If you turn on the news right now, it might seem like it’s the apocalypse. ISIS is overrunning Iraq and sending out videos beheading American journalists, Russia is in the midst of playing a game of chicken with Ukraine under the guise of nationalism, Israel and Hamas have been bombing each other all summer, and Syria is neck deep in a giant human rights violation/civil war, all while most of the international community sits around and scratches their heads. Like most folks, you’re wondering where’s the strategy and what’s the holdup. How could international leaders stand by and not do anything?
Well the answer is both incredibly simple and absurdly complicated. You see the common denominator in most of these conflicts is that they are being promulgated by non-state actors. If you managed to skip International Relations 101, that’s a fancy way of describing “An individual or organization that has significant political influence but is not allied to any particular country or state,” (OED). Specifically it means they’re normally outside the realm of international law, so things get tricky very quickly from top to bottom. These actors can range from anything from Anonymous to ISIS; but the one thing they have in common is that they wield extraordinary influence or power outside the boundaries of the nation-state.
Think about it. How do you declare war on a group that is not legally recognized but is existing within a sovereign nation? How do you engage with groups that aren’t even in uniforms? Are they civilians or soldiers? It seems a small issue, but most of the Geneva and Hague Conventions dictating laws of war are based on state actors engaging with state actors, starting from rules of engagement to how prisoners of war are handled. Nation-states (sovereign countries) have to play by the rules of international law (mostly, the UN is only so binding, but these states did sign charters/treaties/etc), but their foes, groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, etc… do not. They just get to act. It’s not like the past when it was predominantly the European continent constantly fighting each other. When non-state actors are the ones who are rabble rousing, it means that nation-states are often dragged into long, difficult, and costly engagements that can escalate out of control due to the regulations and treaties of international law.
A perfect example is the First World War, most of the heads of state in Europe were monarchs looking for a chance to expand their territories, while simultaneously nationalism, socialism, and communism were taking root amidst their citizenry. The masses were unhappy and the rulers were obtuse. Insert one part Serbian nationalist assassins, add the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and you have non-state actors stirring the pot to create one of the deadliest wars in human history. After the assassination the Austro-Hungarian Empire made impossible demands on Serbia (who were not responsible for the non-state actors) that led to a declaration of war which due to the collective balance of power obligating that if one ally goes to war, they all do, it created a pile-on effect of nation-states fighting each other. Boom, war all because a non-state actor lit a powder keg under the international community right when it was perfectly set to explode.
The Cold War brought its own unique spin when it comes to non-state actors. With the Soviet Union and the United States in an ongoing arms race and detente (think of it as two powerful countries measuring their dicks via nuclear weapons) they couldn’t act against each other directly without potentially causing a nuclear armageddon. Yet that time period was rife with both nations utilizing guerrilla fighters, rebels, and nationalists (all non-state actors) to strike back at the other. In the 1980s, the U.S. CIA armed Osama bin Laden to help push the USSR out of Afghanistan, and we all know how well that turned out a few years later. All over the globe, from the Middle East to South America, from terrorists to drug cartels, non-state actors were being supported to destabilize communist and anti-communist activities.
Unfortunately, with all of this destabilization going on, it’s little wonder that after the Cold War ended and the world’s dual Super Powers were reduced to one, the cracks in the foundations across countries around the world began to spread. Without the presence of the USSR and U.S. acting as a global stabilizing authority, non-state actors were left unchecked and dealing with the ramifications of the nations that had previously supported them. Crises in the Caucasus, Somalia, Chechnya, and Georgia saw the rise of transnational, unprofessional, paramilitary militias acting with only quasi-state support engaging in military conflicts, genocides, and non-state wars. This enemy was fluid, ambiguous, and for an international community used to dealing with Super Powers, it led to mass inaction. Put simply, they weren’t equipped to deal with them, or the thousands of displaced refugees these conflicts created.
September 11th of course changed everything. The Super Power U.S. was attacked by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda and promptly went to war. But here’s something you may not have known: to stop Al-Qaeda, a non-state terrorist group that operates throughout many Middle Eastern countries, they went after the Taliban in Afghanistan who gave Osama bin Laden safe passage. While the Taliban was only recognized diplomatically by three other states, they were in fact the governing leaders of the Afghanistan. Now think about it, here the international community is nearly 90 years after the First World War, and once again, a non-state actor has led a massive international force into a global war. Since then, because of the destabilization of non-state actors (many of whom are state-sponsored) we’ve seen countless countries in the midst of revolutions, bloodshed, toppling their governments, and undermining the rest. The Global War on Terror has had state’s trying to respond to the terrorism, violence, and threat of non-state actors by going through traditional state-to-state actions. And it’s not working.
This is why we’re turning on our news each day and wondering if the world is ending: our international political system is based on a rigid system of rules, treaties, and international government organizations that exist to keep nation states cohabitating peacefully. As soon as threats and destabilization occurs outside of those realms it creates a vacuum, and the limits of it are only making it worse. So while to us it may seem simple, “the bad guys are beheading journalists, let’s just go take them out,” states have to act within accordance of the international codes they’ve accepted. If they don’t, they lose the ability to enforce other nations to abide by them as well. It’s classic catch-22, the system that exists to achieve law and order is unable to act to restore law and order when the actors fall outside of their bounds.
It’s complicated, and there’s no immediate resolutions to the issue, so remember that when you’re wondering why leaders are letting the world fall to pieces.
Next week we’re doing a deeper dive into the main non-state actors in the news that you need to know about. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the UN’s historic engagement with non-state actors, there’s some pretty great dry learning here.
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