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Philip C. Bobbitt

  • Distinguished Senior Lecturer

Virtual States Are a New, Elusive Threat

by Philip Bobbitt
Time Magazine, September 9, 2002
Reprinted with the author's permission

It may someday be said that the 21st century began on Sept. 11, 2001. That will be true if the attacks turn out to be harbingers of a new, epochal war and the extreme change in the constitutional order that follows such a war. Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks that day, represents a new and profoundly dangerous kind of organization—one that might be called a "virtual state." The virtual state has many of the characteristics of other states (a trained standing army and intelligence cadre; a treasury and a source of revenue; a civil service and even a rudimentary welfare system for the families of its fighters) but is borderless; it declares wars, makes alliances with other states and is global in scope but lacks a definable location on the map. On Sept. 11, a virtual state proved that modern societies are vulnerable as never before—vulnerable because both the advanced technologies and civil openness they have worked so successfully to develop can be used against them. The U.S. has learned over the years how to deter threats from adversaries like the Soviet Union; now it must learn how to stop the more elusive threat posed by virtual states. To understand how protracted such struggles can be, it's worth taking a quick look back.

The 20th century is often said to have begun on Aug. 1, 1914, with the opening attacks of what became the Long War—a war that eventually encompassed the First and Second World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the cold war. When the Long War finally ended, with the reunification of Germany and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, we thought we would have peace because we had resolved the question that bound all these wars into one: What form of the nation-state—fascist, communist or parliamentarian—would succeed the imperial states of the 19th century? When this was answered by the triumph of parliamentarian democracy, some thought the "end of history" had come, that the struggle to achieve a final constitutional order had ended.

But what was ending was not history itself but the history of the nation-state—a constitutional order characterized by governments that promised to better the material well-being of a historically defined people. F.D.R., Stalin and Hitler each promised this, even if they had radically different notions of what constituted a nation and how to achieve the objective. Yet within the triumph of the parliamentary nation-state lay the seeds of its eventual demise. A universal system of human rights defied its sovereignty and undermined its ability to control its citizens. An international system of trade and finance removed its control over national currencies. Global communications threatened its national cultures. Transnational threats such as AIDS or the depletion of the ozone layer were beyond the scope of any nation-state to control. And the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction rendered hopelessly inadequate the notion of defending national borders from invading armies.

From this perspective, we can appreciate the real significance of Sept. 11. It wasn't simply an act of terror. After all, there have been terrorist attacks before; indeed, many in Europe believe that the only thing new about the September attacks is that they happened to Americans. In fact, something of immense significance happened that day, not just to America but to the entire world. For five centuries it has taken a state to destroy another state. Only a state could raise the revenues, muster the armies and organize the logistics required to threaten the survival of another state. Soon this will no longer be true, owing to advances in computer technology, communications and weapons of mass destruction. We are entering a period in which a small number of people, operating without overt state sponsorship but using the enormous power of modern computers, biogenetic pathogens, air transport and even small nuclear weapons, will be able to exploit the tremendous vulnerabilities of contemporary open societies. Because the origin of these attacks can be effectively disguised, fundamental tenets of the nation-state will change.

Deterrence, for example, which has been the core of U.S. national-security policy for decades, depends on the threat of retaliation, which in turn depends on knowing who and where your enemy is. When agents of a shadowy virtual state obtain weapons of mass destruction, we face an adversary not subject to conventional deterrence. In this new world, then, deterrence must be supplemented by strategies that rely on defense, focus on reducing our vulnerabilities and include the option of pre-emptive attack. It is not fear of attack from Iraq that moves the Bush Administration to seek a regime change there and to threaten a first strike. After all, the U.S. was able to deter the Soviet Union; it should not have much trouble deterring Iraq. The real fear is that such an enemy may seek to coerce the U.S. by passing weapons of mass destruction to a virtual state such as al-Qaeda, which cannot be deterred.

If Sept. 11 is the forerunner of a new world conflict, coping with the conflict could bring a new constitutional order in its wake. In the 21st century, what might be called "market states" could replace nation-states. Market states will have the same borders and political systems as nation-states but will shift important responsibilities from government to the private sector; multinational corporations will become surrogate agents of government, filling roles that government can no longer play and blurring the boundaries between political and corporate leadership. Because the market is private, global and transactional, market states are better able than nation-states to cope with a war that is partly private, partly international and partly defensive, as future wars will be.

The U.S. is already evolving into a market state, though the process will take decades to complete. For example, a market state shifts reliance from the law- and regulation-based approach of the nation-state to the incentives of the marketplace. Already industry is being deregulated; welfare reform has replaced more generous unemployment compensation with education intended to enable the unemployed to compete in the labor market; an all-volunteer army has replaced the draft.

The evolution will continue. Because private companies manage most of the critical infrastructures of the developed world, market states will be forced to integrate the private sector into strategic planning. They will have to develop international patterns of cooperation—pooling intelligence, for instance—or lose the war against virtual states and terrorism. Above all, market states will change the premise of governing: unable to deliver on the promise of ever increasing well-being for all, states will promise only to increase opportunity and minimize the risk for all as best they can. And because markets are not effective at encouraging such positive collective behaviors as loyalty, civility, respect for family life, reverence for sacrifice or regard for privacy, the evolution toward market states will require societies to find new ways to encourage these public goods. Although many Americans see a trade-off between security and civil liberties, in my view only a stronger state can protect our civil liberties against virtual states and other 21st century threats.

Sept. 11 would have happened sooner or later. We should be grateful that it came before our adversaries had nuclear weapons with which to attack us. War cannot be outlawed; like law, war is a function of the state, which was created to establish law and make war. Like death, war will come when it will come. But we can perhaps choose which kind of war to fight, deflecting the most terrible and accepting the most burdensome if this is necessary to protect us, our allies and our way of living.

The U.S. could help determine which kind of Long War comes. It could be characterized by aging nation-states trying to fight off rising market states, with a virtual state entering into an unofficial alliance with one side or another. More likely it will see clashes between competing forms of market states. It may be a chronic war of low-intensity interventions—police actions on humanitarian grounds, to undergird states in which law has collapsed, or against terrorism. Or this war could be a series of regional cataclysms, perhaps between nuclear powers on the Indian subcontinent or in Northeast Asia or the Middle East. The war could even come between regions, perhaps between great powers that launch disguised cyberattacks on one another's infrastructure—then see the hacking and disruption escalate into armed conflict.

When the U.S. withdraws from the leadership role that it alone can play in world affairs, it makes cataclysms within regions more likely, as we have seen in the Middle East. When we act unilaterally in defiance of our allies, we increase the likelihood of the third and potentially most dangerous sort of war—between regions and even great powers. But if we accept the responsibility of organizing coalitions to fight a chronic, low-intensity war such as the one we are fighting against al-Qaeda, we make bigger conflicts less likely. Virtual states like al-Qaeda are the potential enemy of all because they are the neighbors of all.

Does this mean that there will be no peace because there will always be terrorists, even when al-Qaeda is defeated and its allies chastened? No. The phrase War Against Terrorism is an unfortunate choice of titles for the current conflict because it calls to mind pseudo wars that never end, such as the War on Drugs or the War on Crime. But this war will end, so perhaps a better name for it would be the First Terrorist War. It is far too soon to say when it will end or whether our constitutional survival will hang in the balance. But many things will change before we will again know the peace we took for granted before Sept. 11.

Philip Bobbitt is the author of "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History"

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Philip C. Bobbitt

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