Pragmatic Libertarianism, Autonomous War Machines and International Relations: Part II

The War Machine

War is an ever-present feature of the international/geopolitical landscape, and as van de Haar noted, is not something that a classical liberal IR would attempt to entirely eliminate as it evolves from the complex interaction of human passions and ideological clashes. Looking at a libertarian IR theory as one premised around the sublimation of war to the peaceful systems of market exchange and limited government, war itself cannot be reasonably opposed lest it fall into a utopianism that is counterproductive to the extensions of libertarian aims in the sphere of governance. In recognising this, the perspective of a libertarian IR or commercial sovereignty is in variable tension with warfare as its own autonomous force. The capacity for commercial sovereignty can only grow in the contingencies of more powerful structures, whether that be patchwork systems of governance as in feudal Europe, the Westphalian system of anarchic state competition or the liberal system of international relations (Pax Americana).

The development of commerce and market exchange are contextual variables that, as Deudney and Salter & Young noted, grew in the pockets of European and American geographies, developing first in distinction to empires and feudalism as alternative governance structures for wealth creation and innovation (as in the merchant leagues’ early use of credit instruments for loans and investment), and then coding themselves onto the emerging structures of the Westphalian state, becoming integrated through central banks and governmental corporations (such as the Dutch and British East India companies). The expansion of commercial sovereignty was encoded with imperial expansion of territorial control and warfare, particularly in the Dutch and British empires. It was also integral to the early African slave economies, where merchant shipping and protected trade routes were necessary for the traffic of goods and people. This then puts the contextual element of commercial sovereignty in a critical light, showing that the forces of production and exchange are not simply mechanisms for individual flourishing, but are instead “complicated, heterogeneous, abstract machines but interrelated and importantly semiautonomous in the making of the world”[1], much as war is. The relation with ethics is relative, and requires that these forces are encoded to ideologies congruent with a free society. “In all international affairs was that without safety, there could be no liberty”[2].

This takes us back to Deudney’s structural-materialist analysis and a republican security theory of organising security from violence. Security becomes the only guarantee of liberty as without it chaos reigns. However, in recognising the autonomous nature of productive and destructive forces, it also takes us beyond this initial analysis and into a critical relationship with these forces, seeing them as responsive elements in any form of international relations rather than inert materials. Taking Deudney’s analysis of first and second anarchies, the latter are akin to Hobbes’s state of war, where states exist in a quasi-anarchical system of controlled chaos. Within second anarchies, the actual forces of war are pushed to the periphery, with the internal ordering of society becoming increasingly homogenised. In a first anarchy, international relations resembles a Hobbesian state of nature, where homogenisation is actively resisted both in the centre and at the periphery.

Deudney presupposes that these ordering mechanisms construct new relations in their interrelations. The chaos of a first anarchy requires the constitution of a second anarchy that can adequately externalise violence, but as society evolves the scale of these anarchies grows, from the level of inter-tribal warfare to international anarchy and then onto an integrated international society. In each stage a new enemy is constructed onto the periphery, constructing the organised state apparatus that can control this vast war machine. In this Whiggish theory of development, society increasingly becomes more rational as the scale of enemies both increases and becomes more abstract, moving from the interpersonal to the international. In the latter stage of this developmental theory, an integrated international society or world state eventually finds it has no external enemy, leading to the rationalisation of human organisation and the potential emergence of a Kantian peace[3].

Rather than this developmentalist history that evolves toward increased communication and governmental contiguity, we can see instead a cyclical field of relations that cycles between systems of ordered chaos (second anarchies) and the destructiveness of an uncontrollable war machine (first anarchies). One way of thinking of this is through the expansion and diminution of various empires and their world-ordering systems. Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana are understandings of world orders as the production of peace through “cooperative institutions and multilateral rules”[4].

