21 May 2013
The Human Future after Geopolitics:
The Large Scale Structure of Political Societies
Some time ago in The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I formulated just such a theorem as follows: Human agency is constrained by geography. While geopolitics must remain central to understanding contemporaneous political thought, this will not always be so. The time will come when we will, of necessity, pass beyond geopolitics.
In many posts in which I have discussed the extraterrestrialization of terrestrial civilization (cf. e.g., Addendum on Extraterrestrialization and The Farther Reaches of Civilization) and the advent of Copernican civilization (cf. e.g., Civilization and the Technium and Earth Science, Planetary Science, Space Science) I have clearly implied that, as civilization expands off the surface of the earth, the political life of man will be forced to change in order to keep pace with these events, much as human societies have been forced to change rapidly as a result of the industrial revolution and its consequences. It does not matter how desperately those heavily-invested in the present global order will resist this change: the change will come if industrial-technological civilization continues its trajectory and does not succumb to existential risks.
If the political structure of extraterrestrialized civilization will be described by a future science of astropolitics, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be formulated as concisely as my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and it would be formulated thus:
Human agency is constrained by the structure of space.
This is a straightforward generalization of my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and as that theorem can be summarized as geography matters, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be similarly summarized as space matters.
The generalization of the scope of human agency from geography to the structure of space itself suggests that we also ought to generalize beyond the human, since by the time earth-originating civilization is an extraterrestrial civilization human beings will have become transhuman or post-human, and in the fullness of time homo sapiens will be followed by successor species. Thus…
Human and human-successor agency is constrained by the structure of space.
However, since this formulation of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics would hold for any peer civilization, there is no reason to limit the formulation to human beings, human successors, or earth-originating life. Thus…
Any conscious agency is constrained by the structure of space.
It is even superfluous to mention the qualification of “conscious” agency, since any naturalistic agency whatsoever is and will be constrained by the structure of space (supernatural agencies as comprehended in eschatological conceptions of history would presumably not be constrained by space). However, since our concern at present is to understand the large scale structure of political societies, we are concerned with those agents that represent peer industrial-technological civilizations that might establish (or have already established) a (peer) civilization beyond the surface of their homeworld.
Despite the many different formulations that might be given to the fundamental theorem of astropolitics, depending on the degree of generalization to be embodied in the formulation, all of these generalizations are intuitively continuous with the fundamental theorem of geopolitics, as well they ought to be. The geographical and topographical features that are central to geopolitical thought are the local structures of space corresponding to the human epistemic and perceptual order of magnitude. When the growth of civilization forces the parallel expansion of human epistemic and perceptual orders of magnitude, the structure of space itself will concern us more than the local mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts that now shape our terrestrial strategic thought.
The structural similarity between the fundamental theorem of geopolitics and the fundamental theorem of astropolitics masks the profound transformation of human political life that will come about in the event that human civilization expands to the degree that astropolitical thought will better describe strategic agency than geopolitical thought. A robust, self-sustaining human presence off the surface of the earth will impact human political societies so dramatically that it will eventually mean the end of the nation-state system. Such a change in human political thought will develop over more than a century, and will probably require two or three centuries to be fully assimilated throughout human civilization.
In my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to describe the peculiar form of dishonesty that is employed in political thought that is to be found when our political ideas do not keep up with actual political developments:
…not every political entity that has a seat at the table at the United Nations conforms to the paradigm of the nation-state; some are more state, others more nation, yet others falling under neither category. Feudal monarchies rub elbows with republics and city-states, none of them representing any genuine national aspirations of a people or peoples for self-determination.
If the United Nations had existed in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire would have been a member; if the United Nations had existed in the nineteenth century the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have been a member state. These empires are long since dissolved, but we can easily imagine that had the UN been in existence at the time of their dissolution these events would have been characterized in apocalyptic terms and attended with much hand wringing.
And if the dissolution of individual nation-states causes the level of distress one sees in the international system, it should be apparent that the end of the nation-state system itself will be viewed by some as a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. However, it will take some time for the change to be noticed, which I also noted in my Political Economy of Globalization:
In the distant future, there will be, of course, political entities that will be called states. But the modern nation-state, eponymously defined in terms of nationhood, but in fact defined in terms of territorial sovereignty, cannot survive in its present form to be among the political entities of the future. Perhaps the new political entities will be called nation-states, as a holdover from our own time, but they will not have the character of nation-states any more than the Ottoman Empire had the character of a nation-state. While the latter was an identifiable state, to be sure, it was not a nation-state.
Conventional contemporary political and social science scarcely ever questions the role of the nation-state in human affairs (as though it were a permanent feature of civilization, which it is not), but we are under no obligation to allow these conventional limitations upon political imagination constrain our own formulations. It is enough to be constrained by the structure of space; there is no need to voluntarily burden oneself with additional constraints.
But we must unquestionably begin with the nation-state as the source of our present political situation, because all that follows in the future from the present situation will follow from the familiar nation-state system and the political thought of our time that privileges the nation-state system. The human, all-too-human scale of the nation-state system is the political parallel of the human, all-too-human scale of the geographical and topographical obstacles that are the present boundaries to human agency.
There is story I can’t resist repeating here about practical geopolitics, which is what military operations in the age of the nation-state represent. It is, in fact, a story within a story, as related by Hermann von Kuhl of Alfred von Schlieffen:
“He lived exclusively for his work and his great tasks. I remember how we once travelled through the night from Berlin to Insterburg, where the great staff ride was to begin. General Schheffen travelled with his aide-de-camp. In the morning the train left Königsberg and entered the Pregel valley, which was basking prettily in the rays of the rising sun. Up to then not a word had been spoken on the journey. Daringly the A.D.C. tried to open a conversation and pointed to the pleasant scene. ‘An insignificant obstacle,’ said the Graf — and conversational demands until Insterburg were therewith met.”
THE SCHLIEFFEN PLAN: Critique of a Myth, GERHARD RITTER, Foreword by B. H. LIDDELL HART, OSWALD WOLFF (PUBLISHERS) LIMITED, London, W.i, 1958, p. 99
Schlieffen’s single-minded focus on geographical features as exclusively representing opportunities or obstacles for campaigning — features that for others might represent aesthetics objects, or any kind of object significant in human experience — demonstrates geopolitical thought as at once practical and abstract. It is possible for geopolitics to be practical and abstract at the same time because the abstractions it considers are features like “insignficant obstacle,” while it takes no account of features such as “pleasant scene.” Astropolitics will be practical and abstract in the same way, although its objects will not be objects of ordinary human experience such as “insignificant obstacle” or “pleasant scene.”
