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Civil wars Arrow Empire of disorder Vol 1 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 1 Number 1, 2002


Civil Wars Everywhere


Alain Joxe

Alain Joxe is the leading French specialist in strategic issues. He is the head of a group in sociology of defense at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en sciences sociales and founded the Centre International de Recherches sur la Paix (CIRPES – International Center for Research on Peace). The complete 12,000 word version of this dialogue is contained in Alain Joxe, The Empire of Disorder (New York: Semiotext[e] 2002)


Given the current state of things, everything that is connected with free trade, with economic neo-liberalism, goes America’s way.

The State officially intervenes in favor of free trade, but to them it seems like a non-intervention. If you add a little historical depth and political culture here, from the European perspective, you will find it to be a pretty limited way of seeing things. It is obvious, and all the American leaders say so, that this intervention is intended to "shape" [mettre en forme] social and political forms. Shaping is the catchword of the moment: "to shape the world," "to shape Europe"… And if this is not politics, what is it?

Politics does not disappear, it is merely relegated to "shaping" the political world so that it is favorable to direct action by corporations. This version of things is certainly not prohibited, but you cannot say that it is a non-political policy. It is politics. It is social politics, economic politics, but also military politics. And there is the shaping carried out by a military presence. "Making the state," at the same time, means making the army, the politics and the conditions of the economy. In the encounter between a European project for the Balkans and an American project for the Balkans, normally, there should have been a nice debate that would have been completely real…

On "shaping"…

… on shaping – what do we mean by "shaping." If there is no agreement on what we mean by shaping, there will be confusions, even open conflicts, and in any case, broken-down peace in the projection zones.

Exactly. The United States yet has to find their shape. At the moment it might happen through the war in Iraq, Kosovo, etc., or independently of real conflicts in the field. It might not even be shaping a military conception of political strategy.

Yes, but we have to suspend our judgement about that topic a bit. If you say that the military is very important, you have to say that it is absolutely fundamental because it represents the threat of death. And the threat of death is essential for creating power. But the problem is that this threat of death is not aimed at conquering. The Americans refuse to take a territory by military means and install their troops to resolve political problems.

What they want is the world.

They want the world, but they don’t want to invade the world. Their military action is therefore intended to manage the world by using this threat. But to do what? When the economy is the objective, you could say that the objective is not exactly to create the reign of a pure free market in the world, because what would reign would be a march open under a threat and regulated by that threat. Of course, if you say that to Americans, they won’t recognize their generous, democratic country; but strategically, that is what comes down the pipeline. This worries even the American military.

Even now, in reference to Kosovo, they are saying: we are being sent to do a mission, we do not know why. What is this "military revolution"? And they will never be able to specify why it is if it is the way I said. Obviously a democracy like the United States could never say: "This is our strategy." However, if the overt strategy is to bring dictatorships to an end and to establish democracy throughout the world - because that is what it is being said - then they should say: Listen, we’re sending our armies, but they are there to re-establish democracy against regimes like the Milosevic regime, who is a fascist, etc.…

But you cannot say that this strategy interested them very much when there were dictatorships all over Latin America.

Well, it is hard to comprehend why they have taken such a late interest in it. In fact, the mystery is still greater now that we can see their material interests. The lignite in Kosovo still does not interest the American system, what interests them is American interests as they have developed over the past ten years. In other words, their interest in showing their military leadership and in saying that it is good for them, means that military leadership is essential for the economy. But this interest is global; the local relationship is not always explicit. It cannot really be seen in Kosovo since its presence is not directly predatory.

Couldn’t we talk in terms of the attempt to erect a new system of deterrence - since you are a specialist in deterrence - something that wouldn’t be on par with an atomic threat, but would be the threat of this unbeatable technological and computerized force?

