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The Postmodern State, Security and World Order1

The horrendous attack on a nightclub in Bali, where nearly two hundred people lost their lives,
brings home yet again a terrifying aspect of the globalized world in which we live. It is assumed
that the car-bomb attack was planned and executed by a radical Islamic terrorist cell working in
Indonesia that is part of the broader religious movement of Islamic fundamentalism, a movement
that also spawned al-Qa’eda and the catastrophe of September 11.2 Yet at this stage - only a few
days after the attack - it is too early to make this judgement with any authority.

The attack that focused on a western civic population rather than a military target highlights the
question of security and world order. Specifically, it highlights a feature of the contemporary world
that some have taken to mark modernity—a deepening crisis between America, representing the
western modern state, and a transnational Islamic religious fundamentalism. Samuel Huntington
(1993) in the early 1990s in his thesis on the “clash of civilizations” warned the West of potential
threats coming from pre-national civilizations which had continued to flourish outside of the
framework of the European Enlightenment. He called on universities in the West to develop “a
more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying
other civilizations and the ways people in those civilizations see their interests” (Huntington, 1993,
p. 49).3 Without endorsing Huntingdon’s analysis, I want to pose two questions:

In terms of security and world order how should we seek to resolve this crisis and widening
cultural gulf characterized by mutual demonization? Indeed, what ground is there—political,
cultural, religious or philosophical—between a premodern religious fundamentalism and the US,
as the world’s most powerful modern nation state and leading representative of “the West”?

I want to examine these questions in terms of a framework that draws on postmodernism.

Postmodernism has finally moved from the realms of aesthetics, popular culture and philosophy
into the worlds of foreign affairs and economic development. In the hands of Robert Cooper, a
British diplomat who is Deputy Secretary of the Defence and Overseas Secretariat in the British
Cabinet Office, postmodernism is the logical framework to understand the complexity of the post-
Cold War world and issues of foreign policy, security and global governance. In two important
publications The Postmodern State and the World Order originally written in 1996 and revised in
2000, and “The Postmodern State” recently published in a collection entitled Re-ordering the
World: The Long-term Implications of September 11 (Leonard, 2002), Cooper has exerted
tremendous influence on Tony Blair’s foreign policy outlook. The New Republic describes Cooper
as the foremost commentator on strategic issues of our age, and Cooper’s diagnosis of the era
we live in has taken on the power of prophecy after the events of September 11.

His analysis is terrifyingly simple and I would argue also alarmingly Eurocentric. While I am
prepared to accept some of the main elements of his description I cannot accept in either
principle or practice the prescriptions he draws from it.

Cooper argues that the year 1989 marked a turning point in European history. 1989 not only
marked the end of the Cold War but, perhaps, more fundamentally a change in the European
state system: it marked the end of the balance-of-power system in Europe. What emerged after
1989 is not a re-arrangement of the old system but an entirely new system based on a new form
of statehood, which Cooper calls the postmodern state.

With the emergence of the postmodern state, we now live in an international system comprised of
three parts: the pre-modern world (of, for example, Somalia, Afghanistan or Liberia) where the
state has lost its legitimate monopoly on the use of force and chaos reigns; the modern world
where the classical state system remains intact, and; the postmodern world where the state
system is collapsing and a new system is being born.
The new postmodern system of states is best characterized by the EC. It exhibits the following

* The breakdown of the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs

* Mutual interference in (traditional) domestic affairs and mutual surveillance
* The rejection of force for resolving disputes and the consequent codification of rules of
behaviour, rules that are self-enforced because all EC states have an interest in maintaining the
rule of law.
* The growing irrelevance of borders
* Security is based on transparency, mutual openness, interdependence and mutual
vulnerability (Cooper, 2000, pp. 19-20)

