Tag Archives: global politics

The Authoritarian Archipelago

This is a guest post by Daniel Bertrand Monk, who is the George R. and Myra T. Cooley Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, where he is a professor of Geography and Middle East Studies.  His most recent volume is The Post-Conflict Environment (Jacob Mundy co-editor)

“I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty.”  Bowie. Law (Earthlings on Fire)

Any serious effort to make sense of America’s post-election sense-making would have to begin with the observation that our forensics reveal more about a collective experience of dislocation than much else. Whether they suggest that what “we’ve been here before” or imply the inverse  –that the situation is unprecedented because it recalls a Fascist past elsewhere– efforts to tease a truth out of the turnout in rust belt Michigan or suburban Pennsylvania tacitly assume that we must look to what has already happened in order to predict what is coming.  As a genre, the American postmortem persistently resorts to the poverty of a shabby historicism.

Ransacking the uniqueness of the American past or the comparative universality of other people’s history, Americans observers of the present unwittingly advance Amor Fati, a loving identification with their own fate. In the exceptionalist version of this historicism, past electoral precedents confirm that Americans are still arguing with one another within endoxic parameters – that is, within the extremes of electoral politics.  The present, they reassure us, is still more like Chicago in 1968 than Nuremberg in 1935.  In the comparative version of the same historicism, the inverse is true:  a much discussed “normalization” of the Trump-Bannon present is compared with the disastrous excuses made after the election of Hitler to the effect that he could be “boxed in.”  According to this version of events, the lessons of Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws confer up on Americans an obligation to volunteer and register as Muslims in the same way that Danes allegedly donned yellow stars in the defense of Jews in occupied Europe. In both instances, resignation prevails, and to some extent presents itself as the inverse.  Instead of sober political assessment, the given historical comparisons occasion a kind of catharsis in subjection. We are called to “action for the sake of inaction,” as an astute of observer of political resignation once put it.

There is no easy way to explain that a routinized and practiced form of historical tautology may help kill this republic.  But, there is every indication that an impoverished imagination may rely on its knowledge of political history to disavow any knowledge of a new political geography. The more they look to their own repertoire of historical precedents, the less likely it is that Americans will be able to know if or when they’ve become part of something qualitatively new:  an archipelago of states that are formally democratic and illiberally popular at the same time.  These states are sometimes called “hybrid regimes,” “defective democracies,” or “electoral authoritarianisms.”   It matters, because when you live in the archipelago no one chooses to let you know whether you’re back in Chicago 1968 or in Nuremberg 1935. Contemporary authoritarianism thrives on uncertainty about whether it is taking place to begin with. (MTV gets this, even if David Brooks and the New York Times are still waiting for something like the Reichstag fire to let them know what’s what).  The archipelago’s denizens inhabit a political present and a geographic extent in which states are democracies by reputation, and the institutional features of liberal republics survive in them because they sometimes make no difference.  In the authoritarian archipelago, there is little certainty whether one is –or isn’t– living in a dictatorial state of exception, and for that reason a state of exception is sometimes maintained by a populace that nurtures it as a “public secret” so it can advance its own illiberal ambitions.

Those who have lived through this situation and know it well are desperately trying to explain that the kind of dislocation Americans are now experiencing is itself indicative of life under this new kind of autocracy, or soft authoritarianism. The fact that you can’t always really know if you’re living in the chain of autocracies, its refugees report, is a primary feature of life in the growing archipelago of “illiberal populist movements” that may now include the U.S.

Many American interpreters of these cautions are furiously working to misinterpret them.  In the U.S, the idea that collective experience of dislocation actually constitutes a right orientation to the present political geography will only be heard as a further invitation to plunder the past at the expense of the present.  We will continue to be instructed in electoral strategies that will secure reversals in two, four, or eight years; or worse, we’ll be reminded to practice resistance strategies that never did anyone any good even when Franco, Mussolini, or Hitler were still in power –that is, when Fascism paid one the courtesy of passing laws that painted bull’s-eyes on one’s back.  But here’s the thing: every time someone asks themselves, “Can this really be happening?” they are confronted with the authentic relation between experience and history for which those impoverished forms of historicism mistakes themselves.  And, in the difference between our gut feeling about the present and the old names others’ give to that same experience, a politics proper to this moment will either emerge or be “normalized” into resignation in its own right.  We’ll only know that a politics adequate to the present is starting to take shape when Americans start dropping the clichéd comparisons and start reading the manuals they themselves offered to pro-democracy activists already living in the authoritarian archipelago.

