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April 1, 2009

The Power of Statelessness

The withering appeal of governing


Most political groups in modern history have wanted to build and control a state. Whether movements of self-determination in the 19th century, of decolonization in the post–World War II decades, or political parties advocating separatism in several Western states in the 1990s (e.g., Italy and Quebec) — all aimed at one thing: to have a separate state that they could call their own. The means they employed to achieve this end ranged from terrorism and guerilla warfare to political pressure and electoral campaigns, but the ultimate goal was the same — creation of its own state.

It is the ultimate goal no longer, and it is likely to be even less so in the future. Many of today’s nonstate groups do not aspire to have a state. In fact, they are considerably more capable of achieving their objectives and maintaining their social cohesion without a state apparatus. The state is a burden for them, while statelessness is not only very feasible but also a source of enormous power. Modern technologies allow these groups to organize themselves, seek financing, and plan and implement actions against their targets — almost always other states — without ever establishing a state of their own. They seek power without the responsibility of governing. The result is the opposite of what we came to know over the past two or three centuries: Instead of groups seeking statehood through a variety of means, they now pursue a range of objectives while actively avoiding statehood. Statelessness is no longer eschewed as a source of weakness but embraced as an asset.1

Instead of groups seeking statehood through a variety of means, they now actively avoid statehood.

This does not mean that state-seeking groups have receded into history, though. The eruptions of violence in Yugoslavia and Chechnya in the 1990s, as well as the continuing tension in Kosovo and the Caucasus (not to mention the activities of farc in Colombia, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, ltte in Sri Lanka), are examples of situations in which one group is vying to establish full state sovereignty in opposition to another group or government. These are macabre and violent celebrations of the idea of the nation-state. But these groups are no longer the only sources of security threats; nor, perhaps, are they the main ones.

In fact, statelessness has become increasingly feasible and desirable in order to pursue a broad spectrum of objectives. And it is now a source of power for groups and, consequently, presents serious security challenges to existing countries.

Furthermore, the rise of stateless groups may have an impact on the nature of the state itself. The modern nation-state arose in large measure because it was the most efficient way to provide defense, and other nation-states evolved to defend against those that had already been created. But if the major threat to today’s countries comes not from their neighbors but from internal groups, countries will need to adapt to defend against internal subversion, costly strikes against infrastructure, destabilization of urban areas, and similar low-intensity and diffuse attacks perpetuated by small, decentralized, and mobile groups. The response to the threat of stateless groups may be a trend toward state decentralization. In fact, the most effective way of defending oneself against unpredictable attacks deep inside one’s own territory is a devolution of security tasks to local communities. This may lead to a weakening of the monopoly of violence, which monopoly characterized the modern state. Paradoxically, then, the response to stateless groups may be the rise of more stateless — or sub-state — groups.

Why a state, why statelessness

The past three centuries, but particularly the last 150 years or so, have taught us that to be a stateless group was to be weak. In some cases, such as that of the Jewish population in Europe, statelessness signified discrimination and, under the Nazi regime, extermination. The power of a state easily trumped the power of small groups that, unless they wanted to face forceful submission or even death, had either to acquiesce or migrate. It is unsurprising, therefore, that most ethnic or political minorities that did not exert some control over the actions of the state aspired to establish a state of their own. At the basis of this desire was the belief that the state was the pinnacle of political expression for a group or national minority, which would otherwise have been unable to survive and prosper as a unit. Only the state — the modern, nation-state — could in fact supply the necessary tools to manage the economic and social life of a group, and above all, to provide the indispensable security in a competitive world.

By the late-17th century, the state had become indispensable for survival. A centralized authority, with the right and the capacity to impose and collect taxes as well as gather other resources, was the sole guarantor of independence and security. According to the historian Charles Tilly, “a closely administered territory became an asset worth fighting for, since only such a territory provided the revenues to sustain armed forces.”2 Developing new military technologies, such as artillery, and maintaining standing armies, were endeavors that only centralized nations could manage. The political entities that failed to adjust to these new requirements either disappeared from the international scene or receded to a secondary role, often then surviving only with state support. For instance, commercial city-states began to decline during the 15th century and most were gradually integrated into the countries that surrounded them.3 Similarly, while some nonstate actors, such as pirates or mercenaries, continued to exist well into the 19th century (and some still exist today), they were often just tools of states rather than independent players.4

The state had become the end goal of political aspirations. In order to participate in international institutions, to benefit from international aid or form alliances, to be able to pressure and influence other states — broadly speaking, to be an actor in international relations — a group had to have state power behind it. Statelessness generally meant political and strategic insignificance.

