War Without Boundaries

By Ellen Meiksins Wood, Canadian Dimension, November/December 2001

It should go without saying that to try and explain “what's happening to all of us and why” is not to justify the horrors in New York and Washington. Nothing can justify that. No one “had it coming to them,” least of all the thousands of innocent people who died. If Osama bin Laden is responsible, we have little reason to support his patently repressive aims. But even if such actions had been in pursuit of goals we share and had some hope of achieving them, no end could justify these means. The fact that they set back the causes we believe in only makes it that much worse.

War without Boundaries

This doesn't necessarily mean that war today will be more global or bloody than earlier world wars. It simply means that we are growing accustomed to military action with no clearly attainable objective, identifiable enemy, geographic target, or endgame: the war against drugs, so-called humanitarian wars, and now the war against terrorism.

Still, we do have to try and explain—at least the context, if not the inexplicable act itself. I’m sure many others in this discussion, in answer to a question like “Why do they hate the U.S. so much?” can provide a long bill of indictment, an imperialist record on every continent and the damage inflicted by globalization. This is certainly a record that needs to be heard, especially by a U.S. population notoriously detached from global realities. And even though the recent atrocities were crimes against humanity, perpetrated (if indeed Osama bin Laden is behind them) in the name of values even more repressive than the ones they were directed against, we still have to ask why such organizations can garner support among the desperate, the dispossessed and the voiceless.

Infinite War

But I want to touch on another aspect of the current situation: why we fear, and have reason to fear, that the response of the U.S. will be the kind of retaliation that can only make a horrible situation even worse. As I write, we are being told that, despite the wild rhetoric of war and revenge, despite the ongoing mobilization, the “moderates” in the Bush Administration are, for the moment, winning and that the first response may be “restrained” and “proportionate”—whatever that might mean. Although it's too early to say, we can only hope that, for once, the U.S. government will be deterred by the likely consequences of such a war. But it remains a telling comment on the world in which we live that supporters and critics alike have come to expect anything but a restrained response from the U.S.

Just before I sat down to write this, when I had already decided to call it something like “War Without Boundaries,” I read that this latest deployment was being called “Operation Infinite Justice.” That name has since been discarded (not necessarily for the right reasons). But, aside from the incredible imperial hubris it displays (Bush's project, he tells us, is nothing less than ridding the world of evil), it perfectly sums up what is becoming the U.S. strategy of choice: war without boundaries or borders. The U.S., of course, has a history of massive, high-tech assaults. But more particularly, war as the U.S. now conceives it is infinite—not finite—in its objectives and in its geographic reach.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that war today will be more global or bloody than earlier world wars. It simply means that we are growing accustomed to military action with no clearly attainable objective, identifiable enemy, geographic target, or endgame: the war against drugs, so-called humanitarian wars, and now the war against terrorism. In none of these cases is “war” simply a metaphor. For those on the receiving end, it is a literal (if not legal) reality, with the force of U.S. military might behind it. Yet in none of these cases is military force likely to achieve what its perpetrators claim for it. If anything, the unintended (or, at least, we have to hope they are unintended) consequences are likely to make matters worse. This has been so consistently true that we may be forced to accept that the policy of war disconnected from objectives and consequences is an end in itself.

Military action this time will be even more detached from objectives and consequences than its predecessors. War will not end or reduce terrorism. If terrorism is curtailed, it will be by means that have little to do with war, and military intervention will have more to do with show and symbolism than with any achievable practical objective. A more likely result is “collateral damage,” from innocent civilian casualties to the monstrously dangerous threat of instability in Pakistan, the region, and the whole Muslim world—an endless cycle of violence, including more terrorist acts.

The kind of open-ended and targetless war to which the U.S. is wedded has obvious advantages in creating a climate for repressive measures, at home no less than abroad. The American people—and others in the Western world—are being prepared now for a long “struggle” requiring serious assaults on their civil liberties.

Demonstrating the Power of Global Capital

It is also true that a borderless war against an invisible enemy is very well suited to the new imperialism of globalization. The objective today is not the capture of territory or the establishment of colonies. The problem is to control a whole world economy, everywhere and all the time. But, as I’ve argued on other occasions, there is a big difference between, on the one hand, establishing sovereignty over territory, a specific, clearly identifiable territory with known boundaries, and, on the other hand, establishing sovereignty over an anarchic global economy. To the extent that military force is, and must be, deployed in order to sustain that kind of borderless control, there aren’t many options apart from the periodic display of force, just to demonstrate that the power of global capital—and the U.S. in particular—can go anywhere at any time. Isn’t that what people call terrorism?

This isn’t, of course, to deny that the current deployment is, at least in part, a response to a real horror (though the Guardian in Britain has revealed evidence that an attack on Afghanistan was planned before the recent atrocity). The point is rather that the U.S. has by now established a pattern from which it seldom departs, even when it is painfully obvious that the means are ill-suited to the professed ends. When Madeleine Albright was the U.S. ambassador to the UN, before she became Secretary of State, she challenged the so-called Powell doctrine, which (though Powell's current boss may force him to forget it) requires that military action have clear and finite ends, adequate means and exit strategies. “What's the point of having this superb military that you’ve always been talking about,” she objected, “if we can’t use it?” Of course, if the aim is not a specific strategic goal but just pre-emptive terror, military force must be used not only often but (as Henry Kissinger once said) unpredictably—or, to put it another way, irrationally.

But if this pattern of military action has clear associations with globalization, it should be obvious that this has nothing to do with the decline of nation states. Although it suits the ideology of imperialism without frontiers, and war without borders or boundaries, to make us believe that globalization is displacing the nation state, this simply isn’t true. The current military campaign, like others, is, of course, being carried out by nation states. But the more general point is that, global capital can’t function without something like the nation state. The ever-present threat of U.S. military force, however much it may serve the interests of capital, is not at all suited to maintain the kind of daily order, or the conditions of accumulation, that capital needs. For that, a plurality of local states are indispensable, as long as they remain in the right hands. The periodic deployment of military force is one way of shaping the political environment and keeping all those states in line.

In fact, the more global capital has become, the more the nation state has become the dominant and universal political form. This is in no small degree due to a deliberate imperial strategy of creating nation states, even where none existed before, as a better way than traditional colonialism of transmitting the demands and fulfilling the needs of global capital. Today's terrorism is nothing if not a legacy of that strategy.

The targets of these attacks, for better or worse, are above all certain states, not just Israel but regimes like Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden and many of his collaborators come from, and the United States, which supports those regimes. He and others like him are a legacy, among other things, of a long history, beginning at least with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the nation states that were created by Western imperialism to serve its own interests, not those of local populations. Since then, the U.S. and Britain in particular, while supporting reactionary forces (as the U.S. once supported the Taliban and bin Laden himself), have worked to destroy revolutionary or secular national liberation movements that have sought to replace such repressive regimes. The political vacuum is now being filled by “fundamentalist” madness. In this and other ways, the U.S. and its allies have created the monster they’re now hunting down.

Postscript: As this article went to press, I read in the London Observer that the hawks in the White House have a plan they’re calling “Operation Infinite War.” The plan, says the report, calls for “open-ended war without constraint of either time or geography.”