The Internationalist

Meet the new power players

Ten years ago, 9/11 announced an important change in how the world works. Our thinking hasn’t caught up yet.

By Thanassis Cambanis
September 4, 2011

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EVEN BEFORE WE knew who had committed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear that the event would be transformative, startling Americans into reconsidering how they understood matters from religion and culture to war and civil liberties.

For the nation’s foreign policy brain trust, it announced one thing in particular: A new species of power finally had come of age. The force behind the 9/11 attacks wasn’t an enemy nation but a small band of resourceful zealots scattered around the world. Al Qaeda was what experts call, for lack of a more elegant term, a “non-state actor” - one of a new species of powers that operate outside the umbrella of traditional governments. These powers run the gamut from terrorist cells to Google, from globe-spanning charities to oil conglomerates. As much as anything, the 9/11 strikes illustrated the profound influence that non-state actors could have on world affairs.

You might think that the sudden demonstration of the radical power of a non-state actor would have triggered an equally bold reaction at the highest levels of policy thinking: a coherent shift in grand strategy, in America’s thinking about how it should contend with the wider world, on the scale of the one that developed after World War II.

Surprisingly, though, if there is one thing that 9/11 didn’t change, it was this. Instead of a flurry of new thinking at the highest echelons of the foreign policy establishment, the major decisions of the past two administrations have been generated from the same tool kit of foreign policy ideas that have dominated the world for decades. Washington’s strategic debates - between neoconservatives and liberals, between interventionists and realists - are essentially struggles among ideas and strategies held over from the era when nation-states were the only significant actors on the world stage. As ideas, none of them were designed to deal effectively with a world in which states are grappling with powerful entities that operate beyond their control.

“Great power relations, war, diplomacy, we know how to do that,” says Stephen Krasner, a Stanford University international relations specialist who ran the policy planning department in George W. Bush’s State Department from 2005 to 2007. “We don’t know how to deal with these tricky non-state questions.”

A look at the major foreign crises of the last two decades, the ones that have demanded the most attention, money, and lives from America, reveals that virtually all of them were provoked not by some hostile scheming government in Moscow or Beijing, but by an entity that would have been beneath the radar of a classic global strategist. In the 1990s, warlords in Somalia and Bosnia ripped apart their regions while bedeviling old-line powers like the United

States, Britain, and NATO. On the eve of the millennium, the United States struggled to grapple with the fallout from a failed hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, and Argentina’s economic collapse - financial crises whose political repercussions outstripped those of many wars. The Sept. 11 attacks only made obvious a change that had already been apparent to many.

Ten years later, we are still waiting for the intellectual response to that change. And already we can see the costs of its absence. The United States responded to the 9/11 attacks with strategies that made sense in the old days of state-vs-state conflict, deploying the world’s most powerful armed forces and spending more than $1 trillion trying to subdue bands of simply trained and lightly armed men in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many strategists see a rising China as the next major threat in a traditional sense, but even China’s challenge to American interests is largely taking place outside traditional state channels: in contests for oil concessions, and struggles for high-tech revenue, cultural influence, and intellectual property. The cost of getting these types of struggles wrong can, in the long term, be even greater than a runaway war.

As yet, no major new theory has taken root in the most influential policy circles to explain how America should act in this kind of world, in which Wikileaks has made a mockery of the diplomatic pouch and Silicon Valley rivals Washington for cultural influence. But there are at least some signs that people in power are starting to try in earnest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has openly integrated the search for a new paradigm into her policy making. In universities, think tanks, and the government, thinkers trying to grapple with this fluid world structure are finally getting attention in the circles where their ideas could shape policy.

If the foreign policy establishment has been slow to break with the traditional versions of grand strategy, that’s partly a testament to the long success of the old ways of doing business. Ever since the major European powers signed the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, pledging to respect one another’s territorial integrity, international relations have been understood as the domain of formal nation-states, engaging with one another through clear channels and lending structure to an otherwise bloody and imperial world. Sovereign states played by certain fixed rules in war and peace - and, for all its flaws, this broad understanding helped lay the foundation for the immense progress Western society enjoyed over the past 400 years.

At the end of World War II, the old colonial order began to collapse and the world powers grappled with hitherto unknown problems - most notably nuclear weapons and an ideologically driven superpower race. A wave of creative thinking met this challenge, building on these older traditions to generate the doctrines of containment and nuclear deterrence that set the contours of the next half-century of American policy.

Many thinkers see 9/11 as a pivot point in yet another shift: not just a new ordering of nations, but a more unsettling transition from a state-dominated world to something more complex. The attacks of 2001 would have made almost no sense to a strategist from the past: A stateless terrorist group that revolved around a few charismatic leaders had managed to strike a superpower across the world, leveraging a tiny number of followers and sporadic financial support into a globally destabilizing event.

In response, America embarked on two wars that might have made sense in terms of the old order, but have proved both very expensive and starkly inconclusive in the new one. The US military was asked to occupy physical territory, but its ultimate aim was an almost metaphysical one: to “deny safe haven to terrorists,” to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and to deter “state sponsors of terror.”

