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.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Geopolitics and Biopolitics

2 February 2012


Geopolitics has been a focus of this forum since its inception, but it was always my intention to supplement a purely geopolitical approach with an attempt to take account of the role of ideas in history — past, present, and future. I have even attempted a precisification of some of the concepts of geopolitics in a few posts on theoretical geopolitics. Thus while I cannot call myself an unqualified geopolitical thinker, I certainly have geopolitical sympathies. If you like, you could call me a fellow traveler of those who practice geopolitics sensu stricto.

It would be easy to find weaknesses in the geopolitical perspective, and many are the critics who have dismissed geopolitics as geographical determinism (that is, when it is not otherwise being roundly condemned as a pseudo-science). In fact, geopolitics should be understood in parallel to any form of abstract thinking: it brings a certain clarity of focus to a tightly restricted domain of concerns, but this focus and clarity is purchased at the cost of excluding certain considerations. The same is true of mathematics or logic or theoretical physics. Every abstract theory incorporates ellipses directly derivative of its abstractions; this being said, we usually get farther with our abstractions than without them. And I have argued many times that any theoretical grounding for one’s thought is probably better than no theoretical grounding at all. Geopolitics is simply one such theoretical grounding for thought.

There are many schools of geopolitics. Karl Haushofer perhaps represents the origin of explicitly thinking in geopolitical terms (there are other earlier geopolitical thinkers I will mention below), but Haushofer’s geopolitics is grounded in Germany’s terrestrial perspective as a land power of Eurasia, and Haushofer’s theories revolved around the control of the Eurasian continent. Not usually called a geopolitician, but standing in diametrical opposition to Haushofer is Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 was disproportionately influential during the period when the great powers of Europe were engaged in an arms race based on dreadnaught class battleships, which eerily foreshadowed the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. As Haushofer was the the terrestrial realm, Mahan was to the world’s oceans.

Perhaps the preeminent practitioner of geopolitics today is George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting (keep in mind that I am talking about people who are real thinkers, and not celebrity politicians such as get named to Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers). I have referenced Freidman’s work many times in this forum, so my readers should be well familiar with him. There are some echoes of Alfred Thayer Mahan that occasionally surface in Friedman’s work, but Friedman’s focus upon and dedication to the geopolitical perspective — almost to the exclusion of all else — is a remarkable exercise in coherent and consistent strategic analysis. Thomas P. M. Barnett is another geostrategic thinker whom I have referenced, but he is less tightly focused on geography than Friedman.

Alfred Thayer Mahan – 27 September 1840 to 01 December 1914

There is something else that unites these strategic thinkers other than their dedication to a geopolitical perspective. At their best, all of these strategists stand above politics. William James once called philosophy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly (my personal favorite among the many definitions of the discipline). By the same token we could call strategy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about politics, and, in the same vein, I recently wrote on Twitter that The one unforgivable sin in strategy is to allow objectivity to become compromised by ideology. Everyone who thinks in strategic terms knows this — if they have not formulated it explicitly, they know it in their gut.

However. Indeed, however. There is a kind of political unity to the geopolitical school of thought that transcends geography. It is not an ideological politics, but rather a scholarly politics, if there is such a thing. One can guess what books geopolitical strategists read, and they probably read pretty much the same books (mainstream works of political science) as they probably look at the same maps. Just as importantly, they probably also have in common the books that they do not read. One suspects that they read mainstream works of scholarship, and that if they have taken the trouble to delve into alternative viewpoints, they probably haven’t understood very well what they were reading. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Samuel P. Huntington, George Friedman, or Thomas P. M. Barnett reading Heidegger, Foucault, Delueze, or Derrida. (Few can be expected to master multiple domains of knowledge, especially when those domains involve incommensurable features.)

What do I mean by “alternative” viewpoints? There is a term of art if ever there was one. I am being a bit elliptical about this because I am trying to avoid political stereotypes, especially a distinction between left and right, since the left/right distinction is as antipathetic to geopolitical strategists as it is to their unsung alternatives. The closest we can come to identifying the distinction without falling back on political cliches is to invoke the distinction between analytical philosophy (which I sometimes call “Anglo-American analytical philosophy”) and continental philosophy. It is important to note that, while the distinction has its origins in geography, it is no longer a geographical distinction. There are analytical philosophers on the European continent, and there are continental philosophers aplenty in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Sometimes the analytical/continental distinction is treated as a mere accident of history, and that we group certain thinkers together because they went to the same schools or spoke the same language. Others treat the distinction as essential, and in making the distinction recognize an essential core of presuppositions shared on both sides of the divide. Of course, the distinction is a little of both — part accident of history, part essential to the thought. This distinction being made, then, I can say that geopolitical strategists stand in relation to their unsung alternatives as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy.

