Organic vs. Synthetic States: The Next Fault Line of World Politics

Reflections on the restoration of Shan sovereignty

Adapted from chapter five of Barry Scott Zellen’s The Art of War in an Asymmetric World: Strategy for the Post-Cold War Era (Continuum Books, July 2012).

Our task at hand is to develop new analytical and theoretical tools to help map our new, asymmetric world, and to rethink some of the post-Westphalian assumptions that did not graft so well to the more distant corners of the world where we now find ourselves engaged militarily, where tribal and sub-state systems of governance remain the most enduring form of political order, and sovereignty at the state level remains largely an illusion fostered by mapmakers whose solid state boundaries ignore the underlying and often cross-cutting ethnopolitical realities.

We must thus endeavor extend the levels of analysis further into this persistent sub-systemic realm, beyond the state itself – world politics’ equivalent to the quantum realm. We must thus look back to the pre-Westphalian world, before the predominance of nation-states swept away the medieval order – a complex trans-sovereign world that still defines much of the world outside of Europe where the nation-state often remains little more than an aspiration, and where sovereignty on the ground is still defined by other “quantum” forces—such as tribal kinship, clan networks, or sectarian belief. In this more diverse world, we have many different kinds of states, not all of which can be described as nation-states. Some, of course, are bona fide nation-states but others which are multi-ethnic states. We also have tribes, sects, and clans – some that reside within states, some between and across state boundaries (thereby creating fault lines for future inter- and intra-state conflicts.) And with the increased digitality of communications and the proliferation of information networks, we have new virtual and neo-tribal entities which could, in time, evolve into bona fide actors in world politics, much like today’s clans, sects and tribes. The world communist movement may be viewed as the last century’s manifestation of a global neo-tribal force that came to dominate much of world politics. Perhaps the spirited commitment to democracy by the Athenians two millennia ago, which in time evolved into America’s primary ideological export, can be viewed as a similar globally-reaching neo-tribal force. As can, one may argue, the Christian and Islamic religious movements, which evolved into world religions. Thus various social movements could, if they survive the test of time, form new and enduring non-state foundations of world order.

My proposed taxonomy for understanding these sub-, trans-, and non-state dimensions of world politics has its own inherently trinitarian structure, modeled on the persistent trinitarianism of international political theory as evident in Clausewitz’s “trinity of war” and Waltz’s “three images” or levels of world politics. In my proposed framework, the core components of world politics are defined as being organic, synthetic, and ethereal.

Among the organic components are of course the true nation-states which have evolved over centuries into stable, culturally and linguistically cohesive, militarily defensible, politically independent, sovereign units. But at the sub-state level, there are many more organic components, including the tribes that have survived the rise of the modern state and either live within, between or across state boundaries. As well, there are a number of organic formerly sovereign states – from Kurdistan to Shanland, which once asserted sovereignty across a vast domain but due to the fortunes of war are now divided by states controlled by other peoples, leaving once proudly sovereign peoples occupied and divided.

Interestingly, not all states are organic, as much as they might claim to be – these inorganic yet sovereign states are defined as synthetic components of world politics. Consider the stunning Soviet collapse, as this synthetic entity, a dominant actor in the short-lived bipolar world of the Cold War, fractured along its underlying internal organic fault lines as its many once-captive nations broke free. Yugoslavia, on a smaller scale, was similarly synthetic and as a consequence, as short-lived as its Soviet counterpart.

To be fair, today’s organic states have not always been organic. Indeed, it took centuries of economic growth, inter-tribal, tribe-state and sectarian warfare, and political modernization for them to emerge as organic components of world politics.

Our differentiation between organic and synthetic echoes a hint of French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s conception of mechanical versus organic solidarity, though to Durkheim it was organic solidarity that emerged in the more modern states where a division of labor introduced a more complex interdependence, while mechanical solidarity was evident in more traditional communities like tribal or clan-based societies—an inversion of his German rival, the famed sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’ conception of premodern Gemeinschaft and modern Gesellschaft. It is intriguing that the leading neorealist theorist of world politics, Kenneth Waltz, looked to Durkheim’s differentiation of mechanical and organic solidarity for theoretical inspiration and justification of his binary approach to world politics.

Our reconceptualization of world order embraces both the natural transformation of social relations inherent in Durkheim as well as the original, and dynamic, trinitarian structure contained in Waltz’s original three images as presented in his classic 1959 Man, the State and War—which has left students with a richer set of ingredients to comprehend the complexities of world politics, more so than his later theoretical work as presented in his 1979 Theory of International Politics.