Cooper lists the most prominent postmodern institutions in terms of two foundation treaties: The
Treaty of Rome and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (the CFE treaty). He proceeds
to mention a number of other institutions that comprise the apparatus of the European
postmodern state system: the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); the
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines;
the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC); the Strasbourg Court of Human
Rights; the Convention on Torture; the IMP and OECD which operate systems of economic
surveillance; the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the International Atomic Energy Agency

Cooper argues:

In the postmodern world raison d’etat and the amorality of Machiavelli have been replaced by a
moral consciousness that applies to international relations as well as to domestic affairs. The new
security system of the postmodern world deals with the problems … that made the balance of
power unworkable. By aiming to avoid war it takes account of the horrors of war that modern
technology represents: indeed, it depends to a large degree on the technology and on the

It is also more compatible with democratic societies: the open society domestically is reflected
in a more open international order. And finally, since security no longer depends on balance, it is
able to incorporate large and potentially powerful states. The peaceful reunification of Germany is
in itself a proof that the system has changed (Cooper, 2000, p. 20).

The postmodern system of states—the so-called decentered state—originates in the postmodern

world. The old imperialism is dead, at least among Western states. Member states no longer want
to go to war against each other to acquire territory or subject populations. NATO and the EU,
while not responsible for 50 years of peace in Europe, have reinforced and sustained a greater
openness. As Cooper writes:

The EU is the most developed example of a postmodern system—it represents security

through transparency, and transparency through inter-dependence. The EU is more a
transnational than a supra-natural system (Cooper, 2000, p. 24).

The postmodern state is “more pluralist, more complex, less centralised than the bureaucratic
modern state”. In this postmodern system the state becomes both less dominating and state
interest becomes less determining in foreign policy. With the deconstruction of the state, the
media, popular sentiment, public opinion and the interests of particular groups and regions come
into play. As the deconstruction of the state proceeds—a process not yet complete—so the
processes of individualization, regionalisation and privatisation become more important.

Cooper also identifies the three stages of state development with three types of economy:
agricultural in the pre-modern; industrial mass production in the modern; and the post-industrial
service and information economy in the postmodern state. While he loosely associates the
political and the economic in terms of development, he says nothing about their inter-
relationships. I think this is a great weakness of his analysis, a point to which I shall return later in
the paper. One final point before I analyse the prescriptions that follow from his analysis,
especially implications for security. Europe is postmodern, on Cooper’s analysis, but which other
countries are postmodern? Canada is postmodern only up to a point. He writes:

The USA is the more doubtful case since it is not clear that the US government or Congress
accepts either the necessity and desirability of interdependence, or its corollaries of openness,
mutual surveillance to the same extent as most European governments now do. The United
States’ unwillingness to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and its relative
reluctance about challenge inspections in the CWC are examples of US caution about
postmodern concepts (Cooper, 2000, p. 27).

Elsewhere, he characterises the USA in terms of a “defensive modernism”. There is a certain

power to his analysis. As we know, after September 11, the US has created the Office of Home
Security, perhaps, the biggest change in government departments in the US since WW II. It is a
super-department combining departments of immigration, customs and domestic security with a
multi-billion dollar budget, at least equal in funding to what was previously spent on all security.
With this new office and the prevailing ethos, the USA has turned in upon herself, policing its
borders and monitoring the flows of people, information and goods in and out of its territory. As
well as greater internal surveillance, the US has shifted its historic policy of containment to one of
“pre-emptive first strike” and “regime change” in the name of national security.

Cooper’s analysis also seems to gel with recent developments within the EU—not only the recent
decision following the referendum in Ireland to admit 10 new countries and 100 million people into
the Union in 2004, with more to follow, but also significant differences in its foreign policy stance
from the US on the issue of war on Iraq—differences that have the potential to embarrass the
Anglo-American special relationship.

While I accept in outline the rough description that Cooper offers of the emerging postmodern
system of governance in Europe, I find the conclusions he draws unsupportable.

