Ethical imperialism

Five new publications reveal the political atrophy of foreign policy today.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Books

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  • The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty First Century,
    by Robert Cooper, Atlantic Books (2004)
  • Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, by
    Robert Kagan, Atlantic Books (2004)
  • Blair’s Wars, by John Kampfner, The Free Press (2004)
  • Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules,
    by Philippe Sands, Penguin Books (2005)
  • Investing in Prevention: An International Strategy to Manage Risks of
    Instability and Improve Crisis Response
    , Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit,
    February 2005

The one redeeming feature that unites these otherwise rather mediocre offerings is that all five books manage to convey a sense of the novelty and freefall that characterises contemporary international affairs. They do this in a concrete way that many more scholarly works often fail to achieve. Robert Cooper’s Breaking of Nations is easily the most insightful of the books (though also the most windy). Cooper, currently one of the several hydra-heads that act as de facto ‘foreign ministers’ for the European Union (EU) (1), is described by New Statesman editor John Kampfner as a ‘rare Foreign Office mandarin, not shy in coming forward … eager to appear in print [and] given a license to do [thereby causing] major waves in the diplomatic community’ (2).

Cooper’s book is widely seen as the European retort to Paradise and Power. Kagan argues that since the pacification of great power rivalries in Europe, Europe and America no longer share the same attitude to the role of force in world politics. According to Kagan, Europeans have become ‘postmoderns’, a new breed of gentlefolk who have transcended the nation state, which dominated modern history with its egotistical politics of national interest and ready resort to force of arms. But as the world’s only superpower, America has no such luxury, and has instead remained a red-blooded nation state ready to meet the security challenges of the post-Cold War world with force if necessary.

The thrust of Kagan’s argument is that Europeans are wrong to think that the multilateral institutions alone, which have ostensibly brought peace to Europe, could bring peace to today’s world, threatened by terrorists, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and feckless third world tyrants. This is because in the last instance, European multilateralism always depended on American power. Kagan sums up his argument as ‘Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus’.

‘Postmodern’ Europe v ‘the jungle’

Cooper extrapolates from Kagan’s description of the breakdown of US-European relations to develop a broader portrayal of world politics. In so doing, Cooper divides the world into three ‘zones’: the ‘pre-modern’, the ‘modern’ and the ‘postmodern’. The third world coincides with the pre-modern, the more stable third world states (for example India) with the modern, and Europe with the postmodern, with the USA hovering between ‘postmodern’ and ‘modern’. Cooper dates the emergence of these three zones to the end of the Cold War. For Cooper, the end of the Cold War is a watershed that represents much more than merely a geopolitical re-alignment or adjustment in the balance of power. Rather, the end of the Cold War inaugurates a fundamental change in the nature of the state and political community. The key characteristic of this new politics is that ‘the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs’ that characterised the modern period ‘begins to break down’ (3).

For third world states, the blurring of domestic and foreign affairs entails a descent into ‘failed states’, where domestic life resembles the competitive, violent anarchy of international politics. For European states on the other hand, the erosion of the ‘inside / outside’ distinction means life in a quasi-utopian, ‘postmodern’ realm, akin to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s vision of a league of states immersed in perpetual peace: ‘The postmodern system does not … emphasise sovereignty or the separation of domestic and foreign affairs. The European Union is a highly developed system for mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages.’ (4). Via the pacification of great power and ideological rivalries in Europe, the states of Europe have achieved an evolution in national identity and consciousness, making people less attached to the sovereign nation state.

Cooper argues that the development of these networks of ‘mutual interference’ has consolidated people’s detachment from their own national political frameworks. Thus a new political community has been created, creating individuals with greater freedom than that available within the nation state, and endowed with a new cosmopolitan moral consciousness that has renounced nationalism, force and unethical realpolitik. In this postmodern ‘space’, Cooper claims that state sovereignty has been redefined so that it is no longer understood in the traditional terms of the general will, representation and autonomy, but as a ‘seat at the table’ – that is, participation at the various levels of transnational bargaining and regulation (or ‘governance’ in the parlance of the EU elite) (5).

