Secretary Albright, Meet Dr. No

Politics and policy.
Sept. 12 1998 3:30 AM

Secretary Albright, Meet Dr. No

The Bonding--James Bonding--of American foreign policy.

Last month, as the United States was Tomahawking Osama Bin Laden, another little-noticed American foreign policy drama was playing out in the Caribbean. On the tiny island nation of St. Kitts, a cocaine smuggler named Charles "Little Nut" Miller threatened to murder American veterinary students at the island's university unless the United States dropped its efforts to extradite him. A former drug informant and a dropout from the U.S. witness protection program, Miller has found a safe haven on St. Kitts, where his bullying and his cash have won him enormous political influence with the island's shaky government. At the news of Miller's threat, the State Department flew diplomatic security advisers to St. Kitts to reassure students; some of the young Americans fled home, and there were even rumors of a Grenada-like military strike to capture Miller.

Advertisement

The Miller imbroglio and the assault on Bin Laden would appear to have nothing in common, but they both illustrate a peculiar development in American foreign policy: James Bondification.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The United States, born and raised during the age of the nation-state, is accustomed to thinking of the nation as the natural unit of foreign policy. The United States negotiates with nations, trades with nations, issues sanctions against nations, and makes war on nations. But the United States has begun to realize that it lives in a very different kind of world, one filling up with what policy types call "nonstate actors" and what moviegoers recognize as "James Bond villains." The nonstate actors range from 10 cent thugs such as Miller, who has merely shanghaied a small island, to world-class dastards such as Bin Laden, who runs a supranational organization, has loyalty to no government, owns a vast fortune and an armory of high-tech weapons, and is engaged in an elaborate conspiracy so secretive that we were not aware of it till it smacked us in the head. Habituated to presidents and prime ministers, we are now dealing with autonomous, mysterious characters driven by motives that baffle us and who are unchecked by any government. Bin Laden may not be quite as masterful as Blofeld, and Miller may not be quite as sinister as Mr. Big, but they're closer to them than we might think.

Nonstate actors are not, of course, an invention of the '90s. The United States fought its first war against the Barbary Pirates, who terrorized U.S. shipping in the Mediterranean at the turn of the 19th century. More recently, Yasser Arafat's stateless Palestine Liberation Organization and terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad built organizations that have shaken governments around the world. But there is no doubt that the variety and power of nonstate actors is greater now than it has been for centuries. Bin Laden's worldwide terror network is currently dominating headlines, but other terrorist groups are thriving as well. Colombian, Mexican, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian drug lords have neutralized (or purchased) governments and recruited private armies. Hong Kong triads have established themselves as autonomous powers in much of Asia. What was Soviet Central Asia is now a free-fire zone: Drug, mineral, and arms barons compete for power, while legitimate governments of the region are patsies by comparison. Even corporations are getting into the Bond business. Executive Outcomes, a South African mercenary business, recently invaded, stabilized, and controlled Sierra Leone for a year--interrupting a long-waged civil war--in order to protect that country's diamond mines.

43000_43359_kuper_rocketman

O ne reason why this Bondification seems to be proliferating is the decline of the nation-state. As Robert Kaplan chronicled in The Ends of the Earth, environmental collapse, tribal conflicts, overpopulation, and urbanization have undermined Third World governments. For most of this century, colonial rulers or nationalist dictators dominated countries, monopolizing power with mighty central governments. But central authority has vanished in much of Africa and Asia, and nonstate actors have filled the vacuum. Where anarchy reigns, dollars can buy a private empire. It's no surprise that Bin Laden chose Sudan and Afghanistan as bases: Neither country has had a functioning government for 20 years. Bin Laden paid the Taliban a few million dollars a year and guaranteed himself cover. Drug dealers, similarly, have purchased fiefs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. (The difference between yesterday and today is the difference between Grenada and St. Kitts. Fifteen years ago, the United States invaded a Caribbean island to get rid of a Communist government we didn't like. Today, we could invade a Caribbean island to get rid of a drug dealer we don't like. This is government privatization, twisted beyond recognition.)

This anarchy has so far limited itself to marginal countries--Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, etc.--but soon, warns Kaplan, a major nation like Pakistan will collapse. And when that happens, who knows what nutters will emerge? "Pakistan has 100 million people. So if it goes, there will be a lot of crazy lunatics loose," says Kaplan.

There is another, more artificial, reason why America is increasingly challenged by Bond villains: We create them. The American public generally yawns at the rest of the world. The tried and true method for ginning up excitement about a foreign entanglement is to demonize, to focus on a single foreign scoundrel. We battle Saddam Hussein, not Iraq; Muammar Qaddafi, not Libya; Manuel Noriega, not Panama. Similarly, it's easier to pin America's drug problem on Pablo Escobar or to blame global terrorism on a single nefarious puppeteer such as Bin Laden. (It was astonishing how rapidly Bin Laden emerged as America's most hated man. One day, a few State Department operatives knew his name. The next day, we all did, and we were mad as hell at him.)

Demonization creates a dilemma for American foreign policy makers. The best way to generate popular support is to personalize the fight. And yet U.S. policy forbids America from actually trying to assassinate the chosen villain. Here is the heart of the dilemma of Bondification. We know how James Bond neutralizes Bond villains, but how does a great power do it? The cruise missile strike against Bin Laden eerily mirrored the latest Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies, which opens with a cruise missile strike against a terrorist gathering in Central Asia. But you can't rely on Bond tactics forever. We bombed Bin Laden once. Can we keep doing it? Is it acceptable to pluck "Little Nut" Miller off St. Kitts? Or does that violate the island's sovereignty? These are questions to which we don't know the answer.

More worrisome is that the rise of Bond villains encourages Americans to mistake the enemy for the issue. American and Colombian drug warriors concentrated obsessively on destroying the wicked Escobar and his Medellín cartel. But while they pursued Escobar, the cocaine market opened for the Cali cartel. Enemy eliminated, but problem intact. Bin Laden is a fearsome enemy of the United States, and the sooner he's killed the better. But even if he dropped dead today, there would still be millions of underemployed, undereducated, alienated men in the Middle East ready to follow a charismatic, militant, anti-American leader. In a Bond movie, when 007 kills the archenemy, the crisis disappears. In the real world, it may not.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.