International law recognizes only one type of political
unit: the state. This entity became a legal reality with the Treaty of
Westphalia (1648) and matured in 19th century Europe into a full-fledged member
of an “international system” that gradually extended until it comprised the
entire world in the 20th century. However, international reality (let us say
geopolitics) rather draws our attention to diverging types of state.
There is, of course, the type that fits into the European tradition of diplomacy
and conflict resolution. Then there are extremely weak or “collapsed”
states, unaccountable because they have no real representative central
government. Third, there are states with despotic power that may be considered
unpredictable from a different point of view (Iraq). Fourth, there are former
empires (Great Britain) or their mental descendants (Australia); and finally, we
have currently one state aspiring to become an empire if it should not already
be called so (the U.S.). All these types of state have their own ways to
translate or construct international rules or to alter them to their own
advantage, in ways that may even come to be defined as a rape of international
law. International policing seems urgent, but how and by whom?
It is not surprising that the
execution of international policing falls to the militarily strongest state, but
the variety of states and the geopolitical visions that flow from them obscures
the difficulties presented by the nature or type of the state that
assumes a police role. Secondly, social theory has demonstrated the fallacy of
the idea that environments can be controlled from an unambiguous point of view.
Corporate bodies that are faced with the task changing or controlling an
environment continuously rewrite their own goals, in order to survive or enlarge
their influence (Weick 1969; Stern and Barley 1996; Scott 1998; etc.). This
makes evaluating—for example, the progress of international security and
justice—an ambiguous assignment for external observers. These are the two
perspectives from which I would like to discuss the confrontation between the
U.S., Iraq, and the rest of the world.
By geopolitical vision, I understand any discourse or
silent assumption about a state’s existence as a geographical entity and its
role in the world as a “natural” fact. Elsewhere, I have argued that there
is a basic difference between the U.S. and European countries as to the meaning
they attach to boundaries, which runs somewhat counter the common sense notion
of the U.S. as geographically less ambiguous than the average European country (Dijkink
1996). Anyhow, its only contiguous neighbours, Canada and Mexico, have never
compelled the U.S. to enter the painful process of bilateral accommodation, let
alone occupation, that so many of the countries elsewhere in the world,
particularly in Europe, have experienced. This means that the external world is
to a higher degree irrelevant and geopolitically blank to the U.S. citizen than
to citizens elsewhere in the world. American politicians certainly acknowledge
geopolitical structure, not as an independent property of the world outside, but
rather as something mirroring domestic needs or related with a special American
destiny. This has incited the use of geographical distinctions that include
states but do not really represent state-like phenomena—Western Hemisphere
(Monroe doctrine 1832), Free World versus Communist World, Axis of Evil, and
more recently, Old and New Europe. It is tempting to apply the distinction here
between political units demarcated by sharp boundaries and those surrounded by
frontier zones (Kristof 1959; 2000). The U.S. is separated from the rest of the
world by frontiers, continuing a well-known fact from the history of American
territorial expansion, rather than boundaries. This corresponds to a distinction
between states and empires. Empires do not entertain symmetric relations with
surrounding nations (barbarians) but opt for friendly relations, involving
exchange of goods, or military punishment, forcing back (potential) invaders, as
they see fit. In Han times (260 BC) Chinese historians grappled with
representations of the external world in a sense that we currently would call
“geopolitical codes” (Taylor and Flint 2000; Gaddis 1982). Some realists
among them warned about the dangers of assigning a fixed subordinate status to
certain nomadic groups, since this would force the Chinese to punish
disobedience in moments when the empire was militarily too weak (Fairbank 1969).
Such considerations shaded the geopolitical image of the world into an intricate
set of concentric zones, representing, for example, the Domain of the Sovereign,
the Peace-Securing Domain, the Wild Domain, semi-barbarians, and so on.
