Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


infowar & politics: a discussion with James Der Derian

James Der Derian, professor of international relations at Brown University, has published, among other works, On Diplomacy, International Relations: Critical Investigations (Ed.) and Antidiplomacy: Spies, Speed, Terror and War. His forthcoming book is entitled Virtual Security. This interview was conducted in Linz, Austria, in September 1998. Ian R. Douglas is director of the power foundation, <>.

by Ian R.Douglas

IAN R. DOUGLAS: When you talk about virtual diplomacy, what exactly do you have in mind?

Technically it means bringing ‘there’, ‘here’; collapsing distance, collapsing time. Unfortunately in the very use of the technology there is also the possibility of collapsing the distinction between fact and fiction, because its very easy to manipulate the images used. But the whole idea is that you have dual use. Here, at Ars Electronica, everyone is talking about the use of information for warfare. But this is about applying it as a mediation. So you a medium, meaning you’re separating belligerents, using the "media", but you’re also using the medium to convey messages in new ways that can maybe break people out of their states of antagonism.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: So insofar as it fits with military practice its part of the process of deterrence?

JAMES DER DERIAN: Well .. there are people who want to appropriate virtual diplomacy to those ends. I’m arguing for more of a more civilian based, non-governmental, transnational application of virtual diplomacy. There is a ‘beltway’—meaning the Washington beltway—version, that is completely on the same continuum as virtual war. For instance, people down at STRICOM—the newest military base (Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command)—have projects now that use the same technologies that are used for command and control warfare, for getting people around a table to talk about what do you do when the last bullet is fired. They claim that it can be used to prevent warfare, but their idea of preventing warfare means often to subdue without fighting, the philosophy of Sun Szu; the best war is won where you don’t have to go to the battlefield to win. So, to be sure, there is a continuum between violence and diplomacy, where we saw in Bosnia where virtual diplomacy was used at Dayton Ohio, where they brought in the exact same technology that pilots used to train for the bombing runs of the Serbian installations, to convince mainly Slobodan Milosevic that he should widen the Gorazde corridor: this was the main sticking point, the whole Dayton accords was going to collapse. So they brought him into this ‘map room’ (we have this anachronistic term for it) and projected 3D images of Bosnia. They showed him exactly how if you only made it five miles there was all kinds of lines of fire that would make it impossible for you to have a peaceful transit. Slobo actually got a hold of the joystick, and started flying over Bosnia, and looking at other possibilities, and came away convinced. So this was a case where it worked. But it really only worked because he knew that the same technology could be used against him once again in a bombing campaign, if he did not agree. So the pure use of this I think has not been exercised yet, but certainly the coercive diplomacy—what we might call coercive virtual diplomacy (virtual diplomacy backed by force)—has been effective.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Is it the immediacy of the medium which makes it different?


IAN R. DOUGLAS: Because we’ve had for a long time the idea of the armchair-general, shifting pieces around a table—armies, artilery, cavalry—which is essentially a visualization of the theatre of war. What’s so different when its digitized and represented on a computer screen?

