The price for our security

Pierre Buhler in conversation with Jarosław Kuisz · 20 January 2015
Pierre Buhler talks to ‘Kultura Liberalna’ about the postmo- dern character of international relations, war in Ukraine, the Islamic State, challenges facing Europe and about his new book ‘On the Power in the 21st Century’.

Jarosław Kuisz: Your magnificent volume about the power in the 21st century has been recently published. One can find there a lot of data about the world. Poland seems to be a minor player with limited options. Or perhaps not…? After the Russian invasion on Crimea, it is difficult not to begin with a question about your opinion on the main factors in- fluencing the international relations today – is it a soft power, that magnetic power of ideology and culture of a given co- untry, or rather a traditional hard power, state’s apparatus of coercion and violence?

Pierre Buhler: Distinguishing between the two doesn’t really make sense. We live in a postmodern world, where diplomatic relations are dictated by strength, but also by laws and compro- mises. The European project has radically changed the way we do politics. Many prophesized the triumph of soft power, but recent events in Russia and Ukraine exposed the illusiveness of such a view. Russia entered the stage of a political awakening, which materializes itself in multiple dimensions: through new legal solutions, and through a specific form of conflict, which allows enforcing its will without a formal declaration of war. Russian hybrid warfare proves that the conviction held by a part of European elite, that the Western values could be almost mechanically transferred to the East, was unrealistic.

This isn’t a surprise. You have painted a fascinating landsca- pe of the modern geopolitical transformations in your book. Few different worlds are presented on equal rights.

The model that I propose is purely empiricist. It’s based on co- existence of many worlds at the same time: postmodern, modern and pre-modern. Focusing on only one aspect of geopolitical relations is a mistake. Different rules govern the European Union, different the national states, which were projected before the Second World War, and different rules apply to the countries called in the old terminology the ‘Third World.’ I try to look at these subjects holistically, analysing its different configurations. What may seem to be anarchy, is in fact based on a sophisticated game of actors, who constantly keep an eye on each other and expect that neighbours might attack them the very next day.

But these actors are obsessed today with providing their ci- tizens a sense of a maximum security. Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who has recently passed away, wrote, that the status of modern political actors is determined by the skill to accommodate and effectively manage the risk.

That’s the way how people interpret the interventions, which are realized by the postmodern subjects in a pre-modern world. But this phenomena does not include peacekeeping operations and stabilizing missions organized by the international community in the global South. We cannot close our eyes to what’s happening much closer, right behind the borders of our own countries – for some day we might experience similar dangers.

And here we are back to the ‘state’s power’ in a very tradi- tional sense…

I refer to Raymond Aron at that stage, who defined the power as ‘an ability of a political subject to impose his own will on others. The power is not an absolute term though, but rather a rela- tional term, a relationship between the actors,’ that is mainly states. I tried to show in my book that the national state became a post-imperial vehicle of power. It is the strongest and the most resistant structure capable of absorbing all the attributes of power and projecting them outside.

At the same time we cannot miss the fact, that these skills, which had been exclusively limited to the national state in the past, are now within the reach of three subjects, which were excluded from the international affairs in the past. They got an opportunity to pass over the state power thanks to the digital revolution. These three are: international corporations, financial institutions, and organizations of social network, such as NGOs.

And how about terrorist organizations? You keep talking only about the institutions, which participate in construc- ting the new order in international relations. How about its destroyers?

The history of the so-called Islamic State confirms my theses. Let’s notice that the name itself is an interesting semantic choice. What is that ‘state’ in reality? It’s some ephemeral creature, without any international recognition, but which managed to take over, and to sustain some territory. That creature sits on a fence of different eras: between pre-modernity and modernity. On the one hand, it is a force, which acts accordingly to the logic of conquest and resources, which attacks recognized states, even if they are very vulnerable today; on the other hand, it’s an institution that recruits soldiers from all over the world, ready to sell resources from occupied territories and trying to exercise their political influences this way.

But the ephemeral Islamic State aspires to be a ‘mature state.’ We have been talking about the growing importan- ce of new subjects like NGOs or corporations. They were supposed to finish the national states once for all. But live shows something different. Some specific example: when the American National Security Agency needs some confidential information from corporations like Google or Facebook, it gets it straight away, which clearly shows who’s more im- portant: state or corporations.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The state is still the most solid po- litical unit in the world. It perfectly adapts to modernity. United States has mastered that skill. They use big corporations like Google or Microsoft to get information. Besides, servers of these companies are based in the US, and basically all of the electro- nic transfer of information goes through its territory. And the state has no scruples to use all the available means for its own means. The nature of enterprises is not to serve the public good, it’s to maximize the profits. In order to make more money, they need an environment which would give them security and a fiscal comfort. Ergo, corporations need states.

And what would you say about the current debate over the right to be forgotten in the Internet?

