What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The age of sustainable defeat

The title may seem confusing, and the reason is that it is actually confusing. What it would entail is not really clear. But we do live in an age like that, where many sense something like this.
Not so long ago there used to be talk of humanitarian intervention that ambitious people wanted to turn into talk of the responsibility to protect: turning the right to intervene straight into a duty to intervene, possibly. Already prior to 9-11, but especially in its wake, a postmodern imperialist discourse developed that suggested the duty to intervene would go beyond altruism as it could also stem from national security imperatives. The West had its mission, for example to transform Russia and China into responsible stakeholders of globalisation, and to bring about good global governance, universally. The point was made that if such good global governance does not result from the use (or also the supposedly spontaneous, free-market-based availability) of carrots, and especially if there is active and subversive resistance against it, or collapse that puts areas beyond any decent degree of governance at all, the West would need to go in, and (Paul Collier and others proposed) use modern armies for the global public good. In line with this, the idea of "development in a box" emerged. If only the West, an incorruptible force for good, controlled the key independent variables in the area in the box, the dependent variable of good governance could eventually be guaranteed.
This ideologically motivated expectation did not really prove correct. Resources were missing for the grand strategic project. Cooperation and coordination within the West was insufficient. The ideology underlying the whole venture was also wrong in many of its most basic assumptions. And, from case to case, motives were not necessarily in line with the ideology.
The Iraqi undertaking turned into counterinsurgency, and while the end results may seem clearly better than what may have been expected in, say, 2006, this counterinsurgency was rearguard action to snatch the semblance of victory from the jaws of defeat. In Afghanistan, with Western leaders taking turns saying it is less than a perfect government one is looking for there, while looking at the possibilities of "reconciliation" and "negotiations" (and most importantly the responsible exit), the rearguard action nature of the ongoing efforts is even more visible. Lack of resources obviously plays a role in this. Iraq exhausted some, whereas others did not have much to spend on operations in Afghanistan to start with. And then came the economic crisis. Too bad.
Meanwhile, the significance of the lack of realistically needed resources does not stop people from claiming that cultural differences are what in the end prevent success in Afghanistan. Cultural relativism is very much a la mode when it comes to Afghanistan, as it has always been in fact. People subscribing to these views see it as natural that you won't get too good a solution there.
Parallel to this, others are looking to transform the agenda and present other issues such as climate change as the key challenge: the precarious future of humanity's current, resource-intensive way of existence (or, slightly rewording this, the uncertain future of the humanity-intensive phase of the history of planet Earth). So, once again, the point is hammered home that you just cannot continue to pay so much attention to Afghanistan, faced with bigger problems. Throughout, you may sense the underlying declinism and fears of the end of Western hegemony (and last-minute efforts to sustainably salvage some of it) informing much of this thought.
With this, the spirit of the age, in mind, it was really interesting to read this article in Newsweek about how we might be running out of antibiotics. And how we may need to get used to a world where we can take their availability a lot less for granted. You get the point. The bacteria are takin' over -- taking back lost terrain. Of course this process is actually playing out in physical reality, whereas the security agenda, underlying perceptions and stereotypes, and the related dilemmas of resource-allocation in determining what is feasible are more a function of social reality as such: of processes playing out in the hearts and minds.

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