The magnification of the scale of human concerns in astropolitics will not merely involve a larger canvas for human ambition, but will also introduce complexities not represented at the geopolitical scale. On the level of ordinary human experience time and space can be treated in isolation from each other, so that we have history and geography as abstract conceptions; at the higher energy levels, greater distances, higher speeds, and greater gravitational influences of a much-expanded spacefaring civilization, space and time will of necessity be treated together as space-time.
After I first formulated my fundamental theorem on geopolitical thought I followed it with two additional principles, the second law of geopolitics…
The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.
Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.
As I had summarized the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as geography matters, I summarized the third law of geopolitical thought as history matters. As we have seen above, the large scale structure of the universe must be understood in terms of space-time, meaning that we cannot isolate cosmological geography from cosmological history. History and geography on a cosmological scale are even more intimately bound up in each other than they are on the human, all-too-human scale of terrestrial politics.
This suggests a further generalization of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics:
Human agency (or any conscious agency) is constrained by space-time.
History and geography have always been intimately tied together, and his, of course, is one of the great lessons of geopolitics, that geography shapes history. It is also true, has been true, that history shapes geography, but the forces by which the history of life on earth have shaped geography have occurred on a timescale that is not apparent to human perception.
In a future political science of astropolitics, we will have a history that reflects the large scale structure of the cosmos, and a large scale structure of the cosmos that reflects the history of the universe. While human agency (or other conscious agents) has not yet acted on a scale to have shaped the initial 13.7 billion years of cosmic history, if our civilization or its successor institutions should endure, its history could well shape the large scale structure of space-time.
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21 March 2013
In 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War and the first use of atomic weapons, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “The Future of Man”, apparently published in The Atlantic in 1951 (and subsequently collected in Russell’s Unpopular Essays). Russell opened his essay with a sweeping prediction:
Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are: —
1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.
I do not pretend to know which of these will happen, or even which is the most likely. What I do contend is that the kind of system to which we have been accustomed cannot possibly continue.
Russell numbered three possibilities for the future, but there is a fourth, which we can call the zeroeth possibility: something quite unforeseeable. Russell left himself an out, but even with the out, I will argue, he got it wrong.
In any case, here are Russell’s four possibilities, which closely correspond to several categories of futurism hotly debated at the present time:
● 0th scenario: unforeseeable developments — this is Russell’s singularity, i.e., the occurrence of an event so discontinuous with previous history that it results in a “prediction wall” that prevents us from seeing or understanding subsequent historical developments.
● 1st scenario: human extinction — following the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War, Russell (like Jaspers and other contemporaneous philosophers) was fully aware of anthropogenic existential risks, of which human extinction from nuclear war is a paradigm case, so this is one of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.
● 2nd scenario: global catastrophic failure — Russell identified a two-fold global catastrophic event — drastic diminution of the human population followed by a return to barbarism — which obviously followed from his concern that the next war would be so catastrophic as to end civilization (this is a scenario that also worried Einstein, who famously said that, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but world War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”). Whether we consider this a global catastrophic risk, or a form of subsequent ruination, this is another of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.
● 3rd scenario: world government — again like Einstein, Russell was an advocate for world government, and thought it likely the only means by which we could escape our own destruction. In the immediate post-war period, when the US had a nuclear monopoly, Russell actually advocated that the US should use its nuclear monopoly to assert global hegemony and enforce a world government. Later, Russell was to become much more well known for protesting against nuclear weapons, being sharply critical of the Cold War, and writing telegrams to both Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It seems to me beyond dispute that human life has not come to an end (Russell’s 1st scenario), that human society has not reverted to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of population (Russell’s 2nd scenario), the world has not been unified under a single government (Russell’s 3rd scenario), and nothing quite unforeseen has happened (Russell’s 0th scenario). It is important to spell this out, being entirely explicit about it, because it is easy to imagine that any or all four of these possibilities might be disputed.
Of the strictly quantifiable predictions, any disputant would really have to tie themselves in knots in order to maintain the human beings have gone extinct or that there has been a catastrophic diminution of population. Only the philosophically desperate would attempt to argue that human life, as we knew it in 1951, has ended forever, or that the seven billion souls alive today somehow do not represent a much larger human population than in 1948. However, I must pause to say this, because there clearly are philosophically desperate disputants who are willing to make claims precisely of this character. But having explicitly acknowledged these strategies of desperation, I will henceforth dismiss them and consider them no further, except in so far as the bear upon the other scenarios.
It could be argued, and it has been argued, that the result of the resolution of the Cold War (which did occur before the end of the century in which Russell was writing) was the installation of US global hegemony as a de facto world government. It has also been argued by conspiracy theorists that there is in fact a world government operating behind the scenes, but not in any public and explicit fashion. It might also be argued that the UN and its associated international agencies (like the International Criminal Court) constitute a nascent world government that will someday coalesce into something more robust and capable of exercising authority. Sometimes these latter theses — government by conspiracy and the UN as world government — are merged together into a single claim.
Even if any or all of these claims are true, none of them have accomplished what was central to Russell’s concern for the future: the abolition of war. Near the end of the same essay Russell wrote:
Owing to the increased productivity of labor, it has become possible to devote a larger percentage of the population to war. If atomic energy were to make production easier, the only effect, as things are, would be to make wars worse, since fewer people would be needed for producing necessaries. Unless we can cope with the problem of abolishing war, there is no reason whatever to rejoice in laborsaving technique, but quite the reverse. On the other hand, if the danger of war were removed, scientific technique could at last be used to promote human happiness. There is no longer any technical reason for the persistence of poverty, even in such densely populated countries as India and China. If war no longer occupied men’s thoughts and energies, we could, within a generation, put an end to all serious poverty throughout the world.
