There is a striking similarity between the behaviour of dominant states and that of fringe terrorist groups: both are governed by the pursuit of power over principles. In this dangerous world order, argues Sundeep Waslekar, new rules are needed to rein in the unrestrained use of force. But to break the vicious historical cycle, these rules must be written by civil society at large – and not just by the traditional bearers of power

The major players on both sides of the war on terror appear to be making the same value proposition to the world: that force, and not law, should govern international relations.

But force has always been used to determine relations between states. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror have simply reaffirmed the place of force in international relations, in the guise of yet another rivalry between two belief systems.

Although the forms of competing belief systems have changed, the game continues in much the same way as before. At the turn of the previous millennium the Crusaders annihilated not only Muslims, but also Jews in Jerusalem and Christians in Byzantine. Shortly thereafter, Christians fought among themselves from Catholic and Protestant camps, while Sunni and Shia Muslims turned on each other, as did Turks, Persians and Arabs.

Even though the Treaty of Westphalia may have encouraged the separation of power between church and state, the same pattern of conflict nevertheless emerged through subsequent rivalries between fascism and liberalism, colonialism and liberation, and communism and capitalism.

Underlying the rivalries between belief systems is a tension between power and principles. It is in the nature of states to expand their power and reach. It is also in the nature of human beings to co-exist with one another on the basis of formal or informal principles.

When rulers, who are entrusted with managing human affairs on behalf of society, maintain a balance between power and principles, there is by and large relative stability. But when this basic balance is disturbed, with power superseding principles, human nature tends to react – and the result is generally explosive.

International agreements and institutions, most notably the United Nations, embody an attempt to maintain this basic balance. Even though international law often fails to regulate force in practice, it at least provides a theoretical basis for the conduct of international relations.

However, the use of illegal force in the name of Islam, for example, by a small but effective fringe, is dangerous not only for its human toll but also because it seeks to undermine state sovereignty.

Extremist Islamic groups do not recognize sovereignty of states; they seek to establish divine sovereignty. They do not accept compromise or negotiation, but believe they will only realize their absolutist visions through force.

By a similar token, while the United States claims to use force to promote freedom and democracy, in reality it tends to deploy such force only against those with whom it has a vast asymmetry of power.

For instance, it attacks a relatively weak Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas it cajoles Pakistan and North Korea as they own weapons of mass destruction, and Saudi Arabia on account of its vast oil reserves.

So, in combating states that are weak, while on the other hand attempting to negotiate with those states with a degree of strength, the United States has pursued ground rules whereby superiority of force decides the basis of international relations.

Changing nature of terror

While extreme Islamist groups justify terror in the name of God, their real intention is to consolidate power. Violence often originates from a genuine desire to redress local grievances, but it can also be motivated by greed.

Terrorists and their sympathizers might advocate a society based on religion because only in such a society can they become the governing elite, a role which the modern technocratic society cannot afford them.

Terrorists spurn democracy because they want to govern without accountability. Even when they galvanize people against repression and corruption of those in power, the underlying objective is to change the social and political order so that the terrorists themselves can become the governing elite.

In their effort to expand power, religious zealots employ alienated and unemployed youths as low cost soldiers. Currently, there are 10 million jobless young men between the ages of 15 and 35 in the five countries of the “arc of instability” – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In addition, there are signs of extremist versions of Islam gaining popularity in parts of southeast Asia and Africa, where between 10 million and 20 million young men are underemployed or unemployed. Thus, a massive force of competent, educated, jobless and alienated young men is available to extremist groups.

As the first step for establishing divine sovereignty, extremist Islamic groups have sought to take over the states in which they were based. Their ambition was initially confined to the local environment.

Eventually, however, the Muslim World League and the Council of Islamic Coordination, financed by petro-dollars, paved the way for transnational terrorism. Islamic extremists also received support from the United States, which was eager to thwart communism and nationalism.

While the Muslim World League propagated Saudi Wahabi Islam, Iran exported Shia extremism after its 1979 revolution. The earlier organizational vehicles were created under direct state sponsorship. Then, in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden brought together non-state actors in his International Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews, albeit with indirect support from a few states.

In the first two years of the war on terror, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has been weakened through the killing or capture of 3,100 of its estimated 4,000 members. But the Islamic International Front is still alive and thriving, and al-Qaeda, having refined its role, is now mainly providing strategic advice, skills and funds. The 30 affiliates of the International Islamic Front now carry out operational tasks.

The latter executed attacks on various international targets in October 2002 and May 2003. As the network spreads worldwide, its ability to use force at will increases substantially.

A larger threat comes from the terrorist groups that can mobilize the masses – groups that are more menacing than secret and small organizations like al-Qaeda. For instance, Hamas in Gaza, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and Lashker-e-Taiba in Pakistan effectively run mass factories of terror.

Moreover, they combine militancy with social work, assuming business activities and entering politics, thus ensuring an almost limitless supply of funds and manpower. They run mosques, hospitals, schools, clinics, refugee camps, and small businesses, and blend into the societies in which they operate. Lashker-e-Taiba, for one, has a 190-acre campus, 150 schools and over 100,000 workers at its disposal.

Weapons of mass destruction The greatest danger of terrorism, however, arises from weapons of mass destruction – a threat compounded by possible collaboration between state and non-state actors.

Some still hold that such collaboration is unlikely, arguing that it is not in the interest of states to do so for fear of blackmail. Moreover, they say, there is no evidence of any terrorist group possessing a nuclear bomb. Furthermore, nuclear weapons require sophisticated delivery vehicles, which are extremely difficult to obtain without collaboration.

The evidence suggests a disquieting story: the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 18 incidents of the smuggling of enriched uranium or plutonium in the decade from 1993 to 2003.

A large quantity of weapons-grade fissile material is not properly guarded, especially in the former Soviet Union. The worry is more acute, given the large number of poorly paid or unemployed nuclear experts around the world.

There are two kinds of threats associated with nuclear weapons. First, terrorists can either directly or indirectly take over a state having nuclear weapons.

This is particularly conceivable in a military regime. Typically, the military or its intelligence agency may use terrorist groups to serve its end. As the reliance of the military on the terrorist groups grows, the latter expand their support base in the ranks of the former.

Furthermore, if the terrorist groups are allowed to create a popular base among people, they can tighten their grip on the military. Over a period of time the military, or some of its factions, can become a tool of the terrorist groups in a reversal of roles.

Second, supporters of terrorism in a nuclear state can covertly help terrorists to acquire fissile material. The terrorists might not be able to use it to manufacture a sophisticated warhead but they can make dirty bombs.

If they coordinate an international attack of dirty bombs on several urban targets simultaneously, the physical impact of such acts may be limited in terms of area, but it would almost certainly terrorize society at large.

Finally, there is a risk of a terrorist group developing a biological weapon, which would be much easier to deploy than nuclear arms.

Constructing peace, deconstructing terror

In order to respond to the threat of force by non-state actors, the game needs new rules. As a first step, a comprehensive international action plan should be developed, featuring the following elements:

First, an international expert group should be established to prepare a composite index of terrorism, with benchmarks to designate terror groups on a regular basis.

It should also prepare a simultaneous listing of states that allow their intelligence agencies and other structures to provide inputs to terrorist groups in the form of bases, training, funds, arms, advice and organizational vehicles as host countries. The international community should be empowered to take action against such terrorist groups, their affiliates, leaders and host countries.

Second, a new treaty should be introduced, to complement the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), to monitor illegal transfers of technology or raw material required for weapons of mass destruction by states to non-state organizations.

All states, within or outside the NPT, which are suspected to have acquired technology or parts of warheads or delivery systems through smuggling or criminal activities, should be placed on a watch list.

Third, an International Shura of Islamic Scholars should be set up, to determine the issue of religious sanction for violence. Such a body, to be created at the initiative of the leaders of Islamic countries, should be comprised of independent scholars representing different streams of Islam, and not government officials.

Fourth, global conflict-resolution initiatives should be based on the four South Tyrol principles, according to which: violence is terminated by all parties; the territorial jurisdiction of the state from which a minority is seeking separation is honoured; in return the state guarantees the protection of rights by conferring special status on the minority concerned; and the two countries which may claim the conflict zone agree to forge a positive relationship based on the legalising of existing territorial control, trust and interaction.

Fifth, the international community should follow procedures under the UN Security Council to protect people affected by genocide as per the recommendations of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

The international community should endeavour to promote a judicious combination of hard and soft power to bring about a positive change.

Sixth, a multi-billion dollar Global Transformation Fund should be launched to transform the economies of developing countries, narrow the digital and skills divide, and enable youth to acquire education and capacity to deal with demands of the modern economy.

Seventh, a fair and open trading system should be agreed in the new round of trade talks, where agricultural produce and labour intensive products from developing countries find access to industrialized markets. This would create employment opportunities and therefore act as a disincentive to crime, conflict and terrorism.

Superforce, not superpower

While it is crucial to curb terror on the one hand, it is also necessary to develop the architecture of global security in such a way that the United States, or any one state or group of states, cannot use force at their discretion.

This is possible if the international community firmly commits to a multilateral approach and evolves proper norms, which standardize the basis for intervention and counter-terrorism action.

