Boko Haram

Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.

Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.

An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”

Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.

The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.

The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.

What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.

And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?

I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).

Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.

The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.

The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent “fragile states” is to be considered a euphemism for “failed states” the reader may judge for himself.

The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent fragile states is to be considered a euphemism for failed states the reader may judge for himself.

Why failed states now?

The idea of a failed state (or, if you prefer, a “fragile state”) has been playing an increasingly prominent role in geopolitical thought at least since the end of the Cold War. Failed States and Institutional Decay: Understanding Instability and Poverty in the Developing World by Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz identifies the use of the term “quasi-states” by Robert Jackson in 1990 as the source of the failed state concept. Whatever the provenance, the geopolitical analysis of failed states is an idea whose time has come.

Many factors have contributed to this. Rising instability as nation-states re-aligned themselves after the breakup of the Soviet Union, suppressed ethnic conflicts reemerging, de facto tolerance of “rogue” regimes (which previously would have been drawn into an alliance, but which are now on their own), and the absence of superpower sponsors willing to engage with smaller nation-states in the attempt to gain an edge in global competition, among other factors. While some fragile states were consumed by proxy wars during the Cold War, some vulnerable nation-states received substantial support from superpower sponsors and alliance blocs. A marginal nation-state as an ally in a sensitive region might be too valuable to lose, and so support was forthcoming. Also, both superpower sponsors allied themselves with autocratic regimes that were, to some extent, effective in governing, even if contemptuous of human rights.

Developments in armaments and technology have had the unintended consequence of decentralizing and widely distributing combat power, making asymmetrical conflicts sustainable for long periods of time. Also, the growth of international aid organizations that intervene when governments fail, providing food and medical care, and, in so doing, have the unintended consequence of extending the longevity of states experiencing precipitous decline, especially decline due to failures of leadership (cf. Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two).

Another source of contemporary state failure is what Brennan Kraxberger calls “the overwhelming bias toward preserving existing territories.” I take this feature of the contemporary international nation-state system to be a function of the stagnancy and ossification of the international nation-state system. The nation-state is geographically defined and derives its legitimacy from the territorial principle in law. Thus an international system of nation-states places disproportionate emphasis upon defining geographical territories through unambiguous borders. In the event of any international crisis, the status quo ante is always preferred, to the point of re-constituting failed states simply for the reason of retaining extant borders.

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, Somalia

What is a failed state?

What is a failed state? On the first page of When States Fail: Causes and Consequences by Robert I. Rotberg we read:

Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: BREAKDOWN, PREVENTION, AND REPAIR”

We find a more detailed breakdown of factors of state failure from Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, based on the indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their annual rankings of failed states:

“…failed states are of the sort identified by the Fund for Peace in its Failed States Index, which is based on 12 indicators of state vulnerability: (1) mounting demographic pressures, (2) massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, (3) legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia, (4) chronic and sustained human flight, (5) uneven economic development along group lines, (6) sharp and/or severe economic decline, (7) criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state, (8) progressive deterioration of public services, (9) suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights, (10) security apparatus operating as a ‘state within a state,’ (11) rise of factionalized elites, and (12) intervention of other states or external political actors.”

Marla C. Haims, David C. Gompert et al., Breaking the Failed-State Cycle,

While helpful to a certain extent, there are countless questions that could be raised in regard to the presuppositions embedded in the above definitions. What exactly counts as the factionalization of elites? Might not the Republican and Democratic parties in the US be characterized as a factionalized elites? And would we really prefer an oppressive elite that speaks with a single voice, as in North Korea? In many repressive states a factionalized elite would be a good thing.

If we instead adopt an ostensive definition, and point out examples rather than attempt to formulate what logicians call a “real” definition, we are not much better off. While there is widespread consensus on certain examples of state failure (e.g., Somalia), there are other instances that are much more problematic, and much more political. For example, the Index of Fragile States annually published by the Fund for Peace, which ranges from “very high alert” (with South Sudan at the top of the list) to “very sustainable” (a category including only Finland), places China — by some measures now the largest economy on the planet — as being “high warning,” while Argentina is listed three classes below China as “stable,” only one rung above the US. I would be the first concur that China is problematic on many levels, but to rank it that much higher than Argentina with its severe economic troubles (albeit self-inflicted) strains credulity.

It is perhaps inevitable that any definition of failed or fragile states, or any rankings based on such a definition, will be controversial in some cases and uncontroversial in other cases. State failure is evaluational and not factual; the fact/value distinction (also known as the is/ought distinction) would seem to forbid us from making making any evaluational judgment on the basis of mundane facts. This distinction is not observed in the literature, and I can even imagine that it sounds a bit strange in this context.

Such social science-derived political judgments — like the index of fragile states — derive what legitimacy they aspire to precisely from their factual basis, drawing on extensive statistics and social science research. If there were a way to conceptualize state fail in purely factual terms, this would be appropriate; or if there were a way to base an evaluative judgment of state failure on the basis of evaluational criteria, this too would be appropriate. But the subtle shift from factual survey to evaluational judgment is not merely politically problematic, but also logically problematic.

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Beyond state failure: civilization failure

Let us consider political order (and its failure) at a larger scale — larger in both space and time — than the political order represented by the nation-state. Martin Jacques has introduced the idea of a “civilization-state” to identify China, and the idea is also applicable to India (European civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state). I wrote about Martin Jacques’ conception of a civilization-state earlier in Civilization States and their Attempted Extirpation. China and India as nation-states are part of the international nation-state system, but they also represent the contemporary development of ancient civilizations that can be traced all the way to separate origins during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

How do we identify and differentiate civilizations, and, once we have done so, how do we identify a particular civilization with a present-day nation-state? In accordance with the paradigm of the geographically-defined nation-states, we typically differentiate and identify on the basis of geographical regions. Less often, we make these differentiations and identifications on the basis of the ethnicity of the population, or by other markers of ethnicity, such as language. All of these can be made to work in some contexts, and yet all are problematic.

