The American grand strategic experience has been framed largely as the historic triumph of democracy over tyranny, and in its evolution as a state, from agrarian society to modern-industrial superpower, it has wedded capitalism with democracy into its favored ideology. But a less often told but every bit as salient tale of America’s formative experience is that of the conquest by the emergent American state of the many fractious indigenous tribes whose homelands became American territory through war, conquest, and unequal (and highly coercive) diplomacy.
The American Experience
American power was thus forged in a crucible of state-tribe conflict, and America is thus better positioned, through its own experience and warfighting doctrine, to understand this persistent fault line of world conflict. And off and on throughout its military history as a world power, it continues to draw upon its experience as an Indian-fighting army, whether in fomenting rebellion against its opponents, or defeating rebellions by its opponents. But the tribe-state fault line is but one fault line in the complex sub-state topology of world politics, and in many ways the most apparent.
The real challenge is fully understanding the quantum level of world order and foundational fabric of world politics. While most modern international relations theory posited the “state” as the foundation of world order, with an international “system” (or at least an “environment”) in which states struggled to survive, even smaller units and sub-units have continued to play an important role in world affairs, such as the archetypical “man” that defines of Waltz’s first image in Man, the State, and War, or small aggregations of people below the threshold of the state, like the clan, sect and tribe, who were all but ignored by most twentieth-century IR theory.
It was these persistent, organic sub-state entities (POSSEs) that came to define the conflicts of both the immediate post-Cold War period, and the current Long War era. We can thus no longer afford to consider POSSEs to be peripheral or even secondary features of the world order.
Foundations of World Order: The Organic, Synthetic and Ethereal
When deconstructing world order into its micro-components, I propose a new taxonomy that is distinct from the traditional levels of analysis concept, to help organize our thinking on this quantum level of world politics operating in the sub-systemic, and often in the sub-state, realm – where POSSEs remain salient building blocks of both the domestic and international order. This new taxonomy for understanding the micro-dimensions of world politics is simple: all sub-systemic components of world politics may be defined as Organic, Synthetic, and Ethereal.
Among the Organic components are of course the nation-states, which have evolved over centuries into stable, culturally and linguistically distinct, 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 or between states. Not all states are Organic, of course, and to be fair, many of today’s Organic states have not always been Organic. Indeed, it took centuries of war, expansion, tribal conflict and annihilatory warfare, and political modernization for them to emerge. During the Medieval period, there were indeed few if any Organic states, and instead various trans-state and sub-state entities were the Organic components, whether at the level of tribe, clan or sect.
In today’s world, we have persistent, organic state-level entities (POSLEs) as well as ephemeral, synthetic state-level entities (ESSLEs), some which are nation-states but others which are multi-ethnic states, the former widely perceived to be more enduring over time than the latter. 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 those which have survived into the contemporary era are the POSSEs, so-named for their endurance. And now, with the proliferation of networks and digital communications systems, we have neo-tribal entities which could, in time, evolve into persistent and organic units of world politics, much like more traditional clans, sects and tribes. Indeed, organized crime networks and other illicit trade networks show many parallels with POSSEs, and could in time join their ranks.
The states that are not Organic are by default Synthetic states, even if they contain within their borders Organic subcomponents. On the whole, they are artifices that have yet to achieve full sovereignty over all of their territory and among all of their peoples. We must not forget that America was once a Synthetic state, and for just little more than a century has asserted sovereignty over so much of the North American content. Borne of the British colonial experiment, shaped by the crucible of war, against Britain, Spain, Barbary pirates, the many Native American tribes that governed what would ultimately become American territory, and later its own rebellious southern states – perhaps the decisive conflict which transformed “these united states,” a plural amalgam of sovereign components, into the singular “United States,” a single sovereign entity otherwise known as the “Union” and perceived to be indivisible.
