From the Archives: The State of War (March 25, 2007)

The State of War

The capture of 15 British sailors by Iranian naval forces on Friday brings to mind an interesting puzzle for international relations theorists: why has war between states become less common, even as fighting among groups within states more so? Several possible answers spring to mind, including the increasing cost of war between states as military power becomes more destructive, the growing interdependence between states as globalization proceeds apace, and the desire by intrastate groups to achieve the sovereignty required to be the masters of their own affairs.

Until the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003, it seemed that states had begun to agree on sovereignty principles that would “lock in” frontiers and create enormous stigma against changing them. States had, before World War II, accepted war in the name of territorial acquisition, dispute resolution, or punitive action. By the end of the Cold War they supported military action across state borders to stop genocide (Bosnia), protect humanitarian projects (Somalia), or to stop aggressive states (Iraq 1991), though even this principle was unevenly applied. It looks like one effect of the Bush Doctrine has been to reopen the sovereignty norm to conquering states, and by extension force states to become more defensive of their frontiers. If this is so, it makes the world a more dangerous place.

The literature on sovereignty is extensive—the rules establishing the nature of the state, how they form, live, and die, and systemic interactions among them call for intensive study of their origin, application, and legitimacy. Research into the application of sovereignty has blossomed with the idea that globalization has somehow diluted the power of the state by limiting state action and empowering new actors such as international organizations, advocacy groups, and corporations. In the last few years, scholars have published several books on the changing nature of sovereignty and the impact of these changes on the use of violence among international actors.

In his book Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, for example, Stephen Krasner argued against the claim that globalization has eroded state sovereignty by pointing out that it was never very evenly applied in the first place. States, he argues, cite the benefits or obligations of sovereignty only when it serves their interests, and in the end the powerful states—because they can more easily impose their will—successfully define it in ways that suit their preferences. As a set of rules or norms it varies with state interests.

Martha Finnemore, on the other hand, makes a case in The Purpose of Intervention that the norm itself has changed and rendered illegitimate certain state actions. As evidence, she points out that states no longer mount punitive expeditions against rivals that renege on agreements, fail to pay debts, or mistreat their citizens. States, to be sure, still intervene but today are much less likely to use military force across national frontiers and more likely to intervene on behalf of oppressed populations than international corporations. States are more likely to work within international legal frameworks, and when they use military force they are more likely to do so collectively than unilaterally.

Martin Van Creveld and Mary Kaldor explain how this changes the nature of international conflict. Van Creveld points out in The Transformation of War that most international conflict since 1945 has been between states and insurgent groups or terrorists. This is so because, as Finnemore suggests, the reason for fighting has changed—organized violence is no longer a useful tool for states in settling disputes among them so they prefer to seek compromise in other venues (this idea is supported by James Fearon’s argument that only in extreme cases is there no compromise preferable to the cost and destructiveness of modern war). Sovereigns are less likely to use war on each other, but non-sovereigns who hope to influence states or each other have no such normative limit (or are forced by circumstance to violate it).

Kaldor likewise describes the shift from organized violence in the name of interstate relations to conflict among groups within states or between states and groups within them. She then makes a policy prescription, suggesting that states should reconfigure their capacity for violence to meet non-state threats. Because state military forces are organized for conflict with other states they are more likely to meet threats like terrorism by attacking other states, where international legal frameworks and institutions may be not only more effective but less dangerous and destructive.

After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, for example, the US framework for meeting the threat posed by al-Qa’ida depended on military action against a state. Attacking Afghanistan was arguably necessary for more than domestic political reasons since the Taliban rejected demands to extradite al-Qa’ida members. But further efforts to manage asymmetric terrorist threats focused on the use of military power against states instead of the development of a consensus against terrorism as a political tool and institutional and legal infrastructure for stigmatizing and managing it.

Bush Administration rhetoric suggests that US leaders have not moved beyond the idea that national defense depends on identification of enemy states and appropriate use of military power against them. Instead of focusing their attention on non-sovereign groups over which states may have little control or influence, the US seems determined to exacerbate tensions with states that in fact share our interest in limiting the ability of organizations like al-Qa’ida to influence world affairs by using violence (this article suggests that naming Iran as part of an “axis of evil” stood in the way of possible cooperation against criminal elements that threatened both states).

It is difficult to separate international diplomatic rhetoric and the desire to please domestic audiences. As a Muslim nation, Iran must tread carefully when working with the US to stop Muslim political activity—even if violent—that its population supports. Likewise, American politicians want to show that they are working diligently to protect US citizens. Even if the visible counterterror efforts are less effective than hidden activity the political incentive is to take obvious steps to attack someone. There is likely more than neoconservative/neorealist ideology at work here.

Whatever the source of US policies, any strategy that leads to conflict between states and ignores the real threats from insurgent and criminal organizations makes international society more dangerous in at least two ways. First, it makes war between states—the most dangerous and destructive type of conflict—more likely. States are still the best organizers and managers of violence in the world today, and even relatively weak ones can deploy violence on a scale against which the destruction of two skyscrapers and the deaths of 3000 Americans pales.

Second, and potentially more problematic, it not only focuses resources and attention away from the real threat it also makes the kind of cooperation necessary for dealing with asymmetric violence much more difficult to achieve. If our diplomatic rhetoric and military spending concentrates on meeting threats from other states, we both misallocate resources and alienate the global political and business leaders who can help us to address the real threat: outlaw groups that are difficult to identify and target with conventional military power.

It is the job of leaders to lead, and that means US politicians need to make the case to Americans that, as Van Creveld and Kaldor point out, military power may not be our most effective tool for dealing with international terrorism. Instead of making enemies of other states like Iran that have the capacity to construct and deploy nuclear weapons – not to mention conventional munitions that collectively are perhaps more destructive if not as cataclysmic – we should be leading the world toward development of legal and institutional frameworks that treat terrorists like the criminals they are. Bush Administration rhetoric that prepares the way for conflict with Iran, and incidents on the high seas that ratchet up this rhetoric by framing the conflict as one between states, do not make us safer.

 

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