Category Archive 'Post-Modern State'

30 Mar 2011

Postmodern Policy and Premodern Chaos

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The key text guiding European and American policy today is the British diplomatist Robert Cooper‘s The Postmodern State and the World Order, a thoughtful and concise (merely 20 pages) monograph published in 2002.

Cooper observes that the ethos and goals of the advanced European and American states have changed fundamentally, producing the post-modern state.

The post-modern state is one that sets value above all on the individual. Hence its unwarlike character. War is essentially a collective activity: the struggles of the twentieth century have been the struggles of liberalism – the doctrine of the individual – against different forms of collectivism: class, nation, race, community, state. In their different ways both fascism and communism were systems designed for war. Fascism was open about it: its ethos and rhetoric – the uniforms, parades, the glorification of war: the state did not just have a monopoly on violence; violence was its raison d’être.

Communism also seems, in retrospect, like an attempt to run a state as though it were an army, and as if the country were continuously at war. Not for nothing was the term ‘command economy’ used. Both communism and fascism were attempts to resist the break-up of society brought about by the ideas of the enlightenment and the technology of the industrial revolution. Both ideologies tried to provide protection for the individual against the loneliness and uncertainty of life in a modernising society. Both tried to use the state to replace the sense of community that was lost as industrial cities replaced agricultural villages (and both thereby maintained inter alia the intrusiveness and conformity of the village too: ‘Upper Volta with
rockets’ – was exactly what they aimed at in a way: village life plus state power). These were thus the culminating points of the modern state – raison d’état made into a system of domestic governance as well as foreign policy.

The post-modern state is the opposite. The individual has won and foreign policy becomes the continuation of domestic concerns beyond national boundaries and not vice versa. Individual consumption replaces collective glory as the dominant theme of national life. War is to be avoided; empire is of no interest.

The result is the neglect of, and the post-modern world’s abandonment of the responsibility for governing, the premodern uncivilized and undeveloped portions of the planet.

What is different today is that the imperial urge is dead in the countries most capable of imperialism. Land and natural resources (with the exception of oil), are no longer a source of power for the most technologically advanced countries. Governing people, especially potentially hostile people, is a burden. No one today wants to pay the costs of saving distant countries from ruin. The pre-modern world belongs, as it were, in a different time zone: here, as in the ancient world, the choice is again between empire or chaos. And today, because none of us sees the use of empires, we have chosen chaos.

As a result we have, for the first time since the nineteenth century, a terra nullius. It may remain so or it may not. The existence of such a zone of chaos is nothing new; but previously such areas, precisely because of their chaos, were isolated from the rest of the world. Not so today when a country without much law and order can still have an international airport. …

The zone of chaos, nonetheless, will at times require attention, even intervention.

What of the pre-modern chaos? What should we do with that? On the basis of a rational calculation of interest, the answer should be: as little as possible. Chaos does not represent a threat, at least not the kind that requires a conventional military response. One may need to bar one’s door against its by-products – drugs, disease, refugees – but these are not threats to vital interests that call for armed Western intervention. To become involved in a zone of chaos is risky; if the intervention is prolonged it may become unsustainable in public opinion; if the intervention is unsuccessful it may be damaging to the government that ordered it.

Besides, what form should intervention take? The most logical way to deal with chaos is by colonisation, or hegemony. But this is unacceptable to post-modern states: so if the goal is not colonisation, what should it be? Usually the answer will be that the goals will be ambiguous.

The risk of ‘mission creep’ is therefore considerable. Those who become involved in the pre-modern world run the risk that ultimately they will be there because they are there. All the conventional wisdom and all realistic doctrines of international affairs counsel against involvement in the pre-modern world.

And yet such ‘realistic’ doctrines, for all their intellectual coherence, are not realistic. The post-Cold War, post-modern environment is one where foreign policy will be driven by domestic politics; and these will be influenced by the media and by moral sentiment. We no longer live in the world of pure national interest. Human rights and humanitarian problems inevitably play an important part in our policy-making.

A new world order may not be a reality but it is an important aspiration, especially for those who live in a new European order. The wish to protect individuals, rather than to resolve the security problems of states, is a part of the post-modern ethos. In a world where many states suffer breakdowns, there is wide scope for humanitarian intervention. Northern Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda are only the beginning of a trend. Operations in these areas are a halfway house between the calculation of interest which tells you not to get involved and the moral feeling which tells the public that something must be done. In different ways, all these operations have been directed towards helping civilians – against the military, the government or the chaos. The results are not always impressive and the interventions are in some respects half-hearted. That is because they live in the ambiguous halfworld where interest tells you to stay out and conscience tells you to go in – between Hobbes and Kant. Such interventions may not solve problems, but they may salve the conscience. And they are not necessarily the worse for that.

Thus we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are going to get involved in situations where interest and calculation would tell us to stay out. In this case, there are some rules to observe. The first is to moderate the objectives to the means available. The wars of ideology called for total victory; the wars of interests call for victory; in the premodern world victory is not a relevant objective.

Victory in the pre-modern world would mean empire. The postmodern power who is there to save the lives of individual civilians wants to stop short of that. In consequence, goals must be even more carefully defined than in wars of interest. They will be goals of relatives and not of absolutes: more lives saved, lower levels of violence among the local populations; and these must be balanced by low casualties for the interveners. At the same time, we must be prepared to accept, indeed we must expect, failure a good deal of the time. And then we must be prepared to cut our losses and leave.

The post-modern state, thus, finds itself guided in its policies by the media, crafting news reports to maximize readership through sensationalism and emotionalist appeals and framing all of its analysis to fit favored stereotypes, and by the sentimental response of its mass audience.

Mr. Cooper fails to observe the further obvious conclusion, which is that the foreign ministry of the post-modern state has been, de facto, turned over to an ill-informed, irresponsible mass entity with essentially the powers of reasoning and analysis and emotional maturity of an adolescent girl.

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