Notes From the Margins…

The World According to Robert Cooper

  • February 25, 2012
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Showing the balanced coverage for which the BBC is famous, Radio 4’s PM programme yesterday consulted the pith-helmeted former sage of the Foreign Office Robert Cooper on the West’s military options in Syria.   Cooper became famous as a foreign policy intellectual in 2002, when he published an essay in the Observer in April 2002 on ‘The New Liberal Imperialism.’

Billed by the Observer at the time as a ‘rare and candid unofficial insight into the thinking behind British strategy on Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond’, Cooper’s essay was published as the Afghan war seemed to be winding down, and the US was beginning to turn its attention to Iraq while its faithful British lieutenant prepared to ride shotgun.

In this context, a thinkpiece by a senior Foreign Office official gave a veneer of philosophical and strategic gravitas to Blair’s ‘liberal imperialist’ doctrine, with generalisations such as the following:

To understand the present, we must first understand the past, for the past is still with us….In the ancient world, order meant empire. Those within the empire had order, culture and civilisation. Outside it lay barbarians, chaos and disorder. The image of peace and order through a single hegemonic power centre has remained strong ever since.

Numerous historians have challenged the Roman imperial notion of a civilised core and a barbarian periphery.   But for Cooper, even the stalest and most discredited historical clichés were building blocs in the construction of a new imperial geography, in which 21st century barbarians were located in  a ‘premodern ‘ zone ‘where the state has failed and a Hobbesian war of all against all is underway.’

Order and civilisation were embodied by  the ‘post imperial, postmodern states who no longer think of security primarily in terms of conquest’, such as the European Union.  Hovering in some intermediate area were the ‘traditional “modern” states who behave as states always have, following Machiavellian principles and raison d’état’, such as India, Pakistan and China.

If these ‘postmodern’ states no longer saw security ‘in terms of conquest’ they were nevertheless obliged to borrow from the past, since

The challenge to the postmodern world is 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 states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself.  Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.

For Cooper, these ‘rougher methods’ might be required in failed states such as Somalia and Afghanistan ‘ where chaos is the norm and war is the way of life’, and which threatened the security of the ‘postmodern’ zone through acquisition of  weapons of mass destruction or simply by exporting chaos and disorder.

In these circumstances

If non-state actors, notably drug, crime, or terrorist syndicates take to using premodern bases for attacks on the more orderly parts of the world, then the organised states may eventually have to respond. If they become too dangerous for established states to tolerate, it is possible to imagine a defensive imperialism. It is not going too far to view the West’s response to Afghanistan in this light.

Not too far at all, and such ideas were nothing if not well-timed.    For Cooper,  ‘it is precisely because of the death of imperialism that we are seeing the emergence of the pre-modern world’ and the fact that ‘ Empire and imperialism are words that have become a form of abuse in the postmodern world’ .

He therefore advocated ‘a  new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values.’  Since those words were written we have seen numerous examples of this new ‘cosmopolitan’ imperialism in action, in Afghanistan – which Cooper somewhat prematurely hailed as a success story – and also in Iraq and Libya.

All these interventions have left a legacy of violence, death and destruction and political chaos.    But intellectuals like Cooper are useful to governments not because what they say is meaningful or because they get things right, but because of their ability to tell powerful people and institutions what they want to hear.

It is not remotely surprising therefore, that Cooper was appointed special advisor to the EU’s foreign service in 2010 by the Blairite peer and New Labour shoe-in as EU foreign minister Cathy Ashton.  Or that  Cooper demonstrated his ‘cosmopolitan values’ last March by  praising the crackdown by the Bahraini police on pro-democracy demonstrators,  in which dozens were killed and wounded.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the ‘shocking and illegal conduct’ of the Bahraini security forces.  But Cooper insisted that ‘the authorities were right to restore calm and order and that’s what they’ve done’ and  declared in response to reports of dead and injured protesters that ‘accidents will happen’.

In what Cooper called ‘a rather pleasant, peaceful place’ like Bahrain,  demonstrations and protests,  he suggested, could only be the result of Iranian interference.

Such is the man whose expertise was sought by the BBC yesterday.  Initially Cooper expressed caution about external military intervention in Syria, warning in his plummy vowels that wars kill people, including civilians,  and that their consequences can be chaotic and uncontrollable.

He then went on to argue that the West could in fact use the military option, for example,  by invoking the UN Convention on Genocide as a pretext.  He pointed out that genocide was extremely difficult to define and declared that he would not even try to do it.

So in Cooper’s view, the West might embark on a military intervention that he admits may kill many more people, on the grounds that the Assad regime is responsible for  genocide, even though he himself does not know what genocide is.







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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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