When nation-states behave as “nation-states,” that is, since time began, the American media and public react in horror. Like, “this is unheard of,” or “how dare they.” It might help to open a book.
What they “Do”
The Russians are “meddling,” there is “collusion” between Putin and Trump, they seem to get along, Trump is too friendly with “dictators,” China is reckless, wants more power, demands control of sea-lanes, some countries threaten others, some invade neighbors, smuggle dope, spy on each other, say nasty things, withdraw from treaties, cheat on them, oppose democracy and liberty, some want to control their regions, some want the whole world, etc.
I could write this whole essay, plus others, to list the sins committed under the term “world politics.” But, under a political microscope, are the faults of sovereignties fundamentally different than those of local or domestic regimes? The immediate answer is “of course not,” but then why distinguish between the world and the locale? Governors, Mayors, Senators, Representatives, Dictators, Generals, Admirals, Mafia Bosses, petty thieves, outlaws, husbands and wives do the same things all the time.
So what’s the difference?
There are several, which makes world wars and local quarrels placed in different categories.
Four Differences (at least)
First, most local regimes do not have militaries. The Mafia and street thugs have “gangs,” dictators and other local despots have the “police,” “white collar” thieves have laws to bend. There is a profound and lasting difference between a regime that has a professional military and one that must resort to ad hoc or “amateur” persuasion for its ambitions.
All Latin American countries have what they call “armies,” but none are true militaries. They exist to control within, not to expand out. The Falklands War (1982) between Britain and Argentina demonstrates the point: Britain had a navy, which traveled 10,000 miles. Argentina had the police, which couldn’t even win off-shore.
When was the last true Latin American war (you will have to look it up)? On the positive side, Latin American geopolitics have been relatively stable since the early nineteenth century, unlike most other areas.
The second difference is legal. Nation-states are “sovereign” entities, meaning that they are responsible to no other higher authority than themselves. There are presently 193 sovereignties in the world (UN) which makes all other entities, tribes, races, nationalities, terrorists, ideologies, etc., technically unable to wage “war” in a formal sense. Thus, they do not need militaries and rarely have one in any authentic mode.
This does not mean that they cannot create damage or havoc. It took nine Al Qaeda members to level the World Trade Center; it looks like a few Chinese officials in Wuhan province unleashed the current pandemic.
Even minus warfare, mankind remains in perpetual danger (“don’t go there at night”).
The third difference is called “geopolitics.” Nation-states, as the name indicates, control territories, some of them mammoth. Individual states in the U.S. – Montana, California, Texas, Alaska – are larger than most countries in the UN. Small regimes rarely cause trouble alone. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. But, when attached to larger countries, they can. Great-power wars and other conflicts have often involved quarrels in small areas: Serbia, Poland, Berlin, Taiwan, South Korea, South Vietnam, Cuba, Kuwait, etc.
Almost all the important wars of history involved great states or their allies. You may even count them on one hand: France, Germany, Russia, UK-USA (as one). In the future, you may want to add China (still one hand). The geopolitical structure of the political globe rewards only those who have grown beyond their original locations, literally and figuratively.
The U.S. began on the east coast and, within two generations, went as far west as possible. Had the land-mass extended beyond the Pacific shore, California would now locate where Hawaii is. After both world wars, there were high-level efforts to restrict Germany to within tiny borders without resources (both obviously failed).
Geopolitics “influences” behavior but cannot “determine” it. India, Canada, Australia, and Brazil are all very big but largely tranquil.
The fourth difference is the “determining” element. In the last analysis, the decisive factor between war/peace and world vs. local regimes is the factor of control, i.e. political. Warfare, as a noun, can mean various things and has been used in liberal ways for practically everything: poverty, drugs, crime, etc. But in the original sense, not “borrowed,” war means the clash of nation-states and their militaries. This has been the meaning throughout history and remains the critical usage even today.
The essential distinguishing point between local and world wars lies in the absence or presence of political control. There are few societies that have avoided “civil” war, i.e. military conflict within the same polity. But civil war has never, repeat never, dominated a domestic polity and, in fact, has usually occurred only once.
By definition, world politics is exactly the opposite. Not only does war regulate the global system, it defines its very nature. Indeed, the world political regime contains “incessant” war, i.e. non-stop, while all, repeat all, domestic regimes depend on stability/peace for very existence. This includes democracies, dictatorships, and all else in-between.
The word “anarchy,” by definition, cannot exist within a country, but defines the existence of world politics. And that is the difference.
As For Me
In the final analysis, what do we want in foreign policies?
There are at least two choices:
- Advance the cause of world stability and peace based upon western political values of liberty, democracy, and legality.
- Support the foreign policy of my country “right or wrong.”
As an avowed “American nationalist,” I vote for the first.