Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism

Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism

by Barak Mendelsohn

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Although terrorism is an age-old phenomenon, jihadi ideology is distinctive in its ambition to abandon the principle of state sovereignty, overthrow the modern state system, and replace it with an extremely radical interpretation of an Islamic world order. These characteristics reflect a radical break from traditional objectives promoted by terrorist groups. In… See more details below


Although terrorism is an age-old phenomenon, jihadi ideology is distinctive in its ambition to abandon the principle of state sovereignty, overthrow the modern state system, and replace it with an extremely radical interpretation of an Islamic world order. These characteristics reflect a radical break from traditional objectives promoted by terrorist groups. In Combating Jihadism Barak Mendelsohn argues that the distinctiveness of the al-Qaeda threat led the international community to change its approach to counterterrorism. Contrary to common yet erroneous conceptions, the United States, in its role as a hegemon, was critical for the formulation of a multilateral response. While most analyses of hegemony have focused on power, Mendelsohn firmly grounds the phenomenon in a web of shared norms and rules relating to the hegemon’s freedom of action. Consequently, he explains why US leadership in counterterrorism efforts was in some spheres successful, when in others it failed or did not even seek to establish multilateral collaborative frameworks. Tracing the ways in which international cooperation has stopped terrorist efforts, Combating Jihadism provides a nuanced, innovative, and timely reinterpretation of the war on terrorism and the role of the United States in leading the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

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Editorial Reviews


2010 Outstanding Academic Titles, Choice
Daniel H. Nexon
“This is a provocative and important study of contemporary terrorism and counterterrorism; it is, in many ways, the best attempt yet to locate these phenomena within general international-relations theory and the workings of the international system. Mendelsohn not only provides a compelling explanation for variation in the degree of international cooperation against terrorism, but also makes an important contribution to how we theorize the institutions of international society.”

Peter J. Katzenstein
“In this magnificent, deeply researched, and compelling book, Barak Mendelsohn succeeds in two difficult tasks. He provides a nuanced and richly detailed analysis of the rise of global jihadism and of the counter-strategies that states have adopted to defend themselves. Equally important, Combating Jihadism makes a major theoretical contribution by explaining the data within the framework of the English School of International Relations. This engaging book lifts the theoretical level of scholarship on terrorism to new heights.”
Allen Carlson
“In Combating Jihadism, Mendelsohn not only demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of the complex webs and networks which constitute the core of today’s international terrorist threat, but he also effectively details how states have responded to such a challenge. Thus, this is one of the very few books written since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that bridges the gap between the study of contemporary global terrorism and international relations theory. As a result, it is sure to stimulate wide interest in both academic and policy making circles, and is destined to join the list of works that are required reading for any with an interest in the origins, development, and future of terrorism in the contemporary international system.”

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Combating Jihadism

American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism
By Barak Mendelsohn

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-52011-7

Chapter One

Interstate Cooperation and Transnational Terrorism

On July 7, 2005, four British citizens attacked London's transport system, killing more than fifty people. A few hours later the participants of the annual meeting of the G8, hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, stood behind him as he reiterated to the world media the resolve of Britain and the rest of the international community to continue the fight against terrorism. That night in New York, the United Nations Security Council condemned the atrocity by consensus and vowed to fight terrorism relentlessly. Intelligence services and law enforcement agencies throughout the world investigated the attack in the following weeks. The geographical breadth of the investigation was astounding, involving countries such as Pakistan, Italy, Egypt, the United States, Zambia, and Israel. An unusual level of alertness among European countries led to a special meeting of the European Union's interior ministers in which they discussed the implications of the London bombing, devised measures to reduce the vulnerability of EU countries, and planned improved cooperation.

The extensive interstate collaboration in the aftermath of the attack—of which the details above are just a partial illustration—was not unique; numerous instances of broad international cooperation have been registered since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, starting with the extensive support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and spanning a wide range of activities including military operations, border security, suppression of terrorism financing, denial of non-state actors' access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and intelligence sharing. Nevertheless, although states have demonstrated considerable willingness to follow the lead of the United States and cooperate against the al Qaeda–led jihadi movement, conflict in international relations has not abated. Moreover, despite the emerging cooperative trend, some actions deemed by the United States to be a part of the war on terrorism have not received the same support as others. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq, justified by American assertions of substantial links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and by the risk that Iraq would provide terrorists with WMD, generated resounding opposition that forced the United States to rely on a fragile "coalition of the willing."

What explains the general inclination of the international community to cooperate against the jihadi threat, and how do we account for deviations from this trend? Informed by the work of the English School in international relations, this book offers a distinct account of the war on terrorism and the cooperative measures taken in its framework. The English School views states as members of an international society tied together by shared norms, general goals, and common rules that facilitate order and mitigate the negative effects of anarchy. Members of the international society are inclined to protect it when it comes under attack. They are led by the society's strongest members; but coercive measures do not normally determine whether they act or what steps they take. Rather, the level of interstate cooperation is determined by the consistency of the principles proposed to guide the collective enterprise and by the degree to which strategies pursued are consistent with the fundamental principles of the Westphalian-based order. The role of the hegemon or the great powers is not unimportant: they set the agenda, articulate a program to pursue it, and facilitate its execution. But there is a limit to their influence; they cannot breach the constitutional structure of the international society without hampering cooperation.