Within these expansionist ordering systems, there are also periods of indetermination and patchworks of uncontrollable zones. The various militias, military orders and governance systems of the European Middle Ages or the Three Kingdoms period of China are the development of an encompassing Pax Indeterminatum, where “violence entrepreneurs”[5] can develop new methods of warfare and governance and where, as in Europe’s polycentric sovereignty, competitive mechanisms of government and multiple second anarchies can develop simultaneously, embedded within multilateral negotiations and a “network of mutual obligations predicated on feudal military exchange”[6]. While Grove sees such violence entrepreneurism as a negative mechanism of the expansion of imperial homogenisation, it can also be viewed as a mechanism of opening up the war machine to innovation and decentralisation. It is both represented by the brutality of the American Frontier and private military corporations in Iraq, and by the Kurdish YPG, the Zapatistas and networked resistance movements.

Republican security theory then fails to contain the peripheries it produces. Second anarchy is a manifestation of the war machine’s appropriation. “The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems”[7]. First anarchy is the inescapable fragility of second anarchy’s developments. Whether in the manifestations of nationalism, imperialism, federalism or the modern liberal order, all are attempts at totalisation that homogenise. And it is this homogenisation that a libertarian theory of international relations should resist, as this is what makes war the health of the state.

War as an autonomous force is then exploitable as a mechanism for expanding commercial sovereignty. While libertarians view the power of the market as the primary means for social action in the world, the creative destruction that war brings can itself be used for the extension of libertarian ends, particularly when considering the use of conflict not in a Westphalian sense of drawing up borders and controlling demarcated territory, but in a stigmergic and fragmented sense as something that pulls power away from the centre.

Going back to the geo-informatic plane of conflict, this would mean exploiting the bottlenecks of centralised communication and resource lines, using the bulk of nation-state militaries and their unilateral power against them. Carson notes the importance of decentralised, networked methods of defence that have become common place amongst social movements and terrorist networks, circumventing the military power of the state and exploiting their weak spots. The concept of “defense in depth”[8] through reacting to enemy actions, mitigating failures by developing redundancy and using multiple nodes of coordination, and counterattacking, thus exploiting vulnerabilities and limiting the capacity of your enemy to act is indicative of a networked, libertarian strategy for combatting states and decentralised military power downward and outward. Groups as divergent as the Zapatistas and cyberspace criminal and hacker networks have used such tactics in maintaining their territorial integrity (in rural Mexico and through continued internet access respectively).

“Nonetheless, strategy is always ‘done’ tactically by what Carl von Clausewitz called war’s ‘grammar’, in specific geographical contexts. Everyone and every organization that generates strategic effect does so on land, at sea, in the air, in space, or through cyberspace. It follows that all strategy is geostrategy”[9]. The grammar of war that Gray notes is the exploitable element to war from a libertarian perspective. War, as classical liberal thinkers noted, is ever-present and diffuse, acting as its own force of integration and chaos alongside forces related to commerce and exchange. In using and organising around this autonomous force of war, libertarianism can engage in the real-world of sovereign interaction in a quasi-panarchist sense i.e. through limiting the extent of territorial sovereignty and developing extra-territorial mechanisms of governance and exchange. Going back to my critique of both polycentricity and interstate federalism as systems of libertarian sovereignty, neither are contextual to current constraints of the geopolitical situation.

War then is an autonomous machinic assemblage made of interlocking systems (economies, land, demographics, infrastructure) that libertarians cannot disengage from. It connotes participation (whether active or tacit) that means a need to understand and participate within it, developing an IR perspective that axiomatises modes of governance premised around autonomy, voluntarism (where possible) and decentralisation. Within this, developing dynamics of 4th generation warfare and non-state governmentalities can be seen as opportunities for active engagement.


[1] Jairus Victor Grove, Savage Ecology

[2] Edwin Van de Haar, Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory

[3] Daniel Deudney, Bounding Power

[4] G. John Ikenberry, Power and Liberal Order: America’s Postwar World Order in Transition

[5] Jairus Victor Grove, Savage Ecology

[6] Alexander William Salter & Andrew T. Young, Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations

[7] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateus

[8] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[9] Colin S. Gray, Inescapable Geography

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