strong states

The US and Afghanistan: the weakness of ‘strong’ states

The failure to change the domestic political scene in Afghanistan, in spite of twenty years of American presence, has surprised many commentators. Fintan O’Toole recently remarked that “democratic values were [possibly not] strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away”. One could descend a step further down by arguing that there is simply no experience or any example of a foreign power imposing ‘nation-building’ on another state. Failure is obvious. When I advanced this statement in a symposium of academic and military representatives on the Dutch military contribution to the NATO presence in Uruzgan (2010), the response was flat. The need for a positive story overrules all facts to the contrary which also lies at the root of the endless chain of actions and self-delusion that characterized the American involvement with Afghanistan.

Much earlier I presented another perspective in a forum on the Iraq war of 2003 (The Arab World Geographer). It compared the task of  keeping international order with domestic policing.  There are two varieties of domestic policing: community policing which involves the community and takes advantage of  intelligence in the community, and pro-active law enforcement which pursues criminals with autonomous (police-)information systems and is based on common laws. Community policing in the context of international order keeping demands some reserve because of the difference in values between an external actor and the local society.  Pro-active law enforcement like pursuing terrorists, Al-Qaeda etc., may count on some global legitimacy but may locally be experienced as a disproportionate level of violence that does not touch on dominant injustices felt by the local people.

The American intervention seems to have been hopelessly mixed up with these constraints. On the one hand it seemed to embrace the argument of culture in order not to be bothered by local  injustices (like the kidnapping and rape of boys). On the other hand its campaign against ‘terrorists’ accepted the rule of warlords that divided and oppressed the Afghan people.

Fintan O’Toole, 2021, The Lie of Nation Building. New York Review of Books October 7.

Gertjan Dijkink, 2003, World police, Unilateralism and the Future of a Country. Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq. The Arab World Geographer 6 (19-23)


Does the American mind mesh with democracy?

Communal fight in Bologna

The scorched earth tactics of Donald Trump in the twilight of his career as president, is a blow to many people who have a high opinion of the United States as cradle of democracy. In history it rather mirrors the violent struggle for power between two political groups in the Italian city-states around 1300 to which we owe the Divina Commedia. Dante was a city official and victim of these political wars in which the truth had been subordinated to power. In his exile Dante longed for a higher and more just authority which, as in the case of the US, was sadly absent.

The higher authority in the modern democracy is a system of justice based on facts. But precisely facts are liable to erosion in the world of internet and social media. The one who succeeds in reproducing a lie a millionfold controls the facts. That requires, of course, also some social tools like a flock of loyal followers and a ritual that suggests infallibility. It is not improper to characterize Trump as cult-leader as many commentators are now doing. Trump does not represent the GOP but a group of people that believe in him and that go into ecstasy with the rituals or the rallies in which Trump plays the role of visionary leader. This group and these events are in their turn intimidating for the more moderate Republican rank and file.

Those who consider these antics un-American pass over the multiple sects and religious groups who have found a fertile soil in the US. The specific history and geography of the US has shaped a mental climate for which two experiences were dominant: the absence of an exterior territorial force that could resist expansion and the freedom to create whatever you want.  The first has induced a lack of interest in and knowledge of the motives of people outside the American continent and the second a contempt for people who fail because they have themselves to blame and not the world outside.  

The freedom to make what you want has a perverse effect on the valuing of facts. After the Iraq war an aide to President George W. Bush boasted to be glad not to belong to the ‘reality-based community’ (the critical journalists) because ‘We are an Empire now and create our own reality’. Conversely, this has also led to a broadly shared distrust against bureaucracy, at least where it touches the citizen. No wonder that it is easy to believe in fraud at the elections.

All this does not alter the fact that the average American holds democracy in high esteem, also as a matter of national pride. This attitude conceives of democracy as the guard of individual freedom. As soon as collective interests are at stake – as in the case of Covid-19 control – unbridgeable gaps open between the parties. In this respect democracy is not facilitated by a two-party system.


America’s election outcome is not comforting

The American election struggle has made the ideal of democracy as a safeguard for pragmatic decisions about the future (promoting peace, wealth, and equality) into an illusion. It is not guaranteed that a party with a reality-based program (for example about foreign policy) will win elections if it runs against misconceptions that have taken root in the public. It should be the duty of any political leader to correct misconceptions but as Paul Pillar correctly concluded in his book ‘Why America Misunderstands the World’ (2016) “Probably no one has ever won an election in the United States by telling citizens how ignorant or biased they are” (p. 158).

