Morality game with no rules

The Breaking of Nations - The Iraq War - Blair's Wars
November 28, 2003

We are told that war is hell, so why is it so popular? asks Tim Dunne

As the 3rd infantry division of the US army crossed the Euphrates in its advance on Baghdad, it witnessed horrific scenes of carnage that had been inflicted on the rabble Iraqi conscript army by the preceding waves of air attacks. One sergeant, who had served in the first US-led Iraq war, remarked: "I hope we won't experience anything like that again. When I see that many bodies, I don't want to be here anymore."

War is hell. We knew that before imagining what it must have been like to experience the "shock and awe" unleashed by US and UK attack aircraft on Iraq. The books under review show that there remains a significant disjuncture between the experience of war and the production of ideas about the utility of military force. Nowhere is this more striking than in Robert Cooper's claim that countries living in "the postmodern world" have learnt their lesson. War, he argues, has become "something to be avoided if at all possible".

Britain, one of the countries in this postmodern zone, has found the avoidance of war to be somewhat elusive in recent times. In fact, despite the governing Labour Party's commitment to internationalist values of peace and toleration, the country has gone to war five times in six years. What explains this contradiction? Perhaps Britain does not embody the values that Cooper ascribes to postmodern states? Or maybe the world is not as neat and orderly as our categories portray. In other words, as Cooper concedes, it may be that postmodern states need to remember how to act in modernist ways when there is a threat to their security.

The connections between Cooper's argument and the contemporary history of British foreign policy will be explored further below. First, it is important to set out the argument in The Breaking of Nations . It is a book of immense historical range that seeks to challenge the belief that there is a single political system. We live in a world divided into postmodern, modern and pre-modern zones. The last category is filled with failed states, those that no longer exercise exclusive and legitimate authority. Where do these worlds reside? Cooper tells us that "all of the world's major drug-producing areas are part of the pre-modern world". The postmodern world, where most of these drugs are consumed, is marked by a folding-in of sovereignty and the exercise of restraint.

Europe is the heartland of the postmodern zone, emerging out of a Westphalian order in which modernist logics of balance and self-help prevailed. The US remains a robustly modern state. This is evident from the manner in which it divides the world into allies and enemies, protecting the former and eliminating the latter. Adherence to Westphalian sovereignty also means that the US will not accept the degree of openness and interdependence that European governments consent to. Cooper's distinction between modern and postmodern closely parallels Robert Kagan's argument in Paradise and Power that the character of American power and purpose remains realist, while Europe has entered a postmodern paradise.

Williamson Murray and Robert Scales' The Iraq War adds further weight to this view of American foreign policy. They quote approvingly from Thucydides, who recorded the Athenian negotiators telling the islanders of Melos "that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can". For Athens in the 5th century BC, read the US in the 21st century. Iraq's unwillingness to disarm meant the US "was able to serve up Saddam's regime as a salient warning to those who dare to attack America's vital interests".

The Iraq War is a populist work of military history and not an academic text. This is no doubt the reason why the authors are unreflective about the realist assumptions built into their analysis. As they note at the outset, their goal was to produce "a readable and intelligent book". The Iraq War is a polished product, including photographs of US and UK forces in action and maps depicting troop deployments and key manoeuvres. For those wanting a detailed analysis of the strategic and operational dimensions of the recent war, this is the book.

In Murray and Scales' world there is a unitary international system where force is the ultimate arbiter. The same logic that animated Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war drove George Bush in the first Iraq war and George W.

Bush in the second. Yet, according to Cooper, Britain, America and Iraq inhabit three different worlds characterised by three ways of thinking. The terrorist attack on September 11 2001 crystallised these divisions. It illustrated to the first and second worlds that the "zone of chaos" can directly threaten their security. How can the chaos be eliminated? Dialogue and deterrence is no longer an option. Waiting is not a sensible policy, Cooper argues, when you are dealing with "an unstable power on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons".

Tony Blair agrees with this assessment. Given their meeting of the minds, it is not surprising that Cooper became Blair's key adviser on British foreign policy. His influence will endure because The Breaking of Nations will be widely read in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in embassies worldwide. Practitioners will find the book insightful, particularly the compendium of maxims for 21st-century diplomacy.

