I was in shock and rage yesterday at the news of American diplomats murdered by an extremist mob in Libya. I have many friends in the field of international affairs, several in the United States Foreign Service as diplomats. It is a life I almost chose. One of my friends was scheduled to go to Libya next month. Others are working in the field as we speak. This felt very personal. But first, analysis.
Yesterday’s attacks were extraordinarily significant for the future of international security. The general public has become inured to deaths in the Middle East, especially Americans who have been passively allowing wars to take place in their name. The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens is different for multiple reasons. First, this is a terrible transgression of civilized norms. For literally thousands of years, nations have had a rule that has been sacrosanct – you do not murder diplomats. Yes, I saw the movie 300, as well. In the last 2500 years, it has been a cornerstone of the behavior of civilized nations not to mistreat ambassadors and their staff. So what happened this week was an enormous transgression of civilized norms.
But then, that’s the point – Libya is not really a nation any longer. Nations can defend their borders. They can reserve violence for only the police and the military, arresting or killing any other actors who engage in violent lawlessness. They can issue policies that speak in one voice. Libya cannot do any of these things.
Neither can Afghanistan. Egypt can barely accomplish this. If and when al-Assad is killed or driven from Syria, that country will not meet this standard.
When America talks “regime change” or invades a place and aims to retrain “the police” and “the army” to regain control of “the country,” there is an enormous amount of tacit assumptions – that these are functioning nation-states over which we can re-gain law and order. Of course, many of these places were just lines on a map, barely containing a group of warring tribes. In North Africa and Central Asia in particular, the concept of the modern nation-state was often forced on people from external forces and maintained by the same. Very often, the British Empire drew the border without respect to ethnicity and tribal affiliation. Then, as the Cold War raged on, “order” was only achieved through the support of strongmen dictators armed with Russian or American weaponry. Lately, the people of these countries have risen up to overthrow these dictators, all too often leaving chaos.
This, sadly, is likely the future. Many security strategists persist in their Cold War mindset of centrally-controlled nation states as the primary actors. Yes, there has been a serious effort to combat al-Qaeda and other non-state actors, but at the end of the day, your average security wonk is thinking about countries way more than tribes or ideologies. And this is understandable, but the Earth gets very, very difficult to envision once you give up the nation as your major unit of analysis. You’re just left with a bunch of people, some angry, some hungry, some friendly, and some neutral who may or may not have your interests at heart. They may be your enemy. They may try to kill your ambassadors – because, why not? Sure, nations don’t act that way, but they aren’t a nation.
The future of foreign policy could get even messier, if you can believe it.