The fallacy of state-like expectations

12 July 2012


Anarchy is the absence of law. In the contemporary international nation-state system there is law internal to nation-states but no law between nation states. In other words, international relations between nation-states is anarchic. While political science types will occasionally admit this explicitly, mostly reasons are found not to talk about this anarchic dimension of the international system, because it is something of an embarrassment. There are, of course, contemporary attempts to create true international law, with institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC), but we know that such institutions are powerless before recalcitrant nation-states. International institutions have no threat of force behind them, and therefore cannot enforce their writ. Moreover, if they did have force, they would have to have more force than the most powerful nation-state in the world; without preponderant force at their command, international institutions would be (and in fact are) defied by any nation-state with the power to do so.

Yet the anarchy of the international system is not a perfect absence of law — there is, as I have observed above, the ineffective law of toothless international institutions, but that is not all. There are international treaties between nation-states that have force because the nation-states signatory to these treaties are prepared to back them up with force. Treaties may be divided into those that are mere international showpieces with no force behind them, as is the case with most UN treaties, and those treaties which have the force that they do because signatories to the treaty are prepared to back them with force, such as is the case with NATO. In either of these two cases, power in the international system is still vested in the nation-state and not in the international institution. There are also constraints on the international system that might be characterized as customary.

Customary constraints on state power count for little in the long run, and even less in extremis, but they do figure prominently int he expectations that peoples have for the norms of the behaviors of nation-states. Not only can we distinguish between state and non-state actors in the international system, we can also distinguish (in parallel to this initial distinction) state-like actors and non-state-like actors. That is to say, certain behaviors are expected of the contemporary nation-state, even though these behaviors are routinely violated. (One way to define a “rogue state” would be to charge it with non-state-like behavior.)

One theme of contemporary geostrategic thought is China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. (Cf., e.g., Three ‘nots’ characterize China’s peaceful rise) These innocuous and familiar little phrases embody many of the most obvious state-like expectations that we have for the behavior of a nation-state: among other virtues, nation-states should be peaceful and responsible. But nation-states do not advance their interests by being peaceful or by adhering to a notion of responsibility entertained by others. Most likely, nation-states — like individuals — will re-define anything they do in fact do as “responsible” after the fact.

A more accurate picture of state-like behavior is to be found in the words of Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who said, following the Russian intervention in Hungary during the “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, that Austria would, “shock the world by the depth of its ingratitude.” This is what we should expect; if we are shocked, it is only because we have deceived ourselves.

Some thinkers not only impute state-like and non-state-like behavior to nation-states; some have so deceived themselves that they themselves believe that nation-states by and large adhere to supposedly state-like behavior. This gives rise to the idea of a “rogue” state, which is a nation-state that disregards expectations of state-like behavior. The speculation that North Korea has been behind counterfeit “supernotes” embodies an obvious violation of state-like expectations. In contrast, although we may disapprove, we will readily acknowledge that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is consistent with state-like behavior, while counterfeiting the currency of another nation-state is not considered an appropriate state-like behavior.

This account of state-like behavior could be made a little more fine-grained by distinguishing expected behaviors from different classes of nation-states. I cam imagine that some would be greatly offended by the very idea of classes of nation-states, but we all know (or should know, even if we don’t approve) that different standards are applied to different nation-states, and that no one begrudges the nuclear weapons of top-tier nation-states, but for a second tier nation-state it is considered unseemly to pursue nuclear weapons, while a tertiary nation-state that actively pursues a nuclear weapons program can expect to be sternly ostracized in the international community for this behavior. Thus we see that state-like expectations change according to the nation-state in question.

Notwithstanding routine and repeated flaunting of expectations about state-like behavior, there is a clear bias among strategic thinkers to assume not only that nation-states engage in state-like behavior, but even that non-state actors are vaguely state-like and that certain state-like behaviors are to be expected from non-state actors also. This bias of state-like expectations reflects a desire to see the world as one wishes it to be rather than to see it as it is in actual fact. I am going to call this bias the fallacy of state-like expectations. This fallacy is characterized by imagined social consensus in the anarchic international state system. The fallacy of state-like expectations means projecting centralization, hierarchy, and procedural rationality onto all political entities, whether or not the political entity in question is a nation-state.