If we compared the geopolitics of the classic
Chinese dynasties with that of the U.S., we would establish that its frontiers
now cover much larger areas of the world. Yet we still encounter the age-old
idea of ambiguous intermediate zones, like Western Europe and the Arab allies of
the U.S. Of course, there are also large differences from the situation one or
two millennia back: the intensity of global communication and the fact that in
the postmodern world symbols can be more decisive than money and military
hardware. This explains the gross exaggeration of the danger of the Iraq regime
but also the fact that, in spite of unequal military chances, the final outcome
of this expedition is not in the least fixed. In direct battles, the classical
Chinese armies were vastly superior to their nomadic antagonists, but the latter
simply withdrew and left nothing that could be really occupied. It was difficult
to hold such areas without colonizing them, which would actually mean adopting a
nomadic way of life, running against the Chinese cultural tradition. In Iraq
cities seemed to constitute a less ambiguous war target, but in the postmodern
world holding a city means winning a battle for “the hearts and minds of the
people.” This aim may be just as much beyond reach as extending the Chinese
way of life to the Asian steppe. It is not that the Iraqi people would not
welcome a regime change, if only to stop the hardships of a protracted boycott
and the unbearable misery of war, but this will not mean a restoration of the
Iraqi state as a close ally of the U.S. and a territory immune to counter-hegemonial
activity. There are at least two or three reasons why such a development is
First, the disappearance of Saddam Hussein and the
Baath regime leaves no real binding factor among the three cultural groups in
Iraqi society. A puppet regime advocating liberal democracy may be instilled by
external actors and even be tolerated by the Iraqi nations for the sake of
peace, but these will tend to turn in on themselves as the best way to heal the
wounds afflicted by decades of social stress. What is happening inside these
groups will be hidden from view, and if there is a tendency to seek comfort
outside the home territory, this, in the first place, will be with religious or
ethnic kin across boundaries, who will communicate a message that may not be
automatically beneficial to the strategy of the crusaders for democracy (see the
next point). Money can be a way to bind groups to other interests, but the
Western world tends to forget such obligations as soon as an international
crisis is defused. Moreover, the state of the world economy, destabilized by
this very war on terror and its ambitious scope, may diminish the possibility of
ample economic support to the war-stricken area. The use of oil revenues for
reconstruction may even escalate internal regional antagonism, and moreover, it
may call up the spectre of neo-colonialism that already haunts the Arab world.
This leads us to the next point.
Second, as a psychological offensive this war has
failed, largely because it confirmed all Arabic prejudices against the West. If
there is some truth in the viewpoint that the Arab world is extremely
susceptible to conspiratorial geopolitical theories, then this war is simply
evidence for substantiating such theories. The geopolitical vision of Israel as
one side of a Western pair of pincers—shaped on the other side by a
“second” military invasion, more to the East—which will crack the Arab
world could not have been more aptly illustrated. The long-term effects of this
event can hardly be overestimated, unless the U.S. makes a drastic switch in
their approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which, in view of American
domestic pressure groups, is very unlikely.
Finally, we should uncover the paradox flowing from
the encounter between different types of state; in particular, from the will of
an empire to change the system of another type of political unit. An empire can
affect conditions elsewhere gently, by the passive diffusion of goods or
fashions (what is known as typical hegemonic action), or harshly, by forced
incorporation, but not by introducing its own political model into an
international actor, since this immediately conjures up before the mind the
asymmetric reality of international relations. The awareness of this situation
has been made even sharper by the way the U.S. has distanced itself from the
United Nations Organisation or institutions like the International Court of Law
in The Hague.
It is tempting to consider
recent military events simply as a strategy to control terrorism (as defined by
the U.S. or the West) or economic resources, in which the question of democracy
ultimately plays only a subordinate or symbolic part. With this strategy,
national leaders are assigned roles as the proper actors to protect
“international” interests. A foreign military force should remain on
standby, either in the country or at an external base, in order to dash to the
help of these leaders if political stability is threatened. If we take the
liberty of exploiting the analogue with regular policing (as an internal state
function), this form of military standby would correspond to “community
policing.” Community policing became popular in the 1980s because it argued
that the citizen is the most effective intelligence factor in crime fighting.
