Emerging Neo-Feudal World Leaving U.S., Global Security Behind.
By Steven Metz, May 29, 2015, Column
As the conflict with the so-called Islamic State (IS) swings back and forth, one thing is increasingly clear: Even if Iraq survives the fight intact, there is no chance it will ever return to the pre-war status quo where the government in Baghdad controls the entire nation. Neither the Kurds nor Sunni Arabs will trust the Shiite-dominated central government to protect them. The newly empowered Shiite militia leaders also will cling to their autonomy from Baghdad. If Iraq holds together at all, it will have a titular national government in the capital while regional potentates actually run the place. Local authorities may express fealty to the national government, but Baghdad will exercise little real authority outside the city itself.
Neo-feudalism will have profound effects on the global security system, since the latter’s norms, laws, practices and procedures are based on sovereign nations that control their territory and are held responsible for what happens there. When a state loses control over part of its territory to secessionist movements or insurgencies under the current system, it is considered a temporary development. Other nations, including the United States, expect that eventually the national government will regain control. Under these conditions, security equals statecraft: National governments negotiate with each other, ally with each other and occasionally go to war with each other.
By contrast, the emerging global security system is a heterogeneous one that includes traditional sovereign nations but also feudal states, whose formal national governments only control the capital and, in some cases, a few resource-producing regions. This makes strategy significantly more complex. Imagine, for instance, a local potentate or warlord who wants U.S. help, including security assistance, training and advice. The U.S. military, particularly special operations forces, can already do this—today, for instance, the U.S. is directly helping Sunni Arab and Kurd militias in Iraq. But it is doing so with at least the grudging acceptance of the government in Baghdad.
What if in the future Washington wants to develop ties with a local potentate or warlord and the national government says no? American policymakers would then have to decide which mattered more, de jure power, as represented by the desires of the official national government, or de facto power, as represented by the position of the local potentates or warlord who exercises actual authority on the ground. If Washington opted to go around the titular national government and hammer out security ties with the real local powers, the basic conceptual and legal foundation of U.S. strategy would become obsolete, as would many of the institutions for international security, such as the United Nations.
On the other hand, what if a local potentate or warlord is not a potential ally of the U.S., but rather an enemy that supports transnational terrorism or crime? Today Washington’s preferred solution is helping the national government develop the capability to resolve the problem. In neo-feudal states, the national government may have neither the ability nor the motivation to do so. The U.S. might then be tempted to use airstrikes, drones and raids to punish or even bring down the local potentate or warlord directly. But this could conceivably lead to a power vacuum that the U.S., the national government or any international force might be unable to fill, potentially unleashing humanitarian disasters and bringing an even worse potentate or warlord to power. The strategic question then is whether it is better to have some form of local order, even a repressive or aggressive one, than no order at all. If not, what are the red lines that indicate that even chaos is better than the status quo?
If the national government in a neo-feudal state decides it wants to regain control over all of its territory, the U.S. inclination would generally be to support it, and in some cases this might be the best option. Yet in other cases, such as territory held by rebels other than IS in Syria today, the U.S. inclination will be to refuse assistance to the central government. American policymakers must also remember history: The process of power consolidation by central governments is almost always brutal and bloody. It has often involved gruesome violence, even genocide. Washington might have to decide whether it wants to be a partner in a violent reconsolidation of political power in neo-feudal states. Or would it be better—or ethical—to simply stay out of the fray even while a humanitarian disaster caused by conflict between a central government and local warlords is broadcast live around the world?
The U.S. is not yet ready for this new, dangerous world, but that world is coming. America’s security strategy and the basic concepts on which it is built are predicated on a world of sovereign nation-states that either control their territory or are trying to do so. As that system evolves into one where the world’s most vexing and destructive conflicts are not those between sovereign states but the result of the decay of sovereign states into neo-feudal ones, American policymakers and national security experts must rethink the basic principles that shape U.S. strategy. The longer this is postponed, the greater the chances that the U.S. will remain confused and ineffective in a heterogeneous world with neo-feudal conflict.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.