The conspiracy theorists argue that war is part of the plan of subduing the global population, but this isn’t at all the kind of world government that Russell had in mind. When Russell and Einstein wrote about world government in the middle part of the twentieth century, they implicitly had in mind the Weberian conception of sovereignty, i.e., a legal monopoly on violence. Both Russell and Einstein wanted to see a single military power that would beneficently impose its unilateral will upon the world so that we would not see the perpetuation of armed conflict between nation-states.
This did not happen, nor did anything like it happen. On the contrary, the second half of the twentieth century demonstrated the possibility of a state of near-permanent armed conflict as definitive of the world order. In order for this to happen, something did come about, which I have called the devolution of warfare — that is to say, parties to conflicts throughout the world realized that nuclear war could lead to global catastrophic risks, so everyone decided to continue to make war, but to do so without atomic weapons. This way human beings could indulge to the full their love of war and violence without making themselves extinct (and thereby ending the fun for everyone).
This brings us to Russell’s 0th scenario: has the devolution of warfare constituted something quite unforeseeable? Not in my judgment. The devolution of warfare is a negative historical development, involving the suppression or limitation of human agency and capabilities previously demonstrated. The limitation of a demonstrated human capability represents a retrograde development, and I don’t think retrograde developments of this kind rise to the level of constituting a singularity in history.
If anything, the development and use of nuclear weapons constituted an historical singularity, therefore creating a “prediction wall,” so that the deliberate tradition of non-use represents a step back from an historical singularity and a return to predictability. Indeed, what some scholars have called “the return of history” might also be called “the return of predictability” in the sense of being a return to the predictable behavior of nation-states in anarchic competition employing conventional weapons.
It could be argued that what Russell did not see was that at precisely the time he was writing his essay a world order of sorts was being forged, in the post-war agreements on economics at Bretton-Woods and on political matters at Yalta — and, as importantly, if not more importantly, how these explicitly formulated agreements were worked out in practice, sometimes through open warfare, and usually through superpower competition, as in the Berlin Airlift. This de facto world order essentially held throughout the period that Russell considered in his essay — the second half of the twentieth century. Since the actually working out of these agreements in practice was as essential as the agreements themselves, we cannot blame Russell for a lack of prescience in not recognizing in Bretton-Woods and Yalta the foundations of the post-war world. And I don’t think that anything in that war-torn whilst stable post-war world could be said to have fulfilled any of Russell’s predictions.
Now that the post-war world that Russell failed to recognize as it was taking shape has finally become unraveled, we find ourselves once again contemplating the future with great uncertainty, and asking ourselves about the possibilities of radical historical discontinuity (i.e., a singularity), global catastrophic risks, existential risks, and world governance. Dante similarly found himself asking questions of this sort just at the very earliest moment when the scholastic synthesis of the medieval world was beginning to unravel — not only did Dante consider eschatological scenarios that would have constituted a singularity, global catastrophic risks, and existential risks, but also considered world government in his De Monarchia. But Dante was a great poet, and great poets are sensitive souls, and are likely to hear the rumbling on the horizon even when the rest of us are blissfully unaware.
Perhaps whenever the world finds itself at a point of historical transition, grand narratives of transition are contemplated — but in the final analysis (the Hegelian analysis, in which the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun) we usually end up muddling through in the best human tradition, rarely realizing any grand narrative.
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As Syria continues its slide from insurgency into civil war, and no one any longer expects the ruling Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to triumph, it is an appropriate moment in history to reflect upon the fall of tyrants and tyrannical regimes. Not that we haven’t had ample opportunity to do so in recent years. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and the fall of a series of Arab dictators in recent years has given us all much material for reflection (chronicled in posts such as Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny and Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation).
I have previously written about Syria in Things fall apart, Open Letter in the FT on Syria, The Structures of Autocratic Rule, and What will Assad do when he goes to Ground? Much more remains to be said, on Syria in particular and on the collapse of tyrants generally.
The obvious problems of governmental succession in Syria are already being discussed ad nauseam in the press. That there is trouble on the horizon is evident to all who carefully follow the developments of the region in which Syria is a central nation-state, bordering no fewer than five nation-states: Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. This centrality of Syria in a politically unstable region has led the surrounding regional powers to favor the devil they know rather than to chance the devil they know not. The ruling Alawite regime of Syria has been held in place not only by its own brutality, but also by the tacit consent of its neighbors. Now that the fall of the al-Assad dynasty is in sight, there are legitimate worries about the radicalization of the insurgents and the role of Islamist Jihadis in the insurgency. No one knows what will come out of this toxic stew, but it is likely to resemble a failed state even upon its inception.
At this moment in history, Syria is now the bellweather for the fall of tyrants, but Syria is only the current symptom of an ancient problem that goes back to the dawn of state power in human history. Since the earliest emergence of absolute state power in agricultural civilization, for the first time in human history sufficiently wealthy to support a standing army that could be employed by turns to oppress a tyrant’s own people or as an instrument to conquer and oppress other peoples, there has been a tension between the ability of absolute power to effectively exercise this absolute power to maintain itself in power and the ability of rivals or of subject peoples to wrest this power from the hands of absolute rulers and seize it for themselves.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the institutions of tyrannical political rule are not sustainable. Tyrannical rule may be sustainable for the life of a tyrant, or for a few generations of a dynasty established by a tyrant, but history teaches us that tyrannical longevity is the exception and not the rule. The more onerous the rule of the tyrant, the more other factions will risk to overthrow the tyrant. A tyrant who sufficiently modifies his tyranny until it is approximately representative is likely to last much longer in power, and over time approximates non-tyrannical rule. But if a tyrant simply cuts a few others in on the spoils, creating a tyrannical oligarchy, the same considerations apply. In the long term, only popular rule is sustainable.
But what does this mean to say that in the long term only popular rule is sustainable? The learned reader at this point in likely to begin a recitation of the failings of democracy, but I didn’t say that only democratic regimes persist. Unfortunately for most human beings throughout history, the fall of a tyrant has not resulted in democracy. The most vicious tyrannies call forth the most vicious elements in the population as the only agents willing to risk the overthrow of the tyrant, and so one tyrant is likely to be replaced by another. Even if a popular revolt and revulsion helped to topple the previous tyranny, the new tyranny reverts to perennial tyrannical form, and in so doing eventually alienates the popular movement that installed it in place of the previous tyranny.