And yet today, there seems to be a marked trend away from the state. The state is no longer the be-all and end-all, and many modern groups prefer to disrupt rather than control political and administrative activities. Broadly, four factors or trends are allowing stateless groups to survive and be effective. The first two point to the feasibility of stateless groups; the second two to their desirability.

  • The state is no longer the only way to organize and manage large groups. New technologies impart cohesion and strength to an increasingly larger number of dispersed individuals.

  • The proliferation of weapons and dual-use technologies challenges the monopoly of violence of states by allowing individuals or small bands of people to present serious security and strategic challenges.

  • The presence today of great powers, and especially of the American preponderance of power, with growing military capabilities to destroy other states, serves as a strong incentive to keep a low, stateless profile: To be stateless is to decrease one’s own footprint, to decrease one’s chance of being a target of retaliation, and thereby to increase one’s odds of survival.

  • Many of the modern groups espouse radical ideas, tinted by religious and/or extremist views, making them less interested in the establishment of states. States require some sort of political compromise and, even if they are managed in an authoritarian or totalitarian style, they rarely can match the expectations of extremists who tend to become disappointed in political solutions.

New tools

One of the reasons the modern state became the preeminent form of societal organization was its ability to harness resources and manage large groups of people. This great organizational ability is no longer restricted to the state, however. As in previous periods of dramatic improvements in communications (e.g., print, telegraph, and radio), new technologies are leading to new ways of organizing people. The internet and its applications, but also widely available and relatively cheap tools such as cell phones, can take the place of bureaucracies and institutions. New types of societies, often referred to as virtual networks, are arising outside of state control, across borders, and without the backing of governments. These networked groups are detached from a specific territory and lack the centralized and hierarchical structure typical of modern states.5

This trend is affecting less-developed countries, too. While it is certainly true that there is a technological gap between wealthy nations and poorer ones, even in the poorest countries technologies are rapidly spreading. Simple and common technologies, such as cell phones and digital cameras, played an important role in popularizing the 2007 uprising in Burma, one of the most oppressive, isolated, and destitute countries of the world.6 In Egypt, Facebook, a popular social-network application, is an increasingly important virtual space where tens of thousands individuals are organizing opposition to the government and mobilizing for elections and demonstrations.7

Moreover, modern means of communications connect individuals and small groups that until now had limited contact or even knowledge of each other. A group in Grozny can communicate, and consequently, recruit, coordinate, spread the news, and fundraise, with an individual in a suburb of Paris or Peshawar or Moscow. The factions that arise from these interactions are deterritorialized, being based in what is essentially a virtual world.

Finally, these technologies are also exceptionally democratic. It is very easy to participate in a virtual group, and the main barriers are the availability of the technology and the ability to understand the language used. The lingua franca tends to be English, even on Islamist websites, in large measure because it allows writers to reach an audience that spans the globe. These technologies are also democratic in the sense that every participant can add his or her knowledge, skills, interests, and objectives without a central authority deciding the priorities or the hierarchy of values. The “open-source” nature of these technologies leads to a high level of decentralization of the group that does not possess a central repository of technical skills, ideological principles, or operational objectives.8 As has been observed regarding the Facebook movement in Egypt, “young secular people can communicate, build relationships and express their opinions freely. . . . Every member in the 100,000-strong online community could be, at any given moment, a leader of a movement.”9

Consequently, the growth and the direction of such groups are unpredictable because they do not follow a clear project but turn according to the inputs of all of their members. To use a metaphor adopted to distinguish two different methods of software development, these modern, networked, and stateless groups resemble a “bazaar” — a decentralized, rapid, and seemingly chaotic system — rather than a “cathedral” — a slow, methodical, and planned system.10

New types of societies, often referred to as virtual networks, are arising outside of state control.