To the extent we have succeeded over the past decade, our successes have come when policy makers have moved beyond the old state paradigm: for instance, in its successful mingling of intelligence, police-style sleuthing, and small bands of special forces operatives to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

Slowly a new awareness has begun to settle in Washington, and seep into the foreign policy brain trust: The world is not reverting to the way it was. It will remain, in part, the messy province of non-state actors. And it will require those who think about international affairs, and those who think broadly about America’s role and priorities, to create not just new policies, but new conceptual frameworks.

“We need the sort of intellectual ferment comparable to the late 1940s, when big ideas were developing like containment and deterrence,” says Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor who advised Al Gore during his presidential run and Hillary Rodham Clinton during her first year as secretary of state. He also explored the crisis of ideas in a book published last year, “The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas.” Jentleson has led the charge against the traditional conceptions of foreign policy and America’s role, barnstorming around the country. He compares the contemporary moment to what happened when Copernicus proved that the earth was not the center of the universe, shaking the foundations of the church along with the world of science.

What would a new framework start to look like? Any accurate power map of the world has to include, along with the traditional states, entities like Google and Microsoft, Saudi Aramco and Chevron, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. States still matter too, of course - and nations like China, Iran, and Russia matter immensely - but in thinking about goals like American prosperity and safety, these other players are often just as important. Adding to the confusion is the in-between category of “failed states,” places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia whose governments have limited control of what goes on in their territories, and often end up breeding border-jumping threats like terrorism, drug trafficking, or epidemics.

A strategy for this new world would have to incorporate large measures of uncertainty. In the old system, an understanding between superpowers carried the force of law almost worldwide; proxy conflicts that simmered for decades in Latin America or Asia could be shut off with the flourish of a pen in Moscow or Washington. In today’s world, by contrast, a sudden eruption between competing corporations, militias, activists, or individuals can derail the course of nations, indifferent to the agreements of larger powers and often blindsiding experts. A contemporary strategy would be one that gives us a way to make smarter choices in such nebulous situations, setting priorities about what really matters to the United States - a strong currency? Commercial competition with China and Europe? Military dominance? American-style democracy and human rights?

As complex as such an equation may be, it will require even more maneuvering domestically. Today, America has invested an overwhelming proportion of its budget in the military, making it the tool most likely to be deployed in a foreign policy crisis whether appropriate or not. The State Department gets less than one-tenth as much money as the Pentagon (and that doesn’t include the vast supplementary budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). And foreign aid is a tiny fraction of the State Department’s diplomatic budget.

Some ideas already simmering in the mix include shifting this budgetary balance away from the military and toward the civilian diplomats of the State Department, creating a new approach to aid, and openly embracing the nonprofit activists and profit-seeking corporations that already represent America in much of the world.

Although establishment thinkers and government decision-makers have been slow to catch up to the more complicated new mechanics of the world, some thinkers already have begun to grapple with its implications. Even as America’s top-level strategy was driven by more traditionally derived notions such as the “global war on terror” and a “freedom agenda,” quieter corners of the Defense Department and then the newly formed Department of Homeland Security started investing research dollars in the academic study of fuzzier problems like failed states and transnational networks. Much of that grant money has only begun to bear fruit in the last few years, with a handful of thinkers emerging to lay the groundwork for a newer kind of strategy.

Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations and has advised Secretary of State Clinton, was one of the pioneers. In the 1990s, he coined the term “soft power,” arguing that sometimes the most effective way for America to promote its interests would be through influencing global health and the environment, or culture and education. His latest book, “The Future of Power,” counsels that America can preserve its influence if it reconceives its institutions and priorities to deal with a world where the energy is shifting from the West to the East, as well as from states to non-state actors. Michael Doyle at Columbia University, a seminal theorist whose idea of a “democratic peace” in the 1990s crucially inflected policy with the belief that democracies don’t fight each other, now talks about the notion of an age of the “empowered individual,” where lone actors can alter the trajectory of states and of history as never before. Stephen Walt, also at Harvard, argues that in the new era America simply needs to start by acknowledging its limits: that with less muscle and less extra money, the first step will be to streamline its goals in a way that so far politicians have been loath to do.

The realization that states and governments are no longer the only defining forces in world affairs is finally percolating into the way some key officials talk about the world. Secretary of State Clinton has openly struggled with these questions, and has proposed that development be treated with equal importance to diplomacy or defense. Clinton also invited an entrepreneurial intellectual to run the policy-planning department at State from 2009 to 2010: Anne-Marie Slaughter, from Princeton University. Slaughter argues that a modern worldview would give priority to foreign policy approaches that are currently peripheral, including development; engagement with foreign societies as well as with foreign governments; and the inclusion of nonprofits and corporations in the design of American foreign policy.

Whatever emerges as the next generation of American strategic thinking, it is unlikely to be as reassuringly simple as the ideas that guided our thinking in the past: containment, deterrence, or the spread of democracy. The attacks of 9/11 at first seemed to have the cruel but unmistakable clarity of an act of war, but their barbarism may ultimately serve a different purpose: to lift the curtain on a much more cluttered vista, one without an Evil Empire, total victories, or treaties signed on warships that can bring the relief of peace. The attacks announced a world, instead, of manifold stakeholders, unexpected power centers, and messy inflection points - a fitting, if somewhat unsatisfying, close to the age of great nation states.

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at He is an Ideas columnist.