There are a few familiar lists of civilizations from which we might draw, as, for example, those of Toynbee and Huntington. These, too, are problematic. Toynbee identified a Syriac civilization, and in so far as Syria today is the remaining legacy of Syriac civilization, Syria could be considered a civilization-state, and a failed civilization-state at that. Of Toynbee’s Syriac civilization Walter Kaufmann wrote:

“…no ‘Syriac Civilization,’ for example, ever existed, though it may possibly be convenient in some contexts to lump together the many kingdoms that existed between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to give them some such name as this; but this fictitious civilization could hardly be studied very fully without reference to its two mighty neighbors.”

Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy

Perhaps a better procedure would be to recur to those half dozen or so civilizations that had their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — another list that would consist minimally of the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt (not clearly distinct from Mesopotamian origins), Peru, and Central America. (On early civilizations cf. my post Riparian Civilization.) However, limiting ourselves in this way to a small class of “founder” civilizations would mean that we would miss out on a lot of the most interesting developments in the history of civilization. Western Civilization, for example, is a distant descendant of the Mesopotamian founder civilization, but only after one branch of that civilization moved west and encountered a series of other civilizations, such as Viking Civilization, that ultimately changed its character decisively.

Of these founder civilizations, all have some living presence today, sometimes a mere remnant absorbed into another civilization, and in other cases a vital and distinct tradition remains to this day. If mere longevity is the criterion for civilization failure, none of these civilizations could be said to have failed. Of course, longevity is not the whole story. To cite my own western civilization once again, we have the catastrophic experience of the failure of the Western Roman Empire as an atavistic memory that continues to inform our historical conceptions to this day, two thousand years later. And then, in the very different kind of civilizational transition, the medieval world gave way to the modern world, and again after a three hundred years of modernism without industrialism, modern western civilization gave way to industrial-technological civilization. In all of these transitions, something is lost and something is gained. Shall we call the losses civilization failure? If so, what shall we call the gains?

There are no easy answers as to what constitutes a civilization and what constitutes civilizational failure. Books have been devoted to the topic, and more will yet be written. The really interesting intellectual questions are those that are revealed to us after we make the attempt to differentiate civilizations and define civilizational failure. Any initial effort will fall short, and the ways in which we discern the inadequacy of our initial intuitions has much to teach us. This must be regarded as an ongoing inquiry, and not a question that can admit of a definitive answer.

Civilization-states and state failure

In general, civilization-states are too big to fail. (Perhaps the smallest nation-state that could be identified as a viable civilization-state is Iran, and there are those who would argue that Iran is a failed state — I would not make this argument.) Too big to fail civilization-states find themselves propped up by the international nation-state system, not unlike a puppet regime, but here the puppet is not a particular leader whom more powerful leaders want to keep in office, but a particular kind of state structure that more powerful nation-states want to keep intact. The catastrophic failure of a nation-state implies the possibility of the failure of the international nation-state system predicated upon the viability of the nation-state, and the breakdown of the nation-state system is an existential threat to all nation-states. This explains, in part, the semi-hysterical response on the part of elites drawn from the leadership of nation-states to the breakup of nation-states (which has happened repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, and has therefore provided ample opportunity for political hysteria of the most polished and authoritative kind).

There is, however, a relationship between failed states and failed civilizations: failed states are, at least in some cases, symptoms of failed civilizations. In more detail: there is a poorly defined relationship between state failure and civilization failure in regions where a tradition of civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state; there is a slightly more well-defined relationship between contemporary state-failure and civilization failure where a tradition of civilization did coalesce into a civilization-state. Thus if contemporary China or India were judged to be failed states (which is, needless to say, a judgment I would not make), then there would be reason to consider whether we could judge the civilizations of China and India to have failed.

But an incipient civilization-state, which initially fails to unify the geographical region of which it is the central political entity, fragments into multiple states, each of which aspires itself to be the civilization-state, and each of which lacks legitimacy in this role because too much constitutive of that civilization lies outside its borders. Thus if, for example, we were to judge, say, France of Germany as failed states, there would be very little reason to maintain that western civilization had failed, because western civilization has so many representative nation-states as the bearer of its traditions (or, at least, some subset of its traditions).

The relationship between state failure and civilization failure is not robust because it admits of countless exceptions. A civilization that is productive of a sequence of failed states might be judged to be failed, but in another sense it could be considered successful merely in terms of fecundity: if a civilization continues to produce states, even if every such state fails, the tradition of civilization remains vital in some way. A tradition of civilization in this case may represent a particular perennial idea, something to which the human mind returns like a moth to a candle flame. Every implementation of the idea may prove disastrous, but the idea is as definitive of the human condition as civilization itself.

If a civilization-state can fail, this would represent the failure of the contemporary iteration of an ancient tradition of civilization. If it is controversial to identify some nation-states as failed, it is even more controversial to identify an entire civilization as failed. It is considered to be in bad form to compare civilizations and to rank any one as being better than any other. If we are ever going to get the point at which we can formulate a science of civilization, or, at very least, a theory of civilization, we will have to get past this proscription on the use of comparative concepts in the study of civilization.

In The Future Science of Civilizations I noted how Carnap distinguished classificatory, comparative, and quantitative conceptions as all playing a role in arriving at a scientific conception of a body of knowledge. Civilization, or the study of civilization, must pass through these stages of conceptual development, and in this process it must not allow itself to be threatened by its past errors if it is ever to make progress. As Foucault said, and as I have quoted many times, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Appearance, Reality, and

Escher Tower of Babel

Maintaining the Illusion of Order

Most philosophical attempts to come to grips with politics consists in examining political systems in an attempt to determine whether or not they can deliver in practice the ideals that they promise in theory, and whether these ideals are worthy ideals to maintain, and not somehow deceptive. Thus the distinction between theory and practice is central to political philosophy, and we tend to think of politics as an exercise in applied ethics and not as an exercise in applied metaphysics, even though we are bringing into being a new kind of entity, a political entity.

