Small Wars Journal

International Relations in the 21st Century

I have previously argued that, while the central problem of international relations in the 20th century was states that were too strong (Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union), the primary problems of international relations in the 21st century are states that are too weak (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico). Thomas Friedman agrees in the linked New York Times column, which has vast implications not just for the State Department, but also for the Department of Defense.

Super (Sub) Secretaries - Thomas Friedman, New York Times

It is way too soon to say what policy breakthroughs Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be known for at the State Department. But she has already left her mark bureaucratically. She has invented new diplomatic positions that say a great deal about the state of foreign policy in these messy times. I would call them "The Super Sub-Secretaries of State."

Mrs. Clinton has appointed three Super Sub-Secretaries - George Mitchell to handle Arab-Israel negotiations, Richard Holbrooke to manage Afghanistan-Pakistan affairs and Dennis Ross to coordinate Iran policy. The Obama team seems to have concluded that these three problems are so intractable that they require almost full-time secretary of state-quality attention. So you need officials who have more weight and more time - more weight than the normal assistant secretary of state so they will be taken seriously in their respective regions and will have a chance to move the bureaucracy, and more time to work on each of these discrete, Gordian problems than a secretary of state can devote in a week...

More at The New York Times.



Thu, 03/05/2009 - 6:16pm

This is just a former company grade officer with a BS in Biology speaking here, but it seems to me that the current international order is predicated upon the assumption that states will be capable and willing to handle what occurs inside their borders. From that assumption it follows that...
1) when something is projected from inside their borders - whether it be capital, goods, or suicide bombers - the country of origin had a hand in it
2) we don't interfere inside of a country unless we're asked to or unless we decide to enter into combat

We now know that (1) is not always true and (2) presents us with some problems. If something is projected from inside a country's borders and we don't like it, but the country claims to be powerless to do anything about it and doesn't want our interference, then we've got a problem that causes the international order to not function well.

Since the world has no leader or body of government for this to be sorted out or deliberated, it seems that this will not be corrected unless all countries suddenly take control of their territory or they magically decide to set aside their interests and come up with some grand compromise to alter the current order. Neither seems likely and the most plausible alternative, in my opinion, is that there will probably be a big war that sorts things out.

Just as our military continues to try to manage 21st century personnel with a 19th century personnel management system, we're running a 21st century planet with a 17th century order. Sovereignty should be earned. In today's world, it is given - and given to countries that are unable to handle it. Events, I fear, will soon overcome us and those countries unable or unwilling to responsibly exercise sovereignty will eventually be forced to muster some gumption and learn quickly or watch their borders become fodder for a 22nd century edition of trivial pursuit.

I think it premature to applaud Secretary Clinton for a leadership move borne as much out of necessity as cunning. She compensates for her lack of charisma and diplomatic experience with delegation. Also, doesn't Friedman's argument toward the increasing fractionalization of the world (and plea for more sub-secretaries) contradict his 'flat world' theory?

The importance of understanding American Foreign Policy from the perspective of individual citizens isn't new by the way. Colleen Graffy, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy for Europe and Eurasia, outlined a more aggressive and individualistic approach to diplomacy in a speech at Chatham House, London, England in late 2007. At that time, Secretary Clinton was probably fretting over Iowa.

Concerning Mr. Nagl's idea about the importance of 'weak states,' I wholeheartedly agree. The United States must include all nations, however small, in a comprehensive diplomatic approach. Consider, though, our former Kyrgystan airbase in Manas. Did we lose Manas because our relationship failed with Kyrgystan or Russia?

Jay Pellerin (not verified)

Thu, 03/05/2009 - 12:17am

If I may jump in late here, to answer Schmedlaps question:

"But, given that many weak countries are not major problems and several strong countries are not stabilizing forces, I suspect that there must be more to the contention. Or perhaps I am unclear as to what constitutes weak or strong. Or maybe both."

What I understand to be the difference between strong states and weak states in the context described has to do with the exportation of violence or other trouble. It is not so much that an enemy state like North Korea is strong internally that is the primary issue in the current strategic environment (although still dangerous, at least potentially). It is the lack of strength in regard to friendly and non-enemy states (and even allies) such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mexico. Their weakness lies in an inability to control or even impede non-state actors within their borders. In all these cases, specifically there is a mix of terrorists and criminals, who then go outside the state and cause trouble for the US and its allies or create a destabilizing influence in a heavily interconnected world. On the other hand, in the past, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, were states who had the strength to export violence or other trouble. I am familiar somewhat with Friedmans prior work (pre-9/11), but a bit more with its modification by Barnett in a 2003 article "The Pentagons New Map." Barnett described that there were "gap" countries that were basically not part of globalization and therefore if not themselves dangerous than created an environment where non-state actors operated out of. I think you could look at lawless regions like Somalia as well in this regard (pirates disrupting shipping routes for instance).

