Sunday, August 14, 2011

Part Two: Whither the State: Neo-Medievalism and Post-Modern War

People across the globe have always organized themselves in widely varied ways, from families and villages through civil society organizations and the sovereign state itself, and the sovereign state system as well.  Over the past four centuries the sovereign state system has grown geographically, normatively and institutionally into a globally common institution.

These centuries have also seen a fluid ebb and flow of non-state, politically influential institutions and even individuals with outsized influence on the course of events.  However, the state – a category of actor with unique attributes as opposed to the vastly generic “non-state” designation for any actor not a state – was clearly the winning concept, as all global relations became subsumed within the context of the sovereign state system.  The parallel and often crosscutting cultural forces – language, religion, ethnicity and nationality – added many layers of complexity (read: in-group/out-group and intra-group conflict).  Indeed, for decades scholars have debated the impact of these forces on the sovereign state system, with varying emphasis on the fragmentation of states, the integration of states, the privatization of state functions and the increasingly porous line between public and private sectors, and the persistence of failed statehood.  Global governance, global terrorism, global capitalism at the macro level plus tribal-sectarian fragmentation at the micro level equals….or approximates a new reality for the state as the necessarily central actor in world affairs. 

Neo-medievalism proposes that the current crop of non-state actors and conflicts represent a qualitative step in the decline of the sovereign state system, and envisions the Westphalian system replaced by multiple overlapping sovereignties and overlapping loyalties analogous to the European Middle Ages.  Such a system lacks the clear demarcation of authority we find in the state-centric system (which is why we call it state-centric).  Consider the multitude of city-states, kingdoms, principalities and even the notion of “Christendom” that defined medieval European politics.  In a neo-medieval international system, to borrow from Yeats, the center cannot hold.

That is to say, states in their modern definition would continue, though the issue-areas a centralized government has to deal with will continue to make sovereignty a porous cloth to be managed as opposed to a firm walled structure.  People's loyalties and identities are decreasingly exclusive and discrete and increasingly fungible among multiple institutions that facilitate the management of one's life.  Corporations, tribes, religious sects, cyber-communities, insurgent/terrorist/criminal gangs are just a few broad examples, each subject to further decentralization. The individual is empowered, whether the CEO of a global corporation or an insurgent planting an IED.

One argument challenging neo-medievalism is this:  Previous examples of state fragmentation were certainly challenges for the state(s) in question, but not to the norm and institution of statehood.  After years of internal strife, Kosovo seceded from Serbia, but the goal and result is a new state.  The savagery seen in Rwanda was in part a result of provocations emanating from the state, raising obvious moral questions but not directly threatening the state system. At the macro (or at least regional) level, the ongoing troubles facing integration as well as the severe limitations on combined warfare facing NATO illustrate the persistence of state based institutions even after sixty years of Euro-Atlantic institution-building.  In sum, the realm of politically active and influential actors is greatly more diverse and globalized than before, but the sovereign state system remains the basis for legitimacy and authority.

Here are three articles that caution against expecting significant transformation of the international system rather than within it:

Ole Waever, “Identity, Integration and Security: Solving the Sovereignty Puzzle in E.U. Studies,” Journal of International Affairs 48 (2) Winter 1995.

John G. Ruggie, “Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations,” International Organization 47 (1) Winter 1993: 139-174.

J.G. Ruggie, “Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neo-Realist Synthesis,” World Politics 36 (2) Spring 1983: 261-285.

I tend to agree with this point of view, not surprising given my Realist tendencies.  The
state does remain a significant organizing principle whose dividends continue to outweigh liabilities for a great portion of the world’s population. However, we can learn from neo-medievalism, as it seems blindingly obvious to me that the sovereign state system is simply not suitable for all the world’s population.  This has always been so, but the question for us now is whether such trends are growing and having greater global impact.  To focus my analysis to its core, my questions regard the decade long U.S. effort in Afghanistan and its implications for 21st century conflict and U.S national security strategy.

A neo-medieval proposition would be that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is based on a faulty political premise.  This is very important given the consensus among all serious thinkers that the conflicts of Afghanistan can only be solved socio-politically, not militarily.   Whether the military strategy is mostly counter-terrorism (CT) or counter-insurgency (COIN), the ultimate goal is a sovereign Afghan state.  Not even the most ardent supporter of U.S. policy thinks Afghanistan will become a state constituting high functioning legislative and administrative institutions and a supportive civil society.  And certainly the most ardent neo-medievalist would acknowledge Afghanistan’s history of state sovereignty – threatened almost continuously from within and from without but unquestionably a member of the international system, as officially it is now.  But in between the two – between modern statehood and some greatly decentralized, tribal-based governance structure – is the battlespace.  Throughout the Department of Defense the requirements for total battlespace dominance are debated in terms of force structures and geospatial technology bringing the rapidly advancing information age to warfare like never before.  In traditional state-on-state warfare, these resources are used to discover, predict and counter the enemy state’s military application of policy (as Clausewitz would say).  The ability to successfully dominate the Afghan battlespace and reach the goal of a U.S. friendly, non-narco-terrorist state requires comprehension of the multiple, overlapping loyalties and motivations of the combatants who do not wear uniforms and do not serve a centralized authority.  While the U.S foresees the endgame as a sovereign, if decentralized but not internecine state, the policy assumption is that “the enemy” is also fighting to establish a state, perhaps an “Islamic republic” and sponsor or terrorism, but still a state.   And in spite of being the poster child for mismatching people and political system, there’s little likelihood that anything but some form of sovereign state(s) with an attempt at centralized governance will be part of what comes next for this territory and its inhabitants.  Whether war among the people of Afghanistan can be contained and peace established by the ultimately negotiated government(s) is a very open question, mostly because the very structure established is still at odds with the loyalties and identities of significant portions of the population.

By now we have met Clausewitz’s Trinitarian conceptualization of war (people/military/government corresponding to the nature/conduct/purpose of war) and we’ve been introduced to the neo-medieval assertion that Clausewitz’s train of thought is mired in the state-centric past, irrelevant to the military strategies required for post-Westphalian/post-modern warfare. Some like to refer to Fourth Generation Warfare (which has its dissenters).

Next we’ll take a look at two perspectives on the war in Afghanistan that I find illustrative of how these concepts translate on the ground.

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