Making War on the World: How Transnational Violence Reshapes Global Order

| December 21, 2022
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Making War on the World: How Transnational Violence Reshapes Global Order, Mark Shirk (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022), 256 pp., cloth $140, paperback $35, eBook $34.99.

Among the many twentieth-anniversary retrospectives written in fall 2021 that assessed the impacts of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it was common to read that al-Qaeda’s violence has altered the course of world affairs. Many observers noted specifically how, in an era that had otherwise been characterized by globalization, the attacks prompted states to reexamine and reassert their powers as sovereigns. This insight, that nonstate violence can reshape the global order and drive state transformation, is at the heart of Mark Shirk’s new book, Making War on the World. Shirk asks both how and when “transboundary processes,” or “those that flow through and across boundaries” (p. 11), drive state transformation. His answer is novel. He utilizes a “practice theory of the state,” wherein “practices” are “habitual, patterned actions that both constitute the social world and its inhabitants and structure future possible action” (p. 17, italics in original). Such an approach implies that the “state is never formed” and is “always changing” (p. 18). On this basis, he elaborates two mechanisms through which state transformation occurs: shattering and, in response, reinscribing. “Shattering” happens when existing practices that pertain to boundaries are revealed to be no longer useful. Here, Shirk inverts James Scott’s concept of “legibility”: transboundary processes that shatter existing practices are “illegible,” in that state agents “cannot make sense of [them] using current conceptual maps or boundaries” (p. 28). The second mechanism is “reinscribing,” wherein creative solutions are developed, yielding new practices and new conceptions of boundaries: “State agents create novel realms of state authority even as old ones die” (p. 30).

In setting out these claims, the author endeavors to differentiate his account from others, including rationalist arguments that emphasize adaptation or instrumentality. Shirk’s point is that as practices evolve, actors evolve, too. Also, whereas past commentators have claimed that sovereign power has either waxed or waned, as if on a linear scale, Shirk sees continuity in the way the state “remakes” itself by rendering illegible processes legible, via shattering and reinscribing.

There is much to admire in Shirk’s approach, not least because he seeks to demonstrate this highly original argument through three case studies: the golden age of piracy in the early eighteenth-century Caribbean, the wave of anarchist violence in Europe and North America at the turn of the twentieth century, and al-Qaeda in the early twenty-first century. Shirk brings to bear some original, primary evidence, as the historical cases utilize archival research while the contemporary case draws upon twenty-two interviews with “policy makers, experts and privacy advocates” (p. 13).The cases are well chosen and generally succeed in showing how nonstate violence in different eras has presented a fundamental challenge to states, precipitating a sense of crisis and ushering in a range of new measures. Analysts have often reached for analogies between today’s terrorists and the anarchists and pirates of yesteryear, and Shirk deserves credit for a systematic exploration and comparison of the three cases.

Despite these virtues, there are four ways in which Shirk’s claims might have been more compelling. The first concerns the framing of the book, which foregrounds the task of responding to the gap that Shirk perceives in the literature, as opposed to being problem driven. It is standard academic practice to leverage such gaps to frame a new inquiry, and the notion of an “empirical puzzle” often comes across as a stricture in political science. But Shirk begins the book by recounting what a series of other scholars think about globalization and state transformation and he maintains a strong deference to secondary sources throughout, including in the case studies. Beyond the task of arguing against alternative explanations, there are more references to “the literature” than is necessary; the empirically grounded account of why it is important to understand state transformation in line with the author’s position is underdeveloped by comparison. For this reason, it is difficult to imagine that the book will have much of an audience beyond scholars such as those to whom Shirk is (mostly) speaking.

Second, while the case studies succeed at a general level, a critical reader might question the extent to which they actually support Shirk’s theoretical framework. The latter comprises several concepts that are difficult to demonstrate empirically. Despite the author’s best efforts to show “not just a new policy but a remaking of the state” (p. 134), the case study chapters are more effective at describing policy change than they are at demonstrating how it results from a suddenly out-of-date “conceptual map” or a specific encounter with an “illegible” phenomenon. This is a particular challenge for the historical case studies, where the conceptual maps of state agents can be difficult to discern from available evidence.But even in the al-Qaeda case, the author might have been able to mount a more convincing series of claims if more interviews were sought and with a stronger focus on decision-makers rather than “experts.” The text of the book clocks in at just 149 pages. It is ambitious to think that an argument of such novelty, illustrated through case studies of such broad historical sweep, could be conclusively defended in this space.

Third, there are a few distracting editorial and descriptive errors. In the course of seven pages, I found four references to attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and “Tunisia” in 1998 (pp. 106, 108, 111 and 113). It was, of course, the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that was attacked on the same day as the Nairobi embassy, a fact that later in the book appears correctly (p. 134). Also, in places, Shirk’s discussion of al-Qaeda does not accurately reflect the current state of knowledge. For example, his claim that “al Qaeda was able to carry out high-casualty attacks,” such as in Madrid in 2004 (p. 111), has been refuted elsewhere (“al-Qaeda,” as such, played no direct role).

Lastly, one might quibble with the theoretical framework itself. The main focus of the book is how practices of sovereignty change over time, and there are few references to cross-national variation. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, despite Shirk’s use of the generic term “the state” throughout, he is talking about some states more than others. Ditto concerning the “practice theory of the state,” which appears to be so permissive as to accommodate a wide range of historical developments; readers may query how such an account might be disproven.

In the end, it is difficult to disagree with Shirk’s concluding claim that “if states practice sovereignty in new ways and interact with each other (and other actors) in new ways as a result, practices developed to deal with the world twenty, forty and sixty years ago will have to change as well. This can trigger or exacerbate power transitions” (p. 146). The question is whether Shirk’s approach adds value in making this point. Not as much as it might have, to my mind. At its best, the book resonates with, updates, and makes an effort to operationalize existing arguments about the social construction of state sovereignty.

—Peter Romaniuk

Peter Romaniuk is an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.4

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