Nailing Jelly to a Wall Part I: The State We Know and Love

As I have been working on other projects Hamas and Israel have fought a little war, the Islamist State has grown seemingly from nowhere, attracting Europe’s passionate youth, and the West have tried to destroy them with the ever-ineffective no-risk no-win strategy of bombing from a great height.

Whenever I’ve wanted to write an article about this I’ve stopped myself.  I can’t talk about the rise of the non-state without first talking about the the state.  Here, then, is the first background statement before coming to grips with what can and can’t be done to the new non-state powers.

“All the news has been about territorial states, not one word about the corporate states. Yet anyone who can count above ten with his shoes on knows where the power is today. Don’t these bloodthirsty jokers know that?”
I said, “Ian, the day we met, you pointed out that there really isn’t any way to hit a corporate state. You spoke of IBM and Russia.”

“That wasn’t quite what I said, Marj. I said that military force was useless against a multinational. Ordinarily, when they war among themselves, the giants use money and proxies and other manoeuverings that involve lawyers and bankers rather than violence. Oh, they sometimes do fight with hired armies but they don’t admit it and it’s not their usual style. But these current jokers are using exactly the weapons with which a multinational can be hit and be hurt: assassination and sabotage.…”

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Those of us in the strategy biz have a term of art: ‘The Westphalian State’. It means the kind of state we’re all used to: passports, postage stamps, national anthems, territory and borders.

Westphalia is a comforting place full of certainties and legitimacy. It is no accident that Candide, Voltaire’s (and Leonard Bernstein’s) naïve wanderer, is from the idyllic land of Westphalia.

This species of state is named for the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648. The salient characteristic of the Westphalian State is that it has hard edges. At the border there are reassuring signs: ‘you are now leaving … ‘ If you’re lucky it has those red and white striped barriers. Everyone knows where it begins and ends.

Westphalian States have internal and external affairs. The settlement of the Treaty of Westphalia said, in essence, that the government of a state could do what it liked within its own borders, but outside its borders it had to interact with other states according to certain rules.

It is the Westphalian concept of statehood that allows dictators to do what they please to ‘their own people’: The internal affairs of a state are no other state’s business.

It is the Westphalian concept of statehood that allows the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Israel to have thriving arms export industries. It is an obscenity to sell modern weapons to a ‘non-state actor’. Only North Korea would do that. But you can sell what you like to a state: States in armed conflict can legitimately use wholesale deadly force against other states. No problem.

It is the Westphalian world which created a clear distinction between combatants and noncombatants and permits the industrial slaughter of combatants (so long as the slaughter is proportional to the military aim) but in theory forbids anyone deliberately to touch a hair on the head of noncombatants.

Westphalia is a comforting place full of certainties and legitimacy. It is no accident that Candide, Voltaire’s (and Leonard Bernstein’s) naïve wanderer, is from the idyllic land of Westphalia.

What is a spy, after all, but a state-sponsored violator of state sovereignty, liable to be killed by the violated state while the violating state who employs her remains inviolate?

There have been open attacks on the Westphalian state in the last hundred years. Stalin, armed with the Marxian vision of a world unified by class and free of the tyranny of states’ rulers, was anti-state when it suited him. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, in attacking Serbia in 1999, were opposing the elected government of Serbia and it’s right to do as it pleased within its own borders.

There have been covert attacks as well. Any number of states have directly or through proxies attempted to arrange changes of go vernment in other states. In fact, much of the world of covert operations has existed in the context of the state and statehood.  What is a spy, after all, but a state-sponsored violator of state sovereignty, liable to be killed by the violated state while the violating state who employs her remains inviolate?

There has in recent years been a notion that the State is an outmoded notion which ought to fall away as humanity moves towards a globally governed world. Some envision a world of Marxian Communist internationalism, some envision a world unified under the rule of Islam. Nationalists around the world, notably in Scotland and Catalonia, beg to differ.

 It is easy to accept that postage stamps, passports, borders and sovereignty are part of the natural human order and always will be.

The internationalism of the historical Left has its limits. The Left has supported Westphalia when it has suited them: upholding the sovereignty of Latin American states when Los Gringos have been active in their back yard, but also declaring or predicting the end of nationalism and nationalisms.

The Iranian regime (at least in theory) advocates widespread revolution to achieve supranational rule under the authority of Twelver Shia Islam’s imam. Iran has nonetheless also been known to display a refined understanding of sovereignty when it has suited Iranian foreign policy.

In spite of these challenges it is easy to imagine that the Westphalian state was ordained by God. It is easy to accept that postage stamps, passports, borders and sovereignty are part of the natural human order and always will be. There is, however, no reason that a model built in the Seventeenth Century should not evolve by the twenty-first.

This summer two states in the Middle East have broken the Westphalian mould: Gaza and the Islamic State. Each has, in its own way, rejected the traditional model over the past years (decades in Hamas’s case) and each has distinct ambitions, aims and methods.

Great and powerful states would be very happy if Hamas and the IS would go away. Something else they have in common is that the great and powerful states appear powerless to make that happen in the short term.

Looking back it seems obvious. In the almost 360 years since the Treaty of Westphalia the modern state has become an increasingly ill-fitting shoe for many of the Earth’s peoples.

One of the aims of Westphalia was to put the mighty army of Swedes into a box marked ‘Sweden’ and have a nation-state in which the King of Sweden only ruled over this Swedish state. Over the course of decades Sweden was squeezed out of its empire and restricted to ruling over people who spoke Swedish. Sweden is, arguably, the ideal Westphalian nation-state.