The effect of these technologies is to facilitate the rise of political movements that are increasingly capable of playing a strategic role in international relations. Some have called this phenomenon “cyber mobilization” because it allows the rapid emergence of groups that have a widespread reach and ability to inflict damage.11 The state, with its large logistical infrastructure and management capacity, is not only being supplanted by these networked groups but also is unable to control them. It is difficult to extend a centralized control over the internet, and even government attempts to filter or block it are only minimally effective. Moreover, cyber mobilization is leading to the establishment of groups that can be more extremist than in the past. These technologies link together individuals and groups that in fact always existed across states and societies but lacked the capacity to meet and organize.12 Without the ability to “cyber mobilize” they remained on the fringe of various societies; they were the small, oddball, and largely ineffective groups, or solitary individuals with large aspirations but limited power. An extremist individual in one state or one region was unable to participate in a larger group unless he physically joined it. Hence, historically the migration of people to join warrior groups (e.g., the ghazi that assaulted Byzantium starting in the 13th century, or the Crusaders in Europe) was required to produce fearsome stateless actors. But from the 17th century on, only a few, large, and efficient social organizations, such as the modern state, could garner the necessary power to compete in international relations, leaving the disconnected and individually small groups and individuals behind.

Now, technologies are giving power to a mélange of previously irrelevant groups and individuals. Minority interests and passions can find expression, and individuals have greater choices as to what they can support and where they can belong. The logic behind this trend is analogous to what has been defined in business as the “long tail.”13  The many but niche products which previously had a small or no market are now easy to find and can be matched with consumers. The market then may increasingly be composed of many individually small hits — the long tail — and a few great hits. By analogy, the international scene may be characterized by a few states but many small, stateless actors — the long tail of international relations.

Now we know that a few, relatively poor individuals can disrupt the political and economic lifestyle of a major state.

The strength and resilience of networked groups should certainly not be exaggerated. Specifically, there are three broad sets of challenges of statelessness. First, the sheer number of niche groups that arises in a network imparts a high level of instability: Individual groups vie for more attention or seek to achieve their narrow objectives, which may undermine the goals of other groups. Simply put, the long tail may be characterized by a chaotic, highly conflictual group of small, stateless actors that are just as opposed to each other as they are to existing states.

Second, cyber-mobilization that creates networked groups is in a sense very ethereal. The resulting group lacks temporal stability, as individuals and cells come and go. Without a territory that delimits the administrative scope of the organization and a set of institutions that imparts it permanence, these groups can lose their strength as fast as they increase it. The ease with which they can incorporate new individuals is matched by the difficulty of retaining them. And the open nature of these groups also makes them vulnerable to subversion by skillful propaganda or infiltration.14

Finally, the technology upon which these stateless groups are based can be used against them. It is impractical, and most likely impossible, to devise ways of preventing the spread of these technologies and of eliminating them. But these technologies, from the internet to cell phones, are not invulnerable and have as many weak points as they have strong ones. For instance, networks rely on a few, well connected “nodes” or individuals whose elimination can hurt the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the group.15

Being stateless therefore still presents some serious weaknesses. But the technologies that make it feasible are new and are constantly developing, creating novel forms of social interaction and groups. It would be shortsighted to ignore these developments, because they make it possible to establish groups very rapidly, in ways and through venues that are essentially unpredictable.

Diffusion of technology

The second factor that is making stateless actors more feasible and effective is the diffusion of military technology. It is no longer necessary to have a state, or even state support, to attain a degree of lethality that a few decades ago was achievable only by controlling and administering national resources. Now we know that a few, relatively impoverished individuals can disrupt the political and economic lifestyle of a major state, such as the U.S. or more recently India, that by all metrics should be capable of deterring, defeating, or absorbing an attack without too great an effort.

The diffusion of technology is undermining the monopoly of violence once exercised by the modern state. The state is commonly defined by its right and ability to exert domestic control over violence, which then allows it also to be the main actor that can compete internationally. This monopoly of violence has never been complete, of course, and challenges have always been present both internally (e.g., criminal groups, local militias) as well as externally (e.g., piracy, terrorism). Moreover, there have been constant attempts to place the ability of states to wage war within a set of constraints defined by norms, laws, and institutions.16  The ability of a state to have a monopoly on violence was always, and continues to be, a process, rather than a fully attained outcome.