JAMES DER DERIAN: The enemy has a face, for one. The iconic representation of the enemy, gives you all kinds of distancing, so that the virtual element of it minimizes; doesn’t collapse, but minimizes. Now, is this a good or bad thing? It is if you want to be able to have a dialogue. Now suddenly you can project an image on a Barco table—which is basically a very large, very high resolution computer screen—which allows 3D representation of the opponent. You get people in the room, who wouldn’t normally ever sit across from each other; they can be on the screen, interacting. That can be a good thing. It means that you can have a give and take; it’s not static, like little pieces in a chess game, or figures moved around on paper. But, there’s danger, which I think you’re aware of—it’s implied in your question—which is that you might mistake this new "more real" representation with the real thing. If you put Yasser Arafat and Netanyahu on a Barco table under virtual diplomacy, I don’t think you’re going to mistake each other’s iconic representation for the real thing, for they have a long of history. But that history is missing. And it is believed that you can do this kind of sui generis creation of identities that people can negotiate from. When you go from that Barco table to the real world that agreement is going to fall apart; for it was based on what amounts to an artificial intelligence of their positions. So really what you try to do is create something that is in between: that combines experiencial history, takes away the gut level animosity that keeps them from meeting, and adds enough verisimilitude through technology that they can hash out issues, and get back to the so-called real world.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: One the things that Virilio asks in Bunker Archaeology, at the end of the first essay—which is republished in The Virilio Reader (Blackwells, 1998, ed. James Der Derian)—is ‘by the way, who invented Peace?’ As we know, alongside Kant when he writes his treatise on perpetual peace lies Clausewitz who takes war as a societal model, if not the very engine of history. What seems to have happened—when we think about virtualization—is a blurring of these positions, war and peace, so that now we no longer know in which state we’re in, or which is better than the other. Foucault, of course, also critiqued an overbearing politics of tranquility imposed from above from what was termed in the 1700s as the police. Virtual technologies seem to allow us to further blur the lines between war and peace, and further question whether peace is a solution to war; or at least bring to attention the dangers of winning wars in advance of the battle (which is what virtual technologies seem most to used for; they’re actually not so good in the context of "real war"). Is there any way for ordinary people like me and you resist this blurring, and its attendant dangers?

JAMES DER DERIAN: It is interesting you use this example of the police, because I think you’re right. A lot of people here—at Ars Electronca—have been arguing about the role of the military. But increasingly the military is seeking out a policing role. Technology allows them to intervene in civil society. What we traditionally conceive of as war—being organized violence between nation states—is clearly devolving into new forms, often invested within civil society; what Virilio calls "endocolonization". It’s a fusing of peace and security, and this is what Virilio is trying to resist. All too often in the discourse of security peace is simply the absence of war. Now, how do you construct something which is based on a negativity? This is one place where the virtual can play a very positive role. Because the virtual, according to Deleuze, is not in opposition to reality. It’s in opposition to the actual. The virtual, according to Deleuze, is based on pure difference: it doesn’t have the same relationship as reality does to possibilities. It has a very creative constitutive relationship to the event. And so what you can do is use—now that we have the means—the virtual to make peace, and take these creative leaps, but at least it’s not based on the pure negativity of security discourse.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: One of the things that Virilio suggests is that this move toward a domestic, or civic role for the military has long been in preparation. He sees this civic role as the last phase of the war machine: the idea of the war of preparation—Pure war, total war—which is internalized in modern society. So the endpoint of the military—which was in fact always its starting point—is essentially the control of civil security. It seems, at least, with this discourse of information war, we’re still laboring under this illusion of the external enemy, without coming to terms with the possibility that the first object of military intelligence is the internal population. All of this money is being spent in war-gaming, simulations, and so on, which can all be applied to a domestic insurrection. And yet this cannot be stated publicly. Are we being fooled by a mass dissuasion, or are external threats still important to the high command?

JAMES DER DERIAN: … I wouldn’t put it quite in the terms of agency that you do; that the military is choosing to take a more internal pacification role. I think its one of these cases where the discourse is lagging behind new realities. Now, there’s always going to be this give and take between the extent to which a discourse shapes reality and reality determines discourse, but as I think some of the best students of transformation have demonstrated, is that it’s in periods of great cleavage between reality and the discourses which are supposed to help us understand it—what we may call the structures of experience—that’s when crisis arrives. This point about states of emergency that Benjamin talks about. What you have to do is mine those emergencies, because there’s are also—as we know—opportunities within the dangers that they present. So yes, I think there is this internalization of threat, because for one we’ve lost our most significant threat—the Soviet Union—which means we’ve lost the "we" behind the statement we have lost the Soviet threat. So many of these tactics and strategies of war-gaming are about maintaining the "we" in light of the lack of the "them". So to that extent I’ll agree with your synopsis of the situation. That yes, there’s a weird disfunctional disjuncture of military planning; that it almost seems to be fishing for an enemy. Even to the extent to which, for instance, when I go and observe some war games, they make up these ludicrous enemies. They take them from Marx brothers movies; "Freedonia", and so on. Here we are sitting on the Danube drinking our Ouzo and honoring the Turks who came up the Danube, and at the same time the 1st Armoured Division that crossed this river, up in Germany, is doing war games about invasions involving characters from a Marx brothers film. Either the war gamers have a remarkable sense of humor—which I doubt—or they’re really hard pressed to come up with a political, and politic, enemy at the moment.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: What I find strange is that this cannot be any surprize to anybody. When Reagan stumped up the military budget and ripped America out of its possible economic slump, it was pretty clear that the end point was going to be the dissolution of the Soviet Union …