Yes, it is a sort of threat of coercion through a form of ubiquitous, "detailist" presence. Foucault could be relevant here, obviously, because you have both the capability of reconnaissance and of targeting. And in this case, there is a sort of paranoia, of complete domination of every scale of the planet, the macro, meso, micro levels, etc. Local demonstrations of reconnaissance and targeting capabilities have a global strategic value.

A few months ago Kissenger bluntly stated in the Le Nouvel Observateur: "We have chosen to know everything, be aware of everything." So they have ten thousand people in Washington who analyze everyday all the images, all the messages for the Pentagon. Or at least that is the picture they paint for us.

Yes and no. If I wasn’t convinced that Kissinger were a very intelligent man, I would say that he was crazy. So if he says that, he cannot be serious. I think he is kidding.

It is a form of deterrence… People have to think that they can control everything, that is part of deterrence, isn’t it?

I’m not so sure. Deterrence cannot rely on absolute security alone, it must rely on the capability of punishing the things you were not able to control. So if you think you can control everything, you will have to punish absolutely minuscule things all the time and that’s really tiring – you not only need observers, satellite decoders but also a lot of cops…

You always need enemies…

Just a second. In principle the enemies will be ironed out of the smooth world of harmonic trade. But that leads to a state system of control – or all repression would have to become automatic. You automate information and it will say: ‘Over there, there is a Mafioso stringing up his neighbor, and I send a self-guided dart to punish him, to paralyze him.’ And then we are off into a sci-fi world and wild imaginings…

Just a moment. Try to compare nuclear deterrence and the system of electronic and computerized repression as we can picture it or imagine it today.

Nuclear deterrence works, if it does, because you burn your own boats. One says: Excuse me, you are threatening us in such a way that I prefer dying and taking you down with me. De Gaulle said to Kruschev: "We shall die together, Mister Secretary General." So once you get to that point, you can start talking politics. The common threat of a major explosion leads to a preference for negotiation. That is why the Cold War was: a constant negotiation. You take Czechoslovakia, alright, we’re going to do what we want in Yugoslavia, or elsewhere. The war never happened because there was a common interest that was symbolized and latently fulfilled in the nuclear explosion that could not have been measured.

Paul Virilio called this state terrorism when civil populations are held hostage by means of reciprocal threats.

And then it changed a bit near the end when precision weapons began to appear that allowed to envisage the possibility of ultra-rapid operations that were highly efficient but not nuclear. Now, nuclear arms are no longer a deterrent because there is no more East-West opposition and we are in the detallist era. Yet in spite of everything, you could say that if the United States does not want to wear itself out, which really is the primary part of imperial preoccupations, and I think that they have them – we can’t control everything, we can’t dominate everyone, etc. – then I think that Kissenger was being facetious. He said it, but as a way of saying: "See what I mean, they’re crazy." Because he is someone who is slightly more capable of considering diplomacy as an art and not a science. And that is where we are: he is more of a European to a certain extent, for better or worse.

He is the one who said at the beginning of the Gulf War, but always with a touch of humor, that in any case the decision to start a war instead of an embargo was necessarily made when a certain number of soldiers had been reached and they had to be moved around – because you cannot leave soldiers in the desert with low Coca-Cola supplies for too long, they have to go in shifts – and you cannot move them around without reducing their numbers. There were too many of them to relieve them all in equal amounts without draining all the NATO troops. So they had to use them before withdrawing them because otherwise it would seem like a retreat, and then their leverage would have disappeared. That is a detailed strategy. And then he said that from the moment when twenty thousand men more were sent or fifty thousand more, they could not pull out because they had to be used before a certain date. Afterwards, they would have had to be withdrawn without using them and the embargo would not have been credible.

And all that despite the aerial forces, the high-precision weaponry, etc.

Yes, because the United States had in some way to create an interest sui generis in the success of this military expedition. They could have made it the success of a military presence if they hadn’t sent so many men, but since they did, they were forced to use them because otherwise they would have had to withdraw some for no reason.