Nation-states were just what Western Europe wanted: a Denmark filled with Danes, and a France filled with Frenchies. States which weren’t nation-states pretended they were: the Cataláns were made to behave like Spaniards, and the Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Scots were expected to pretend to be English.

European empires were broken up and welded together into provinces and states which, when granted independence, sometimes formed successful states, or joined unions to form successful states. The background music in former colonies was that statehood and nationhood went together. And so it was that in 1949 the multicultural mish-mash that was Canada began to issue Canadian passports to Canadian citizens. This fit in with the former Spanish colonies in the Americas which had become nation-states in the previous hundred years, and the former British, French and German colonies which were even then becoming states with names like India, Ghana and Zambia.

There were rebels against Westphalia. I mentioned the Communists already with their rejection of nationalisms as bourgeois. Then there were the pans: pan-Africans and pan-Arabs.

 Pan Arabism is, in theory, a very good way to organise the Middle East: a single Arab polity divided for purposes of good administration into rational provinces.

Influenced by National Socialism, pan-Arabism rejected the nation-state as a foreign construct designed to divide and conquer the Arab people.

There was some justification for the idea that separate Arab states were intended to create Arab polities which Europeans would like. The French designed Lebanon to be a Frenchified country with Christian rulers and Shi’a Muslim peasants (which worked marginally better than their attempt to do something similar in Indochina). The British designed Iraq and Transjordan to be ruled by noble desert Arabs lording it over degenerate urban Arabs (their view, not mine). The Gulf States were meant to be permanently impoverished petty sheikhdoms who would never interfere with Britannia’s rule of the routes to India and Australia.

This is not to say that Arabs were all at sea when faced with the insertion of the Westphalian state. When the Hashemites were made into kings and emirs of states elsewhere, the Saudis created a state in the Hashemite homeland. The ruling families of the Emirates and Sultanates around the Gulf remade themselves into European-style monarchies. The former French, Italian, Spanish and British colonies of North Africa formed themselves into corporatist states which reflected the state-centric ideologies of European university faculties.

Pan Arabism is, in theory, a very good way to organise the Middle East: a single Arab polity divided for purposes of good administration into rational provinces. If Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and all the other Canadian provinces could unite in spite of their cultural and linguistic differences, how much easier could Libya, Egypt, Syria Iraq and all the other Arab states with their common ethnic, religious and linguistic traditions.

Which brings us to Hamas and the IS.

Hamas and the IS come from a tradition which rejected pan-Arabism, seeing its secular roots and postwar Soviet connections as an inescapable taint. Yet they are not interested in creating states which ape the charming antiques like The Sweden full of Swedes and the Norway full of Norwegians.

Certain attributes of statehood are useful to them. I haven’t yet seen a picture of an Islamic State passport or an Islamic State postage stamp, but I imagine they’ll come soon, along with an Islamic State representative at the UN and an embassy in London’s Belgravia.

Other Westphalian things are no use to the IS or Hamas. The rules which govern warfare between states seem always to favour well-equipped Westerners, Arab nationalists, pan-Arab nationalists or Jews running roughshod over people who happen to be Muslim or Islamist.

Westphalian states are really invested in the distinction between soldiers and civilians, between combatants and noncombatants. This distinction seems designed to force Middle Eastern Muslims to put on green costumes modelled on Western soldiers’ clothes, and then get mullered by real Westerners who are better at the Western way of war, fought by Western rules which emphasise Western strengths and Western capabilities.

So Hamas and the IS are ready to use the distinction between combatants and noncombatants when it suits them, but they are equally ready to discard the distinction when it is not operationally useful.

Let me paint the IS/Hamas point of view a little more starkly. In the years 1940-1945 the Allies destroyed approximately every city, town and village in Germany. Barely a stone was left on top of another stone, or brick on another brick. Never mind the Dresden firestorm, all of Germany was kicked to pieces. Hundreds of thousands of people who were not bearing arms were killed: men, women, children, dogs and cats.

If the Germans hadn’t surrendered in 1945 we’d have started nuking them. No question about it.

Were the German people to some extent complicit in electing and supporting Hitler and Nazism and genocide? Yes. Were they all combatants? No. Joe Stalin didn’t care and Winston Churchill didn’t care and Franklin Roosevelt didn’t care.

Do we the English-speaking world and our French- and Russian-speaking once and future allies wallow in guilt the way the Germans do? We do not. We celebrate our triumph over the Germans. We make funny television shows like Hogan’s Heroes and funny movies like Kelly’s Heroes.

Yet when Hamas sends a few missiles to bounce off of Israel’s super-duper Iron Dome, or sends a few fedayeen through tunnels to gun down a few hundred Israelis, they have broken some sacred laws of war.

Yet when the IS saws the heads off of three or four British or American people, the IS appears more bloodthirsty than Stalin and Churchill and the man whom the dreadful Angela Davis used to call ‘Happy Harry Truman’ whenever she mentioned atom bombs.

Zionism is heavily invested in the Westphalian state. Herzl’s view was that a nation without a nation-state was powerless, and a nation was powerful. So far he’s been proved right about the powerlessness and right about the powerfulness. Being as much like France or Italy as you can be in the Middle East has been good for the Jews, even we poor beleaguered Jews in Europe.

The IS and Hamas and, for that matter, Hezballah, have to be viewed in the context of Westphalia, statehood and what it has meant to people inside and outside the region. Understanding what will and won’t defeat the IS or Hamas and what defeat means can only be understood with this in mind.

Next post: dropping bombs on the IS or Gaza and what it can and cannot achieve.


About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
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