Thursday 21 September 2006

Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building

David Chandler

Despite the so-called ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War, Western intervention barely skipped a beat - the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is simply its most violent and self-serving instance in recent times and should be seen in part as an escalation of the ‘humanitarian warfare’ of the 1990s, advocated by many of the same liberals who now condemn US adventurism in the Middle East.

But while the ‘War on Terror’ is a fairly naked attempt to reassert American hegemony and domination, other forms of American and European integrations, past and ongoing, make far less sense when analysed in terms of hard interests: humanitarian intervention in Somalia, for example, and so-called ‘state-building’ interventions, where Western states and agencies, sometimes under the umbrella of the UN, pry incredibly deeply into the structures of non-Western states to help them ‘build capacity’, fight corruption, and promote ‘good governance’. Empire in Denial is an important new book that sheds considerable light on this strange phenomenon.

Chandler observes that state-building is far more insidious than other forms of intervention, since ‘humanitarian warfare’ reveals inequalities in power in their starkest form, while being in hock to the World Bank, the IMF or other donors at least involves a formal contractual relationship that symbolises lines of domination. Now, talk of ‘partnership’ and the blurring of the national/ international divide through the insertion of Western elites directly into the policymaking structures of non-Western states makes it difficult to tell just who is responsible. States like Bosnia have all the trappings of international legal sovereignty, but the EU’s international administrators are, in fact, the ones calling the shots - so much so that other critical scholars dubbed Bosnia the ‘European Raj’. People like Paddy Ashdown are able to remove from office any politician they don’t like, effectively to decree new constitutional and electoral laws to skew elections against nationalist candidates, and to exclude them from the majority position in government that their popular backing should afford them. These moves to suppress genuine democracy leave these post-conflict governments with no real links to their societies, producing ‘phantom states’ which really exist to convey externally-dictated policies to the country, rather than conveying the country’s popular will to the outside world, as is the traditional role of the state in this regard.

Yet, despite the plentiful evidence of ‘empire’, Western elites deny the power they exercise in state-building interventions. Where once, Western empires were explicit about the inability of the ‘natives’ to rule themselves and the necessity of Western rule to ‘civilise’ and ‘educate’ them, today, empire is in denial, its political content masked in various technocratic programmes: ‘capacity-building’, ‘anti-corruption’, ‘good governance’. Intervention is repackaged as ‘partnership’ and ‘empowerment’. Administrators refuse to be held accountable for the policies they are essentially foisting on non-Western states - and no obvious structures exist to hold them to account - while the targets of intervention increasingly lack the policy autonomy to reach their own solutions and assume accountability themselves. When the policies fail - as they often do, given the inability of ‘phantom states’ to mobilise domestic constituencies - international administrators have the fabulous get-out clause that ‘we tried, but they failed’.

At the heart of this shift, Chandler rightly points out, is the redefining of sovereignty from being a people’s absolute and indivisible right to self-government to being a variable - state capacity: a state is sovereign insofar as it’s able to carry out certain functions. This redefinition allows sovereignty to become compatible with massive Western intervention to help a state ‘build sovereignty’ by building its capacity. Indeed, should non-Western elites refuse to allow this intervention, they can be accused in true Orwellian fashion of violating their own sovereignty. In many ways this is the triumph of neo-Weberian thinking on the state - the idea that the ultimate goal is a fully-realised, centralised bureaucracy capable of ‘doing things’ to society - over neo-Marxist and related approaches that stress that states do not stand over but are intrinsically part of their societies. It is the depressing conclusion of a trend that began at least as early as 1985 with the publication of that social science classic, Bringing the State Back In. This can only be politically disastrous. As studies like Joel Migdal’s Strong Societies and Weak States demonstrated, where state actions do not reflect society’s will, they have very little chance of succeeding as intended, no matter how strong or centralised the state becomes. Little wonder that the interventions in Chandler’s study are ‘building state failure’.

But Chandler’s central puzzle is why deeper, more pervasive intervention should be coupled with Western efforts to deny all responsibility for their interventions: why is empire now ‘in denial’? Drawing on Laïdi’s A World Without Meaning, Chandler argues that technocratic fixes to what are deeply political problems and the West’s denial of responsibility flow from the collapse of any sense of meaning after the Cold War. Laïdi argues that power is now ‘conceived and experienced less and less as a process of taking over responsibilities, and more as a game of avoidance… in the absence of a framework of meaning, responsibilities are measured only in cost terms’. Unable to justify the ‘costs’ of exercising power, let alone formal empire, in the absence of any compelling ideological ‘mission’, Western states now intervene feebly to provide ‘assistance’ to the disadvantaged, acting as a ‘therapeutic empowerer’.

