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The Roots of Terrorism in "Sovereign" Nation-states and the Path to a Secure World Order

Dr. Glen T. Martin


The deeper assumptions behind our institutions and world order remain unquestioned and unthought by even highly educated people. If humankind is to survive much longer we must examine these unquestioned assumptions. The basic presuppositions guiding our institutions thwart the best intentioned actions and efforts to achieve a peaceful and just world order. People commit their life-energies to peace and the result is violence, war, and terror. People work to eradicate poverty, misery, and disease and the result is ever deepening poverty, misery and disease.

Nearly all people wish to eradicate terrorism, yet terrorism continues to grow and flourish within and between nations and groups. Without a deeper level of thought, without deep insight and understanding into what one thinker called "the perversity of what is perverted," we continue to rush headlong toward ever greater planetary disaster. What are the deeper assumptions behind our present world order that foment the terrorist mentality and terrorist forms of organization?

Today books and articles pour forth about terrorism, its causes and consequences. Conferences are held, governmental agencies formulate definitions, systems of monitoring and investigation are formed. Yet terrorism continues to increase. People in general lack a sense of security, peace, and well-being. They live in terror, in fear, regardless of whether they have had any direct experience of terrorism. Yet we will see that the foundations of a peaceful and secure world order are entirely within our grasp if we correctly diagnose the causes and remedies for world terrorism.

The 1999 FBI definition of terrorism can serve as a working definition for understanding this phenomenon. Terrorism, according to the FBI, is "the unlawful use of force or violence committed by a group or individual, who has some connection to a foreign power or whose activities transcend national boundaries, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance or political or social objectives." The essential points of this definition are that terrorism is (1) connected with violence or the threat of violence that transcends national boundaries and (2) it is the "unlawful" use of violence to achieve political or social objectives.

One important principle that astute thinkers have pointed our repeatedly in our time is the distinction between non-governmental forms or terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. We have come to understand that nation-states also engage in terrorism. It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between private terrorism and terrorism routinely engaged in by nation-states. Military violence or the threat of violence by nation states fits this FBI definition perfectly. The use of military power to achieve international political objectives in a world of isolated "sovereign" nation-states is inevitable in a world where there is no true, enforceable world law.

As the issue of terrorism continues to be discussed, the history of interventions by the imperialist powers has come to light. One discovers a history of interventions, surprise bombings, assassinations, support for death squads, overthrowing of small nations, subversion of democracy, mining of harbors, blowing up of facilities, covert actions, drug smuggling, torture, arbitrary execution of political enemies, and outright warfare.

Under the world-system of the past five centuries, all imperial nations have engaged in such terrorism. Author William Blum describes this process with respect to the United States: "From 1945 to the end of the century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process the U.S. caused the end to life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair" (Rogue State, p.2). The selling of weapons to foreign regimes, the training and equipping of foreign military machines, and outright military interventions in foreign countries, all of which have been major policies of the U.S. throughout this period in order to politically manipulate or control the world order in its own interests, fit perfectly this FBI definition of terrorism.

Indeed, since the advent of the United Nations there have been some 130 wars resulting in some 25 million deaths. Most of these deaths were civilians. Compared to this, the number of people killed by non-governmental terrorists through car bombings, suicide bombings, assassinations, etc., is minuscule. Why is it that the vast preponderance of the terror of our world throughout the past 50 years has come from state terrorism, not private terrorism?

The majority of countries in the U.N. have called have called for study of the basic causes of terrorism, convene conferences on terrorism to define it and differentiate it from the [legitimate] struggles of people for national liberation. The U.S. has vetoed such actions by the U.N. for the obvious reason that its own unlawful and violent foreign policy to achieve global political objectives would be exposed and condemned by such conferences. Nevertheless, much excellent work has been done on the causes and conditions that foster terrorism.

The causes of private terrorism are often identified as extreme poverty, exploitation, imperial domination, and the humiliation that states, groups, or religions impose on others. The terrorists think of themselves as being in a war against such forces. State terrorism is often understood in the literature as being the mirror of private terrorism, since it is the use of state military power to enforce a system resulting in extreme poverty for the majority, exploitation, domination, and humiliation. However, despite the important insights presented here, the real sources of terrorism lie deeper than this.

