Let us begin with a thought experiment. Visualise a dining room. On the table in the room is a platter of newly roasted and sliced meat, fragrant and juicy, that you have just carried in from the kitchen. As you set it down, you realise that you have left something in the kitchen and must go back.
In the opposite doorway sits the family dog. He is a good dog, and knows that it is against the rule of the house for him to be in the dining room. And he knows that if he obeys the rules, eventually some of the delicious meat will find its way into his dish. But he is sorely tempted to hasten the process. As you walk into the kitchen, you turn to the dog and firmly say, “Stay!”
In the kitchen, you hear a noise and know that it is the sound of the dog trying to creep silently into the dining room. You say, “I heard that!” in a similar firm voice, tinged with admonition. As you walk back into the dining room, you see the dog has returned to his starting position, with a guilty look on his face. He has been caught and knows it.
Now imagine the same scenario, but instead of a dog in the doorway, the family cat. You turn to the kitchen, and warn, “Don’t even think about it!” but half-heartedly, since you already know it is in vain. When the noise comes, and you yell, “Don’t you dare!” the subsequent noise is a solid thump. Returning to the dining room, you see a slice missing from the platter, the cat on the floor in the last stage of swallowing, and meat juices on the floor and in the cat’s fur. The cat looks up, summoning its best attempt at a look of pure innocence.
Thus the difference between internalising values and only seeming to have done so.
In the final scenario, a rabid skunk has made its way into the house. You do not know whether it will steal food, spray you, or perhaps charge straight at you and bite you. There is no point talking to it. You need to get it out of the house immediately, but you cannot merely take some implement and strike it or kill it. You refrain from striking it immediately not from affection, or from any illusion that you can command it, but merely because you must make sure you can eliminate it without further harm. You must take care that in dealing with it, it does not spray, or worse yet bite and infect you in a suicidal gesture.
In none of the three cases do you merely lash out in anger. But each of the three requires different tactics.
So it is with nations. Categories can be drawn, and they affect the choice of tactics.
As with our animal parable, the world is divided into three corresponding categories of actors:
Category1 One consists of the International Order States (“dogs” in the terms of the parable). These states accept the current international order rule-set. They will of course jockey for national advantage, but overwhelmingly within the constraints of the rule-set. Such states, or to be more precise their national political systems and institutions, have a strong aversion to using force against other Category One states. Even against other categories of states, and even in cases of great provocation, such states typically use force only with reluctance, and with substantial internal dissent.
These states are, in general, relatively easy to negotiate and deal with. Although national interests will still conflict, compromises can be sought, and international organisations composed entirely of such nations tend to function fairly effectively.
Category Two consists of amoral, adventitious, Rational National Advantage States (“cats”). These states do not accept the values of the current international order but comply (or appear to comply) with them as needed, and only to the extent needed to gain the advantages of belonging to the international order. For example, membership in the World Trade Organisation brings substantial economic advantages in return for complying with a variety of international rules. Some states actually believe in these rules, and would (and did) comply with them even before the advent of the WTO regime. Other states do not believe in the rules, did not comply with them before they had WTO membership, and even today only comply when they believe they would be detected and punished if they tried to break them.
Of course, such states will cite international rules when the rules work to their advantage in specific cases. They will use force when opportunity presents itself, the use would benefit them, and they believe they will not be significantly opposed.
Nevertheless, they are rational actors who will negotiate and comply with agreements so long as they cannot get away with breaking them. To deter them from breaking the rule-sets, threats of consequences must be credibly and consistently backed up with consequences. Credibility requires that if a state is seen to break them, consequences up to and including the use of force must be applied by other states in the world system. These states cannot be deterred with mere rhetoric, or even a past history of applying consequences. They will continually observe the enforcement regime and take any faltering as the indication of a potential opportunity. Half-hearted enforcement measures do not work as deterrent measures; these states are often willing to absorb limited damage, economic and even physical, if they think the enforcers will not press further.
These states are difficult to get along with but it can be done so long as limits are clearly stated and consistently enforced. The enforcing states must maintain a preponderance of force and the credibility of using it. These states will be observing carefully and can detect any weakening of determination, so that willingness to enforce must be demonstrated from time to time.
Introducing such states into international organisations created by and for Category One states is generally an error, as they will use their membership primarily as a bargaining chip. In cases in which historical reasons, or exigencies of statecraft, require membership to be extended to such states, it is important to avoid giving them veto power, or making such states anywhere near a majority of the membership.
Category Three consists of states and non-state actors with fundamentally different assumptions about the world than those of Categories One and Two. (These are the “rabid skunks”.)
This category consists of states or organisations controlled by groups with fundamentally different and incompatible assumptions about reality, usually because they hold a theology or ideology that is hermetically sealed and is neither shared nor able to be challenged by the normal members of state society. Quite often this belief system is apocalyptic, and its adherents expect a cataclysmic transformation of the world in the near or immediate future. This can be either supernatural, or one that is ostensibly rational and scientific but relying on some concept of historical inevitability or destiny. They do not pursue national advantage as normally understood, but rather pursue good (in their eyes) outcomes validated by means or values that Category One and Two states do not recognise, such as the revelation of the Twelfth Imam, the Apocalypse, or the triumph of the proletariat. These goods are to be achieved, or may be achieved, by violence. Sometimes, although inevitable, they require some human action, usually violent, to push the button.
In the minds of Category Three actors, all other rule-sets are specifically repudiated and have no moral force. They are individually willing to die, or even seek martyrdom proactively, and are willing to contemplate the physical destruction of their own societies in order to gain supernatural rewards or goals. The lives of non-members are utterly insignificant.
Negotiations and agreements with such groups are pointless, except for very short-term tactical ends. It may be necessary to kill all of the genuine believers. When enough of them are killed, some fraction may develop a peaceful variant of their ideology and seek to negotiate a peace, if they can gain control from the bitter-enders. Also, if they control an area, many in the area will adopt surface compliance with their ideology, but will hope for their overthrow. Therefore, decapitation of leadership is preferable to killing entire populations.
If they can be contained effectively, they may also evolve over time to a non-rabid form of ideology. However, containment has become difficult with doomsday cults because of cyber-recruiting and leaderless jihad.
Obviously, as with all categories, there are gradations and in-between cases. The US and the CANZUK nations are in a special subset of Category One in which they will sometimes act against short-term national interest in specific cases because they see the preservation of the meta-rules as being a high national interest in and of itself. France, on the other hand, is near the bottom of Category One.
Since culture is persistent over generations but not entirely immutable, it is possible for nations to move from one category to another. It is easier for a nation to move from Category Three to Two, than from Two to One, but it is not impossible. However, wishful thinking can sometimes fool observers into seeing a transition when in fact it has not occurred.
For example, Thomas P.M. Barnett made the major error (along with many other people) in thinking China and Russia had risen into Category One at some point. They are in Category Two and will remain there for the foreseeable future. However, given that China was in Category Three during the Cultural Revolution, its current status is an improvement.
Iran has been in Category Three for a long time, but there are signs that some elements of its ruling class would like to move it into Category Two. The Obama administration is convinced that this has essentially happened, but it is unlikely that this is the case. Thus, the nuclear weapons development deal which the US has promoted with Iran is something that, with good verification, might possibly succeed with a Category Two state, but is madness to sign with a Category Three state.
One of the current problems with international relations is that no one rule-set is adequate for dealing with all three categories of actors. Many feel that the entire world can be dealt with through the Category One rule-set, with only a few exceptions in Category Three. Others would try to deal with Category Two nations as if they were Category Three, which is also inappropriate The lack of a clear understanding of what the Category Two problem is, and a clear rule-set for dealing with such nations, is a major failing with the leaders of Category One nations.
This leaves us with a world that is not in a cold war, but also not in the “End of History” situation imagined in the 1990s. The attempts to bring the Category Two states into the Category One system have by and large failed. See, for example, the United Nations. However, the Category Two states do have a common interest with the Category One world in suppressing the unpredictable and dangerous Category Three entities. This is not quite a simple “multipolar” world, either. In such a world each power bloc can align omni-directionally with any other. But the motivation for Category One states to prefer each other, even when their interests may have rivalrous elements, over Category Two partners, is valid and real. So what we are left with is a hybrid, multilayered system in which small groups of Category One states form close blocs, which make looser alliances with other Category One blocs, and also make alliances of convenience and opportunity with Category Two states, particularly to suppress Category Three entities.
In this world, we do not need Cold War levels of armament. Some levels of international arms-limitation protocols and measures can be implemented, which helps keep defence expenditures somewhat under control. Category Two states can be included in this if verification is robust. However, the level of demobilisation achieved after the fall of the Berlin Wall went too far. An up-to-date military, of adequate size to carry out a number of combat operations simultaneously, is needed in order to be a functional Category One bloc. Many smaller states can only achieve this in an alliance, or even a confederation.
