The “aught” decade that just ended was bracketed by 9/11, perpetrated by al-Qaeda terrorists who had enjoyed havens in Sudan and Afghanistan, and a thwarted Christmas 2009 airline bombing by a Nigerian terrorist, who learned his craft in Yemen. The years were filled with a running, halting effort to prevent the Taliban from re-taking the Afghanistan government. Throughout the millennial decade, a postmodern theme dominated: terrorists virtually taking over weak states that should have been eliminating them. Today, as we enter a shiny new decade, we should embrace a cozy and decidedly pre-modern tradition: the system of sovereign states that has served us well since the 17th century.
The world has been governed by an arrangement of sovereign nation-states with fixed boundaries since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. But that system faces threats today. In a fascinating article in Foreign Policy, Atlantic staff writer Graeme Wood described today’s worrisome “quasi-states”—ethnic enclaves that have currency and governments, yet are not officially recognized by the United Nations. Wood includes Abkhazia, an entity of 190,000 that separated from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s; Somaliland, a refugee enclave from a Somalian dictator’s brutality in the late 1980s; and Kurdistan, which stamps visas “Republic of Iraq-Kurdistan Region.”
No less worrisome are weak nation-states that are currently facing threats to their sovereignty from terrorist groups within their borders. The attempted airplane bombing by a Nigerian disciple of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has taken root in Yemen, is only the latest reminder.
Like termites eating away at a building’s foundation, a weak commitment to states ultimately threatens to topple the internal and external order provided by the Westphalian system, with America and our allies directly in the path of collapse. The system’s bad actors—groups who refuse to respect states per se—have perversely, if predictably, turned on the greatest state of them all, the United States. And so the system needs to defend itself, with the U.S. at the lead.
The destabilization latent in both quasi-states and weak nation-states is aggravating already dangerous conditions in many of the world’s hotspots. In Lebanon, Hezbollah currently controls two cabinet seats and 11 seats in the 128-member Parliament; the cabinet recently voted to defy a UN order for Hezbollah to disarm. In Gaza, Hamas took official governmental powers through elections in 2006, yet has failed so far to provide decent government services, while clashing with Fatah—previously the best hope for progress and stability—and fighting progress with Israel.
Prior to last year, Pakistan had essentially conceded the northwest Federally Administered Tribal Areas to al-Qaeda and the Taliban; today, violent clashes occur in the region, but the terrorists are far from subdued. Meanwhile, in Yemen, al-Qaeda operatives are moving into formal positions in the government. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban is marching again on Kabul; President Obama’s new strategy aims principally to “degrade” the Taliban, in the hopes that the Afghan state can save itself.
With almost a year to review, discussion is now beginning about what President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine exactly is. As the inevitable fray begins, here’s one big doctrinal idea: let’s dedicate America’s resources, both hard and soft, to nurturing strong states around the world, undergirded by constitutionalism and the rule of law, and pressing those actors who would otherwise create sub-states and quasi-states either to put down their weapons and join states, or suffer the oblivion that recalcitrant terrorist methods deserve.
In the coming decade, the U.S. must focus like a laser on the threat non-state actors pose to the world order. The fronts spread throughout the world. We need to pressure warlords in Afghanistan to join the government by making private militias unacceptable and illegal. We should push Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to forgo violence, recognize Israel, and become legitimate. We need continually to support and reform the government in Yemen, while fighting al-Qaeda’s intrusions. In our own hemisphere, we need to render illegitimate the paramilitary groups who are currently re-arming in Colombia and threatening the government there.
In all of these cases, we should employ all the multilateral instruments at our disposal, working with NATO and the UN and also organizations like the IMF and the World Bank to deploy both carrots (including trade and other economic incentives) and sticks (sanctions and, in the case of aggression or imminent threats, force).
There is also much we can do unilaterally. The FY 2010 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress shows we’re on the right track in using our “soft power” to help consolidate states. For instance, the budget increases monies to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which incentivizes governments to undertake democratic reform, 26%, to $1.105 billion. And in Yemen, the FY 2010 budget nearly doubles our FY 2010 economic support funds from $21 billion to $40 billion, which should help strengthen the government there.
However, there are flaws that demonstrate the need for a more systemic approach. In Pakistan, under Congress’s 2010 budget, our military assistance will drop, from $300 million in FY 2009 to $238 million in FY 2010, and economic support barely rising, from $1 billion to $1.04 billion. These decisions risk undermining a Pakistani government that has recently made promising steps toward finally confronting the non-state actors within its borders.
All in all, disparate strands including Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia need to be woven into a coherent, international approach, led by the United States. The issue isn’t so much quasi-states like Abkhazia and Somaliland, as interesting and troubling as they are. More urgent are non-state actors seeking to become states that directly threaten our security. And so the past should be prologue: we should stand with Westphalia, now more than ever.