The State of the State

ISIS video still

One of the most fundamental questions lurking beneath the surface of 21st century security discussions is the question of what constitutes a state. Does the prominence of powerful sub-state actors with state-like functions show that the state is declining?

Recent events in Iraq suggest that our confusion is a function of substantial definitional problems. Is the Islamic State in Iraq really a state? An armed movement that has a state? None of the above?

While I cannot improve on the analysis of ISIS offered by Middle East specialists Douglas Ollivant and Brian Fishman, I at least can offer a few general observations derived from the literature about the problem of analyzing ISIS as a state.

In his book on state change and the contemporary state system, Hendrik Spruyt argues that the contemporary state is simply the last entity standing. There were once serious competitors to what we understand today as the sovereign state. Leagues, city-states, and other entities were once considered common forms of human organization.

Further muddying the waters is the distinction between the “state” as political scientists consider it and what an anthropologist or archaeologist might consider a state. For many international relations scholars, state systems are dated to Westphalia. But if a state is simply anything above the chiefdom level, then states and polity systems are far older.

ISIS, as evidenced by Ollivant and Fishman’s analysis, seems to pass the “looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” test. ISIS boasts capabilities for both the administration of services and the control and direction of political violence. Additionally, ISIS controls a vast amount of territory. Indeed, as Ollivant and Fishman note, “[t]he group does not have safe haven within a state. It is a de facto state that is a safe haven.” It might be objected that ISIS, as per its original founding documents, is simply a patchwork of pseudo-feudal alliances that manifest themselves in a political-military organization. However, very few real-life states completely fit textbook definitions.

William Gibson once said that the future is already here, but is unevenly distributed. Similarly, new state-like forms often are unruly patchworks of relationships, groups, and systems that acquire a dignified polish with time, assuming the state lasts. Nationalism and civic religion serve as a means of sweeping this ugly and contingent process under the rug. Mature and established states conduct themselves with the pomp and circumstance of old money. New states appear as crass, vulgar, and chaotic as F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed Jay Gatsby. But the difference between the two is often just time. Everything else depends on the degree to which the new state can expand its writ.

Some states consolidate themselves, either through a gradual accumulation of political, military, and economic power or the violent suppression of competitors. But many never fully consolidate. In fact, as Boaz Atzili has argued, many post-1945 states simply have not had the opportunity to fully consolidate themselves. If borders are fixed by law and norms, then the processes of conquest and expansion cannot expand the writ of the state, fix border problems, or incentivize more complex and inclusive systems of government.

Should the United States treat ISIS as a state? Ultimately this is a political rather than an analytical question. Due to the substantial vagueness across disciplinary boundaries about what constitutes a “state,” one could put various social scientists and historians in a room and watch them argue while ISIS’s aggressive fighters advance over yet more territory. Even if our informal state-definition commission converged on a consensus about ISIS’s statefulness, a sound academic definition is unlikely to provide sound policy.

Taiwan, for example, fits many definitions of a state. Yet to maintain peace in the Straits, we paradoxically claim that it should have sovereignty and autonomy in foreign, domestic, and security policy while denying it UN representation and acknowledging the “One China” framework. As strange as this sounds, this is the balancing act that the United States has managed since President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to Beijing.

Ultimately, whether or not a state is a state is a matter for academics. Who is willing to believe that ISIS is a state matters more for the world of practice. At present, the international community regards ISIS as a criminal rebellion. Very few actors of note monitoring Iraq’s descent into chaos want it to be thought of as a legitimate entity. But if ISIS survives and even thrives, in a few decades perhaps it too will be among the large number of foreign entities saturating the world’s major capitols with pinstripe and wingtip-clad lobbyists.

How do you know what a state is in the 21st century? Unfortunately academics and analysts can’t give you the answer. But when the “state” is legitimate enough to flood DC with brochures about business opportunities in the innovative and exciting frontier market of ISIS, they’re pretty damn close.