January 31, 2005

Reevaluating the new global war

As President Bush commences his second term in office, perhaps it is an appropriate time to reevaluate the motives behind the current global war. To begin with, many dispute the war's exact purpose; is it a conflict between the West and fanatical Islam, a global effort to spread democracy and freedom (as indicated in Bush's second inaugural address), or a worldwide battle to halt the spread of dangerous weapons technologies? Of course it is partly all of these, but at its root, the current international geopolitical situation has a much more fundamental nature. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing a world war over state sovereignty.

State sovereignty, the principle that a state is responsible for the actions of individuals and groups within its geographical jurisdiction, has been enshrined in every treaty and international convention since the dawn of the Westphalian era. When European leaders met at Westphalia in 1648 to resolve the religious disputes that triggered the Thirty Years War, it was decided that the state should be the preeminent player in international politics, to the exclusion of non-state and sub-state actors such as religious groups. It has therefore become the duty of all states to monopolize force and to bear responsibility for both the negative and positive actions of those individuals and groups under their control. Throughout the period since, as European ideas concerning international relations and politics spread to the rest of the world, state sovereignty has become perhaps the most basic principle governing the international system.

Now the world is divided into two sets of states: one consisting of those that exercise full sovereignty over their territory, and another of states whose governments cannot or chose not to do so. If every state in the world were to exert control and responsibility over all of its territory, the problem of terrorism would virtually disappear. Terror groups, which operate on the sub-state level, would have no safe havens in which to plot their deadly attacks or train their operatives. They would truly be hunted on every corner of the Earth.

It is no coincidence that the states viewed as most threatening to the global security (with the notable exception of North Korea) all have difficulty exercising sovereignty. Whether it is terror cells operating out of their deserts or drug lords' paramilitary bases erected in their jungles, these states do not even pretend to bear responsibility for threats emanating from within their borders. While some would make a distinction between those states that are unable to control their territory and those that specifically choose to allow sub-state organizations to thrive under their noses, I argue that those governments whose leaders turn a blind eye to such activity do it without a real choice—if they are logistically able to take action and were to do so, it would endanger the stability of the regimes themselves.

Lebanon is an example of this. Most of the southern part of that country is controlled by the Hezbollah group, sponsored by Iran and Syria. For a long time, there has been pressure on the Lebanese government to send its army into the south in order to take control of these areas, but to no avail. Not only has Hezbollah grown very powerful, but Beirut has a puppet regime virtually run by Syria. Those in the Lebanese government who detest the Hezbollah occupation of southern Lebanon are powerless to end it.

The Palestinian Authority (though not formally a state, it is still an autonomous actor) only this past week began deploying security forces in the Gaza Strip. In the absence of these forces over the last few years, the Strip became a haven for sub-state groups, which used the territory as a launching point for attacks against Israel. The Taliban in pre-war Afghanistan was not strong enough to exert total control over the country, so peripheral areas became the playground for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. Large swaths of Colombia are controlled by narco-terrorists, who roam the countryside with impunity, harassing the local population and waging war on the government. These are all examples of this problem of unexercised sovereignty.

While the Bush Administration persistently claims that the global war is one to spread democracy and freedom to all peoples of the Earth, non-democratic regimes like China and Egypt are not on the United States' hit list. This is because both China and Egypt successfully exercise their state sovereignty. The Chinese have repeatedly quashed attempted sub-state activity by Uighur militants in Xinjiang, and the Mubarak government has been able to prevent groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Hamas from operating in its territory. This is not an endorsement of the horrific oppression that these regimes and those like them force upon their subjects; rather, it is evidence for why these undemocratic states are not considered to be among the set of enemies in the current global war—a war that is clearly not only about terrorism, as evidenced by the invasion of Iraq. (Though Saddam Hussein's government was giving financial handouts to the families of suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Iraq was not a sponsor of al Qaeda or a base for terrorist operations.)

So if the war is not fundamentally about rooting out terrorism or spreading liberty to the oppressed, then it must be explained in terms of sovereignty. The world currently faces an inevitable crisis, for when a single terrorist planning an attack in the most remote corner of rural America is instantly identified and arrested, but an entire sub-state army can train and quarter just outside of the Taliban capital of Kandahar, there is a great divide in the international order. The world, which has seen the rise of global markets and rapid worldwide communications, cannot afford the economic and political damage wrought by some states' inability to bear responsibility for what occurs within their borders. The terror of maritime piracy was finally reduced from an ocean to a puddle with the rise of sea power and states' exercise of sovereignty over coastal regions in the last two centuries. Perhaps the current struggle will soon rid the world of the terrestrial piracy that today poses a threat to peace, stability, and the international cooperation necessary for future progress.