In addition to Organic and Synthetic components of the world order, there is also the Ethereal dimension to consider. It is one that exists in the mind and heart, such as the world’s religions, and one might argue its minor cults and occasional messianic and millennial ideologies. 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, it was a clash between tribes and sects, the former Organic tribal entities indigenous to the Americas and the latter largely religious refugees from Europe organized into spiritual colonies that would soon clash with Native Americans violently. This was the environment in which King Philip’s War was fought, a struggle largely between Native tribes, allied into a coalition against the colonial forces who were united in their faith, and their ideological belief in their own supremacy over America’s first peoples.
This clash between Organic and Ethereal would in the end give birth to a modern state, the United States, which was at first more Synthetic, an amalgam of Ethereal subcomponents not unlike the amalgam of indigenous Organic tribes that had preceded it. Had America emerged from the cauldron of war as a theocracy it may well have remained an Ethereal state. But in its embrace of secularity, it replicated Synthetically what the Native American tribes had achieved Organically. Ironically, the former achieved a military victory over the latter, owing to an alliance with the Mohawks, who were drawn to England’s superiority of arms, and their defection enabled the Ethereal colonists to defeat King Philip’s Organic army, and breaking the will as well as the capacity of his coalition (as well as future coalitions that would arise to resist the expanding American state) to constrain by force of arms the emergent Synthetic power. As America expanded, it waged wars of extermination and displacement, perfecting the dark arts of ethnic cleansing, concentration, and genocide, displacing or destroying the Organic entities that had peopled North America in its wake. In the end, the victorious Synthetic state has evolved to become an Organic member of the world community, and in time would ascend to global economic, and military, predominance.
Tribes, like clans or sects, are foundational, Organic components of the world community, an essential sub-state and even pre-state building block. But Ethereal components are likewise important, perhaps the spiritual seed around which tribal, sectarian, and later national identity coalesces, and perhaps the missing ingredient that can allow Synthetic states to fail, while enabling Organic states to endure. A more nuanced exploration of the interconnections of Organic, Synthetic, and Ethereal sub-systemic dynamics to international relations would be a valuable endeavor, and help toward a reconceptualization of international relations and a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the micro-level or quantum dimension of world politics, which is the ultimate foundation of world order. Thus thinking about “Organics” versus “Synthetics,” and the underlying “Ethereal” dimensions of international relations, can help provide new insights into world politics, especially along the ethnoculturally complex border regions where the GWOT is being waged, where modern states are engaged in armed conflicts with indigenous tribes that reveal an underlying political topology distinct from national boundaries
For a half millennium, European states and Native American tribes have been locked in an epic conflict, one whereby America’s indigenous peoples became marginalized politically and economically while often times being physically displaced from their traditional homelands, concentrated onto less fertile reservations, and occasionally subjected to genocidal and annihilatory attacks by the armed forces of both the Old and New worlds. The loss in human terms has been calamitous, a holocaust among holocausts. And yet at the same time, the New World as it now exists reflects a synthesis of Old and New, with Native identity part of the new national identities that have arisen to varying degrees, intermixed or surrounded by more modern societies, struggling to survive amidst a wider context of ethnic tension and rivalry for state control. Thus a fault line between indigenous and non-indigenous continues to fester, and in recent months and years, it has erupted into violent inter-ethnic and state-tribe conflict from one tip of the Americas to the other. Indigenous peoples have managed to preserve their tribal identity and social organization in the face of the collapse of their sovereign supremacy across the Americas, even as the modern state took root in their pristine soils and evolved into multi-ethnic, multi-class, multi-faceted sovereign entities with superior economic and military resources. The tribal remnants of indigenous America that survived the initial civilizational clashes at the start of the era of colonization, and later policies of Indian removal, assimilation, and ghettoization, by virtue of their endurance are proof-positive of the truly Organic nature of the tribe as a core building block of world order.