What does he say are the implications for security? In the postmodern zone there is a new
transparent and interdependent security order. “Our task”, he says “must be to preserve and
extend it”. (p.34). Yet dealing with the modern world requires a different approach as evidence by
the Gulf War and wars in former Yugoslavia. In the first case, he suggests the Western response
to Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait was exactly what it should have been:

Build the most powerful coalition possible, reverse the aggression, punish the aggressor, deal
with the weapons programmes (Cooper, 2000, p.36).

The initial support for the notion of a New World Order, following the Gulf War was based on the
hope that the UN was going to function as a world authority policing international law, that is as
an organisation of collective-security, but “the Gulf War was fought to protect an old order, not to
create a new one” (p. 37).

The case of former Yugoslavia is more complex. While Western intervention began in support of
individual, humanitarian, intervention it ran into Milosevic’s “thoroughly modern nationalistic state”
(p. 37). Kosovo complicated the picture further. While Tony Blair, full of postmodern aspirations,
proclaimed that ethic cleansing will not be tolerated and that the West would intervene not for
territorial imperatives but for values, Henry Kissinger, echoing the sentiments of the good
modernist, warned that we ought not to abandon the concept of national sovereignty. Kissinger is
suspicious of the doctrine of universal intervention.

Thus, for the postmodern system or state, there is a difficulty in dealing with militant, rogue
modernist states. Cooper writes:
We need to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the
basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of
state outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of
an earlier era—force (Cooper, 2000, p. 39).

But what of the pre-modern? On national grounds, Cooper says, the postmodern state should do
as little as possible because chaos does not represent a threat. I guess Cooper will have
changed his mind after September 11. There are many risks with interventions not least, “mission
creep” and changing public opinions at home.

Yet for the postmodern states, intervention in pre-modern chaos is unavoidable. He offers the
following advice:

make it less dangerous and more sustainable in the long run, there are four requirements:
clear, limited objectives; means, also with clear limits attached to them; a political process to
parallel the military operation; and a decision, taken in advance, to withdraw if objectives are not
achieved in a given time (Cooper, 2000, p. 41).

In his second essay Cooper (2002) openly advocates a new kind of imperialism. He writes:

What is needed is a new kind of imperialism, one compatible with human rights and
cosmopolitan values: an imperialism which aims to bring order and organisation.

Cooper distinguishes between two kinds of “new colonialism” that can “save the world”: the
“voluntary” imperialism such as the IMF and the World Bank, which “provide help for states
wishing to find their way back on to the global economy”, and the “imperialism of neighbours”,
when states intervene to sort out “instability in their neighbourhood”.

So much, then, for Cooper’s conclusions: what criticisms can be made of his position, a position I
should remind you, that has had great influence on Tony Blair’s thinking, and, accordingly, on
world affairs.

First, an argument based on a point alluded to earlier. What is the relationship between
economics and politics in the postmodern state or, indeed, more generally? Cooper prioritises
politics of the state over economics. While he postulates a parallel development of the state and
type of economy, he clearly thinks that these are two separate realms. If in the postmodern state
the power of national governments recedes with the advance of the growth of the private sector,
why should we not conclude that the interests of the postmodern state are strongly shaped if not
replaced, by the interests of multi-national corporations? And if we can make this argument, then
we also have to admit a set of linkages between, say, American-owned multinationals and
postmodern politics. The idea that the postmodern state can operate in some way independently
of the constraints of contemporary capitalism and its primary stakeholders is absurd. Such a
position is both naïve and flies in the face of geopolitical reality.

Let’s take the example of Iraq - a state drawn up in 1921 by France and Britain, whose oil
companies in return, were granted favoured arrangements and access to Iraq’s huge oil reserves.
(American oil companies were granted favoured arrangements in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s).
These pre-postmodern agreements entered into before the establishment of the Common Market,
now exert an influence on Middle East politics. My criticism, then, is directed at Cooper’s
separation of politics and economics, and also the way he believes that the postmodern state in
its foreign policy is driven by morality or by values rather than strategic economic interests. I
could extend this criticism further by examining the economic institution of the EU as a trading
bloc in competition with the US.

