ASCF Report | 6.2.15
By Alan W. Dowd

For almost four centuries, the world has been organized and governed by sovereign nation-states. Indeed, sovereignty—the notion that a country has the right, the duty, the authority, the capacity and the will to govern itself—has served as the very foundation of international order. But sovereignty is coming under heavy assault today. Just glance at the headlines: ISIS is murdering its way toward a borderless, transnational caliphate enfolding Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Libya and Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, jihadist groups and sectarian armies have declared competing zones of control. After decades of deferring their security and finances to the EU, most European nations have awoken to realize they have control over neither. Mexico is fighting a drug-cartel insurgency, with warlords in control of 12 percent of the country. Russia is using troops scrubbed of insignia to erase its border with Ukraine. China is turning coral reefs into instant islands to challenge and ultimately erode the sovereignty of its neighbors. With the Taliban controlling large swaths of the space between Iran and India, Afghanistan and Pakistan have become figments of cartographers’ imaginations. Disparate groups, governments and individuals are using cyberspace to obliterate the concept of nationhood itself.

Given that the United States has thrived in the nation-state system, this multi-pronged assault on sovereignty represents a serious threat to the United States—and must be answered.


Enemies of the nation-state system—the enemies of sovereignty—come in many forms. 

First, there are failed and failing states—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. Failed states open the door to a host of global ills. 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 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—the former lacking the power to exert its will, the latter lacking legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

The Failed States Index indicates this 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.

A second challenge to the nation-state system is represented by transnational groups. These groups thrive in failed states and ungoverned spaces. Their objective is 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.” Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri envisions a world order that “does not recognize nation-state, national links or the borders imposed by occupiers.” These movements pose a clear and present danger to the United States, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

If transnationalism erodes the nation-state system from below, supra-national organizations like the UN, EU and International Criminal Court (ICC) whittle away at it from above. This is the third threat to the nation-state system.

According to the UN Charter, the main goal of its founders was 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.  

The 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, 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. 

Fourth and finally, we come to post-nationalism, which 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. To 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 Truman argued in 1947 that “the whole world should adopt the American system.” Toward that end, Washington made sure that nation-states would be central to the postwar international system. The operative word here is “international”—between nations, not beyond nations. Globalization is good until it undermines American sovereignty or threatens American security. 

Many countries that have embraced globalization are growing less interested in the responsibilities of nation-statehood. Instead, they trust that globalization’s economic, legal and commercial connections 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. But this doesn’t work in practice. After all, when China violates the sovereignty of its neighbors, or Russia seizes Crimea, or ISIS tears through western Iraq, the victims do not turn to multinational corporations for help. They turn to nation-states—usually the most powerful nation-state.


That would be the United States, which has been defending sovereignty and resisting threats to sovereignty throughout its history. 

It’s no surprise that President Reagan, a master of big-picture foreign policy, understood the fundamental importance of the nation-state system. He vowed to support an “international system…comprised of independent, sovereign nations.” He unapologetically declared, “We support the right of all nations to define and pursue their national goals. We respect their decisions and their sovereignty, asking only that they respect the decisions and sovereignty of others.” And he worried about failed states and the transnational communist movement trying to destabilize Central America and “eventually move chaos and anarchy toward the American border.” 

Reagan’s approach was very much in line with the American tradition. U.S. willingness to intervene in failed states dates to 1816, when U.S. troops entered Spanish Florida—a haven for pirates, marauders and looters. The U.S. intervened in Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because the Mexican government then—not unlike the Somali, Iraqi, Syrian and Pakistani governments nowadays—was either unwilling or unable to control its borders. U.S. forces intervened 16 times in Haiti between 1900 and 1913. Fast-forward to our era. By my count, the United States has engaged in military operations in 10 of the bottom 15 countries on the Failed States Index in the past 20 years: Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Haiti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

As to post-nationalism and supra-nationalism, consider our founding documents. The Founders wrote a constitution expressly for “the people of the United States.” Moreover, The Federalist Papers speak of “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, but always in a state-to-state context. Borders and nations matter to Americans.

Finally, the United States has consistently 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. 

What may be unique about this moment in history is that the United States is being asked to confront all of these challenges to the nation-state system at the same time, even as traditional state-to-state challenges arise. Failed states like Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, trans-national movements like ISIS, al Qaeda and drug cartels, revisionist autocracies like Russia, and rising hegemons like China all threaten the international order. That’s why the world is calling for U.S. leadership. Regrettably, Washington isn’t answering. 

It seems unlikely the president will have an epiphany the next 19 months and start considering how the U.S. can resuscitate the nation-state system. But if he does, here’s what he can do:

·Support 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—with more than words. 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.

·Promote the spread of liberal democracy. It is not the UN or ICC that guarantees freedom and promotes stability, but rather a small community of democratic nation-states that practice and nurture the rule of law, political pluralism, free markets and majority rule with minority rights. When America focuses on “nation-building at home,” freedom suffers abroad.

·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. So, what consequences have North Korea, Russia, China and Syria faced for their actions? And what incentive is there for Nigerians, Yemenis, Libyans and Iraqis to hold their nation-states together?

Sooner or later, we must act to defend the nation-state system, for if the nation-state 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.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.