Now, however, it is a process that is becoming increasingly difficult to pursue as the state is no longer the exclusive source of tools of violence. Recently, a lot of attention has been devoted to the rise of “private military contractors,” who are to a degree privatizing the essential function of the state: its ability to conduct a war.17 But the trend is wider than this, and it is deeply embedded in the nature of modern technological development. Technological advances are creating weapons that are more lethal while also being cheaper and more widely available. Throughout modern history, this was not so: Lethality required wealth and resources, and therefore access to it was restricted to well organized and managed (and to a certain degree, territorially large or at least resource-rich) states. The examples that are most often adduced are artillery (the “gunpowder revolution”), airpower, and nuclear weapons combined with missile technology.18  In all of these cases, larger, wealthier, and better-administered states tended to have an advantage over actors that did not possess the resources and organization necessary to develop, acquire, and use increasingly more expensive and complex weapons.

The diffusion of technology has three features that are empowering stateless actors. First, most technologies can be used in multiple ways: Civilian airplanes can be turned into guided missiles, cars can be transformed into bombs, and computers and cell phones can be used to disrupt the economic and political life of a society. These tools are readily available, especially in developed countries, which can as a result be more vulnerable. The more technologically advanced the society, the easier it is to find technologies that can be used against it. As an article in Wired put it, insurgents in Iraq “cherry-pick the best U.S. tech: disposable email addresses, anonymous internet accounts, the latest radios. . . . And every American-financed move to reinforce Iraq’s civilian infrastructure only makes it easier for the insurgents to operate. Every new internet café is a center for insurgent operations. Every new cell tower means a hundred new nodes on the insurgent network.”19 With relatively limited resources and know-how, a small group can find the most effective technologies to inflict serious costs on a state.20

Second, it’s true that military technological advances are undoubtedly increasing the power of states by giving them greater firepower, longer reach, more precise and timely information, and in some cases stealth.21 Yet, history seems to indicate that for every technological advance there is a corresponding advance in the tools and skills to counteract its effect. For every new weapon, sooner or later there is an instrument or behavior that minimizes its power and usefulness. In many cases, it seems that the response to the new technological development is cheaper and quicker to build and implement. A telling example is the widespread availability of relatively cheap and easy-to-use ieds in Iraq, adopted by insurgents to inflict serious costs on U.S. forces. Expensive vehicles, often heavily armored, can be seriously damaged by these homemade bombs.22  The cheapness of these countermeasures has again the effect of empowering individuals and groups that with few resources can make expensive, state-built platforms vulnerable and perhaps even useless in the field.

For every new weapon, sooner or later there is an instrument or behavior that minimizes its power and usefulness.

Finally, there is a wide availability of weapons. In part, this is made possible by stocks of mothballed Cold War arsenals that can be easily purchased from states. But in part, the flow of weapons is facilitated by the weakening of states, which in some regions are increasingly losing control over their territories. As a result, it is relatively easy to acquire a vast array of munitions, including some, such as portable surface-to-air missiles or sophisticated anti-tank mines and missiles, that require the backing of a state’s industrial resources to design and produce.23

The result of this diffusion of technology is a proliferation of violence. Smaller and poorer — and stateless — groups can achieve more lethal results than they could just a few decades ago. Globalization, understood here as the spread of technology and know-how, leads to the splintering of the world, and it may generate the seeds of its own demise by undermining the authority and power of states. It is true that the technologies at the disposal of stateless groups are rarely of the same caliber in terms of lethality and complexity as those wielded by states. But they do not need to be, because they are themselves sufficient to inflict serious costs and damages on states, likely resulting in a change of countries’ domestic and foreign policies.24 Moreover, as the underlying argument of this article posits, the objective of many of these stateless groups is not to replace a state; they do not have the capabilities to lead a frontal assault on the state, nor, once destroyed, to rebuild and administer a state. Their objective is to weaken, disrupt, and delegitimize the state, thereby creating the space for themselves to function and gain authority.25

Statelessness as a strategy of survival

The third factor behind the rise of stateless groups is that it is becoming highly desirable not to have a state. A state is a target that can be threatened, and hence pressured, deterred and, if necessary, destroyed. The greater the capability of nations to destroy one another, and of the great powers in particular, the more dangerous it is to have a state, especially for groups whose goal is to challenge the existing powers. The state becomes a burden because it has to be defended, a difficult task when, as today, world power is unbalanced.

