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Postmodern Conflict as the Price of Success?

August 10, 2010

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2010 3:24 am

    Very well put!

    I will just add that the problematic norm is not exclusively the prohibition on conquest. It is also for example the maintenance of the colonial borders, or the mandatory standard of the European nation-state model.

    We don’t have to go as far as the 3rd world to assess the disastrous consequences of the wilsonian post-modern order. In Europe itself there are many examples of states which would utterly unsustainable on their own and which have become bantustanic protectorates of the EU-US-UN institutional triumvirate structure.

    In eastern Europe the nation-state was also never the norm and it is significant a case because it was here that the precepts of wilsonianism were first implemented with the forceful dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    Once again, very good post.

  2. August 11, 2010 7:10 pm

    Thanks for your comment!

    I definitely agree about the role of colonial borders. It has merely displaced the kind of conflict in many states, rather than eliminating it. The failure of these post-colonial states to achieve a monopoly on violence greatly aids the ability of neighbors and outside powers to conduct regime change by recruiting local rebels, without having to resort to wars of conquest which might imperil the intervening regime’s own extractive ambitions. Furthermore, because these states are always respecting the “territorial integrity” of the others, they can deter their own secessionist movements and outside powers from intervening…

    It seems like a sustainable equilibrium, but eventually you will get a state willing to challenge the borders, and eventually the international system will want for a 3rd party willing to stop it.

    Russia has already demonstrated the interest, if not necessarily the full military capability, to carve imperial protectorates out of its neighbors. With that in mind, your point about Eastern Europe is well taken… Though given the still immense wealth and military potential of the Europeans, they could preserve their rules of the game provided they can forge a collective defense arrangement in case of American retreat from continental security guarantees.

  3. August 12, 2010 1:29 pm

    One can find a range of different views on this subject in the scholarly and ‘popular’ literature, but I’m inclined to think that the norm against conquest is not primarily a norm that the US has imposed on the international system but rather something that has evolved out of the horrible experiences of two world wars and the growing realization that the costs of conquest outweigh the benefits. Invading and permanently occupying or annexing another state, against the will of that state’s population (or even large parts of it) is an enormous headache; it’s just not worth it. (Even non-permanent occupations are an enormous headache, as the US has found in Iraq.) Existing territorial state boundaries are largely stable b/c they serve the interests of ruling elites (and in some cases larger groups) and the incentives to change them are weak. The norm vs. conquest is therefore not something that the hegemon (with hundreds of bases and thousands of soldiers scattered all over the world, be it noted) has imposed, but something that has emerged out of the history and internal dynamics (for lack of a better phrase) of the modern state system.

    • August 12, 2010 4:12 pm

      LFC, thanks for the comment. Of course, I admit hypotheses like mine are pretty hard to test – and certainly I’m open (and hoping!) to be proven wrong. And certainly there are states that have internalized the norm against conquest independently of fear of coercion, i.e., those of Western Europe. But for states that live in bad neighborhoods, I would guess that norm is not so deeply embedded.

      I do not want to crib too much from Fazal here, but her findings cast some doubt on the primacy of costs of resistance as a deterrent to conquest. Generally, while nationalist resistance tends to lead to state resurrection, when most states have decided conquest is in their strategic interest in the first place, they tend to respond to local uprising with more force. Conquest can pay, but not, of course, for liberalized regimes which are unwilling to use brute force tactics to quell resistance. With regards to the Iraq example, its worth noting that in the thinking of Rumsfeld et al, the US wasn’t going to occupy Iraq – it wasn’t just Orwellian doublespeak, they really thought the US could take out the government, install a friendly one and not have to commit very much to Phase IV operations…

      I am not too worried about wars of conquest re-erupting along the banks of the Rhine or Oder – those states have indeed decided conquest is not worth it. Even in more troubled areas, I would imagine it would take a few iterations of norm enforcement failure and decades of liberal decline before conquest and territorial aggression resumed in a significant way. But given the 1991 Gulf War, the 2008 South Ossetia War, I think it is safe to say a world where liberal states were no longer interested or credible in attempts to defend liberal norms outside their “spheres of influence,” we’d live in a world with more territorial aggression…

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