The real source of terrorism is the nation-state system itself, structured, as it is, to be inseparable from global monopoly capitalism. The modern system of nation-states first developed during the Renaissance at the same time the capitalist economic system developed in 15th century Italy. Many scholars define the "sovereign" nation-state as a political entity that his complete control over its internal affairs and complete independence with regard to other nation-states in its external affairs. The world today has about 190 of these territorial entities, all claiming to be "sovereign" and independent of all the others. A moments reflection reveals this system as not only extremely irrational but morally perverse as well.

None of these "sovereign" entities lives under the rule of law. None of them lives under democracy. None of them in effect recognizes the equality, rights, and sovereignty of peoples outside their borders, since any such principles can only be enforced within nations. So-called "international law" is not law but a misnomer, since it is not democratically legislated, it is not enforceable, and compliance with it is merely voluntary. Relations between "sovereign" nation-states are mere treaties, that is, voluntary, unenforceable agreements that can be renounced or subverted at any time the nations party to these treaties feel it is in their self-interest to do so. Hence, even though some nations claim to be "democracies" within their borders, and to believe in "democracy" as the only legitimate form of government, their defense of this bizarre concept of "national sovereignty" shows this to be false. They do not want to live under the rule of democratically legislated law but want to be entirely "independent" in a lawless, chaotic world of "international relations."

With modern weapons systems the absurdity of this system has been underlined over and over again as intercontinental ballistic missiles have been developed capable of bringing nuclear weapons to any city on earth is the space of 20 minutes. Today, U.S. Trident nuclear submarines patrol the bottom of the oceans of the world, each submarine capable of launching nuclear warheads sufficient to destroy 123 cities worldwide, upon being given the order to do so. The criminal nature of this system, the consequence of the absurd system of sovereign nation-states, is surely apparent to anyone who cares to think objectively.

Under this system every nation is thought to have the right to militarize itself for "self-defense" purposes. Nearly all of these 190 entities, living in a lawless world, arm themselves to the utmost, costing their citizens a large portion of the wealth they produce and causing other nations to perpetually renew their armaments to keep up with the possible threat from other sovereign nations, all independent and claiming the right to operate as they please in their foreign affairs and internal affairs.

Under this system a nation can violate human rights within its borders with impunity. Indeed, the imperial nations, led by the U.S., have supported brutal, repressive regimes around the world in the interest of both international political struggles (e.g. against Communism) and creating, as they put it, "a stable investment climate." World private arms dealing and official government "military aid" to regimes perceived to be "friendly" amounts to many billions of dollars per year. All told, the world spends close to a trillion U.S. dollars per year on militarism and weapons, while less than half of this amount could provide clean water and sanitation for every person on the planet. This entire system of militarization amounts to violence or the threat of violence.

On the rare occasion that the nations of the world claim they perceive massive human rights violations within some sovereign nation, the only option in a world of sovereign nations is to attack the entire nation by sanctions, military, or both. Individuals within these nations who may be responsible cannot be arrested because so called "international law" is a collection of treaties among "sovereign" nations, not law enforceable over individuals. Hence, economic sanctions causing starvation and misery or outright war are integral to the system of sovereign nations.

For example, when the claim was made in 1998 that Yugoslavia was committing massive human rights violations (a claim never made against the official client states of the imperial powers whose human rights record is equally as bad or worse), the supposed suffering of the Yugoslav people from their government had to be compounded by militarily attacking them with cruise missiles and cluster bombs, destroying their factories, homes, and hospitals. In the FBI definition of terrorism, this was clearly the "unlawful" (between nations there is no genuine law) use of violence to achieve political or social objectives. Whether these objectives are thought to be noble is irrelevant, since all terrorists believe their objectives are noble. The nation-state system is nothing if not terrorist in its very foundations.

The international system of militarized violence is based on a false analogy that the propaganda machines of the imperial powers do not wish us to examine too closely. It is an analogy with the individuals right of self-defense under the rule of law. Under democratically legislated law within nations, individuals and groups are prohibited from using violence against one another to achieve political or social objectives. Mechanisms such as arbitration, courts, the right of political participation, and freedom of expression are created by law to allow for the non-violent adjucation of differences and the achieving of political or social goals.

