Andreas Whittam Smith: Score: 1-1 in the war on terror

States of consent don't need to win, they simply need not to lose

I have scanned international news with a changed mindset since reading Philip Bobbitt's book on 21st-century wars, Terror And Consent. Mr Bobbitt has been a senior adviser at the White House, the Senate and the State Department in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The first merit of his approach is that it persuades one to consider whether seemingly disparate stories should be linked together.

Take these recent events: the flu epidemic, the South African election, the police operation at a school in Nottingham at which 114 individuals were pre-emptively arrested for planning a protest at a nearby power station, the Home Secretary's announcements on the so-called Big Brother databases of everyone's emails and DNA samples, the Taliban's progress in Pakistan and the decision by President Barack Obama to ban the use of torture. All these, if I follow Mr Bobbitt correctly, should be plotted on a single map, the war against terror.

I had an initial difficulty with Mr Bobbitt's analysis, and his use of the phrase "war against terror". I classified the London bombings as terrible crimes. We couldn't leave the whole matter to Scotland Yard, of course, but nor was it war as hitherto understood. Wars take place between states. Except that, and this is an important point that Mr. Bobbitt makes, al-Qa'ida, and other terrorist groups like it, "approach statehood". For al-Qa'ida has a standing army. It has a treasury and consistent sources of finance. It has an intelligence collection and analysis cadre. It runs a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters, their relatives and their associates. It promulgates a recognisable system of laws, the sharia. And it declares wars.

Mr Bobbitt also defines the nature of democratic states in a new way. Sometimes he writes of "states of consent" to emphasise that a key attribute is citizens giving consent to governments to act on their behalf. Sometimes Mr Bobbitt also uses the phrase "emerging market state" to indicate that we are moving beyond the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation state.

The strategic raison d'être of the market state is the protection of civilians, not simply territory or national wealth nor any particular dynasty, class, religion or ideology. And as market states belong to and make use of networks of a bewildering variety, many of them global in scale, so too do their opponents. The structures of market state terrorism, which al-Qa'ida exemplifies, more greatly resemble the organisation charts of Visa or MasterCard than anything else. Similarly, the typical terrorist groups of the 20th century such as the IRA, the Tamil Tigers or the Basque Eta are very like what now seem the old-fashioned corporate business structures of the period. In other words, advanced states and their hideous offspring, the decentralised terrorist groups that assail them, are both alike moving from top down control to flatter, networked structures.

By the war against terror, therefore, Mr Bobbitt means a global contest whose battleground is the modern world. Against us, he would say, are ranged sharia fundamentalists, eco-terrorists, animal rights terrorists and anti-globalisation terrorists who define themselves against the currents that are bringing the market state itself into being.

What comprises victory? What is defeat? I quote what I think is Mr Bobbitt's most interesting passage. "The US and the EU, if they lose the wars against terror, might also become states of terror, for that is how wars of this kind are lost: not by conquest and the surrender of territory but by the compromise of the fundamental conditions for consent in the face of awful civilian suffering. On the other hand, states of consent don't need to win; they simply need not to lose. For market states of defence, the principal defensive aim will be to prevent catastrophic loss of civilian life, irrespective of the source of such losses, in order to allow society to develop and maintain consensual government. For such states, not losing amounts to winning."

So what recent victories and defeats have we seen in the war against terror? First entry on the plus side has to be President Obama's decision to ban the use of torture. This restores a key democratic value that had been put at risk by the previous American administration. Then in what may seem a surprising classification, I would add what seems to have been an effective response to the threat of a flu pandemic. We can feel that a terrorist attack with biological weapons would be dealt with more professionally than we might have imagined.

Further plusses are on a much smaller scale. Slightly reducing the intrusive nature of government databases containing everyone's emails and the DNA samples of innocent people as well as criminals are small victories in the war against terror. The holding of free elections is always bad news for terrorist groups, so the recent poll in South Africa deserves a tick. As to victory or defeat, it is too soon to know in which column to place the staging by the police in Nottingham last month of the biggest pre-emptive raid on environmental campaigners in British history. Some 114 people were arrested for conspiracy to commit criminal damage and aggravated trespass at the coal-fired power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar. Only the trials will tell us whether the police were intervening to prevent harm to the general public through the malfunctioning of the power station or were interfering with the right to peaceful protest. If the latter, as seems likely, it will have been a defeat for a free society.

On the other hand the success of the Taliban in gaining control of territory for which the government of Pakistan is responsible is beginning to look like a major defeat in the war against terror. Using Bobbitt terminology, Pakistan could be defined as an emerging market state of limited consent – a place that, at least until recently, foreign cricket teams and their supporters could visit without fear for their safety. But even that freedom has now been lost. Of recent events, then, Mr Obama's prohibition of torture and Pakistan's slide into anarchy represent one major victory and one major defeat.

'Terror And Consent' by Philip Bobbitt is published by Allen Lane (£25)