There is much to criticise in Cooper’s book. It is transparently obvious, for example, that the talk of ‘pre-modern’ and ‘postmodern’ zones is nothing more than euphemism for ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’. Cooper’s prescriptions for how the enlightened postmoderns should deal with the benighted denizens of the newly uncivilised world is particularly noxious: ‘the postmodern state … needs to get used to the idea of double standards … when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of state outside the postmodern limits, Europeans need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary for those who still live in … the jungle’ (6). Nonetheless, the crude and reactionary nature of Cooper’s argument should not stop us from pursuing some of his insights.

Cooper reminds us, for example, that those ‘who called for “regime change” in Iraq were a minority in the international community, but in practice it is only a matter of degree that separates them from what is now the common currency of international relations … [for example] how democracy can be introduced in Iraq without creating instability, how Afghanistan is governed, how minorities are to be protected in Bosnia and Macedonia, how the Palestinian Authority should be reformed’ (7). Cooper is obviously trying to argue here that Europe can be just as tough as America when it comes to stamping on impoverished and powerless countries.

Regardless of what Cooper intended to say, this is a point that those leftists who have rallied around Europe as a counterweight to America (including a coterie of Continental philosophers who should know better (8)) would do well to take on board. The anti-war movement that lionised Jacques Chirac has said nothing about the war that Chirac continues to fight in Ivory Coast (9). But Cooper’s ideas can be explored more fruitfully by reading it alongside John Kampfner’s Blair’s Wars, and Investing in Prevention, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit manual on how to regulate and discipline what Cooper calls the ‘pre-modern world’.

Blair’s wars

By rights, John Kampfner’s much-hyped but rather tedious and under-whelming offering, Blair’s Wars, should be more interesting than it is. Kampfner is the first to focus on Tony Blair’s record-breaking militarism – the prime minister who has launched the most wars of any British government since the end of the Second World War (see Table 1 below). Kampfner is somewhat naïve when he says that Blair’s wars are ‘without precedent in modern British political history’ (10). Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, for example, oversaw no less than eight wars during his premiership from 1957 to 1963 (11). But during the Cold War, British prime ministers tended to inherit conflicts that began under previous governments, as part of the protracted global struggle waged by the British state against the anti-colonial nationalism that challenged the British empire.

Table 1: British military interventions since 1945

Country Duration of Conflict
1. Greece 1945-1949
2. Palestine 1946-1948
3. Malaysia 1948-1960
4. Korean War 1950-1953
5. Kenya 1952-1963
6. Cameroon 1955-1960
7. Cyprus 1955-1960
8. Egypt 1956
9. Oman 1957
10. Brunei 1962
11. South Yemen 1963-1967
12. Cyprus 1963-1964
13. Indonesia / Malaya 1963-1966
14. Oman 1968-1976
15. Indonesia 1965-1966
16. Northern Ireland 1969-1995
17. Argentina 1982
18. Somalia 1990-1994
19. Iraq / Gulf War I 1990-1991
20. former Yugoslavia 1992-1995
21. Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) 1998
22. Sierra Leone 2000
23. Yugoslavia / Kosovo 1999
24. Afghanistan 2001 –
25. Iraq / Gulf War II 2003 –
Source: Kalevi J. Holsti The State, War and
the State of War
(2004) and John Kampfner Blair’s Wars (2005)

Anti-colonialism had faded well before Blair came to power – he had no such legacy to grapple with. This makes Blair’s war record all the more striking. Blair has managed to involve himself in five wars entirely of his own accord: two wars against Iraq (1998, 2003-) as well as wars in Sierra Leone (2000), Yugoslavia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001-). This confirms Kampfner’s claim that Blair exhibits a ‘passion for military intervention’ (12), noting that ‘It is some feat to go to war five times in six years … No British Prime Minister and few world leaders come close,’ and, more interestingly, ‘none of these five wars could be defined through the traditional concepts of national interest or repelling an invader.’ (13).