Second, there is the criticism concerning the synchrony of politics and economies. The US
economy, it could be argued, is more service-oriented and post-industrial than that of any
European state, yet its polity is less postmodern. Large parts of Europe are still agricultural—a
reason why the Common Agricultural Policy originally came into existence. At the same time, in
other countries, like China, the traditional exists alongside the modern and the postmodern not
only in economic terms but also one might say historically and culturally. It is a fact that a mixed-
mode exists simultaneously in the same country. Cooper’s framework, then, considered as a
whole applies to individual countries.4

Third, a problem that Cooper acknowledges in one sentence but does not elaborate. While the
postmodern state operates in a concerted fashion at the level of foreign policy, democratic politics
is still tied to the territory of the modern nation state. This is a problem in a number of respects
for, constitutionally speaking, the people can only exercise a vote or make their voice heard at the
level of the nation-state. Before Cooper can claim the reality of the postmodern state, he needs to
contemplate the necessity for genuine democratic structures and governance at the supra-
national level. Surely questions of European identity and a vision of Europe are intimately
connected with this problem?

Fourth, there is an argument from historical interpretation. Not everyone would accept Cooper’s
account of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo as an example of the “imperialism of neighbours”
which allegedly brought “order and organisation”. As Neil Clark of the Spectator comments, six
years ago Kosovo was at relative peace. He provides an account that suggests that Albanian
demands were channelled through the peaceful Democratic League party of Ibrahim Rugova.
The small groups of Albanian paramilitary, by comparison, were scattered, disorganised and

After the “new colonialists” became involved, with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the
fore, this group—the KLA—were used as a vehicle to topple the politically incorrect regime in
Belgrade. The KLA—first described as terrorists by the West—with a Western makeover became
“freedom fighters” linked to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda organisation. As Neil Clark writes:

So there you have it. Just three years before the Manhattan bombings, Robert Cooper’s new
colonialist forces were working along with Afghan and Turkish instructors in the KLA camps,
training mercenaries from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to make war on the forces of another
European state (Clark, 2001, The Spectator, http://www.spectator.co.uk).

Now, Clark argues, Kosovo is a mess, entirely the making of Cooper’s “new colonialists”. Far
from bringing stability and order, Cooper’s new colonialism, has done exactly the opposite. The
same kind of argument might be applied to the US backing, at one time, of the Taliban.

Finally, on the basis of these arguments, one may come to question not only the simplicity of
Cooper’s argument but also, more importantly, the conclusions he draws from his analysis. We
might also come to question an interventionism based on “values” for we can always ask “whose
values?” and it is not self-evident that the values of the so-called European postmodern state are
transparently the values that ought to be adopted universally. In other words, Cooper’s
conception is deeply and unapologetically Eurocentric and suffers from all the anti-imperialist
arguments that were mounted against the first wave of European colonialism by theorists that
have become part of the post-colonial canon (e.g., Fanon, Césaire, Said, Nandy).

If there is a case for humanitarian intervention on the basis of values, perhaps, we might consider
this option only in terms of development aid in the poorest countries in Africa as genuine
preparation for better governance but without the normal political and economic strings attached.
Or maybe the postmodern European state could exert its moral leadership, together with modern
and pre-modern states to strengthen the UN and its organisations as a genuine prototype of
world governance, rather than as an arm of American foreign policy.

More fundamentally, and returning to the two questions I posed at the beginning, what basis does
Cooper’s analysis provide for resolving or dealing with the clash between the radical terrorist cells
spawned by Islamic religions, fundamentalism and the modern or postmodern nation state?