Waltz’s original three levels of world politics continued a proud and enduring tradition dating back to Clausewitz, who stands as a principal (and perhaps the pre-eminent) intellectual gatekeeper to the contemporary world of total war; Machiavelli, who similarly stood as a principal (and perhaps the pre-eminent) intellectual gatekeeper to the modern world, and even further back to Plato, who emerged from Socrates’ shadow to become the principal (and perhaps, with the exception of Aristotle, pre-eminent) intellectual gatekeeper to the classical world, giving form to otherwise formless classical age and who initiated the rapid empowerment of the young field of philosophy as an art of social, political, and strategic construction with his sweeping vision of what Foucault might think of as classical pouvoir-savoir in the form of the Philosopher-King.

In our re-conceptualization of the components of world order, the states that are not organic are by default synthetic: they are artifices that have yet to achieve full sovereignty over all of their territory and resident peoples, and their artificiality results in a fragility and brittleness that tends toward collapse during times of stress.

As we saw when the Soviet Union imploded, it was at heart a synthetic state (albeit an unusually powerful one), but it failed to extinguish the sovereign aspirations of its organic captive nations—who after a series of singular uprisings stretching from Berlin in 1953 to Gdansk in 1980 finally rebelled all at once during the tectonic upheaval of 1989/1990, winning their freedom while dooming the experiment to re-engineer the very heart of mankind into a new Soviet man (novy sovetsky chelovek). Had Gorbachev not come along to meekly surrender to the democratic forces he unwittingly unleashed in his bid to restructure and reform the Soviet Union, and instead a ruthless tyrant had grabbed the reins of Soviet power and crushed these movements violently and without wavering, the Soviet experiment may well have continued.

Indeed, Moscow boasted many gains, from its potent thermonuclear armory to its wide social umbrella offering universal health care, housing and education to hundreds of millions of its citizens to its tremendous advances in science and engineering; until the late 1980s, it appeared to be ascending much like (indeed, more so than) China today, and as described by Philip Bobbitt in his epic Shield of Achilles, prior to the Soviet collapse the Soviet Union itself seemed to be quite viable as a state, indeed a superpower, and certainly not pre-ordained to fail. If the Soviet experiment had succeeded, perhaps a century or a millennium hence, the Soviet Union (and its coalition with other Communist States) might have evolved from synthetic to organic status and become an enduring feature of the international system, with the principles of socialism potentially eclipsing those of market-democracy which became enshrined, if little noticed, by the 1990 Peace of Paris. But it did collapse and with the Soviet collapse came the concomitant rise of the values embraced by the Cold War’s victor, a fusion of the ancient principle of democracy that so infused Periclean Athens, and the modern economics of capitalism (which, ironically, in its early and highly unequal form gave birth to the world communist movement.)

America, despite its confidence and power, was once a synthetic state. Borne of the British colonial experiment, it was shaped by the crucible of war, against Britain, Spain, Barbary pirates, the many Native American tribes, proto-nations and empires that governed what would ultimately become American territory, and later its own rebellious southern states – perhaps the decisive conflict which transformed “these united states” as a plural entity and amalgamation of sovereign components into “the United States,” a singular sovereign entity, otherwise known as the “Union,” and perceived to be “indivisible.” It is ironic that the Soviet Union perceived itself this way as well, but in the end failed to make the transition from synthetic to organic. Germany, in its long and painful history, started out as a collection of organic sub-state tribes, city-states and other micro-states on the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire; but under Bismarck and Frederick, it carved out its own contiguous geographical space in Europe to assert state sovereignty, over-reaching in the twentieth century, but pushed back by the world community, divided and occupied for a generation, and finally settling down in 1990 as an organic member of the world community, though in the mid-twentieth century, the militarily expanding empire ruled by Hitler was clearly a synthetic state, one that quickly collapsed under tremendous external pressures as its eastern neighbor, the synthetic Soviet state, would later do.

The British Empire was also a synthetic state, and when it collapsed, it released from captivity many re-emergent organic states; indeed, it was the organic nature of a self-governing India that enabled his nonviolent revolution to succeed; Gandhi, by massing the populace in strategic but largely nonviolent resistance to British rule, merely persuaded the British to recognize reality for what it was, facilitating a relatively benign handover to independence. But not all of the constituents that comprised the British Empire became properly organic state-level components. What was once a united India, when forcibly divided into a sovereign India and Pakistan, became an imperfect, indeed distorted, reflection of the multi-ethnicity that had achieved some sense of organic equilibrium as a united whole, even with its complex multiethnicity.

