Hoover Institution - Policy Review - The Power of Statelessness FEATURES: The Power of Statelessness
By Jakub Grygiel
The withering appeal of governing
Whither the state?
The appeal of statelessness will, I believe, continue to increase. It is a long-term trend that cannot be easily reversed or arrested. Hence, states should be prepared for continued and ever more numerous challenges coming from stateless actors. The question, then, is how to respond to these threats. Several suggestions have been put forth in recent years. For instance, many of these groups rely on extensive and complicated networks of financial sources, often based in the criminal world.31 By curbing groups’ ability to finance their activities, states can weaken them. Another strategy is to contain, as much as is feasible, the spread of technologies that empower stateless groups. A clear example of this is the Proliferation Security Initiative, in which almost 80 states participate in activities to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction.32 Moreover, because stateless actors often function within their target states, a durable strategy to defeat them is for nations to contain, disrupt, and dissuade the members and leaders of these groups — a strategy of “countersubversion.”33
I think it is also worth considering a more defensive strategy, one that may be pursued as a policy by states but may arise, too, as a natural response to protracted attacks by these networked, decentralized, and stateless groups. Broadly, it would result in the decentralization of the state. Centralization of a country’s efforts and resources made sense when the enemy was another country. Now, however, nations face enemies that do not have to mass their resources and forces to have an impact; the new enemies are dispersed and unpredictable. An effective response to such a threat does not require a continued centralization of organization and massing of resources and forces. In fact, such centralization may weaken the state, because it gives the enemy an easier target, without giving the state a comparable advantage. Moreover, centralization means uniformity of methods and procedures, whereas the enemy will seek diverse venues for its attacks and adopt multiple tactics. The enemy will be unpredictable because each stateless group will pursue different methods and procedures, and it is impossible to establish procedures to deal with every potential attack. A centralized response to the stateless threat is, therefore, likely to be ineffective.
Decentralization is a form of defense because it can help to contain the damage inflicted by an attack. For instance, a segmented infrastructure is more likely to survive an attack than one that is dependent on the effective functioning of several central stations. The electrical grid, for example, is heavily reliant on a few nodes that would most likely be overwhelmed by a surge of electricity caused by the destruction of a line. The most effective, if extreme, solution to such a threat is to develop off-the-grid capabilities for cities (or, alternatively, to build regional grids) and even on a smaller level such as for neighborhoods and possibly individual houses. Then, in order to shut down the supply of electricity to a region or city, an attack would have to be directed against individual generators or the local grids.34 While certainly not impossible, such an attack would require a level of coordination and effort not readily available to stateless groups. By analogy, a state whose main functions, from political decision-making to the management of social and economic activities, are decentralized and spread out may be more capable of withstanding dispersed, small attacks. To put it starkly, a state without a capital is more resilient than one with all of its functions concentrated in one place.
Furthermore, cities are extremely vulnerable to disruptions in large measure because of their reliance on transportation infrastructures that supply them with energy and food.35 It is instructive to look at what happens in French or Italian cities when trucking unions go on strike or disgruntled farmers block highways: Those nations’ governments are often forced to submit to the strikers’ demands. The large number of urban areas makes it impossible to devise effective defensive measures for them. And there are simply too many potential targets within them that demand attention, and their identification, however difficult, is not a guarantee that an appropriate defense can be established. For instance, in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security made public that its list of potential domestic targets of terrorist groups increased from 160 in 2003 to 28,000 in 2004 and to 77,069 in 2006.36
Given that it is impossible to protect such a number of widely different targets, a state may have to abandon some of its key characteristics in order to defend itself from stateless actors. A diffuse threat requires a diffuse security system. Massed defensive forces are useless if they are not where the attack may occur. Hence, states may need to devolve their security frameworks by giving regions and cities greater authority and capabilities to prevent and, if necessary, respond to terrorist attacks. The establishment of counterterrorism centers in New York City and Los Angeles, which have their own intelligence and analytical units and rapid response forces, is a good start.37 A parallel can be made with counterinsurgency tactics. An army that wants to fight against an insurgency effectively needs to devolve its decisions to the lowest level possible (e.g., platoon-level or even squad-level).38 As armies have learned how to fight small wars at the level of platoons, characterized by small clashes and constant patrols, so states may have to learn to decentralize their control over security.
Such devolution of power is not unprecedented in history. The rise of a very complex, decentralized political system in the Middle Ages was in part the result of continued attacks by tribal forces from the fourth century on. The inability of the central government, in this case the Roman Empire, to protect either the frontier or central regions from these attacks, forced local populations to rely on the military power of local leaders.39 As political scientist John Herz put it in 1957, “Throughout history, that unit which affords protection and security to human beings has tended to become the basic political unit; people, in the long run, will recognize that authority, any authority, which possesses the power of protection.”40
The devolution of state power is not without risks. The weakening of the state’s monopoly of violence may lead to the “Somalization” of the country in question: Local authorities rely on private actors to provide the needed protection and security, who then assert their own authority, becoming warlords of a sort. It is much easier to establish local security providers, such as militias or private armies, than to control them, or, if the situation changes, to demilitarize them. Furthermore, threats from stateless actors are arising at the same time as states maintain the ability to inflict enormous damage on each other and new powers are acquiring nuclear capabilities. Militias may be better suited to protect from, and respond to, small, local attacks, but they are less effective in deterring and defeating an industrial power, especially if the potential conflict will be for control of the sea (as in the case of a U.S.-China rivalry in the Pacific Ocean).
The question therefore is one of balance: How much will states have to decentralize in order to withstand potential disruptive attacks from stateless actors, while at the same time maintaining a level of centralization and power necessary to deter and, if necessary, defeat peer competitors? To put it differently, will the state’s perfect defensive measures against stateless actors — pervasive devolution of power, development of small and localized security providers — result in considerable weakening of that state relative to its neighbors? I do not offer an answer to this very important question. But the problem of nonstate actors will not go away. The trends underlying their resurgence are strong and outside of the control of a single nation or even a community of concerned nations. And given the inherent difficulties of implementing both offensive and defensive strategies to cope with these actors, we ought to be prepared for a prolonged period of constant conflict which may lead, as suggested here, to a change in the very nature of the state as we know it.
Jakub Grygiel is the George H. W. Bush Associate Professor of International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is Great Powers and Geopolitical Change (Johns Hopkins, 2006). The author acknowledges the support of the Earhart Foundation, which funded part of the research for this article.