This is a particular case of what I have called The Failure Cycle, since this pattern can be iterated. Much of human history has consisted of just such an iteration of petty tyrants, one following the other. That nothing is accomplished politically by the churning of tyrannical regimes should be obvious. There is no social evolution, no social growth, no strengthening of institutions that can provide continuity beyond the vagaries of personal rule.
Thus one consequence of the fact that only popular rule is sustainable is the possibility of an endless iteration of popular movements to overthrow serial tyranny, each tyrant in turn having been installed by a popular uprising. This constitutes a perverse kind of “popular” rule, though it is not often recognized as such or called as much.
Tyrannical regimes typically bend every effort in order to suppress, or at very least to delay, social change. The suppression and delay of social change means that societies laboring under tyrannical regimes — and especially those that have labored under a sequence of tyrannical regimes — have little opportunity to allow social change to come to maturity and for old institutions to be allowed to die while new institutions rise to take their place. Cynics will opine that there is no social evolution in human history, but I deny this. Social evolution is possible, if rare, but the conditions that lead to serial tyranny and serial popular uprisings are not conducive to the cultivation of social evolution.
It is the historical exception to interrupt this vicious cycle of serial tyranny and serial popular uprising, but it takes time for informal social institutions to reach the level of maturity that allows a popular uprising to install a genuine democracy instead of a tyrant who claims to be a democrat out of political expediency.
Homo non facit saltus. Man makes no leaps. We cannot skip a stage in our social evolution. We cannot impose democratic institutions, or freedom, or even prosperity. A people must come to it on their own, with the maturation of their native institutions, or not at all.
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12 July 2012
Anarchy is the absence of law. In the contemporary international nation-state system there is law internal to nation-states but no law between nation states. In other words, international relations between nation-states is anarchic. While political science types will occasionally admit this explicitly, mostly reasons are found not to talk about this anarchic dimension of the international system, because it is something of an embarrassment. There are, of course, contemporary attempts to create true international law, with institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC), but we know that such institutions are powerless before recalcitrant nation-states. International institutions have no threat of force behind them, and therefore cannot enforce their writ. Moreover, if they did have force, they would have to have more force than the most powerful nation-state in the world; without preponderant force at their command, international institutions would be (and in fact are) defied by any nation-state with the power to do so.
Yet the anarchy of the international system is not a perfect absence of law — there is, as I have observed above, the ineffective law of toothless international institutions, but that is not all. There are international treaties between nation-states that have force because the nation-states signatory to these treaties are prepared to back them up with force. Treaties may be divided into those that are mere international showpieces with no force behind them, as is the case with most UN treaties, and those treaties which have the force that they do because signatories to the treaty are prepared to back them with force, such as is the case with NATO. In either of these two cases, power in the international system is still vested in the nation-state and not in the international institution. There are also constraints on the international system that might be characterized as customary.
Customary constraints on state power count for little in the long run, and even less in extremis, but they do figure prominently int he expectations that peoples have for the norms of the behaviors of nation-states. Not only can we distinguish between state and non-state actors in the international system, we can also distinguish (in parallel to this initial distinction) state-like actors and non-state-like actors. That is to say, certain behaviors are expected of the contemporary nation-state, even though these behaviors are routinely violated. (One way to define a “rogue state” would be to charge it with non-state-like behavior.)
One theme of contemporary geostrategic thought is China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. (Cf., e.g., Three ‘nots’ characterize China’s peaceful rise) These innocuous and familiar little phrases embody many of the most obvious state-like expectations that we have for the behavior of a nation-state: among other virtues, nation-states should be peaceful and responsible. But nation-states do not advance their interests by being peaceful or by adhering to a notion of responsibility entertained by others. Most likely, nation-states — like individuals — will re-define anything they do in fact do as “responsible” after the fact.
A more accurate picture of state-like behavior is to be found in the words of Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who said, following the Russian intervention in Hungary during the “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, that Austria would, “shock the world by the depth of its ingratitude.” This is what we should expect; if we are shocked, it is only because we have deceived ourselves.
Some thinkers not only impute state-like and non-state-like behavior to nation-states; some have so deceived themselves that they themselves believe that nation-states by and large adhere to supposedly state-like behavior. This gives rise to the idea of a “rogue” state, which is a nation-state that disregards expectations of state-like behavior. The speculation that North Korea has been behind counterfeit “supernotes” embodies an obvious violation of state-like expectations. In contrast, although we may disapprove, we will readily acknowledge that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is consistent with state-like behavior, while counterfeiting the currency of another nation-state is not considered an appropriate state-like behavior.
This account of state-like behavior could be made a little more fine-grained by distinguishing expected behaviors from different classes of nation-states. I cam imagine that some would be greatly offended by the very idea of classes of nation-states, but we all know (or should know, even if we don’t approve) that different standards are applied to different nation-states, and that no one begrudges the nuclear weapons of top-tier nation-states, but for a second tier nation-state it is considered unseemly to pursue nuclear weapons, while a tertiary nation-state that actively pursues a nuclear weapons program can expect to be sternly ostracized in the international community for this behavior. Thus we see that state-like expectations change according to the nation-state in question.
Notwithstanding routine and repeated flaunting of expectations about state-like behavior, there is a clear bias among strategic thinkers to assume not only that nation-states engage in state-like behavior, but even that non-state actors are vaguely state-like and that certain state-like behaviors are to be expected from non-state actors also. This bias of state-like expectations reflects a desire to see the world as one wishes it to be rather than to see it as it is in actual fact. I am going to call this bias the fallacy of state-like expectations. This fallacy is characterized by imagined social consensus in the anarchic international state system. The fallacy of state-like expectations means projecting centralization, hierarchy, and procedural rationality onto all political entities, whether or not the political entity in question is a nation-state.
Anyone with a capacity for critical thinking (the latter honored more in the breach than the observance) will not need to be reminded that the fallacy of state-like expectations is a fallacy, since they will know that not all political entities are nation-states, and even among nation-states there is no consensus in terms of state-like expectations. Or, rather, there is more than one consensus, and these expectations change over time.