I would like instead to consider the nation-state from the perspective of appearance and reality, that central distinction of western metaphysics that I recently discussed in The Recrudescence of Metaphysics. The distinction between political theory and political practice can itself be assimilated to the distinction between appearance and reality, if we frame the worthiness of political ideas as a matter of the appearance and reality of the ideals themselves. If some political ideal is presented as a noble and worthwhile political aim, but this is mere illusory appearance, and we discover in the practice of politics that our ideal is a sham, then theory and practice reveal themselves as appearance and reality.

In earlier eras of history, different political entities were at stake — tribes and chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires, city-states, confederations, and early republics — but the principle of creating a political entity that is distinct from any individual or family remains consistent, and this distinction has widened over time. Today, it is the nation-state that is, as I have said many times, the central political fact of our our age. I have repeatedly discussed the nature of the nation-state in several posts (its tribalism, as well as its links to genocide), and opened my book Political Economy of Globalization with a discussion of the nation-state.

What does the nation-state appear to be, and how does this appearance differ from the reality of what the nation-state is? The central tension of the nation-state, and the fundamental divide between its appearance and its reality is that the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of ethnic cohesion — supposedly being the expression of Wilsonian self-determination on the part of a particular people — but in fact is defined by geographical boundaries and the assertion of the territorial principle of law within these boundaries. Given this glaring chasm between ideal ethnicity and real geography, nation-states frequently responded by attempting to enforce an ideological conformity that would appear to coincide with authentic ethnic cohesion.

In the past, state structures sought to enforce ideological conformity through brutal means, not excluding massacres, atrocities, and mass population transfers, but these methods are no longer approved in their explicit form (whereas in the past the explicit character of the action would have been accounted a virtue, and any attempt to conceal official actions would be thought base and ignoble). In the pre-modern world, then, a violent effort was made to close the gap between political appearance and political reality. Given the role of the weaponization of eliminationism in maintaining depredations below the threshold of atrocity, such brutal methods are no longer countenanced, but there is more than a single means to the same end.

The means employed today are precisely the opposite of the means employed in the past: instead of seeking to close the gap between appearance and reality, the contemporary nation-state exploits the gap between appearance and reality to its fullest, creating an unbridgeable chasm between appearance and reality as the gap is rent ever wider. The kinder, gentler methods of persuasion and social imposition (if not imposture) are entirely consistent with the most flagrant contradiction between appearance and reality, and the fact that there is any gap between the two can be attributed to precisely the humane methods employed by the contemporary nation-state to achieve the perennial ends of state power.

The nation-state can no longer force its citizens to be virtuous and good with the ruthless brutality employed in the past, but it can pass a plethora of laws that attempt to control behavior, both employing distributive justice to favor those who place the needs of the nation-state before their own, and retributive justice to penalize those to have advanced their interests before those of the nation-state. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be safe, but it can create an endless stream of rules and regulations that give the appearance that something proactive is being done to ensure safety of its citizens. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be obedient to any principle, but it can supplement its byzantine code of laws with elaborately detailed rules and regulations that effectively box in the agency of the individual until one is effectively hamstrung and one’s freedom dies the death of a thousand cuts, none of which taken in isolation is fatal.

The need to cooperate with democratic forms of governance, when politically powerful individuals run up against the limits of engineering consent, requires that democratic forms be respected as far — and only as far — as is necessary to maintain the machinery of state power intact. This may entail saying things to the masses that one patently does not believe, giving “red meat” speeches in order to get elected, placating powerful constituencies with symbolic yet impotent legislation, all of which must be entered on the “appearance” side of the ledger of political authority. There is, in all of these efforts, something of plausible deniability (which is just another way of saying, “lying with a straight face and a good conscience”). We only require plausible deniability when we have already determined our hypocrisy in advance and want to ensure its success to the greatest extent possible.

Any glaring gap between appearance and reality, although sustainable and consistent with the ongoing existence of the nation-state, can become an invitation to charges of hypocrisy — and have we not been witness to spectacular hypocrisy? In a world in which authenticity has intrinsic value, hypocrisy is among the greatest of sins. People today seek authenticity not out of any sense of duty or obedience to a higher moral standard; people seek authenticity to satisfy a visceral need. This visceral need for authenticity is expressed in relation to political authority as it is in all dimensions of life, and it is the “higher truth” to which appeal is made in explaining away the very hypocrisy that is an insult to the feeling of authenticity. Hypocrisy must be transformed into a sacrament of political theology, and this is the function of representative institutions. Political representatives believe nothing on their own account, according to this account of popular sovereignty; they are mere instruments in the hands of their constituents, who are the source of the authenticity that the political authority invokes.

The idea that truth is to be found at the source was for classical antiquity and the medieval world what authenticity is for the modern world. Indeed, authenticity is the modern permutation of the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, and that the later accretions of time and history only obscure the purity to be found at the source. But authenticity has about it an ineliminable sense of loss and nostaligia, and while the ideas of loss and nostalgia were not absent in ancient and medieval civilization, the character was different. Authenticity is the knowledge of loss, and of its irreparability; truth found at the fons et origo of the world is coupled with a belief that this source is still accessible. We know better now. Even if truth is to be found at the source being, we know ourselves to the alienated from this source, and that there is no going back.

Knowing that we cannot have the reality from which we are alienated, we accept the substitute realities that are, for us, as close as we are going to get to source of being. For true political authority that can trace its legitimacy and justification to the same source of the world from which all things derive, we accept the best that we can do in terms of political authority. What remains, when we have stripped away all vestiges of political authority that relied upon the legitimacy and justification traced back to an ultimate but now alienated source, is the political order of the state for its own sake. The practical implementation of the state for its own sake is the state bureaucracy that continues the state in existence from day to day by its unimaginative but implacable methods.

The bureaucratic expression of the nation-state is the permanent nation-state — it is the reality of the nation-state, the truth of the nation-state — because the bureaucratic structures, and, more often than not, the particular individuals who staff these bureaucratic structures, remain and continuously shape the life of the nation-state even while executive administrations come and go. We all know, of course, that in democratic nation-states there is virtually no difference between the political parties and candidates who vie to fill the temporary positions of the revolving executive power; their identity is a function of their derivation from the permanent bureaucratic nation-state.