Kampfner tries to provide an explanation for Blair’s wars by piling up a detailed narrative of ‘who met whom where’ and ‘who told whom what’ – the story of personalised diplomacy, petty rivalries, intrigue within and between the Cabinet and New Labour machine, turf wars between mandarins and ministers, and so on. But Kampfner’s book ultimately belongs to the same breed of hackish, uninspired political literature as James Naughtie’s The Rivals (2001) – the type of book that would appeal to those who avidly read biographies of Gordon Brown into the wee hours. There is little analytical depth to this account of Blairite militarism. Most of Kampfner’s book is predictably absorbed with a monotonous, blow-by-blow account of the run-up to the Iraq war – an account so exhaustive that it manages to miss all the substantive political issues. Cooper, on the other hand, offers some rudimentary conceptual apparatus with which to grasp some of the fruits of Kampfner’s sixty interviews with over forty elite figures.

For Cooper, wars waged by ‘postmodern states’ are defined not as the pursuit of particular economic or geostrategic interests, but as an attempt to cohere identity: ‘Samuel Huntington has written that future wars may be about who you are rather than what you do or whose side you are on. That, in a sense, is also a theme of this essay.’ (14). Of course, as long as they have been in existence states have used wars in order to suppress internal dissent and strengthen their people’s identity with themselves. But what distinguishes Cooper’s point is the idea of the ‘postmodern state’, with ‘postmodern’ designating a distinct historical period that Cooper identifies with the post-Cold War era. In this period, political identity is less solid, and therefore more open to being changed (‘constructed’).

In this regard, Cooper is quite brazen about the narcissistic nature of humanitarian intervention. Such military operations are about stabilising new ‘postmodern’ political identities; they ‘salve the conscience’ rather than ‘solving problems’ – the fact that ‘they may save some lives in the process’ is almost an afterthought (15).

Kampfner traces the evolution of this new type of ethical imperialism throughout Blair’s premiership. Though foreign policy was hardly a priority when Blair came to power, Kampfner shows that Blair’s initial foreign policy instincts were to purge the totemic remnants of Old Labour (such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the European Community and hostility to US foreign policy) by rehabilitating the old-style jingoism that John Major, his predecessor, had so miserably failed to muster. While fighting his first General Election campaign in 1997, Blair openly celebrated the British Empire and British military exploits, affirming his appetite for global leadership, his readiness to use nuclear weapons and strong support for Britain’s Euro-Atlantic links. Thus Blair was initially suspicious of the late Robin Cook’s early forays into ‘ethical foreign policy’. Human rights smacked of Old Labour ideology. But whatever the tensions between Blair and Cook, the Prime Minister was inexorably drawn into Cook’s new ethical statesmanship. Kampfner says that Blair’s speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference, when he infamously called Africa a ‘scar on the conscience of the world’, marked in Blair’s mind ‘a final rejection of the sovereignty and national-interest tenets of foreign policy’ (16).

The ideology that New Labour had worked so hard to repress in domestic politics erupted on the international stage in a messy welter of narcissistic messianism, human rights evangelism and Churchillian bluster. Safeguarding the interests of British arms manufacturers was replaced with the ‘doctrine of international community’. Foreign policy became the arena in which Blair could glamourise the conviction, passion and vision that were so infamously lacking in New Labour’s managerial approach to domestic politics. The man who chased opinion polls in domestic politics thought that ‘conviction’ meant ignoring public opinion when it came to waging war against Iraq. Blair’s overweening sense of ethical duty compensated for the absence of public support. Freed from the mechanisms and institutions of accountability built into domestic politics, in foreign policy Blair realised that he could be remembered for more than merely being the man who cleared the hospital waiting lists.

As Blair said in one interview ‘one thing I’ve learned in this job is you should always try to do the right, not the easy thing. Let the day-to-day judgements come and go. Be prepared to be judged by history. A majority of decent and well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler and that those who did were warmongers … I am proud of what we’ve done on regime change in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and in a different way, … in Sierra Leone … Those who benefited most from military action had been the people of those countries …’ (17)

Cooper observes that these abstract notions so noisily renounced by Blair – realpolitik, raison d’état, the national interest – historically developed alongside secularism and the broadening of political participation that put people centre stage in politics. According to Cooper, it was Renaissance political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli who ‘first put forward the proposition that states should not be subject to the same moral constraints as individuals. This philosophy – that moral rules do not apply to states – was the counterpart of the changes by which the state ceased to be the private property of its ruler. At the same time it reflected the breakdown of the Church’s universal authority. Acceptance of raison d’etat grew from the Renaissance onwards until, by the end of the nineteenth century, it was the accepted wisdom and questions that had troubled Aquinas and Augustine about whether or not wars were just were no longer considered relevant’ (18).

