In the mid-17th century, a series of treaties were signed in Europe to end a raging era of internal conflict that included the Holy Roman Empire and various kingdoms across the continent. The general agreement has been called the Treaty of Westphalia, after the German city that hosted the culminating agreement that governed the prior, limited agreements on peace. Out of this agreement, the modern concept of the nation state was born, including the tenents of sovereignty that have governed international affairs for centuries.
From a media ecology perspective, one must begin by acknowledging the role that literacy, and particularly the sort brought about by the printing press, played in bringing about this mode of thought, enabling the notion of nationalism and the rule of written treaties to stand with any authority. For a more comprehensive look at this principle of the printing press and socio-cultural change, see Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.”
The title of this post is intended as a pun, a joke taken at the expense of sovereignty as a principle of foreign affairs in the electronic age. As soon as electricity enabled us to communicate across boundaries and borders, sharing our stories and our values and beliefs without the obstacles of time or space, we surrendered part of our cultural sovereignty and ushered in an age of globalism. This has only accelerated as satellites began to circle the Earth and wires/cables have been replaced by cellular signals and wireless broadband access. Marshall McLuhan wrote a fascinating article called “At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors.” (PDF)
The most important aspect of this idea, with respect to warfare and the culture of foreign affairs, is the rise of the non-state actor and the traditional nation state powers’ response to their influence. To make a long story short, Al Qaeda used the power of global communication technology to organize, fund, and plan attacks on the United States and its allies in a way that was likely impossible a generation or two earlier. Al Qaeda, in fact, isn’t a real organization…at least by the traditional definitions…but rather a loosely affiliated group of religious zealots with violence on their minds.
Donald Rumsfeld’s theories of modern warfare included a “light footprint” strategy, which was called “Shock and Awe” in Iraq, but which resulted in insufficient troop levels to rebuild from all the traumatic shocking and awing that took place. His “light footprint” technological battle plan was correct in one respect, but woefully flawed in most others. Technology, in the post-Westphalia era, had already circumvented sovereignty in the intelligence gathering communities and in the global hegemony battles, but the lesson to be learned was not about how to wage traditional war more effectively with new tech, but rather to fight the new non-state warfare of the time.
Obama, both to his credit and to our great dismay, has abandoned the traditional warfare model of troops on the ground, clashing with other troops on the ground. He is fighting the technology war of the robotic drone strike. People in the US, piloting robot planes armed with bombs and/or missles, are flying into foreign airspace to conduct targetted assasinations. That’s all there is to it. He used the manned, surgical strike to get Osama bin Laden, but he’s killed a lot of Al Qaeda-types via assasination, and many of them without the blessings or permission of the nations in which the strikes were conducted. In fact, the most recent legal arguments by the Obama administration would suggest that Al Qaeda is fair game wherever they are…perhaps including the United States.
It’s quite smart to fight what we have called the “Global War on Terror” using these technological means. If the Bush people had embraces robotic assasinations rather than the big show of ground fighting, we might have avoided all the chaos and expense of the two wars we’ve seen this generation…to say nothing of the large scale casualties and destroyed families on all sides. Assasination is clearly distasteful, unethical and morally objectionable, but it’s a lot smarter than bleeding yourself dry waging a traditional war in this day and age. Obama’s wars are post-Westphalian and brilliant in that respect, despite how objectionable and regrettable that turn may be.