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Preventive War, Common Security and the State

marko | 05.01.2004 11:19 | Anti-militarism

Does the return of preventive war as a "norm" of international relations take the world back to before July 1914, and if so, what are the likely consequences? What does this tell us about the state system and the prospects for human survival?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of human society, although paradoxically one of the least studied in the social sciences, is the question of the collapse of ancient societies, such as the Polynesian society of Easter Island. Why did these societies collapse? Why did others, such as the 40,000-year-old Aboriginal societies of Australia survive (until European conquest)? What does this tell us about the innate faculty of sociality of Homo sapiens?

In fact, this is not a question that requires one only to examine the record of ancient societies. Quite recently we witnessed the collapse of a society that had enormous consequences, that being the collapse of European society in July 1914. Since then the European system of nation states has spread throughout the world via de-colonisation. Of course, to the extent that the colonies of the European powers were integrated into the imperial systems of Europe we can say that the European system was a global system, hence when this society collapsed into total war so did the entire world. The European system collapsed again in 1939 but in many respects this was a legacy of the first collapse. Out of the ashes of this second collapse came what was called the "golden age" of capitalism; Keynesian welfare states. But since the end of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration's abandonment of Bretton Woods the global economic system has taken on features exhibited by the economic system prior to the first collapse.

Throughout the Cold War the stability of this system was rather fragile and it is to good fortune that we can attribute the failure of a third collapse from occurring then. This entire system is surely unstable; indeed the greatest human tragedy facing us today is the local collapse of the European system in the African Great Lakes especially in the Congo (this is sometimes called Africa's first world war). It is estimated that since 1998 (i.e. after the Rwandan genocide) that some 3-4 million people have died as a result of the conflict.

Notice that the crisis in the African Great Lakes is not known as an "international crisis". There has been an "international crisis" in recent times, that being the manufactured crisis over Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction (the whole charade on this in the past 10 years is one of the greatest scandals of modern times). This demonstrates that in this system an "international crisis" is a crisis that affects the interests of the rich. The death of 3-4 million people is not a crisis, not even for the paragons of humanity in the imperial states who babble about "humanitarian intervention".

Europeans almost biologically collapsed, during the Black Death, because of the myopia of the rich with respect to the suffering of the poor; systems of sanitation and disease control were implemented after the Black Death because the rich in this respect realised the inherent interdependence that they had with the poor. If a global pandemic were to arise again it would surely have something to do with the recreation, via north-south conflict, of this myopia on a global scale. Many for instance are concerned about the growth of drug resistant TB. This disease has arisen in the horrible conditions of Russia's prisons and this is a consequence of the collapse of Russian society, a massive human tragedy. This is a result of the collapse of the Soviet system and the neo-liberal madness of the post Soviet years.

There is a link here between the collapse of Russian society and the concern of this article, but more on that later.

The question before us is, can this international society collapse again? If so, what would be its consequences? It is for this reason I believe people must re-examine the collapse of European society in 1914, for there exists good reason to suppose that we are recreating the dynamics that lead to the collapse of that society. The most well known study of this question is surely Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation. In this article I want to focus narrowly on the question of preventive war. It is important to begin by observing that the umbrella of power provided by US strategic primacy is meant to undergird the global capitalist system, in much the same way that the balance of power undergirded the 19th century system, which collapsed in 1914.

US nuclear superiority has underwritten the international system in essentially two ways, via "extended deterrence" and via a nuclear "shield" or "shadow". Both aspects of US strategic policy owed little to the "Soviet threat". The US extends deterrence to its Eurasian allies (i.e. Western Europe and Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia) in order to prevent these areas from organising their economic systems independently of the US. The extension of deterrence is the strategic expression of that goal, because it is recognised that if Western Europe and Japan were to have independent nuclear forces then they would have strategic autonomy via the United States and the confidence that would bring to act as they see fit within the global economy.

Secondly, this is the main reason why the US seeks to control the energy resources of the Middle East. Both Western Europe and Japan are highly dependent on the energy reserves of the Middle East and US control of these resources ensures that its Eurasian allies have little room for manoeuvre in world affairs, what George Kennan called "veto power" over their industrial and military policies. Japan has always attempted to find some room for manoeuvre, for instance via investing in Iranian oil fields, which the US has recently placed pressure on Tokyo to cease. This will be an increasing area of interest given the looming “big rollover”. The “big rollover” refers to the point when the world market for oil becomes a sellers market, i.e. when demand outstrips supply. The premium on control over these energy resources is set to dramatically increase in the next 20 years or so.

