Foreign Policy and the Knowledge Problem

Many try to measure foreign policy by its stated humanitarian aims, seeing the variables of intervention as the best means for securing the livelihoods of particular subaltern populations. However such a view makes a massive assumption, that being the capability of states/militaries to aggregate the levels of on-the-ground social and cultural knowledge. This knowledge problem (generally identified with economic knowledge by Hayek) is not simply overcome by abstract reasoning that is related to things such as human rights or democracy. It can only be overcome by either a huge institutional and demographic shift amongst the effected populations (genocide, displacement, imposed borders, etc.) or by the integration of local populaces into mutualistic mechanisms of governance.

The former can be seen with the establishment of an Israeli state which required large levels of displacement and demographic change in the Nakba, and with the displacement of the Kurds, whose natural borders and cultural territories were displaced through Ottoman centralisation and the later drawing of the Sykes-Picot lines, which developed artificial borders over the top of local governmental institutions. The latter can be seen with the internationalisation of the state accomplished by the British Empire, where local governmental authorities were integrated alongside colonial bureaucracies, thus providing a degree of autonomy that quelled certain forms of dissent while allowing for the expansion of British economic and cultural power.

However in the 20th and 21st century contexts, such integration is made more difficult by the development of a range of subaltern agencies, from Kurdish and Palestinian nationalism to Arab nationalism and Islamist theocracy. Integrating these multifaceted variables is practically impossible, thus making the project of liberal democracy null and void. That is not to say that their agency should be ignored, and dominant forces should be given free rein. Instead, diplomatic efforts that aim at decentralisation and the cultivation of a polycentric legal order should be pursued, whereby the range of agencies are increased and given forms of political power. The failures of current Middle Eastern interventions seem to be due to this failure to recognise the heterogeneous polities that exist within countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Such can also be seen with the supposedly successful interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s, where the ethnic tensions and balkanisation still remain, as can be seen with the push for Kosovar independence and the maintained existence of subaltern minorities whose heterogeneity exists within homogeneous borders.

Military interventions perpetrated by foreign powers consistently fail to develop this recognition of variable agency. The centralised military forces of the West (as well as other countries like China and Russia) view existing states as a static reality, that have no constructed elements and are there simply to be maintained and strengthened. The failure to recognise the knowledge problem means that states like Iraq and Libya have been reformed through processes that ignore local populations and create conditions that lead to further exclusion and violence. Look at the treatment of Black Libyans currently, or the failure to recognise Alawite and Syrian-Christian support for Assad. Any sort of engagement in these areas should be primarily diplomatic, aiming at the construction of polycentric polities that engage all populaces, subaltern and dominant. It should ignore the supposed integrity of poorly-drawn borders that have normally been imposed against the tribal realities of the peoples living there. This may not ‘save lives’ like intervention is supposed to, but then again foreign policy should not be about virtue-signalling to the media and making up lies like the belief that the Taliban had been defeated in Afghanistan, or that the Iraq War had been won. It should be about the cultivation of meaningful peace that increases the agency of subaltern peoples, limiting the politico-economic power of favoured ethnic/cultural groups and regions.

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