Cooper’s analysis falls down here for this kind of clash or conflict cannot be thought out in terms
solely of the state—premodern, modern or postmodern. Islamic fundamentalism is certainly
premodern in one sense but it cannot easily be equated with any notion of statehood, even
although it may take a state form. It is premodern in one sense but it is also genuinely
transnational and fully globalized in another sense—we might even say, postmodern, in that it
uses all the globalised technologies of communication and means of war available to it. It is also
radically decentralized and, in essence, a movement that does not recognize the same
separation of state and religion that came to mark the modern state.

Thus, while I can accept some of the main features of his theory of state development, I cannot
accept the conclusions that he draws for security or world order. His characterisation of the
European postmoderm state system is helpful, although I would not want to universalize Europe’s
postmodern political experience as the only possible postmodern development of the state. We
might talk of the deconstruction of the state in terms of greater transparency, decentralization,
local autonomy, regionalization, and, indeed, democratization; perhaps, even of a “virtual state”
but these processes might take different historical forms.

Finally, I believe that Cooper’s model and prescriptions signally fail when it comes to the violent
encounter between the Western state system—modern or postmodern—and Islamic religious

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Cooper, R. (2002) “Why we still need Empires”, The Observer, Sunday 7 April:

Cullenberg, S., Ruccio, D. & Jack Amariglio, J. (2000) (Eds.) Postmoderism, economics and
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Davidson, L. (1998) Islamic fundamentalism. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press.

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Gendzier, I. (2002) “Islam and politics”, Logos, 1 (2)


Harrison, L. E. & Huntington, S. P. (2000) (Eds.) Culture matters: how values shape human
progress. New York: Basic Books.
Huntington, S. (1993) “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs, 72 (3).

Huntington, S. (1996) The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. London: Simon &

Inglehart, R. (1997) Modernization and postmodernization: cultural, economic and political

change in 43 societies. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Kaplan, R. D. (2001) The coming anarchy: shattering the dream of the post cold war. New York:

Langman, L. & Morris, D. (2002) “Islamic Modernity: barriers and possibilities”, Logos, 1(2)

Sidahmed, A. S. & Ehteshami, A. (1996) Islamic fundamentalism. Boulder, Colorado ; Oxford:

Westview Press.

1. A version of this paper was given as an invited public lecture at Beijing Normal University,
China, Thursday 10 October, 2002.

2. There is much disagreement over the term fundamentalism as applied to Islam.

Fundamentalism was coined in the early twentieth century to describe both Christian, especially
Protestant, and Jewish religious groups who believe in the literal truth of the Bible and whose
uncompromising beliefs often led to conflict with modern institutions and cultural practices. The
term has been generalized and applied to Islam to indicate a literal belief in the Koran and in
Islamic law (sharia), and it is used by some scholars to describe the revitalization of Islamic
society through a return to the fundamental principles and practices of early Islam. In this sense
Islamic fundamentalism is often regarded as a form of resistance to westernisation, although not
necessarily to processes of modernisation. Perhaps, a better term in this context would be
"extremists" rather than fundamentalists. On Islamic fundamentalism see Sidahmed, A. S. &
Ehteshami, 1996; Lawrence, 1998. On Islamic politics and Islamic modernity see Gendzier, 2002
and Langman & Morris, 2002.

3. See also Huntington (1996), Fukuyama (1992), Harrison & Huntington (2000), Barber (1996),
Kaplan (2001). Huntington argues that in a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather
than on ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity. He suggests that the Western
belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the
West into conflict with civilizations-notably, Islam and the Chinese- that think differently. For
Huntington the fact that the world is modernizing does not mean that it is Westernizing. Yet he
has been criticized for not taking into account strongly enough the existence of the multicultural
liberal state.

4. While Cooper associates stage of state and stage of economic development he does not
develop this point beyond the simple parallel, unaware of the growing literature in postmodern
economics (e.g., Cullenberg et al, 2001), postmodernization (e.g,, Braun & Klooss, 1995;
Inglehart, 1997) and postmodern development (1995).

Copyright remains exclusively with the author.

Michael A. Peters
University of Glasgow