The State Problem In National Security Policy
I’ve been reading the Global Trends 2030 report in between my Comparative Politics exam (earlier today) and my International Relations Theory exam (due tomorrow night) and something didn’t seem quite right.
I do want to do less planned/more off-the-cuff writing and less overly planned blog posts. This is a good opportunity. Consider this less a specific argument than a series of variations on a theme. There’s a chance that the journey won’t end up anywhere productive, and this post does ramble considerabably. But I have found the process of thinking about it extremely useful for thinking about some of the holes in our understanding of “failed” states, foreign policy, and future warfare.
The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the state, which has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on the Transformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.
We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.
Here is why I am now feeling queasy about this problem, presented as a series of bullet points rather than a coherent argument. These are some reasons that we have to be careful about making categorical arguments about either the decline of the state or the rise of non-state actors. One of which is that the sociological aspects of state emergence and decline are generally not incorporated into these assessment, which draw on theories of international relations or impressionistic interpretations of military history. Historical sociology and comparative politics suggests some problems for the idea of a unified baseline of a shift in the balance of power between states and their competitors:
1. We still lack a general, widely accepted theory of how states emerged to begin with. Charles Tilly’s idea of war making the state in early modern Europe made waves, but since then many others have stepped into the breach. Although Tilly’s theory and some variations has been tested in Latin America, Africa, and some parts of Asia we have not really seen an aggregation from middle-range theory into general theory. State formation, comparative nationalism, and ethnicity is an evolving field that offers few universal answers for policymakers. Thoughtlessly applying a maxim like “war makes the state” won’t get us anywhere—war destroyed the state in many parts of the contemporary Third World.
At most we have a patchwork of different causal mechanisms that emphasize competing military, economic, and ideological explanations for state legitimation, creation, and consolidation. I want to get back to David Ronfeldt and Philip Bobbit’s work, which I read a long time ago, to see if there is a way to get beyond some of these conceptual issues. I also find Boaz Atzili persuasive in the idea he advances that the problem is not really state decline, but that the international environment’s system of fixed borders makes it hard for new states to replicate some of the causal processes that led—with different variations—to the rise of strong states across the world. Jack Levy and William R. Thompson make a similar point, arguing that many new states’ inability to be able to exert power across their peripheries makes low-level war in the international system more likely than interstate conflict.
State failure is also similarly complicated. In Africa, Robert Bates has argued that changes in global economic structure made predation an optimal choice for governments, leading to domestic challenges and violence. The very fragility of many states, as Jay Ufelder pointed out, can be observed in their unstable structures, transportation systems, and other public works. Soppy Western odes to the glories of authoritarian Chinese modernizers run counter to the reality of shoddy infrastructure that collapses only nine months after construction:
In this version of the world, it turns out that massive infrastructure projects are not just about supplying public goods to keep citizens happy. They are also—maybe mostly—about giving cronies ways to launder big loans that are really more like political payoffs than social spending. By spending large portions of those loans on improving real estate they’ve often seized from hapless citizens, the cronies get to inflate the value of their assets while distributing shares of the loot to a bunch of people on whose support their influence depends. If authoritarian rulers were serious about upholding a social contract with their citizens, they would write strong building codes and establish effective inspection regimes that would protect these big investments. But they don’t. …They aren’t benevolent but brutal modernizers constructing a better future for their grateful subjects; they’re mafia bosses oiling the machinery that keeps them alive and well fed. These guys aren’t investing in public well-being; they’re investing in political loyalty.
2. What is a state? This might seem like a fairly simple question to answer but it is not exactly easy. Without getting into the state/personhood debate, there is a common assumption that states exercise a monopoly of force and a related assumption that states utilize government-controlled professional armies. This does not necessarily wash in history and we have found powerful governments that shared power with a variety of private actors. In fact, as Daniel Trombly noted, there is a long history too of government cooperation with illicit networks in exerting power as well abroad. Robert Bunker also edited a volume on criminal states with plenty of examples of governments and criminal cartels and organizations being part of a general system of relational authority.
I am not convinced by the idea that the rise of private military corporations poses problems for the state, glib quotations from Machiavelli aside. In fact, we have reason to believe that far from undermining the state in Europe, mercenary groups may have been one of the triggers of the military revolution in the early modern period. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the term “monopoly of force” has always been misunderstood. It is really, like Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war, best seen as an ideal type rather than an essential feature of statehood. Weber used simplified ideal-types frequently as a baseline even if most things surveyed would not necessarily fulfill them. Monopoly of force sits on a continuum of possibilities rather than absolutes. Why is that a useful perspective to take?
The previous few paragraphs suggest the need for us to understand and accept a variance, due in part to political, economic, and even geographical contexts—in the development of states with a monopoly of force. It is difficult to think about whether the provision of state authority as we understand it was ever as widespread as we think. Westphalia, is after all, something of a convenient myth for political scientists that tends to obscure more than it enlightens. Daniel Nexon has also made a strong case using network theory that an older form of organization rooted in dynamics of indirect rule never really went away to begin with. Nexon’s work is a fresh wrinkle in the mostly tired debate over “American Empire.”
States, non-state actors, and the seams in which both connect to external international relations have always posed a big problem for American diplomacy. In order to gain viable commercial or military arrangements, the United States has had to become a political actor in societies experiencing political turmoil or transitions. Much of the problems of American diplomacy in the Americas and Asia during the late 19th century to the 1920s dealt with the challenges of states in revolution and transition that the US hoped to indirectly influence and control. Failures to exercise indirect authority through trusted agents frequently leads to direct and many times counterproductive intervention.
3. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.
In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.
Some are also synergistic. Categorical inequalities can make strong ties attractive. The origin of the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles, as the documentary Bastards of the Party lays out, can be explained by the transformation of African American collective action networks into criminal organizations. Successive law enforcement crackdowns on the Black Panthers altered the shape of the trust network into a criminal network. The Japanese Yakuza were originally a collective security organization for low-status individuals that also grew into a criminal network.
As Daniel Little summarizes, Tilly became very interested in the stickiness of trust networks despite all state efforts to eliminate them:
In line with Tilly’s lifelong interest in taxation and state-building, the idea of resource extraction plays a central role in his analysis of trust networks. A central theme is the struggle between the tax-collecting state and the elusive, tax-evading trust networks that exist in civil society. ”Rulers have usually coveted the resources embedded in such networks, have often treated them as obstacles to effective rule, yet have never succeeded in annihilating them and have usually worked out accommodations producing enough resources and compliance to sustain their regimes.” ….Consider these avenues that Tilly advances as collective strategies for protecting a given trust network against the pressures of the surrounding state: concealment, dissimulation, clientage, predation, enlistment into the regime, bargaining, and dissolution.
Obviously many states in the world could only wish to have the public security problems of America and Japan. Trust networks in many parts of the world are vastly more difficult, if not impossible, to integrate into public life. Alternative sources of power not only exist but have powerful capabilities. These trust networks and private armies can be exploited by foreigners as well. As Dan notes, a favorite strategy of Cold War American spooks was to find a low-status trust network and arm them as a counterinsurgency or unconventional warfare force. Congo has many alternative sources of power, and Rwanda just happened to exploit one of them to great effect.
Many states will continue to experience public order problems, some of which rising to the level of war and others being criminal violence. The distinction between the two, if easy in concept, will always be difficult to tell in practice. We should also disabuse ourselves the idea that criminals do not have politics or ideology. John P. Sullivan and I have long argued that Mexican drug cartels have politics that are not recognized by observers that ignore cartel struggles over control of both legitimate and illegitimate political and material resources as well as the role of narcocultura in shaping public order. John’s latest publication gives us a succinct definition of narcocultura and tells us what it leaves out:
Guillermoprieto (2009) defines narcocultura in a broad sense as a “twisted relationship with power” often exemplified by corruption. In a social or cultural context—the one we are examining here—she defines narcocultura in a narrower sense: the production of symbols, rituals and artifacts - slang, religious cults, music, consumer goods - that allow people involved in the drug trade to recognize themselves as part of a community, to establish a hierarchy in which the acts they are required to perform acquire positive value and to absorb the terror inherent in their line of work.
As John notes, the missing link in this conception of narcocultura is that misses precisely the elements of traditional Mexican trust networks—the “social bandits” that have been present for most of Mexican history. The simultaneous provision of public goods, use of barbaric violence, usage of propaganda, silencing of opponents, and corruption of surrounding governmental forms allows for a “criminalization of politics and politicization of crime.” Narcos are successors to the traditional Mexican social bandits, but create dual zones of authority with their command of the illicit economy, adroit utilization of symbolic violence, and ability to simultaneously elicit fear and love.
Looking at the Mexican cartels and dismissing them because they don’t seek to control the government is a mistake precisely because narcos “radically alters power structures, economic access, and cultural life. arco imagery from narcocorridos to narcopintas (graffiti) pervades Mexican life. The images can’t be avoided on TV, in social media, on the airways, and in the streets on contested, plazas, colonias, cities and states. The result is narcopolitics.” John certainly recognizes the role of market forces in the production of narco-imagery but the key impact is the proliferation of cultural artifacts of violence and power in Mexican life.
5. We can make an at best an extremely imperfect comparison that fewer competing political forms to the state exist that can matter on the international level. City-states, empires, communes, sovereign monarchies, and urban leagues are generally less prominent than before. Most people not named Samuel Huntington find the ideas of civilizational political units to be empirically unsupported. The role of the market and its demands in shaping the sovereign choices of European states today could be seen as data point in favor of a more complex array of non-state authority. But those same trends also might mark the rise of a different yet evolutionary state form rooted in a different set of economic relations.—not state decline.
Precisely assessing the balance of power between the state, trust networks, and warlord and rebels is difficult because international system is messy and the interior lives of states are even more messy. States and other complex societies are not structures that are self-sustaining. They take force, material reward, and political legitimation to sustain and this is always costly. Some elect to give up trying, abandoning their peripheries or internal spaces to others and emerge only to exact tribute or punishment.
What does this all add up to?
I promised you at the beginning that this was a journey without a clear direction, but I do want to make one point: how can we really say that the state is in decline or non-state actors are in the ascendance when many of the states most at risk from violent non-state actors were never politically powerful or socially cohesive to begin with?
A state that purposely weakens its armies to avoid a coup and struggles to manifest control over its peripheries is vulnerable to hard men and the predatory neighbor that backs them. We don’t really have to think about 2030’s exotic technology to imagine the empowerment of non-state actors when 700 men caused an army of 40,000 men to turn tail and run for their lives. These 700 men were not Gerard Butler-esque Spartans. They were simply willing to fight and die, and their opponents were not.