In division, it precipitated painful and dislocative forced mass-relocations of minority peoples on both sides of the new sovereign boundaries, and a series of traumatic upheavals including riots, and later wars, that caused a further fissioning of the body politic of Pakistan and the emergence of a separate, independent Bangladesh—the chaotic after-effects of partition has, for many years in our time, threatened to unleash the first bilateral nuclear war between two nuclear-armed opponents that still seethe with rage over the trauma of their conjoined birth, an ironic epitaph for two states who came to freedom through the elegant beauty of Gandhi’s satyagraha; the still unresolved uncertainty over the status of Kashmir, claimed by both Pakistan and India and an apt metaphor for the failure of post-British India to achieve organic stability, illustrates how offspring states forged during the crucible of civil war and independence struggles can create new synthetic states like Pakistan, which struggle to evolve into stable organic entities and appear to always be at risk of further fragmentation into smaller, but more stable, polities. Might a united India and Pakistan have evolved into some more organic, as Gandhi himself had hoped but which the British, always thinking ahead (and tending to divide when conquering proved unviable), sought to forestall? Or must Pakistan and India instead continue to undergo a future series of fracturings into smaller and smaller sovereign entities for a truly organic equilibrium to emerge in South Asia? And with both states now armed with substantial nuclear assets, could such a fracturing unfold without nuclear war, as the Soviet collapse managed to do?

China is widely perceived to be an organic state, and with five millennia of sovereign independence, its own distinct language (yet with dialects that share a common orthography but which remain mutually unintelligible), its sophisticated (if not transparent), multi-tiered system of governance, and its recent economic might and increasing military prowess, there is no reason to doubt this. And yet, China’s present borders do not necessarily reflect an organic wholeness. Indeed, its 1950-51 conquest of Tibet forcibly incorporated a captive nation into its body politic, one with its own distinct history, culture and language and its own rightful claim to organic status. Tibet lacked China’s military and demographic power, and was less economically advanced, so did not stand a chance, but this conquest does not disqualify it from its unmistakable organic status, and its ongoing struggle, marked by occasional rebellions from Beijing’s rule, reinforces the merit of its organic designation. For the moment, Tibet is thus an organic sub-state component of a synthetic China. But were China to recognize that its long-term stability could be enhanced by allowing a friendly and independent Tibet to emerge from its shadow—perhaps as a demilitarized buffer-state separating it from its true long-term strategic adversary, India—then Beijing would take a big step closer toward organic wholeness, and would in the process not only increase its own prognosis for a durable stability, but would at the same time strengthen its relationship with the democratic West.

There are other captive nations and substantial sub- and trans-state tribes within China’s current boundaries including substantial populations of Hmong, Tai / Shan, and Yi peoples, and numerous other non-Han minorities. Some reside in ethnically homogenous swaths of territory which could, like their formerly Soviet counterparts, break free as sovereign, independent, organic states.

The Middle East, especially with its half-century long conflict between Israel and the Arab states (and various Islamic non-state entities), looks on the surface to be a clash between organic states. But during the long diaspora of Jewish national existence, when the Jewish tribes found refuge and later faced annihilation in Europe, over a millennium passed and during this long stretch of history, a largely Arab Middle East emerged and over time became organic. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty opened a wound that has still not fully healed, even after several generations. Israel is an interesting case. It has many dimensions that suggest it is an organic state. But to its neighbors and opponents, it can be said to be synthetic, an artifice of western interference and colonial domination of the region.

That Israel is by definition a Jewish state suggests another dimension to the conflict: between the region’s majority (albeit greatly divided) Islamic faith, and the minority Jewish faith. This complex clash of faiths overlapping national and subnational boundaries introduces us to the third dimension in our new taxonomy of world politics: the ethereal. The ethereal dimension of world politics, is one that exists in the mind and heart, such as the world’s religions, and one might even argue its cults and fringe sects, which in time might evolve into bona fide religions. As Europe modernized, many of the wars fought were sectarian in nature, and from the sectarian strife, an over-arching sovereignty was called for to suppress the fires of religious warfare.

