It's amazing that this lesson needs to be learned again and again. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 solemnly outlawed war. Not too long after, Hitler invaded Poland, with the League of Nations running behind the Panzers saying firmly, "Stop, sir, you have broken the law."
Actually I made that last bit up. The League of Nations merely ceased operations at that point.
The lead-up to World War II also saw the various treaties of neutrality the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes and the Norwegians had relied upon prove marvelously ineffective in stopping the forces of the Reich. These days, the resolutions of the United Nations deterred neither Osama bin Laden nor the nations that sheltered his organization from hijacking airliners and slamming them into the World Trade Center.
The illusion that international organizations can relieve states of the primary tasks of protecting their citizens and preventing their territory from being used for predation was recently the topic of a speech by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.
However, his generally excellent remarks contained one eyebrow-raising paragraph. In it he said:
"We live in an international system of states, a system that originated more than 300 years ago. The idea of the state won out over other ideas about how to organize political life because the state gave people a sense of identity, because it provided a framework for individual freedom and economic progress, and because states over time proved able to cooperate with each other for peace and mutual benefit."
Well, not actually. The state won out because the state proved more effective than the medieval Catholic Church, for example, at organizing and controlling military power. The main competing idea, which had been a religion-based transnational institution, had broken down, and had to call on the emerging states still professing loyalty to it to restore its authority.
This situation led to the Thirty Years' War. By war's end in 1648, the Catholic Church found that although the states on its side remained fervent in their professions of devotion, their actual actions were as self-interested as the Protestant states they had sworn to suppress. This was the event 300 years ago that launched the nation-state.
All of the benefits of the state that Shultz mentioned came after the initial benefit of control of military force. They came primarily because states that delivered those benefits, or delivered them well, were stronger militarily than those that did not, or did so poorly.
At first, the miserable victims of the Thirty Years' War were more than grateful to whatever state was strong enough to deter invasion that they did not ask much more. Over the next several centuries, governments gradually discovered that prosperous, peaceful, free and motivated citizens of constitutional states produced more and better weapons and fought harder than poor, oppressed, and alienated subjects of tyrants. Although civic cohesion was not necessarily an original attribute of states, over time it became the most important characteristic and that which made the most difference in the military success of states.
Sept. 11 and the Afghan War have again demonstrated the fundamental validity of these realities. Freedom, progress and prosperity remain linked. Radical Islamist preachers called freedom a "Western con job" and vowed that death-loving jihadists can overcome cowardly Westerners hiding behind their technology. It was not international treaties or transnational institutions that stopped bin Laden and put his men behind barbed wire; it was the United States exercising the most basic function of the state that smashed al Qaida.
This is not to say that international cooperation is useless or has been downgraded by recent events. Rather, what is being demonstrated is that cooperation must be genuinely inter-national; that is, among nations, rather than trans-national, vested in nebulous organizations with no real accountability.
The attempted transnational court institution in the Hague has bogged down in its attempt to convict Slobodan Milosevic, a sight which gives some people pause in the idea of using such an institution to try al Qaida democides. Meanwhile, the coalition of the willing assembled by the United States to prosecute the war against the harborers of terrorists has become a more viable and realistic model for future international cooperation.
The world still relies on the state to guard its citizens against organized attack. It will continue to do so until and unless other, better means are ever found. Transnational governance by unaccountable organizations will never be such a means. In the meantime, those states that have the most cohesion and give the most freedom to their citizens will prevail against those that do not.
Cooperation among states with highly similar values and attributes, on a "coalition of the willing" basis will remain the most effective form of international cooperation. We can see this in the Afghan coalition; it is no accident that the greatest and most thorough cooperation with American forces came from Britain, and Australia, despite the doctrines of internationalists and geographical determinists alike.
The sooner these lessons are learned and illusions shed, the sooner we can downgrade the over-ambitious agenda proposed for transnational institutions such as the European Union or the United Nations, and get to work on reinforcing the realistic possibilities of genuine international cooperation, starting with links among the strongest and most similar civil societies.