The effect of globalisation is to assault democracy and social welfare across the globe, including within the core states. As Polanyi observed such moves arouse a "double movement" as society attempts to organise its self-defence. One of the possible results thereby of globalisation is the unravelling of the US alliance system in Eurasia. There is a contradiction in US policy. The corporate interests that drive state policy are arousing opposition to the very alliance system that underpins US hegemony; neo-conservativism should be seen as one response to this dynamic.

In all these cases state-corporate managers face a threat, namely democracy. Greater public involvement in regards to foreign policy in Western Europe means that planners increasingly cannot take this region for granted. The same, although to a lesser extent, applies in Japan. As the public becomes a more important force in Japanese politics so does pressure on political elites not to toe the Washington line in world affairs.

In its statement of the National Security Strategy of the United States the Bush administration stated that, “our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States”. This is what the administration refers to as “dissuasion”. This has strategic implications as a key nuclear weapons official, Keith Payne, has indicated, “The NPR’s (i.e. nuclear posture review) periodic assessment points are designed to account for world developments such as a resurgent Russia, the emergence of a hostile China, or over time, some other potential challenger. While not sized against any specific threat, the NPR’s strategic nuclear force is sized to parry any foreseeable challenge and to adapt flexibly to contingencies that are more remote.” The concept of “dissuasion” is therefore reflected in current US nuclear planning.

“Dissuasion” is directed at the emergence of what is referred to as a “global peer competitor”. It is important that this concept is deconstructed. What this means is that the US, via strategic hegemony, is determined to meet the rise of not only a powerful Eurasian power but more importantly seeks to “dissuade” either Western Europe or Northeast Asia from becoming independent economic entities not open to US investors. The form of globalisation favoured by US capital interests is dependent on “dissuasion” and strategic superiority. This is a reason why Japan maintains a virtual nuclear arsenal and why there have been calls, just below the surface, for the EU to acquire an independent nuclear capability as an expression of strategic autonomy from the US; this is not even to speak of Russia and China.

In the Middle East it is well recognised that the greatest threat to US hegemony is Arab political mobilisation. If the Arab world were to become a democracy then US control over the region would not be so clear cut. US hegemony in the Middle East is based on force and force alone. Throughout its period of domination the US has waged propaganda campaigns in the region but these have been spectacular failures. Hence for Western Europe and Japan their most important ally in the region is Arab democracy. The invasion of Iraq may fail in the sense that it may arouse a popular movement against US hegemony and its domestic beneficiaries.

Paris may well have calculated that it can trump the US by opposing the Iraq policy. In the short-term France is losing money but longer-term regional popular mobilisation in response to US aggression may in the end see the EU adopt a stronger foothold in the region; they have no other way of gaining such an independent foothold in this increasingly critical region.

The effects of this are unpredictable and potentially explosive, given Israel's vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, especially its nuclear weapons, and its reported "Samson option" targeting schemes. It may very well be possible that the price of Palestinian liberation is global conflagration, a disgraceful state of affairs for which primary responsibility lies in Washington.

It is for these reasons that elite liberal (in the American sense) foreign policy thinkers are concerned about the direction of Bush administration planning. They do not oppose the policy of US hegemony, which is a clear long-standing bi-partisan consensus. What they fear is that this administration may lead to the eventual unravelling of the Eurasian alliance systems and the loss of US dominance there, but at the same time their unbridled enthusiasm for corporate globalisation has the same effect, as noted.

The response to these contradictions is of course unilateral strategic hegemony and increasing militarisation. The US has a comparative advantage in the use of military force and it is to be expected that if the US is serious about maintaining its hegemony then it will shift the focus of international relations into the military realm. It must be stressed that this follows as a consequence of corporate globalisation, because this represents a global assault on democracy. The neo-conservatives don't care about world opinion because they believe that robust unilateral hegemonism will be able to contain the threat of democracy. Ironically both Al Qaida and the US share the same enemy, namely democracy in the Middle East. The "war on terrorism" serves both their interests, much as the Cold War was a self-serving game of democracy containment for both the Soviet Union and the US.

It is because of this that preventive war becomes a dangerous tool of statecraft. Russia has already indicated that if preventive war is to be a new norm of international relations then it too will change its strategic doctrines, including its "nuclear weapons potential", to reflect this fact. What the administration has sought to achieve with the invasion of Iraq is to cement preventive war as a norm of international relations, of course via force because that is how “international norms” are constructed. It does not take much to appreciate the danger. Combine “dissuasion” with “preventive war” and the desired achievement of unilateral strategic hegemony via nuclear superiority, Ballistic Missile Defence, the militarisation of space, coupled with the strong nexus between strategic command and control systems and you have an explosively dangerous cocktail.