Westerners are often more than a little shocked when they find themselves confronted with a different conception of the rule of law and the international system than meets with their expectations of state-like behavior, but the almost perfect antithesis of the international nation-state system as I have described it above is to be found with some regularity among nation-states who engage in systematic oppression of their own populations. According to the political conceptions of repressive nation-states — the worst offenders in this regard we would not hesitate to call “rogue states” — the political regime of a given nation-state has carte blanche within its own borders, an absolute Hobbesian freedom via-à-vis its own people, as long as it observes its international obligations and is a good citizen to its neighbors. Under this conception, what happens within the nation-state stays within the nation-state, and these “internal affairs” are sacrosanct.
Given this particularly brutal conception of the international political order, it is entirely plausible that nation-states — or, rather, the political elites that run roughshod over nation-states — would conspire with each other to mutually oppress their restive populations. Under this system one would expect to see one oppressive nation-state coming to the aid of another such nation-state in the event of a popular uprising. In fact, we see this quite commonly; we are seeing it now, at the present time, as Russia has come to the aid of Syria to assist Syria in putting down its popular rebellion, and we saw the same thing last year when Saudi Arabia sent assistance to Bahrain to help the Bahraini elites put down a popular Shia uprising (I discussed this in The Second Annual Arab Spring).
This “mutual oppression” as the essence of the international order — and one must understand that this is one permutation of the “law and order” mentality — exists side-by-side in the contemporary world with the antithetical conception of internally law-abiding nation-states bound by no constraints internationally in its relationships with other nation-states, which might be called the “mutually predatory” conception of the international system.
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8 June 2012
In my book Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to formulate my theses in the greatest possible generality (Russell’s influence was at work here, since he often urged formulations of the greatest possible generality), and, to this end, I did not loosely write in terms of states or nations or countries, but chose to write instead in terms “political entities.”
From the glossary appended to the same work, here is the definition that I gave for political entities:
Any actor whatever engaged in political activity. Political entities include, but are not limited to, individual persons (under the aspect of homo politicus, i.e., political man), interest groups, peoples, city-states, nation-states, and republics. The demarcation between political entities and economic entities (q.v.) is in no sense fixed, as many entities are both political and economic actors. An NGO (q.v.) is a political entity, though it is no kind of state, which latter may well be the paradigmatic political entity. And the nation-state (q.v.), in so far as it engages in quasi-economic activity (q.v.), is both a political and an economic actor.
When I opened my book with a discussion of the nation-state, I tried to be clear that while the nation-state is the central political fact of our time, it is only one political entity among others, and just as other political entities were central to the world system prior to the advent of the nation-state, so too other political entities will someday supersede the nation-state. But don’t expect it to happen soon, or in your lifetime. These things move at a glacial pace, and are only apparent in hindsight to the historian; they are hidden from our view by the onrushing events of the present.
Another way to formulate the preeminence of the nation-state in the contemporary global system is to say that it is the indispensable political entity of our time. I thought of this formulation a few days ago when I was writing The Radicalization of Miners in Andean South America. I was re-reading the Pulacayo Theses and came across this formulation early in the very first item:
1. The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the revolutionary social class par excellence. The mineworkers, the most advanced and the most combative section of this country’s proletariat, determine the direction of the FSTMB’s struggle.
And in the original Spanish:
1.- El proletariado, aún en Bolivia, constituye la clase social revolucionaria por excelencia. Los trabajadores de las minas, el sector más avanzado y combativo del proletariado nacional, define el sentido de lucha de la FSTMB.
Note: this may sound a bit slow on my part (sometimes I can be rather dense), but when I was studying this a few days ago I hadn’t even thought to search for an English language translation, but I found one today at the Permanent Revolution website, and that is the English language version that I have given above. I had rendered this as, “The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the indispensable revolutionary social class.”
This is boilerplate Marxist doctrine: the proletariat is the revolutionary class, and will be the force that expropriates the expropriators, though it may have to be prodded into action by revolutionary cadres of bourgeois intellectuals converted to the revolutionary cause. While such claims become tiresome when repeated rote by doctrinaire believers, placed in a larger and more general context of political entities it becomes interesting.
In my definition of political entities quoted above I didn’t even think to mention social classes (though I did mention interest groups, which aren’t quite exactly the same thing), though I have an out because I did specify that my list was not exhaustive. A social class like the proletariat must be counted among the political entities that have played a central role in history. Among various political systems, different political entities can serve as the indispensable political entity of that particular system — the conditio sine qua non of a given form of political thought.
Thus it is that, in the world today, the nation-state is the indispensable political entity; for the Marxist, the proletariat — a class — is the indispensable political entity; in the Hellenistic world of antiquity, the city-state was the indispensable political entity, and it is to be noted that Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics both address the political structure of a city-state. One of the interesting things about feudal systems, whether found in the West or elsewhere in the world, is that no one particular class is indispensable. In feudalism, each class has its role that is indispensable to the social whole; it is the class system itself that is the indispensable political entity — which makes feudalism a kind of meta-Marxism.
There are so many different kinds of entity that could serve as the indispensable political entity for a political system that it is almost surreal and reminds one of Comte de Lautreamont’s wildly disparate grouping of the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissecting table, or of Latourian Litanies.
What else? What next? What might be (or become) an indispensable political entity? This obviously suggests a negative formulation: what could not serve as an indispensable political entity? I do not think that there is any adequate system of political philosophy yet formulated that can even give us a clue as to how to begin to answer this question. Where do we set limits, and why?
The nation-state is a geographical entity tied to a legal and an economic regime; the proletariat is a social class tied to a revolutionary idea; feudal systems are social structures that apportion classes within a society but are not identical to any one class or class interest; the city-state is an urban entity. Contemporary ideas of urban planning might be said to be converging upon the city as the indispensable political entity, but this is a very different sense of urbanism than the urbanism of ancient city-states. Other examples might be the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, or possibly a mythological time of the foundation of a political order, to which all political structures are made to refer. Not only is there nothing essentially in common between these indispensable political entities; there is not even any kind of discernible family resemblance between these diverse objects representing the centralization of political power.
This ought to a lesson to us in terms of thinking that political development has ended or reached a dead end (the “end of history” thesis). I’ve addressed this aspect of the “end of history” thesis from a related angle not long ago in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, where I argued that Gödel’s own interpretation of incompleteness results points to ongoing intellectual development.
It seems odd to even have to say it, but the incredible, overwhelming inertia of unimaginative political thought forces us to repeat the fact that human political thought is still in its infancy and has yet to even reach a point at which complex and difficult problems can be intelligently and rationally discussed. Almost all political thought to date has consisted of a kind of political theology that engages in special pleading for some kind of pre-determined end. Until we get past this point, we will not yet see the first glimmerings of the maturity of our political thought.
