WHO SAID THIS (the answer is at the end of this piece)?
“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos … Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”
This unsettling line from a movie takes us beyond the philosophical and ethical frontiers of today’s international security. It does not challenge Rules, but rather The Very Idea of Rules. It insists that fighting according to rules is not fair because rules in themselves stack the deck against certain sorts of behaviour. Rules are made by people who like rules. They are not made by people who want to win at any cost, or by people who might prefer very different rules.
Modern civilisation is all about the patient agglomeration of rules and processes. Western societies typically see rules as a source of strength and good order (even if in far too many walks of life, useless process is now squeezing out substance). In the best case, rules set an agreed context within which things can happen. Once you know the rules and have enough confidence that they’ll be enforced fairly against all-comers, you can make plans and invest. That’s why the City of London is a global powerhouse.
There is a rival, much more dangerous view: that rules are a source of weakness – that anyone accepting rules is weak, unwilling to do what it takes to prevail. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin now seems to subscribe to this view. He is having disconcerting success in challenging European rules on many fronts. Above all, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been a direct blow against global order: for the first time since World War II, a major power has grabbed itself a slice of territory of one of its neighbours. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of states do not recognise this as a legitimate move.
Vladimir Putin nonetheless acknowledges that Russia works within a framework of rules that Russia itself has accepted countless times. However cynically, he justifies his Crimea/Ukraine policies in terms of international law and European standards. He knows that Russia is in no position to benefit from generalised confusion or collapse. On the contrary, a key aim of his overall policy is about getting Russia fully and finally ‘accepted’ (above all by Washington) as an equal partner within current international counsels.
The horrible ISIS/Daesh phenomenon is quite different. Is there any modern rule or standard that its proponents respect? International borders as per the UN Charter? No thanks, we’ll have a medieval caliphate instead, occupying whatever territory we choose to conquer. International standards on the rights of prisoners and women? No thanks, we prefer to burn people alive and/or brutalise them as slaves. This is about as close to chaos as the modern world can imagine.
Most international problems lend themselves to negotiation of some sort. Sooner or later it suits conflicting states to cut deals and manage their problems. But the sheer implacability of ISIS/Daesh rules them out as potential negotiating partners. The idea of a ‘caliphate’ accepting no limits whatsoever on its borders or its behaviour is a priori unacceptable to all other states that accept international law and all its long-standing rules and limits. ISIS/Daesh demand a world run to stern C15 Islamic principles. The rest of the world community want shared modern values as articulated in 2016. What’s to discuss? How to negotiate? Split the difference and settle on the norms of the early eighteenth century?
Thus the latest efforts to launch a peace process for Syria are ambiguous if not fatally flawed. Yes, it’s more than good that Washington and Moscow and European/Middle East partners are at long last agreeing (more or less) on a way forward that might end of Syria’s horrendous civil war. But where do ISIS/Daesh fit into the picture? They control significant tracts of land in Syria and Iraq, and what they want is completely at odds with the aims of everyone else.
Faced with both the philosophical and practical problems of the ISIS/Daesh, it’s no surprise that world leaders struggle to find effective responses. Repeated bombing raids look good on YouTube and obliterate some key ISIS/Daesh leaders, but remote-controlled military intervention goes only so far. Large numbers of troops on the ground are needed to retake and start to rebuild territory now controlled by the ‘caliphate’, and few states want to commit to that. But can anyone imagine a lasting solution that does not involve ISIS/Daesh being militarily crushed, if not annihilated?
Diplomats and political leaders have no choice but to continue believing that international borders make sense and are a vital part of global security. Yet an increasing amount of what we do in our daily lives whizzes across the Internet in blithe disregard of any such borders.