Furthermore, as noted, Russian society has collapsed as a result of neo-liberal “reforms”. This collapse means that control over nuclear materials (Russia has some 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons some of them known as “suitcase bombs” as well as considerable amounts of weapons grade fissile material) may become compromised. In addition this collapse has resulted in a weakening in the Russian strategic command and control system precisely when the US is placing great strains upon it because of its own military expansions. This poses a risk of proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorist groups and of accidental nuclear war.

The establishment of the norm of preventive war effectively takes the international system back to before July 1914, a damning indictment against the state system.

There have appeared from time to time proposals for strategic reform. The most important of these being what is called "common security", a term that came to prominence with the Palme commission and popular opposition to the Reagan administration's foreign and strategic policies. Advocates of common security fall into two broad groupings. Those who argue for a change in structural military policies and those who argue for a change in strategic culture.

Both groupings betray a lack of understanding of the international system. International society reflects the interests and concerns of corporate structures that are able to mobilise state power in order to secure and extend their interests in the international realm. So long as the public is marginalised by corporate globalisation then common security is a pipe dream. The strategic sphere is not an autonomous sphere of social action and radical conceptions of common security begin from this critical premise.

It is for this reason I believe that common security and strategic reform requires the successful mobilisation of popular social movements against corporate globalisation. Thus far common security has dropped off the global justice movement radar. I hope at future social forum gatherings that common security will become a topic of discussion. Common security is a worthy reformist goal for social movements to think about and mobilise in favour of. This would not be a vision of an alternative system of world order; that is a task for those who succeed in not only constraining the state but doing away with it all together, which is essential as far as continued human survival is concerned.

Those on the Left-Liberal/Social Democratic spectrum who advocate common security base their arguments on an underlying refutation of what we can term the two fundamental principles of international relations. These two postulates of international relations are;

1). The state is not a moral agent.
2). There exists no correlation between the internal structure of the state and its external conduct.

The fact that these two postulates hold enabled Bakunin to observe, "the rights of peoples, as well as the treaties regulating the relations of the States, lack any moral sanction. In every definite historic epoch they are the material expression of the equilibrium resulting from the mutual antagonism of States. So long as States exist, there will be no peace. There will be only more or less prolonged respites, armistices concluded by the perpetually belligerent States; but as soon as the State feels sufficiently strong to destroy this equilibrium to its advantage; it will never fail to do so. The history of humanity fully bears out this point."

Our story, the Iraq story and the history of the international system since the 1970s bears Bakunin's point out quite succinctly.

The only way that we are able to preserve a modicum of decency and temporary respite from, effectively, perpetual war within the state system is by popular mobilisation against government and the corporate structures it serves. The state can only be constrained or deterred by another state or by its own people. The US has made clear that it cannot be deterred by another state and that attempts to do so will be crushed by massive violence via preventive war. The only way to constrain the state thereby is via popular action that provides an unfavourable opportunity cost for the ruling class.

This is a rather unsatisfactory solution however; this would require eternal vigilance and is open to elite regression, as the case of the Keynesian welfare state demonstrates. This is especially so because the tools of persuasion lie in the hands of the ruling classes. Permanent respite from war, that is perpetual peace, cannot be achieved within the state system. If we are interested in perpetual peace then we must ultimately be revolutionaries with respect to the state and the state system. However there is more to the matter than just the state, for the state serves the interests of private power, in this case the corporate structure of the economy. State-corporate mercantilism is the dominant form of international relations and because of this perpetual peace requires the dismantling not only of the state but also the system of corporate capitalism. This methodology of emancipation is what I would refer to as anarcho-syndicalism. The fact that postulate (2) holds means that concepts of international emancipation or perpetual peace that are statist, such as Marxism- Leninism, or that argue for a "new form of state" whether that be a neo-Gramscian conception or a "post-Westphalian" state must be doomed to failure.

We can conclude by saying that if perpetual peace thereby requires Anarchism and that without perpetual peace continued human survival is an open question then it follows that human survival depends upon Anarchism. If it is true that an Anarchist society is not feasible because of human nature then we may surmise that Homo sapiens is a maladaptive organism with a limited future. We would hardly be the paradigm example of "life's solution". We face what I have called "Russell's problem", after Bertrand Russell; "is man a maladaptive organism doomed to self-extinction"?

There may be tentative grounds for optimism. Polanyi observed that the capitalist system embeds the society in the economy rather than the other way around. It could very well be the case that Capitalism confronts our innate social faculty in some hitherto unknown way, what I call "Polanyi's problem", for the answer to this question may provide us insight into this innate social faculty (or faculties) of the mind. Perhaps this is why there is a "double movement" against corporate globalisation and its atomising tendencies. If this be the case we may say that rather than Anarchism being contrary to human nature it is Capitalism that is contrary to human nature and it is because of this that we face "Russell's problem".


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