The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

World police, Unilateralism, and the Future of a Country

Gertjan Dijkink

Department of Geography and Planning, University of Amsterdam, Nieuwe Prinsengracht 130, 1018 VZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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.

Empires, War and Political Change

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 unlikely.

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.

World Policing?

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 development.

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.


Dijkink, G. 1996. National identity and geopolitical visions: Maps of pride and pain. London: Routledge.

Fairbank, J. K. 1969. The Chinese world order: Traditional Chinese foreign relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gaddis, J. L. 1982. Strategies of containment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kristof, L. K. D. 1959. The nature of frontiers and boundaries. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 49:269–82.

————. 2000. The impact of globalization on frontiers and boundaries. Paper presented at conference, Rethinking Boundaries: Geopolitics, Identities, and Sustainability, Punjab University, Chandigarh.

Manning, P. K. 1979. The narc’s game: Organizational and informational limits on drug law enforcement. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Scott, J. C. 1998. Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stern, R. N., and Barley, S. R. 1996. Organizations and social systems: Organization theory’s neglected mandate. Administrative Science Quarterly 41:146–62.

Taylor, P., Flint, C. 2000. Political geography: World-economy, nation-state and locality. Upple Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Weick, K. 1969. The social psychology of organizing. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 

(Submitted 13 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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