Exposing ‘Empire in denial’

David Chandler’s new book reveals that the West’s penchant for state-building in the Third World is really about extending its power.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

David Chandler has become well-known for his critiques of the new interventionism of the Nineties. His latest book, Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building, extends his analysis to account for the changing character of interventionism in the early twenty-first century.

Chandler examines state-building, the idea that states in the developing world need to be constructed with outside assistance, in order to function as effective and legitimate members of the international community. For all the differences of opinion over Iraq and Lebanon, both Washington and Brussels concur on the necessity of state-building. What began as an ad hoc process of ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ has been extended to cover countries both in war and peace, from Eastern Europe to Africa through to the Middle East. A whole constellation of international organisations – including the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union – have reoriented themselves around this new imperative, which pulls together administrative, economic and political ‘capacity-building’ into a single policy agenda.

As Chandler points out, the newfound emphasis on buttressing states seems like an inversion of the Nineties. Back then, the dominant Western concern was about elevating the human rights of individuals over the interests of states, and stripping away state-led economies in favour of privatisation and free markets. Today, the consensus is that the state must be brought back in. This is exemplified in the way that elite economic opinion has absorbed criticisms of the Washington consensus, and now emphasises building up the administrative infrastructure necessary to support markets. Even with human rights, the doctrine of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, propagated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty since 2001, holds that states, and not the international community, should be in the vanguard of protecting the human rights of their citizens.

If strong, expansionist states were seen as the major international threat of the twentieth century, today the threat is seen to be posed by weak, failing states. The West’s response to this perceived threat is to build these states back up to be both effective and independent. Even protectorates are out of fashion. Instead of imposing United Nations viceroys on Afghanistan and Iraq (as was done in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor in the Nineties), new constitutions were hastily patched together for those countries, elections were called, and the new Afghan and Iraqi governments were welcomed as the latest members of the family of liberal democracies.

Yet beneath this apparent rediscovery of the importance of states, Chandler argues that Western power is being extended.

He is, of course, far from alone in being suspicious of Western foreign policy. Over the past few years, the academic discipline of international relations seems to have become a sub-field of ‘American empire studies’, with countless radical tracts competing to outdo each other in their depictions of a rapacious new imperialism. Yet Chandler claims that the new empire, such as it is, is at once more insidious and less monolithic than most conventional accounts suggest. If it is an empire, it is one that is wary of its own shadow. So foreign policy wonk Mark Leonard boasts that the European Union’s power in Poland is not imperialistic, because it has transformed Polish society from the ‘bottom-up’ rather than from the ‘top-down’, right down to regulating the food on people’s tables (1). Counter-intuitively, Chandler argues that state-building policies are less about refining domination than they are a retreat from the exercise of open power.

Drawing on the work of French theorist Zaki Laïdi, Chandler argues that the exercise of power today is characterised less by the embrace of leadership and responsibility than by their avoidance. In the absence of any ideological vision that can inspire, ruling elites are unable to defend the costs of exercising any power at all, let alone justifying the burden of an empire. By the late Nineties, argues Chandler, these questions of power, purpose and political responsibility had become unavoidable for the West. A series of ‘humanitarian wars’ had gnawed away at an international order based on sovereign states, and the West seemed to be accumulating imperial real-estate in the form of new client states and protectorates. As Chandler puts it, the clear preponderance of Western power posed the question: what did the West have to offer to the world? The burden of power can be borne if there is a vision to justify it. In its absence, political elites are less likely to shoulder the burden of leadership. While lots of moral rhetoric about protecting the rights of the vulnerable was spouted, there was precious little vision for taking the world forward.

With insufficient will to defend the costs of empire, state-building emerged as the ad hoc way of bridging the gap between the exercise of power and the avoidance of responsibility. Unlike other conventional criticisms of empire, what is distinctive about Chandler’s approach is that it accounts for the form that domination takes – namely, the emphasis on strong, independent states. He shows that the newfound commitment to ‘strong’ states is shallow and disingenuous. What an international technocrat means by ‘strength’ is not political autonomy, but administrative efficiency. Sovereignty has been reinterpreted not as an indivisible, absolute right of legal and political independence, but rather as a bundle of administrative capacities.

This is clearly seen in the cynical policy prescriptions of Stephen Krasner, Stanford political scientist and director of policy planning at the State Department. Anyone who believed that the ‘transfer of sovereignty’ from the coalition to the interim Iraqi government in 2004 meant independence would do well to read Krasner. He argues that sovereignty should be talked up to placate the apparently xenophobic Third World masses, while in reality sovereign rights will be curtailed by webs of international monitoring and constraints. But what Krasner misses, and Chandler points out, is that ‘talking up’ sovereignty is not motivated by the need to patronise the backward masses, so much as to allow the West to escape the responsibilities of direct empire.

