Terrorism and the Primacy of the State in International Politics

December 21, 2008

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the question of terrorism and its effects on the primacy of the state in interstate politics has been vigorously debated among international relations theorists. Virtually all analyses of terrorism seek to formulate a response to the tactic through an understanding its origins. It is in the proposed response that scholars of international politics reveal their position on the issue of state centrality as a unit of analysis. Realist and neo-realist scholars, for instance, argue that states are the actors most equipped for combating terrorism via interstate competition. By and large, they believe that terrorism is a strategic tactic employed for political ends; thus placing terrorism in direct conflict with states. The diverse liberal school, on the other hand, attributes terrorism to a wide range of factors, from poor education and poverty to the effects of undemocratic rule and culture. Liberals’ solution to terrorism is often the mobilization of informal and formal international institutions to combat its cultural and/or economic symptoms. In this paper, I contend that the aim of terrorism is the delegitimization of the afflicted state in the domestic sphere for the purpose of achieving specific political goals. Terrorism’s assault on the internal perception of state legitimacy, however, does not undermine the state as the primary actor in international relations since they are the only unit of social organization endowed with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, to borrow a phrase from sociologist Max Weber. The delegitimization of the state by terrorist violence, in other words, compels states to reaffirm their legitimacy through reassertions of their sovereignty.

To support my argument, I will review the texts of scholars representing the prominent schools’ discussions on terrorism. For this purpose, I have chosen to examine the research of Robert A. Pape, Michael Mousseau, and Donald Puchala. Though the scholars persuasively present their arguments, each approach has significant flaws. With this in mind, I blend the two strongest arguments in order to substantiate my hypothesis.

Terrorism is popularly viewed as the result of the irrational fanaticism of individuals and groups adhering to strictly apolitical cultural or religious dogma. In “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” Robert A. Pape rejects this reasoning entirely. Instead, he theorizes that terrorism, and specifically suicide terrorism, is an entirely rational tool for terrorist groups. By examining all publicized suicide terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2001, Pape determines that suicide terrorism has been a historically effective tactic for the achievement of political goals. In most cases, terrorist groups seek the removal of foreign military forces from a homeland or they struggle to secure minority rights. In the article, Pape elucidates the manner in which terrorists rationally time and target their attacks in order to maximize the political effect of violence. If, to use an example from the study, Hamas believes that Israel is not uphold an agreement to remove Israeli Defense Forces units from the West Bank, Hamas will employ suicide terrorism in an effort to coerce the Israeli government to implement the withdrawal. Historically, Israel has capitulated in the face of suicide attacks. Suicide terrorism, in sum, is a strategic political tool. The success rate of terror in political struggles in the past accordingly encourages its use against states by disgruntled groups in the future. Despite documenting the utility of terrorism, Pape predicts that it ultimately fails to be a truly significant political tool because it can only achieve modest aims. States, he says, will endure immeasurable suffering if their core national interests are threatened.

Although Pape persuasively argues that suicide terrorism is a strategic political instrument, I find his conclusion logically problematic. In the body of the article, Pape assumes a pragmatic hierarchy of state interests. Some interests are more important to national interest than others and, if need be, can be abandoned. In the conclusion, however, he basically claims that states have certain concrete and nonnegotiable national interests.[1] If one adopts the position, as he does, that all political actors, whether terrorist organizations or states, are driven by the rational pursuit of their interests, then all interests must be core interests. That is, interests are undifferentiated because political actors only pursue policies that enhance their power. Pape’s argument, which is by-and-large cogent, requires further clarification on this possible contradiction.

In contrast to Pape, Michael Mousseau attributes terrorism to a clash of economic cultures in “Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror.” In this article, he contends that two types of economies exist in the world, market and client. Borrowing from the work of sociologists, economists, and anthropologists, he claims that each economic structure produces certain traits that are inhered within the populace.[2] As follows, Mousseau identifies client economies as structures that operate on trust-based personal relationships within an in-group. Consequently, an inclusion-exclusion dichotomy underlies social relations of patron-client societies, breeding suspicion – if not enmity – for groups external to the patron-client relationship. Conversely, market economies create societies based on contractual obligations and instill liberal values such as individualism, openness, tolerance, and cooperation within a people. Basically, client economies are exclusive and resistant to external pressures to change whereas market economies are inclusive and welcoming to change. As market economies have expanded through globalization, Mousseau says, the peoples of client-economies have violently responded as conditioned by the client-patron culture. To resolve the conflict between client and market cultures, Mousseau recommends that market states create and work within supranational institutions to facilitate and guide the transformation of client economies in market economies.[3]