The advantages of being stateless, therefore, increase when there is a state, or empire, that has clear military superiority.26 To put it differently, for a great power the price of military supremacy is the rise of an enemy that tries to avoid presenting a target by maximizing his ability to seek cover, to conceal, and to disperse.27 The best way to do so is by avoiding the institutions and territory that, combined with the responsibility to protect and organize a society as well as the industrial and economic infrastructure, come with a state. Unlike a modern state, a decentralized, dispersed, and stateless actor is better suited to act without the danger of retaliation. The rise of terrorist networks associated with al Qaeda, therefore, can be seen as a response to the clear supremacy enjoyed by the U.S. in the last two decades of the 20th century.  

The desire to avoid the burden of the state is noticeable among even the most powerful and effective groups. For instance, though probably capable of taking over the weak central government of Lebanon, Hezbollah has preferred to maintain its sub-state role, thereby limiting its responsibility and hence its vulnerability to attacks. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in May 2008, “We don’t want authority in Lebanon. . . . We don’t want to control Lebanon.”28  Having a state would most likely weaken the ability of Hezbollah to attack Israel, whose military forces could find easy targets. As it is, Hezbollah can fade away when necessary, leaving Israel to choose whether to punish the country of Lebanon and its people or try to find the concealed and dispersed Hezbollah fighters. In brief, it is difficult to bomb, and thus coerce and deter, stateless actors. Statelessness provides impunity from the retaliatory actions of a powerful state.

Extreme goals and absolute ideas

The fourth reason why so many groups prefer to be stateless is that the goals they pursue often tend to be absolute, inspired by religious zeal or ideological extremism. Controlling a nation will not satisfy those objectives because it almost always requires political compromises. No country can ever attain the perfection of the ideal, and all countries are certainly limited in their ability to implement religious or other absolute ideas. The state is therefore a source of deep dissatisfaction to those who want to use it as a means to pursue their extremist goals. Islamic fundamentalists, according to Olivier Roy, “distrust the state. Their quest for a strict implementation of sharia with no concession to man-made law pushes them to reject the modern state in favour of a kind of ‘libertarian’ view of the state: the state is a lesser evil but is not the tool for implementing Islam.”29 The disappointment with political Islam leads them to the search for a globalized umma, a stateless community of believers.30  Moreover, this process of rejecting the state starts a cycle of radicalization: Because a radical idea can never be fully implemented through the state, the group that believes in it will globalize its efforts (and become deterritorialized and stateless), and in turn it can become even more radical because it does not need to compromise its goals.

Furthermore, the zeal that characterizes extremists is not a substitute for administrative skills. The everyday functioning of a state requires managers, not charismatic advocates for a millenarian cause that can perhaps move a mass of people in the pursuit of a distant and thrilling objective but cannot motivate people to work in a bureaucracy. An analogous situation arises in business settings when innovators need to implement their concepts by seeking financing, new markets, and production processes. Start-ups then often have to search for seasoned managers to administer their rise because innovators have lots of ideas but not always the experience or interest necessary to turn them into a working reality.

Finally, a state is not a good fit for those who pursue niche, narrow objectives. The technologies mentioned above allow the formation of groups that are held together by an often very narrow concern (ranging from worries about carbon footprints to human rights to anti-American sentiments, etc.). Such groups have no interest in establishing a state not only because their members are most likely to be geographically dispersed but also because no larger idea (whether ethnic or cultural similarity, or broader political or social aspirations) unites the various members.

The reluctance of these groups to seek a state of their own is surprising to us. Our modern mindset, shaped by the often tragic experiences of stateless groups of the past two or three centuries, assumes that the highest political objective — and the best tool to achieve anything else — is the state. This is no longer the case. Establishing a state would weaken these groups, diminish their appeal and ideological purity, and create serious vulnerabilities for them. Statelessness is a form of power.

