Say Hello to the Splintered State

The news is understandably full of the continuing saga of the ‘Euro Crisis’, focusing on Greece and whether or not we face a ‘Grexit’ (isn’t it amusing how these new words appear in times of crisis) and more economic contagion. This is an important debate, but we must not see it merely as an economic issue. In many respects, the Euro Crisis should be seen as a microcosm of a future world. We may all have to go through what is now happening inside the European Union.

The Euro Crisis should be seen therefore as more than issues of financial ‘firewalls’ and ‘austerity’. What we are really seeing is a struggle for who holds power. In other words we are witnessing, within the European Union, a preview of the coming reshaping of the world order. When I talk of the ‘world order’ I mean the ‘rules of the global game’. For most of us in at least the West, the rules of the global game were crafted by the US in the closing years of the Second World War. Democracy and open markets were championed and new institutions such as the UN, IMF and World Bank appeared to support these ideals. But the world has changed a lot during the ensuing 60 or so years. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that:

  • ‘Super power’ states are the only plausible architects of a world order
  • There will be one world order. We face the  prospect (or in my view certainty) that the world will fragment into multiple orders.

Joseph Nye[1] makes the important point that globalisation has empowered everyone, making even small groups of people as powerful as nation states. Nye uses the example of 9/11 to show how a relatively small group of individuals can kill more Americans in one day than a nation state did in 1941 (Pearl Harbor). This all means that new world or regional orders will be defined and moulded by more architects than just a small collection of powerful nation states. We must say goodbye to a world where the rules of the global game can be decided by just one or two powerful states. We are now in the highly unusually position of having a range of newly empowered architects, all jostling for position and wanting to try to push things their way.

I deal with this new array of architects in my forthcoming book, The Era of Global Transition, to be published in September, but in this post I want to say hello to one important actor that I will call the Splintered State.

‘Splintered states’ can take a pivotal position, being able to punch above their weight. Typically, splintered states historically enjoyed positions of relative influence and wealth. Their influence is now waning. Their empires and sources of power are dying. They are losing the access to resources that they once enjoyed.

History tells us that when empires die they become dangerous, prone to irrational actions and behaviour[2]. They may not be able to craft a world order, but splintered states can throw rocks into the pond that are big enough to make a lot of us wet and influence the formation of regional orders.

The European Union was a growing empire, built on the foundations not of hard-edged military power, but the use of more subtle soft, influential power[3]. The Great Recession has eroded that source of power and the European Union is in retreat. Now we face the prospect of fragmentation with the likelihood that Greece will be the first to exit. An exit will finalise Greece’s transition into a splintered state. And if Greece exits and we face the emergence of more splintered states.

As we have said, splintered states are potentially dangerous. Splintered states can act irrationally and could be those that will finally take the remaining wheels off the globalisation bandwagon. Typical actions will include:

  • Protectionist, ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies that could spark economic warfare.
  • Emergence of political extremism.

Political extremism deserves a special note. Firstly, in times of crisis and impending poverty, forget the popular mantra that ‘everyone wants democracy’, people will want a strong leadership figure that they have confidence in. Secondly, political extremism is an issue that is bubbling at an alarming rate in Europe[4], [5].

Splintered states can punch above their weight in this inter-connected world of ours and may be surprisingly influential when we navigate the next turn in the globalisation story.


[1]          J. Nye, The Future of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

[2]          R. Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[3]          M. Wolf, ‘The pull of a free and prosperous Europe’,, 01-Feb-2005. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 01-Jul-2011].

[4]          A. Mammone, ‘The Future of Europe’s Radical Right: Why the Politics of Race Are Here to Stay.’, Foreign Affairs, 20-Sep-2011. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 06-Oct-2011].

[5]          M. Goodwin, ‘Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe’, Chatham House, London, 2011.

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