This fault line exists not just in the Americas, but worldwide – wherever states and tribes continue to exist in their unsteady and asymmetrical equilibrium. Like the many issue-specific regimes that emerge from time to time amidst the anarchy of international relations, and the fleeting “coalitions of the willing” the arise to meet specific but ephemeral threats, these tribes are a very real, but often-times hidden, fixture of the international landscape, most evident where the power of the modern state is weakest, such as in the remotest, and harshest, geophysical environments where modernity itself has been slowest to arrive. Tribal identity contains within it several components that lend themselves toward stability at the micro-level: linguistic and cultural cohesion, strong familial bonds, clearly defined geographical enclaves (whether a forested valley, an alpine ridge, or a watershed), and often an echo of an ancient religion, whether shamanism, animism, or mono- and poly-theistic religions. An Ethereal bond, at least historically, added an additional bonding layer to the tribe in proto-historical times, though in the modern era indigenous tribes are often newly converted to the world’s dominant religions, with Arctic villages that were once guided by shamanism now spiritually defined by their Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox beliefs, with evangelical Pentecostalism now making strong inroads in the new Inuit territory of Nunavut.
Thus, the Ethereal dimension of world politics shows a similar bifurcation between Organic and Synthetic, or more aptly between traditional/indigenous and modern/contemporary, as the non-Ethereal. Because tribal belief systems vary at least as much as those of the larger states that now surround them, and thus are not necessarily the defining feature of their Organic status, they make ideal coalitional partners, willing to partner with the armed forces of modern states of various ideological or spiritual orientations in order to enhance their probability of survival – especially in the face of regional and localized conflict with their neighboring/parent state. As the Kurds discovered in their quest to survive Saddam’s Arabization policies, and the Hmong before them when confronting the militant communism of the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Chinese who asserted sovereignty over their traditional homelands, a tribe-state partnership is a natural, logical arrangement, applying Kautilya’s ancient wisdom to the modern era, and to the sub-state context.
A Coalition of Organics: the Case for a New Unified Combatant Command
Like America’s past conflicts where alliances were formed with indigenous tribes to help achieve the necessary battlefield strength to offset a regional opponent’s otherwise superior strength, coalition warfare with indigenous, sub- and trans-state allies has thus become increasingly important to the struggle long known – at least until recently – as the Global War on Terror. As we participate in this multi-year and multi-front effort, we find our military forces are increasingly called upon to wade into this fractious realm where sovereignty itself remains highly localized and often tribal in nature, and where our effort to rollback radical jihadism is being waged at the clan, tribal, or sectarian level, all persistent, organic sub-state entities (or POSSEs). During the last few years, we have re-learned the art of tribal coalition warfare in remote environments, a military and diplomatic art we have long excelled at, from our pre-revolutionary engagements in King Philip’s War, which was at heart a war between tribalism and modern state sovereignty in the New World, with the state winning decisively, and the French and Indian War, which was a struggle between Britain’s imperial yet ultimately Synthetic aspiration for global supremacy, and France’s more Organic colonial integration of state and tribe, a struggle that ultimately witnessed the eventual decline of both British and French ambitions with the subsequent American victory over the British during the Revolutionary War that followed Britain’s hard-fought, but exhausting, victory over New France.
After America’s improbable victory over Britain in the revolutionary war, the young United States came to view its frontier with Indian Country as an existential threat necessitating pacification, and waged a long series of Indian Wars to cleanse its expanding frontier of this threat. Like the British, America allied with friendly tribes, who fought side-by-side with American troops as they pushed further and further west, serving as much-needed scouts with intimate knowledge of the terrain, providing an early modern version of human terrain mapping (HTM) to American forces. And in contrast to the French model, America’s tribal partners in the expansion of the American state were defeated subjects of the new Imperium, and not sovereign partners as the French had sought. America’s allied Indian partners nonetheless became a vital part of America’s fighting force, and an enduring source of tactical and strategic inspiration.
While seldom celebrated, these strategic experiences gained in the Indian Wars have defined our nation’s approach to military power, yielding several notable Presidents who first gained strategic experience and insight into war as Indian Fighters, including Washington, Harrison, Jackson, and Lincoln. As Commanders-in-Chief, they wedded European strategic concepts to the unique strategic challenges facing their frontier nation emerging from the virgin wilderness of the New World, guiding it toward its destiny as a world power.