Well … first of all … the locution that you’ve chosen here reveals a tendency we should all avoid. When marxists say it is no surprize, what are they really saying? That we have the correct vision that allow us to interpret history in such a way that we can take pragmatic action. Now, that locution might have been effective, I think, against some of the material forces that they were up against at the turn of the century, that gave rise to this empire of the Soviet Union. Let’s face it: I think it’s always a surprize that change happens, and how it happens. And such we shouldn’t put a gloss on it, sort of ex-post facto, in this fashion. I think we’re living in a world in which our best hope is for contingency, for the contingency of surprise. And try to be flexible enough both of mind and of governance to not fear surprise, to not fear the unknown, not to fear the contingent, but to respond to it in a way that Ronald Reagan could not; which is flexibility, and if necessary dump the old paradigm. It took us years—we still haven’t gotten rid of the national security discourse of the Cold War. It went through several transmutations, be it the drug war, be it the attempt the create the Chinese as the next threat. What it means is getting rid of the pretext that we can get rid of surprise. Because, if anything, people took 1989 and turned what was a remarkably creative event into just one more—as Bob Keohane put in a famous conference at Cornell—as one more data-point. So who cares? It was one data-point among many; how could it be considered significant?

IAN R. DOUGLAS: I guess what I had in mind though … Well … it seems to me—and this might be a naïve view—that the event of the collapse of the Soviet Union was predictable insofar as one takes a broad view of the trajectory of Western culture. We’re not just talking of a security discourse, but security in its broadest sense, which is to do with the internal constitution, regulation, reproduction of the state. It seems to me that the Cold war was a classic war of position within an overarching consensus; this being rationalized, scientific, disciplinary productivist state. Capitalist versus communist doesn’t really matter if the rational and disciplined basis of the state is broadly the same. Given this, the Cold war becomes merely a war of information over the means not the ends of a certain strategic outlook; that which is both necessary for—and a function of—the modern state. For sure one thing is certain: both the Soviet Union and the United States were modern states. One still is. What remains to be explained is the disappearance of the other. How it looks to me confirms your notion of the contingent, but at the same time seems clearly also to confirm the very nature of modern states in general; that above all they are accumulators not of resources and capital, or even people, but power. For by the early 1980s a window opens up: crisis sweeps across the economies of the world, and in order to retain power—both structural and relational—the United States did what it always did, which was to pump the military-industrial complex. But something new and unprecedented enters: the new idea that the Cold war could be won; or even more precisely, that it ought to be won. Until then people were happy with the balance; or least leaders were, for everyone else lived under the terrible threat of nuclear annihilation. The extremity of the now global economic situation produces such forces that all cards have to be cashed: Reagan upsets the whole cart, unwrites a whole decade of détente, and possibility of "winning" is thrown on the table as the cost of stablizing the American economy. My point is that it was clear—or I suggest it had to have been—from the moment the choice was made to save the American economy through a massive injection of Pentagon dollars that the result would be the disintegration of the Soviet Union. You see, what I’m suggesting is that the Cold war was a victim of globalization. It was a victim, but nobody killed it: the Americans didn’t win it—I’m not even sure they’d have wanted to. The extremity of economic slowdown—remember Marxists were talking everywhere of a structural crisis of capital—coupled with the ever more developed interconnection of economies—both from North to South, but also from South to North—produced a situation in which something had to give. America choose. It choose the death of the Soviet Union. It did so because it is an advanced democracy, and everyone there was complaining about gas prices. Democracy and globalization killed the Soviet Union. But the real winner was the universal state.