In describing the rise of new ‘postmodern’ ethics such as human rights, Cooper does not draw the logical conclusion – that the new postmodern morality is based on the reverse development to the one traced by Machiavelli; namely, the decline of mass political participation. This decline, manifested in everything from voter apathy to collapsing membership of political parties, is the problem that New Labour has been struggling with since it came to power in 1997. In this situation of political anomie, the state once again resembles something like ‘the private property’ of the elite. Just as Aquinas and Augustine once provided medieval kings with moral rather than political frameworks to exercise power, so human rights provide a new moral framework for today’s leaders in the absence of mass politics.

Sending in the army

Running the ‘state as private property’ is evoked by Kampfner in his description of the Blairite emergency committee ‘Cobra’, that apparently takes its teenage acronym from where it meets, ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room A’. Kampfner conjures up an image of ministers and select civil servants holed up in a dark room in the bowels of government, surrounded by the latest technological wizardry, while they powerlessly watch crises unfolding on a bank of multiple, 24-hour-news satellite TV channels piped straight through to them. ‘I had the impression we were all there to fill the seats,’ one official told Kampfner, in reference to the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 (19). In another instant, foreign secretary Jack Straw reveals the self-absorbed sense of vulnerability pervading elite consciousness. Following the terror attacks on the USA, Straw told his aides that ‘The public are looking to people like Tony and me to show that the institutions of state have not collapsed. It’s still there, in control.’ (20)

Kampfner also helps us to see the distinct appeal of the military in these allegedly peace-loving ‘postmodern’ times. Kampfner consistently points out Blair’s enthusiasm for the army. Blair’s initial overtures to appease a military wary of a Labour government ‘turned into something … more profound’ writes Kampfner: ‘[Blair] would talk to his closest aides about his “huge respect for these guys”. He would privately contrast their expertise with “amateur” politicians’ (21). But it was less the martial values and imperialist glories of the British Army that appealed to Blair so much as what he saw as their organisational prowess.

The striking comparison that Kampfner gives, but fails to elaborate, is between Blair’s wars abroad and Blair’s war on the countryside in the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis of the agricultural industry. ‘Where government departments and public bodies failed,’ writes Kampfner, ‘Blair turned to the one organisation whose professionalism he truly appreciated – the armed forces … he said the military had “coped brilliantly” with [A VIRAL] outbreak that had been “roughly several times more difficult in logistics and practicality than the Gulf War or Kosovo”. The affection and respect he had acquired for the army became an important factor in his calculations about the use of force to achieve his ends’ (22).

While hospital waiting lists and the transport and education system all seemed impervious to Blair’s charms, he saw that cruise missiles, cluster bombs and Marines could work wonders in places like Sierra Leone and Kosovo. On a visit to Sierra Leone in 2002, Blair told local villagers ‘with utter seriousness’ that they ‘made him feel he was single-handedly responsible for their freedom.’ (23) Whereas militarism abroad was once about quashing internal opposition (24), in the absence of any proper political contestation, Blair’s militarism is more about compensating for political inertia. ‘Send the army in!’ is the Blairite response to the chronic inability to mobilise and sustain political support, whether it be in the domestic arena or the international one. With Blair, the military ethos of ‘getting things done’ melded with the Third Way philosophy of managerialism.

In this sense perhaps the USA is more ‘postmodern’ than Cooper would like to think. A similar impulse to militarise crisis can be observed in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in the way in which the 82nd Airborne was unleashed to quell the marauding gangs of black looters supposedly roaming the streets of New Orleans. In an era characterised by the consistent failure to mobilise and sustain public support for political projects, the military becomes the default option for hapless political elites seeking to impose themselves at home and abroad.