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.


1   To a degree, this is not a novel trend. Many have noticed the rise of nonstate groups and their growing influence in international relations, but most often this trend has been seen as a beneficial development leading to the rise of a global civil society, pressuring states to behave in a more appropriate way. As Jessica T. Matthews observed ten years ago, “A world that is more adaptable and in which power is more diffuse could mean more peace, justice, and capacity to manage the burgeoning list of humankind’s interconnected problems.” Jessica T. Matthews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs> (January/February 1997).

2   Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (Blackwell, 1992), 29–30

3   Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors(Princeton University Press, 1996).

4   Janice Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (Princeton University Press, 1996).

5   On the rise of networks as effective forms of social organizations and their impact on war, see John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar (rand, mr-789-osd, 1996); John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (rand, mr-1382-osd, 2001). On how new technologies will (or should) impact U.S. war-fighting, see Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” Proceedings (January 1998); Thomas Rid, “War 2.0,” Policy Review (Web Special, February 2007), available at http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/5956806.html. This and all subsequent online citations accessed March 6, 2009).

6   Geoffrey A. Fowler, “‘Citizen Journalists’ Evade Blackout on Myanmar News,” Wall Street Journal (September 28, 2007); Ben Arnoldy, “Downloading the Burma Uprising: Did It Help?,” Christian Science Monitor (October 3 2007).

7   Maria Fam, “Egyptian Political Dissent Unites Through Facebook,” Wall Street Journal (May 5, 2008).

8   On the “open-source” nature of terrorism and insurgency, see John Robb, “The Open-Source War,” New York Times (October 15, 2005); John Robb, Brave New War (Wiley, 2007).

9   Sherif Mansour, “Egypt’s Facebook Showdown,” Los Angeles Times (June 2, 2008).

10  See Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (O’Reilly Media, 2001); Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Harvard University Press, 2004).

11   Audrey Kurth Cronin, “Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levée en Masse,” Parameters (Summer 2006); Timothy L. Thomas, “Cyber Mobilization: A Growing Counterinsurgency Campaign,” IOSphere (Summer 2006), available at http://leav-www.army.mil/fmso/documents/cyber-mobilization.pdf

12   See also, Madeleine Gruen, “Online social networks expand a sense of community among members and supporters of extremists groups” (June 9, 2008), available at http://counterterrorismblog.org/2008/06/online_social_networks_expand.php

13   Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired, 12:10 (October 2004), available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

14   Egyptian authorities, for instance, had most likely infiltrated the Facebook group of activists, many of whom were arrested and intimidated. See Ellen Knickmeyer, “Fledgling Rebellion on Facebook is Struck Down by Force in Egypt,” Washington Post (May 18, 2008).

15 Bruce W. Don, et al., “Network Technologies for Networked Terrorists” (rand, 2007), Chapter 3, 49–64, and 66.

16 See, for instance, K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

17 Deborah Avant, The Market for Force (Cambridge University Press, 2005); P.W. Singer, Corporate Warriors (Cornell University Press, 2007).

18 For good histories of these developments, see William McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (University of Chicago Press, 1982); Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1988); Macgregor Knox and Williamson Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). A good recent book is Max Boot, War Made New (Gotham Books, 2006).

19  Noah Shachtman, “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social — Not Electronic,” Wired15:12(November 27, 2007), available at http://www.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/15-12/ff_futurewar .

20  For instance, uavs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have received great attention in the past few years, as they are deployed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq with increasingly greater effectiveness and lethality. Yet, some of these platforms can be built with off-the-shelf material and can be used by individuals with little training. See the site diydrones at http://diydrones.com/.

21  As the U.S. military calls it, “full spectrum dominance” is based on “dominant maneuver,” “precision engagement,” “focused logistics,” and “full dimensional protection,” all of which require investment in new state-of-art technologies. The assumption behind this vision seems to be that a) it is possible to achieve clear and unchallenged superiority (or even dominance) over potential enemies, and b) this can be attained only by a state with massive resources, such as the U.S. See U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Vision2020 (2000), available at http://www.dtic.mil/jointvision/jvpub2.htm.

