An emergent zone of ambiguous rules and actors

Saskia Sassen on what to expect for global order in 2015.
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January 9, 2015

Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University.

The space of traditional governance is shrinking, even though it remains the most strategically important and powerful. What is expanding is a vast new zone of ambiguous rules and 'ruling orders.' The rules range widely — from private formal arrangements, such as international commercial arbitration which bypasses national courts, to the agreements among a growing number of international criminal syndicates. And the 'ruling orders' range from terrorists organizations to large global firms with the power to shape much of the global economy. (I develop these trends at length in my book Territory, Authority, Rights.)

The overall outcome of this redrawing of global inter-state space is a multiplication of systemic edges — and these do not correspond to national borders or the formal inter-state system. The most extreme case is probably ISIS and its "Caliphate."

But we can find many less extreme and less belligerent formations if our aim is to identify new kinds of enclosures that partly disassemble national sovereign territory and thereby unsettle the traditional inter-state system.

In my own work, I have focused on a range of such enclosures. Among them are commercial land grabs — shorthand for massive land acquisitions by firms and governments in countries not their own; these have reached well over 200 million hectares from 2006 to 2011. Another instance is the so-called "black pools of finance" (as described by Ben Bernanke, the former head of the U.S. central bank; see my Expulsions, chapter 3); these are mostly electronic spaces that cut across national borders, and have territorial insertions in key countries and global cities. They are run by major established banks, and account for a growing share of financial transactions — but fall outside the standard regulatory frame.

Finally, and more diffuse, the rise of inter-city relations across national borders will keep on expanding (see my piece on an emergent urban geopolitics). Elsewhere I have examined how this is in good part, and perhaps ironically, a result of governments implementing economic deregulation and privatization policies (see my Cities in a World Economy). These took off in the Global North in the 1980s and have now spread in one version or another to much of the world.

One brief observation on global cities: When a government deregulates and privatizes economic sectors once under direct management of the state, these managerial and regulatory functions do not disappear. They are transferred to private firms: they reappear as specialized financial, accounting, legal, advisory services for corporations. And these types of activities tend to be in cities, and in global cities if they are complex, which they are if a firm’s market is global.

None of this eliminates the ongoing role of the inter-state system and its multiple institutions. Indeed, some of these have become more important and are entering new domains. Let me illustrate with what is an obscure event — the so-called "vulture funds" issue in the Argentina sovereign default. What had been the preserve of narrow court procedures became a matter of interest and active engagement for the General Assembly of the United Nations in the Fall of 2014, a process that continues.

And yet, none of this can obliterate the fact of that expanding global space of ambivalent new rules and new ruling orders.

Also in the series

The number of questions guiding our coverage this year is far larger than we were able to explore in the features below. For instance, will Canada live up to its recent promise to help resettle 10,000 new Syrian refugees? What will result from Palestine’s membership into the International Criminal Court? 


More peace on earth than ever before?

Scott Gilmore on what to expect for violence in 2015.

A soft or crash landing for Canada?

Madelaine Drohan on what to expect from finance in 2015.

Setting new terms of reference for the global economy

John McArthur on what to expect for development in 2015.

In praise of the emerging debate around energy

Tzeporah Berman on what to expect for climate change action in 2015.