Governments across the Middle East and South Asia are increasingly losing power to substate actors as those actors insert themselves at a mezzanine level of rule between the government and the people. Local populations often regard such mezzanine rulers as championing ethnic, religious, or political causes; protecting marginalized communities; and providing vital services, but Western governments think they undermine effective governance and encourage state fragmentation. Western governments also tend to see such movements as temporary, destined to wither away.
Many mezzanine rulers, however, are neither on the escalator to statehood nor sliding into extinction. They enjoy a wide range of formal statuses, and some even have a stabilizing influence at home and regionally. In the Kurdish region in Iraq, mezzanine rulers have been granted some autonomy by the state's federal structure; in Somaliland and Gaza, they are not formally independent, but they operate as near-state entities, existing in a political and legal limbo without international recognition. And although Hezbollah has no constitutional status in Lebanon, it is an established political player domestically and regionally.
Any single one of these movements can be dismissed as anomalous, but taken collectively as a phenomenon, they represent a unique long-term challenge to governments, Western policymakers, and the precepts of international law. By seeking to embed themselves irrevocably in a country's political system and win exclusive control over a segment of the population, mezzanine rulers jeopardize domestic stability. When they resort to terrorism, piracy, insurgency, or other means to advance ideological, ethnic, or nationalist agendas, they pose a threat that goes well beyond the borders of the host state. International law, which remains based on the Westphalian model of nation-states, has not kept pace with this challenge. The gulf between international law and local realities frustrates efforts to tackle the problems posed by mezzanine rulers. To remedy the resulting paralysis, Western governments must work over time to recast the international legal environment. That will be a slow process. Meanwhile, they should change their approach to these
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