Local people usually know the perpetrator of a crime or may at least be able to
provide the better cues. The community is, in the last resort, also an
uncontroversial arbiter in questions about what should count as a crime, as the
high interest in the mapping of security feelings shows. This, at the
same time, is the weakness of community policing, since it cannot implement
external norms. Social control subsequently went through the vogue of “zero
tolerance” in the U.S., a form of legalistic policing that can also be
recognized in the current global political and military assertiveness of the
U.S. Zero tolerance received some good assessments because it coincided with
decreasing crime rates in the U.S., but as a strategy of deterrence, it does not
in the least tackle the problem of information. Particularly if we deal with
victimless crime (drugs, traffic, possession of firearms), a “pro-active mode
of policing,” with an autonomous intelligence apparatus, remains
indispensable. However, external pressure for results makes this way of policing
slip easily into devious means that produce facts or change the problems,
instead of solving them, as studies of undercover operations in drug law
enforcement have frequently shown (Manning 1979).
The experience with internal state policing entails
a message for the political and military program that is now unfolding. This
program contains elements of the strategies mentioned above. “Community
policing” translates as regime support on a “distance.” “Zero
tolerance” corresponds to the military threat to any country that would offer
a hideout to terrorists. “Pro-active law enforcement” is implemented in
operations by special units targeting terrorist groups or resources. The first
operating procedure, military support to a friendly regime, may help to
guarantee an undisturbed flow of oil but does not control the thoughts, values,
and actions of citizens. They will get irritated by any prolonged foreign
military presence or try to use it for sectional goals by representing their own
settlements as matters of international (U.S., Western) interest. A similar
effect may fall to the more secret operations of special units, who will seize
any opportunity to show results in the war with terror. The effect is even
reinforced by the attitude of a U.S. administration that has incriminated itself
by producing facts about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that could not stand
the test of criticism. If agents at different levels are conducting their own
symbolic policies, the results may undermine each other and the credibility of
the entire intervention in Iraq. Finally, we should admit that “zero
tolerance” may have some effect on regimes that more or less consciously
tolerate the operations of terrorist groups or other transnational activities on
their territories. It, however, cannot guarantee the effectiveness of such
regimes in suppressing these activities.
A factor that does not fit in the general picture
of “policing” but that might also necessitate a protracted military presence
is the temptation of neighbouring states to intervene militarily. The Turkish
government has not concealed its worries about the increased power of the Kurds
in Iraq, and Iran may be inclined to support the cause of the Shi’ites who
share its reserves about American values. These are precisely two of the most
frightening side effects of any intervention in foreign affairs: unleashing a
conflict between allies and driving a potential ally into the arms of the enemy.
This can still be prevented perhaps but only through either a continuing
military surveillance or international diplomatic consensus.
In view of the arguments
put forward above, it is difficult to believe that the world has become less
treacherous to the American foreign policy maker. A degree of uncertainty in
international affairs is inevitable in a world of equal and autonomous states,
but unilateralism or military supremacy do not produce greater predictability.
Weak states cannot be turned into highly surveyed ones by external pressure, nor
can values and thoughts be manipulated in such a way. As I have argued,
asymmetric relations and military power (policing) tend to distort information
and alienate people rather than create a world of mutual understanding. The
benefit of a regime change for the Iraqi people, which only during the course of
the military enterprise against Iraq was advanced as the main goal, tends to
hide such basic problems from view.
The question is, What should become of Iraq now
that it has been stripped of its central decision-making powers and become
dependent on foreign aid and surveillance? Confusion will reign in the coming
months, small-scale violence in and outside Iraq will continue, but in the
international context probably no shocking events will occur right away. This,
however, cannot be said about the longer term of a year and more. Much will
depend on the political stability in the other countries of the Middle East,
which has no doubt been affected by the symbolic message of the events in Iraq.
A democratic revolution in the Arab world is (in the short term) not necessarily
favourable to the interests of the U.S. or the West. Similar doubts are
suggested by the precarious world economy and the damage to international
political trust. These conditions cannot easily be controlled by a superpower,
however strong its self-image as the vanguard of an inevitable world
Only if freedom from state terror can also be
translated into freedom of choice in international relations may something good
come from the current situation, although it is doubtful whether it can save
Iraq as an integrated and centrally governed state. The situation a year from
now will most likely show the experimentation with different forms of (con)federalism,
which will provoke conflicts about boundaries, representation, and competencies.
Iraq will in a new way remain a subject of concern to the international
community for a long time.
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(Submitted 13 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer
Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway
Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew