04 September 2014
Magazine issue 2985.
Islamic State is more like a postmodern network than a nation state – so we’ll need new tactics to deal with it
FOR most of the past thousand years, there were no nations in Europe. It was a hotchpotch of tribal groupings, feudal kingdoms, autonomous cities and trading networks. Over time, the continent’s ever more complex societies and industries required ever more complex governance; with the French Revolution, the modern nation state was born.
Now the nation’s time may be drawing to a close, according to those who look at society through the lenses of complexity theory and human behaviour. There is plentiful evidence for this once you start looking (see “End of nations: Is there an alternative to countries?“). Consider the European Union, which is trying – much to the disapproval of many Europeans – to transcend its member nations.
Is this a prospect to welcome or dread? One possible reaction is a resurgence of nationalism, based in the desire to consolidate a perceived common identity. Russia’s bellicosity in eastern Ukraine, for example, was supposedly intended to protect the interests of Russian speakers – a transnational act in itself.
Some believe, instead, that the medieval way of running things is due for a comeback. For much of the Middle Ages, power was wielded by city states, like Florence and Hamburg, and by mercantile associations like the Hanseatic League. Reinventing this system might not sound like progress, especially to those who mistrust the overweening power of cities like London or bodies like the World Trade Organization, but it has its pluses. The governors of big cities oversee most of the world’s inhabitants, share many concerns and are often freer to act than national governments.
Small nations could also thrive, particularly if they distinguish themselves through high-tech expertise (New Scientist, 31 May 2014, p 12). Witness how talk of “going it alone” around the imminent Scottish referendum has often segued into talk of how a politically independent Scotland could maintain its links with England and the EU.
But post-nationalism has its ugly side, too. Islamic State, the extremist movement which has overrun northern Iraq and Syria, is usually described as medieval in a pejorative sense. But it is also hyper-modern, interested in few of the trappings of a conventional state apart from its own brutal brand of law enforcement. In fact, it is more of a network than a nation, having made canny use of social media to exert influence far beyond its geographical base.
Confronted with this post-national threat, the world’s most powerful nations have reacted with something approaching stunned silence. “We have no strategy,” said US president Barack Obama in a rare gaffe. The British government has resorted to “royal prerogative” – a medieval legal instrument if ever there was one – to provide a pretext for controlling the movements of British jihadis. It remains to be seen if this will work: any such action is fraught with complexity under international law.
Thirteen years ago this month, Al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center demonstrated the shortcomings of conventional defences in the face of 21st-century threats. The response was a radical reshaping of the security and military landscape, with effects that are still playing out.
Today, Al-Qaida’s offspring pose a similarly acute challenge to the apparatus of international relations. Even if we decide not to embrace post-nationalism, we’ll have to figure out how to engage with those who do. And we don’t have a thousand years to do it.
This article appeared in print under the headline “State of the nation”