American misconceptions ensue from its history and geography (Dijkink 1996). The history of a self-contained state, untouched by the mischief reigning elsewhere in the world, and capable of creating itself by individual – although violent – action, has inspired both a lack of interest in and knowledge of the outside world and a hostility against government in general (the ‘deep state’ myth)  including scientifically based rules (like the response to the Covid-19 pandemic). It also entails a contempt for facts because ‘we have the power to create the world as we like it’:  facts merely describe the past.

These attitudes most clearly reside in the Republican Party and most shamelessly in the discourse of Donald Trump and his circle. It leads to a vision of foreign affairs as a struggle against an ‘endless series of demons’ (Pillar) which of course ends in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even the presidency of a Democratic candidate will be scourged by this discourse that continues to be used as a lethal weapon by his adversaries.

This electoral struggle has dealt a blow to the world both in credibility of the USA and belief in democracy as a stable political system.

Gertjan Dijkink, National Identity and Geopolitical Visions, Routledge : London, New York, 1996.

Paul R. Pillar, Why America Misunderstands the World. Columbia University Press : New York, 2016.

America: the last refuge of democracy (cartoon)
America and ‘war-mad Europe’ (Carey Orr 1933)


Climate as a game-changer

From my window in Mediterranean France

Despite extensive scientific documentation there is a group of obstinate deniers of the urgent need for preventing an environmental catastrophe. Since Trump’s presidency we know how contempt for science emerges in the highest political circles as a self-serving argument but let us briefly consider what the more serious impediments to action are.

Climate change not caused by human action

The argument is that the Earth in its long history has known many climate shifts like warm periods interrupted by an ice age, etc. Scientific data, however, show that the rate of change is incomparable to earlier geological periods and that the cause of environmental heating (carbon-dioxide) is clearly man-made.

Global action implies losing national sovereignty

Yes, and rightly so, just like arms control which aims at preventing the nuclear disaster that would end human civilization. The argument that our national states are the most logical units for ‘feeling at home’ is often accompanied with the denial of climate change. The Dutch far right politician Thierry Baudet, who believes that the national state is the ‘natural’ political shell for representing human needs, is not coincidentally a raving climate change denier.

Political action aimed at environmental protection is bad for the economy

Direct action (like limiting fossil fuel consumption) is damaging for the industry and entails higher costs for consumers. A policy that would lead to impoverishment of the population would be political suicide. However, this argument does not account for the fact that many new technologies (like solar panels or electric cars) are a catching possession, and that cleaner air would prevent many illnesses and make health costs much lower.

What the latter argument and its refutation makes clear is that a new geopolitical order based on saving the ecosystem desperately needs a positive storyline. We do not simply curtail material pleasures but create a new challenging environment that enriches our mental and material life.


The EU: globalization or de-globalization?

Early in the first Covid-19 surge, the Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev, started to note down his reflections on the political consequences of the pandemic, particularly in Europe. They were published already in the summer of 2020 in a book-essay (Is it Tomorrow, Yet?). Not surprisingly, in view of the still rampant pandemic, they took the shape of ‘paradoxes’: the pandemic reinforces globalization but also de-globalization. Both trends are possible simultaneously, of course in different political and social spheres.

The danger of getting infected promotes ‘staying-at-home nationalism’ which is different from ethnic nationalism because it unifies local people whatever their ethnic origin. Those distrusted in the French countryside were rather compatriots like the second home owners from Paris because they might carry the virus. At the same time, the staying-at-home attitude reinforced the role of governments, both local and national.

As the governments and their policies are getting more in the limelight, not around issues like the admittance of refugees (an issue bringing disruption in the European Union) but as promotors of public health, it also shifts attention to the international setting. People are comparing the performance of their own government in controlling the number of infections and deaths with those in other countries. This also entails emphasis on the need for international cooperation. It is another road to globalization without the customary emphasis on deregulation or liberalization but rather on multilateralism and ‘glocalism’. Whatever its disruptive political issues, the European Union seems rather well fitted to satisfy this model. It not only has a formalized structure to talk about issues that threaten the safety of its citizens but also central funds that may help to mitigate the economic disaster that follows the pandemic. Admittedly, this does not go without heated discussions, but it would be worse without this infrastructure.

The document French citizens were supposed to carry with them when leaving their homes (usualy for a maximum of 1 hour) during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic (April 2020)