Buried deep in a recent Washington Post piece deriding former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s penchant for firing off memos, we find this morsel:
“In one of his longer ruminations, in May 2004, Rumsfeld considered whether to redefine the terrorism fight as a ‘worldwide insurgency.’ The goal of the enemy, he wrote, is 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. He was also consistent, recognizing that the jihadists’ worldwide insurgency—or global guerilla war, if you prefer—is not the only challenge to the nation-state system. In fact, Rumsfeld also spoke at length about international institutions that undermine the nation-state system.
“We see respect for states’ sovereignty eroding,” he said during a 2003 conference in Germany. “We see it, in my view, in the International Criminal Court’s claim of authority to try the citizens of countries that have not consented to ICC jurisdiction…We see it in the new Belgian law purporting to give Belgian courts ‘universal jurisdiction’ over alleged war crimes anywhere in the world.”
Rumsfeld understood that the erosion of sovereignty “absolves states of their responsibilities to deal with problems within their borders.” Or within their neighborhood: As historian William Pfaff wrote of Europe’s Balkan debacle in the 1990s, international organizations such as the United Nations and European Community (forerunner to the European Union) “proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”
Of course, some governments prove by their actions that they are simply not capable of governing—or not worthy of governing. “We need to be able to hold states accountable for their performance,” Rumsfeld explained. In other words, states either have to police what happens inside their borders or open themselves to outside intervention.
States like Lebanon and Iraq and the Philippines that strive to control what happens inside their borders but are too weak to overcome our common enemies deserve our help. States like Pakistan that play games with sovereignty—claiming they are too weak to control their territories in one breath but then invoking their sovereign and inviolable borders the next—don’t. States like Syria and Iran that refuse to respect international borders or international norms—and terrorist groups like the PKK, al Qaeda and their kind that thrive on anarchy and partner with rogue regimes—must be treated as enemies, no matter how risky. And states like Somalia and too many of her neighbors in Africa are so broken that they need not just external intervention, but international administration.
In short, Rumsfeld understood that the nation-state system is under assault from two unrelated sources—international, supra-state organizations and transnational, terrorist organizations. Both seek a stateless world, although their visions for what such a world would look like are dramatically different. After all, one is utopian, the other dystopian.
The solution, in Rumsfeld’s clear-eyed view, is first “to strengthen states, including their ability to effectively govern their territory.” The United States has been hard at work on this since the end of the Cold War. Consider the U.S. military missions in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just a few.
The second part of Rumsfeld’s solution is “to strengthen and reform the institutions that facilitate multilateral action by, and cooperation between, sovereign states”—institutions like NATO and the UN. This challenge is not new. As Winston Churchill said of the UN, “We must make sure that its work is fruitful…that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action and not merely a frothing of words.” And, we might add, that its actions serve to strengthen rather than weaken the very system it was enshrined to protect.
The important thing for Americans of all political and philosophical stripes to keep in mind is that this nation has thrived in the nation-state system. Indeed, 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. When and if it ceases to be the main organizing structure for the world, there is no guarantee that Americans—if there is such a polity by then—will have the same position and place they enjoy today.