As the global economy transcends borders and Isis raises its flag, could the very nature of “states” be changing? asks Philip Bobbitt, the author of “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History” and “Terror and Consent: the Wars for the 21st Century”:
The Arab spring, which seemed to validate the rising tide of democratic governance, has washed away regimes and left in its wake societies that are more riven, more violent and less governable than before, mocking the efforts of western states that sought to place themselves at the forefront of this tide, only to have it ebb and withdraw beneath their shifting feet.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 1990, I had just entered the US government to serve as the state department’s counsellor on international law, he writes for the New Statesman:
It was a heady time: the sudden withering away of the Soviet state, the peaceful unification of Germany and the three-part brace of East-West agreements – the Moscow and Copenhagen Declarations and the Charter of Paris – all promised that the liberal democracy and free markets to which those agreements committed their signatories had triumphed. …. The cruel dialectic among states and ideologies that had churned out history had ceased; promoting prosperity, democracy and human rights would eclipse concerns about violence and conflict.
But subsequent events are challenging prevailing assumptions, says Bobbitt, including:
- That the state system – the international order – determined the constitutional order of the states of which it was composed and that, since Westphalia, this has been more or less fixed as the nation state.
- That the security of the state depended on the security of the larger system and if the latter were infused with the ideals of the triumphant liberal democracies, the security of the democracies and of the system as a whole was assured.
- That the threat to the state lay primarily in the unrealised domain of its ideals and thus the requirements of citizenship chiefly consisted in asserting rights against the state, the consequence of which would be an increasingly benevolent domestic environment.
At present, the constitutional order of the industrial nation state faces a number of threats to its claim for legitimacy, he adds. These include:
- a global system of communications that will increasingly prevent any nation state from managing its own culture, penetrating every society and enabling social networking that bypasses national cultural institutions;
- a global system of trade and especially finance that prevents any state from controlling its national economy and that is bringing a heightened vulnerability to the financial security and stability of every state, increasing the power of markets to assess and even determine the viability of each society;
- a global system of international human rights that pre-empts the laws of each national society and has been the basis for armed attacks on states that posed no particular threat to any other state but had viciously and unlawfully attacked their own peoples;
- transnational crises, such as Aids and Sars, climate change and the development of global, non-national terrorist networks from whose threats no state can hide, nor can it arrest by its own efforts; and
- finally the commodification of weapons of mass destruction whose essential components are sold on a clandestine market or simply downloaded off the internet, such as the information by which benign viruses can be made into deadly human pathogens.
“What is missing is not information but a recognition that these are threats not just to a particular state but to the state itself and thus to the contemporary international order that is built out of those states,” Bobbitt contends. “Ironically, each of these five threats is a result of the strategic innovations by which the liberal democracies won the Long War of the 20th century, a conflict that began in 1914 and lasted until 1990.”
Like its mortal enemy the Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic State represents a challenge to the legitimacy of the current state system:
Whether these revolutionary states will be able to threaten that system depends on whether or not they will be sufficiently dynamic strategically to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal democracies that dominate the international order. That, in turn, depends on whether these challengers can link their ideals to the form of the emerging market state and whether the leading members of the existing international order can adapt constitutionally in ways that allow them to protect their citizens.