Capstones | 3.30.15
By Alan W. Dowd
nation-state system has served to organize the world for the better part of 400
years, but it’s under withering assault today. Just glance at the headlines: ISIS
is maiming and murdering its way toward a borderless caliphate enfolding Iraq,
Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Boko Haram has carved out a mini-state in Nigeria. In
Libya, jihadist groups and sectarian armies have declared competing zones of
control over Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi. After annexing Crimea, Russia is
erasing its border with Ukraine by deploying troops scrubbed of insignia. Mexico
is fighting a drug-cartel insurgency, with warlords in control of 12 percent of
the country. By allowing and encouraging the movement of children across the U.S.
border last summer, Central American governments ignored their responsibilities
as sovereign nation-states and showed contempt for the sovereignty of their
neighbors.Disparate groups, governments and individuals are
using cyberspace to erode and erase the very notion of nationhood.
Given that the United States is the
most powerful nation-state, this multi-pronged assault on the nation-state
system represents a serious threat to the United States. As the de facto system
administrator, it’s up to Washington to address it.
Threat #1: Non-Nationalism
start where our distant ancestors started, in a world where nation-states
didn’t exist, a world of competing tribes and clans. We see glimpses of that
world today in the vast ungoverned swaths of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and even parts of the Americas. These failed and failing states are places where government has lost the ability to perform
basic functions like maintaining public order, controlling borders and ensuring
that what happens within their borders does not adversely impact neighboring
states. The Failed States Index indicates that
the failed-state problem is worsening, 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.
Failed states open the door to a host
of global ills—piracy, terrorism, drug-trafficking, human-trafficking. It’s no coincidence
that the pirate plague has raged in the waters between the failed states of
Somalia and Yemen, or that the deadliest parts of Mexico are under the control
not of the Mexican government but of cartels, or that al Qaeda’s most dangerous
branch is based in lawless Yemen,or that ISIS has seized 34,000 square miles of Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, what’s happening in Iraq, Syria
and Yemen today is similar to what happened after the collapse of the
nation-state in Afghanistan in the 1990s: extremists filling the vacuum created
by weak central governments.
Threat # 2: Trans-Nationalism
That brings us to transnational groups. 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.” Love him or hate him, Rumsfeld was right
about this. Consider the words of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who calls
on his followers to “trample
the idol of nationalism” and “destroy the idol of democracy.” Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri wants to create a
geopolitical power that “does not recognize nation-state, national links or the
borders imposed by occupiers.”
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 to exploit the resulting openings:
Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden’s transnational al Qaeda movement to use
Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks against U.S. targets.
governments in today’s Afghanistan and Iraq want to control what happens inside
their borders but are too weak to hold back transnational movements. Thus, ISIS
is threatening U.S. allies
in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. That helps explain why the Obama administration grudgingly returned to
Iraq in 2014, and extended America’s commitment to Afghanistan in 2015.
· Pakistan plays games
with sovereignty, claiming it is too weak to control its borders with one
breath but then invoking its sovereign and inviolable borders with the next.
SEAL Team 6 exposed this duplicity—and Islamabad’s complicity in transnational
Threat #3: Supra-Nationalism
If transnationalism erodes the nation-state system from below,
supra-nationalism whittles away at it from above.
Rumsfeld worried about “the erosion of
respect for state sovereignty” caused by supra-national organizations like the
United Nations, International Criminal Court (ICC) and European Union (EU).
This erosion, he warned, “gives states an excuse to take the easy way out
by…punting problems to supra-national bodies, instead of taking
That’s what happened in the Balkans in
the 1990s—until the U.S. asserted itself. Something
similar has happened in Syria, with states blaming the UN and then averting
their gaze. ISIS has
used the resulting chaos in Syria and Iraq as feedstock for its
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.” The ICC has no
authority to take such action since the U.S. is not party to the ICC, but
that’s not stopping ICC lawyers from lunging at U.S. sovereignty.
irony is that while UN bodies like the ICC investigate the United States for
trying to uphold the nation-state system, 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 to
comply with existing resolutions—and then failed to enforce it. In 2010, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean
ship in international waters. All the UN could muster was a pathetic report
condemning the attack without mentioning—let alone punishing—the attacker.
Post-nationalism envisions a world 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.
be sure, the United States has benefitted from globalization. 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.” Toward that end, Washington built an
international system that supported nation-states, complete with rules to
govern international interaction.
operative word here is “international”—between nations, not beyond
nations. Truman, like many Americans, would conclude that globalization is
good until it undermines American sovereignty or threatens American security.
that have embraced globalization are growing less interested in the responsibilities
of nation-statehood, trusting instead that globalization’s economic, legal and
commercial connections—which bypass or simply overwhelm borders—will serve to
do what the nation-state used to do: enforce treaties and norms of behavior, promote
stability, and protect individuals and interests from threat.
of bypassing borders, sovereign nation-states have a right to determine who
crosses their borders. As an immigrant nation, we know that immigration is the
wellspring of America. But we also know that international borders mean
something. A desire to stop illegalimmigration is not anti-immigrant; it’s pro-sovereignty.
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. In fact,
more than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that the United
States has a duty to intervene in places where “impotence” results in “a
general loosening of the ties of civilized society”—in other words, countries
that are unable to fulfill the responsibilities of nation-statehood.
As to post-nationalism and
supra-nationalism, consider our founding documents. The Founders announced
their independence by declaring it was time for “one people to dissolve the
political bands which have connected them with another” and wrote a
constitution expressly for “the people of the United States.” Moreover, The
Federalist Papers expressly
speak of “our country,” “dangers from abroad” and nations with “opposite
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, Canada and Korea and Kuwait—but always in a
Finally, the United States has resisted
transnational movements that threaten the nation-state system. Yesterday, it
was the “long, twilight struggle” against communism. Today, it’s the
generational struggle against jihadism.
Going forward, the United States should answer this assault on the nation-state
Holding 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 argued that the United States needs to provide
incentives for nation-states to act responsibly and needs to enforce
consequences when they don’t. What consequences have North Korea and Syria faced
for their actions? What incentives are there for Nigerians, Libyans and Iraqis
to hold their nation-states together?
Strengthening at-risk nation-states.
The natural order of the world is not orderly. It takes hard work to maintain the
nation-state system. This translates into helping nation-states control their
borders and supporting their sovereignty. Of course, sovereignty cannot be used
to justify barbaric behavior. 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. What happens on my neighbor’s property is of no concern to me
unless or until my neighbor harms someone, encroaches on my property, or
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 their neighbors.
the spread of liberal democracy and the institutions that support it—the rule
of law, political pluralism, free markets and majority rule/minority rights. It
is not the UN or ICC—well-intentioned as they may be—that guarantee freedom,
but rather a small community of democratic nation-states.
Guarding against further erosion of
U.S. sovereignty. America’s deep and growing interconnection with the world serves
U.S. interests. Given the increasing number of assaults on 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’s no guarantee the
United States will have the same position and place it enjoys today.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America's Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.