Discussions over the nature of power in the modern world are reflected in that debate. New actors, like Google, Amazon or Facebook are strong enough to challenge the state’s power in some spheres. The access to information is today a treasure, a real goldmine. Personal data are still considered in Europe to be a private issue, which should be commercialized. The struggle with Google is not only a game for money, but also a struggle for power, played by the states and non-state units. It’s important to notice that the European Union is also a challenge to the sta- te, as it takes over some of its competences. But the state is not awaiting its own decomposition, it cannot afford something like that. It’s still the only subject, which allows combining security, democracy and stability. National state or multinational states are only one of the political options available. Therefore, the state must adapt to the present conditions or it will vanish.

Perhaps then ‘adaptation’ is the key word in describing transformation of power in the modern world?

Naturally, but we have to define the ‘power’ first. It became so- mething dazzling, metaphysical, fundamental – something’s not easy to grasp. Let’s note that great theoreticians – Weber, Aron, Montesquieu – are very useful in explaining the relations of po- wer. We can still learn a lot from them. Therefore, I think that the intellectual, philosophical and political tools are still useful to describe the modern world in terms of power. But if we proceed with such enterprise, especially in relation to the subjects which are not states, but which are much more influential than, let’s say a hundred years ago, then we must forge a new language of geopolitics. The supreme goal – security – still lies at the heart of creating a state. That’s exactly what Hobbes describes, when he talks about the social control: ‘You listen to me, and I give you security.’ Nothing changed in this area.

But one had to pay a great price for security in Hobbes’s vision. It meant submission to an absolute power.

The Hobbesian description of the world may seem ridiculous to us in the 21st century. But we cannot disagree with Hobbes, who had understood perfectly that the foundation for a prince’s power is providing security to his subjects. When this foundation is gone, the sovereign’s position is endangered, and the initiated processes change the political spectrum completely. The sove- reign can loose his power easily. The modern world still follows that logic also because the state is till the only possible guarantor protecting the people and goods. I basically cannot see any other creation, which could replace the state in that position.

One would like to say: ‘poor European Union!’. Following the logic you are describing, a return to good old state power is inevitable. We have many people, for whom the power me- ans only providing security, but in a more ‘soft’ version than for Hobbes. For instance, if we talk about the welfare state.

Certainly, a welfare state is based on security offered to individuals, which is seen as progress. There are naturally some negative side effects of the welfare state, felt especially when it turns out to be inefficient. The modern state has to rethink itself once again, as there is no alternative to it. So yes – ‘poor European Union’ – but when we repeat that slogan, we must not behave as if we forget the positive aspect of the story. The foundation of the EU – at least in Mitterand’s intention – was a utopian vision of an eter- nal peace between the member states. Mitterand proposed that formula in a specific moment – when Germany was unifying and the Eastern Europe escaped Communism. The slogan ‘either Europe or tribal life’ found its time. It seemed to play a role of a panacea for the fears of returning to the tragic past. Quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, new kind of forces appeared from within, which try to destroy the fragile balance. I emphasize: I am not close to a utopian thinking about the EU. I don’t think that creatures like the Union will become the future of the state. Concentration of power on an American model, that is, federalization of Europe, would take a lot of time.

We have to face a great challenge then – try to live peaceful lives in a world of changing state structures…

Obviously. These challenges could be clearly seen in the results of the Scottish referendum. The most important question we must answer is about whether we want – and can – sustain the postmodern state structures. Otherwise, we will return to the world of modernity, whether we like it or not. I personally think that the latter will not happen. I believe that deeper integration between the states is the only option for the EU’s future.

But some theoreticians doubt whether democracy can func- tion outside the state. Wouldn’t the changes required to trans- fer democracy above state level require the dismantling of democracies themselves? Aren’t you worried by this?

But democracy may have various forms. In the United States, democracy exists not only on a states’ level. USA managed to de- velop democracy on a federal level as well. It didn’t happen at once, naturally. Today we look at it as on a finished project, but for the first decades after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the federal level was not seen as a level appropriate for democratic solutions. United States, which are considered to be the cradle of modern democracy started as a federation of states, which became democratic only over some time. Let’s notice that the presidential elections in the US are still not de facto universal. Electoral votes matter, and those are elected at a federal level. So these are the elections that proceed on few levels. But no one denies that the president of United States is elected democratically. I think, that there exists a European subject, which is a people’s creature, that can transgress the idea of state, and which was created in order to gain a transnational power through different treatises. So saying that democracy is impossible on a Pan-European level is an example of an unnecessary bending of reality. For instance, the European Council is the expression of democracy on a European level. The body comprises of state leaders, who are elected in universal suffrage by the citizens of their own countries. In this way, their decisions have a political legitimization from the societies of the member states. We cannot simply the mechanism in which the community works. We have to acknowledge the sophisticated structure of the European ma- chine and talk aloud about the good it brings in terms of common interests, security and prosperity, or freedom of movement. It is this specific set of common goods that are valuable and which cannot be provided by the state itself. There is then a specific political space, which follows its own logic, and which cannot be replaced by anything else, including a simple return to the idea of a national state.

* The book expresses the Author’s private views

** Polish version edited by Błażej Popławski