22  Rick Atkinson, “Left of Boom,” Washington Post (September 30–October 3, 2007), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/specials/leftofboom/index.html .

23  This is particularly the case for small arms, which are widely available. As a rand monograph observes, maritime piracy is on the rise because, among other reasons, “the global proliferation of small arms has provided pirates (as well as terrorists and other criminal elements) with an enhanced means to operate on a more destructive and sophisticated level.” Peter Chalk, “The maritime dimension of international security: terrorism, piracy, and challenges for the United States,” rand Monograph 697 (2008), xii. Available online at http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG697/. On modern piracy, see also Gal Luft and Anne Korin, “Terrorism Goes to Sea,” Foreign Affairs 83:6 (November/December 2004); Martin Murphy, “Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrorism,” Adelphi Paper388 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007); Martin Murphy, “Suppression of Piracy and Maritime Terrorism,” Naval War College Review60:3 (Summer 2007).

24  As some have observed, a further goal of these groups, as in the case of Al-Qaeda, is perhaps to spur the target state to react (or rather, overreact) to an attack in a way that would lead to its weakening. See James Fallows, “Declaring Victory,” Atlantic Monthly (September 2006).

25  As David Kilcullen points out, in many cases, especially in Europe, the objective of terrorist groups is subversion, an early stage in the struggle between extremists and states. See David Kilcullen, “Subversion and Countersubversion in the Campaign against Terrorism in Europe,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism30 (2007).

26  It has been often observed that asymmetric war and terrorism are tools of the poor. This is true on the tactical as well as the larger, strategic level. Statelessness is an asset of those who cannot, or do not want to, challenge directly a great power.

27 On the tactics of “cover, conceal, and disperse,” see also Stephen Biddle, “The Past as Prologue: Assessing Theories of Future Warfare,” Security Studies, 8:1 (Autumn 1998).

28  Robert F. Worth, “Hezbollah Leader Plays Down Group’s Political Aims in Lebanon,” New York Times (May 27, 2008).

29  Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam (Columbia University Press, 2004), 281.

30  Arguably, taking control over states (Russia, East European states, and so on) was the worst development for communism. The reality could never approach the ideal no matter how much violence was used, and disillusionment was inevitable. It is perhaps not coincidental that communist ideals fared better on the Left Bank of Paris or parts of Italy, for example, where communists could not rule a state.

31  See Moises Naim, Illicit (Anchor Books, span class="smallcaps">2005); Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty: Gangs and Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) in Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil (U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, January 2008).

32  Mark Valencia, “The Proliferation Security Initiative: Making Waves in Asia,” Adelphi Paper376 (iiss, 2005); Andrew Winner, “The Proliferation Security Initiative: The New Face of Interdiction,” Washington Quarterly, 28:2 (Spring 2005).

33  See Kilcullen, “Subversion and Countersubversion in the Campaign against Terrorism in Europe.”

34  A clear example, on a small scale, is the installation of solar-powered street lights in Fallujah in late 2007. This had the effect not only of freeing electricity for individual houses but also, most importantly, of making it difficult for the insurgents to turn the streets dark at night.

35  On the role of cities as ungovernable spaces and thus sources of instability, see Phil Williams, From The New Middles Ages to A New Dark Age: The Decline of The State and U.S. Strategy (U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, June 2008), 21–27.

36  Spencer S. Hsu, “U.S. Struggles to Rank Potential Terror Targets,” Washington Post (July 16, 2006).

37  Judith Miller, “On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism,” City Journal (Summer 2007), available at http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_3_preventing_terrorism.html

38  A Concept for Distributed Operations (usmc, April 25, 2005), I; David Ucko, “Countering Insurgents through Distributed Operations: Insights from Malaya 1948–1960,” Journal of Strategic Studies30:1 (February 2007).

39  Marc Bloch, for instance, describes how the clergy armed itself against warrior groups that arose in the Middle Ages. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (University of Chicago, 1964). See also Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities (Princeton University Press, 1969), 66–70.

40  John H. Herz, “Rise and Demise of the Territorial State,” World Politics9:4 (July 1957).