Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Edgar on Strategy (Part X): Build your approach on the understanding that the global state system is here to stay

While some arguments for the decline of the state are insightful and important, none of them have stuck.

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons)
The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons)


From the series:

Editor: The so-called international system is not something new or controversial to Foreign Policy readers. But its value and our relationship to it are sometimes questioned in prominent circles. Implementing national strategy outside of this system is not likely to succeed. Here’s why.

— Paul Edgar

 By David Kneeland and Paul Edgar

Best Defense office of strategic affairs

Good strategy accounts for how the world works. Military and national strategy inevitably interact with institutions beyond their own borders. The context in which they do so is the international order that we often mention and rarely describe.

Traditionally, we recognize Westphalia as the place where the roles and rights of states in a multi-state system were codified. It is a Westphalian proposition that states are sovereign over their own territory and internal affairs. While the state system has matured since then, it has generally changed incrementally and in the same direction. States have multiplied. State-sponsored international institutions, agreements, and standards have increased. Despite differences in culture, capacity, and resources, states remain peers, a relationship which creates the backbone for an international order.

Arguments for the decline or irrelevance of the state, and thus the international system, have been popular since at least the 1990s. The prominence of fourth generation warfare, which most often includes a non-state belligerent, has often been interpreted as one sign that states and the international system are in decline. A few years ago, the meteoric rise and growth of the Islamic State seemed to reflect the tectonic shift from state power to non-state power.

But the roles and rights of states have been challenged off the battlefield, too. Various expressions of human rights activism, a movement that is both substantial and enigmatic, often challenge state sovereignty and the international system. In the second half of the 1970s, for example, a formidable surge of activism modified and restricted U.S. foreign policy, our axial connection to the international system, especially with respect to Central and South America.

The proliferation of military and commercial technologies sometimes reinforces the perspective that states are in decline. Smart phones and social media played such an influential role in the Arab Spring that it is difficult to imagine it could have occurred without them. Technology empowers people in unexpected ways.

While some arguments for the decline of the state are insightful and important, none of them have stuck. And they won’t. The state and the state-based international system are here to stay. Militarized nonstate actors, international consensus on human rights, and the proliferation of technology have exerted pressure on states and the international system, they have modified it, but they have not changed it. Indeed, they reinforce the system because they tend to appropriate state and international institutions in order to legitimize and enforce their agendas.

Though less frequently than in the 90s, some view prominent international institutions as a sign that the state is in decline. This position misses the fact that international institutions are fundamentally extensions of states. They rely upon Westphalian principles, even on those occasions where they seek to supersede those principles. The United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Association of South East Asian Nations and many others play a central role in international affairs only because they are linked to the power and legitimacy of member states.

Alongside these are smaller, but still prominent, organizations such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières. These partnered and not-for-profit organizations operate outside of direct state control. Some of them even spurn state involvement. But they become virtually powerless when states do not recognize, support, or fund their efforts. International institutions reinforce the state-based system.

Even individual identity is bound to states and the international system, another consequence of state parity and mutual recognition. It is virtually impossible for an individual to travel without citizenship and a passport, a status and document granted by one state and recognized by another. Many rights originate only from an individual’s relationship to bounded territories. Contemporary forms of immigration, refugee crises, and international travel are, in some respects, a consequence of the state-based system.

The international system of states matters to strategists. In order to be effective, they must understand its curious characteristics and work within them. The strongest states are not all powerful. The weakest states are not powerless. Non-state actors are not on the first team, but can readily find ways to participate. Change at the margins is possible; it’s even normal. But subverting or ignoring the whole system is not.

David Kneeland is a MA candidate in Global Policy Studies at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, specializing in international security and emerging technology in armed conflict. He has experience in defense communications and served in the United States Marine Corps.

Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East Languages and Cultures at the University of Texas and a Clements Center Graduate Fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011-2013. He also has worked extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1