In Other Words

The Postmodern Man’s Burden

Foreign Policy Centre, March 2002, London Empire" is among the dirtiest words in the modern dictionary of geopolitics. But in the postmodern world, a new version of imperialism could offer a range of solutions to present discontents. Or so Robert Cooper argues in "The Post Modern State" — an essay featured in Re-ordering the World: ...

Foreign Policy Centre, March 2002, London

Empire" is among the dirtiest words in the modern dictionary of geopolitics. But in the postmodern world, a new version of imperialism could offer a range of solutions to present discontents. Or so Robert Cooper argues in "The Post Modern State" — an essay featured in Re-ordering the World: The Long Term Implications of September 11th, a recent collection produced by London’s Foreign Policy Centre, a four-year-old think tank. Until recently, Cooper was British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s key foreign policy advisor; his views therefore have a certain global resonance. Because Blair is the only national leader currently offering unqualified public support for U.S. President George W. Bush, the theory of a new imperialism might yet supply a rationale to American as well as British policy toward seedbeds of terrorism, such as Afghanistan and other failed states.

Cooper considers the European Union (EU) the best developed example of a postmodern system, at a time when balance-of-power strategies are an anachronism and new patterns of voluntary interdependence between once warring states have emerged. In such a system, nations accept interference in each other’s domestic affairs, support international inspection of military hardware, and are eager to construct networks of control and support that transcend the usual jealousies of the nation-state.

The state, on Cooper’s reading, remains the building block of the world order. "The EU," he writes, "is more a transnational than a supra-national system." No European superstate will emerge; rather, existing nations will merely sacrifice some traditional state powers to enhance the greater regional good. Both modern and premodern states should share in this postmodern embrace through the exercise, on the part of the more enlightened postmoderns, of a benign form of imperialism.

Cooper cautions that remaining members of the classical state system that continue to operate by the principles of unvarnished national interest may need to be dealt with harshly. In some cases, he writes, "we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era — force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself." We postmoderns, he rather piously adds, may keep the law, but we are operating in a jungle and must know how to fight there.

Premodern or failed states present the risk of chaos. Indeed, they may not be states at all, explains Cooper, since they often lack command of territory or people. Here we find the world’s major drug producers, for instance, and the breeding grounds of international terrorism. Left out of the global economy, such states descend into the vicious circle of further disorder and less investment. For the world’s sake, they need help.

Enter the "cooperative empire" or the "voluntary imperialism," already emerging beyond the EU. Cooper cites the Balkans as a zone in which stability is supplied not only by soldiers but by an entire civilian task force — police, prison officers, bankers, and judges — welcomed there for the assistance they can give. The author’s admittedly idealistic and far-distant proposal lies in the missionary provision of similar services to failed states. He believes postmodern states should pursue such a strategy if the world is to avoid the horrors of terrorism and nuclear capability that, according to Cooper, the premoderns will soon possess.

Cooper’s thesis poses a particular challenge to the United States, since interdependence is hardly the organizing principle of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. The political elite and voters in the United States seem much more likely to understand preemptive attacks than the far-sighted yet self-interested generosity Cooper advocates.

In Britain, on the other hand, Cooper comes close to articulating the prime minister’s opinion. "The Post Modern State" could almost be called a Blairite tract, but for the somewhat muted way Blair — with the sole exception of his first major post–September 11 speech — has pursued this agenda. Moral imperialism is becoming one of Blair’s most striking traits: He favors an attack on Saddam Hussein and proposes enlivening African democracy, from Sierra Leone to points east and south. In this sense, Cooper supplies the intellectual superstructure for what Blair feels yet seems reluctant to say.

Whether Blair has the support of the British people, or even of his own party, remains unclear. But his message, I think, is one that few other world leaders would dare contemplate.

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