The jihadist challenge and a faltering society of states
3 Feb 2015|

A faltering society?In a 2005 ASPI Strategy paper Living with Giants, Coral Bell—showing remarkable prescience—wrote that

the most regular and immediate preoccupations of Australian policy makers are likely to remain the ups and downs of the US-China relationship, the continuing combat with the jihadists, and the problems of governance in small local sovereignties.

A decade on policymakers remain mired in those concerns, except the threat of radical extremism appears closer and the problem more intractable than in the past. One of the main thrusts of Bell’s paper was that the jihadist threat of the early 21st century would bring nations together, ‘a positive earthquake of change in relations within the society of states’. She wrote of the ‘emerging prospect of a multipolar era’ and two imaginative—and optimistic—diplomatic patterns: the construction of an Asia-Pacific regional security community and the creation of a concert of great powers. Both ideas have been fiercely debated since, but a regional security community is still in its nascent stage, and a concert of great powers has yielded ground to the G20.

The jihadist challenge hasn’t produced any positive earthquakes. There’ve been strong efforts by many regional countries to target radical extremism. But effective deradicalisation and counterradicalisation efforts are at a national or bilateral level, not regional. When it comes to a great power concert, just look at the efforts the US has made to build support for the military intervention against the Islamic State. In one instance during September 2014, National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Xi Jinping to build a case for assistance. China’s response was typically reluctant, as assistance would pose problems for its non-intervention principle—despite the Iraqi government’s inviting support. There was also concern that the intervention would produce further violence, rather than contribute to security, and a perception China would be seen as subscribing to a US-led international order, and worse, cleaning up US mistakes.

Not only have communities and concerts, formal and informal, proved ineffective, the very organising unit of those relationships—the nation-state—is under challenge. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently addressed the Brookings Institute’s Alliance 21 project on violent extremism and the demise of the nation state:

Today pernicious forces have come to the fore and wield greater power than ever that threaten to undermine the nation state…[T]errorism is now more global, more dangerous, more diversified than ever before…The challenges we face are borderless. Yet the world is still divided into, and defined by, and to an extent constrained by, jurisdictions.

What then of a society of states? Henry Kissinger takes up this theme in his recent book World Order, concluding that ‘the order established and proclaimed as universal by the Western countries stands at a turning point’. We’re seeing new ‘spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance.’

These spheres are contradictory; the Westphalian model pitted against the radical Islamist version, or a Chinese system against the American order. Kissinger continues that ‘each sphere would be tempted to test its strength against other entities of orders deemed illegitimate.’ Consequently, ‘the contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another.’

The challenge wouldn’t be agreeing a concept of order between states, but between contesting regional orders. If this is the case then the next decade is likely to be a period defined by conflict with anachronistic fiefdoms like the Islamic State. Perhaps Bell’s predictions were overly optimistic. But some of that pragmatic optimism is sorely needed as we think about creative ways to deal with the jihadist challenge in smaller structures rather than communities or concerts.

(For more on Coral Bell’s work, the ANU recently published a collection of essays by colleagues and friends on her life, ideas and legacy.)

Simon Hansen is a research intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Troup Dresser