The English School's perspective provides a new lens through which to view and evaluate the steps states take to confront the jihadi movement. It highlights the distinct nature of the challenge, which goes beyond the targeting of specific states for specific grievances to a rejection of the foundations of the Westphalian state-based order. Correspondingly, states' actions are motivated not solely by the narrowly defined short-term interests that normally qualify international cooperation, but by a sense of mutual dependency among states sharing a social purpose and a commitment to the preservation of the state-based order that the jihadis threaten. Indeed, the preservation of international order affects states' willingness to act collectively to counter the threat. This book shows that this willingness to cooperate can become reality, usually when the suggested strategies are consistent with fundamental principles such as sovereignty and nonintervention. Variation in the level of interstate cooperation exists, but it mostly depends on the compatibility of different aspects of the war on terrorism, or of differing strategies to achieve counterterrorism goals in accordance with its fundamental principles.

The encompassing picture of the war on terrorism presented in this book also brings to light the multifaceted nature of U.S. actions. Detailing spheres of action that typically do not get the same attention as the violent face of counterterrorism, this study shows that allegations directed at the United States overstate its unilateralist inclinations. In fact, U.S. hegemony has been orchestrating a multilateral effort against the jihadi movement. Unilateral action taken by the United States in the war on terrorism is often consistent with the war's grand design, which sets general parameters but largely maintains states' freedom of action. Nevertheless, even the hegemon is sometimes tempted to breach the boundaries of legitimate action set by the international society. When it does, cooperation falters: the society's members demonstrate an inclination to protect the system from the jihadi threat, but also to restrain U.S. hegemony when its actions are incompatible with the society's constitutive ideas. Secondary powers, in particular, serve as corrective agents, helping to produce a system of checks and balances.

International Society and Its Preservation-Seeking Quality

The dominant paradigms within the study of international relations (IR) are inadequate in providing a comprehensive account of the war on terrorism. One of the most important reasons is their failure to acknowledge the full range of possible motivations behind acts of transnational terrorism. In particular, they fail to include the motivation to overthrow the international order and replace it with an alternative order. Neglecting this important characteristic of the al Qaeda network and the jihadi movement leads most IR scholars to present an incomplete portrayal of the threat that states face, and consequently to miss important factors behind state responses to such groups.

This conceptual void is not restricted to threats posed by terrorists; the notion of threats to the system as a whole is usually missing from the work of IR scholars. But some security concerns cannot be fully understood without this holistic perspective. Only a conceptualization of the system as an independent entity that tries to advance toward certain goals allows us to adequately study challenges that surpass state boundaries and the concomitant responses of the system. Because the English School's unique understanding of world politics conceives of the international society as an independent construct that joins its units—the states—together and leads them to pursue common goals, it is best suited to capturing the dynamics between states and those violent nonstate actors that attempt to overthrow the state-based system. Moreover, the English School's flexible tradition integrates social and material variables and therefore makes it most appropriate to examining state actions that are driven by a combination of both types of motivations.

According to Hedley Bull, a founding father of the English School, world politics is not necessarily dominated by conflict. States collectively exhibit some society-like traits, manifested in elements of interstate comity that allow for cooperation. This international society, or society of states, is defined as "a group of states which not merely form a system, in the sense that the behavior of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of others, but also have established by dialogue and common consent rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements." This conceptualization is based on more than the mere convergence of interests between states; instead, it results from a thicker sense of community. This sense binds states together and provides them with general guidelines for what membership in the society means, what rights members enjoy, and what obligations they must observe. The society's community-like traits moderate state behavior and allow for the existence of general order.

The important role of conflict in international relations is not ignored; but the English School emphasizes that some elements of international society always exist, even if precariously. Such a claim is logical given the way that the conception of international society expands the view of state identity. In addition to states' particularistic identities resulting from idiosyncratic cultures and historical experiences, there is a deeper layer of system-wide social identity in which those particularistic identities are nested. In turn, this shared social identity produces collective interests that are shared by all states, no matter how their capabilities differ.

This social collective identity reflects a constitutional structure comprised, according to Christian Reus-Smit, of three normative elements: the prevailing (hegemonic) belief about the state's moral purpose; the form taken by the organizing principle of sovereignty; and the systemic norm of procedural justice. Not only does the constitutional structure define the state's social identity, it also sets the basic parameters of its rightful action. This structure is not exogenous to the system. It stands in mutually constitutive relation with the practices and values of legitimate statehood that often, albeit not always, emanate from core states, having been produced and reproduced by them. Note that despite core states' important role in producing the deep structure of the international society, one must not conflate the society's interests with those of its main powers. Institutional practices, for example, have transcended shifts in the balance of power and configurations of interests. As Reus-Smit points out, the principle of multilateralism developed independently of hegemony. Similarly, Daniel Philpott asserts that the radical changes in the conception of sovereignty that accompanied decolonization did not originate from the strongest powers of the international society, but from the countries of the third world.

