One of the coolest posts I've read in a long time is Chester's Globalization and War. His reference links to Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles and the really nifty eMachineShop alone are worth the read. The fundamental issue he discusses is whether nation-states are in some sense being replaced by distributed networks of people. Many activities, from community building to earning a living have jumped over traditional boundaries. Criminal and terrorist organizations have been among the first to exploit this fact. Viewed from one angle, modern Islamic terrorist cells are not so much a return to the forms of the 8th century as new structures made possible by 21st century technologies.
Attempts to develop "network-centric" methods of warfare in the service of a nation state are ultimately limited by their subordination to a highly centralized command and control system. They lack the final degree of freedom that terrorist organizations have, which is to take on a life of their own. However perfectly networked the US military battlespace ever becomes, it is still an instrumentality of a state, an organizational type that took form in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Joschka Fischer thought the sun had set on the Treaty of Westphalia but only because he predicted nations would superseded by the superstate. In his speech at the Humboldt University Fischer described the main European political trend since 1945 as "a rejection of ... individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of ... the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions." For Fischer and the architects of the EU, not only was it unnecessary for to flatten national hierarchies, it was desirable to extend them to supranational heights.
That Islam traditionally had no fixed hierarchy helped it adapt more readily to networked war. For the Jihadi the requirements of public policy and international law not only proved no hindrance, in a fundamental sense they did not apply: things like the Geneva Convention were the impedimenta of nation-states. Holy warriors were accountable only to Allah, which in practice meant they answered to no one but themselves. This circumstance exculpated the Jihadists from a multitude of sins in the eyes of a Western media capable of recognizing only state actors. Attacks against hospitals, schools, churches; and the use of children as combatants excited no opprobrium because these were understood to be acts of individuals; unfortunate to be sure, but ultimately insubstantial. Only states could commit war crimes, so that Jihadi atrocities, even on the scale of September 11, were only the subject of police action.
History may some day record that Marxism was the cult of the state carried to its ultimate extreme. To the Communist True Believer no problem was so large that it could not be solved by a big enough Westphalian state. PBS ran a series called "The People's Century" in the late 1990s. In one episode, a Russian Stakhanovite worker named Tatiana Fedorova described the greatest thrill of her life as the moment "when the first train went by" in the Moscow Metro she helped build. "We built the metro, we built Magnetogorsk, we built the railway. We did it all with such comradeship, enthusiasm and happiness" that they must have gone to some communal cafeteria afterward to celebrate, before retiring to their Stalinist apartment block houses content in the knowledge that they had served the State.
But most States are an anti-network; in fact the ultimate hive, where drones swarm in vast pyramids around a Dear Leader, a Great Helmsman or a Driver of the Locomotive of History. And if the United States has one advantage over other states in an age of network warfare, it is because in some respects America is an anti-state; ideally, though not always in practice, a framework within which individuals can thrive. In this respect America was conceptually at variance with the scheme of Westphalia whose key precept was state sovereignty: in America sovereignty was useful mainly to allow the growth of individual freedom. For years European intellectuals have secretly suspected America of really being a religion masquerading as a country. And if that is true the First Republic is ironically well adapted to meet the Jihad on the intellectual battlefields of the 21st century.
The key challenge is whether America, in the sense of a shared idea, can be expansive enough to permit subordinate threads which can truly "take on a life of their own", and so become agile enough to engage the Jihadis at the lowest level. We are some of us familiar with the idea of multithreaded applications which can leave the main program and be re-entrant at an indeterminate point. Max Boot had hoped in 2003 that decentralized decision making would be part of the "new American way of war", multithreading within a larger architecture. Yet no sooner had those tendencies appeared when they were reined in by an American Left determined to impose all the blessings of the bureaucratic state upon networked warfare: oversight, endless hearings, legalisms -- the clanking apparatus of the unitary Sovereign -- to 'aid' in the pursuit of nimble bands of modern Mongols contemptuous of boundaries.
If technology has undermined the bureaucratic state, then the intellectual heirs of Westphalia, with their visions of supranational institutions will have truly confused the problem for the solution. In the face of increasing attacks by networks of criminals and terrorists, their answer will be bigger, more international bureaucracies. The United Nations will become the smallest unit capable of fighting modern terrorism. And some would call that good.