Credentializing Clarified

5 February 2011


Yesterday in “A credentialized role?” I asked if anyone could help me out to understand what Thomas P. M. Barnett meant in a statement included as a video on Wikistrat. Not only did I receive clarification, but got it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak: Dr. Barnett himself was gracious enough to comment on my post, as follows:

“Credentializing here means that the military’s performance in the hopefully smooth transition marks them as a contributing force for democracy rather than its hindrance, something we would term ‘delegitimizing’.”

“The military, as we note, is large and powerful and popular in Egypt. That’s an asset for long-term stability worth protecting, because young democracies tend to be the most warlike — more than mature democracies and more than authoritarian states. If the military serves the right function here (Mubarak gone, but not willy-nilly leaving a vacuum, and the elections happen freely and with little violence), then it becomes seen as the righteous guardian of the republic and not its menace. That is credentializing, because it says the army isn’t just a plaything of the government or protector of any one ruler, but an institution that serves the long-term interests of the nation. Immature democracies are plenty scary in history, and if they’re coupled with a radicalized military, you’ve got trouble. So if the military’s fine standing can be preserved in this transition, they’re credentialized for what comes next, which will be tricky no matter who emerges.”

“Clear enough?”

Dr. Barnett also quoted himself in a blog post — Egypt Crisis Simulation (Addendum) — reviewing an earlier exposition by way of clarifying the concept of credentializing, with the same text as quoted above. I appreciate the clarification.

My searches failed to turn up a single use of “credentialized.” I thought it might be a slip of the tongue, but I had heard correctly. (It is easy to hear something incorrectly — think of all the examples of transcribed song lyrics that get the sense terribly wrong.) Thus for the military to have “a credentialized role” is a technical term from Dr. Barnett’s strategic thought. Some time ago I was reading Dr. Barnett’s blog (at that time hosted at a different domain) and I found a very interesting post in which he analyzed a geopolitical problem in the technical terminology of one of his books, and then turned around and re-formulated the same analysis in ordinary language.

I understand this, as I have a tendency to do it myself. In my book Political Economy of Globalization I coined a number of neologisms in order to express the conceptual infrastructure that I independently formulated in that book. Once one takes the trouble to think one’s way through a problem for oneself, it becomes second nature to refer to those concepts that one came to formulate in coming to an understanding of the subject matter in question. Dr. Barnett has also created technical terminology for the conceptual infrastructure he employs, and naturally passes between technical terminology and ordinary language.

I have long held that the true test of a philosopher’s mettle — and strategists are philosophers of power — is the ability to intuitively and even forcefully express abstract ideas in an immediately accessible fashion. (I say “forcefully” because one must be able to get others to understand one’s point on a visceral level — if it isn’t felt, it isn’t fully understood.) But one must remember to speak in ordinary language, even though the semi-formal language that philosophers formulate to think about things and to speak to each other in a verbal shorthand, is more accurate.

In any case, what Dr. Barnett suggests in the above quote is a kind of “self-credentializing” of the Egyptian military — or, by extension, any military that finds itself caught in a crisis of governance — such that if it behaves well, it has proved its “street cred” and has this “street cred” on its side in the future. Now, “street cred” is quite the antithesis of technical terminology, but social scientists would express this in terms of “social capital,” which is a technical term. According to Barnett, but not in his language, the Egyptian military has social capital, and if it does not squander this social capital during the transition, the Egyptian military can retain its institutional prestige and status, serving as a stabilizing force in a future Egypt, even though, ideally, in a future Egypt the military will be subject to civilian control.

I do not disagree with any of this, and from what I have been reading it does seem to be the case that the Egyptian military does possess substantial resources of social capital. However, I would add to this the unpopular observation that one of the few other institutions in Egyptian society that possess social capital is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the West ignores this social capital of Islamist factions at its peril. It is bad enough to ignore institutions with social capital; it is spectacularly counter-productive to try to suppress them in favor of institutions bereft of social capital, as has happened with Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian Territories. (And, by extension, I might mention that Hamas militias could play a credentializing role in the Palestinian Territories.)

This latter observation places the discussion in a large context. To go in the other direction and retain focus on the Egyptian military and their role in the transition from Mubarak and what he represents to whatever follows Mubarak, brings me to the realization of the connection of a “credentialized role” for the military with the classic Weberian definition of the state as the legalized monopoly on violence.

In Weber’s formulation, the emphasis falls upon the state taking control of a security regime within a geographical territory and enforcing its mandate by granting itself the monopoly on the legal use of force. But the state as a legal monopoly on violence can run in both directions. We can just as well reverse the emphasis and think of Weber’s definition of the state in terms of the instrumentalities of violence placing themselves at the sole command of the state, which seems (to me) to be at least part of what Dr. Barnett is getting at in his conception of a “credentialized role” for the Egyptian military. I may quibble with the terminology, which I still think could be improved, but I get the idea.

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