Ken White

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 6:45pm

Hi, Herschel.

The wealth factor has little or nothing to do with where we spend it and everything to do with the fact that we simply have a great deal more wealth than others. To look at GDP per capita on a PPP basis is irrelevant -- the gross US wealth is the problem in the eyes of many. We're big and size matters. I fear 800 pound Gorillas aren't popular as companions.

If by militant operations you mean the current Islamist fundamentalists, you're correct that it's ideology as a principal motivator. They are, however, not a significant long term problem in my view. Combination of the math and the beginning turn around in Islam will negate them to a great extent. Not eliminate but reduce to a bearable annoyance. It's a groupment of like inclined nations that can cause more long term problems.

I did not suggest that we spend our way out of anything; in fact I said I doubted we'd use our wealth wisely. I perhaps should have been more clear and specifically stated that our practice of trying to bribe our way to 'success' has created as more enemies than friends and only encourages some to be problematic toward us in an effort to be bought off...

Nothing is simple. Nothing. In a democratic republic such as this, everything is unbelievably complex -- that does not mean one should not try to fix things that are wrong.

Just agreeing on what constitutes a problem can be difficult as you cite. In the end a bunch of flawed humans -- which we all are -- make the best judgment they can on the best information they have available at the time. That is not going to change. It will never be perfect, nor does it need to be but we can certainly do better than we have done.

As <b>Schmedlap</b> said above<blockquote>"It seems to me that the problem is not that the world has changed. The problem is that we have not adapted to it. I think that many view the past 8 years of challenges as something to wring our hands over, rather than viewing them as the result of the 12 years of squandered opportunity that preceded them."</blockquote>All that's required is some common sense and rational thought. While that's very difficult to obtain in any nation, it is particularly difficult in a nation ideologically divided. We can only keep hoping... ;)

This is an interesting discussion. There are elements of both the article and comments with which I concur, and of course, no one agrees on everything all of the time. But I would respond to Ken's comment thusly.

I am not sure that I see wealth and arrogance being the problems that you do. Perhaps this is a reason for some hatred of the U.S., but in the main I think that much of the militant operations across the globe directed at the U.S. is so because of ideological issues. This is important becasue how we spend our wealth is irrelevant when it comes to amelioration of this problem.

In other words, we can't spend our way out of having to confront these issues of ideology. It boils down in some instances to the difference between a politicaly-inspired insurgency and an ideological-inspired one.

Next, I understand the need to pose solutions rather than simply state problems. This has been your counsel on the blog for quite a while, including to me. But I am not sure it's that simple in every situation. Much discussion ensues over whether such-and-such is indeed a problem on both this blog and others like it. So, for instance, while I was arguing more than a year ago that the Taliban would target our lositical lines, Army brass in Afghanistan was too busy arguing that they were too strong for there to be such a thing as a Taliban spring offensive.

In this case, disagreement over whether something is indeed a problem is key and must be rectified before progress can be made. Admission of a problem is the first step towards a solution. Blog space and time is spent in a worthy manner when it comes to complex issues that one person sees as a problem and another sees another way because of various and sundry reasons. Agreement at the presupposition stage is necessary before "solutions" can be posed. Or, if an issue is not a "problem," it doesn't need a solution.

That might be the root of some of the discussion and disagreement going forward with foreign policy. I hope that this was clear rather than rambling - I fear the later rather than the former.

Ken White

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 6:03pm

I didn't suggest disregarding it. My comment, I believe implied that it is a superficial thought and of little value without context or expansion and comment.

My comment also implied that anyone can identify a problem; we look for solutions...

Your comment makes the valid point that the nature of future problems will be different -- Nagl did not say that, nor really does Friedman (who IMO rarely adds much to the body of knowledge)-- so I would say your point is a good one; that in the original article was not.

With respect to your point, the difference really arises from the amount of concern or respect that must or should be shown the less powerful in today's more sensitive and caring world (that is not a snark but an acknowledgment of reality) coupled with vastly superior communications and information flow that allows those 'weak' states to garner sympathy and support for any cause they care to espouse from anyone disposed to accept such a view for their own purposes.

Thus the issue is not really the weakness of those states -- it is their ability to sway world opinion in their favor. That is not a problem in international relations, really -- it is a problem in the relations of the US with the rest of the world. Not quite the same thing, I think.