Thomas Hobbes famously called upon Leviathan to extinguish the fires of the English civil war, and to break the backbone of the combatants in the long sectarian strife that shed so much blood on English soil. The rise of Leviathan, as metaphor for the rise of modern, secular state sovereignty, reflected the historical triumph of the state over the Church and its many sectarian factions. In what became the West, the struggle between Church and State was settled decisively, with the state asserting a unifying religious culture but over time becoming more and more tolerant to minority religions. In America, where many religious minorities fled Europe’s religious wars and ubiquitous religious persecutions, a new and distinct ethereal society emerged long before America became independent, and even longer before it came to be sovereign across the continent.

At the time of the first Indian wars, this was a clash between tribes and sects, the former indigenous to the Americas and the latter largely comprised of religious refugees from Europe. This was the environment in which King Philip’s War was fought, a struggle not between church and state, but between church and tribe – the latter an organic entity indigenous to the Americas, and the former a newly arrived synthetic entity which, in triumph, would control first a colony and later a state that would itself come to dominate the continent. When the former achieved military victory, owing to its alliance with the Mohawks, defeating King Philip’s army and thus breaking the will as well as the capacity of his coalition to resist an emergent American power, the victorious synthetic would in time evolve to become a veritable organic member of the world community, over time ascending to global economic and military predominance. Ethereal entities can thus plant a seed from which future states emerge, and enable the transition from synthetic to organic member of the world community.

In Europe, it was sect and faith that enabled fractious tribes to unite as one nation, thus providing the binding spirit that forged a nation out of warring tribes. Had ethereality survived in Europe past the Middle Ages it might have prevented the emergence of the nation-states as the organic units after Westphalia. History may have been very different, with vast empires of faith and not sovereign nation-states dominating the European political landscape. Indeed, underlying the fault lines between modern western states, as seen during the Cold War, there was indeed an underlying ethereal fault line where a Christian West and an Orthodox East collided, as there was between the Christen and Islamic worlds. And it was upon such underlying ethereal fault lines that the former Yugoslavia fractured. Throughout the Islamic world, ethereal identity often supersedes that of national identity, and this explains the endurance and resilience of some of the Islamist and Jihadist movements.

When the anti-Soviet Jihad withstood the hard power of the Red Army, it did so in part because of the tremendous faith and spiritual dedication of the Jihadists. They were not fighting for their nation, and though organized largely into sub-state tribal groupings, it was an ethereal axis of conflict that largely defined their struggle. To them they were waging war against not just occupiers, but Godless Infidels, nonbelievers who rejected their faith and thus committed an act of apostasy, very similar to the blasphemy that drove the intra-Christian feuds of the Middle Ages. They could thus withdraw to Peshawar, regroup, and then re-engage in Afghanistan, and when necessary, withdraw again. Their power came not from territorial possession but from the steadfastness of their spiritual vision and faith. The Red Army could occupy Afghanistan for a decade but never turn most Afghanis into Communists. Their faith was too strong, and their identity perhaps more keenly ethereal than tribal. The Taliban movement, and its resilience, can be attributed at least in part to its ethereal nature. While its ability to govern Afghanistan quickly collapsed under American fire in 2001, its comeback should not come as a surprise given the deep spiritual roots that legitimizes its rule, enhanced by the organic nature of its demographic base amongst the Pashtuns. That its ethnic roots are firmly planted in the trans-state Pashtun tribe, which straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, affords an enduring base of popular support in both states, providing sanctuary to withstand a decline in fortunes on either side—much like that enjoyed by the anti-Soviet resistance during the 1980s. The Taliban’s strength is thus is fusion of an ethereal bond with a durable organic trans-state base, tying its fate to both Afghanistan, where American power has been predominant, and Pakistan, which fostered the emergence of the Taliban movement a decade earlier. Similarly, the endurance of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda movement, even as its leadership maintains a stateless existence, and its ability to assert sovereign control anywhere in the world continues to wither, can be attributed to its unique ethereality, but in this case without the same unity of an organic ethnographic foundation. The idea that binds Al Qaeda as a global movement, and sustains its endurance across both space and time, reflects a rare global ethereal movement, not unique but exceedingly uncommon.