And the threat itself was not enough? Because it was real.

The threat would have been sufficient if it had remained constant. But if you accept to reduce the contingent before using it…

Yes, but the contingent was only one of the many factors involved in the Gulf: there were also boats, the air strike forces…

If we are reasoning in terms of deterrence, that does not work. There is something psychological involved. If you send an expeditionary force and you reduce its numbers without obtaining anything, your naval blockade loses credibility as well. Moreover, a naval blockade has never been very effective. They find ways around it, especially since Iraq is not even an island, there are holes everywhere. Psychologically, the idea that he would say: alright, they are too strong, we will negotiate – that idea could not occur if the blockade was maintained alone with a contingent that would continue to grow smaller. But informational and technological deterrence is also psychological…

Then they didn’t have a choice. They had to attack immediately.

No, as soon as you know that on a certain day you have to reduce the number of troops, you have to attack before. And that is exactly what happened. And he said it in September, in other words before it was theoretically decided to attack.

Returning to the notion of deterrence: in order to have a deterrence that replaces nuclear deterrence, first there has to be a threat; then there has to be a real danger. And there have to be some room for strategy…

It is common these days to study deterrence using the tools Tom Shelling forged under the term "coercion." Shelling is a game and nuclear strategy theorist, but he also conceived of the post-nuclear or para-nuclear starting with the Vietnam War. When the bombing started in Vietnam, everyone thought that the message of these bombings, limited but targeted, would force the Vietnamese to think and say: "OK, under these conditions we will negotiate." That is "coercion" thinking, in other words a pressure that is sufficiently well done to obtain precise results.

It did not work in Vietnam, maybe because the North Vietnamese were communists. Now that there are no more communists, this pressure should work – and above all, they did not have this electronic time, progress has been made since then – but there was a return to Shelling’s thought. These schemas are rational from a certain point of view, from the point of view of strategy on the scale of universal history, but this does not hide the fact that it did not work. Now they think that maybe it could work since the atom is no longer part of the game, because precision electronics, etc., have been improved, satellite observation can observe details down to the metric level, so we should see a system as perfect as Bentham’s Panopticon being established, or more what we could call "Panopolitics"… This system is a dream, and dreams are not reality.


But does it [the panoptic system] constitute a system of deterrence?

Personally, I don’t think so at all. Why? Deterrence from something means having an undertaking that corresponds to an ambition, a relationship of forces, etc. But what will be important in considering deterrence is the deterrence of the people.

Which people?

All peoples in general. In the Third World, those who are stuck in the polarized society, between accelerated poverty and accelerated wealth. The entire economic strategy will have to be revisited if you want to deter people from revolting. How can you keep people from rising up if they are dying of hunger? Deterrence strategy cannot solve that, they will die, that’s all, but they will not have been defeated. You can only defeat the living. Obviously, you can destroy an entire people, but if you do, you cannot call it a victory. If a victory has no goal, it simply ends up being a massacre, though I do not think that is the aim of American civilization and culture. It becomes the objective by accident, in a way, because of the extraordinary increases in precision for targeting and electronics, so in part due to general technological progress.

And it becomes the objective because there are no designated enemies, and thus the enemies who remain cannot be named. So they look for a name, a name like "narcotics traffickers," or Islam – but this is not even sure to work, since the Americans work very closely with the Saudi Wadabits. Not Islam, then, but the enemy cannot quite be found. If we look at what we are trying to get rid of: disorder, disturbance, well, this disorder and these disturbances are caused in part by American economic strategies. The reasoning does not quite bite its tail, and I think that the United States is capable of examining it closer.

But can you find a military form, or shape the military, without having an enemy? Isn’t that a bit of a vicious circle. I think it is the current problem.