Given the revolving door that shuffles individuals between elective office, appointed positions, and bureaucratic employment, the temporary administrations that come and go are largely drawn from the bureaucratic positions within the permanent government, and appointed members of various government commissions often remain across changing administrations, with the result being that the attempt to limit governmental authority through the separation of powers has simply multiplied the forms of the bureaucratic state, and made the permanent bureaucracy the center of gravity in the system of government.

That the truth of the bureaucratic nation-state is no enchanting vision, but rather a petty and grubbing careerism undertaken in the name of the people is disappointing but not necessarily hypocritical. One might even stretch one’s conception careerism so far that it transforms vile and base motives into legitimacy and justification, like the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to have the power to transmute base metals into gold. This is metaphor, in case you didn’t notice.

But what, asked Pilate, is truth? And what is the truth of the nation-state? Another perennial theme of western metaphysics, besides that of appearance and reality, is that of Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei (a venerable piece of Thomist Scholasticism). This is the closest thing to consensus in the history of philosophy as to what constitutes truth. Here is Saint Thomas’ exposition of this definition of truth — the mutual adequacy of mind and thing — in its locus classicus:

Consequently, truth or the true has been defined in three ways. First of all, it is defined according to that which precedes truth and is the basis of truth. This is why Augustine writes: “The true is that which is”; and Avicenna: “The truth of each thing is a property of the act of being which has been established for it.” Still others say: “The true is the undividedness of the act of existence from that which is.” Truth is also defined in another way—according to that in which its intelligible determination is formally completed. Thus, Isaac writes: “Truth is the conformity of thing and intellect”; and Anselm: “Truth is a rectitude perceptible only by the mind.” This rectitude, of course, is said to be based on some conformity. The Philosopher says that in defining truth we say that truth is had when one affirms that “to be which is, and that not to be which is not.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Question 1, Article I

Note the the first definition given is the idea of truth as the fons et origo. And the same again more briefly…

“Truth is ‘the conformity of thing and intellect.’ But since this conformity can be only in the intellect, truth is only in the intellect.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Article II

The truth of the nation-state is the conformity of the nation-state to the intellect — but to what intellect? Obviously, the mind of mass man.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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ukraine map

Even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, events in Ukraine eclipsed the closing ceremony and the world turned its attention instead to the tumult in Kiev as protesters battled with police and (now former) President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital, leaving behind a palatial home with a private zoo (shades of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who, like other autocrats, also had a private zoo). I met a friend of mine in Starbucks on Sunday, and as we talked about the situation in Ukraine and some of its likely outcomes, I had occasion to explain the term “Finlandization.”

Ukraine Ethnolingusitic_map

As it turns out, I was not the only one to have Finlandization on my mind. Writing in the Financial Times (Monday 24 February 2014), Zbigniew Brzezinski explicitly endorsed the Finlandization of Ukraine, in his opinion piece, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine,” as a prerequisite for Ukraine making a peaceful (or relatively peaceful) transition to the European fold:

“The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”

This Finlandization of Ukraine would be necessary because…

“…Russia can still plunge Ukraine into a destructive and internationally dangerous civil war. It can prompt and then support the secession of Crimea and some of the industrial eastern portions of the country.”

Brzezinski is correct that Russia could still cause great problems for Ukraine, and evidently a Finlandized Ukraine seems to Brzezinski a reasonable price to pay to avoid potential chaos. Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with ethnic and cultural loyalties pulling toward Russia in the East and the Crimea, and toward Europe in the western part of the country. Given these social conditions as the background, it would be a relatively easy matter for Russia to stir the pot in Ukraine for decades to come.

ukraine 2004 election

During the Cold War, “Finlandization” came to mean subordinating a nation’s priorities to a foreign policy designed to appease the Soviet Union, without actually surrendering sovereignty, and certainly without becoming merely another absorbed “republic” among the Soviet Social Republics. Here is one definition of Finlandization:

“Behaviour of a country whose foreign policy and domestic policies are strongly conditioned by a conscious desire to mollify and maintain friendly relations with Moscow, at the expense if need be of close ties with formal allies and traditional friends or of its own sovereignty.”

George Ginsburgs and Alvin Rubinstein, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy toward Western Europe, New York: Praeger, 1978, p. 5.

It sounds a lot less menacing to call this a “good neighbor policy,” which is what Finland’s policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were sometimes called, and truly enough the Finns successfully negotiated a very tricky tightrope between Europe and Russia. It must be said that the Finns were also successful in retaining their sovereignty and independence. Finland is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, and it does not resemble in the least those former Soviet republics (like Ukraine) still struggling today to free themselves from the influence of the Kremlin. Thus if Finland made any existential compromises during its Cold War Finlandization, it does not seem to be suffering from them today.

Can Ukraine pursue the “Finland Option” and can they do so successfully? The example of Cold War Finland seems to suggest that, yes, Ukraine can move toward Europe while placating Russia. The question then becomes, “Is Ukraine different from Finland?” Obviously, yes, Ukraine differs from Finland in thousands of ways. Really, then, the question is, “Does Ukraine differ from Finland in any essential respect that would prevent it from being able to pursue a policy of Finlandization?”

George Friedman of Stratfor has argued repeated that Ukraine is, indeed, different, though I don’t recall if he has explicitly compared Ukraine to Finland. In Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires (from November 2010) Friedman presented Russia’s strategic dependence upon Ukraine in the strongest terms:

“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.”

“From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.”

While I haven’t been reading Friedman lately, so I don’t know his take on the recent Ukrainian crisis, he has repeated this reasoning in several pieces, and I don’t think that Friedman would assert that Finland is crucial to Russian national security, or that it anchors Russian power in Fenno-Scandia.

One fly in the ointment of this analysis, and one that points toward larger and more interesting questions, is that, at the time of this writing, one of Friedman’s examples — Scotland — is considering succeeding from the UK. And this, as I said, points further afield.