Now, when I write that the alternatives to mainstream geopolitical thought are “unsung,” I only mean this in so far as strategy extends, because some of the thinkers I will mention are very well known, though not usually thought of as intellectual rivals to the tradition of geopolitics. Chief among those who offer a counter-veiling vision to that a geopolitics is Foucault, and what Foucault offers as an alternative is biopolitics (sometimes called bio-power). Foucault originated and elaborated biopolitics, though it appears as a mode of analysis and a way of understanding, never as a political doctrine or an ideology. In this, biopolitics is parallel to geopolitics, which is understood by its practitioners to be non-ideological.

Michel Foucault

The fons et orgio of biopolitics (and perhaps, for the moment, also the locus classicus) is “Right of Death and Power over Life,” which appeared as Part Five of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Here Foucault wrote:

“…starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles-the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, Part Five, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Vintage, 1980, p. 139

It was actually a Swede, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, who coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellén is not so well known as Friedrich Ratzel, Mahan, or Haushofer, but he did first formulate some of the seminal ideas of geopolitics, so much so that we might say that Kjellén stands in relation to geopolitics as Foucault stands in relation to biopolitics. Kjellén was also instrumental in formulating the organic conception of the state, which we will consider below.

There is something fundamental about geopolitics in so far as its theses are founded on the brute facts of the geography of the world (and these brute facts are also the source of the abstractions of geopolitical thought). There is also something fundamental about biopolitics, with its theses founded on the intimately familiar facts of life itself (which, taken out of geographical and historical context also involves abstraction). Foundationalist thought (and strategy is foundationalist thought in politics) may or may not be politically radical, but it is usually theoretically radical (in the sense that I attempted to formulate in Radical Rigor), and it is in this theoretical sense that both geopolitics and biopolitics are radical.

Radicalism (like abstraction) has its limits, and the radicalism of geopolitics as well as that of biopolitics is limited by the abstractions employed in the formulation of each discipline. How so? Let me try to explain. Geopolitics is, in large part (although not in its entirety), apologetics for the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state system. I have repeatedly emphasized in many contexts that, while the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of nationalism — implying a kind of ethno-socio-cultural unity) in actual fact the nation-state is geographically defined, and more particularly it is defined in terms of the territorial principle in law, with Weber’s legal monopoly on violence holding (ideally, though not always in fact) within the territorial boundaries of a given nation-state.

Here is how George Friedman has recently characterized the nation-state:

“A nation state… rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state’s actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.”

George Friedman, Germany’s Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis, January 31, 2012

Formulations in terms of a “uniquely legitimate community” and popular sovereignty leave a lot to be desired, but Friedman is not here writing a theoretical treatise; he is only setting the stage for a geopolitical analysis in which the nation-state is central. There are shades here of the organic theory of the state, and I say this not to try to cast aspersions on Friedman’s analysis (because of the unsavory use to which the organic theory of the state has been put), but only to bring out important implicit features in the nation-state system. Geopolitics as apologetics for the nation-state system marks the limit of the radicalism of geopolitics, and its acceptance of conventional, mainstream political thought such as you would encounter in any political science curriculum.

There are few if any explicit ideological defenses of the nation-state system. The nation-state system — its value and its validity — is an assumption, almost to the point of the very inability even to think of any alternative to this central assumption (other than well-known historical examples no longer at issue today, such as the city-state or the empire). For the theoretician who thinks within the assumptions of the nation-state system, alternatives are literally unthinkable.

Biopolitics operates with a different set of assumptions. Biopolitics has assumptions, but it does not share these assumptions (at least, not all of them) with geopolitics, and for biopolitics different scenarios are literally unthinkable because different theoretical foundations render different states of affairs incoherent. Whatever biopolitics is — and we cannot yet say in any detail what it is — it is not apologetics for the nation-state system.

