Monday, October 16, 2006

War and realpolitik in open societies

Martin Kettle made a good point in Saturday’s Guardian:

“Military action, especially by democratic states, requires new and more modern forms of legitimacy if it is to be politically sustainable. …most of our foreseeable wars are elective, just as Iraq was. They are fought on behalf of consumerist societies almost wholly unaffected by any form of direct engagement. They can no longer be fought or carried to completion without ongoing public education, debate and scrutiny. …
“Today's wars are won and lost on primetime, almost as if they are reality TV. Soldiers in the field now claim and exercise rights - to call up chatshows, and to phone, text and email home - that would have brought the campaigns on the western front to their knees within minutes. All of this makes military action much harder to launch and maintain than in the very different conflicts of bygone times.”

This reminds me of something Robert Cooper wrote [subscription-only], in a similar vein, in June’s Prospect magazine:

“The reason for attacking Iraq may have been an old fashioned piece of realpolitik but it is difficult to sell such policies to a wide audience, so policy tends to be cloaked in moral sentiments. …
“Realpolitik is both necessary in a world of power and unworkable in a world of democracy.”

I think this is the right idea voiced in the wrong way. Certainly democracy blurs the traditional picture of states interacting as unitary agents in a game of power politics (although this was always a simplification). But realpolitik continues, as policymakers pursue their definitions of their national interests; it’s just that the balance of power they act within includes more than just other governments.

It helps to keep in mind that the primary agents of realpolitik, those who make decisions about war and peace, are not states (a word often used interchangeably with ‘nations’) but governments. This small verbal shift makes it easier to see that policymakers must interact with and reckon with a wide variety of others, at home and abroad.

If a democratic government wants to go to war, it has to consider not only the reactions of other governments around the world but also those of its own people. The first objective of a government is almost always survival. In democracies, this is not just a selfish desire to hang on to the personal prestige and power of office, but more often a genuine belief that one’s own policies are in the national interest, and so one must remain in government for the sake of the country.

So you don’t pick a war that you’re likely to lose, or one that you could only win at the expense of international ostracism. But nor do you start a war that you could win and retain your world standing, only to be cast aside by an anti-war electorate in favour of a new government that would ruin all your good work.

In this understanding, the public is not a rival centre of power – that suggests far too much cohesiveness among public opinion and too much people–government hostility. Rather, the public can in a sense be thought of as a strategically essential political territory, a diverse source of power whose occupation depends entirely on consent and therefore persuasion. For an incumbent government, such consent will in the past have been sufficient for electoral success. But there are political rivals trying to persuade the public either to withdraw their consent or to demand more in return: most obviously opposition parties, but also indirectly media barons, religious groups, backbench dissidents, campaigning NGOs, corporate lobbyists and advertisers – and indeed foreign governments.

One of the key phenomena of globalisation is that the flow of power across national borders consists less of direct government-to-government relationships, particular when liberal, democratic countries are involved. This means that national governments don’t so much decline as experience new competition for political voice and allegiance (you could see the rise of individualistic consumerism or transnational religious activism in this light). But governments are still key players, and one option increasingly open to them is to influence each other indirectly, through contacts with foreign NGOs, businesses and the like – although these may often, for diplomacy’s sake, take place discreetly via proxies.

Immigration means that governments have to contend with parts of the electorate more likely to take a passionate, personal interest in how the country’s power is used abroad. The quick and easy availability of dissenting eyewitness reports and commentary from across the world means that the public more broadly will put less faith in the official line.

This sort of thing has always happened, but nowadays the scope is vastly increased. Globalisation doesn’t destroy the national state any more than democracy destroys the central government; but both dramatically shift the alignment of power within which policymakers operate. Military might is all well and good, but if its use leads to political reprisals through disaffected soldiers, alienated immigrant communities or well-informed global activist networks, then a battlefield victory may be a prelude to electoral defeat. This can be more of a deterrent than many armies are.

Carl von Clausewitz suggested in 1832 that wars are fought as “the continuation of politics by other means”. It’s perhaps not too cynical to also say that wars and elections may be fought as connected branches of power politics, as part of a government’s struggle for survival and advantage.

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