Postmodern Conflict as the Price of Success?
Is the United States and democratic free market internationalism responsible for the problem of failed states? I am not channeling Naomi Klein or any of the other radical critics of late democratic capitalism or American foreign policy, I promise. By now it has become cliché to identify weak and failed states, rather than strong state rivals, as the central security problem of the 21st century. In her work State Death, Tanisha Fazal notes that the glut of failed states may in fact be a product of the disappearance of conquest and violent state death from the international system after 1945.
The logic goes like this: states that failed to govern themselves and whose weakness presented potential advantages to rivals are phenomena as old as the state system itself. However, before 1945 the natural response by neighbors or imperial powers was to annex or partition these states. However, the Cold War and the new era of globalized liberalism “doesn’t do conquest” anymore. The United Nations codified Wilsonian rules against territorial conquest into international law. Both the US and the Soviet Union knew direct conquest would imperil their ability to recruit allies and invite dangerous military escalation from the other power. The 1991 Persian Gulf War proved that the United States was not going to permit annexation to return to the repetoire of post-Cold War statecraft.
The result, of course, was that states whose fundamental geopolitical, social, and economic situations were weak were no longer being “selected out” by the rapacious pressures of conquest. Furthermore, leaders of these states could now pursue corrupt, extractive nepotism and neopatrimonialism. As Charles Tilly argued, threat of conquest and the need to mobilize strong military forces spurred the development of the modern state. But without the credible threat of conquest, developing weaker states and focusing the military simply on preserving the longevity of the personal regime became a more popular option. In the past, the military challenge of these failed states was invading and crushing nationalist resistance. Now, insurgency and nationalist resistance are particularly feared because the new norms of international behavior mean that countries are at war with regimes and factions, and the success of regime change efforts rely on the ability of the intervening power to win over the occupation.
The commitment of the United States to end, mediate or intervene in political rivalries the world over has also contributed to the rise of such strange situations. Fazal observes that states constituting geopolitical buffers are particularly prone to violent exit from the international system, particularly because they rarely have the ability to balance against their stronger neighbors. With a unipolar hegemon, however, balancing becomes a much more viable prospect, provided the state at risk hits the right rhetorical notes in its public relations campaign. Perennial US intervention and marshaling support of the Somali TFG rather than recognizing the independence of Somaliland and letting Somalia legally disappear from the international system, for example.
The unwillingness of the US to let conquest return to the international system is key to the new norm that Fazal describes. Unfortunately, it is not clear how well future powers will have internalized this norm. I simply doubt how effectively a norm against conquest can persist without the exceptional strategic preponderance of its foremost proponent. But for now, the American (and broader Western) commitment to uphold the international rule-set for the democratic free market order has created the conditions of modern conflict. The linkage between superiority in “modern” conflict and the proliferation of “postmodern” conflict has important implications for the current debate on how America will manage decline, or, at the very least, scale down its expansive foreign policy.
Now, at risk of creating strawmen, there is a school of thought which says that postmodern conflicts will be so predominant in the future geopolitical landscape that the United States would better preserve its ability to project power and pursue its interests by embracing postmodern conflict, if necessary, by de-emphasizing its conventional military forces to pay for a future of counterinsurgencies, counterterrorism, and other measures to combat the violent consequences of the “hollowing out of the state.” In the long run, however, it is the ability of conventional military strength that creates the conditions for postmodern conflict to thrive. Through its overwhelming power, the US has removed conquest from the international system – but who is to say that some decades from now, conquest, or at least territorial aggression, could not come back? Failed states and irregular warfare are the price of victory for the hegemon. To the extent that the US and Western great powers undermine their ability to prosecute conventional warfare and deter states from reintroducing conquest to geopolitics, the issues of failed states becomes less relevant.