The end of the cold war was marked by more than merely the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact "empire." The unfreezing of the bipolar icecap which had put a heavy and quite repressive hand on global politics as well as the internal politics of the component parts of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact subordinates started a series of escalating attacks upon the nation-state generally. After centuries of unquestioned dominance as the basic unit of international relations, the seemingly eternal nation-state was under threat on two fronts.
One axis of attack was both predictable and fully expected by observers of global affairs: the internationalists, particularly those of the Western European and American elite. Some sang the praises of supra-national organizations both regional and global. Others gave one shout-out after another on behalf of transnational business entities. Both groups damned the narrow, parochial focus of the nation-state with its preoccupation concerning national and strategic interests.
With far more joy than sorrow, infinitely greater anticipation than regret, members of the several elites drawn from both the Left and the Right consigned the nation-state to the status of museum curio while anticipating that the new age of globalization and supra-national organizations would mean a better future for all people everywhere. Abandoning the nation-state for new, bigger, better forms of organization would, it was repeated, usher in a world of peace and plenty, of prosperity and environmental purity.
Slightly less than ten years ago, the presumably unilateral George W. Bush did his not inconsiderable bit to further the cause of the supra-nationalist camp. Far from being a robust adherent of the go-it-alone school of international relations, George W. Bush showed himself to be squarely in the middle of the American version of multilateralism.
It would have been politically and diplomatically possible, arguably even preferable, to have declined the offer of assistance given by NATO in the wake of 9/11 and dealt with Afghanistan, Taliban, and al-Qaeda with purely American means. The later seeking of a UN figleaf to cover the policy genitalia of the Bush/Cheney administration with respect to regime change in Iraq did the US no useful service while holding the American effort ultimately hostage to the views, policies, and politics of other countries.
By seeking the support and agreement of supra-national organizations, the Bush/Cheney administration stood solidly in the diplomatic tradition of Harry Truman and LBJ far more than in the footsteps of his father who relied on a US constructed ad hoc coalition when he went to war a decade earlier. By so doing, the allegedly unilateralist George W. acted to lessen the future freedom of the US to act as a fully sovereign nation-state.
George W. Bush shared the common view of the American and Western European elites that the nation-state should be lessened in the exercise of untrammeled sovereignty. Regardless of his sometimes less than temperate rhetoric, this President Bush had a faith in the ability of supra-national institutions to restrain the nation-state from pursuing its national interest regardless of the costs imposed on others. He was also a deep believer in the capacity of transnational business to increase stability and real wealth. In essence, he stood on the Right but leaned to the Left.
Over the past decade the view of the nation-state as being an obstacle to creating solutions to global problems has grown greatly. Whether the problem at hand is one of keeping the peace, protecting the environment, creating greater economic stability, assuring access to food and clean water, providing employment and fairly distributing wealth, or assuring human rights, the default position has been to seek the proper supra-national organization, public, or private.
During the past decade, the UN has constantly sought to extend its reach. Along with its subordinate agencies, the UN has looked for ways by which it can intervene in the domestic affairs of member states. There have always been good intentions in play: protecting refugees, protecting civilians against repressive acts by their governments, assuring human rights. Typified by the convention based on the doctrine termed "responsibility to protect," the UN's reach has far extended beyond its practical grasp.
In the years since the end of the cold war, there has been a proliferation of defensive insurgencies by ethnic and religious communities chaffing under the governance of majorities coming from different groups or beliefs. What has been observed ever since the blood letting in the wreckage of the artificial nation-state once called "Yugoslavia" has been a real world application of the self-determination of nations, a doctrine first given form by Woodrow Wilson nearly a century ago.
From Kosovo to the Northern Caucasus to Darfur and South Sudan, defensive insurgencies (aka separatist movements) have resulted not only in massive loss of life and even more massive refugee streams but military interventions or the calls for such interventions. In all cases the calls have been directed to and answered by supra-national organizations ranging from the UN to NATO to the African Union. There is no indication that the trajectory of defensive insurgency has reached its apogee yet. This means there will be more demands for more international intervention in the future.
In recent months, offensive insurgencies (revolutions) have joined with the defensive sort as a very popular pastime. This has resulted in one more outpouring of demands for outside intervention by the "international community." The demand has been answered in Libya by a combination of three supra-national organizations, the Arab League, the UN and NATO. Similar demands with regard to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria have yet gone unanswered.
The single greatest reason the latter three states have been given a "pass" and left unmolested by missiles and bombs delivered by aircraft operated by governments responsive to the doctrine of R2P is the existence of two countries which do not share the negative view of the nation-state so prevalent in the West. These two countries are Russia and China. Neither accept the proposition that the nation-state is either evil or obsolete (or both.) Neither go along with the belief that countries have the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another if given the OK by the UN or some other supra-national organization.
But all the foot dragging on well-intended, forceful interventions is not confined to the Boys in the Kremlin or the Trolls of Beijing. Nor are the Boys and the Trolls the only people who reject the negative view of the nation-state. In a delightful irony the views put forth in the Kremlin and the Forbidden City are shared by the common folk, the hoi polloi in both the US and the countries of Western Europe. Blinded by an arrogant certainty in the correctness of their own multilateral, multinational, multicultural beliefs, the political, media, and academic elites of the US and Western Europe do not understand that their view of the nation-state is rejected completely by their own fellow citizens.
As recent elections in Europe have shown, there is a strong rejectionist current running among the European citizenry. "Populist" right wing parties have done very very well at the polls in large part due to their rejection of the primacy of supra-national organizations. While not yet tested in an election in the US, there are strong hints that We the People are not ready to embrace the notion that American sovereignty should be ceded in part to supra-national organizations.
The number of challenges to the nation-state by defensive insurgencies will probably continue to grow in the nest few years. It is also to be expected that there will be an ever increasing call for international intervention not only in the case of defensive insurgencies but also under the doctrine of R2P. At least some of these demands will be answered by one supra-national organization or another. Even if the UN Security Council does not heed the call due to the ever present Russian or Chinese veto, some other entity will pick up the slack.
Even in the event no structured supra-national organization does take responsibility to intervene, one or another of the oft maligned and purportedly obsolete nation-states will do so--if its interests require. From this it is legitimate to infer that the number of nasty little wars of peace imposition will grow in the years to come. Practically speaking this means the number of asymmetric wars will grow apace.
Against the backdrop of asymmetrical wars it becomes conceivable, even desirable, for states to use proxy conflicts as an instrument of policy. This will go beyond the past practice of governments such as the Syrian to use terrorist groups as instruments of state policy.
Not too pretty a scene to contemplate, eh, bucko? Makes you wish for the good old days of the cold war when affairs might have been risky, but the world was remarkably stable. Looking ahead, the only thing which gives grounds for thanks is that the elites have been wrong. Tomorrow more than ever it will be the self-interested nation-state which serves as the bulwark against raging instability and war.
In a world full of candidates for devolution, the only genuine force for stability, peace, and some semblance of prosperity is the self-centered nation-state. It and not the supra-national organization is and remains the last, best hope of human kind.
It is time the elites and their iconic figures such as President Obama and Secretary Clinton get a grip on that defining reality. Otherwise, their delusions of a UN inspired heaven on Earth will be the death of us all.