One of the constants we find in the discussion of the present crisis in Ukraine is the dire warnings that Ukraine might split apart, notwithstanding the fact that the geographical region we now call Ukraine has been split up in many different ways in the past. One of the most obvious solutions to the present crisis would be to partition the country, allow those who wish to be part of the idea and destiny of Europe to join Europe as West Ukraine, and allow those who desire to have closer relations with Moscow to do so and become East Ukraine.

Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a point of emphasizing, “national unification and political moderation.” Many others have gingerly touched the question of the possibility of a rupture of Ukraine’s national “unity” only to recoil in horror. (Cf. Ukraine crisis: Turchynov warns of ‘separatism’ risk and Ukraine revolution: Where on Earth is Viktor Yanukovych? stated that, “Mr Putin has not yet spoken publicly about Mr Yanukovych’s ousting, but in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel he agreed that the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine must be maintained, suggesting Russia may not intervene.”) Truly enough, if it came to a fight, a civil war would be disastrous and bloody. But it need not be fought over. We know from the example of Czechoslovakia that a “Velvet Divorce” is possible if both parties want the same thing. West Ukraine would not want to give up the industries in the east of the country or the ports and coastline, and East Ukraine would not want to give up the capital, Kiev, but there is much to be said for partition in the case of Ukraine.

Why is Finlandization considered a more palatable alternative than partition? If Ukraine were partitioned, West Ukraine would join Europe, and its people would enjoy greater freedom and economic opportunity. The economy would grow after an initial shrinkage due to the split, but from there, under the umbrella of the European Union, West Ukraine would experience a better future than anything in its past should give it a right to expect. East Ukraine, on the contrary, would slip into an economic twilight, and under Russian influence the country would stagnate (except for a few economic centers) and the quality of life of the people would likely decline.

In time — perhaps in several decades — East Ukraine might also be ready to join Europe when they see their former compatriots doing rather better than they are doing. Is there any reason to hold back West Ukraine when its people are ready to forge ahead on a path different from that chosen for them by Russia? Foreign policy “realists” like Brzezinski and Friedman will say that it shouldn’t be done or it can’t be done, but history shows us otherwise. No matter how ossified the international system of nation-states, some do splinter, and it is rarely a pretty sight. But a peaceful partition is yet possible, and better than many other options. If mutually policed by Russian, EU, and UN forces, it could work better than the other alternatives.

The borders of a partitioned Ukraine have already been drawn by the unambiguous results of the 2004 election (see the map of the poll results above). While it is true that the example of Finland shows us that Finlandization can work, so too the example of Czechoslovakia shows us that a Velvet Divorce can work. Czechoslovakia is also Exhibit A for failed appeasement, and it could be argued that Ukraine has tried Russian appeasement unsuccessfully since the Orange Revolution. Finlandization, as we have seen it to date in Ukraine, has not served the people of Ukraine well, and perhaps it has failed due to the essential differences between Finland and Ukraine mentioned above. Another solution is needed.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.”


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.

…and the third law of geopolitics

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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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A reader, Greg R. Lawson, commented on my last post, The Economic Future of Europe, including the following:

“Bigger issue now is, what does the US do with its western flank in an era most believe to be defined by the rise of Asia?”

Since my post about the European economy suggested a kind of European regionalism, I immediately began to think of the regionalism that I had described in a global context, i.e., I began to think in terms of global regionalism, and I realized that this would be a fruitful geopolitical perspective.

It is of the essence of geopolitics and geostrategy to think of social, economic, political, diplomatic, and military milieux in terms of their geographical distribution. That these generic strategic trends in human history are not equally distributed, and that the physical topography of the globe has a direct impact upon their distribution, shapes the world in which we live — the possibilities, the opportunities and the constraints.

A region is geographically defined, but not defined by nation-states. This distinction is important, because in the contemporary international system, the power is vested in nation-states. However, it must be observed that it has been primarily economic, military, and diplomatic power that have been vested in nation-states. Social, religious, and intellectual power have been attracted to the locus of economic, military, and diplomatic power of the nation-state, but the non-state structure of social, religious, and intellectual power has never been entirely eclipsed by the nation-state.

In the Islamic world, for example, the idea of the Ummah — the global Muslim community — is an important idea, and not a mere abstraction. The Ummah defines a region that is not a nation-state, just as do Catholicism, capitalism, and petrochemical producers.

A map of global Muslim populations shows the geographical distribution of the Ummah, which constitutes a region, but not a nation-state.

In the past, all regionalism was bioregionalism. A people’s way of life followed from the biome and the particular ecosystem in which they lived. Prior to the industrial revolution, the food that you ate, the clothes that you wore, the buildings in which you lived and worked, and the work that you did was all a function of your ecological situation. Since much of the language that one uses on a daily basis is derived from one’s food, clothing, shelter, and work, and the concepts embodied in language express these ideas, the greater part of our intellectual life also reflected bioregionalism. (This has been a theme I have urged since I started writing this blog.)

A map of terrestrial biomes from Wikipedia; each biome fosters a particular form of life in terms of the ecological resources that are regionally available.

With the Industrial Revolution this strong sense of regionalism was compromised once it become routine to import foodstuffs, clothing, building materials, and even forms of work that had not previously existed, or existed in the form that they came to have under industrialization. However, new and abstract forms of region began to supplement the declining strong forms of regionalism that once so completely defined life. Thus industrialization has changed regionalism, but has not eliminated regionalism. This is significant.

In the early part of the twentieth century many of the most advanced thinkers of the time seized upon internationalism as the direction in which the world was headed — what I would call the dominant strategic trend. A part of this intellectual fashion for internationalism was due to Marxism, which was always international in conception and ambition — communism was frequently called “international communism” in order to focus attention on it as a global movement, the communist anthem was called the “Internationale,” and the gatherings of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) were called “Internationals” — but not all of this fashion for internationalism can be attributed to communism.

The Wobblies were an explicitly international organization.

