At the dawn of 2015, the world continues its march into gradual unplanned decentralization and the chaos which accompanies it.  While Western idealists have, and continue to, see liberal democracy as the final form of government the more apt parallel of current global trends has more in common with the warring city states of medieval Italy.  This view is not mine alone, and it certainly is not original, but it is worth reflecting on as we head into the new year because of a strange movement in the Middle East that stands in opposition to Western paradigms and assumptions about social democracy.

ISIS represents the West’s darkest fears about the Middle East, about Islam, and about the baffling and complicated regional politics that exist in places like Iraq and Syria.  ISIS can claim to be an “Islamic State” but simply taking over some territory is a far cry from being able to hold it much less establish the institutions of a functioning state.  Even as they attempt to establish these institutions, ISIS remains a non-state actor.  In fairness, if we accept Max Weber’s definition of a state as the, “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” than we can make this same argument about the government of Iraq, a government that cannot hold, control, and exercise the legitimate use of force within the borders of their own country.

States are losing their relevancy in the 21st century.  Libya is fragmenting, there is a serious push for Scottish independence, the Kurds want their own nation, and so do many other ethnic and political groups around the world.  And why shouldn’t they?  If we accept democratic ideals than shouldn’t each people be able to determine their own destiny by having the government which is the most representative of themselves?  Ignoring the dangers of identity politics, the fact is that smaller states are weaker than big ones.  A Sudan divided into two states, north and south, is easier to exploit by the Chinese than one unified country.  A balkinized world makes easy pickings for global and regional power players from America to Iran.

States are slowly giving way to the non-state actors.  A strain in modern political thinking is that the influence of NGO’s is a good thing.  These organizations help spread democratic ideals.  They support women’s rights and help fight poverty.  To say this is naive is an understatement.

Non-governmental organizations also include drug cartels, terrorists, human traffickers, and other shady practitioners of violence who are anything but democratic.  ISIS tells us that the future of liberal democracy in the world is far from certain.  This is not to repeat the alarmist message that ISIS is a existential threat to the West (they are not) but rather to point out that other trends, movements, and ideologies do in fact hold enormous power in the 21st century, even if they look like something out of the 12th century.

Robert J. Bunker is one analyst who has seen the future, perhaps because he has seen the past.  He reminds us that, “many of the successor states to the Western Roman Empire and Europe’s medieval fiefdoms were founded by ‘military entrepreneurs’ not unlike the leaders of the drug cartels, mafias in uniform, and criminal enterprise armies emerging today.”  Far too many of the so-called experts in academia, the media, and in our much lauded think tanks bury their heads in the sand at this notion.  They wrote their dissertations papers as the Cold War came to an end and are locked into ideas about globalization, democratization, and the importance of states.

But even as we examine the de-centralization of violence, we should couch our predictions for the future against the state-sponsored violence we have seen in the past.  According to the academics, the nation state having the only legitimate claim to the use of violence is the best thing to ever happen in human history.  Really?  States kill a hell of a lot of people.  Non-state actors, even ones like ISIS, simply don’t have the capacity to erect industrial scale death machines the way Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot did.   America goes to war quite a bit as well if I recall correctly…

The history of the world is a history of violence, perpetrated by states and non-states alike.  What makes the future scary is that as the state loses legitimacy, the tools for war (to include cyberwar) are available to non-state actors right off the shelf.  For instance, quad-rotor drones were used by ISIS to scout out YPG positions in the battle for Sinjar just last month.  Again, ISIS reminds us of a grim future dominated by terrorists and private military companies doing battle with one another.  Bunker spells it out in no uncertain terms:

These earlier state forms, initially ruled by leaders little better than today’s mafia bosses or drug kingpins, became respectable and legitimate political entities when the new forms of social and political organization which they represented became institutionalized as the dominant social, ethical, religious, and economic patterns. Should such a process begin in the next few decades, crime-based successors to the failing nation-state would begin to emerge from among the bands of predators presently bedeviling Western and other nations. As in the past, they would be founded on mercenary and warrior groups; their successes would lead to some form of follow-on state and allow them to begin to assume the mantle of respectability. History tends to be written by the victors.

Today this prediction isn’t just held by a few academics or writers the way it was twenty years ago.  In Global Trends 2030, the National Intelligence Council has somewhat awakened to these frightening possibilities with the realization that individual empowerment is growing along with the diffusion of power while the Westphalia system is quickly eroding.

By 2030, we will no longer live in a world where America is the sole global super power, but live in a multi-polar world where countries like China and India have as much influence as we do.  By 2075, that multi-polar world may not be a dozen countries but hundreds of states and non-state actors with equal amounts of power and influence.  The National Intelligence Council predicts a number of possibilities for the future, one of them called the, “Nonstate World.”

In this world, nonstate actors-nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multinational businesses, academic institutions, and wealthy individuals-as well as subnational units (megacities, for example) flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.

However, this analysis again focuses more on the good than the bad.  ISIS is a NGO, like it or not, and Bill Gates isn’t coming to save the Syrians and Iraqis being slaughtered by jihadists.

This trend towards the de-institutionalization of violence does not signal the end of the world.  Rather is signifies a shift in the global order in which power is derived from new and different sources than it was previously.  There is little evidence that non-states kill more people than states do.  Even Western democracies behave incredibly violently at times.  What this does mean is that as power becomes diffused that there is an erosion of global norms.  The future becomes impossible to predict due to complexity and inter-connectedness between groups and factions.

2015 will continue the march towards chaos and the United States will go to great lengths to try to uphold the existing global order, an order which places American hegemony at the forefront.  That is a war we are destined to lose, even as we are propelled into it by entrenched bureaucrats who refuse to evolve with the times.  Not that it matters anyway.

Politicians or not, the best and brightest can’t even predict what will happen next in the world that is quickly spinning out of control.