Geopolitics and Empire

Apr 13, 2010

Gerard Toal and Gerry Kearns (both of Virginia Tech) threw a great little academic bash today: GEOPOL 2010, keynoted by a lunchtime presentation by Derek Gregory on “War Cultures” that was, among, other things, a marvelous demolition of the idea that “our” techno-strategic wars are clean and precise while “their” new wars are messy and imhumane. I had to leave before the day was over, but this morning I was on a panel entitled “Geopolitics and Empire” for which I had the standard “academic 10 minutes” (which means: about 15 minutes) to say something hopefully interesting. So, naturally, I talked about ‘civilization’, ‘civilizations’, and the legitimation of US foreign policy, since I know more about those things than I know about either empire or geopolitics narrowly defined. I suppose that I was commenting on what critical geographers call “the geopolitical imaginary,” though, so I was certainly in the general conceptual region that the organizers were aiming to cover.

I will spare you the details of a back-and forth between myself and Gerry on one hand, and Charles Kupchan and Chris Preble on the other, about whether there were “brute facts” of geography that necessarily influenced foreign policy; you can probably work that sequence out for yourself. But in case anyone is interested I am going to post the notes from which I spoke below the fold; an audio recording of my presentation can be found here on my general podcasting site.

my own work on global geopolitical imaginaries — or what I prefer to think of as conceptual infrastructures of social action in world politics — deals with what Max Weber would call “legitimate domination,” and for me the important part of that is the “legitimate” part. Let me throw out some conceptual vocabulary that I find helpful in interrogating these issues.

of course, by “legitimate” I don’t mean “ethically acceptable in some transcendental sense.” I mean rendered legitimate, in the eyes of some politically relevant audience, by the strategic use of rhetorical commonplaces and other cultural resources tossed up by productive discourses. This is another way of saying that boundaries have to be drawn around the set of possible courses of action.

it makes a difference who the actor is taken to be for a given course of action: who is “we.” Defining and solidifying the acceptable/unacceptable boundary is wrapped up with issues of who acts and in whose name action is performed, and different actors come with different social capacities. So we have “boundary commonplaces” — cultural and rhetorical resources that sustain, in principle, particular actors and their boundaries.

in this light, if we examine pronouncements about patterns of global action, we find that the socially relevant actor in question is often (contrary to the solemn pronouncements of orthodox International Relations theory) not a sovereign state, but a variety of other entities: individuals, ethnicities, nations, civilizations, and sometimes “humanity” itself. These actors may not be as well organized or institutionalized as sovereign states, but if we just follow the legitimation strategies they emerge quite clearly as empirical phenomena.

in the remainder of my time I want to talk about a particular social site — the articulation of US foreign policy — that I have investigated in some detail in tracing these boundary commonplaces. Note that “the US” here means not an a priori actor, but a set of social institutions and capacities occupying certain positions within global socio-politico-economic networks; it’s an analytical place to look, not an exogenous “artificial person” whose desires and interests we have to delineate. And “foreign policy” simply means political techniques for handling cross-border transactions with various others.

and if you look back at the history of US foreign policy, you quickly discover a traditional boundary commonplace — ‘American exceptionalism’ — that was used up until the late 19th century to legitimate a policy of keeping the US pure of outside influences (a “city on a hill”) and divorced from any “entangling alliances.” ‘American exceptionalism’ afforded the kind of policy of continental expansion we know as “manifest destiny,” largely through its incapacity to acknowledge the existence of constitutively equal rivals; in the language of the most ardent manifest destinarians, other races would simply “melt away” before the advance of the American empire. Here I use the term “empire” advisedly and deliberately, both because a) in terms of legitimation strategies, the non-recognition of diverse others is perhaps the most important aspect of imperialism; and b) from this perspective ‘American exceptionalism’ is an imperial boundary commonplace, leading to what Anders Stephanson has called “the empire of right.”

