The 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
Let’s 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.”
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 to exploit the resulting openings:
- The Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden’s transnational al Qaeda movement to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks against U.S. targets.
- The 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 terrorism.
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 responsibility.”
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 rise.
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.
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, 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.
Threat # 4: Post-Nationalism
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.
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 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.
The 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.
Many nation-states 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.
Speaking 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 illegal immigration is not anti-immigrant; it’s pro-sovereignty.
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. 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 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, Canada and Korea and Kuwait—but always in a state-to-state context.
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 by:
- 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.
- Promoting 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.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.