If one is threatened or attacked, the law requires that citizens call the police or otherwise handle the provocation nonviolently. On the rare occasion that ones bodily integrity, property, or life is threatened and it is impossible to call the police, then the law provides for "the right of self-defense." Under these narrowly defined circumstances it is legal to use violence or the threat of violence to protect oneself, ones property, or family.

But to project this "right of self-defense" to the system of nation-states is entirely fallacious. For under the world system of "sovereign" nations, there is no rule of law, no democracy, and no police protection of nations, groups, or individuals. Without the rule of enforceable law in the world, we have nothing left but what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the "savage" and "barbaric" condition of the world without the rule of law. Under the system of "sovereign" nations, the big nations do what they please and the weaker nations suffer. For under this system, each nation may decide for itself what constitutes legitimate self-defense and act accordingly.

Under the rule of law within nations, I may not machine-gun all the people in the next neighborhood , claiming self-defense, because I surmise they might some day attack or threaten me. The courts and enforceable laws decide what is legitimate self-defense and what is not. However, in international affairs, there is no superior force (government and law) that can decide the legitimacy of any particular nations claim to self-defense. The powerful do what they please and use the "self-defense" argument to justify whatever they perceive to be in their self-interest. That is why Kant called this an immoral system of "barbarism" and "savagery."

Even the very existence of a military organization within nations is a terrorist consequence of the present world system as the FBI definition quoted above makes clear. Nations create a military for self-defense. The very existence of these military organizations constitutes a "threat of violence" to other nations, saying that if you attack us we will use violence to defend ourselves. It a world without genuine law (which is inevitable under the system of "sovereign" nation-states) the existence of such militaries constitutes the threat of the use of violence to achieve political or social objectives, namely, the protection and preservation of this government vis-a-vis all other "sovereign" governments.

A world order without democratically legislated, enforceable law over everyone is inherently terrorist, that is, the use of violence or threat of violence to achieve political or social objectives is built into the system itself. As long as nations claim there that there can be no world law above themselves (because they are "sovereign") and as long as they claim the "right of self-defense" in a world without law, then the use of violence or the threat of violence to achieve political or social objectives is inevitable. It is built into the very system of lawlessness itself.

For several decades the World Constitution and Parliament Association has offered the world a practical alternative the creation of non-military, democratic world government under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. The ascent to democratically legislated world law under this Constitution is not just another arbitrary possibility among the may peace proposals offered today by the U.N. and non-governmental organizations. For only democratic world government can move us beyond the "barbaric" and "savage" condition of international lawlessness and terrorism to a morally legitimate world of peace and security. There is no other option. Without the rule of democratically legislated enforceable law over all nations and individuals, we continue in the immoral mode of the rule of violence and the threat of violence to achieve political or social objectives.

Sentimental appeals to peace and respect for human rights like the Hague Appeal to Peace will not make a substantial difference. Neither will attempts to reform the U.N. achieve peace or put an end to terrorism. The U.N. charter is explicitly premised on the preservation of the system of sovereign nation-states. Treaties among sovereign nations controlling weapons of mass destruction or other militarized systems will not be successful. For none of these addresses the root cause of terrorism which is the system of "sovereign" nations itself. Only non-military world government under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth can give us a world of peace.

For only democratic world government creates enforceable rights for all people and nations under the rule of law. We move out of the barbaric world system of the past five centuries which was predicated on the use of violence or the threat of violence in international affairs. We move forward to a new world order that is the only morally legitimate order. For the use of violence for reasons of self-defense is only justifiable in extreme circumstances under the rule of democratically legislated laws with guaranteed due process, freedom of expression, and equal rights for all peoples and nations. No longer will there be the rule of power in world affairs but the rule of right, law, and due process.

There is no other way beyond terrorism, since terrorism is predicated on the lawlessness of a world order that abjures democracy, law, and universal human rights in favor of the rule of violence and the threat of violence. The present system of so-called "sovereign" nation-states is inherently terroristic. Terrorism can only be overcome through democracy and a democratic world order. Terrorism can only be overcome through ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.


Dr. Glen T. Martin

Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Radford University

President, International Philosophers for Peace

Secretary-General, World Constitution and Parliament Association