It is a vicious circle, but you can move around the vicious circle, and one sees how: if you launch humanitarian expeditions to save widows and orphans, little children whose arms are cut off, etc., then there will be expeditions, and the particularly atrocious things going on in Liberia, in Sierra Leone certainly have to be stopped. And yet the cause is not really located in these countries, but in the fact that there have been no efforts made to develop them. If people are dying of hunger, they are ready to do anything they can to take control of a diamond mine. Since a formal state does not exist and redistribution is replaced by corruption…

These are all political problems. If you do not have a political program, you let these things continue as Americans are doing. They say: the situation is regrettable, but that we are not imperialists. Then the state is not given a shape; only the economy is given a form, a destructive form. If we had some political programs, we would have to approach the problem of social republics, something the Americans do not do. The only person who opposes the Republic to the Empire there is Patrick Buchanan – he opposes what he calls the "Republic," speaking of the Republican extremist right-wing, to the Democratic Empire, which is not at all what I want to talk about. Buchanan is part of that American tradition that sees the United States as a country blessed by the gods, you find there everything you need, so there is no reason to open up to global commerce or depend on it, etc. This dream has been erased in practice for so many years that Americans do not realize that they survive thanks to forms of commerce that offer them credit, and so they think that they do not need anyone else. If there are so many tragedies now, it is precisely because instead of remaining a normal nation they wanted to rule the world.

The imperial idea is: let it pass, laissez faire. Democracy promoted through the economy.

Yes, the President of the United States has a dual role: preside over the United States and dominate the world. That dual function has been around for quite some time.

There is nonetheless a certain shaping on the economic level, since the economy now rules everything. To the extent that it produces democracy, it is thought to be capable of eliminating conflict, etc.

But shaping the economy induces shaping a certain repression. Until now, this repression did not reveal itself overtly as repression because it took the form of state crises and Balkanization…

But elsewhere…

Of course, the United States gets along fine because it has the pipe flowing in its direction, but elsewhere. And repression also appears in the form of the restoration of democracy. Restoring democracy is better than dictatorship in the end. So the free-market economy undergoes a certain number of transitions in order to coincide with the restoration of democracy, as happened, for example, in Brazil and in Argentina. But this is not the rule. It happens in some countries because they have a history that fits the model that is presented as general. In fact this model is particular to certain countries.

Now you have the restoration of democracy in Chile at the same time as a form of crisis that may devalue democracy, even though it is a profoundly democratic country. In Colombia, however, they might have a chance in that they are facing both the harshest economic deregulation measures and the harshest phase of war. So that when things start going better economically, in five or ten years, and democracy and peace are restored, then it will work. That strategy is extremely cruel. It might be an unspoken part of the American system. When we look at it from an European perspective as a historical fact, we seem like the bad guys to American public opinion, which is utterly lacking in historical perspective. In France, we have committed mistakes of this type, as in Algeria. If we had restored democracy at the same time as we introduced the Constantine plan, okay. If we had established the Constantine plan and it did not work and on top of that democracy was not allowed…

In Algeria it was "pacification" with economic measures in tow.

That’s right. The idea that we pacified first and then we have a development plan. But the development plan was a plan, therefore a liberal sin . Maybe the Americans will tell us: because you wanted a controlled economy, whereas what we do is liberalism. Just looking at Algeria today, it has been subjected to liberalism without democracy, and it is not clear, the violence unleashed over there, unfortunately. It’s rather a dictatorship plus armed groups. And then there is petroleum involved, so we know the American interest is real. I think that in Europe we tend to make up fewer stories, even though we speak less.

Americans make nice speeches, pretty radical ones at times. American NGOs are highly critical of the way in which the American government acts, but on the decision-making level of the government, they are not taken into account. NGOs are active, but they have not kept war from breaking out in Colombia. So I think the problem is to have a greater awareness of the relation between the global economic system and the military system. Because the military system in fact cannot resolve the problems of the economic system. It cannot, and all its refinements will never allow it to deal with things on a sufficient level of prevention…

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© semiotext[e] 2002
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