A recent Spiked article has some interesting things to say about modern terrorist movements and their globalist, as opposed to nationalist, backgrounds.

I don’t agree with the main thesis — that Western humanitarian intervention weakened the concept of state sovereignty so much that terrorist movements no longer have nationalist aims — because I don’t think the weakness of the state is a new thing. Internationalism has eroded state sovereignty for quite a long time, but a large part of the weaknesses of the state system are the same ones that it has had all along. (A reliance on national identity for legitimacy, for instance, makes it very hard to fill the entire world with brand-new states, which was the one of the effects of decolonization. Former colony space simply could not remain “empty” of states when the powers of the world were states themselves. After all, with whom do you set trade rules?)

I also take issue with the implication that modern terrorist movements do not have political goals. Of course they have goals. They might have goals that are foreign to our minds. Some of their goals may be so prosaic that we could not imagine shedding lives over them. But they have goals.

(To give the writer credit, the statement about goals is passed over so quickly that I doubt it was explained clearly. It was likely meant to draw a distinction between what Westerners see as clear political goals and what we have actually encountered.)

What the article did to intrigue me, however, was describe “rootless” groups wandering around the world and committing atrocities that shock Western sensibilities for reasons not understandable to those same Westerners. Sound familiar? I don’t think you have to look to internationalism as a primary cause of new-form global terrorism, except in the way that it makes the global adjective realistic through improved communication, logistics, and transportation. I think you just have to look back at what we’ve been doing to each other for centuries.

Sometimes in international relations we forget that sovereignty and the state are not basic concepts, even if they are useful. Both depend on the basic concept of power and are then refined through additional qualifications. However, power does not have to be a complex relationship between a person and his/her government. Humans have been conducting power relations with each other on much more intimate scales throughout our history. Person-to-person, leader-to-tribe, warlord-to-followers…we’re familiar with those concepts. After all, it’s how we built monarchies.

So what are the aims of our modern terrorists? So varied it isn’t even useful to try to describe them globally. There isn’t a lot of agreement between the aims of the various groups we describe as terrorist. Tamil Tigers are not the same as Hamas, who are not the same as Al Qaeda, who are not the same as Chechen rebels, who are not the same as a dozen groups in Iraq who are kidnapping people, who are not the same as…you get the point. In cases of cooperation, primarily only shared enemies, shared religion, and perhaps a few shared goals keep the fragile coalitions together. (Hmm, starts to sound a bit like Western international cooperation.) As we’ve seen in the past, in many cases if you withdraw that enemy from an area, the area dissolves into a patchwork of warlords. (This is less likely for actual nationalist movements, but those we claim to understand better, even if we condemn their tactics and goals.)

Do those groups have aims? Of course, even if they come down to something as simple as “Get me more power” or “Make them pay.” (A couple of classic motivations, by the way.) To act as if those aims are something new and mystifying if they cannot be fit into the context of statehood or nationalism is to ignore a large amount of our own experience.

I’m thinking, for instance, of the Crusades, a time we try to analyze in terms of broad geopolitical and religious goals, when in reality what it boiled down to was a highly organized form of “roving bands of men,” taking land and gold and settling down in areas to exercise power: The mass export of feudalism to a land that already had a mostly settled civilization. (I don’t think our current turn towards romanticizing the Muslim defenders is simply a politically correct balancing out. I think it’s because we actually somewhat identify with them now.)

Christianity’s power to organize those groups, even if their ultimate goals may have differed or conflicted, should teach us something about cooperation, however. We should not discount the organizing factor of radical Islamic aims, even among groups that may fundamentally disagree. (But, really, our preoccupation with Islam as the organizing factor is misguided. If it wasn’t that, it would be something else. Just the past few decades we’ve had international movements based on Communism and post-colonial nationalism…as odd as that sounds.)

What happens if a terrorist act occurs that has no clear political aim? Aside from the constant human fear for one’s life and the health of others, the primary effect of terrorism is the fear of disorder. We may support resistance groups if we do not like the order they resist, but we fear groups that try to take away the order with which we are comfortable. A lot of terrorist acts have aims that are simply not publicized or discounted. (“Surely they didn’t kill all of those people just because one of their leaders was arrested.”) The acts that go beyond all bounds of normal understanding, such as Beslan, may have been driven partially by such goals, but the method of the violence is designed to create greater disorder, or at least the perception of it, which creates more fear, which creates more perception of disorder, and so on. Since we create order by shared agreement, the perception of disorder creates a vacuum that offers room for the terrorist group to create its own perceived order, no matter what it is.

Is it a winning long-term strategy? Possibly, on a very occasional basis. (While it would be hard to characterize Moqtada al-Sadr as a terrorist, rather than a classic warlord/resistance leader, his disruption of what little order the U.S. had managed to impose may have vaulted him into a seat in the Iraqi government.) However, an eventual apocalyptic showdown with the West — as Al Qaeda’s aim seems to be — isn’t likely to produce anything except many more deaths. Short-term goals may be more achievable, though, and as anyone can tell from reading the local newspaper, short-term goals can make people do some crazy, violent things.

So what has been our own reaction to terrorist acts designed to create disorder? Well, we were determined not to “let the terrorists win” — an interesting statement, since we usually go to war aiming to win ourselves, not just keep someone else from doing so — so we started chasing those terrorists, even into Afghanistan. (Small confession: I think that was the exact right thing to do.) Of course, then we let many of them get away and didn’t provide enough help to the Afghans to keep the country from falling into greater disorder. (The exact wrong thing to do.) Then we invaded Iraq without enough people or commitment and created yet another disorganized space on the pretext we were still hunting terrorists. (Even more wrong.) So, has humanitarian intervention weakened the state? Probably not. However, our own country stomping on anything it recognizes as an organized government, creating plenty of disorder for groups to operate in and reconstruct in their own ways, while failing to pay enough attention to the perverse NGO that is Al Qaeda is accomplishing much of what the author worries about. (Am I saying we always respect the sovereign state? Of course not. But we treat the sovereign state as a state, declare war, and have a clear idea of why we are doing so and what we want the results to be. Doing so while already involved in an unconventional war is a mistake.)

In the meantime, at home, we create enough disorder ourselves as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks that we fill it with such new order as the Patriot Act, a document that makes us feel better, but has yet to prove its worth given the potentially permanent loss of civil liberties we paid to get that promise of more security.

Do the terrorists win? That depends on the minimization of the perception of disorder. If they don’t have room to operate — if the reaction to their acts, for instance, doesn’t turn into sympathy from the local populace — it is unlikely terrorist acts will accomplish political goals any faster than other means, and may actually slow that process. Do we win? Since the state system has proven adept at handling more disorganized forms of power, I doubt they do unless we accomplish their goals for them. Unfortunately for our foreign policy and for the Russians in Chechnya, it looks like that accomplishment becomes more likely with every stumble.