John Ralston Saul, Canadian political philosopher and Renaissance man-about-town, has written a book that attempts to answer that question. All that chivvying optimism about globalisation that animated Anglo-American intellectuals, he argues, has been swept under the carpet. National borders have never mattered so much.
After their currency crises of 1997, the countries of Asia are taking a more pragmatic view of the economy, and balancing market competition with regulation. The US and Britain mounted an invasion of Iraq without global authority. Globalisation is dead, contends Ralston Saul, and long live the nation state, which it was supposed to have buried in its wake.
A decade ago, there was an assumption that globalisation on its own could lift people out of poverty. That braying enthusiasm has given way to no more than a squeak. Saul is right to guard against the credulity of the globalisation gurus, who tend to believe that two countries whose economies are heavily intertwined will never go to war.
He is excellent at conjuring the uncertain atmosphere of the 1970s, in which a resurgent market ideology was to triumph over tired state socialism. The privatisations of the 1980s, he points out, were less about unleashing the market to work miracles than allowing timid big business to cower in safe sectors. Saul has a keen eye for hypocrisy and a pungently dry wit.
What a shame, then, that his book should be such a ramshackle structure, a collage of epigrams and aperçus tied together with little more than venom and disdain. Since Saul favours the implacability of culture over the transformations wrought by economics, he also tends towards the worst kind of conservatism.
Economic globalisation was never inevitable, and it appears to have run out of juice. Saul's arguments make original reading. It is a pity that he can offer no alternative, and that his book promises so much more than it can deliver.
James Harkin is director of talks at the ICA, in London