Adorno, Theodor W. “Resignation.” Telos 1978, no. 35 (1978): 165-168.

Diamond, L. J. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 13 no. 2, 2002, pp. 21-35. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.2002.0025.

Deterrence & the Inigo Montoya Problem: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Inigo Montoya MemeInigo Montoya famously said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Journalists seem especially prone to the Inigo Montoya problem, especially when it comes to basic ideas in international relations.

David Sanger had an article in yesterday’s Sunday NYT op-ed section titled “Deterrence Revisited“. In it he argues (borrowing from a White House official) that President Obama is trying to find “a middle ground between the isolation strain that has emerged and the overextension of the past decade”. This has become a common, well-worn trope: present two “extreme” points of view (“isolationism” poorly-defined on the one hand and whatever it was that George W. did on the other) and then present something vaguely in the middle as the “reasonable” center. Nixon’s aphorism that we’re all Keynesians may or may not be true, but we sure are all Hegelians. Continue reading

The War of Words between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Part 2

In my previous post I introduced al-Qaeda’s explanations for the rift for the ISIL. In this post I will discuss ISIL’s response as presented in recent statements by the group’s leader al-Baghdadi and its spokesman al-Adnani. Because the discussion is too long for one blog post I decided to divide it to two. Today I will focus on ISIL’s effort to contradict al-Qaeda’s claim that there was a relationship of subordination between al-Qaeda and ISIL previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and that the expansion of the Iraqi group into Syria thus represents a rebellion. According to ISIL when al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, it was in order to enhance Muslim unity and raise the moral of the Mujahideen. But when conditions were ripe, the Iraqi branch, together with others, raised to the next level by founding the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. For all intent and purposes, that means ceasing to exist as an organization and the disbanding of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite the end of the authority relations between the Iraqi affiliate and al-Qaeda Central, the Islamic State of Iraq continued to view al-Qaeda as a symbol of the ummah and its Imams. Thus when al-Zarqawi’s successors proclaimed their loyalty to al-Qaeda, it was a symbolic measure that indicated respect to al-Qaeda and acknowledgement of the latter’s role in leading the global jihad. It was intended to show the State’s commitment to the unity of the Ummah, but did not reflect organizational subordination. In the view ISI leaders, once the State was established it had complete authority over the arena in which it operated. Moreover, once an Islamic Emirate is established it reaches a status that surpasses that of any organization. As a result it would be inappropriate for it to pledge allegiance to an organization. ISIL even reminds al-Qaeda that this principle is reflected in its own pledge to Mulah Omar in his role as the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

To strengthened its claim that there were no tangible relations of authority between the ISI and al-Qaeda the State emphasized that it did not get any real support from al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda never exercised any effective control over the State’s activities, operational or bureaucratic. In sharply drawn words, ISIL’s spokesman even ridicules al-Qaeda for the extent of its irrelevance to the operation of the Islamic State. Deridingly he asks the al-Qaeda’s chief al-Zawahiri “what did you give to the State if you were its Emir? With what did you supply it? For what did you hold it accountable? What did you order it to do? What did you forbid it to do? Who did you isolate or put in charge of?”

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‘Mansplaining’ International Relations?: What Walt Misses

Following the tradition of Saturday Night Live’s Father Sarducci, Steve Walt turned the “Five Minute University” from the 1970s into a lesson for the undergraduate class of 2014 on Foreign Policy yesterday, providing a five-minute lesson as a substitute for a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations. Walt’s lesson included five key concepts: anarchy, balance of power, comparative advantage, misperception/miscalculation, and social constructivism. While Walt acknowledges there is much more to know about the discipline (including deterrence and coercion, institutions, selection effects, democratic peace theory, and international finance), he suggests those might be “graduate level” and that “all you really need to know about the discipline” can be found his five-minute, five-concept lesson.

