The American Legion Magazine | 6.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

For the better part of 400 years—ever since the Peace of Westphalia—the nation-state system has served to organize the world. But today, this centuries-old global order is under assault from four divergent movements: post-nationalism (think globalization), supra-nationalism (think International Criminal Court), trans-nationalism (think al Qaeda) and non-nationalism (think failed states).

Given that the United States is the most powerful nation-state, these movements are at odds with American interests.

Let’s start where our distant ancestors started, in a world where nation-states didn’t exist. We see glimpses of that world today in Mali, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even in the ungoverned swaths of Mexico. These failed and failing states are places where government has lost the ability to fulfill its central purpose—namely, performing basic functions like maintaining public order and essential infrastructure, controlling borders, and ensuring that what happens within their borders does not adversely impact neighboring states.

The latest Failed States Index suggests that this problem is worsening—both in scale and severity—as once-stable countries enter the failed-state ranks and unstable countries register some of the worst declines on the index since it was first published in 2005.[i]

Failed states open the door to piracy, terrorism and drug-trafficking—problems that wreak havoc around the world. It’s no coincidence that the deadliest parts of Mexico are under the control not of the Mexican government but of narco-armies, or that the pirate plague is raging in the waters between the failed states of Somalia and Yemen, or that Somalia has been under the control of a movement aligned with al Qaeda, or that al Qaeda’s franchise on the Arabian Peninsula has seized large chunks of Yemen.[ii] 

Indeed, what’s happening in Yemen and Somalia today is similar to what happened after the collapse of the nation-state in Afghanistan in the 1990s: weak central governments leaving a vacuum filled by extremists.

That brings us to transnational groups like al Qaeda and other stateless actors. Transnationalism is different than non-nationalism in that transnational groups are cohesive and have a clear objective: to erode the nation-state system from below.

As then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld concluded in 2004, America’s jihadist enemies have a simple but sweeping goal: “to end the state system, using terrorism to drive the non-radicals from the world.”[iii] Love him or hate him, Rumsfeld was right about this. Consider the words of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who calls on his followers to create a theocratic geopolitical power that “does not recognize nation-state, national links or the borders imposed by occupiers.”

In a sense, the war on terror is an outgrowth of nation-states failing or refusing to live up to the responsibilities of sovereignty—and allowing transnational movements like al Qaeda to exploit the resulting openings:

·         The Taliban government of Afghanistan and al Qaeda embraced transnationalism, and so the Taliban allowed al Qaeda to create a terrorist campus inside Afghanistan, which Osama bin Laden used as a launching pad for attacks against U.S. targets around the world.

·         Post-Taliban Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, on the other hand, are states that want to control what happens inside their borders but are simply too weak to hold back transnational movements.

·         Finally, Pakistan plays games with sovereignty, claiming it is too weak to control its territories with one breath but then invoking its sovereign and inviolable borders with the next. SEAL Team 6 exposed this duplicity—and revealed Islamabad’s complicity in transnational terrorism.

If transnationalism erodes the nation-state system from below, supra-nationalism whittles it away from above. The intriguing thing about supra-nationalism and transnationalism is that both seek a stateless world, although their visions for what such a world would look like are dramatically different.

Examples of supra-nationalism are organizations like the United Nations, International Criminal Court (ICC) and European Union (EU).

Rumsfeld worried about “the erosion of respect for state sovereignty” caused by supra-national organizations. This erosion, he warned, “gives states an excuse to take the easy way out by…punting problems to supra-national bodies, instead of taking responsibility.”[iv]

That’s what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. As historian William Pfaff observes in The Wrath of Nations, the UN and the European Community (forerunner to the EU) “proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”

More specific to the UN, according to the UN Charter, the main goal of its founders was not to create a supra-national government, but rather to protect the “sovereign equality,” “territorial integrity” and “political independence” of nation-states. In practice, however, the UN has increasingly encroached upon sovereignty by using an ever-thickening thatch of sub-agencies and treaties—“lawfare” as the critics call it—to constrain the political independence of nation-states.

The ICC is a good example of this. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the ICC has conducted investigations “into whether NATO troops, including American soldiers, fighting the Taliban may have to be put in the dock.”[v]The ICC has no authority to take such action against the United States since it is not party to the treaty, but that’s not stopping ICC lawyers from lunging at American sovereignty.

In addition, the UN has watered down the principle of sovereignty by not holding nation-states accountable for their actions.

In 2003, for instance, the UN Security Council took eight weeks to approve a resolution requiring Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. Worse, the Security Council refused to enforce the resolution, apparently concluding that passage of the resolution was an end in and of itself—rather than a means to an end.

Similarly, in 2010, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean ship in international waters, killing 46 sailors. All the UN could muster was a pathetic report condemning the attack without condemning—let alone punishing—the attacker.

Yet while the UN fails to hold aggressors responsible for their misconduct, UN bodies like the ICC impugn and investigate the United States for trying to uphold the international system.


Post-nationalism envisions a world after or beyond the nation-state. One of the main drivers of post-nationalism is globalization, the term used to describe today’s highly integrated global economic system.