The conception of the West, in its early years, was perhaps as ethereal: Athens lost its own long and bloody war with Sparta, and democracy in the end came nearly last to Greece in modern Europe, not first. But far away, in America, the ideals of the Athenians found new and fertile soil, but only after the indigenous peoples of the continent were genocidally annihilated or ethnically cleansed from their homelands. In the wake of their destruction a new organic form could arise, bound by its founding ethereal vision. Through by crude means, an ethereal conception of order took sovereign form as a state, and then underwent the transition from a synthetic to organic component of world politics over time and under the duress of war and conflict. As the “West” engages in its struggle with Al Qaeda and its many associated pan-Islamist forces, is should recall its own ethereal origins, and not dismiss its opponent for its current stateless status. The early Christians when they challenged the authority of the militarily and economically superior Rome were similarly outnumbered, finding solace in an ethereal but not a physical realm, but their ethereal conception of order planted a seed for not only a new world religion, but also the foundation for national identity in Europe more than a millennium later that arose from its ashes. The ethereal movement imagined by Jesus and executed brilliantly by his followers upon his death, ultimately reclaimed Rome as its capital, where it still rules today in the micro-state of Vatican City.

These are just some preliminary thoughts, a starting point for reconceptualizing world politics along constituent components that have proven their durability outside the framework of the Westphalian tradition. Europe has embraced nation-states, by and large, though its military history reflects a continuing aspiration for something more, a universal empire along the lines of what Napoleon briefly erected, or the more sweeping East/West synthesis achieved by Alexander in ancient times.

Along the periphery of Europe, however, an enduring tribal reality has challenged the viability of the state as the foundation of order, as seen in the many fractious border regions from the Balkans to the Caucasus. In the post-colonial world, the alignment of state boundaries to the underlying ethnocultural topographical is even less snug, resulting in genocidal explosions of ethnic rage as seen in Rwanda in its 100 days of bloodletting in 1994, and near total war conditions as experienced in the Congo these past few years with as many victims as the whole of Europe experienced during World War I. The states system that so many modern realist theorists have embraced may thus be viewed in hindsight as a naïve and idealistic fantasy rooted in a gross oversimplification of the very European history that undergirds their world view; and its fixation on the state as the fundamental building block increasingly deviates from the inherent and underlying reality of world politics the further one looks beyond Europe. Realists must thus be weaned from their persistent dependence upon the Westphalian model, much as Benno Teschke advises in his 2003 The Myth of 1648.

By setting realist theory free from its long state-centricity, it can better do what it initially sought to do: reflect reality, and in so doing, help mankind navigate its dangerous eddies, and achieve some measure of solace. By returning to its origins, a world of city-states trapped in a violent and anarchical world, and seeing how it evolved beyond the polis to world politics, we can rediscover its essence. Realism was not a rubber-stamp of the Treaty of Westphalia, it was a hard-fought, passionate struggle against chaos, a dream of enduring order, that responded to the complexities of history, and dealt with these complexities as best it could. It sought to mitigate through understanding the greatest dangers, and to restore equilibrium where it could. But the state as a fixed, and permanent solution to the problem of chaos, was never the sole end sought by realism. While Leviathan emerged in Hobbes’ imagination to pacify the festering chaos of his era, this all-powerful sovereign was not the terminus of the realist journey; it marked the high water mark of state sovereignty, but on the global stage this only led to a new round of chaos and a new quest for order, as evident in the theoretical efforts of the total war theorists, as in the deconstructive realists who sought to dismantle this all-powerful, too-powerful construct.

It is obvious in our time that some components of world politics are organic, and from thus derive stability as well as legitimacy. It is also obvious that some components are synthetic, though being synthetic need not mean a lack of legitimacy or even be a source of current instability if smartly managed. But a synthetic entity will have artificial boundaries and underlying fault lines which could under pressure become flashpoints of conflict along which they may fracture into new, smaller sovereign entities.

One can intuit that a state, as it evolves from tribal or sectarian origins into durable member of the world community, would likely aspire to migrate from synthetic to organic. With the Soviet Union, this came about during its collapse as its organic components were emancipated, regaining their lost sovereignty, rather than through its own evolution into an organic whole. America, itself once a synthetic entity, now can claim veritable organic status, its sovereignty unquestioned across its vast domain. China, largely organic, still holds by force captive nations that are unto themselves organic entities and would, in the absence of Chinese power, readily reclaim their own sovereign independence. This is so for the Tibetan nation, occupied by China and not universally recognized by the community of nations, but still recognized by millions of people around the world. Tiny Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were once similarly occupied by the Soviet state, though the West never fully turned its back on their just claims, rooted in their distinctly organic nature.