The United States, for example, has shown a preference for unilateral and bilateral approaches. In response other countries can withdraw cooperation or offer selective cooperation to urge the United States to agree to multilateral approaches.

The United States can ignore the international community in one instance, as in the case of the Iraq war, but not indefinitely. There are limits to its power, which is most graphically illustrated by its failure to browbeat slumlords in Baghdad and its inclination to compromise with warlords in Afghanistan.

The United States is better described as a “superforce”, and not the superpower it is often claimed to be. Whereas power has both physical and non-physical dimensions, force has only a physical dimension; the same applies to the United Sates’ might.

The United States accounts for 40% to 50% of global military expenditure, but most of it is spent on hardware and technology. The strength of the American armed forces is 1.4 million, out of which roughly half is army and marines and half is navy and air force. A decisive victory in the war on terror needs a competent and large army, while the navy and air force are useful in the early stages. However, the strength of the US army has proved to be inadequate to fight two enemies simultaneously.

With the changing nature of terror, the United States simply does not have adequate human resources to counter 30-odd groups at a time.

Furthermore, when groups adopting mass mobilization strategies take over states and societies, the United States will have to deal with huge human structures, far outstripping its army, marines and reservists.

The conclusive defeat of terror is only possible, if the United States seeks support from other countries, which have specialized know-how and skilled military personnel to respond to threats posed by various members of the terrorist network.

Besides manpower and specialized know-how, the United States also needs financial resources. It has proved incapable of meeting the security and reconstruction needs of Afghanistan and Iraq on its own. Its predicament will be very difficult if the fire of terror spreads to many parts of the world. It is not enough to be the largest economy with one third of the global GDP.

The rate of return of the United States in its war on terror is declining. The US-led efforts to freeze terrorist finances succeeded in blocking $100 million from October to December 2001, $25 million in 2002 and $11 million in 2003.

At the end of two years of its intervention in Afghanistan, the Taliban had resurfaced and, at the end of six months of its intervention in Iraq, US casualties were still mounting.

Still, it is important to note the distinction between any particular US administration and the American nation. The United States was founded on values of freedom, justice and trust. From time to time, particular administrations have deviated from America’s core national values in the pursuit of power.

In a particular situation, it may be possible for the administration to mobilize public opinion, by appealing to patriotism and through public relations, but this cannot last forever. A vibrant democracy will curb the aspirations of its leaders when they seek to expand power at the cost of principle.

Initiative for change

It would be naïve to expect the United States, or indeed several Islamic countries, to subscribe straight away to an international framework based on new rules. The initiative will need to come from other progressive countries, particularly those in Europe and Asia, who do not want to see the world degenerate into a devastating confrontation. Enlightened citizens from the United States and Islamic countries can create a domestic constituency for change.

Initiatives can be launched through dialogue between the United States and Europe, liberal and conservative Islamic countries, and between the West and Islamic nations. Other regional powers such as Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa can also play vital roles.

The process need not wait for the first step by governments. Yalta and Bretton Woods were conceived at a time when states occupied almost all of the political space. In the last 50 years, global civil society has gone through a kind of democratization. It is now feasible for thinkers, political parties, business corporations and non-governmental organizations to come together to create new intellectual architecture.

Ultimately, states will have to adopt and implement this. Although it would be unrealistic for civil society to ignore the role of states, it is not essential for citizens to wait for an inter-state discourse to set off the new rules of the game.

If global civil society does not take the future in its own hands, non-state actors with destructive potential will set the agenda instead. The events of 9/11 and other acts of terror demonstrate that terrorist groups are no longer willing to be mere tools of states; they want to shape the world order on their own terms.

They have ruffled the economy, freedom and alliances of the world’s only superforce. The consequences of similar, repeated damage would be immense.

Law, contracts and institutions cannot by themselves contain the use of force by dominant states or by terrorist groups alike, since either one can simply disavow such concepts.

The examples of Afghanistan and Iraq also expose the limit of force as a tool against terror. Rather, the best weapon is to weaken the capacity of terrorist groups to inflict damage, and to undermine their perceived legitimacy in their local constituencies. At the same time there must also be a firm commitment by states worldwide to the multilateral approach, to constrain superstates intent on unilateral action.

But this will require new rules of the game, to sustain a basic balance between power and principles. The old rules that permit power to triumph over principles have trapped the world in a cycle of conflicts. The greatest challenge before us is to conceive new ways of thinking to break the vicious cycle.

Sundeep Waslekar
Sundeep Waslekar is the founder of the International Centre for Peace Initiatives and the president of Strategic Foresight Group, an independent think-tank based in Mumbai, India.