When Kampfner describes how Blair draws greater succour from his relationship with the American public than with the British electorate, we can observe some of the oddities that emerge from politicians’ isolation from their public. Kampfner recounts the two standing ovations that Blair received from the US Congress at Bush’s emergency speech after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001: ‘These two standing ovations that evening left an indelible mark on Blair. He struggled hard to keep a sombre face, not to let the emotions get to him. But this was a seminal moment. This was what being a British Prime Minister was all about.’ (25)

Regulation in a ‘lawless world’

Investing in Prevention, the report of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit on international ‘crisis response’, further demonstrates the ways in which policy is made in the absence of mass political participation. The report is apparently concerned with the practical measures, institutions and structures needed to pre-empt future instability. In many ways, the report represents the globalisation of Third Way politics: a sprawling 195-page manual on how to manage and technically re-engineer third world societies. But rather than go through the recommendations of the report – ‘building country capacity and resilience’; ‘checks and balances on executive power’, ‘strengthening of civil society institutions’, and so on – it is more fruitful to probe the central assumption around which this policy is built.

The starting point of the report is the ‘most often cited barrier to prevention’; namely, the ‘lack of political will; in other words, early warning does not always lead to early action’ (26). Here, the report is referring to that consistent shortfall between the upsurge of compassion for human rights and famine victims, whose plight is beamed into our living rooms, and our leaders’ inability to translate these vague sentiments into decisive and continuous political action. Time after time, Western politicians seem to be unable to convince their electorates to spend blood and treasure on alleviating the plight of distant suffering peoples. The report proposes to circumvent this problem by ensuring that there are ready-made institutional structures ready to respond to crisis, and that are less reliant on the chimera of ‘political will’.

But there is another way to read this equation. Rather than seeing the ‘lack of political will’ as an arbitrary, accidental problem, it could be read as the systematic product of a profoundly apolitical, human rights-based morality. In other words, the absence of political will is not something that foils human rights from the outside, but is actually produced by human rights. The new moral and cosmopolitan awareness described by Cooper masks a covert critique of democracy. The reluctance to spend blood and treasure to support distant victims of disasters, whether man-made or natural, is interpreted as a failure not of our leaders to live up to us, but of us to live up to them. In other words, the basic aim of Investing in Prevention is to insulate Western regulation of the third world from the ballot box. ‘Lack of political will’ is code for an egotistical, morally primitive electorate.

These anti-political, anti-democratic impulses can be observed in Philippe Sands’ defence of international law advanced in his book Lawless World. Philippe Sands QC, a Professor of Law at University College London and a leading international barrister stationed with Cherie Blair’s Matrix Chambers, is in a similar situation to Kampfner. The idea behind Sands’ book is a good one: he explicitly sets out to de-mystify the esoteric structures of international law – human rights, arcane EU trade regulations on the shape of fruit and so on – that have enveloped international affairs over the last decade. ‘I have written a book which might cause taxi drivers to talk about international law’ (27), Sands modestly writes. But Sands’ book is more likely to repel than enlighten. With its lazily complacent argument, Sands’ book exemplifies the hauteur of the liberal elite that has so stridently championed human rights, international organisation and international law as the way of circumventing democratic politics over the last decade.

For himself at least, Sands can date the adoption of this new liberal project very precisely: 16 October 1998 – ‘the closest you will get to a JFK or a John Lennon moment. The date marked the beginning of a legal process which transformed the international legal order, and brought arcane points of international law to the front pages of our newspaper[S] and on to our television screens.’ (28). Sands is referring to the day the ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested on UK soil as part of extradition proceedings. ‘News of Pinochet’s arrest … led to an animated discussion in our household. “Look at the implications,” I said to my wife, “you wouldn’t be so thrilled if it was Mandela who was being arrested in the US for killing a bunch of white kids in some ANC attack in the 1980s,” I argued. I was articulating the classical international law approach, largely premised on the fear that all hell will break loose if you start playing around with the sacred rules. But this time [my wife] was lined up with Peter Mandelson, the British Cabinet Minister who took to the airwaves to welcome the arrest of a “brutal dictator”. They were both right.’ (29)

Sands sees the elevation of the human rights of individuals in relation to the rights of states as the culmination of the vision of a law-governed world articulated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941. By invoking the Atlantic Charter, Sands is explicitly counterposing international law to the barbarism of war and nationalism, as incarnated in fascism. Yet in tallying up the appalling violence of the sixty years since the end of the Second World War, the most that Sands can say is ‘at least … [i]t could no longer be said that international law allowed such atrocities’ (30), as if the Holocaust took place because there were no international lawyers around to tell the Nazis ‘it’s against the rules’.