JAMES DER DERIAN: I could agree with much of the analysis … but the flaw, in my view, is that you attribute too much intelligence to the state. Raison d’etat, reason of state, is the great myth. I think that Meinecke did a wonderful job at looking at how raison d’etat changes in historical periods. You have the raison d’etat of the absolute monarch . You have the raison d’etat of democracy. And many people have slammed Meinecke for being too harsh on his interpretation of raison d’etat and democracies: he’s very critical of it, people call him an elitist, it’s too amorphous and too diffuse to be even called reason. But I think he’s on to something here. Part of the reason why its very difficult to build resistance against the very effects which you have just described, is that it’s a remarkably diffuse, amorphous body which produces these effects. You, a couple of times, said ‘the United States caused this’, ‘the military caused that’, ‘Reagan did this’. I can’t help being reminded of that Saturday Night Live sketch—as someone from outside the US your probably never saw it. I think it was Phil Hartman, who died recently, playing Reagan. Reagan has got all these girl scouts around him and he’s saying, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to see you representing the best of America. Please here accept this tribute’. And so then the aides usher out the girl scouts. As soon as the girl scouts go he’s snapping out orders to all his aides, ‘What’s the value of the yen? We have to immediately bolster the dollar. Okay, what’s going on in Yemen? I want you to send two thousand troops there tomorrow.’ It’s this idea of Reagan as excusing his senile-ridden state as a means of pulling the wool over the eyes of America. Well, since Reagan in his last press conference he ever gave argued that the only way you could ever have this global governance you’ve been describing is if aliens invaded, I get the effect of Reagan as more the latter view, that this was a pre-senile presidency. That in some ways they got lucky. Some places they created egregious human rights violations, in Latin America. It’s not to avoid responsibility for these actions, or to give credit. But you should do both. Did they concoct Star Wars to beggar the Soviet Union? — Yeah, to be sure there are dark ideologues within the Reagan administration who did, but there were also some rationalists who said, no, it won’t work—who were wrong, of course. And then there were others who thought it was a bad idea within the CIA. So it’s not quite a monolith—and I know you know this—and finding agents is probably the greatest task of any social critic, but it does make our work harder, and I think we should recognize that.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: By way of a quick response, I think one of the last positions I would take would be that Reagan, or "the government", or whoever was on the National Security Council, had a monopoly of information. In a sense, I think this is the revolution that was enacted by Napoleon, in that precisely what becomes important is a power over life operated at the level of—indeed springing up from—the mundane. It seems to me that the strategy that was used was not first and first a "military"—I mean in the way that typically scholars of international relations conceive the term—but "strategic" in a broader way; as I say, to do with securing the American economy in a context of transnational turbulence. It was the test given to the (American) commercial economy which called it to account, tested it’s resolve, and made necessary a kind of win or lose contest between two models of essentially the same ends. These two models being the commercial, or consumer economy on the one hand, and the command, or planned economy on the other. As I say, they were not opposites; as the mere existence of the "military-industrial complex" is testament. If that wasn’t a planned, or command economy I’m not sure what is. And beyond that similarity, the forms of the two power systems of which these economic models were part—the Soviet Union and the United States—were not fundamentally different in the essence of their make-up. Or at least the differences (democratic, autocratic, etc., depending on the critic and the ideology at stake) were weighed against all kinds of fundamental similarities: the both exhibited attributes of exclusionary practices (prisons, asylums, etc.); they both exhibited attributes of training and welfare (schools, hospitals, universities, etc.); they both exhibited attributes of a concern with security and defense (police forces, militaries, complex systems of surveillance and correction, etc.). That one was "communist" and the other "capitalist" is incidental to the fundamental similarities I’m trying to highlight. But that aside, the turbulence of the late 1970s put these two "means models" in a death grip with each other. It happens that historically the United States was in a better position to deflect the turbulence that was the Soviet Union—most probably because in being instrumental in the opening up of the capital markets, especially the Euromarkets, it had been largely responsible for the unleashed turbulence. But no matter that, it was in a position to win, and whether it was a difficult decision or not—a decision to lose, or let go, the comfortable structure of bipolarity—the fact is the United States choose to dissolve the bipolar system.

