War without nations

Last Friday, Derek Gregory came to Madison to give a lecture in the Yi-Fu Tuan lecture series. His talk, “Drones and the Everywhere War,” described today’s use of drone strikes to prosecute the “war on terror” as the consummation of a nearly century-old dream of patrolling the air without the need for a human being sitting in the cockpit. But what’s interesting about drones isn’t just that they don’t have a person in them. They also create geographic wormholes, where a soldier sitting in a trailer at an Air Force base in Nevada is “in” Afghanistan. As Gregory quoted from an Atlantic article, “So much for the tyranny of geography.”

Yet there is, of course, a very specific geography to drone strikes—indeed, part of what makes drones so attractive to military strategists is their ability to target the tightly-defined area surrounding a single “asset.” Thus the “precision” quality of “precision warfare:” the geography of the battlefield is no longer a field within which enemies might be located, but the precise location of the enemies themselves. And, as Gregory writes on his blog, the battlefield is a very special kind of geography, for it is “the site of ‘exceptional norms’ within whose boundaries it is permissible to kill other human beings (subject to particular codes, rules and laws).”

All of this makes me wonder about the implication that drone warfare might have on the long-term viability of the nation-state as a territorial unit. After all, the primary and perhaps the definitional logic of the nation-state, emerging from the Peace of Westphalia, is a geographical unit which makes it possible to territorially delimit who is at war with whom. It is through this logic that we can say that, for instance, Germany is at war with France, meaning all of Germany is at war with all of France, rather than a particular set of people in Germany are at war with a particular set of people in France, and consequently that all of one part of the earth’s surface is a “battlefield” for the members of one other part of the earth’s surface. This assumption is axiomatic in international law; indeed, it is the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state which creates a separate body of “international” law in the first place.

What’s more, the territorial unit of the nation-state creates the legal cleavage between state-sanctioned violence as “policing” and state-sanctioned violence as “military action.” When a government takes security action within the borders of the nation-state, it operates under the power to police.1 When it takes security action outside of its borders, it operates under its power to wage war. Policing and war, though similar in their coercive power on real people, follow considerably different moral and legal regulatory systems, and the choice of which of these systems applies is not a question of how or why, but rather where the action takes place.

But the noose-tight “battlefield” of the drone’s target computer interrupts this logic. It no longer becomes necessary for the United States to declare war on entire nations in order to prosecute its claims on enemies abroad. Instead, it can “declare war” on a highly specific geography of a person, a compound, a village—no matter what country these enemy units might be contained within. And as these actions become seemingly more like policing than like waging war, they seem like—and in practice they often are—subject to domestic law rather than international law.

So what happens to the nation-state when its borders no longer make sense for metering out what part of the world is at war with what other part? Do we lean towards a true internationalism, a world governance of state violence in which all war is subsumed under world policing, as the nation-state crumbles away in uselessness? Or do we hang on to the nation-state and tilt towards a kind of phantom imperialism, where the jurisdictional boundaries of the most powerful nation-states and their domestic laws come to extend over the sweep of the entire globe, without explicitly recognizing the existence of this state of affairs as such?

  1. Except in the special cases of civil war or insurrection, which are at their very core about territorially severing one part of a nation-state from the rest