A recent report by the National Intelligence Council warns that in the “hyper-globalized” world that could emerge in the coming decades—a world where power has devolved to megacities, nongovernment organizations and multinational companies—countries “wedded to the notion of sovereignty and independence” will “find it difficult to operate successfully.”[vi]

Already, multinational corporations are more concerned about global labor rules, global trade agreements and global tariff issues than about the laws of nation-states, relying on supra-nationalism’s economic, legal and commercial regimes—which bypass borders—to do what nation-states used to do. (Speaking of bypassing borders, post-nationalism also is visible in the open-borders movement. A borderless world, by definition, is a world without nation-states.)

To be sure, the United States has benefitted from globalization’s lower transaction costs, free-flowing communications and open commerce. In fact, some contend that globalization is just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. After all, President Harry Truman argued in 1947 that “the whole world should adopt the American system” of free markets and free enterprise. Ever since World War II, the United States has been an engine of globalization, promoting free trade, open markets and a system of rules to govern international interaction.

The operative word here is “international”—between nations, not beyond nations.

Truman, like many other Americans, would probably conclude that globalization is good until it infringes on American sovereignty or threatens American security. It pays to recall that our enemies are exploiting the promise of a borderless world to attack the world. Consider what’s happening in cyberspace or what happened on 9/11.Post-nationalists ignore these downsides of globalization.

The United States has been resisting these movements throughout its history.

For example, the Congressional Research Service maintains a tally of U.S. military intervention abroad. Of the hundreds of examples of intervention before this century, 60 involved failed states—otherwise known as “non-nationalism.”[vii]That’s what triggered U.S. intervention in Spanish Florida (1816), Colombia (1868), Mexico (1873-1896), Korea (1888) and many other places.[viii]In fact, more than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that the United States had a duty to intervene in places where “impotence” results in “a general loosening of the ties of civilized society”[ix]—in other words, countries that are either unwilling or unable to fulfill their nation-state responsibilities.

As to post-nationalism and supra-nationalism, consider our founding documents. Although the Founding Fathers embraced universal truths, they ardently believed in nationhood. Far from espousing a utopian supra-nationalism or post-nationalism, the Founders wrote a constitution expressly for “the people of the United States” and announced their independence by declaring it was time for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” Moreover, The Federalist Papers expressly speak of international borders, “our country,” “dangers from abroad” and nations with “opposite interests.” To be sure, Americans have looked beyond borders to pursue close bonds with people of goodwill—witness America’s friendships with such diverse places as Israel and India, Germany and Japan, France and the Philippines—but always in a state-to-state context.

Finally, the United States has resisted transnational movements. Yesterday, it was that “long, twilight struggle” against communism. Today, it’s the generational struggle against jihadism.

The National Interest
The United States should answer this multi-front assault on the nation-state by taking a number of steps:

·         Hold nation-states accountable for their actions. As the Obama administration concluded in its 2010 National Security Strategy, the United States is best suited “to pursue our interests through an international system in which all nations have certain rights and responsibilities.” The strategy goes on to argue that the United States needs to provide incentives for nation-states to act responsibly and needs to enforce consequences when they don’t.[x]So, what consequences have North Korea, Sudan and Syria faced for their actions? And what incentive is there for Nigerians, Malians and Libyans to hold their nation-states together?

·         Strengthen and support at-risk nation-states. The natural order of the world is not that orderly. The nation-state system has brought a measure of order, but it takes hard work to maintain it. This translates into helping nation-states control their borders, holding them accountable for what happens within their borders and supporting their sovereignty. This is not to suggest that sovereignty can be used to justify barbarism. The idea that what happens within a nation-state is unimportant to other nation-states is as pernicious as the idea that borders are irrelevant. Consider an example from close to home: What happens on my neighbor’s property is of no concern or threat to me unless or until my neighbor harms someone, encroaches on my property, or through action or inaction negatively impacts me and my property. In the same way, what happens inside nation-states becomes a concern when governments harm their citizens or negatively impact neighboring nation-states.

·         Promote the spread of liberal democracy. It is not the UN or ICC—well-intentioned as they may be—that have guaranteed freedom or independence, but rather a small community of democratic nation-states. As British statesman George Walden once observed, “The most reliable unit of peace is a prosperous, educated, stable, democratic nation.”

·         Guard against further erosion of U.S. sovereignty. America is deeply interconnected with the world, and this interconnection serves American interests in areas as diverse as trade, technology and transportation. We should ignore the siren song of isolation, but given the growing number of assaults on national sovereignty, perhaps it’s time for Congress to develop a “sovereignty impact statement” to measure how new treaties and laws affect America’s independence.

The United States has thrived in the nation-state system. We were born into it, raised in it, grew to master and shape it, and today we benefit from it, sustain it and dominate it. If it ceases to be the main organizing structure for the world, there is no guarantee that we Americans will have the same position and place we enjoy today.


[ii] Ahmed Haj, “Clinton says Yemen leader has reneged on promises,” Washington Times, January 17, 2012

[iii] Rumsfeld memo, May 25, 2004.

[iv] Remarks on June 11, 2003.

[v] DANIEL SCHWAMMENTHAL, "Prosecuting American 'War Crimes,'" Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2009.

[vi] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, 2012, p.19.

[vii] Richard F. Grimmett, "Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2010," CRS Report to Congress, March 10, 2011.

[viii] Grimmet.

[ix] State of the Union message, December 6, 1904.

[x] National Security Strategy 2010, p.2.