Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bringing the State's Political Elites Back In

I probably need to unfollow Daniel Drezner on Twitter, because he keeps posting or retweeting many interesting essays that cut into my schedule. In his last twitter post, he mentioned Thanassis Cambanis' essay in the Boston Globe, which argues that the traditional state-based analysis is no longer working and:
"A strategy for this new world would have to incorporate large measures of uncertainty. In the old system, an understanding between superpowers carried the force of law almost worldwide; proxy conflicts that simmered for decades in Latin America or Asia could be shut off with the flourish of a pen in Moscow or Washington. In today’s world, by contrast, a sudden eruption between competing corporations, militias, activists, or individuals can derail the course of nations, indifferent to the agreements of larger powers and often blindsiding experts. A contemporary strategy would be one that gives us a way to make smarter choices in such nebulous situations, setting priorities about what really matters to the United States - a strong currency? Commercial competition with China and Europe? Military dominance? American-style democracy and human rights?"
This essay reminds me of "the Coming Anarchy," an old Robert Kaplan essay, which argues that we will soon see global chaos, thanks to the breakdown of the state's authority due to economic hardship. Many scholars nowadays think Robert Kaplan's argument is overly simplistic as it put too much emphasis on tribal/ethnic loyalties.

Unlike Kaplan, Cambanis argues that the biggest problem facing a state is that there are simply too much "competition," too many "free agents" running around: the corporations, militias, activists, terrorists, and whoever else comes out of the woodwork to hamper the conducts of statecraft:
"A world ... of manifold stakeholders, unexpected power centers, and messy inflection points - a fitting, if somewhat unsatisfying, close to the age of great nation states."
Yet, the question is whether this argument truly holds water. Since its inception in 1648, the international system has always been dominated by a few great powers. Even though many called the 1990s and 2000s the age of "unipolarity," a time when the United States alone dominated the globe, the United States was never a hegemon that held a hegemonic power over the entire world. Rather, what the United States did was to organize the world with the agreement of many other states, from Europe in the west to Japan in the east. Included here are the consent from both Russia and China.

This American-led system has been in place as far back as in 1945, when the United States implicitly gave a guarantee through the United Nations that states' existences were sacred, that no state would ever be destroyed. That was actually the driving force for the "Global Peace" since 1945, the fact that each state's survival was essentially guaranteed by the might of the United States. Without such a guarantee, debates in the United Nations sooner or later would be ended by war.

This kind of arrangement, however, creates different problems, notably the idea of "quasi-states." Explored and developed by Robert H. Jackson, "quasi-states" are states that are recognized by other states, especially its neighbors, and yet have such weak governments that the state is unable to control its own territory.

Such quasi-states allow criminal groups, terrorist groups, and various other riffraff to emerge and grow. We usually tend to associate states like Somalia as an example of quasi-state, but I will go further by arguing that even Pakistan is a quasi-state, particularly because its intelligence service and armed forces in reality dominate and bully its legitimate civilian government.

In essence, my definition of "quasi state" is state that allows armed, violent competition to exist within its own borders. It is all part of an internal process that determines political power between various groups, elites and so on protecting the status quo and others in society who seek to change it.

It is the reason why Taliban, al-Qaeda, and various other criminal/terrorist groups are able to exist and flourish. There are competitions within the political elites of the state to dominate such quasi-states, and each of them has vested interests in building and maintaining such violent extremist groups as means to terrorize the population to vote for them and to extort money, critical funds for politicking.

Therefore, many non-state actors can only exist and survive with the "permission" of the state, that the political elites within the state actually want them to exist. Even Pakistan, had it had the will to do so, could uproot the Taliban and al-Qaeda rather quickly. Yet both the Taliban and al-Qaeda are useful for Pakistan to wage proxy war against their main target, India.

Other non-state actors, notably the non-violent ones, similarly live and die by the will of the state. The United States can force companies such as Microsoft and Google to change their business practices through laws and taxes. China simply bullies them to submission. Corporations and NGOs are important for democratic countries to help the political elites to contest and win elections. And at the same time, their ability to exist is also determined by the state. The United States could theoretically disband the pesky NGOs, but the existence of the first amendment make such action very expensive and the United States has decided not to do that.

Therefore, the "new" world is not really that different to the "old" one. While individuals and NGOs are important, their ability to make changes are still heavily influenced by the state, especially the strong, powerful states and their political elites.

Addendum: You may also want to check our previous posts at: here and here.

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