I’d like to introduce Steve and his audience to a (sixth) concept that comes from outside of International Relations but applies to it: ‘mansplaining.’ A term introduced by Rebecca Solnit in 2008, the idea has gained traction both in popular circles and in academic ones. Though many different ‘definitions’ of ‘mansplaining’ exist, a picture of Steve’s post could be in the dictionary next to mine: it is a short, humorous ‘explanation’ of the discipline of IR, from one of its male/masculine/(masculinist) elite aimed at its feminized/feminine/(female?) margins: new trainees and potential trainees. In that explanation, Walt accounts for a global political arena in which it appears that men and women; sex, gender, and sexualities; masculinities and femininities; masculinizations and feminizations do not exist. This might be where my definition of ‘mansplaining’ differs from others: I think a ‘mansplanation’ is an explanation made in a masculinized tone that endogenizes, makes invisible, or leaves out gender. Walt does this almost artfully: the global political arena that we can learn about from Walt in five minutes is indeed one where it is possible that women do not exist at all. That, among other things, makes it both a ‘mansplanation’, and deeply problematic.

My problems start at what Walt does not talk about, and continues as I read what he does discuss. Let’s start with five ideas that I’d characterize as key to understanding global politics, which Walt leaves out:

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On threat analysis, al Qaeda, practitioners and academics

I got into the business of threat analysis over twenty years ago as a practitioner. It’s almost terrifying for me to think back now how young and clueless I was. I was poorly trained and overly excited and understanding the world around me seemed difficult but hardly impossible. Oh, the benefits of youth, when you think that you know everything, and cannot imagine how much you do not know. I say terrified to think back not simply because I am embarrassed that I was too cocky and not sufficiently aware of people – and my own – limitations and biases, but primarily because the way I performed my job could have been consequential. The privilege of life in the academia is that there is so little at stake. But when you are a practitioner somebody might actually listen to you and take action. There were many reasons for my decision to leave the bureaucracy and seek an academic career, but the growing acknowledgment of my limitations as an analyst and the sense of frustrating helplessness given high stakes was definitely one motivating factor. Looking back, that period was a good lesson in humility and one that put me in a better position to become a scholar of international security.

Fast forward a few years. The 9/11 attacks found me beginning my second year of grad school at Cornell. I heard about al-Qaeda before and was upset how something so big went under my radar. My response was quite productive. I became curious and eager to figure out more about the jihadi movement, and particularly of al Qaeda. As I had known already that my research will deal with security in the Middle East there were little opportunity costs in starting to explore jihadism. And of course I was not unaware that how events unfolded meant that suddenly my region, so ignored by the academia before, is going to have demand. Who knows, I might even be able to find a job after graduation… Continue reading

Maybe We’ve Gotten it Wrong About Democracy…

In the Jakarta Post’s January 2014 “Outlook” section, the deputy defense minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin argued that threats to the state are no longer solely military, but rather Indonesian’s good citizens should be alert to threats to the state’s ideology, economy and culture. Indonesian military commander Gen. Moeldoko argued in a speech in February that the greatest threat to Indonesia is neoliberalism, particularly the domination of foreign corporations.

These are not unfamiliar arguments, particularly in Southeast Asia, where “ideology and culture” are sacrosanct. In Thailand, the tripartite state ideology is “Religion, King, Thainess.” In Indonesia the basis of democracy is Pancasila, the five principles—belief in one God, just and civilized humanity, unity of the State, democracy through consensus, and social justice. These are lofty goals, to be sure, but the students in my Democracy and Human Rights class at Universitas Andalas in West Sumatra, Indonesia, tell me that these are attainable goals, and could be met if only they could be left alone, without the expectations of Western powers and interference in “Indonesian” democracy.

Watching the events unfold in Ukraine, Thailand and Venezuela from the vantage point of my Indonesian students has been enlightening.

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