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With jihadists among us, is IS more of a threat than communism was?

When Australians hear about Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s dire warnings and counter-terrorism raids, they could lose historical perspective on the threat posed by Islamic State. AAP/Mal Fairclough

True, it has been called, by some, a religion. But it is a religion of hatred; it derives from the darkest recesses of the human mind.

This is not Julie Bishop’s recent assessment of the variety of Islam espoused by Islamic State (IS or ISIS), but rather Robert Menzies describing communism in 1951. With the threats of Nazism and Japanese imperialism defeated, Menzies tried to galvanise the nation against the newest perceived security threat - international communism - through a referendum that would ban Australia’s Communist Party. The referendum failed.

Once the domestic threat was “reds under the beds”; today it is jihadists in our midst. Counter-terrorism raids in the suburbs, the latest in Melbourne on Friday, and allegations of imminent attacks reinforce the sense of threat.

Robert Menzies argued that the threat of fifth columnists within Australia justified a ban on the Communist Party. AAP

Like the contemporary threat of radical jihadist Islam, which was the topic of the foreign minister’s recent speech to the Sydney Institute, communism was seen during the Cold War as both an external and internal threat. Communism, it was said, was externally driven by the Soviet Union and domestically sustained by a shadowy cadre of radicalised individuals who rejected the political status quo.

Not unlike contemporary concerns about the seemingly universalist aspirations of IS, communism’s internationalist leanings were also viewed as a direct threat to liberalism’s own claims to global ideological hegemony.

Yet for Julie Bishop, the Cold War balance of terror, with the hands of the Doomsday Clock locked at two minutes to midnight, was not as dangerous as the ragtag caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This was, she declared:

a pernicious force that could, if left unchecked, wield great global power that would threaten the very existence of nation states.

At its most literal level, this claim is unsustainable. The military planners of the West during the Cold War would have wept for joy if their strategic focus could have switched from the USSR, bristling with a nuclear arsenal, to a Middle Eastern insurgency struggling to hold a handful of cities in a region completely destabilised by earlier foreign incursions and civil war.

Now that’s a threat: a US aircraft photographs a Soviet warship carrying nuclear weapons in a Cuban port, which triggered the 1962 Missile Crisis. EPA/US Department of Defence

Is sovereign nations’ future at risk?

But sheer military capacity was not really what Bishop was talking about. Her real concern is the threat that IS poses not to any particular nation, but to the very notion of national sovereignty.

In her speech, Bishop argued that the problem is not that IS is militarily more dangerous than the Soviet Union (it clearly is not). Rather, she argued that its transnational, seemingly de-territorialised nature poses a deeper threat to the entire state system.

Following common usage, Bishop declared this system, based on the sanctity of the nation state’s sovereignty within internationally recognised borders, to be “Westphalian”, and hallowed by 400 years of history. By this she presumably meant Western history, given that the ceaselessly expanding global empires of Europe hardly deferred to indigenous notions of sovereignty prior to World War Two.

In fact, the current state system has very little to do with the substance of the treaties signed in Münster and Osnabrück in 1648. The principle of the sanctity of the nation state’s sovereignty within its own borders is a thoroughly modern convention. It has developed for the most part for eminently sensible reasons.

Nonetheless, this principle has been more often honoured in the breach than in the observance. As anyone who has watched recent great power intervention in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine can attest, the principle of the sanctity of the sovereign state has already been placed under enormous strain – and not by IS.

Focusing not on the threat that some states pose to the sovereignty of other states, Bishop instead spoke at length about “malevolent non-state actors” operating under the rubric of “global terrorism”. Notwithstanding the fact that IS really is malevolent and terrorist, on the finer point of whether it actually represents a threat to the contemporary “Westphalian” system, Bishop’s analysis slightly misses the point.

Given that its first order of business has been to carve out a territorial state for which it seeks recognition, IS is hardly post-“Westphalian” in its outlook. ISIS may represent a geostrategic threat to stability in the Middle East and North Africa, but this threat is not necessarily a systemic one.

Islamic State needs failed states to survive

This is not to undervalue the nature of the challenge posed by IS. Although more Australians continue to be killed by bee stings, the danger posed by jihadists is very real in some countries. With IS in Syria, Iraq and Libya, now having been joined by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and with al-Shabaab in Somalia currently shifting its allegiances from al-Qaeda to the caliphate, IS certainly represents the most coherent militant Islamist movement in the Middle East and North Africa.

Islamic State, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has only been able to gain a foothold in failed states. EPA/Furqan Media

Looking at this list of nations, however, it becomes clear that the danger is most acute in states where central governments are at their weakest. In this sense, Bishop has mistaken cause for effect. Failed or weak states have offered space for Islamic State and other militant jihadis.

Islamic State is not, however, the reason these states have failed. Where the “Westphalian” state is strong, the Caliphate has no hold. It has recourse only to atrocities that, while terrifying and shocking, do not pose a systemic threat.

Interestingly, three of the states where IS is most entrenched, namely Iraq, Libya and Syria, were until recently firmly, indeed ruthlessly, controlled by (more or less) secular dictators: Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad (still technically in office) and Muammar al-Gaddafi (ostensibly the most pious of the three). Often for good reason, all of them were unpopular with the Western great powers. Crucially, however, the erosion of the sovereignty of each of these by large powers has played a significant role in weakening the hold of the state over its territories.

This is hardly in keeping with the notion of “Westphalian” sovereignty to which Bishop appealed. When these states were strong, radical Islamists could not find a foothold. This is not for want of trying, as Hafez al-Assad’s massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in 1982 demonstrates.

In concluding her speech, Bishop stressed the importance of tight security measures, which she sees as necessary to protect nation states from transnational jihadis. This might pay a minor dividend in apprehending radicalised individuals domestically.

In terms of Bishop’s broader point about the international state system, however, it seems that the best way to protect nation states from ISIS or other forms of terrorism is by respecting the “Westphalian” principle of the sovereignty of nation states. In this way, unpalatable strong states might not be transformed into even more unpalatable failed states.

Interestingly, Bishop’s speech offered a small sign that this message might be breaking through. Two small references showed that Australia has perhaps begun to understand that ignoring national sovereignty and pursuing “regime change” is not the most productive way to deal with non-liberal polities. Whereas a few short years ago all signs pointed to an impending Western invasion of Iran, Bishop approvingly referred twice to the insights she had garnered from Australia’s apparent newest Middle Eastern ally, Iran. During the Cold War, such overtures might have been called détente.

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