Cooper's book merits attention because it raises crucial questions about the dynamics of world order today and the possible strategies for coping with conflict. But it needs to be read critically. This manual of statecraft is problematic on a number of fronts. For example, one of his diplomatic maxims is "the need to understand foreigners better", yet it must be doubted how far this process can be furthered when large swaths of the non-western world are portrayed as dwelling on the darker side of a series of dualisms, such as religion/reason, criminality/legality and chaos/order.

A conceptual flaw in the book is Cooper's references to "postmodernism". He admits that he has "many times regretted the choice of the term". The concern that many academic readers will have is with its use. To begin with, he equates postmodernism with the act of freely choosing identity, whether the referent is the individual or the state. But postmodernism in a political sense alerts us to the production of identities by dominant representations: identities are not chosen so much as transmitted.

There is much to be gained from examining postmodernist dynamics in the international system, but these are not to be equated with fixed categories of states or geopolitical regions. On the contrary, what matters is the interplay between them. The way, for example, that the cultural construction of an external enemy serves to reinforce consensual politics at home. The Soviet Union played this role in the cold war, and the pre-modern zone of turmoil is doing much the same today. What postmodernism opens up to scrutiny is the process by which knowledge about the social world is produced.

An extremely prescient example of this process is emerging with the questioning of the reasons why we went to war against Iraq. As John Kampfner argues in his absorbing Blair's Wars , the interpretation of the facts about Iraq's weapons capability was a consequence of a prior set of beliefs about Saddam. As Kampfner puts it: "Blair was convinced that Saddam was not only evil and dangerous, but that he was a pathological liar." Not being able to find weapons became evidence for concealment; uncorroborated testimonies by unreliable sources became conclusive proof. Making the facts fit the argument was not due simply to the prime minister's power. "They all wanted to believe it," Kampfner says.

Believing that the world would be a better place without the Ba'ath Party is one thing, risking your troops and your government in pursuit of this goal is another. Blair also put at stake his reputation and that of the Labour Party. Why? Publicly at least, the prime minister told the country in his televised address on March 20 2003 that Iraq's threat was "real" and "growing". The fact that this argument was the bedrock of his justification for war suggests why such political pressure was put on the intelligence agencies to persuade a sceptical Parliament and public that Iraq was a threat.

Staying on side with the US was another reason for Blair's decision to go to war. The unspoken assumption of the special relationship is that Britain will gain influence in return for loyalty. Blair's Wars provides ample evidence that such a bargain is, at best, unequal. One of Kampfner's sources describes how the bargain is played out in real life:

"Bush listens politely, agrees that the points being made are good. He says things like: 'I'll do what I can.' As soon as Tony is... on his way back home, Bush forgets the conversation and we know he has forgotten."

Blair went to war against Iraq for moral reasons too. As he admitted in a press conference on March 25, disarmament was not the sole purpose. Had Saddam disarmed and remained in power, that would have left him "uncomfortable". With the United Nations sidelined, it was possible for Blair to be more open about the link between disarmament and regime change - something that had always been explicit in US neoconservative circles. On this issue at least, Cooper's distinction between modern and postmodern worlds breaks down.

The admission by the prime minister that the war was fought for something other than reasons previously articulated is highly revealing. It adds credence to the evidence carefully assembled by Kampfner that Blair had committed Britain to America's cause during 2002. Unsurprisingly, Blair rejects this interpretation of events. He has repeatedly argued that his mind was made up only after it became clear that the second UN Security Council resolution had no traction.

Doubts about the prime minister's handling of the war have damaged his reputation domestically. What of his record internationally? He is proud of the part Britain has played in stabilising the regime in Sierra Leone and East Timor and changing it in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Had he not acted in these cases, he would be regarded as a weak leader who betrayed his party and his principles. Perhaps it is too soon to evaluate the costs and benefits of Blair's wars. As the prime minister acknowledged, he is prepared "to be judged by history". While we await the owl of Minerva to take flight, we can at least offer one preliminary judgement: breaking nations is easier than fixing them.

Tim Dunne is reader in international relations, University of Exeter.

The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century

Author - Robert Cooper
Pages - 156
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 84354 230 7

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