When we have, as a species, at least glimpsed the possibility of mature political thought, we will be able to systematically lay out the limits as to what can and what cannot serve as the indispensable political entity of a political system. We are not yet in a position to do so.
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7 April 2012
In the Age of the Nation-State, exactly who gets to join the charmed circle of nation-states and who does not get to join this charmed circle is a question of some importance, and there is no one, single way in which the question is settled. Some nation-states were “grandfathered in” as conventionally recognized political entities when the League of Nations or the United Nations was founded. Some nation-states fought for years or for decades to gain recognition. Many political entities have remained in permanent geopolitical limbo for years or decades — like Taiwan or Palestine or Transnistria or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Theorists of the nation-state system (who are, more often than not, advocates who rarely acknowledge the fact that they are advocates) have proposed all kinds of criteria for what constitutes a nation-state, but we know from the above-mentioned fact that very different political entities become recognized as nation-states by very different means, and that this is an explicitly political process, that there is no essentialist way to separate the wheat from the chaff, because there is no essence of the nation-state. Self-determination is only recognized when it is imposed by force; the ethnic unity of a people is acknowledged as a legitimate basis of a nation-state only when it is convenient for existing powers and does not encroach upon their claims; territorial sovereignty is subject to routine violation at the whim of powerful or technologically advanced nation-states.
When Southern Sudan recently split away from Sudan as an independent nation-state this was widely recognized by the international community. In fact, we have several recent (and diverse) examples of changed governments that have achieved recognition, as, for example, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not so for Azawad. The declaration of the independence of Azawad has brought more jeers than cheers.
Here are some of the statements (as they have appeared in various press reports) that have been made about the declaration of Azawad sovereignty:
● French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet: “a unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us.”
● President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou: “Mali is one and indivisible.”
● African Union Commission chief Jean Ping: “firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever.”
Of course, when you carve your nation-state out of existing nation-states, this is going to be very unpopular, and it sets a precedent that no existing nation-state wants to sanction: that nation-states are divisible into legitimate states rightly claiming self-determination of a national group. If this principle were acted upon, it would result in the fissioning of most existing nation-states, because most existing nation-states, despite their claim to uniquely represent a people, in fact are multi-ethnic and multi-national political entities whose borders were established through armed conflict and are maintained in existence through force or threat of force.
Thus we see that there is a principle at stake in the matter, but it is the principle of a political Ponzi scheme: if you’ve gotten “in” early and you’ve gotten your share, you certainly aren’t about to share your share with anyone else, and certainly not with any late-comers.
The MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad), which is the military entity behind the seizure of the territory they now identify as Azawad, has a website where they have posted a declaration of independence (in French). In their declaration of independence they have promised:
● Recognition of existing borders with neighboring states and their inviolability
● Full adherence to the UN Charter
● The firm commitment of the MNLA to create conditions for a lasting peace, and to initiate the institutional foundations of a state based on a democratic constitution for an independent Azawad.
The MNLA is here obviously trying, despite its marginal position, to position itself as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community. For the same reason MNLA representatives have strongly denied any links with AQIM or other trans-national Jihadist organizations. No doubt many will be skeptical, but then one must ask how responsible currently recognized nation-states have been as stakeholders in the global community. We would be justified in being skeptical both of the MNLA and the international community that rejects an independent Azawad.
I have given several reasons above to be skeptical of the international community, given its manifold hypocrisies. Why should we be skeptical of the MNLA? Well, the media is filled with reports such as I have quoted above, giving nothing but a negative evaluation of the independence of Azawad. Such assertions are of little interest in the long run. What is of significance in the long run is how a people’s way of life interacts with the conventions and institutions by which nation-states have divided up the globe among themselves.
In so far as the MNLA and their nascent political entity of Azawad represents the Tuareg people, what is essential about contemporary political developments is the way of the life of the Tuaregs, and this is a way of life that is not easily reconciled with the ideology of the nation-state. The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists, and they have long made the Sahel their home without much concern for the borders of nation-states. But the Tuaregs of the MNLA are political realists: they know that if they are going to win a homeland for themselves, that they must seize it through violence, and that, once established, they must conform to the norms and conditions of the nation-state, because that is the way that the world works today. It would be more accurate to carve out a Tuareg homeland that covered the traditional lands through which the Tuareg peoples moved, crossing the borders of many nation-states and with no recognition of the inviolability of such borders. But this is not possible at present.
The are (and have been) analogous dilemmas in many parts of the world. The Kurds, for example, have carved out a de facto homeland in what was Northern Iraq, but a more accurate representation of Kurdistan would include parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iran, and Northern Syria. This, however, is a bridge too far, so the Kurds do what they can within the context of contemporary political realities. And in many of these and similar cases, peoples reconcile themselves to the politicized borders of nation-states and learn to live within these boundaries. The same could well happen in Azawad, but the MNLA has no more of a commitment to the inviolability of borders than the international community has a commitment to self-determination, regardless of what each may say.
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4 February 2012
In my last post, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, I drew an explicit contrast between the well-established tradition of geopolitical thought, which may be considered a part of the mainstream of political science (unless one dismisses it as a pseudo-science, as some do), and the nascent, inchoate tradition of biopolitical thought, largely due to Foucault, but potentially representing an alternative to mainstream political science. While geopolitics and biopolitics are not ideologies per se, both incorporate ideological presuppositions. I identified the ideological presupposition of geopolitics as the contemporary nation-state system. The emergent tradition of biopolitics is not yet sufficiently defined for me to give such an easily accessible account of its ideological presuppositions, though I would (with a certain degree of hesitation) note that it is loosely collectivist, populist, and decentralized.
It could be said that I was unduly negative in my characterization of both geopolitics and biopolitics, since I attempted to show how both incorporate assumptions that draw from the organic theory of the state, and how both traditions would tolerate certain circumscriptions of liberties in the name of the organic state that is more than the sum of its parts. The most well-known and notorious expression of this idea is the reason of state (Staatsräson, raison d’état), which one usually thinks of in connection with orthodox political science in extremis, but such extraordinary claims for state power are by no means limited to extreme, exceptional, or unusual circumstances. It is the very pervasiveness of state power that inspires its critics to position themselves as advocating decentralized resistance that constitutes a counter-power to state power.
It is important to point out my characterization of the oppressive and restrictive aspects of both geopolitical and biopolitical presuppositions, since one of the most distinctive things about both traditions is that both geopolitics and biopolitics position themselves as being at the vanguard of an emancipatory struggle that promises self-determination both to peoples and to individuals. Geopolitics understands the emancipation of peoples and individuals to occur in a context of legally defined rights. Biopolitics understands the emancipation of peoples and individuals to consist in popular expressions of dissent and civil disobedience — i.e., in the defiance of the legally defined parameters of civil society.
Francis Fukuyama, whom I have referenced many times in recent posts, and who is as good a representative as any of contemporary orthodox political science, has expressed the emancipatory dimension of mainstream thought in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity, in which he wrote:
“Authoritarian regimes have many failings. Like those in the Arab world now under siege, they can be corrupt, manipulative, and economically stagnant. All of these are causes for popular complaint. But their greatest weakness is moral: They do not recognize the basic dignity of their citizens and therefore can and do treat ordinary people with at best indifference and at worst with contempt.”
The liberal democratic nation-state (for how can the institutions of liberal democracy be administered but for their embodiment in a nation-state?) is here explicitly contrasted to authoritarian regimes that violate the rights of their citizens with impunity. Despite the efforts that representatives of orthodox political science make to show that the liberal democratic consensus of the contemporary nation-state is an emancipatory force in the life of the people, there are nevertheless a great many people who feel profoundly alienated, disenfranchised, and indeed even thwarted by the institutions of the nation-state. Many people in non-authoritarian nation-states feel that they are treated with indifference or contempt, and that this violation of their dignity follows from the same bureaucratic state structures that are put in place to ensure that legally defined rights are respected.
The emergent alternative tradition of biopolitics also offers emancipatory hope to non-privileged citizens of mass society, appealing to essentially the same sense of dignity by examining in meticulous detail the subtle way that regimes of governmentality exercise control over citizens, and in so doing implicitly suggesting an alternative ideal of a life not regimented according to the elaborate regimes of biopower. Technologies of life are here seen to be essentially authoritarian even when (if not especially when) emancipatory claims are made on their behalf. The same structures of legal rights that mainstream political science sees as protecting the individual are recast in a sinister light as confining the individual to a highly specified role. Thus defiance of a political regime through protest and civil disobedience becomes a demonstration of personal (and perhaps also communal) self-assertion and dignity.
I suggested in Geopolitics and Biopolitics that one of the defining ideological struggles of the future could be that between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. If this should develop into a definitive struggle, it will be a struggle to assert which tradition stands in the vanguard of popular emancipation. Each will make claims (usually implicit) that its tradition is uniquely concerned to secure the dignity of the individual as against the depredations of the other tradition. In the one case, these depredations will be those of the misguided state against its people; in the other case, these depredations will be those of an undisciplined mob against the state which guarantees rights for all. Both models of emancipation and dignity, then, can be assimilated to a conception of legal rights, but this formulation doesn’t really do justice to the difference between the two. In fact, to formulate the difference in terms of rights is the formulate an emergent tradition in the language of an established tradition, and therefore to misrepresent everything that is novel and innovative in the emerging paradigm.
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4 August 2011
While the Warsaw Pact vanished in a puff of smoke at the end of the Cold War, the center of gravity in Eurasia pulled up stakes and moved east, settling in China. Now this new center of gravity has its own official (albeit loose) organization to represent its interests, and this is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And while the US has the “Axis of Evil” (composed, at one time at least, of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), which, by extension, furnishes NATO and the West generally with its collective bogeyman, the loose unity of interests represented by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has its own diabolical trinity of “Three Evil Forces.” What is it about triads that so fascinates political oratory? Even Lincoln implicitly invoked a triadic mode of speech when he spoke of a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The SCO powers — Russia, China, Khazakstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — have thrown themselves a party in Astana, Kazakhstan, celebrating ten years of the organization. All of this seems eminently reasonable to me, since the Western powers have a never-ending round of self-celebrations that virtually fill the calendar like medieval feasts on saints days: various NATO exercises, the G20, the Davos Koffeeklatsch, the secretive Bilderburg get-together, and who knows how many others.
All of this — i.e., the SCO’s self-celebration — is presented in the most politically reasonable terms imaginable. Just as NATO presents itself as the guarantor of security in the North Atlantic, so SCO presents itself as the guarantor of security in Eurasia, with a special focus on Central Asia. It is to be noted that several of the ‘Stans of Central Asia are full members of the SCO.
Even the military exercises that accompanied the SCO summit, and which have now become an annual event, are presented in terms that are unexceptional and anything but belligerent. The military exercises are called “Peace Mission” followed by the year of the exercise, as in “Peace Mission 2010″ and “Peace Mission 2011,” and so one. The rhetoric of the exercises is that of counter-terrorism, which fits in neatly the the “Three Evil Forces” mentioned above, since terrorism is one of these evils.
I found a particularly fascinating article on the recent SCO summit called The smart power of the SCO, dated 15 June 2011, which appears under the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev, none other than the President of Kazakhstan. Now, I don’t suppose that Nazarbayev actually wrote this (it was probably authored by one of his flunkies), but it is a nice piece for all that it encapsulates, and it is lent additional interest by fact that Kazakhstan simultaneously held the chairs both of the SCO and the OSCE. (This article is billed as having originally appeared in The Moscow Times, though I found it in the Russia and India Report).
This article was interesting both for its tone — perfectly evoking the “peaceful rise” theory of China’s growing influence — and for the comprehensiveness of its message, which touches on almost every theme that nervous Western think tanks have highlighted in relation to the SCO. The very rhetoric of the title — “smart power” — is precisely the sort of thing we would expect to hear from Western political leaders (in fact, it sounds a lot like “smart sanctions” and Joseph Nye’s “soft power”).