Anyone with a capacity for critical thinking (the latter honored more in the breach than the observance) will not need to be reminded that the fallacy of state-like expectations is a fallacy, since they will know that not all political entities are nation-states, and even among nation-states there is no consensus in terms of state-like expectations. Or, rather, there is more than one consensus, and these expectations change over time.

Westerners are often more than a little shocked when they find themselves confronted with a different conception of the rule of law and the international system than meets with their expectations of state-like behavior, but the almost perfect antithesis of the international nation-state system as I have described it above is to be found with some regularity among nation-states who engage in systematic oppression of their own populations. According to the political conceptions of repressive nation-states — the worst offenders in this regard we would not hesitate to call “rogue states” — the political regime of a given nation-state has carte blanche within its own borders, an absolute Hobbesian freedom via-à-vis its own people, as long as it observes its international obligations and is a good citizen to its neighbors. Under this conception, what happens within the nation-state stays within the nation-state, and these “internal affairs” are sacrosanct.

Given this particularly brutal conception of the international political order, it is entirely plausible that nation-states — or, rather, the political elites that run roughshod over nation-states — would conspire with each other to mutually oppress their restive populations. Under this system one would expect to see one oppressive nation-state coming to the aid of another such nation-state in the event of a popular uprising. In fact, we see this quite commonly; we are seeing it now, at the present time, as Russia has come to the aid of Syria to assist Syria in putting down its popular rebellion, and we saw the same thing last year when Saudi Arabia sent assistance to Bahrain to help the Bahraini elites put down a popular Shia uprising (I discussed this in The Second Annual Arab Spring).

This “mutual oppression” as the essence of the international order — and one must understand that this is one permutation of the “law and order” mentality — exists side-by-side in the contemporary world with the antithetical conception of internally law-abiding nation-states bound by no constraints internationally in its relationships with other nation-states, which might be called the “mutually predatory” conception of the international system.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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5 Responses to “The fallacy of state-like expectations”

  1. MisterEgo said

    You might want to consider writing next about the mechanism by which a nation state loses it’s sovereignty/right to rule (whatever you want to call it) once it acts in a “non state like manner” to it’s citizens, or at least a part of them, usually the ones that take up arms… that would be one of interesting developments of this text about state-like behaviors and anarchistic international relations…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear MisterEgo,

      An excellent point!

      We would have to distinguish between sovereignty and right to rule, because when a people rebels they are explicitly rejecting the right of a regime to rule. I will try to think about how best to define these terms, as it would be a good idea to define internal sovereignty (recognition of the right to rule by citizens) and external sovereignty (the recognition of the right to rule by other political entities) — or something like this… I am writing off the top of my head now.

      Certainly there is a tension between what citizens of a nation-state perceive as state-like behavior and what other political entities perceive to be state-like behavior. If a nation-state abandons state-like behavior as perceived by its citizens, it loses its internal sovereignty; if a nation-state abandons state-like behavior as perceived by peer nation-states it loses its external sovereignty.

      In some circumstances, it is internal sovereignty that is key, while in other circumstances external sovereignty is the key to historical viability.

      Another layer of complexity is added by the self-perception of the regime, which may rightly or wrongly read the signals either from its populace or its peers.

      Best wishes,


  2. Jon Stock said

    Hi there, sorry for using your comments section for this, but I just wanted to alert you to my new spy thriller, DIRTY LITTLE SECRET, which climaxes with a swarm attack on a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz. I credit geopolicraticus in the acknowledgements at the back, as I found your blog to be a mine of information about the above.

    DLS is the final part of a trilogy and is just out in the UK. I think it’s out in the US early next year. The first two, DEAD SPY RUNNING and GAMES TRAITORS PLAY are out in the US.
    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for being such a good source of information. And if you ever get to read the book, I hope you enjoy it!
    Best wishes,

    Jon Stock

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Stock,

      Good luck on your literary endeavor.

      Best wishes,


      • Jon Stock said

        Hi Nick

        I’m sure you saw it but in case you didn’t, here’s the link, below, to a story I wrote for the Daily Telegraph last month about swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and the acquisition of a high performance speed boat by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy. Thought it might be of interest.
        Best wishes,
        Jon Stock

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