By Evan Harley Janssens ’16
Ever since the fall of Soviet Communism and the demise of bipolarity, the capability of individual actors to influence the events of international politics has steadily increased. In our contemporary inter-state system, the mechanisms by which individuals pursue socio-political change are to no small degree fostered by the defining structural characteristic of the post-Cold War world: ‘nonpolarity.’ (Such a term was coined by the prolific American scholar and statesman, Richard N. Haass in a lucid essaypublished by Foreign Affairs.) As a consequence of the global, historic spread of information/communications technology, individuals pose a more dynamic threat to the peaceful relations of nation-states in our ‘nonpolar’ international system.
Regardless of the stark differentials of power relative to their adversaries, individual actors have and continue to exact havoc on the status quo of international affairs. Embracing Yugoslav nationalism, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke of Austria-Hungary along with his wife, precipitating the beginning of World War I and a new Europe. Having declared a holy war against the United States, Osama bin Laden assembled the organization of terrorists who committed the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001, ushering in an era of profound violation of human rights. Although ideological motivations were far from similar in purpose and rhetoric, the extent to which their respective actions shaped the course of modern history is undeniably large in scope. Despite significant disadvantages in terms of material resources, individuals remarkably display a propensity to challenge the distribution of power, and, more importantly, showcase a will to derail the possibility of lasting peace. To clarify, I define peace simply as a condition in which the international system – irrespective of structure (unipolar, multipolar, etc.) – is marked by a minimal level of armed conflict, at least among the major powers themselves, who hold the greatest share of military and economic power, and dictate the parameters of ‘rule-setting’ via international institutional arrangements. By virtue of modern technological advances and permissive structural features of nonpolarity, individuals – in pursuit of political ideals – are presented with an array of strategies to constrain the durability of peaceful relations among states.
Revolutionary fervor and religious zealotry are perennial features of history; they are essential bedrocks of a multiplicity of individual behavior and action in the political arena of international affairs. Rather, it is the manner in which individuals choose to express and realize political convictions that has so dramatically changed in recent decades. How is this so? What are the main enablers of individual empowerment in the post-Cold War international system? I contend that the broad forces of globalization – in tight conjunction with the structure of nonpolarity – constitute two such factors out of many that account, at least partially, for the enhanced capabilities of individuals, in countering the efforts of those who desire peace in world affairs.
Political and socio-economic relations among peoples has undergone an astonishing transformation that parallels (and represents a natural extension of) the rise of market capitalism and expansion of global commerce in the centuries prior to the Peace of Westphalia, and the continuing advance of economic interconnectedness since thereafter. Perpetuated and reproduced by our globalized economic system, technological progress continues to be a source of conflictual ‘unevenness,’ as developing states face the choice of embracing modernity or rejecting its intrusive tendencies toward socio-economic integration, in favor of ‘traditional’ reclusiveness. Without a doubt, outcomes of international politics are invariably subject to the crushing gravitational pulls of global market-based capitalism and financial integration. The consequent reverberations on, and disorderly adjustments of, societies to the pressures of such historic tumult likely constitute an ongoing system-wide parameter for the majority of political activity – within and among states. In other words, incessant shocks to social, economic, and cultural forms of organization necessarily condition the range of worldwide political behavior. For example, the defining procedural and normative underpinnings of dominant forms of political organization – such as democracy – evolve, for better or worse, to the tune of global economic developments. (Indeed, changing ideas in the realm of politics conceivably temper the historical manifestation and expression of forms of economic organization). Clearly, the implications on the content of existing and future political activity are immense, if, say, the procedural and normative meaning of democracy were to significantly evolve. But, the crucial take away concerns the relative share of power held by actors of the international-political system. For most of the history of the modern international political system, the nation-state has, and continues to, be the preeminent organized form of political power. Yet, its enjoyed sovereignty is increasingly disputed by a myriad of actors. Although a sci-fi future of ‘sovereign individuals’ is a distant reality, individual actors are endowed with more opportunities and capabilities to influence outcomes of international politics. Power shifts in response to shifts in structure. Arguably, the contemporary system is one in which such shifts are taking place, albeit at a gradual pace.
It is hard to dismiss the many observable benefits of information technology, which accrue to individuals who wish to exploit the fruits of modernity for political purposes. Bolstered by online network systems that cheaply expedite international exchange of ideas and information, higher rates of literacy are more readily attainable for a larger percentage of the world’s population. In turn, information technology contributes to ‘political awakening’ for the individual who is, perhaps, brutally repressed by her own government, or mired in a vicious cycle of poverty. Those who are dissatisfied by civil politics, and feel offended by ‘secular values’ will find an impetus to politically act in an environment of social disarray. The attainment of broadband Internet access, and the utilization of social networking to rally one’s political cause is also a pertinent feature of the individual’s sovereignty to effect rapid change. To some degree, the ‘Arab Spring’ popular revolutions attest to this shift in power towards the politically motivated masses. The push and pulls of globalization are powerful, volatile forces, which at once augment individual choice, and collectively act as a potential springboard for retaliatory action against modernity.
