Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Failures of Liberal Internationalism - Cooper Two Decades On

One of my more curious intellectual habits is to avoid reading contemporary work by public intellectuals and prefer instead to study material written two or so decades ago. This may seem perverse but experience has taught me that anyone writing in the now is usually promoting an opinion based on limited information whereas something written in the recent past can be tested against subsequent events, giving insights that would not otherwise be available. Many of my book reviews of this type can be read on my Goodreads account.

Clearing out some old boxes, I found the files relating to my time launching Demos, the 'modernising' centre-left think tank, back in the mid-1990s. I broke with it quite quickly though amicably. It was part of the post-Soviet move of revisionist Marxists into what would soon become Blairism whereas I was a non-ideological traditional English socialist more concerned with ancient liberties than theory. It was an era of struggles over who would own the 'Moscow Gold', of desperation by the political Left in its search for power and of intellectual confusion.  Strange alliances were formed and old political relationships collapsed. Elements in the State attached themselves to new anti-conservative forces and old revolutionaries started their trajectory towards the moderated neo-liberalism that was to fail us in 2008 and is still thrashing around today, like a dinosaur whose wounds have not yet reached the brain as signals of its doom.

Demos produced a journal and a number of pamphlets, one of which, nearly two decades old now, was a short 50-page booklet by a diplomat, Robert Cooper, Head of the Policy Planning Staff at the FCO. This latter tells us a great deal about the mental map that was to influence the social democratic elite who surrounded Blair and who would be found in such places as Chatham House, in corporations like BP and in Government - a road map for what would be Blairite foreign policy, if you like. That foreign policy would be characterised in Blair's 1999 Chicago Speech as a duty of intervention in the world, one that was to unravel the Westphalian system that had been re-instituted in 1945, and which would lead ineluctably, sixteen years later, to a situation where the entire periphery of the European West would come to be in a state of financial and insurgent chaos. That chaos is being brought, through uncontrollable mass migration and organised crime, into the very heart of Europe.

Cooper's work, in retrospect, helps us to understand how things went so horribly wrong because the mental mapping in that pamphlet [1] gives us a plausible but ultimately flawed vision of international relations. We realists found it impossible to counter at the time because the almost faith-based commitment to idealism seemed so much nicer than what we had to offer. It was a shame, I suppose, that history proved us right. Thinkers like Cooper were able to add a theoretical rationale for emotional impulses about the ethical that provided what the idealists wanted to hear. It was a way of seeing that drove all before it and might equally be exemplified by the work of Michael Ignatieff who was explicit in his attack on the Westphalian presumptions of the past in his debate over intervention in Kosovo against Robert Skidelsky in 1999 [2].

The intellectual flaw in Cooper's work begins with the title - the assumption of something called post-modernity as a really existing permanent feature of the political landscape. This flaw derived from an oddity in intellectual thought at the time, a convergence of revisionist left-wing Hegelianism seeking a way out of the problem of Soviet collapse and a right-wing Hegelianism, derived perhaps from Kojeve, that was looking to the European Project as the natural means of assuring peace and security through ending both nationalism and socialism. Later, liberal internationalism would find itself in bed with a darker force in Schmittian neo-conservatism and then entangled with the radical 'detournement' of Trotskyism as a radical war on the same forces that disturbed the liberals - but that is a few years in the future. At this point, around 1996, before New Labour was in power and while the dodgy triangulation of Clintonism provided little more to inspire than a sort of well meaning realism with liberal rhetorical characteristics, the new politics, driven from London, emerged. It was a combination of liberal bureaucratism and the desperate desire of the official Left to reinvent itself for a post-Soviet and post-Thatcherite world. It would be neo-liberalism with a human face, perhaps as absurd and as kind an intention as Dubcek's illusion of communism with a happy smile.

Cooper's global model was simple but now seems simplistic. But simple models can concentrate the mind so long as they are critiqued against not only the facts but future possibilities. However, a naive political class did not take these theories as hypotheses to test but as articles of faith. They met certain political needs that could bind their alliance of unions, activists and liberals and make their idealism acceptable to the technocrats, progressives and bureaucrats of the State mechanism. Once the hypothesis had passed from theory to ideology and had proven effective in the acquisition of power, there was no turning back to criticism against the facts - an ideology then governed our relationship to the international community that was as irrational (though logical on its base assumptions) as national socialism in the 1930s or international socialism under the Comintern.