The implications of this argument, about the practical inefficacy of international law, become clearer later in the book, when Sands discusses international environmental law. Sands breezily dismisses the argument against the Kyoto Protocol put forward by the Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg. Though Lomborg accepts the principle of anthropogenic climate change, he argues that the Protocol will not halt climate change and will moreover divert precious resources from development (the major way in which third world countries will be able to shield themselves from the effects of climate change). ‘Both points miss the target’, Sands proclaims. ‘International law is process-driven and incremental … No one claims that the Kyoto Protocol can, as it stands, prevent global warming or be fully effective in that sense. It is a wake-up call, a preliminary step, complex but important‘ [My italics] (31).

Here Sands baldly gives the game away. The politics of international law, as Sands envisages it, is not meant to actually achieve its own self-declared aims. Rather, the political point of international law is the proclamation of pious intent, that is designed to morally cultivate and refine the selfish instincts of citizens who consistently fail to live up to the global responsibilities set out for them by their liberal guardians. This is why Sands, like many other international lawyers, supported NATO’s 1999 war against Yugoslavia but opposed the US-UK invasion of Iraq, even though both were equally illegal under the terms of international law. For Sands, international law is ultimately a hollow ritual, whose arcane tenets are meant to morally uplift the slack-jawed masses, and it remains up to him and his ilk to decide how and when the ‘sacred rules’ should be implemented or breached.

This liberal condescension drips off every other page of the book: ‘Many of the people who criticised the independent Spanish criminal prosecutor Judge Garzón for his prosecution of Pinochet … rejoiced at Kenneth Starr’s investigations of Bill Clinton for matters which cannot, by any stretch, even in the Deep South, be treated as crimes against humanity.’ (32). The implication is clear: since it is only rednecks and Neanderthals who oppose international human rights law, their opinions aren’t worth discussing.

The end of conflict?

So where does this leave us? It is perhaps helpful to go back to where this essay began, with Cooper’s hierarchical division of the world into ‘pre-modern’, ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern.’ Cooper’s threefold division of the world placed a pacific, ‘postmodern’ Europe as the highpoint of political development, whose characteristics were the absence of supreme authority vested in sovereign states, and the absence of the traditional collective solidarities that once cohered national political systems. But in eulogising the EU, Cooper is not entirely Panglossian. Betraying his lack of political imagination, the most that Cooper can come up with as a negative side effect of the decline of national political systems is the recruitment problems confronting Western armies: ‘personal consumption [has] become the central goal of most people’s lives. Army recruitment becomes difficult – consumerism is the one cause for which it makes no sense to die … Where once recruitment posters proclaimed YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!, they now carry slogans such as JOIN THE ARMY: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN, self-realisation has replaced patriotism as a motive for serving in the armed forces.’ (33).

Cooper took his ‘zones’ from Robert Kagan, who in turn adapted them from the categories of ‘pre-Historic’, ‘Historic’ and ‘post-Historic’ zones of world politics, put forward by Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fukuyama in turn bowdlerized his categories off the German philosopher G W F Hegel. When Fukuyama notoriously declared the ‘end of history’, he did not mean that there would no longer be any new events. Rather, what had ended was conflict over the fundamental principles of social organisation – the content of history, according to Hegel. This is what Western states had supposedly achieved at the end of the Cold War, according to Fukuyama, Kagan and Cooper. The end of such ideological confrontation is precisely what Cooper is referring to when he claims that ‘Europe, perhaps for the first time in 300 years, is no longer a zone of competing truths.’ (34)

To be sure, Hegel did not have a benign view of historical development – he famously described history as ‘the slaughter bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals has been victimised’. But Hegel does not draw the conclusion that such melancholic reflections should precipitate a ‘retreat into the selfishness that stands on the quiet shore, and thence enjoys in safety the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled”‘, living only in the ‘the Present formed by our private aims and interests.’ (35) In the passions that drove historic battles between peoples and states, Hegel saw the unfolding of a greater good – the subjective engagement of peoples in creating history.

