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War and Peace in a Nonstate World

Abhijnan Rej - 10th December 2013
War and Peace in a Nonstate World

Abhijnan Rej suggests that 18th and 19th century historians may be ideally placed to recognise the emergence of powerful nonstate blocs and the tensions they may bring to global politics.

The recent projections of the US National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (hereafter, 2030 NIC report) released late last year has already become a subject of great interest, particularly with its inclusion of new technologies as one of the possible 'Game Changers' as well as that of nonstate worlds in their 'Potential Worlds' scenario. One of the most interesting comments on the report was an OpEd piece by Parag Khanna in the New York Times last month provocatively titled The End of Nation-State? Khanna argued that instead of waiting for 2030 for the nonstate world to shape up, we can already find ample evidence of them around the globe in form of ‘Special Economic’ or ‘Free Trade Zones’ (hereafter, SEZs). These zones—from Africa to the Arab World to China and on to Central America—operate under minimal fiscal supervision from the parent-state and exist purely to maximize profits for entrepreneurs who might be willing to invest there.

At the same time, other nonstate actors—wealthy and powerful individuals, multi- and transnational companies, influential ‘ideas shops’ and even emerging cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—are becoming ever more important in any discussion of the future global balance of power, both economic and political. As has been noted by many (including the 2030 NIC report), in a lot of ways the world today resembles Europe of late eighteenth century with its heady mix of new technologies and private individuals and institutions deriving their power from it, powerful multinational companies like the East India Company and nation-states struggling to contain dissatisfaction and dissent within their ‘great unwashed masses’, to steal a phrase. In more ways than one and not without irony, a study commissioned by the American intelligence community--the 2030 NIC report--looks like an homage to the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution 1789—1848.

Tectonic socio-economic shifts such as the ones we are bearing witness to almost axiomatically open the world up to newer forms of conflict. As a matter of fact, the 2030 NIC report itself points out that the emergence of the nonstate world has the potential to make the world more uneven and perhaps even conflict-prone. This is not surprising at all as the newly powerful and the old divisions (societal, cultural and economic) will inevitably clash, each to assert or reassert its place in the new scheme of things.

The picture that emerges for the security environment of 2030 is multifold and multistage—Nonstate entities such as SEZs might vie to be more independent and be willing to assert themselves further in front of their parent-states thereby becoming parastates in themselves. Groups of ideologically-driven malcontents (whether they are Islamic radicals in the Middle East or the Naxalite extremists in rural tribal India) will view nonstate actors and entities as symbols of relinquishment of the old status-quo and lash out at them as well as the parent-state for what they will perceive as the latter’s divestment at best and betrayal at worst. Nation-states will struggle to define and redefine their military and security-strategic assessments in light of both and also it terms of their diminished cachet. Finally old security alliances such as NATO will either lose much of their relevance, to be replaced by newer more heterogeneous arrangements forged around parent-states of SEZs or refashion themselves to this new reality.

The easiest guess in this new world will be about how nation-states themselves will define their security strategies. In a final break with the security policies dated the end of the Second World War, the US will move away from bulky cost-ineffective power-projecting deployments to focussing on surgical and kinetic strikes capabilities though special operations forces designed to protect their commercial interests and “here-and-now” security problems like terrorist attacks. (For an insightful account of the future of US Special Operations Forces, Linda Robinson’s CFR report is indispensable.)

Parts of the world that open up new opportunities for commerce and resource exploration will be placed under separate geographical commands, such as the newly established US AFRICOM. In the same vein, the militarization of intelligence community as an instrument of state power will become an irreversible trend, the process of traditional intelligence gathering and analysis to be outsourced to private vendors or state-sponsored think tanks. For the remaining few potential geopolitical flash-points (such as Taiwan and the East China Sea), the only area inside the US armed forces that is going to see an expansion is the Navy (as a mirror tactic to Chinese strategy for the PLA Navy.)

Nonstate entities formally occupying geographical space will also develop their own security strategy to protect their own interests (which may or may not converge any longer with their parent-states’). SEZs in politically-volatile parts of the world, such as the Middle East, will rely on private security contracting firms to provide end-to-end services. Like the establishment of the AFRICOM, we already have one example of this: the relocation of the formerly-known Blackwater’s chief Erik Prince to Abu Dhabi in an (admittedly undisclosed) advisory capacity; Abu Dhabi is home to one of the largest SEZs in the world. Noting that the easiest way to target infrastructure-rich areas in the twenty-first century is through the cyberspace, SEZs will also heavily invest in counter-cyber terrorism. (Already city-states like Singapore that are de facto more like an SEZ in nature than a conventional Westphallian nation-state have taken serious initiatives in the cyber terror/cyber espionage space.)

Whenever the interests of these nonstate actors converge with those of the state, we can expect to see an enhanced version of the military-private sector cooperation we saw beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it is inevitable that the state will be extremely reluctant to see completely private ‘boots on the ground’ in a conflict situation. Gazing a little bit more deeply into the crystal ball, it is not hard to see a situation in which a nonstate entity on the verge of becoming a parastate is forcibly dissolved. This is most likely to happen in aftermath of an acute conflict situation involving the potentate parastate and a third actor. (Again, the historical analogy here is with the British Crown formally dissolving the East India Company after the native soldiers’ mutiny in India in 1857.)

The futures for international security arrangements like NATO are clear: if the nonstate world matures enough to hold political sway over their parent-states, these security arrangements will most certainly be refashioned to serve economic (as opposed to political) interests. At the same time, an alternative future for these security arrangements is that they will be replaced en bloc by newer arrangements governed and managed by nonstate entities in collaboration with parent-states sharing common commercial interests. A logical contrapositive of this argument is that security treaties that are not aligned with the new geoeconomic reality will most definitely be rendered meaningless.

This last point brings us to an important question: in a nonstate world, could Edward Luttwak’s definition of geoeconomics as the application of the ‘logic of conflict’ to the ‘grammar of commerce’ be inverted? With powerful nonstate economic entities such as SEZs spread throughout the globe and geographically situated in many different countries, will the grammar of commerce finally outweigh the logic of conflict? Most likely so. By their construction, SEZs are mutually dependent on each other. (It is not a surprise that the largest and the most powerful of them boast of the biggest airports and seaports.) As they grow bigger in size, their size of their mutual dependence will most likely outweigh any potential full-blown war between the host/parent-states. In many ways these nonstate actors are our best hedges against global conflict.

War and peace in a nonstate world of 2030 will be a subject of an odd mix of detente and division and of the private and the public. To come back to the beginning then, as strange as the scenarios above might appear on the first glance, the 18th and 19th century historian might recognize it more familiarly than a 21st century political analyst. And this historical ‘look back option’ is the best chance we have to understand and chart the world ahead.


Abhijnan Rej is a technologist with Tata Consultancy Services Ltd by profession and writes about systemic risks, national security, geopolitics and technology innovation as an avocation. All views expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect or purport to reflect the views of his employers.