Liberal Governance and War


In this article I will try to introduce the concept of “liberal governance” – a term to define the doctrine of statesmanship in liberal capitalism, and its relationship to warfare. My sources are mostly from the field of Critical War Studies, such as Steve Niva, Julian Reid and Michael Dillon. All are found on /freedu/, a trend I will try to maintain for any potential future articles.

The Core Ideas of Liberal Governance

What foremost separates liberal governance from the regimes of old is that it, in appearance, rules by allowance rather than restriction. While this only serves to obscure the actual violence of the system, the liberal governance modus operandi still radically differ from that of its predecessors. Reid and Dillon describes liberal governance as organic, cells of institutions, NGOs and parliamentary bodies forming a information network. It upholds no central ideal of governance but rather function on a basis of evolutionary “fitness”, constantly restructuring and reorganizing to improve its function to apply either soft or hard power within society.

Liberal governance thus never allows itself to be seen as a distinct part of the state, such as the monarch or the party-form, but rather subverts any opposition and uses it to further its own existence. Even the most staunches critics of the system can flexibly be appropriated into the machinery. (Weizman) Liberal governance will thus not allow any serious enemy or external political entity to form, all oppositions must exist within its own framework. Liberalism is thus truly totalitarian; unlike the ideologies of old it does not even leave space for a competing narrative, since the grand narratives are decreed dead. (Reid & Dillon)

In its totalitarianism we also enter the second trait of liberal governance, globalism. Within the liberal narrative there exists no opposition, only exceptions. It’s from this mind-set that liberalism develops a theory of war without enemies, aptly named Strategic Communication.

Strategic communication relies on a view of the warzone as Human Terrain, by this theory the hearts and minds of warzone populace becomes equally (if not more) important as the geography. The key to victory is found not in defeating the enemy force through orthodox kill-centred tactics, but forcibly dismantling it by removing its base of support. In this idea of warfare, there is thus no clear enemy force, but rather an in-becoming ally. After all, since liberalism is presumed not as ideological, but a natural state, the dissent against it can only be explained as a flaw in communication.

As the very icon of liberal war, it’s very fitting that this stratagem was developed jointly with public relations experts and the marketing industry. (Holmqvist)

The Failings of Liberal Governance in War

One of the foremost presumptions of classical warfare is that war begins with an aim, and should end when that aim has been reached and secured. By the very aims of liberal war and strategic communication this is axiom crumbles, the aim of liberal war is the war against dissent – thus the dissent created by warfare necessitates continued warfare to manage that dissent… repeated ad infinitum.

The most prized operational from of liberal warfare is units that operates on liberal principles. Units that operates in evolving networks that should rapidly utilize new intelligence. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) targets central nodes of human terrain networks (read, high value targets), strike teams quickly share information acquired from their operations with other teams who then locates a new target that has a high likelihood (confirmation not necessary) of being another node in the network. We look here at something more akin to a lawyer’s office than a regular army. To quote one of it’s senior officers:

“The aim was to go after the middle of their network – in a regular army, their senior noncommissioned officers. We tried to cause the network to collapse…. We took it to an art form. It really became a machine.” – Stanley A. McChrystal (Cited in Niva)

What we’re noticing is that JSOC makes no attempt to seriously crush the enemy force man by man, it’s instead harasses and cripple it. As born from a theory that presumes enemy grievances as not serious dissent but an anomaly, it becomes part of a doctrine that makes no real effort to address the cause of war in the first place. (Niva)

Steve Niva describes this state of eternal war of short-term strikes as “moving the grass”. War becomes an eternal policing operation. We might also ask if the opposite is happening, how much does the behaviour of the US police force differ from that of an occupying army? When the JSOC fails to hinder the spread militant Islamism, does armoured trucks hinder crime?

While this article cannot explain the full extent of liberal governance, nor the range of critiques against it, but I hope that it can have stirred some interest among readers in the topic, and adequately explained the central topics. Among these is highlighting the worrying blend civilian and military of institution, and the dangerous ability of liberalism to incorporate dissent into its own narrative, pacifying it. The latter maybe the most dangerous.

References / Further reading

Eyal Weizman (2006) ‘The art of war: Deleuze, Guattari, Debord and the Israeli Defence Force’, Mute, Available from: [3 January 2016]

Michael Dillon and Julian Reid (2001) ‘Global liberal governance: Biopolitics, security and war’, Millennium Journal of International Studies 30:1, 41-66.

Caroline Holmqvist (2013) ‘War, “strategic communication” and the violence of non-recognition’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 26:4, 631-650.

Steve Niva (2013) ‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security Dialogue 44:3, 185-202.

About the Author

Karl Thisell
Student of Theology, specifically social sciences and religion, with a bit of International Relations thrown in. Autodidact interest in political science, macroeconomics, critical war studies. Infornography addict.

2 Comments on "Liberal Governance and War"

  1. Would you care to set up something more longterm than /freedu/ for this sort of information? That’d be great.

    • Sorry for such a late reply.

      I wanted to use /freedu/ partly because a) it needs the publicity, b) partly because it isn’t a database where the actual authors can stumble upon it and call the feds on me. Before I could have directed you to sci-hub, but now it’s down.

      If you have any alternative I’ll be sure to check it out.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.