The anomic new political community that Cooper sees as the zenith of individuality and political organisation is more akin to Hegel’s ‘quiet shore’, from which we watch distant events unfolding. Similar sentiments were echoed in less elevated but more famous lines by Orson Welles’ character Harry Lime, in the 1949 noir classic The Third Man: ‘In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

The point, of course, is not to wish to shatter stultifying postmodern politics simply for the sake of strife. Rather, it is to precipitate a return to the passionate engagement of which strife was only the by-product. Besides which, for all its narcissism and concern with identity, the postmodern foreign policy eulogised by Cooper is no less destructive or militaristic, as countries like Iraq have learnt to their cost. ‘Postmodern’ is only code for pre-political – and it is only red-blooded, subjective and passionate engagement that can properly restore politics, both at home and abroad.

Philip Cunliffe is convening the Battle for International Relations, part of the Battle of Ideas festival, 29-30 October 2005. Email Philip Cunliffe

(1) Robert Cooper’s long-winded official title is ‘Director General of External and Politico Military Affairs for the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union’. Other contenders for ‘EU foreign minister’ include Dr
Francisco Javier Solana, ‘High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Secretary General of the Council of the European Union,’ and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, ‘EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy’.

(2) p.142, Blair’s Wars

(3) p.29, Breaking of Nations

(4) p.27, Breaking of Nations

(5) p.44, Breaking of Nations

(6) pp.61-62, Breaking of Nations

(7) p.109, Breaking of Nations

(8) In particular, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has argued elsewhere on spiked (see Taking on America) that Europe can be a progressive force in opposition to American imperialism. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and French philosopher Jacques Derrida put aside their differences to publish a joint book of interviews called Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (2003). In addition to calling on Europe to take up the mantle of opposition to the US, they follow Cooper in advocating a transition from classical international law premised on the model of nation-states, to a new cosmopolitan order.

(9) See No spectator nation by Chris Bickerton

(10) p.385, Blair’s Wars

(11) Under Harold Macmillan’s premiership (1957 to 1963), Britain fought wars in Kenya (1952-1963), Cameroon (1955-1960), Cyprus (1955-1960), Oman (1968-1976), Brunei (1962), South Yemen (1963-1967), Cyprus (1963-1964) and Indonesia / Malaya (1963-1966).

(12) p.385, Blair’s Wars

(13) p.ix, Blair’s Wars

(14) pp.85-86, Blair’s Wars

(15) p.74, Breaking of Nations

(16) p.123, Blair’s Wars

(17) p.279, Blair’s Wars

(18) p.10, Breaking of Nations

(19) p.114, Blair’s Wars

(20) p.111, Blair’s Wars

(21) p.22, Blair’s Wars

(22) pp.91-92, Blair’s Wars

(23) p.77, Blair’s Wars

(24) Following Britain’s victory over Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982, British Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed: ‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead found a new confidence, born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away … Britain has found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.’ (p.4, Nicholas J. Wheeler and Time Dunne, (1998) ‘Good international citizenship: a third way for British foreign policy’ International Affairs vol 74, no 4, pp.847-870)

(25) p.121, Blair’s Wars

(26) p.6, Investing in Prevention)

(27) p.xxi, Lawless World

(28) p.23, Lawless World

(29) p.26, Lawless World

(30) p.13, Lawless World

(31) p.91, emphasis added, Lawless World

(32) pp.60-61, Lawless World

(33) p.51, Breaking of Nations

(34) p.60, Breaking of Nations

(35) p.21, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, (1956)
Trans J. Sibree. Introduction by C.J. Friedrich (Dover Publications: New York).

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