The central thesis was of an international system that was ringed like an onion - with pre-modern, modern and post-modern structures co-existing and requiring different ideologies of action in the relationships between them. The post-Marxist progressive model was implicitly Hegelian from the beginning - recall Fukuyama's now increasingly absurd notion of the 'end of history' which had appeared in 1992. There was no awareness of the future re-balancing of the world that would create new Powers even though there were many reasons to predict this on the facts to hand. Nor did anyone outside the PNAC neo-cons see the relative decline of old Powers (although, to be fair, Martin Jacques of Demos was always an advocate of the rise of China long before it was fashionable). Nor did anyone seem to see the possibility of a major economic crisis (as we have seen in 2008) despite the history of capitalism being a series of lurches involving bouts of creative destruction. Nor the effects of peripheral political collapse creating problems for the progressive heartlands. Yet all of these should have been understood as possibilities from a basic understanding of the history of capitalism and of past empires.

Instead, we were offered what amounted to a dream of never-ending economic (no awareness of massive indebtedness and criminal intergenerational transfers of wealth from the future to the present) and bureaucratic progress as well as the illusion of a secure democracy with no possible threats to it because the power of the radical centre was too firmly embedded in a network of activist representative bodies, corporate lobbyists, barely accountable state servants and self-appointing political elites. Given this failure of imagination, Cooper's world looks shaky but let us review it on its own terms.

The inner post-modern ring was represented by the progressive abandonment of national sovereignty to sets of supranational institutions (with minimal democratic accountability), based on rules and procedures, of which the European Union and NATO were the centre-pieces. The proposition was put forward that giving up sovereignty was the reasonable price to be paid for the security and prosperity of a post-modern West in which individuals had free-floating identities that were no longer localised, no longer feared such impositions as conscription and could leave governance to experts. The European Union would not, in fact, be a super-state so much as a transnational set of rules and regulations to which all civilised people would adhere, much like the ideal of the old Roman Empire perhaps. We might see TTP and TTIP as examples of this system in operation in the near future where democratic bodies no longer can make any decisions in areas of trade because the rules and regulations of a trans-national system make the rules for them. Contemporary European officials no longer even try to hide their disinterest in democracy which they associate with populism and ignorance. The road to that anti-democratic position was laid two decades ago.

The second ring of the system was the remaining Westphalian system of powers outside the post-modern world of the Atlantic system, the European Union and NATO. There is no doubt that these powers were seen as second order powers representing potential threats and that, therefore, there was no more 'Mr. Nice Guy' as soon as the borders of the imperium were reached. Liberal idealism existed within the Empire but realism was directed at the states that were not in the Empire because that is all they understood. Russia was, in 1996, effectively a defeated second rank state and China was nowhere near the economic arbiter it is today so the logic of the situation was to ensure that the centre held the biggest stick and beat any recalcitrant states into line from a position of superior power. This is the road that led from Blair's Chicago Speech to the imbroglio in Iraq within four years and has lead to a trail of destruction from North Africa through Greater Syria to Central Asia before and since. However, the weaker states of the second rank have proved not only that they can stand up to the West but that they are quite capable of creating a rival Empire in response to what has often amounted to patronising passive-aggressive bullying (the SCO) and of undertaking missions both to resist Western claims (Ukraine) and to resolve international problems (Syria) with more effectiveness than the confused post-modern bureaucrats in Brussels, London and Berlin (and Washington).

