Non-state actors have upstaged the superpowers

The era of superpower hegemony is over, and that of non-state actors has arrived. Fourteen years after 9/11, the US has — let’s be blunt — been repeatedly defeated by radical Islam. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, or even Yemen. The US can drop a thousand bombs from a thousand drones, yet cannot dictate outcomes to a hydra-headed monster. The California school shooting showed that the US is unsafe even at home. Paris is the latest European scene of devastation. Radical Islamic thought has effortlessly penetrated national borders and created terrorists within the US and Europe.

At the recent Times Litfest in New Delhi and Mumbai, many speakers addressed these issues. Many lambasted US military interventions that had created not democracy but anarchy and mass deaths.

Yet, historically, imperial powers alone could end local wars, and thus bring stability in place of anarchy. Superpowers could overthrow regimes they disliked, and install stable, controllable rulers across the world. Pax Britannica, Pax Americana or Pax Sovietica (in Eastern Europe) provided stability, and set rules for property, trade and commerce. This facilitated economic progress, providing handsome dividends for imperial controllers and also lifting living standards for the entire region.

That now looks so 20th century. Earlier, the state was all powerful and individuals and groups were mostly powerless. But in the 21st century, the internet and social media have empowered non-state actors so much that superpowers can no longer install stable regimes at will. So, intervention now brings anarchy, not stability. This is a totally new development.

The internet and social media can now create and mobilize radical ideologues across the world, and create homegrown fanatics in every country. There is no military defence against these new developments. The ability to spread subversive ideas, once the hallmark of liberation movements, is now the hallmark of radical Islam.

The US easily ousted the Taliban from Afghan cities after 9/11, but could not dislodge it from rural areas. High technology could pulverise conventional armed forces but could not control low-tech rural areas, or stop the Taliban’s spread of ideas and arms, or even stop the Taliban raising funds through local taxes, smuggling and the opium trade. Obama’s military surge in Afghanistan gained ground only temporarily. He ultimately exited tail between legs, leaving the Taliban smiling.

ISIS is more fanatical than al-Qaida, and has enjoyed tremendous success in Iraq and Syria. Unlike most non-state actors, ISIS has grabbed considerable territory, but this may be unsustainable. However, even if ISIS gives up most of its territory, it will retain the power to persuade and mobilize through social media and the internet, inspiring an unending succession of alienated Muslims in many countries to become suicide killers.

New forms of communication have enabled non-state actors to spread their tentacles, and to mobilize money and arms, on a scale that even strong states cannot foil. Somali pirates have shown that even commercial hoodlums, seeking millions without a shred of ideology, can defy the greatest naval superpowers. Capturing hostages for ransom has proved an easy way to raise enormous sums that terrorists in earlier times could not dream of.

Hacking and other 21st century tools enable radicals to undercut the most powerful states. One day hackers may steal nuclear secrets, or direct government missiles at targets chosen by terrorists. Leftist anti-imperialists might rejoice at western discomfiture but a wide array of international jihadi literature classifies India too as an enemy, as an imperial tyrant in Kashmir that also kills Muslims in Gujarat and elsewhere. Those celebrating the end of superpower hegemony must understand the consequences. India is at risk, no less than the US or France.

Yet most Indian intellectuals are in denial. They would rather focus on the threat from communal Hinduism at home — which is very real — and dismiss Islamic communalism as a distant threat that mostly affects the West. This is sheer myopia.

How does one meet this threat? Ideally, by creating a sense of universal brotherhood. But radical Islamists are uninterested. They need gain only a few adherents a day to create danger for everybody else. In the absence of 20th century solutions, western states may retreat into fortresses. India may have to follow.

At the Mumbai Litfest, Dileep Padgaokar declared that a tough state had to replace the era of ever-expanding civil liberties. The greatest threat to civil liberty now came from nonstate actors, not the state. This could not be tackled by motherhood, brotherhood and other 20th century virtuous solutions.

Today, diabolical viruses, placed by both state and non-state actors, sit on every smartphone and computer, monitoring everyone. Radical ideas are buzzing in the airwaves all around us. We face new dangers, and an unprecedented loss of security and privacy. There are no easy answers.

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