After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the international system shifted from bipolarity to unipolarity, redefining the structure of the system. As a result, US primacy in this unipolar world has constituted the most salient element affecting the arrangement of the system and defining a world comprised of nation-states.
Some insist that the status quo maintains, while others suggest that a momentous transformation is upon us–or already underway. Such a transformation is attributed to the use of terrorism by non-state actors and ethnic groups, in effect challenging the significance and function of the nation-state. Some IR theories describe the world as an anarchical system comprised of states and explain international conflict presupposing a structure based on state centrality. Employing terrorism as a means by which to achieve their aims, non-state actors and ethnic groups have commanded global attention, thereby becoming a player on the world’s stage. This new development conflicts with some theorists’ views previously deemed credible and central to foreign policy decision-making.
Terrorism grants non-state actors a voice by which to air their grievances and make demands–a voice that could not exist to such a degree absent of terrorism. Proving a very powerful tool, terrorism commands world attention by inflicting fear in the masses and enabling weaker actors to coerce and intimidate stronger states. Instead of arising between states, conflicts now arise between a state and an elusive and often indefinable fighting force absent of evident borders and a conventional military. Threats are posed not by a state, but by elements within or across states that require particular tactics and strategies by which to counter. After declaring the war on terrorism, the United States has fought to dissolve and expel Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces from Afghanistan, waging war against a terrorist organization operating within and across state borders. This campaign was continued with the acquiescence and support of the Karzai government; however, Pakistan claimed violation of its sovereignty when the United States engaged the terrorists over the Afghani border in Pakistani territory. Barry R. Posen in his article The Struggle Against Terrorism: Grand Strategy, Strategy, and Tactics maintains that “the United States must be prepared to bypass national governments should they fail to cooperate.” Hence, rogue elements can incite inter-state conflict as wars may be waged against states that either support or harbor terrorists. Defeating terrorists, thus, becomes a transnational endeavor. States are therefore not the sole, exclusive units comprising the international system; other units have emerged, effecting changes to the international system and undercutting the central concept of the nation-state.
Terrorism has forced certain states to reconfigure their foreign policy, resulting in significant transformations in state relations and interactions. Due to the “vulnerability of modern society to terrorism,” states must contrive a counter-terror strategy disparate from the previous strategies elicited by conventional wars (Posen). As the focal point of such policy, terrorist elements influence the strategic approach and foreign policy decision-making process of major powers. No longer is policy-making sheerly in response to other nation-states.
To prevent and avert conflicts and wars, states have utilized channels of negotiation and arbitration, joining international organizations such as the United Nations or NATO. Terrorist cells and non-state actors are not members of international organizations and do not recognize international law, thereby rendering the normal means of negotiation and diplomacy futile. Furthermore, the unrealistic goals of terrorist organizations (or at times ethnic groups) impede any viable resolution arising from negotiation. Diplomacy is also hindered by the amorphous nature of the enemy. As a loose configuration of cells with covert support and communication channels, Al-Qaeda spans several different countries, devoid of a cohesive structure. Without discernible borders or visible leaders, confronting–or negotiating–with terrorist factions becomes problematic and convoluted. The international system is not only impacted by states and states’ relations, but subject to the whims of elusive, transnational units. Because of this, terrorism has undermined the importance of the nation state in understanding international politics.
In addition to non-state actors and terrorism, ethnic conflict also has demonstrated its ability to undermine the centrality of the nation-state in the international system. The concept of the nation-state is a nineteenth century European construct, promoting the idea that people within a designated territory are united by a common culture, language, or race. As World War I precipitated the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, borders were drawn creating several states in its place, further transforming a world of empires into a world of states. Every ethnic group could not be accommodated with their own state, however, thereby forging states of heterogeneous populations. As a corollary, some ethnic groups within a state have mobilized against their own government demanding secession/independence or greater autonomy within their own province or region. In this case, ethnic groups become an enemy of their government, forcing the state to devote resources and manpower to quash, resist, or sometimes co-opt the ethnic group. When a prominent ethnic group(s) exists, the state may oscillate between centralization which may cause rebellion and decentralization which may cause fragmentation, illustrating the influence of the ethnic group over the state.
Like terrorists, nationalists can utilize terrorism as a force multiplier to achieve their means, potentially hampering the effectiveness and cohesion of the state. Groups such as the TLLE can be considered terrorists or nationalists, threatening national stability in attempt to hijack the state. Ethnic conflict can also transform into a transnational force, operating not as the periphery within a particular state, but spanning various states, such as the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Such powerful elements within states hinder the effectiveness and cohesion of the central government, subjecting it to coercion and intimidation.
The very meaning of a nation-state is downgraded by ethnic conflict, as a nation implies a shared culture and history and a sense of solidarity, culminating into a cohesive unit. Since a majority of peripheral governments do not achieve statehood, some theorists and scholars predict a decline in the nation-state. As indigenous and ethnic struggles have multiplied in the latter part of the twentieth century, ethnic conflict within or across state lines has become an obvious force shaping international relations, undermining the role of the nation-state in understanding international politics.
Some international relations theories have described the international system as a composition of sovereign states which has transpired from the “co-action of these self-regarding units” (Kenneth Waltz). Both realism and liberalism (and neorealism and neoliberalism) consider states the main units of analysis, providing a foundational base by which to explain international relations. However, non-state actors, terrorists, and ethnic groups challenge this theoretical position, as these actors are credited with affecting changes in the international system. The term ‘state’ implies the existence of a developed government, definable borders, an economy, etc.–all of which are absent from terrorist organizations. Liberalism attributes the structure of the international system to the influences of international institutions, cooperation, democracy, and international law; however, without recognition of the international community and a formal structure, terrorist groups do not function according to these precepts. Liberal institutionalism maintains that the international system provides opportunities for cooperation via the EU or NAFTA for example, but cautions if a state fails to cooperate, they will face economic sanctions and/or military action to correct such behavior. Such consequences may prove futile when dealing with an elusive group without an economy and an exact location on the map to strike. Kenneth Waltz’s theory of defensive realism explains that the structure of the system constrains state behavior, whereas state survival is contingent upon acceptable and appropriate conduct dictated by the international arena. Terrorist groups are exempt from such behavioral constraints and also remain uninfluenced by the balance of power as the weapon of terrorism can be used against any state regardless of their power or allies. Policy necessitates the destruction of a terrorist organization like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda in lieu of balancing, as balancing against a terrorist group does not eliminate the threat. Terrorism and ethnic conflict have questioned the accuracy of neorealism and liberalism in explaining international politics, as the conventional state is not longer the sole unit of analysis.
Some theories explain international relations as the interaction among state units in a system based on state centrality. However, terrorism and ethnic conflict have undermined the importance of the nation-state as the primary unit regulating and dictating international relations. Rogue groups–absent a central government–have employed violence and terror as a means by which to achieve their aims, commanding global attention and thereby becoming a player on the world’s stage. Similarly, ethnic conflicts can hamper the cohesion of the central government, signaling the possible decline in the nation-state. This development challenges prominent IR theories that premise their arguments on state centrality. States are no longer the sole, exclusive units comprising the international system; other units have emerged, effecting changes to the international system and undercutting the central concept of the nation-state.