Does Governance Imply Legitimacy? ISIS and the Nation-State Problem

Scholars and practitioners of international relations are familiar with the brutality of the Islamic State (ISIS). From beheading innocent civilians to raping and torturing women, and even pillaging ancient cultural sites, the group’s actions seem reminiscent of barbarous non-state actors from hundreds of years ago. Some, however, argue that ISIS is on the way to statehood, developing formal governmental structures, and using terror to suppress its citizenry.

NY Times’ Tim Arango contends that, as ISIS’ statehood solidifies, it builds the potential for political legitimacy. I remain skeptical. That ISIS is on the way to becoming a state does not imply its pending legitimacy; rather it forces us to reconsider the concept’s meaning and whether or not nation-states themselves deserve to be called legitimate.

ISIS is not the only terrorist group in history to aspire to statehood. Perhaps the easiest parallel to draw is with the French Revolution, whereby the transitional government based on Enlightenment principles still relevant today openly advocated a policy of terror towards its citizens. Some have already made the comparison between ISIS and revolutionary France’s “Reign of Terror.” Indeed, few are not familiar with ISIS’ proclivity towards beheading. Yet at the same time, we seem eerily willing to accept a nation whose modern system of republican democracy involved the decapitation of tens of thousands of French citizens. As far as I can determine, no American politician in the 18th or 19th centuries ever called for an end to French violence, and France remains a key ally to this day.

There are less clear-cut examples, of course. The Pink Tide of socialist revolutions in Latin America frequently involved blatant human rights abuses. For example, gay Cubans were “routinely imprisoned for soliciting sex in public locations, government workers lost their jobs because of their homosexuality, and homosexual artists were censored” under the Castro regime. Even still, public acts of homosexuality remain illegal on the Caribbean island: a clear violation of citizens’ human rights. Cuba may not be a key American ally, despite normalizing relations, but the US government certainly recognizes its legitimacy within the international community.

However, we must step back and reconsider the initial question. Does ISIS’ growing tendency towards what we might call rudimentary state-sponsored terrorism suggest its ability to eventually become a legitimate nation-state?

Not necessarily.

As we move into what must inevitably be a new form of international relations with the progress of world events, technology, and political intrigue, we ought to reconsider our requirements of a legitimate body politic. It is well-known that today’s states formed out of the need for civilian protection, with collective, organized violence as the medium to protect individuals from barbarians outside the state’s walls. Charles Tilly’s work famously illustrates how “[w]ar makes states.” To be sure, “[b]anditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum,” to borrow Tilly’s phrasing. The brutality that ISIS represents may add force for the pattern of state formation thus far in human history, but it does not add moral credibility. In fact, forgiving the violent transgressions of imagined political communities seems to make as much sense as exonerating the born-again Christian serial killer.

The 20th century may have seen a wave of political revolution, Cold War tensions, and turbulence for humans’ commitment to the rights of others, but it also saw the emergence of modern human rights organizations. In other words, new forms of political expression came about: those founded on a commitment to human rights and empathy, and not on the territorial traditions of the previous century’s political bodies. In the same way that we do with the nation-state, should we not also give legitimacy to the Amnesty Internationals, Human Rights Watches, and Red Crosses of the world? Certainly they have shown their purpose (and limited ability) to protect our rights and physical integrity as states once did in their formative epochs. These may be underdeveloped representations of people’s political will, but they certainly do not carry the black stain of violence that nearly every nation-state today does.

To critics, this will seem mere sophistry: an impractical critique. The argument typically goes: “If not the nation-state, then what? What is your solution?” To this I answer that such critics have lost the debate long ago, for my point in writing is not to suggest that I have all of the answers to the complex theoretical issues facing the international community. Rather, I urge my colleagues to accept that their solution (namely, the nation-state system) comes with serious problems that merit critique. I may not have all the answers, but neither do the critics.

ISIS may eventually develop a full capacity to govern. But governments do not necessarily have a full capacity for moral legitimacy. They are simply bounded by their histories of violence. As the 21st century brings forth a wave of challenges to international relations as a discipline, its scholars must bring forth an equally valid challenge to its key concepts, perhaps beginning with nation-state legitimacy. It is quite easy to say that ISIS—in becoming a state—ought not to use terror. It is a great deal harder to reflect inwardly on whether our own violent past deserves to be called legitimate in the first place.


Kakenmaster is a student in the School of International Service at American University. His interests include international affairs, Latin American politics, human rights, and peace and conflict resolution.
Twitter: @billkakenmaster


4N Policy Now is a non- partisan, non-biased organization. All of the views expressed in the content published on this site are the sole opinions of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 4N Policy Now.


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