While Mousseau’s model is initially compelling, I believe it ultimately falls short on four accounts. First, he depoliticizes terrorism. For him, terrorism is a gut reaction to the disturbance of atavistic socio-cultural relations by the global spread of market conditions and not a political tool as Pape empirically demonstrates. Second, Mousseau overemphasizes institutions’ capacity independent, transformative action. This misidentification leads him to implicitly claim that the sovereignty of client-structured states can be circumvented by institutions. Third, he makes an illogical leap when he writes that market institutions should enact polices that transform client-patron socio-economies into market economies. This assertion is problematic because he identifies market economies as both the source of and solution to terrorism. Would not an attempt at such a conversion create more violence? Finally, and most importantly, his hypothesis is un-testable. Mousseau’s claims are purely speculative since he offers no empirical or quantitative documentation. Instead, his research is an amalgamation of purely theoretical work produced by a variety of social scientists.

In the article “Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach,” Donald Puchala loosely equates the current struggle against terrorism to that of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the goals of piracy and terrorists differ (the former seeks economic ends whereas the latter political), he says that the means are similar. Both are cellular entities that operate outside the purview of states and they both attempt to achieve their ends through fear and asymmetrical violence. Moreover, they recruit from the underprivileged classes and operate from a secure location. The most important impediment to combating piracy, he claims, was the inability of the international community to outlaw the practice. While states never negotiated an agreement, the British, as the globe’s dominant power, unilaterally outlawed piracy and, therefore, could legitimately pursue and eliminate pirates irrespective of their nationality. He writes, “Historically speaking, might did in fact repeatedly set things right.”[4] Puchala continues drawing parallels between terrorism and piracy, contending that former can be confronted in a manner similar to the latter. The solution to terrorism, then, is the pro-active pursuit of terrorists by a dominant state. In fact, the threat to the state’s national interests compels it to enhance its capabilities to exert power. At the same time, he says, the fight against terrorism can be bolstered by the negotiation of a universally acceptable definition of terrorism, cooperation, and the maintenance of a stable international system.

Though Puchala relies on some unsubstantiated assumptions concerning the socio-economic origins of terrorism, such as its support from and recruitment of the underprivileged, I believe that he arrives at the most compelling conclusion of the three scholars reviewed here for two related reasons. First, Puchala rightly observes that terrorism, like piracy, will never be eradicated. Instead, it experiences phases of frequency and latency. Second, he makes the key recommendation that states should cooperate if they wish to expeditiously eradicate terrorism when it is prevalent. By synthesizing these two observations, Puchala’s general position concerning the primacy of the state in interstate politics can be abstracted. For him, the state is the dominant actor in the international system because formal or informal international institutions exist at the will of states. That is, institutions do not formulate an institutional logic independent from the interest of states or, more specifically, the dominant states.

In my opinion, none of these scholars, despite their efforts, comprehensively explicate the link between the motivations of terrorism and the appropriate response to terrorism. Yet these studies are not for naught. Although Mousseau presents an entirely speculative theory, Pape and Puchala empirically identify the origins and responses to terrorism, respectively. If the convincing elements of these two articles are combined, a more compelling argument can be produced. With this in mind, I propose the following: Terrorism, as strategic tactic, attempts to delegitimize the state by undermining its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In order to guard against the state’s further delegitimization in the eyes of its polity – and therefore redeem its ability to retain and enhance its national interests – the state, as the primary actor in the national system, is compelled to pursue terrorists unilaterally or through multilateral or international institutions as determined by their best interests. In the current struggle against terrorism, states are still the central actors in the international system. Though institutions may play an active role in the conflict, they only do so at the will of states.


[1] Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The American Political Science Review 97 (2003): 335.

[2] Michael Mousseau, “Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror,” International Security 27 (2002-2003): 6.

[3] Ibid, 25-26.

[4] Donald Puchala, “Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach,” Contemporary Security Policy 26 (2005): 13.

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