the history of US foreign policy in the 20th century is the history of various efforts to deal with ‘American exceptionalism,’ either by dissolving the exceptional specialness of the United States in some broader community, or by reworking ‘American exceptionalism’ so as to afford trans-continental or global expansion. Schematically, three alternatives: “the West”; civilization-in-the-singular; and humanity.

there are subtle but very important distinctions between these three commonplaces and the actions to which each is connected:

1) civilization-in-the-singular encompasses multiple states/nations/regions and is opposed only to the uncivilized, who are either savages (can be educated/reformed) or barbarians (have to be eliminated, or at least barred from entry). There are no comparable others for civilization-in-the-singular, and thus nothing that has to be taken into account as being in some measure an equal. So this is a relatively imperial boundary commonplace with respect to the uncivilized, even though it may promote or afford a relatively multilateral dialogue among the “civilized powers” of the world. This is Teddy Roosevelt’s alliance of the civilized great powers, Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and FDR’s grand alliance against “uncivilized” Nazi Germany.

2) a particular civilization, like “the West,” exists in a world of civilizational diversity, and its domain only stretches as far as its cultural area. “The West” has no business interfering in the internal affairs of other civilizations, and is instead reduced to “balancing” for and against them. Such a legitimation strategy stands on a recognition of differences between civilizations (even if that recognition is grudging, and accompanied by a wish that God/history/fate would eliminate the other). This is post-WWII containment, famously retrofitted for the multipolar post-Cold War world by Samuel P. Huntington as “the clash of civilizations.”

[Note that US Cold War policy is not purely “containment,” but also features a civilization-in-the-singular notion of “development” when we’re dealing with the so-called “Third World” — this is, so to speak, imperial tutelage, helping the savages learn to wear clothes, eat with silverware, and manage their balances of payments properly. Continuities with the “civilizing mission” of earlier colonialisms.]

3) humanity functions as the highest court of appeal; this is the realm where in our day biological imperatives (including the future survival of the species) get invoked, alongside concerns about the global environment and notions of transcendental individual dignity (human rights). As Carl Schmitt infamously pointed out, humanity as such has no enemy, not on this planet anyway (and parenthetically we could now veer off and talk about science fiction as a cultural arena for exploring the limits of the human, and I’m happy to talk about Battlestar Galactica as a seminal articulation of critical humanism at some later point). [sadly, no one asked about BSG in the q&a]

humanity, I want to suggest, is still up for grabs, and this is an important arena where active political struggles are going on in the US. It’s unclear whether it is going to be an imperial boundary commonplace wielded against “inhuman” and “evil” practices, as we see in neoconservative respecifications of ‘American exceptionalism’ to aggressive unilateralism; neocons, who had been dissatisfied throughout the Cold War with containment as “soft on Communism” because it let the communists survive, seized humanity as a warrant for imposing a US vision on the rest of the planet (GWB: liberty is God’s gift to humanity), even while refusing to bind the US to any global agreements (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, ABM treaty, Geneva conventions…). Neocons loathed “particular civilization” rhetoric, since that was the conceptual core of “containment,” so they swept “the West” etc. out of the public discussion.

but there is also a “humanity” notion with the US first among equals — “indispensable nation” — so something like global pluralism within an overarching framework (albeit imperfectly articulated and implemented). This is how I read the Obama gamble: reclaim humanity without being imperial about it (but even Obama sounds pretty imperialist sometimes, as in his Oslo speech and the reference to “evil”). If one doesn’t want to be a neocon, the alternative is to embrace traditional ‘American exceptionalism’ (not its neocon variant) and withdraw to the borders of the US sovereign state (and hole up to wait for the Second Coming; this is the populist side of what we might call with apologies to Jimmy Hendrix “the Sarah Palin Experience”). But as pragmatists might put it, holing up behind our borders is no longer a “live possibility,” given political-economic networks and our ever-growing sense of a climate emergency; “the West” seems to have outlived its usefulness as a term of political discourse, and the ship of a global “dialogue among civilizations” seems to have sailed as far as the US polity is concerned. But can there actually be a universal human community without imperialism? That may be the most important political question of the 21st century.


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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.