bell and Peter Drucker characterize the future as post-modern or postindustrial. Others like Taichi Sakaiya, in his book The Knowledge-Value Revolution: History of the Future, have argued that the emerging global society will dramatically diverge from what has existed up to now, constituting the passing of the Industrial Revolution, a repudiation of the industrial economy and the advent of a knowledge-driven society.

Traditional concepts like sovereignty, security, comparative advantage, geopolitics and economic progress are becoming either obsolete or require radical new thinking. In their place, new notions like autonomous communities, virtual reality, managed competition, total quality management, geo-economics and eco efficiency are being articulated. Another unique feature of contemporary change is the fact that transformations in the political, economic, ecological and strategic spheres are taking place, unlike earlier times, simultaneously at breath-taking speed. They cause one another and affect each other.

Whatever be the character of global change, the present is truly a momentous time. Whether it is Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ or a more mundane end of the Cold War and collapse of communism, there is no doubt that humanity is passing through an era of truly revolutionary transformation—a turning point in human history. While the impact of change is universal and ubiquitous, there will be some who will gain and some who will lose. The challenge is to control and orchestrate, not to enrich the already rich and empower the already powerful, not to accentuate divisions and disparities but to better the lives of those who now stand at the margins of modern civilization.

The present is an age of over specialization and inter-dependence, of amplitude of information and ill informed individuals and policy makers, of connected continents and disconnected people and of crumbling walls and new partitions. A major phenomenon is the increasing interconnectedness of political, strategic, economic and technological forces. No longer is it possible to deal with any major global issue only in either political or economic or social context. There is a growing mismatch between political processes, economic imperatives and social realities. Political processes are more and more unable to cope with economic compulsions, leading to social turmoil. Conversely, social constraints are affecting economic prosperity, leading to political paralysis. For example, the constitutional gridlock between legislature and the executive branches of the US government, based on a distrust of any single source of absolute power, could inhibit the imperative of rapid and harsh economic decisions. The high level of unemployment in Europe—18 million—is leading to social tensions and retarding political unity. The Third World is caught in a vicious circle and is struggling to find a way to break it. While the world is divided politically into 184 sovereign states, the 4 Ts—telecommunications, television, travel and trade—are sweeping across the world. Whether they are transforming the world into a global village or myriad villages is still not clear.


Nationalism has been the driving force of international affairs in the 20th century. And nation-state has become the sole symbol of sovereignty, loosely defined as ‘that power whose acts are not subject to the control of another so that they may be made void by the act of any other human will’. As the world approaches the end of a century, nationalism, especially ethnic, is on the rise, but nation-state is under attack. The definition of a nation-state has long eluded scholars and statesmen. William Pfaff, in his book The Wrath of Nations, approvingly quotes Hugh Seton Watson to the effect that ‘all that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation and behave as if they formed one’. One might add that people, in staking a claim to be a nation, often cite a hoary and antiquated past as a justification of separateness. A nation-state could include more than one nation and nationalism can have its roots and locus in more than one state.


C. B. Rau is a national of India and the author of a number of articles on poverty alleviation and pre-emptive diplomacy. He has extensive experience in development matters and at the United Nations where he served as a staff member.