The legal husk of the sovereign state is maintained while its political content is eviscerated. Talking up the formal importance of international legal sovereignty facilitates the repackaging of external coercion in the warm and fuzzy language of ‘empowerment’, ‘partnership’ and ‘capacity-building’. The result is what Chandler calls a ‘virtuous circle’ for Western states: ‘The more intervention there is, the more the target state is held to be responsible and accountable for the consequences of those practices.’ (2) The end logic of this redefinition of sovereignty is bizarre: ‘Governments which resisted this external assistance could, in the Orwellian language of international state-builders, be accused of undermining their [own] sovereignty.’ (3)

The rule of thumb for this ‘empire in denial’ is that the greater the inequality of power, the more gushing the language of ‘empowerment’ and ‘partnership’ – with Africa being the obvious example. Instead of externally enforced structural adjustment policies, development is now driven by ‘pro-poor’ strategies and the doctrine of ‘country ownership’. The reality of ‘country ownership’ is that African government ministries responsible for public spending are now stuffed with representatives of international institutions, Western states and the mega-NGOs. In many African states, it is impossible to tell where the reach of international bureaucracy ends and domestic politics begins. Chandler argues that for all the brutality of structural adjustment, it at least had the benefit of making relationships of power obvious. Clear external pressures facilitated the process of political confrontation; Western states and Bretton Woods institutions could be held to account for the devastating effects of structural adjustment. ‘Partnership’ and ‘empowerment’ mystifies the exercise of power even as it extends it.

Chandler explores these developments in relation to Africa and Eastern Europe, and particularly to Bosnia. Having been run by internationally appointed technocrats for over a decade, the importance of this tiny state is that it crystallises many of these trends, presenting them in a particularly concentrated form. Chandler makes the point that even though Bosnia is officially many years off becoming a member of the EU, in reality it is already more fully integrated than any current member state, right down to the national flag, which was expressly chosen to display the stars and blue and gold colours of the EU flag: ‘Bosnia is the first genuine EU state where sovereignty has in effect been transferred to Brussels.’ (4)

If you ever wonder what a country purged of politics and run by a bureaucracy would look like, read the chapters on Bosnia in this book. Chandler reconstructs in detail the bizarre, zig-zagging process whereby bureaucracy overreaches itself, realises it has no legitimate basis for the exercise of power, then recoils and retrenches, concocting new ‘participatory’ schemes along the way to provide retrospective legitimacy for its activities. So in Bosnia, the international community funds hundreds of NGO roundtables and workshops, always attended by the same 100 to 200 people, who are then taken as authentic Bosnian voices to legitimate the international administration that funds the NGOs in the first place (5).

Chandler argues that Bosnia presents the logical endpoint of the state-building dynamic. While the fiction of legal independence is maintained – Bosnia is a fully-fledged member of the UN – the Bosnian state has been pulled inside out. Instead of distilling the will of its people through a political process, the state is a transmission belt to relay the externally imposed edicts of international bureaucracy. Similarly, national elections are no longer seen as the opportunity for the public to pass judgement on government policy. Instead, elections are seen as educational exercises where the voters submit themselves to the judgement of international monitors and experts, to be assessed for their political maturity. The chapter on anti-corruption in particular is an eye-opener. Chandler challenges common prejudices about entrenched Balkan corruption, and exposes how the international community has fabricated the myth of a corrupt society, enforcing policies based on fabricated corruption statistics, formed through arbitrary correlations with budget deficits, lost tax revenue and even unemployment levels. The end result of state-building is thus self-defeating: hollow, brittle states with few political roots in their own societies, dependent on international power for their material support and moral authority.

Empire in Denial is a much-needed addition to the debate about empire and power in world affairs. Far too often, those who rail shrilly against empire, America and neoliberalism frequently present these forces as monolithic and unstoppable, begging the question of what sense it makes to resist them in the first place. Chandler, by contrast, shows that today’s empire builders recoil from the responsibilities of power, thereby making the exercise of power that much more unaccountable. Clearly, the first step in challenging empire is understanding that it is at once weaker and more subtle than it appears.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty, which will be published in December this year.

(1) cited p43, Empire in Denial

(2) p36, Empire in Denial

(3) p36, Empire in Denial

(4) p44, Empire in Denial

(5) p117, Empire in Denial

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Topics Politics


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