There is obviously a lot of truth in this characterisation of post-Cold War Western elites as exhausted and visionless, but I wonder how we get from the clueless elite to the deep, costly interventions of ‘empire in denial’. Just why does the EU exercise vast amounts of power in the Balkans, a strategically and economically insignificant region? Why is so much money being poured into attempts to integrate post-conflict states into the Union and deprive them of the intermediate stage of true state sovereignty? Why isn’t simply doing nothing an option? Chandler suggests the reason is the rise of ‘Other-regarding ethics’: the traditional Self/Other distinction that was the hallmark of international politics has dissolved. Rather than fearing the Other, we now fear for the Other. The ideological vacuum in Western politics also leads to a groping for meaning, which is achieved by the narcissistic practice of intervention: quoting Michael Ignatieff, Chandler says, ‘We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something’.

This is the least impressive aspect of the book. It is entirely possible that we live in an age when what Nick Wheeler called the ‘CNN effect’ in his Saving Strangers - Western publics see suffering on TV and demand ‘something be done’ - has real political effects. But that strange occurrence - CNN’s news agenda being able to define the foreign policies of the most powerful states on the planet - is something to be interrogated and explained, rather than simply asserted. Likewise, the apparent collapse of the traditional locus of foreign policy - the ‘national interest’ - also demands an explanation, and a few quotations from Laïdi just won’t do. The chapter on other-regarding ethics is at the very least under-theorised, attempting to play off Carl Schmitt and Emmanuel Lévinas, a bizarre choice if ever I saw one. The section on sovereignty in theory and practice is also somewhat disappointing and done much better elsewhere (in Chandler’s own From Kosovo to Kabul, for instance). If political emptiness has opened up a space for ethical concerns, then a theory of state-society relations is surely necessary to explain why governments feel a need to pursue foreign policies centred around the construction of meaning or identity. Otherwise the explanation feels distinctly shallow and seems to play straight into the hands of social constructivists who would happily claim that positive normative change was driving these new ‘ethical’ foreign policies.

Chandler seems unfairly to downplay alternative explanations of creeping Western intervention, particularly the idea that deeper, more insidious interventions that penetrate state institutions are at least partly responses to the failures of earlier top-down, openly coercive measures such as Structural Adjustment Programmes, which were formally agreed to by governments, but whose terms were frequently ignored after popular backlash against austerity measures. Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, debt-relief and increased aid, coupled with ‘capacity-building’ and ‘anti-corruption’ initiatives seek to achieve many of the same goals as SAPs - a good example of how Western elites can get sucked further and further into situations in desperate attempts to make their policies bite. This is not a complete explanation, but it is more persuasive than the rather lame suggestion that ‘empire is drawn [in] by the weakness of non-Western states, in the same way that nature abhors a vacuum’. Foreign policy is never driven by laws of physics, nor by analogies to them. An argument about the exhaustion of post-colonial states and the death of national liberation movements, prompting non-Western elites to call increasingly on Western assistance to solve their domestic problems, could have complemented Chandler’s use of Laïdi, and clarified who or what was ‘drawing’ empire in.

Finally, it’s not entirely clear where the War on Terror fits into this framework. On the one hand, it seems like an archetypal case: it is a leadenly obvious attempt to reinvigorate American power on the global stage and inject some sense of meaning or mission into a foreign policy that has struggled to find a replacement bogeyman after the collapse of Communism. Formal sovereignty was returned to the new Afghan and Iraqi states with unseemly haste, transferring responsibility for the hardest political task - trying to produce some sort of post-conflict societal settlement - to interim governments that possessed no real autonomy to achieve it. And although Bush and Blair talk about staying in Iraq and Afghanistan to ‘finish the job’, NATO is now squeamish about deploying more troops, and the US electorate has turned from gung-ho to anti-war, illustrating the failure of the War on Terror or the post-hoc rationalisation of ‘spreading freedom and democracy’ to mobilise domestic populations in the way Cold War rhetoric did. On the other hand, the use of brute force differs hugely from the technocratic programmes pursued by the EU, there are identifiable ‘national interests’ at stake in the oilfields of the Middle East, and clear economic benefits have flowed to the military-industrial complex. It’s hard to believe the ‘War on Terror’ is driven by ‘other-regarding ethics’.

Empire in Denial is a brave attempt to make sense of puzzling times: politics in the absence of sovereignty, and action in the absence of any apparent interest. Its empirical detail is painstaking and makes a compelling case for the existence of a new form of empire. It also goes some way towards explaining what’s behind the ‘politics of state-building’, but this is the beginning of the conversation, and not the end.

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