Lines in the Sand

Lines in the Sand

Mini Teaser: A nation-state’s borders are not sacrosanct. Failed states should be fragmented into more governable parts.

by Author(s): Robert DelahuntyJohn Yoo

We owe to Rousseau the insight that if there were no nation-states there would be no wars, and to Hobbes the insight that without nation-states there would be no domestic order. Foreign policy choices often involve judgments about the lesser of these two evils. Over the next several years, the United States must decide whether its interests are better served by trying to preserve threatened nation-states or by dismantling them-not least in the case of Iraq.

Many welcome the decline of the nation-state, urging reliance on international institutions and networks-both public and private-to create a more peaceful world instead. Solutions to international challenges will come from the United Nations and the European Union first, and nations second. But as the nation-state declines, transnational terrorist networks rise; as nationalism recedes, tribalism and violent religious extremism take its place. Failed or dysfunctional states have become breeding grounds for civil wars, genocide and other atrocities, terrorism, famine and the spread of lethal diseases. Spillovers can profoundly impact the developed world.

Since September 11, failed or dysfunctional states have become the central challenge to American foreign policy and national security-a point rightly noted in  these pages last year by former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger.  [1] Had Afghanistan not been a failed state, its government might not have harbored Al-Qaeda. Had Iraq not been governed by a tyrannical clique of warlords, it might not have posed a threat to its neighbors and its own people.

The policy of the United States has been to maintain, by force if necessary, nation-states within their pre-existing, "internationally recognized" borders: either "nation-building" (Afghanistan) or "nation-reconstruction" (Iraq). But even before September 11, state failure was a critical national security concern. The United States slowly came to grips with the collapse of states such as Yugoslavia and sought to restore some semblance of functioning order in others such as Haiti, Rwanda and even Somalia. Throughout, the United States has shown a bias in favor of maintaining the status quo that may stretch back to the administration of the first President Bush, if not before.

We have not only sought to restore or impose a nation-state framework in troubled areas. We have also sought to transplant the democratic model of the nation-state that the United States embodies: a model of democracy that tempers majority rule with substantial protections for minorities and with guarantees of individual rights, private property and markets. While President Bush sounds almost millennial in praising the blessings of democracy and individual liberty, there are more practical reasons for the policy: Our government spreads democracy because it believes that democracy enhances American national security and stabilizes the international system, thus reducing the need for the United States to intervene abroad. For the Bush Administration, it has been the democratic nation-state or nothing.

While our current foreign policy leaders have not fully explained the mechanism by which democracy promotes international peace, the link may exist for three reasons. First, some studies indicate that democracies do not go to war with each other-so the more democracies there are in the world, the fewer threats there will be to the United States. Second, democracy is believed to encourage a market economy, which generates prosperity and therefore less desire for foreign conflict. Third, democracies are thought to discourage violence in favor of peaceable methods of debate, negotiation and compromise. Democracies, it is assumed, will refuse to heed the calls of extremist factions for wars against either the near (Shi‘a or Sunni) or far (Israeli or American) enemy. The United States's strategy of constructing democratic nation-states is thus designed to find an escape from the Hobbes-Rousseau conundrum and lead to a more stable, prosperous and peaceful world.

We agree that nation-states, because of their ability to police their borders and populations, remain the most reliable means of advancing international security in the end. Likewise, we think that the pro-democracy component of the overall U.S. strategy makes sense. But the United States and its NATO allies have made the mistake of believing that because the nation-state structure and democratic governance generally promote international security, every territory and people should be governed by a democratic nation-state. This belief is flawed because it assumes that, once given the opportunity to participate democratically as equal citizens in deciding questions of public policy, local populations will be induced to transcend identities of race, tribe or sect and to surmount a history of isolation and mistrust. But how can such trust be established before a viable democratic nation-state is in place?

In a region like the Middle East, where powerful group identities have been entrenched by centuries of conflict, the cost of being mistaken in trusting the good intentions of an historic enemy can be deadly. Hence we see outcomes like that so far in postwar Iraq: Until such time as a national government is strong enough to quell warring militias and police the streets, the promise of democracy will not overcome the historic antagonisms of the Shi‘a-Sunni rivalry; but no functioning, democratic national government can be securely established until the Shi‘a and Sunni communities have learned to trust each other.

Essay Types: Essay