(Title shamelessly stolen from commenter “Mr. Evilwrench.”)
When I first wrote my piece on WikiLeaks, discussing their actions in the context of geopolitics, I grasped at the edge of a much, much larger picture. I compared them to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups — in that they have taken on some of the powers and roles heretofore relegated to nation-states. Where the terrorists are acting as a military, WikiLeaks is an intelligence service — stealing our secrets and disseminating them among our enemies, as well as sowing dissent among our allies.
In both cases, as in many others, we are seeing a phenomenon evolve that is very, very ominous: the democratization of power.
For a couple of centuries, the model of the world’s geopolitical structure has been the nation-state. That has been the apex of social, economic, scientific, and military power. The only threat to a nation-state was another nation-state (or coalition of nation-states). It literally took a nation to harness the power to damage, conquer, or destroy another nation.
But coupled with that power were limitations and vulnerabilities. Nations had interests; they could be threatened or bribed or reasoned into using or not using their powers. In that model, the Cold War brought that balancing act to its ultimate expression: MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. Several nations — first the US — had developed weapons to the point of being able to destroy other nations utterly. Then others did the same, and the peace was (by and large) preserved by the threat: take us out, and you go, too. The United States and the Soviet Union held each others’ citizenry hostage under the threat of nuclear annihilation to guarantee the others’ good conduct.
But within that Cold War, there was still fighting. Proxy wars were fought around the world. And in the shadows, an all-too-deadly game of Spy vs. Spy was fought.
Even there, there were rules. Traitors were tried, convicted, and executed. But each others’ officers were, generally, respected; they were traded back, often for officers of the other side or other concessions. These weren’t always followed, but certainly more often than not.
It was an uneasy peace, and the world teetered on a razor’s edge over Armageddon, but we survived it. And, even better, the good guys won.
In the aftermath of that cold war, we have seen a tremendous rise in non-state actors begin to take on some of the prerogatives of nation-states. One correspondent of mine (whom I would rather not name, but he/she/it goes by the initials of Q.i.a.B.) pointed me to this article from Foreign Policy Magazine, published back in 2003.
In that article, Moises Naim cites five examples where non-state actors are starting to take on the roles and powers of nation-states, occasionally to the point of threatening the survival of the nation-state in which they live: drug cartels, arms traders, human traffickers, intellectual property piracy, and money laundering. To that I would add actual piracy on the high seas.
It all ties in to the common theme: the dissolution of the power of the contemporary nation-state. In Mexico, the drug cartels are threatening the very existence of their government. Arms smugglers empower groups to be able to directly challenge the power of a government. Human traffickers assail the border security and policies of a nation (geography being one of the defining elements of a nation). Intellectual property pirates assault the economy of nations. Money launderers, like arms smugglers, empower non-state groups. And pirates also threaten the economies of nations, as well as sap resources from other places as we fight them.
This is aided and abetted by many nations around the world, the ones I consider “illegitimate” and others term “rogue.” They enjoy the rights and privileges of being a nation-state, but their despots shirk the responsibilities and obligations that should come with them. North Korea and Iran come to mind — they consider the concept of sovereignty a unique possession: theirs is inviolate, others’ is something that only exists by their sufferance. They want the protections and respect due a “sovereign state,” but refuse to acknowledge that others have the same rights.
So they enable these rogue actors, these non-governments. They feed them resources and intelligence and encouragement, helping them wreak havoc on a global scale. I’ve named two, but there are plenty of other nations around the world who have seen how useful these free-lancers can be towards achieving their common purpose.
But above all those rogue nations, there is one force in the world that gives the most aid and comfort to the rogue groups. One body that has done more to push the assault on the contemporary nation-state than any other:
The United Nations.
The UN has, for years, tried to establish itself as a super-government, the body to which sovereign nations can be called to account for their deeds. It has taken upon itself many of the prerogatives of a nation-state: it levies taxes (in the form of “dues”), it has a military (the U. N. “Peacekeepers”), it recognizes a judicial system (The World Court), it exchanges ambassadors, it has departments that parallel government agencies, and so on. It is, essentially, a super-nation.
But without the burdens of being a nation. It is a governing body that doesn’t have any citizens.
And it is run in a near-pure form of democracy, perverted in obscene ways. In the general assembly, all nations are equal. Even the rogue nations. Absolute dictatorships are treated exactly the same as free democracies. And as there are a lot more dictatorships than democracies, the free nations often find themselves outvoted.
One classic example is the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is the body that evaluates and reports on the status of fundamental human rights in every nation on earth. Its current membership includes such stalwart guardians of human rights as Libya, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Cuba.
This is the equivalent of instituting pure democracy in a prison. How long will it take for the warden to be removed from office, if all the inmates and guards get to vote? And what will happen to the warden and guards after that first and last election?
That is why I was relieved to hear that the State Department had been engaged in espionage at the United Nations, against the United Nations. It was one thing done by Hillary Clinton (or, at least, in her name) that I can wholeheartedly endorse. “Gentlemen don’t read each others’ mail?” It was bullshit nearly a century ago, and is bullshit today.
There is a need for an international body, a transnational quasi-governmental institution. But its membership should not be open to all. All nations and all governments are NOT equal. We need a League of Democracies, open only to those nations.
In the meantime, however, we are still left with the dilemma: what to do with these rogue groups that are taking on some of the powers and rights heretofore reserved for nation-states, but shirking the obligations and responsibilities that have been heretofore indivisibly intertwined with the powers?
One solution — near and dear to the hearts of many on the left — is to treat the rogues as criminals. We have laws, they break the laws, we punish them. Very simple.
The problem is, they are not criminals, in the traditional sense. Yes, they are breaking laws, but their intent is not to break the law. Their intent is much greater, and the normal deterrents we use against criminals are utterly meaningless. For example, had the 9/11 hijackers been caught before they crashed the airplanes, they would have faced life in prison for their crimes. Perhaps, even, death. But their deaths were an intrinsic part of their plans. No legal deterrent would have mattered in the least.
My solution is simple: once a group starts asserting its right to act like a nation-state, we treat them as such. When terrorists declare war on the United States, we wage war against them. When free-lance spies start conducting espionage and sabotage against us, we treat them just like we would spies of a hostile nation.
The protected status of civilians, under the nation-state model, is contingent on an oft-overlooked, implied restriction: that the civilians act like civilians. That they conduct themselves as civilians, and not actors. That they refrain from taking actions that are restricted to actual agents of a nation-state.
To my way of thinking, once you stop acting like a civilian, you’ve voluntarily forfeited the protections thereof. A terrorist is not entitled to be treated as a captured criminal, or a prisoner of war.
To repeat my earlier point: once you demand to play in the big leagues, you play by those rules. You don’t get to bring your T-Ball stand and aluminum bat to the World Series.
We need to recognize the dangers being posed by these rogue actors, recognize those rogue states who are empowering and enabling them, and recognize the many bodies that are protecting the rogue actors and rogue nations.
And once they’re recognized, we need to develop ways to properly deal with them.
Or we can simply accept defeat.
I’m not ready for that. And, I suspect, neither are the majority of my fellow Americans.