The era of small, nimble Category One states which seemed to be viable after 1990 is probably coming to an end, given the escalating costs of inter-operable modern forces, especially in the age of space, drone and cyber warfare mixed with traditional systems—unless they are plugged into a larger entity, at least as tightly knit as NATO. Similarly, the dream of locating much governance in transnational organisations in which almost all actors worldwide participate is also fading. Additionally, small nations have shown themselves to be too open to manipulation by global mafias or Category Two intelligence operations. The Category Two nations simply don’t play well enough within such frameworks to permit them unlimited access—they must be placed on permanent parole, as it were. The popular revolt against globalisation throughout the OECD (that is, Category One) world is essentially a revolt against the workings of Gresham’s Law in international relations. That is to say, if the system forces actors to accept Category One and Category Two nations as equal, the Category Two nations will gain advantage at the expense of Category One nations.
International rule-based institutions will continue to play a role in governance. But it will be limited, and Category Two nations will participate only under close watch. Smaller, tighter blocs of Category One nations in which members trust each other to obey the rule-sets will play a larger role, and the small, nimble Category One nations will be shopping for such to align themselves with. Those that can form a confederation capable of supporting a genuine, directly-elected parliamentary body with genuine power of the purse and oversight capability will be the gold standard of such blocs.
In such a world, a third world war can be avoided by a few simple rules. Category One nations must maintain reasonable and competitive militaries and demonstrate their willingness to use them. They should form alliances and joint commands to multiply these capabilities. They should always communicate red lines firmly to Category Two states, and display a willingness to back them up. However, Category One states and blocs should at least consider negotiation with Category Two states as long as it is done realistically, and as long as agreements are verifiable and enforceable. Category One and Category Two states can and should co-operate in the suppression of Category Three entities. Category Three entities cannot be trusted, and should not be negotiated with except for short-term limited ends. The proper goal should be to eradicate the ideological or theological clique in command of Category Three entities and replace with them with at least a Category Two governance system.
Category One and Category Two entities can possess nuclear weapons or other WMD, and we can expect more to do so in the future. This is at least tolerable, and extreme measures such as military action are not justified to prevent Category Two nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. With Category Two nations nuclear deterrence must be in place, and the Category One nations must be able to demonstrate a credible will to retaliate. Category Three entities cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Military action to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons is always reasonable even if the evidence is not certain.
Some conclusions for Australia:
1. Australia should maintain only limited expectations of broad international organisations with mixed Category One and Category Two members. Do not count on them to protect your country or your economy.
2. China is a Category Two nation, as are Russia and Indonesia. Do business with them and make limited verifiable agreements. They are not your friends. Do not open your economies or institutions to them as you might a Category One nation. Keep your connections to your historical Category One friends, especially the US and UK.
3. Australia is a Category One nation in a neighbourhood of Category Two nations. You should think globally, not regionally, because that is where the nations with whom you can form deep connections will be found.
4. You are now in range of several Category Two nations with nuclear weapons, and soon will be in range of several Category Three entities with them. You need either to be under a reliable nuclear umbrella of a nation you absolutely trust to retaliate for you, or to become part of an entity (alliance or confederation) with multilateral nuclear capability, or to develop or buy nuclear weapons for yourselves. Your choice, but do at least one.
5. There is one set of nations which meets the criteria for close association, has the potential to create a parliamentary oversight body with real powers, and even provide a credible nuclear deterrent. This is the set of the CANZUK nations: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Now that Brexit has won, begin investigating the option seriously. In the meantime, continue to be very attentive to the US.
1. Many discussions of international order have used various labels such as “democratic”, “liberal”, “authoritarian”, or “totalitarian” to classify national actors. This discussion avoids such labels and merely numbers its categories. This is because the use of such labels has tended to become sidetracked in precise definitions or categorisations of national types, and commentators begin to mistake surface indicators for deep identities. For example, in the past only Category One nations tended to have multiple competing political parties and contested elections to representative bodies. Over time, however, Category Two and even some Category Three nations began to see value in maintaining limited and controlled versions of such phenomena. This has confused some observers into arguing that such states were actually Category One nations. The use of numbered categories seeks to avoid such confusion.
James C. Bennett is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century. This article was his contribution to the Quadrant symposium “The Future of Civilisation” held in Sydney on September 18