Many major thinkers who were in no sense Marxists consistently thought and expressed themselves in internationalist terms. Bertrand Russell is a good example of this. For Russell and many others, the obvious telos and rationalization of the de facto global political order could be nothing other than internationalism. This may sound a bit odd to my readers in the US, as internationalism never had much of a following in the US, where popular sentiment has often demonized the United Nations and other internationalist movements and organizations. And yet we did experience the international style in modern architecture, and a variety of related international movements made themselves felt in the US no less than in Europe.

But internationalism faltered under repeated blows to the international system throughout the second half of the twentieth century, not least the Cold War that divided the international system into two systems, at war with each other, and contesting their mutual periphery.

The global village that was once imagined as the consequence of universal telecommunications technology and a rapid global transportation network has not come to pass, any more than the “melting pot” model of diversity, which latter has since been replaced by the “tossed salad” model. Instead, the global village has become a place of its own, the region of cyberspace, which touches upon physical space at millions of points of contact, even while remaining distinct. We could map cyberspace onto physical space, or physical space onto cyberspace, but in each case the map is not the territory and the two spaces cannot be shown to be identical.

Internationalism, then, did not happen, or, at very least, did not happen as it was expected to happen. Instead, the growing complexity of the world facilitated the emergence of ever more forms of regionalism. Some have read in these tea leaves the perennial nature of the nation-state, but this is a delusion arising from limited imagination. The ultimate dissolution of the nation-state will come about not as a result of internationalism, but rather from a flourishing regionalism that subdivides nation-states like the inheritance of traditional estates when not checked by a custom of primogeniture. But this will not happen for a long time yet. Other trends must play themselves out for hundreds of years yet before the nation-state is a mere historical curiosity.

The structural forces in the world, then, that create and sustain regionalism are themselves important strategic trends that must be recognized. But that is not all. Above and beyond particular regionalisms there is regionalism itself as a force in world history. And we must even go beyond the understanding of regionalism as a strategic trend of the global system that facilitates other strategic trends. This is not at all wrong, but it is too limited. We must learn to understand regionalism on its own account, both driving other developments even as it in turn is driven by anterior developments.

Let us consider, very briefly, some of the major strategic trends of our time, and we will see that they are strongly regional trends:

● The Decline of Europe By “the decline of Europe” I do not mean the relative decline of European economic importance due to the increasing economic activity of other regions of the world, but the decline of the European idea as a force in world affairs. Europe has not only retreated from the apotheosis of its 19th century colonialism, it has turned against itself and its traditions and has adopted an attitude of atonement, frequently expressed in the form of foreign aid. Part of this attitude of atonement is also expressed by the liberal immigration quotas that has led to the rise of Eurabia. Europe is facilitating the disappearance of its own unique tradition.

● The Rise of Asia As with the decline of Europe, so too with the rise of Asia: this is partly about improving economic performance and industrialization, but it is just as much about the confidence of Asian peoples to assert themselves in the world as the Europeans once asserted themselves, and to do so they have borrowed heavily from the intellectual resources of the European tradition even while distancing themselves from that tradition. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are condemned, while quasi-colonial activity (like China’s growing role in Africa) is called anything but colonialism. More importantly, this is done with a clear conscience, as was also the case during Europe’s period of colonial expansion.

● The Stability of US Power Despite a great deal of declensionist talk that I have discussed in other posts (especially my recent From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), the American economy will remain the largest in the world for some time, and even after China’s economy becomes the largest in the world in terms of absolute numbers, the US economy will have the greatest productivity of any economy on the planet for an even longer period of time. The springs of ambition and invention have by no means peaked in the US, and we can expect the American people to continue to assert themselves aggressively in world affairs has has been the case since the end of the Second World War.

These three strategic trends together necessarily mean another strategic trend:

● The Shift from an Atlantic center to a Pacific center I have discussed the decline of Atlanticism and the possibility of a Pacific-centered world order in other posts. With the stability of US power as the fulcrum, the center of world affairs will slowly shift from the Atlantic, dominated by a declining Europe, to the Pacific, dominated by the rising Asia. I emphasize here that this shift will be slow and gradual.

The shift from an Atlantic-centered world to a Pacific-centered world will be a consequence of the decline of Europe and the rise of Asia, and thus this shift will not be consolidated until these developments are mature. In other words, the 21st century will not be the Pacific Century, but rather the century of the fluid periphery (see below), one of the developments of which will mean the shift to a Pacific-centered world order. It will be the 22nd century that will be the Pacific Century. So you see that when I say that this shift will be slow and gradual, I am talking on the order of centuries, not years or decades.

The shifting world center from the Atlantic to the Pacific is but one aspect another another major strategic trend that will be expressed in many different forms, and this is:

● The Fluidity of the Periphery The fluidity of the periphery will be expressed in a variety of distinct movements and changes, but the very fact that the periphery of the mature and established de facto global political order will be fluid is significant. In the past, the periphery was not fluid, but static. Nothing happened in the periphery, which was one reason that Ovid so lamented his exile to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) on the Black Sea. The periphery was once the edge of civilization, dominated by stalled technologies. In the future, more things will happen, and more history will be played out, on the periphery than in the center. The fluidity of the periphery will involve, but will not be limited to, the following:

* Atlantic to Pacific Shift The fluidity of the periphery will include the above-mentioned strategic shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but this shift will occur on such a time scale that it would be unnoticeable to most living through the shift except that we will know to watch for it. This will be a macro-temporal revolution in world history, and as such almost invisible to the micro-temporality of individual consciousness.

* Globalization Globalization in turn can be understood by many different labels — it is what I have called the extension of the industrial revolution to those parts of the world that have not yet industrialized; this global economic growth has been called “re-balancing” by Thomas P.M. Barnett; at the same time “re-balancing” might also be called a leveling of the global economic playing field, and this has also been called the global rise of the middle class. More tendentiously, I might call this strategic trend The End of Poverty, for when the gains of global industrialization are consolidated over the next two hundred years, one of the profound developments will be the end of the kind of poverty (made visible by the contrast between rich and power, and made more visible yet by the telecommunications technology that emerged from industrialization) that had typified the human condition since the dawn of agriculture and urbanism.

