The world is in danger of anarchy arising from views justifying unilateral military and other actions by one country against other countries.  These views include the theory that failed states do not have the right to exist and the doctrine that a country can strike on the basis of anticipatory self-defence.  The sane alternative is an international mechanism organised by the United Nations to define terrorism and to produce measures to prevent future conflicts.

One of the most frightening things I have recently heard is the “theory of the failed states” and what may happen to them.

A few months ago I was at a seminar in Germany on the state of global governance.

At the concluding panel, a senior official of an international agency gave an off-the-cuff exposition on the thinking evolving in the United States on the current global situation.

The war in Afghanistan was practically over and a new interim government was then about to be installed, and a plan for foreign aid to help revive the country was then being hatched.

The senior official started his talk by informing the audience that the US administration had now developed the theory that there were “failed states” in the world and that these states did not have the right to exist, since they posed a threat to other countries.

He remarked that this thinking went far beyond the United Nations Secretary General’s position on “humanitarian intervention”.

This position, when introduced a few years ago, had itself been controversial, as it expounded the view that the international community could intervene in the affairs of a country on humanitarian grounds, for example to prevent genocide.

In the new theory of failed states, the “international community”, or a set of countries, or even a single country, can intervene in another country, including to change its government, if that country is a failed state.

This in itself was a scary “theory”, since it would not only legitimise the actions of the US in Afghanistan, but would raise these actions to the level of general justification for future actions (multilateral or unilateral) against other “rogue countries.”

But what was really frightening was when the senior official elaborated that the definition of “failed states” was not confined to the countries that had already been often accused of being “terrorist”, such as Iraq, North Korea or those in a state of anarchy like Somalia.    

The “failed states” would include countries such as Iran, Egypt and Nigeria, which are unable to provide jobs, education and development for their own people.

Since this lack of development could spawn discontent and violence that would spill over to other countries, through terrorist acts, then other countries have the right to act against the “failed states” to prevent the terrorism that could otherwise harm the other countries. 

If this is indeed the type of thinking that is evolving, in the US at least, then the rest of the world has the right to be disturbed, and frightened.

It raises a lot of questions.  What is a “failed state”, and who has the right to define it?   Even if a country is in a state of underdevelopment or even anarchy, do other countries have the right to interfere or intervene?  Does even the United Nations, have that right and if so under what specific conditions?

The problem is expanded manifold if the so-called “failed state” is defined not only as one which sponsors or is unable to contain trans-boundary acts of terrorism, but also one which is unable to provide jobs and schooling for its people.

Many, if not most, developing countries, can be categorised as having failed to generate growth or development of the type or rate to satisfy the basic food, employment, housing and education needs of the majority of people.

True, a large part of the blame must be placed on the political, commercial and intellectual elites of these countries.  But the failure can also be attributed to factors largely beyond the countries’ control, such as falling commodity export prices, the debt burden and inadequate aid and technology transfer.

The expanded theory of the “failed state” not only puts the blame onto the country concerned, but also opens the way to political and even military intervention in many countries—countries that are suspected to sponsor or tolerate “terrorism”, and countries that are unable to develop sufficiently or in a way that would prevent the conditions for “terrorism.”

An interesting opinion article in the Asian Wall Street Journal of 28 February entitled “A Right to Oust Saddam” advocated the view that international law and practice justifies unilateral US action to dethrone the Iraqi leader.

The article, by Lee Casey and David Rivkin (two Washington-based attorneys who served in the US Justice Department during the Reagan and first Bush administrations), note that observers especially in Europe have asserted that any US military operations against Iraq would require UN Security Council authorisation.

This, the authors note, will probably not be forthcoming, given French, Russian and Chinese attitudes.  But luckily, they say, pre existing Security Council resolutions and the inherent right to self-defence, recognised by the UN Charter and international law, support an attack on Iraq without further Security Council action.

They say that under the international law doctrine of “anticipatory self defence”, states may take preemptive action against an enemy before an actual attack.

They cite previous instances where the US used this right of anticipatory self-defence (the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1986 air raids on Libya) and state that Israel cited this doctrine to justify its 1981 raid on Saddam’s nuclear facility in Osirak (for which Israel was roundly criticised but no sanction was imposed on it).

They conclude that an “unnecessarily restrictive view of the right of anticipatory self-defence” would make it difficult or impossible for the US to prevent additional terrorist attacks on the US and its allies, that such a restricted view is not required by law, and that the bottom line is that “the US doesn’t need more action by the United Nations” before acting against Saddam.

Such a view immediately raises many serious issues.  Firstly, it would give almost a blank cheque for powerful nations such as the US to militarily strike or otherwise intervene in other countries, if in its opinion such countries are a threat to it—or its allies.

Whether such an opinion is justified would not be scrutinised or decided on by a third party, such as the UN or the International Court of Justice.  The US could in other words be the prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, all in one.

Thus, if this doctrine is applied and not challenged, the US would really be able to impose its will on practically the rest of the world.

The second major issue is that if the US can justify unilateral military action on the basis of this doctrine, then so can other countries.

The article had cited the case of Israel using the doctrine to bomb Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981.  Other countries could also bomb their enemies, real or perceived, on the grounds of anticipatory self-defence.

For example, countries that perceive the US or Israel to be threats to their safety could use the same doctrine to strike at these two countries.

It is unlikely that everyone will agree to a ruling that only the US would have the right to strike against its enemies on the grounds of anticipatory self defence, but that no other country has that right.

The result of applying such a doctrine unilaterally would most probably be anarchy on an international scale.

There is thus no sane alternative to multilateralism.  The issues of what constitutes terrorism, and which states are “terrorist” or “terrorism-supporting” are complex and should be dealt with through an international mechanism, such as a United Nations conference.

Such a mechanism or conference should also produce guidelines and procedures on measures to counter terrorism.

Equally important, there should be internationally-agreed actions to examine the structural or root causes of violence and conflict and to tackle these factors. 

Theories of “failed states” and other justifications for unilateral intervention by a single country or a set of countries can bring about a global situation even more dangerous than the one we now have.