Normally, the social identity of the state enjoys very limited visibility. It provides a range of interests that a state may pursue and determines which means are legitimate to realize these interests; although those specific interests and means ultimately are particular to each state and are more salient than the collective's fundamental shared interests. In unique circumstances, however, the social identity of the state, and interests derived from it, may take precedence and assume a more concrete and salient form. On such occasions, certain goals of the whole society of states—preservation of the state-based order, for example—overshadow particularistic interests and lead to interstate cooperation.

Preserving the society of states appears on Bull's list of the society's fundamental goals alongside maintaining states' independence, establishing peace as the normal condition in international relations, and achieving such common goals of all social life as limiting violence, keeping promises, and establishing possessions. Although Bull does not commit himself to a ranking of these goals, preservation of the system appears to override the others and even justify violations of the principle of sovereignty. And yet English School scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to systemic threats that could trigger the international society's survival mechanism, or to the practices by which its members come together to face such threats. Contrived balance of power is the prominent aspect of this defense mechanism in the English School literature. Strong states ally and create a balance of power to prevent the subordination of the society to one single power. Other threats that have received some attention are wars of aggression, revolutionary states, and globalization. Unfortunately, attention to these subjects in the context of threats to the society has been rare.

Violent non-state actors trying to overthrow the state system fit into the category of threats to the international society. These actors deny the legitimacy of the system and attack the foundations on which the society is based; they may even try to advance an alternative order. Thus, their threats are systemic and should activate the society's inclination toward self-preservation, leading to the emergence of increased and meaningful interstate cooperation.

Normally, states may choose from a range of available strategies to respond to terrorist threats. Some comply with the terrorists' demands or try to reach an accommodation. Others refuse to surrender or to take any step that could be interpreted as a capitulation to terrorism. These diverse state responses are normally a natural outgrowth of diverse identities, interests, and capabilities. However, when states face a violent nongovernmental organization (NGO) that threatens the Westphalian system, they react more predictably and with greater uniformity: most decide to engage in collective action to fend off the threat, thus demonstrating their capability to cooperate at a level atypical of "normal politics."

Insights from social psychology, and their application to international relations by social constructivists such as Alexander Wendt, support the assertion that responding to a systemic threat posed by a non-state entity is in the interest of states. The confrontation between a society of states and violent non-state challengers pits self against other. An actor defines who he is and what he wants through his relationship to other actors populating his real or perceived environment, and that constitution of self generally requires the existence of an external and different other. In international relations, self and other are often both state actors, separated by dissimilar identities. Yet a society of states also exhibits a quality of a collective self that stems from the high level of similarity in form and purpose of all states. As such, states are engaged in "mutual empowerment": they accept like states as legitimate members in the "club" and reject, if necessary even fight, others who threaten their association's cohesion and rationale. Therefore, faced with a threat from an external actor—a violent non-state actor—the international society reveals its selfness against its opponent's otherness. Differences among states are marginalized while similarities, and the need to guarantee the survival of the society, become salient. In this way, the difference between self and other, which normally reinforces conflict between states, facilitates interstate cooperation when a clear non-state other emerges.

The influence of this self/other distinction on the dynamics between states and non-state competitors dates back to the emergence of the state system. Originally, according to Hendrik Spruyt, the state system was not the obvious, uncontested organizing principle in world politics; it was only one configuration vying to succeed the old order. In the competition, all of the new alternative systems were more efficient than the old order; but as the most efficient structure at that historical juncture, the state won out. This victory was reinforced by mutual empowerment among states and delegitimization of actors who did not fit into a system of "territorially demarcated and internally hierarchical authorities." Utilitarian considerations played a significant role, but they were strengthened by states' preference for their own kind. Similarity among states was translated to a higher level of mutual identification, predictability, and trust in interstate relations than was seen in the interaction between states and non-state entities.

Note that the appearance of this self-preservation inclination and interstate cooperation does not require a high level of shared norms and beliefs among states. Bull points at three complexes of rules that help to sustain international order, each presenting different depths of shared goals. First, "constitutional normative principles" identify states as the primary political organization of mankind, bound together by the rules and institutions of a collective society. Second, "rules of coexistence" restrict the use of violence to states, limit the causes for which states can legitimately start a war, and restrict the manner in which wars are conducted. Such rules also emphasize the principle of equality among states and their obligation to respect the sovereignty of other states and not intervene in their domestic affairs. Finally, rules that regulate cooperation among states go beyond what is necessary for mere coexistence and may even extend beyond political and strategic realms to cooperation in economic and social matters. Interstate collaboration for the sake of self-preservation falls within a logic of coexistence. Therefore, a pluralist international society bent on the preservation of political and cultural differences between states and based on the principles of state sovereignty and nonintervention is sufficient to produce self-preservation tendencies.


Excerpted from Combating Jihadism by Barak Mendelsohn Copyright © 2009 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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