The problem of weak states in international relations has always existed and always will -- in a lineup, some will be strong and others not. It is a manageable problem in all respects. The issue for the US (particularly the cited DoS and DoD) is whether or not those states will create problems for us. Thus as <b>Schmedlap</b> pointed out, the relative weakness or strength is not an issue for us -- what <i>any</i> States <u>do</u> is an issue...

There are a large number of nations in the world, ranging from powerful to impotent, who do not like the US and will work assiduously to insure our trajectory spirals downward, the more rapidly the better. That does not mean all nations, merely some but they will align in strange ways to do us harm (of some sort, not necessarily physically destructive).

I also believe some strange and unexpected alignments to pursue that aim are likely in the near future and it will include a mix of strong and weak nations. Thus the problem we face is not in international relations nor are future US problems going to come from weak states or a combination of them.

Our problems are going to come from our wealth our arrogance and our failure to properly respond to deliberate provocations. The wealth factor will bounce back fairly soon. I would not be in favor of unilateral abrogation of that 'problem.' I would also hope we would use our wealth wisely but I suspect that is too much to ask...

The arrogance we can and it seems will work on -- that does not mean becoming humble; that would be a disaster (we tried that and you see where it got us...). Whether we will properly identify and correctly respond to future provocations is the big question...


Mon, 03/02/2009 - 5:28pm

That's probably a better read of the comment than what I originally got out of it. I'm not sure what he refers to when he points out, "I have previously argued..."

I guess it is an accurate observation. But it leaves out a big "now what?" component. But, again, I don't know what he refers to when he points out what he "previously argued" so maybe he's already addressed it elsewhere.

It seems to me that the problem is not that the world has changed. The problem is that we have not adapted to it. I think that many view the past 8 years of challenges as something to wring our hands over, rather than viewing them as the result of the 12 years of squandered opportunity that preceded them. Rather than viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the end of history and a time to cash in on the peace dividend, we probably should have responded to becoming the sole superpower by using it as an opportunity to exert more influence for positive change, rather than an opportunity to turn inward and attempt to socialize our health care system and revitalize already bloated entitlement programs at the expense of our military.

With that in mind, we've got some catching up to do.


Mon, 03/02/2009 - 4:58pm

I would not disregard this statement:

"...the central problem of international relations in the 20th century was states that were too strong (Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union), the primary problems of international relations in the 21st century are states that are too weak (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico)."

Yes problems in international relations will still exist, but the point of Nagl/Friedman is that the nature of those problems will be quite different. As is quite obvious, the problems which arise from a plethora of weak states are far different than the problems which arise from a large number of disproportionately strong states. While I would frame the argument differently (not necessarily strong states, but nukes/air power) the point made is a good one.

Ken White

Mon, 03/02/2009 - 4:27pm

I draw two conclusions from this introduction and the linked article.

Thomas Friedman gives Holbrook, Mitchell and Ross far more credit for supposed previously demonstrated competence than I do. I'm unsure that a repeat of the Bosnia imbroglio is advisable or that Mitchell will be able to repeat his five year effort in Northern Ireland; Fatah and Israel differ from Sinn Fein and the Unionists and it appears that there are no nations like the UK and Ireland to nudge the disagreeable parties in the same direction. I foresee the creation of an amplified or modified 'Friedman Unit.'

Moving right along, if:<blockquote>"...the central problem of international relations in the 20th century was states that were too strong (Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union), the primary problems of international relations in the 21st century are states that are too weak (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico)."</blockquote>is true, one could conclude that an imbalance in strength between States seemingly leads to discord. As true equality between States is as impossible as is equality between persons, it can be discerned that problems in international relations will continue to exist.

Amazing. Okay, understood. Now what?


Mon, 03/02/2009 - 12:16pm

What is the measure of strength or weakness?

I only ask because countries such as Sri Lanka, Mali, and Niger, I presume, would be regarded as "weak" in terms of the government's monopoly on the use of force within its borders. But is that really problematic? How many people are even aware of the <a href="">recent barnstorming attack</a> by the Tamil Tigers, less than two weeks ago?

Also, larger countries such as Russia and Iran seem to be firmly in control of their borders and even influential outside of their borders. But I don't think that "strength" is regarded as a positive or stabilizing influence. Smaller countries such as Myanmar and North Korea also seem to be firmly in control.

I recognize that Nagl's contention does not state that <I>ALL</I> weak countries are problematic or that <I>ALL</I> strong countries are stabilizing forces, or even that <I>SOME</I> strong countries are stabilizing forces. So, I am not suggesting that the contention is wrong. But, given that many weak countries are not major problems and several strong countries are not stabilizing forces, I suspect that there must be more to the contention. Or perhaps I am unclear as to what constitutes weak or strong. Or maybe both.