In regards to those who employ political violence against civilians to further their strategic goals, the effects of increased interconnectedness are most clear. However, the implications for inter-state peace are less lucid. As one scholar put it: “The impact of globalization means that terrorist acts will be easier to plan and conduct, weapons will be easier to acquire and transport, and the enemy will be easier to reach than in the past.” For instance, modern financial capital markets are complex institutions that, in theory, magnify a terrorist’s range of possible activities to inflict damage on peaceful relations among states. Worldwide capital flows across national economies open avenues of opportunity for those who employ terrorism. The acquisition of remote-controlled robotic vehicles by terrorists is likely to increase as drone technology becomes less costly and more available via international goods markets. The aforementioned outcome is more likely to prevail than the acquisition and deployment of a nuclear weapon. It is difficult to remember an instance in history in which state leaders rationally sponsored the deliberate sharing of nuclear technology to a radical extremist group. Such an action would surely entail international condemnation, rendering a swift response from the major powers to punish the outlaw state, especially if the weapon detonated. Nevertheless, nuclear proliferation is still a weighty concern, as the spread of nuclear weaponry to North Korea by the Khan network, originating from Pakistan, surely indicates. Over time, global finance could facilitate the strategic efficacy of organized terrorist actors.
Thus, an interconnected world implies a growth in the capability of the individual. But, are individual actors more likely to deter the realization of peace among sovereign states than in recent past? Interconnectedness and technological advancement has had the dual effect of strengthening the centralized, bureaucratic nation-state. Computerization enables states to deter and prevent terrorist strategies via covert surveillance and intelligence operations on land, sea, air, and cyberspace. Many states now boast formidable arsenals of weaponized assault drones to stamp out vulnerable terrorist organizations. Also, states are rapidly developing cyber-security defensive systems to counter threats of individual cyber warfare. Therefore, in absolute terms, it seems as if individuals are more capable of threatening inter-state peace relations. It is reasonable to assume that the probability of an occurrence of a successful terrorist attack has increased. (Probability, in this sense, is not strictly frequentist probability, since the occurrence of a successful attack is an intrinsically uncertain and incalculable event, such as the outbreak of war or influenza). But, the effects of information technology on state capacity may have cancelled out, or surpassed, the benefits received by individuals from broad technological advance. It would be unwise, however, to assert that the expanded ‘tool kit’ of individuals does not have any bearing on the maintenance of peace. For the nature and scope of threats to peace have widened considerably over time, and it takes just one successful attack to inflict catastrophe á la 9/11. For instance, the capability of contemporary Islamist militants, operating within the context of a global jihadi movement, is heightened in comparison to that of the localized ‘Black Hand’ terrorists of the twentieth century. Irrespective of the relative intensities of their ideologies, the former’s potential for destruction on an international level is certainly greater than that of the latter’s penchant for violence.
Globalization has supported another key component bolstering the power of individuals to alter peace: the ‘nonpolar’ structural alignment of international politics. In our contemporary system, nonpolarity reigns. Power, of varying kinds, is dispersed, rather than concentrated, among a variety of actors – many which are not nation-states, such as corporations, supranational organizational bodies, and individual terrorist leaders who spearhead transnational militant movements. The free flow of goods, money, and information across national borders, associated with economic globalization, has had the cumulative effect of decreasing the role of the state in such matters, since it has little control or awareness of such commercial transactions and ideational interactions. Inter-state cooperation regarding the international economic arena is reduced. By corollary, individuals (among other actors) are empowered in a nonpolar world. Individuals who utilize terrorism as a tactic are particularly strengthened, since a great many “use the Internet to recruit and train,” navigate “the international banking system to move resources,” and take advantage of “the global transport system to move people” (Haass 2008).
Multilateral efforts to counter individual threats will likely face significant hurdles in the near future, because, in a nonpolar system with a plethora of actors, mutual interests are harder to cement. Alliance-building and cooperation on global issues, like terrorism, is difficult since nonpolarity lacks “predictable threats, outlooks and obligations, all of which are likely to be in short supply” in the aforementioned structure as compared to those in the past that had constrained the possible ranges of state behavior in a more rigid fashion (Haas 2008). Surely this characteristic of nonpolarity lends an advantage to the individual seeking political change via radical violence. Elements of nonpolarity are derivative effects of economic interconnectedness. Both of these complex features of the contemporary inter-state system contribute to the enhancement of individual power. Therefore, it may follow that the potential for deleterious individual action on the peaceful order of international politics is greater than in the past. The magnitude of such an increase in power is certainly debatable.
Individuals threaten the peace of our international system in a myriad of ways in the post-Cold War era. I have argued that the global, historic proliferation of information technologies, in tandem with the structural entropy of nonpolarity, constitutes a principal reason for the recent, and ongoing, phenomenon of the dispersal of power in the hands of individual actors. This is not to argue that individuals are the central threat to contemporary inter-state peace, or that the nature of international politics has fundamentally altered. Rather, by virtue of their greater share of power, individuals are bound to play an increasingly essential role in the advancement, or deterioration, of peaceful relations among nation-states.