While we cannot say much about biopolitics, we can say something about biopolitics, and one of the most interesting things that we can say is that, like geopolitics, it has certain debts to the organic theory of the state. Because biopolitics comes out of a loosely defined tradition that is sympathetic to collectivism, it tolerates the idea of the state as a whole that is greater than its parts, and in so far as the parts are individuals citizens of the state, these parts are subordinated to the whole. (While Foucault himself was scrupulous in maintaining his distance from the communists — unlike Sartre and, to a lesser degree, Merleau-Ponty, who allowed themselves to become apologists for Stalinism — others who have taken up the idea of biopolitics and bio-power have not been so scrupulous.) It could even be argued that bio-regionalism is an organic theory of the state purged of nationalist ideology.

We cannot say that the organic theory of the state is a common “core” to both geopolitics and biopolitics, but it is something in common, although the way in which the idea of state organicism is implemented is very different in these two diverse traditions of thought. Geopolitics would tolerate (or endorse) different compromises to individual freedom of action than biopolitics would tolerate (or endorse). The point is that there is a shared tolerance for the abridgement of liberty, though where that tolerance falls is different in each case.

The formulation of biopolitics as an explicit tradition of thought and analysis is a strategic trend of the first importance. It is, in fact, an event in metaphysical history — not so far reaching as the Copernican Revolution, but easily as far reaching as the idea and implementation of the nation-state system itself. While there is as yet no clear sign that those loosely unified protesters who feel both thwarted and disenfranchised by the contemporary institutions of the nation-state (which comprises all conventional and mainstream political activity) recognize in biopolitics a theoretical articulation of views that they didn’t even know that they held (until their “consciousness raising”), this joining of idea of implementation may yet come about.

The authentic sign of a grass roots movement (and perhaps also of a mass movement) is when the practice and theory emerge independently and only later recognize each other as both emerging from some more fundamental and shared impulse, one as the intellectual justification of a practice or set of practices, and the other as the implementation of one and the same existential orientation. This has not yet occurred with biopolitics, but it could occur, and, I would argue, it is likely to occur, because the kind of person who enters into street protests is likely to be eventually introduced to the kind of scholarship that is loosely affiliated with biopolitics, and not likely to be introduced to some other, alternative tradition.

We do not yet know if biopolitics has an historical destiny commensurate with that of geopolitics — we do not yet know if this is an idea that has legs — but we do know that it is loosely related to a perennial tradition of thought. The question then becomes whether biopolitics is a passing and evanescent expression of a perennial human point of intellectual reference, or if it is, in the contrary, the next transformative event that will take this perennial attitude in a new direction, and possibly also to new heights, extending the perennial tradition in new and unexpected ways.

It is entirely possible that one of the great ideological struggles of the coming century (and perhaps also the coming centuries) will be between geopolitics and biopolitics — or, rather, between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. In this case, biopolitics would come to represent what Fukuyama called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” that differs from that of liberal democracy. It could be argued that we are already beginning to see the early signs of this struggle, as peoples increasingly find themselves in conflict with the nation-state the putatively represents their interests, and as a people they struggle against the nation-state.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


What was once in the recent past spoken only in a hushed whisper is now openly discussed and debated: the break up of the Eurozone. But what exactly does “break up” mean in this context? The term implies a catastrophic failure that is not likely to come about, however painful a Greek exit from the Euro would prove to all the Eurozone economies. The Economist Intelligence Unit is calling the Eurozone crisis “€urogeddon,” which seems a bit dramatic for the financial press. With dire news following day upon day it would be easy to be very pessimistic about the Eurozone at the present time, but I am not pessimistic, although the short term outlook is not good. Being able to distinguish the short term prospects of an institution from its long term prospects is crucial in this context.

What exactly would a “break up” of the Eurozone look like? Here is what the Economist Intelligence Unit says in their report, “After €urogeddon? Frequently asked questions about the break-up of the euro zone”:

Firm predictions are tricky, but broadly a fracture between a strong northern “core” and the weaker “periphery” looks most likely. The process would, in our view, probably entail periphery countries breaking off individually to leave a “rump” of northern countries still within a currency union. Once one peripheral country (say, Greece) left, all the other vulnerable countries would probably follow. This means that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain would leave the euro, although not necessarily immediately. Malta would probably leave, and Cyprus would have little choice but to exit as its banking system would be nearly wiped out by a Greek collapse. Up to ten countries could remain members of the euro: Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia (the last three all being small, open economies like Malta and Cyprus, but with healthier fundamentals).