In the case of China, wars of unification and the stunning demographic dominance of the Han, now numbering over one billion, the world’s largest ethnic group, have brought their state toward organic status without fracturing like Moscow’s empire did. In the brief life of the Soviet Union, its people did not fully evolve into a singular Soviet man as dreamed by Lenin and his disciples, but retained their linguistic and cultural uniqueness, and their traditional ethnic identities were never truly replaced by a new Soviet identity. In China, while the Han are clearly Chinese by identity, and exercise most levers of power, over a hundred million non-Han minorities endure, particularly along the southwestern periphery of China, most well known in the West being the Tibetans whose homeland was conquered by China during the last century—but there are also many other distinct minority peoples scattered across its vast southern and western territories, many who still struggle to preserve their distinctive cultural traditions and identity—whether tribal, sectarian, or even national.

The same can be said of other synthetic states, such as neighboring Burma, which has yet to fully embrace its founding promises as articulated in the unfulfilled 1948 Panglong Agreement, and where many of its constituent states have yet to experience meaningful self-government or autonomy and where some like the Shan once asserted sovereignty across a vast kingdom, and where sovereign yearnings remain unextinguished. Navigating a forward path will be tricky for the Burmese generals, even as they substitute business suits for their uniforms: will they unwittingly unlock the very seeds of national dissolution like Gorbachev, or will they find a means to balance the aspirations of Burma’s organic, sub-state (or post-state) peoples yearning for rapid political empowerment. This presents an historic opportunity for the Shan to organize for their national restoration. Other peoples have done so during times of international turbulence, such as the Israelis who, on the brink of extinction as a people, reclaimed their homeland, and by force expanded their new borders into a viable modern state – or the dozens of captive nations who reclaimed their freedom as the Soviet state, in all its synthetic brittleness, collapsed. With Burma’s synthetic nature, and the undiminished organic nature of its ethnic peoples, we may yet witness the collapse of the Burmese state, and the liberation of its long-captive peoples.

Returning to our discussion of the underlying components of world politics, we have considered the sub-state dimensions of the many conflicts that have defined the GWOT. The tribe, like the clan or sect, remains a foundational, organic component of the world community, an essential sub-state and even pre-state building block. To successfully restore and maintain order in today’s complex world will require a sustained recognition of the endurance of tribalism in the modern world, and its tendency, in times of upheaval and collapse of centralized orders, to reassert itself as a key pillar of political order. This will require becoming what Bing West eloquently described as the “strongest tribe,” as America did successfully in Iraq. Becoming, and remaining, the strongest tribe is thus essential for achieving victory in our continuing war on terror, by whatever name it goes by. But strength must be defined by more than the material; it is also moral, as long recognized by theorists of war.

Thus the ethereal dimension is every bit as important, forming the spiritual seed around which tribal, sectarian, and later national identity coalesces, and if overlooked could enable synthetic states to fail; but if embraced, it can enable organic states to endure. Recognizing these important interconnections of organic, synthetic, and ethereal dimensions of world politics helps move us toward a reconceptualization of international relations, and a more nuanced appreciation of the quantum dimensions of world politics, which is the ultimate foundation of world order.

Thus thinking about organic versus synthetic, and the underlying ethereal dimensions of international relations, can help provide new insights into world politics, especially along the ethnoculturally complex border regions between states. Understanding which parts of the world possess an organic, and inherently durable, foundation, and which are more aptly synthetic and potentially vulnerable to a fracturing, could help guide the evolution of American military and diplomatic policy, and help foster important instincts for where our military power could be applied effectively. After all, a synthetic state can be broken into smaller components, while an organic one cannot—though with enough force, even an organic entity can ultimately be annihilated, through total war or genocide.

As the collapse of the Soviet Union and before that the breakup of Yugoslavia demonstrated at the Cold War’s conclusion, modern states are neither eternal nor unchanging. They are dynamic and evolving. And it may well be the internal, sub-systemic dynamics described above that drive these changes and not just balances or imbalances of state power in the international system. Indeed, across much of the world, there may truly be no state system at all, despite its prominence in the minds of so many theorists—but instead, in its lofty place, is an ethereal but nonetheless lasting interconnection that varies greatly by region, shadows cast upon the wall of mind deep down inside Plato’s cave—mere glimpses of an overarching order, amidst a kaleidoscopic clash of organic and synthetic parts, each doing what they do best: surviving in a maddeningly complex world, for as long as they can.


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