Idea Of The Day

The Apotheosis of Postmodernity?


As George Bush said after the Sept. 11 attacks, expect a new kind of war. Yet this is not just the first war of the 21st century; this is the first postmodern war, one that pits a well-defined yet mostly invisible enemy against powerful military forces that must employ less than traditional means such as horses and donkeys. The hot book is not Samuel Huntingdon ’s tortuous and false Clash of the Civilizations, but Robert Cooper’s short pamphlet “The Post Modern State and World Order.” According to Cooper, the modern state, in its early and late manifestations, lauded rationalist and progressive ideals, espoused in one way or another by Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Machiavelli, Newton, Leibnitz, Darwin, Clauswitz, and Marx, among others. The postmodern state, by contrast, is defined by notions of uncertainty, diversity, and existentialism: Wittgenstein, Camus, Joyce, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Warhol come to mind. Whereas raison détat, Machiavelli’s famous concept of power (which allows states to act differently from you and me) defined the age of the modern state, postmodern arrangements require transparency and accommodation. As Cooper writes of government in the postmodern world, “interests are not eternal.”

Within the postmodern world, there are no security threats in the traditional sense; that is to say its members do not consider invading each other. The “interests” that are debated … are essentially matters of policy preference and burden sharing. …  Such interests may change with governments. These are vested interests rather than national interests. In the United Kingdom, the Thatcher government brought with it a stronger commitment to open markets than its predecessor had shown. The “interest” in free markets was born in 1979—it was certainly not eternal.

The Europe Union is, in Cooper’s view, the first postmodern state. Yet there are, as a result of Sept 11, indications that the United States—the modern state incarnate—is moving in the same direction. Who would have believed 10 years ago that a U.S. attorney general would share state secrets about forthcoming terrorist attacks with the entire populace? Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calls for more seamless relations between the states and the federal government. Even the great anthrax scare, and the manner in which the authorities have addressed it, is in a sense indicative of government “by” and “with” the people, and less concerned with the authoritarian and modern “for” the people.

Evidence of the respect with which Cooper’s ideas are treated can be found in a speech delivered by British Foreign Secretary Jack Strawon Oct. 22. “The main condition for Afghanistan’s stability,” Straw told an audience at London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, “is that any new government should have not only the assent of its own people but the support of its neighbors and the global community, and an understanding that they are not going to compete with each other in Afghanistan. We have now appointed a senior Foreign Office official, Robert Cooper, who is well-known to many of you as an author and thinker on post-modern states, to develop our thinking …”

One of the first challenges of the postmodern state, and for its leading exponent, will be, therefore, to bring a postmodern settlement to a country that is, as Cooper argues, rigorously premodern: Afghanistan.