It is interesting to me to see how this analysis — which I believe to be entirely reasonable and defensible — follows the principle of distinguishing center and periphery, which is something that I have been thinking about recently, and which I wrote about in The Farther Reaches of Civilization and The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought.

Thus a “break up” of the Eurozone would likely involve recession, riots, civil unrest, and bank failures (all these are also discussed in the Economist Intelligence Unit paper quoted above), but it would not be a catastrophic failure. We are not likely to see the dissolution of the Eurozone. The Euro currency will not only survive, but will eventually strengthen as the weaker and underperforming economies of the Eurozone leave the currency union and pursue a different — and marginal — economic path. The underperforming economies will devalue their labor, eventually attracting a little investment on the basis of this devaluation, and will more or less be relegated to a permanent twilight of an economy based almost entirely on tourism. (This is the obvious fate of Greece, and is likely the fate of Greece even if it remains within the Eurozone.)

A rump Eurozone would in fact be a healthier and more sustainable Eurozone than the current Eurozone, which attempts to treat underperforming economies the same as nearly optimal economies. The current Eurozone, with its peripheral members included, is like a cart pulled by two horses — a plough horse and a race horse yoked together. The financial markets are already anticipating this longer-term strengthening of the Euro. If the markets were expecting a catastrophic failure in which the Euro entirely disappeared and all the Eurozone member nation-states reverted to a national currency, we would see the Euro driven down dramatically. The Euro has fallen, but it still remains well within a ten year horizon of trading values. Nothing truly dramatic has happened to its value. If a catastrophic failure was expected, the Euro wouldn’t be trading ten or twenty percent down from its highest value, it would be trading at ten percent of its highest value.

Euro exchange rate with the US dollar in the second half of 2011.

The Eurozone still remains one of the great socioeconomic experiments of human history — an experiment on a grand scale, like the Constitution of the US, which attempted to put Enlightenment-era values into actual practice as a political institution. We recall that the US, in the course of working through its experiment, has encountered some major obstacles, such as the Civil War. As it happened, the US did not break up, or even shed its underperforming regions; however, it maintained its unity only through force of arms. This is significant.

One of the radical and novel aspects of the Eurozone is that it has been voluntary; no military power was been employed either to establish the currency or to further the expansion of the Euro or to secure its ongoing unity. We cannot place too much importance upon this unique historical fact. The very existence of the Eurozone is a living and vital rejection of the Stalin Doctrine. This is not only historically unusual in global terms, it is remarkably at variance with European history itself, which has been unparalleled in its violence and bloodshed.

Because the Eurozone is voluntary, it can afford to be flexible over the long term. It may not have been initially conceived as a flexible institution that could grow or shrink as political and economic conditions change over time, but I think that it could become something like this. Even while the peripheral economies may fall away, several nation-states continue with their accession process to join the Euro. From the experience of the Euro so far, we can more or less predict which economies will be able to successfully join the Euro, deriving a benefit thereby, and those economies which cannot successfully function as a part of the Eurozone.

The voluntary and egalitarian nature of the Eurozone will not vanish with a Greek default and exit from the currency union, even if the exit of Greece takes another member states out of the currency union at the same time. In fact, it could be argued that the experience will make the Eurozone more voluntary and more egalitarian. If the Eurozone comes to include formal protocols both for entering and for exiting the Eurozone, the voluntary nature of the association will have taken a step toward rationalization, and the Europeans will have accomplished something that the US was not able to accomplish: peaceful succession.

I am optimistic that the Eurozone (under the security umbrella provided by overwhelming US military force) may become one of human history’s first truly intelligent institutions. In some earlier posts I made a distinction between the grades of flexibility in institutions, and suggested that humanity might someday be capable of living under intelligent institutions which can take account of their own need to change over time, and the effect this change intelligently and peacefully, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the future. The Europeans have proved that they can learn from history, and have demonstrated this by peacefully creating and living within the Eurozone. If they can learn to live without solving problems through force of arms, there is hope that they can also learn to live with truly egalitarian, flexible, and intelligent institutions that can learn from past mistakes and incorporate change into the very structure of that institution. Time will tell.

. . . . .