The final ring of the system was positioned as pre-modern with a somewhat patrician neo-colonialist stance that reminds one of the rhetoric about the 'heart of darkness'. This was the world of so-called failed states. Cooper was clear, to his credit (as would be Ignatieff) that intervention in this space should be limited to not only what was right but what was feasible. Unfortunately, the genie was let out of the bottle here - or would it be better to say that Pandora's Box was opened. The rational bureaucratic approach to an interventionary approach that was really liberal Imperialism by Nice People was obviated almost immediately by two factors. The first was that 'post-moderrn' democracy gave a voice to irrational and half-educated populations led by media and NGOs who demanded (or resisted) imperial actions. This instigated half-baked actions in which the spin and manipulation destroyed any trust in the good will of the people undertaking them. The second was that the interventionary approach was hijacked by some Not So Nice People in Washington with an ideological and economic motive for selective regime destruction: again, the post-modern bureaucrats lost trust because they preferred to associate with a powerful devil and compromise on their values rather than turn back from the brink. The fall of New Labour took time but it lies not only in economic failures but a failure to understand that it was no longer trusted to administer a system that had failed at this level of national security.

So, at every level, the new world order proposed in different forms by liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives alike collapsed on a poor reading of reality. It was a faith-based system that failed to ask fundamental questions about whether post-modern politics was viable and whether the Westphalian system was, in fact, over. But, if the Westphalian system was over, it meant the extension of the pre-modern (to use Cooper's mode) sphere of influence rather than the second order eventual integration into a global post-modern system led by the West. The Westphalian elements have reasserted their status as sovereign powers outside the 'post-modern world' (and we must never forget that the US never actually bought into this theoretical model which was a British and European conceit) while some of those within the post-modern system (Greeks, British, various national populists, Hungarians) are beginning to pine for the old ways already. Meanwhile, the pre-modern has not remained on the periphery but has begun to by-pass the modern Powers and affect, indeed infect, the post-modern system through mass and uncontrollable migration, economic degeneration and, above all, organised criminal networks accumulating significant capital at a phenomenal rate.

The entire Cooper system is hanging by a thread ... it is only bureaucrats with a fixed ideology and false confidence in their own control over the levers of power who persist in believing that everything will turn out for the best as crisis after crisis hits the core system. The European Union blundered in Ukraine and caused the gravest security crisis in modern times. It and indeed the US have proved themselves totally ineffective in dealing with serious security threats in Greater Syria. 'Modern' allies are beginning to make their own own arrangements and hedging their bets in dialogue with the rising rival powers. The cohesion of the European Union is threatened by an appalling anti-democratic intervention in Greece and the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants without adequate planning or a coherent policy. Above all, 'post-modernity' has meant that millions of people no longer trust their rulers, whether politician or bureaucrat. They have no intention of being guided by them into post-modern policy decisions. If anything, increasing numbers are pining openly for a return of variants of national sovereignty and of socialism in a way simply incomprehensible to the generation that came to power in the 1990s. Worse (from the perspective of career diplomats like Cooper who retained a strong sense of realism in 1996), the discussion of international relations is increasingly led by ineffectual and counter-productive liberal idealists who seem to be blind to the economic consequences of patronising non-European powers and to the domestic political consequences of migration and job losses arising from globalist idealism.

It is, in short, a mess. Mr. Cooper is certainly not to blame for that mess. He simply put forward a thesis for discussion and criticism, a model for exploration. How could he possibly have known that his ideas and those of people like him would be taken up by people of lesser intellect and more cunning whose purposes would be divided between their short term hunger for domestic office and a narcissistic desire to paint the global canvas with their mythologies. Somehow, I suggest, we are going to have to start all over again ...

[1] Robert Cooper, 'The Post-Modern State and the World Order' (Demos, 1996)

[2] The somewhat acrimonious debate between Skidelsky and Ignatieff took place as a series of letters published in Prospect, then a significant intellectual liberal-left journal, in early May 1999. It can be read in full in Ignatieff's 'Virtual War' (London 2000). In the exchange, Skidelsky (though I happen to think he was to be proved right) argues less ably than the impassioned but disciplined Ignatieff who had all the moral passion of someone who had seen the Kosovan refugee camps at first hand. All the fervour of the 'something must be done' school of liberal politics faced arguments that lacked force because they could not jump out of the box of liberal conventionalism to speak in consequentialist terms of the probable harms of action undertaken without adequate planning, preparation and commitment. Every intervention that took place after Kosovo compounded this central fault within liberal internationalism that it acted first and thought second, without being able to rely on the mobilisation of total war to ensure that every act could be followed through and history be firmly written according to the dictates of the victors.