* Divisions internal to the Periphery Uneven development will more and more mark the fluid periphery, as some nation-states in Latin America and Africa develop rapidly, joining the global economy and catapulting their populations on a new trajectory of development, while other nation-states in Latin America and Africa cannot break out of the failure cycle, continuing to stumble and stagnate while neighboring nation-states pull far ahead of them. These divisions within the periphery will foster instability and tensions, as populations inevitably seek to better their lot by moving from failed and failing states into neighboring successful states.

* Global Divisions The consolidation of the democratization of the Western hemisphere will continue to contrast with non-democratic, non-representative, autocratic regimes throughout the fluid periphery and indeed throughout the Eurasian landmass. While there will be democratic regimes in the Western hemisphere that perpetuate the failure cycle, the slower pace of life that results will constitute a de facto social consensus for a society not to live in the fast lane. By contrast, outside the Western hemisphere, the failure cycle will be exacerbated by non-representative regimes that impose failure upon a restive population. These global divisions will be expressed as geostrategic tensions, which will in turn be expressed as flows between the divisions, and these flows — of populations, of resources, of smuggled contraband, of technology, etc. — will flow through the periphery, further destabilizing regions already destabilized by divisions internal to the periphery.

There are limits to the fluidity of the periphery. Fluidity is constrained by regional stability. Now by “regional stability” I do not mean a part of the world that is political stable (which is how the term is usually used in contemporary discourse) but rather that regional strategic trends that are geographically defined by not embodied in formal institutions. Actually, a distinction could be made between formal and informal regions, but I haven’t thought this through yet, so I will leave this potential distinction to another time. I hope that the reader will see, without further elaboration, that the same structural forces in the global system that create regions are powers that limit the latitude of other regions, sometimes simply by their existence, and other times by actively working against the strategic trend expressed by another region.

So that is my sketch of regionalism and how it will play out at least over the next two hundred years. I hope that even if the reader disagrees with the details of the picture that I have sketched, that you will at least see the power of differently-defined regionalisms in the global system, that this regionalism is a force to be reckoned with, and that regionalism may possibly become the dominant strategic trend, or a dominant strategic trend, over the long-term future.

There is much more to be said regarding regions, and I hope to think more on the matter, now that I have proposed it to myself in this explicit form, but for the time being I will close with the observation that regions are likely to play a larger role in history than either internationalism or nation-states.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt just tweeted the following:

We see it again: hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world.

The linked story from the Washington Post, With Chen Guangcheng news on Twitter, China’s censors lost control, discusses how the volume of micro-blogging and text messages outpaced the Chinese censors with the Chen Guangcheng story, as well as the Bo Xilai scandal and high speed rail disaster.

There are at least two related but distinct factors involved here: 1) the actual difficulty for the censors of deleting so many micro-blog posts so quickly as they are spreading virally, and 2) the difficulty of maintaining an unchallenged “official” position that departs too far from the facts on the ground given the rapid spread of information from non-official sources. While the Great Firewall of China can stifle much comment, the airing of honest opinions is becoming more and more a cat-and-mouse game. Although the cat catches lots of mice, a smart mouse can outwit a cat, and a sufficiently large number of mice can defy a cat.

Unless a nation-state is willing to completely sever its citizens from the internet, as in the case of North Korea, controlling information is difficult, and getting more difficult all the time. And even in the case of North Korea there are cracks in the facade of information control. The Globe and Mail recently published an interesting article, North Korea’s small pool of mobile phones pose a big political threat, about the increasing influence of cell phones in North Korea, despite regime attempts to limit their usefulness.

Foreign Minister Bildt’s clear and intuitive contrast between hierarchies and networks provides an excellent context in which to explore the game-changing effect of electronic communications technology. The centralized nation-state has embodied hierarchy, and initially made use of technologically-enabled mass communications technology (newspapers, radio, and television) in order to reinforce its hierarchical message. But as technology has increased and improved, electronic telecommunications have become increasingly democratized, enabling networks that have no connection to the nation-state hierarchy.

Can hierarchies control networks, or are networks intrinsically beyond the ability of hierarchies to control? At present, the answer to whether hierarchies can control networks is a qualified “yes.” Hierarchies can partially control networks, but they cannot completely control networks. If this is what Bildt means when he says that, “hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world,” he is right. It is a question of what you mean by “control.”

The Chinese authorities are able to control a surprising amount of expression, despite the size of the internet and its users within China. Even the most prominent writers and intellectuals like Han Han and Ai Weiwei have their blog posts regularly deleted. This is Chinese democracy: no one is above the law, or, at least, above the censors. So if you are an isolated individual trying to get your story out the world, you are still very much subject to controls on expression. However, if a story becomes sufficiently large and compelling, it outruns the ability of the censors to stop it.

The internet, for all its size and flexibility, which gives the advantage to asymmetrical strategies, is still a material artifact. It requires electricity, wires or cables or signals, a device to access it, and so forth. All of these things can be brought under the hierarchical control of a nation-state. But as these elements of electronic telecommunications and computing become universal forms of infrastructure they become democratized. As the Gaddafi regime in Libya was collapsing it shut down access to the internet to try to stop the tide of information reporting its collapse, but there are limits to this, and in the case of Libya it turned out to be a temporary and unsuccessful measure.

As the hierarchical functions of the nation-state become dependent upon the universal telecommunications and computing infrastructure, as is already essentially the case in all the advanced industrialized nation-states, it is no longer an option to pull the plug. Or, in other words, pulling the plug would do more harm than good. China is an interesting case in point, because at the present moment it is on the cusp of this development. It can partially shut down the internet, but it can’t really afford to completely shut down the internet, and as long as it cannot completely shut down the internet, it cannot completely control communications.

The ongoing development of industrial-technological civilization, which necessitates even the most hierarchical of nation-states to adopt a universal infrastructure of telecommunications and computing, suggests that it is only a matter of time before electronic telecommunications is democratized to the point that hierarchies cannot really control networks. We have not yet reached that point, but we can see that the day is coming.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the emergence of networks based on electronic telecommunications may change the political structure of societies, and the networked nation-state will be the (first) successor institution to the hierarchical nation-state. What will come after the networked nation-state is anyone’s guess.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Failure Cycle

23 April 2012


Can a pattern be discerned in the failure of major institutions? This is question I ask myself today, and in asking the question in a systematic way — i.e., by proposing such a pattern and examining its potential explanatory power as well as its weaknesses — I find that it raises more questions than it answers. This is promising, in so far as questions suggest further inquiries.

I have written about system failure in several posts, especially in Complex Systems and Complex Failure and Induced Failure in Complex Adaptive Systems. However, these posts came at the problem of failure from a systems perspective, and what I have in mind now is something more in line with my conception of agency (as I have detailed his in several posts, e.g., Agent-Centered Metaphysics).

For the purposes of the failure cycle below, I ask that the reader at this point only think of the institution in question as a nation-state (for simplicity’s sake), and I will refer to this institution as “a state”:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

I will call these four stages of state failure incipient failure, criminal exaptation, outside intervention, and partial amelioration (if I wanted to be tendentious I could call these last two steps nation building).

As I wrote above, even to suggest a pattern of failure poses more questions than it answers. Here are, respectively, some of the immediate questions that occur to me in this context:

Incipient failure — Why are state institutions weak? Can this systemic weakness be traced back to an anterior cause? Why do institutions fail? It would be helpful here to make a distinction between chronic institutional failure and traumatic institutional failure. Some institutions are in a state of near-chronic failure, while other institutions are able to function until presented with a traumatic break with routine to which the institution cannot respond. These are different forms of institutional failure, with different causes. However, they are all linked together in subtle ways in history. A traumatic failure may initiate a failure cycle in which institutional failure becomes chronic and the self-fulfilling source of its own failure.

Criminal exaptation — What kind of criminals exploit institutional failures? To what end? Power? Money? Mischief? What kind of criminal enterprises flourish in the interstices of failing state institutions, and which criminal enterprises hasten state failure? There is a profound difference between the criminality of ideologically motivated terrorists and financially motivated drug traffickers. Is either more likely to hasten state failure? Must we distinguish here between internal and external criminal elements? Transnational criminal elements are like corporations with capital and expertise that can be brought in from the outside in order to exploit the conditions of a failing state. Almost every state has its internal mafiosi, who profit from partial failure but who would be adversely affected by catastrophic state failure that brings about outside intervention.

Outside intervention — What triggers acute institutional failure? What triggers intervention? Who intervenes? Why? What is the desired outcome of intervention? What is the actual outcome of intervention? How long does intervention last? Is there a clear distinction between intervention and occupation?

Partial amelioration — Why does intervention on the pretext of amelioration of failed institutions almost never result in strengthened institutions? Why does partial amelioration of institutional failure so rarely result in an improving base on which further progress can be made toward robust institutions? Why does it seem to be impossible to create strong institutions de novo? Burke and Joseph de Maistre have an obvious answer to the latter question, which I discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract. Why does a newly founded or radically reformed state have such difficulty in crafting robust institutions that can develop and grow and strengthen? After all, existent states today with strong institutions had to start at some time in the past. Have historical changes made it more difficult to found a state than was the case in the past?

As I observed above, a nation-state is only one kind of institution that can fail. For our present purposes, the nation-state is interesting because it is an institution of institutions. However, any sufficiently large institution will be an institution built up from subordinate institutions. An ideal theory of institutional failure would address any and all possible institutions. But set that aside for a moment, and I will make a few more remarks about state institutions more generally, which can include any large political institution of our time, from nation-states to city-states like Singapore to non-state entities like NGOs.

To speak in term of the strength of institutions invites a certain facile misunderstanding. One of the most persistently seductive models of robust institutions is that of the law and order state. Many politicians make a fetish of policing, and equate the strength of a state with the strength of its legal institutions, especially the strength of the enforcement arm of legal institutions. This idea coincides with state power being the ability of the state to impose its will by force. This is an all-too-familiar image, and it is rooted in the geographically defined nation-state’s need to enforce the territorial principle in law in order to provide proof of its own legitimacy.

The need for heavy policing is a sign of lack of social consensus. Where there is a strong social consensus, very little policing is needed. People can largely go about their business unmolested because they are largely doing what comes naturally to them. Thus it is easy to see that the most robust institutions are those that emerge from social consensus. In so far as policing emerges from a lack of social consensus, policing is the sign of a weak state, not a strong state.

The strongest states with the strongest institutions will be those states that are able to honestly discern the social consensus of the peoples of the state, and to formalize this social consensus in their constitution and legal institutions. In this way, the laws of the land would reinforce a social consensus already extant, and the social consensus would reinforce the laws. This virtuous cycle of strong state institutions invites us to speculate on its mirror image, which would be the vicious cycle of failing state institutions: a lack of social consensus undermines the law, while the law’s inability to codify a social consensus undermines the possibility of social consensus.

With these reflections it would now be possible to restate my initial failure cycle in terms of state structures that fail to reflect social consensus, for example:

1. A state lacking social consensus in its legal structure begins to show evidence of institutional failure.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by separatist elements violently pursuing a state structure that will institutionalize their preferred social consensus, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene in the attempt to stop the break up of the state.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with institutions still weak because still lacking social consensus and therefore vulnerable to failure.

This is indeed one form that state failure can take. If outside powers intervene in the attempt to force Azawad to rejoin with Mali, this would be a simplified, schematic summary of Mali’s state failure. However, this is an overly specific account, and I would prefer a more general analysis that is more universally applicable to political failure. This more specific account answers some of the questions that I posed in my exploration of the more general account, but it answers them only by narrowing the focus to a particular failure due to a particular form of criminality (which, but the way, is one of the SCO’s “three evil forces,” and thus not the best example).

Further reflection on the questions that I have posed here will be necessary to arriving at the requisite analytical clarity that might make possible a definite formulation of the failure cycle.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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