Note Added 04 July 2015: While the above was written years ago, the analysis is still more-or-less accurate, and I can stand by most of the claims I have made. I have further elaborated on the past difficulties and future economic possibilities for Europe in the following posts:

Poor Cousins

The Economic Future of Europe

An Alternative to the Euro

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

Europe and its Radicals

Default in the Eurozone

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

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.

. . . . .


. . . . .

A Credentialized Role?

4 February 2011


Can someone help me out here, please? I was watching a video of Thomas P. M. Barnett at WikiStrat, which is his most recent platform. In Barnett’s discussion of possible scenarios for Egypt he made the following comment:

“…in that pacted transition, where everyone gets sort of a slice of the pie, and you get the freest possible election down the road, and we would think that would be the best possible path in many ways for Egypt, if it was legitimizing, in terms of the public… if you got a strong, stable, credentialized role for the military throughout, because they are large and very powerful and that would be very reassuring to neighbors, especially to Israel, perhaps also to Saudi Arabia, definitely the United States, and you get the kind of most legitimizing, potentially opening up kind of outcome down the road.”

What exactly is “a credentialized role” for the military? I Googled the term “credentialized” right away and came up with nothing. It would be easy to speculate on what he meant, but it would be much more interesting to know exactly what he meant.

It could just be a slip of the tongue, and he simply meant to say “credentialed” role, and while “credentialed role” is not a whole lot clearer than “credentialized role,” it is a little clearer. Presumably he means a role for the military that possesses the credentials of some kind of constitutional regime with the authority that follows from popular sovereignty. But that is my speculation, and it is not at all clear that this is was Barnett meant.

It is, admittedly, a little spooky to me that a well-known strategist would choose to formulate his thoughts in this way, as though he not only accepted the presuppositions of credentialism in contemporary advanced industrialized society, but wanted to go further with credentialism: it isn’t enough that the military should fight wars and have their traditional ranks and chain of command, but now they are to be credentialed (or, rather, credentialized).

Maybe someone could start a university somewhere — it wouldn’t really matter where, just as long as the fees were high enough to prove a sufficient barrier to entry to keep out the riffraff — the appropriate institution could thereafter grant the appropriate credential to aspiring military brass, and, appropriately credentialed, that military establishment could begin their careerist ascent in full knowledge that those who don’t possess these sterling credentials will be prevented from being a distraction.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at Barnett’s credentialism taken to a higher order of magnitude. The “pacted transition” that he mentioned is one of the most conservative scenarios for Egypt at present, which means keeping Mubarak in place until his term is finished, in the meantime bringing in people — presumably the “right” people with the “right” credentials — who can make the transition in the government of Egypt as smooth and as painless for as many people as possible. What this misses is that Mubarak himself has become a symbol, and a symbol that the protesters want removed. Mubarak tried to fudge on fundamental change by keeping himself and dismissing his government; the people would have accepted a perfect reversal of this, if Mubarak’s government had stayed and he had left.

Mubarak has actually been publicly quoted in the press as saying that he is sick of the situation and wants out, but is only staying for the good of Egypt. This sounds spectacularly disingenuous, but he may be sincere — sincerely deluded. Mubarak may be so captive to his own perception of the situation in Egypt that he really believes that, without him, there will be chaos. He cannot see that he has now become the source of chaos.

There was a fascinating news story in June 2010 about the response to another popular protest. Here’s what I wrote about it in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen:

There was an interesting story on the BBC, Tiananmen leader’s ‘diary’ revealed, describing the publication of Li Peng’s diary kept during the events of 1989. According to the BBC story, Li Peng wrote, ‘I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.’ If this is true, it gives us a fascinating window into the thinking of the CPC’s elite leaders. The fear was not of democracy per se, but of the potential chaos that might come from a root-and-branch reform of China’s political system. This could be mere ex post facto justification by Li Peng, but it might also be an authentic sentiment. The dimensions of the Cultural Revolution are little understood in the West, like the scale of violence during the partition of India, the other great civilization of Asia. This revelation of Li Peng in itself could be the topic of a long post, if not of a book.

The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution was so great that those who lived through it could not accept that anything like it would happen again. I have no doubt that Li Peng was sincere. Similarly, I suspect that Mubarak is at least partly sincere, but he is sincerely wrong. Thomas P. M. Barnett is also sincerely wrong in thinking that credentials or a “pacted transition” is in the interests of Egypt or the region. In the video above Barnett also speaks of the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “nightmare scenario,” which shows how far members of the strategic establishment have to go in accepting the truth on the ground — and how deeply they are in denial.