JAMES DER DERIAN: I think it’s indisputable that Reagan’s election, and what followed, resulted in a military Keynesianism—the whole priming of the pump through massive government spending which because of his ideology, could never have been done for social programs. So there was a coincidence of the ideology of the hollow army, the need to pump up the economy, and his pretty die hard anti-communist beliefs that produced the meta-paradigm for the Reagan revolution. So I agree with you. I think military Keynesianism was definitely operating on a rational level, amongst many of his policymakers.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: If they were and they gave away bipolarity for multipolarity, what kind of deterrence against war has replaced the bipolar nuclear one? Is the atomic bomb being replaced by an informational one? Are telematics being used to keep people—and other states—in line, in the same way nuclear dissuasion did? Is the future of cybernetics to be seen in a kind of "cyber-deterrence" to be employed by the state?

JAMES DER DERIAN: It’s not only deterrence. I think it’s quite possible to use infowar in a kind of ju-jitzu way, or as a method of resistance. But the requires you to be as mobile, as flexible, and certainly as media-savvy as the state has become, as the government has become, as the White House has become. And unfortunately, just like generals fight the last war, a lot of the social movements with which we identify with tend to be like these old generals fighting the last war. This is a war of maneuver unlike what Gramsci meant. It’s a war where you have to be willing to concede that you’re not going to have time to develop a story about the truth of the matter, a la Norm Chomsky. Instead, you’re going to have to develop a counter-simulation to the simulations that are surfeit, that are in super-abundance at time’s crisis.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Is it possible to do that without becoming a state machine?

JAMES DER DERIAN: (laughing) … Yeah! Certainly you have to have some access to alternative media, or even be able to get on and get a counter-narrative going. I think Edward Said has been very effective at this. In his own way, Christopher Hitchens. But it has to be done more at a local, molecular level. So far it’s be done pretty much primetime. And there the choke-points are too narrow and really too arbitrary to allow a mass message to ever get out. And we could go into the whole idea of what the web means, what new media means for disseminating information, or information warfare. But just like Third World tyrants have learned from the Gulf War—certain lessons, like ‘get your hands on a nuclear bomb, or a chemical weapon’, I think people who want to resist war have to learn those lessons as well, and be ready to apply new techniques and new technologies with what Paul Virilio called ‘pure dromology’.

IAN R. DOUGLAS: Is our aim to resist war? You know, when I read through Paul Virilio’s work, or I listen to the words of writers like Michel Foucault, I tend to conclude that it’s not actually about resisting war per se, but making war a personal thing, insofar as it becomes a negotiation—constantly—of your individual existence. I become more skeptical of universal peace than of life lived as war. Is it possible to reject the state discourse and use of war without at the same time resigning oneself to a state constituted and useful practice of peace? Afterall, what does the state want but a happy peaceful populace?

JAMES DER DERIAN: Yeah, that’s a sham. Besides what Foucault identified as the greatest truth about power—that every form of power creates its own resistance, every form of resistance presupposes power—in the actual doing of it, this is where the greatest requirement is probably taxing our most atrophied aspect of our being. Which is our ability to be creative and poetic when it comes to the ever predictable forms of oppression; be it the repressions that take place on a mental level—a decline in wages, an increase in the hours we all have to work, etc—or many others. What it means is you have to resist not on an event by event, but a day by day encounter with others and the world.

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