Nazarbayev (or his ghost writer) discusses counter-terrorism efforts, combating religious extremism (with the enlightened rhetoric of fighting, “the fundamental causes of radicalism and terrorism and not its consequences”), combating the global narcotics trade, and a possible role for the SCO in Afghanistan. Regarding the latter, Nazarbayev writes, “the prosperity of Central Asia and the surrounding states can only be achieved through a strong, independent and stable Afghanistan.” Who can disagree with that? And who is to say that the SCO would not be more successful at such “nation-building” in Afghanistan than NATO?
All in all, the public image of the SCO is that of a benevolent force working on behalf of peace, security and prosperity while working against terrorism, drug trafficking, and criminal enterprise. From this public image, which is not so far from the truth as to be strictly dishonest, it would not be immediately apparent that the SCO is in fact an organ of authoritarianism. In Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy I mentioned Robert Kagan’s book The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Of Kagan’s observations on authoritarianism I wrote, “I find a political analysis in terms of a distinction between authoritarianism and liberalism problematic, because I view authoritarianism not as an ideology, but as a fact of the exercise of power that has no true ideological content.”
Well, I see now that authoritarian regimes can give themselves the requisite ideological content, and in doing so in a sophisticated fashion (we are not, here, talking ham-handed Soviet-era propaganda) they present themselves as nothing more exceptional than stand-up citizens of the international community, interested in a law-and-order approach to the global situation.
As mentioned above, the chosen theme of the SCO ten year anniversary summit and the “Peace Mission 2011″ exercises is combating “Three Evil Forces,” which forces are terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Russia and China certainly have much to fear from these three evil forces. Both are geographically extensive land empires with restive minority populations that have little or no desire to be a part of the great project that is modern Russia or modern China. Despite the many advantages that flow from being part of an extensive politico-economic whole, many peoples, as recent history has shown, prefer to go it on their own rather than to enjoy the benefits of life under the benevolent tyranny of Putin or the Communist Party of China.
The Three Evil Forces that the SCO powers seek to suppress and combat are precisely those forces that would precipitate, and perhaps eventually consolidate, the fracture of these large nation-states (Kazakhstan is also very large, and for that reason probably includes peoples who have no interest in making common cause with the Kazakhs) into some rump entity ethnic-cultural entity sans its former extensive territorial holdings.
The nation-state is the geopolitical equivalent of the conglomerate. What is a conglomerate? Wikipedia defines a conglomerate as, “a combination of two or more corporations engaged in entirely different businesses that fall under one corporate structure (a corporate group), usually involving a parent company and several (or many) subsidiaries. Often, a conglomerate is a multi-industry company.”
Back in the day when corporations were under more stringent rules against market dominance, if a large, successful company had deep pockets and wanted to expand, it bought whatever companies were available. And so a conglomerate might have companies that manufacture toasters, sell raspberry jam, own a department store or two (but not too many), and maybe also have some textile interests in hosiery and men’s wear, with the occasional timber mill thrown into the mix. There was no talk of “core competencies” or focusing on what you do best, but, as opposed to the ideal acquisition, this was the possible acquisition (parallel to what I recently wrote about The Possible War).
It is this spirit of putting things together simply for the sake of “bigger is better” that is the spirit of the nation-state, and that is why nation-states are all about boundaries, territorial integrity, and the territorial principle in law. As with conglomerates, so too (mutatis mutandis) with the nation-state: a combination of two or more ethnicities engaged in entirely different histories that fall under one state structure.
The various southern Slav peoples of whom Churchill said they produce more history than they can consume, tried it for a while, but eventually decided that it wasn’t for them. The Czechs and the Slovaks tried it for awhile also, and they managed to part company on amiable terms, without bloodshed, as has been the remarkable custom of these peoples. But despite the many failures of the nation-state, and the record of peoples voluntarily contracting nation-state relationships and voluntarily leaving them, in contemporary political “science” the nation-state holds unquestioned sway, such that anything other than the nation-state is regarded as an intrinsically suspect and perhaps perverse form of political order.
The nation-state today faces the terrorism of non-state entities as its great challenge. During the Cold War there was no consensus among nation-states as to who was and who was not a terrorist. It was the Cold War that gave us the slogan, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and this slogan was invoked (whether explicitly or implicitly) on both sides of the ideological divide that defined Cold War politicking. Yasser Arafat compared himself to George Washington (in his 1974 speech to the UN General Assembly), while Reagan compared the Nicaraguan Contras to the Founding Fathers (“the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” was the quote).
This relativity of terrorism is less true now. NATO and SCO would probably agree on who is and who is not a terrorism much if not most of the time. In fact, NATO and SCO could agree on a good deal more than this. They are both interest groups of nation-states, tasked with the security of these nation-states. Such organizations are not going to call the nation-state into question. And so NATO and SCO have much in common in Afghanistan: they both want, “a strong, independent and stable Afghanistan.” So we should not be surprised to eventually, some day, see cooperation between NATO and SCO in attempting to shore up some kind of order and stability in Afghanistan.
Yet this apparent convergence of interests in the post-Cold War world is deception, however deep the shared loyalty to the security and continuity of the existing nation-states seems to run. Russia and China actively and routinely engage in the political and sometimes military repression of restive minorities. Both Russia and China routinely object to any violation of sovereignty or territorial integrity, since they are keenly aware that any such recognition of the legitimacy of opposing brutal and repressive regimes will open them to the same criticisms. China is not about to let its Uighers go their own way, any more than Russia is going to let Chechnya or Dagestan go their own way. These peoples, by and large, do not feel themselves to be full partners in the nation-states of which they are constituent parts, but they are also well aware that Russia and China have the military wherewithal to force their continued inclusion as part of the nation-state in question.
Moreover, while the Western powers are occasional sympathetic to the national aspiration of minorities in Russia, China, and Central Asia generally, it is rarely more than a lukewarm sympathy, because there is always the bias toward order, stability, continuity, and “the devil you know” being assumed to be better than some unknown evil. The fear is that if revolutions are “allowed” to occur, that widespread collapse of legitimate authority would lead to widespread terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and criminal enterprises. That these perennial problems might be as much caused by the nation-states as plaguing the nation-states is a thought too radical to be entertained either at NATO or the SCO.
And so the SCO members present themselves as international advocates of law and order, actively combating the “Three Evil Forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism, all the while knowing full well that extremism radicalizes, and that radicalized ethnic minorities will engage in terrorism in an attempt to secure the separate and equal station to which they believe nature and nature’s god to entitle them.
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