. . . . .


. . . . .



The Alsalam Bank Tower under construction in Khartoum. Alsalam Bank Sudan won 'Best bank in Sudan' award for 2008 by Global Finance magazine.

It little known, little realized, and little understood in the West that during the past few years when Western governments have been attempting to put pressure on Sudan because of the events in Darfur that Sudan has not been and is not now just another basket case of an African economy. Throughout the period when it was most strongly condemned by Western governments, the Sudanese economy has continued to grow, and to grow vigorously. Some Sudanese cities are sprouting like oases in the desert, and many buildings are rising in the capital, Khartoum. Needless to say, the Sudanese government can afford its impunity vis-à-vis Western governments under these conditions.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Much of this growth and development has been the result of oil revenue and industries connected with the oil industry. Much of this growth, including the growth of the oil sector, is the result of China seeking energy resources and raw materials for its industries in Africa, including Sudan. There has already been a backlash in some African countries over the high profile of Chinese industrial concerns, but this has done little to slow the involvement of Chinese industry in Africa. There have been some compelling stories and pictures in the Financial Times about this development (not to mention the Korea Times).

Burj Al-Fateh Hotel

The 230 room Burj Al-Fateh Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan.

I like to imagine what it must be like for young Chinese engineers to suddenly find themselves in Africa, working on enormous projects, and in a climate and a society so different from that which they came from. Someday there will be books written about such experiences. I hope they’re taking detailed notes.

Somali factor

I was thinking about economic development in Africa today because of a fascinating article in today’s Financial Times about the Somali diaspora in Kenya. The Financial Times regularly includes extra sections devoted to particular geographical regions or topics. Today’s Financial Times came with an extra section on Kenya, and this included the article Somali factor drives up price of property.


Mogadishu street life.

We all know that Somalia has been without a functioning central government for more than a decade, and that large sections of Mogadishu are in ruins from years of war, but what we perhaps did not know was that the Somali diaspora scattered across Africa has brought its assets to other regions, and they have made a real difference in Kenya. There is a question as to the legality of this money, and we can be sure that at least some of it represents ill-gotten gains. There is in particular the charge that Somali money comes from piracy, and we know that the lawlessness of Somalia has allowed piracy to flourish in some coastal towns.

hawala diagram

A hawala version of informal value transfer systems.

But it seems that the Somalis are also active in the traditional money-lending institutions of east Africa. Because of the interest prohibition in Islamic societies, the banking business operates differently in the Muslim world, but banking services are not absent. There is a traditional form of money transfer that takes place throughout east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula by which a closely associated network of individuals, functioning almost entirely upon trust, move money from place to place for a fee with a simple phone call. This is known as the hawala system. For example, say an individual in Mombasa wants to send money to a relative in Muscat. He goes to a local hawala broker, a hawaladar, gives him the money and a commission, this broker then calls another local agent in Muscat and instructs him to give a like amount of money to the individual in question in Muscat, and the agents periodically settle up accounts. Since there is always money coming into and going out of each agent, the system continues to function with periodic adjustments.

hawala 101

Being in banking is usually profitable. We ought to recall that the renaissance banking houses of Italy made possible the financing of lavish renaissance art financed by wealthy families like the Medici, just as early modern banking houses in ultramontane Europe, like the Fuggers and the Rothchilds, financed the growth of European industry and culture north of the Alps. The Somalis, it seems, are tapped into the banking network “Middle World” (to use Tamim Ansary‘s phrase). These networks are sometimes called “Informal Value Transfer Systems” (IVTS), but they are only “informal” in so far as Western banks are not involved and such networks have no formal charter. In so far as the cultural conventions of the societies who use such networks extend, such networks are part of a formal commercial economy.

This Somali access to capital has had unintended consequences, especially for the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, where property values have been on the increase due to the influx of Somali money. The Somalis have also employed their access to capital to become among the most successful traders in east Africa, sourcing goods directly from east Asia. It is an impressive achievement for a people whose homeland has been devastated, not unlike the feat of the Jews in Western Europe in creating a wealthy diaspora community cut off from its traditional homeland. I personally find it counter-intuitive that these apparently wealthy Somali traders don’t find a way to establish order and security in Somalia, but history is like that sometimes. The only thing one can be sure of is that further unintended consequences will follow.


. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: