When people in Scotland or Flanders or Catalonia talk of independence, they have an invisible but powerful ally: globalization.

Nations no longer need as much territory to be viable as they did in the period of the great colonial empires, or even 25 years ago. The dismantling of international trade and financial restrictions plus technological advances that facilitate cross-border business make it unnecessary for a country to sustain itself only, or even primarily, with the fruit of its own soil.

These days, whatever a country can’t do or make at home, it can get from abroad. If it’s a fragile state that doesn’t have the financial means, it can stay afloat through official and other aid structures that have become global institutions in their own right.

Naturally, a nation benefits by having assets like natural resources and plenty of land for agriculture on its own territory. But today there are numerous alternatives. A country with little farmland can import crops, or import the food it’s made into, or buy or lease the foreign land where the crops are grown. All of these practices are already widespread, along with other more specialized ones – using commodity futures, for instance. The same holds true for oil, financial services and anything else a nation might use to sustain itself.

In exchange, a country that relies on the global market for its needs can offer various means to obtain them – money, skills, specialized knowledge, a beneficial geographical situation, rights to exploit local activities – practically anything that has value abroad. Recognizing and developing a country’s assets and using them for domestic gain is simply good governance.

Indeed, how a country is governed has arguably become more important for its long-term sustainability than having sovereignty over a large territory or even military strength beyond defensive needs. The Soviet Union more or less proved this by disappearing.

Diplomacy has been a catalyst for the diminishing importance of a state’s territorial size. The system that allows countries to be small yet viable is the product of the intertwined relations that exist through bilateral and multilateral agreements that cover everything from trade to defense.

The European Union exemplifies this on a regional scale. If its 27 members one day become 30 through the breakups of the United Kingdom, Belgium and Spain, the EU’s total territory would stay the same and the things that have happened on it would keep happening on it. That’s because of achievements like the unified market, freedom of movement for EU citizens and other EU-wide projects.

In fact, the EU’s successes like these have actually fostered a climate that can allow, say, Flanders and Wallonia to displace Belgium in the same territorial space without wrenching economic or social transitions, much less war.

Just as the medical or legal professions have become increasingly specialized, one can envision countries going down the same route: thanks to the effects of globalization, we may see a larger number of smaller countries in the future, each with its own needs and assets, and with greater interdependence and interaction among them. The modern recognition of self-determination as a human right offers the legal cover for this to occur, and the spread of democratic systems offers the mechanism.

Thus, a place like Scotland doesn’t have to rely on the fact that it produces oil in order to be a viable state, useful as it may be in the near term. The day may come when the oil, or the market for it, is no longer its economic pillar – and when that occurs, it will not matter whether Scotland is independent or still part of the United Kingdom except in how the situation is offset.  

The irony is that sovereignty hasn’t lost its allure, even as the effects of globalization continue to displace sovereign control as the only option for managing a nation’s territory.

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.