As America went out into the world in the twentieth century as a world power, later a superpower, and for a time, even a hyperpower, its approach to war was intimately shaped by these earlier engagements, and the lessons learned along a chaotic and expanding frontier where state sovereignty repeatedly collided with the remnants of tribal sovereignty, until President Grant, fresh from his Civil War victory of the South, appointed General William Tecumseh Sherman – whose namesake was the great Shawnee warrior who nearly succeeded in blocking America’s westward expansion – as Army CINC in 1869, and who subsequently unleashed his doctrine of total war, so successful in his crushing march to the sea during the Civil War, upon the last, unsubdued Indian warriors on the western plains, crushing them decisively once and for all. When the West was finally won, it was achieved in part through coalitional warfare with Indian allies, and in part through the decisive military defeat of Indian opponents. The strategic environment was thus a complex, multi-ethnic patchwork of both friendly and hostile tribal peoples, requiring in-depth cultural knowledge, diplomatic ingenuity, and strategic innovation to master.
These lessons stayed with America well into the twentieth century, and during its long military engagement in Indochina, it was sub-state and trans-boundary alliances with indigenous minorities like the Hmong of Laos and Montagnards of Vietnam’s central highlands that nearly derailed the Communist expansion across Indochina, much like Tecumseh’s bold but ultimately unsuccessful stand against colonial expansion across North America. With more time to take root, America’s innovative COIN efforts in Vietnam may well have achieved a strategic victory for the United States. But after America withdrew from the field of battle, its military shifted attention to set-piece conventional warfare of the sort it expected to fight on the Central Front in Europe, and avoided re-opening the Pandora’s box of counterinsurgency warfare until it unwittingly triggered a ferocious insurgency in the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. By then, all the knowledge America had gained about how to fight and win counterinsurgencies in partnership with sub-state allies was unfortunately forgotten, and with it the will to engage in the hard, long slog in remote environments that is the hallmark of counterinsurgency warfare.
And so, during our current struggle in the once-dubbed War on Terror, we’ve had to re-learn the art of counterinsurgency, virtually from scratch, paying a high price in blood and treasure. But along the way we have gained valuable knowledge of and insight to the sub-state landscape of our new war zone. As in Vietnam, our game plan has involved partnering with local, tribal, and regional sub-state groups, forming war-time alliances the have proven effective against our joint enemy. As we begin a strategic shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, we could benefit greatly from the formation of a new unified combatant command (UCC) to coordinate our ongoing efforts at forging tribal coalitions, with responsibilities for preserving and enshrining into doctrine the many strategic insights gained from the current struggle, as well as our past efforts to wage sub-state coalitional warfare, such as those tested on the field of battle in Indochina.
This past June, Defense Secretary Gates announced the formation of a new cyber command to protect America from the digital-age threat of cyberwarfare. Like the newly established cyber command, new UCC to guide tribal coalition warfare with persistent, organic, sub-state entities – such as the POSSEs with whom we successfully partnered in our successful COIN efforts in Iraq – could help us successfully leverage the knowledge gained from our current and prior engagements. This new tribal command would thereby recognize a recurring pattern underlying American COIN operations that has often gone un-noted: the enduring and strategically important contribution of POSSEs as military partners of American forces, from the Indian Wars to the GWOT. As important, when the Long War finally concludes, its newly pacified battlezones will remain strategically vital to the coming peace, serving as beachheads from which American power can be securely projected along state-tribe fault lines of future conflicts. By standing up a new tribal command, and paying greater attention to the persistence of organic, sub-state entities, America will be better able to consolidate its hard-won gains of the GWOT, and to ensure that a stable post-war world emerges.
Barry Zellen is the author of Arctic Doom/Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic (Praeger, October 2009), as well as Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books, March 2008). His next volume, due out in December 2009, is On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books).