The Day After

If terrorists explode nuclear devices in several major cities, expect the principle of national sovereignty to be among the casualties.

Al Qaeda toppled the Twin Towers, though it failed to shake the foundations of the international system. But imagine if terrorists set off, say, three nuclear explosions — one in Washington, D.C., one in New Delhi, and one in Berlin — over a period of six months, followed by another blast in Los Angeles nine months later. Total deaths would number at least in the hundreds of thousands and possibly in the millions. Large parts of four major cities would be uninhabitable for many months, maybe longer. But people’s lives and livelihoods would not be all that is lost in such a nightmarish scenario. What would become of the international system the day after the threat of megaterrorism materialized?

For all the talk of a world altered by empowered terrorist networks and preemptive warfare, the notions of sovereignty that have guided relations among nations for centuries still constrain the way we think about international politics. Yet we may soon find ourselves in a transformed world, one in which rules, principles, and behaviors could radically change. The lethality and scope of future terrorist attacks will determine whether or not we are at a fulcrum of history, a turning point analogous to the transition from the medieval to the modern world.

The political fallout of such catastrophes would be dramatic for modern liberal societies, and not just those that are attacked. The United States, France, Britain, Japan, and Italy would not turn into police states, though their citizens would not only acquiesce but demand that their governments roll back some civil liberties. At the international level, conventional rules of sovereignty would be abandoned overnight. The major powers would implement new principles and rules. Their interests would demand it and their muscle would make success possible. The result would be a more stable and secure environment, although one not as attractive as the current system.

For starters, preventive strikes against specific targets will be widely accepted. The country launching the strike would not be expected to request permission from the target country. In such an atmosphere, the mission of the unmanned U.S. Predator drone, for instance, which killed six terrorists in Yemen in November 2002, would have been carried out without that government’s consent. Such strikes will become more frequent, and countries will launch them even against targets that do not pose an imminent threat.

The U.S. decision to invade Iraq would no longer be an aberration. Full-scale preventive wars would be accepted in principle, and the major powers would no longer burden themselves with the deliberations of the United Nations as it is now constituted. At most, these countries might try to enhance the legitimacy of their actions and reduce the anxiety among other nations by trying to obtain the permission of more like-minded bodies. Approval might come from an established entity such as the G-8, a regional organization such as NATO or the European Union, or an ad hoc coalition.

Sovereign equality — the principle of one nation, one vote — would end. Major powers would dispense with winning a fig leaf of legitimacy from states with minimal resources and capabilities. Territorial and juridical independence would no longer provide a state with automatic access to international organizations, including financial institutions.

Membership in the United Nations would be contingent upon a state’s ability to effectively control its own territory, or at least to control activities that could threaten the well-being of others. Many of the activities in which the United Nations now plays a major role — such as authorizing the use of force or judging governments’ human rights records — will be displaced by new international organizations with more robust conditions for membership. These entities could include a strengthened Community of Democracies, an international organization created in June 2000 by foreign ministers representing more than 100 countries. The major powers would withdraw diplomatic recognition from some failed and failing states.

Powerful states threatened by terrorism would independently engage in policing activities in weakly governed areas. The U.S. FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, not to mention the CIA, already operate in many countries. But these arrangements usually conform with conventional understandings of international legal norms, because the United States has, in most cases, valued and sought the permission of the host country. In a transformed world, states that feel threatened will engage in policing activities without the approval of those they police. Authorities might, for instance, arrest suspected terrorists and fly them back to their own jurisdiction without acknowledging the legitimacy of any extradition process.

In some circumstances, the major powers would occupy specific geographic areas that might otherwise provide sanctuary for terrorists, deploying forces to regions not governed by the nominally sovereign government. Powerful entities would disregard the right of the occupied nation to exercise exclusive authority and control over all of the territory within its official borders.

Ultimately, the major powers would explicitly revive the concept of a trusteeship or protectorate. Developing countries would reject such an initiative, so legitimacy would have to be found outside of a reconstituted United Nations. Trusteeships might be formalized by agreement among a limited number of powerful states. The target country would be declared a threat to international peace and security. Its domestic structures would be declared incompetent to govern responsibly. A consortium of major powers would assume executive authority and declare the international legal sovereignty of the occupied territory null and void.

A state’s right to control the exploitation of its natural resources (most notably oil) within its territory will be an added casualty. Gone will be the days when the industrialized West provided Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries with hundreds of billions of dollars, some of which was used to support activities that foster terrorism.

Economic exigencies, coupled with the widespread acceptance of conventional rules, have made nations reluctant to challenge the sovereignty of exporting states. Not so in a world transformed by megaterrorist attacks. Revenue-generating activities that funded terrorist activities or undermined the stability of nations would be seized and placed under the control of an international agency, such as the World Bank or some new global authority. Export earnings would be used to fund economic progress throughout the developing world.

Although the conventional rules of sovereignty, especially nonintervention, have frequently been honored in the breach, no better ordering principle has come along in the last few centuries. Yet, we are already seeing a growing tension between the threat of an increasing number of states incapable of managing their own internal affairs and the handful of states that possess the means and wherewithal to set matters right. This discrepancy has not yet generated any major demand for changing the rules, because it is not evident that there is some alternative set of rules that could better protect the security interests of the powerful. The day after a megaterrorist attack, however, major powers will no longer tolerate the discrepancy between rules and capabilities.

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