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The State of Communication

by Khaled Ahmed
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Angela Weiss—AFP

Ideological states lack the flexibility needed to secure agreements that prevent conflict

Just as governance is by consent, relations between nations are by communication, a process of give-and-take that brings them on a minimal joint agenda. Communication is possible if the parties are able to accommodate each other through a “flexibility of response.” If the parties are rigid in their outlook they can hardly agree on a common agenda. Since states are wedded to the myth of sovereignty they are not supposed to allow it to be violated. Yet, without suppleness of the negotiating mind there can be no agreement. And lack of agreement will likely lead to conflict.

The mind is less likely to be “accommodating” if it lacks flexibility. And the mind is likely to be rigid if it is ideological. Ideologies throughout history were geared to the realization of the utopian state. Most religions evolve into ideologies that control conduct as the foundation of a utopian society. Human societies have aspired to utopias and have given rise to firmly controlled settlements. In our times, nationalism too serves as a pillar of this idealization of the state. It creates inflexibilities of communication that will not help in avoidance of conflict.

The world has steadily progressed away from utopia to avoid inflexibility of communication within and without. It has evolved away from the Platonic utopia based on an idealization of Sparta, the regimented warrior state. Today, democracy has embraced the “demos” that Plato denigrated. Democracy has been made possible today by rejecting the Athenian utopia that the philosophers aspired to. Today, states are busy in dialogue within and without—within while talking to the opposition in a democratic system of governance and while talking to other states.

Ideological states are less amenable to communication and dialogue used in order to seek any minimal grounds for coexistence and cooperation. They either suffer defeat or break up through popular disenchantment. If victories were once possible if one showed firm adherence to ideology, defeats too grew out of an inability to be flexible in communication with the adversary. Since “flexibility”—interpreted as “bending”—was seen as defeat, conflict was the order of the day and moist nations saw war as the only way of making social progress. War, based on incapacity or inability to communicate, was an aspiration of rulers who wished to last in power.

In order to survive as a system of viable states, there were efforts made in the past to lay down rules of state behavior within which the states could actually talk to each other instead of going to war. But “talking” as a means of mutual “accommodation” was always found difficult since the process clashed with the “sovereignty” of the state. Finally, this concept of sovereignty had to undergo reform through an international system created to avoid war. Sovereignty was partially surrendered to allow the global system in which states wished to survive through avoidance of war. Countries sought to transition from warrior states to trading nations. Trade became the most effective way of “communication” between states and avoidance of war through dialogue. In this process nations given to trading were at an advantage.

It soon developed that nations given to trading got the upper hand over warrior nations in the prevailing international system. The “flexible” mind of the trader, constantly indulging in bargaining instead of adhering to “principles,” made the state strong even in the battlefield because of the trader nation’s ability to “fund” defensive wars. The trader looks for “advantage” through constant bargaining instead of obeying the dictates of “national honor.”

If states needed to communicate with each other in the spirit of accommodation, they equally needed to communicate with flexibility within themselves to avoid civil unrest and regional intra-state conflict. If communication with the political opponent was based on derogation instead of accommodation the state would remain subject to internal discord and enfeeblement. Ironically, the dialogue of derogation depends once again on “principles” whose violation is “criminal behavior.” The constitution, written with the intent to bring the people together, is then used to acquire “inflexibility of dialogue” leading to a breakdown of law and order.

Dialogue was not greatly admired when the state was primitive and survived only through conflict. Growth and prosperity were achieved through “conquest” and “enslavement.” Today, there is a global trading order called multilateralism where “national pride” helps less than a trader’s deftness to clinch “advantage.” Honor-based societies are not meant to succeed in this global order. This order is non-utopian and professedly full of flaws and injustices; but states can survive in it if they are well equipped with economic wisdom and are free of ideologies that glorify rigidities of state behavior.

Today, “a balance of terror” can also lead to normal communication between states. This is achieved through mutual assurance of “destruction” in case it is used as an option. In some cases this is achieved through the development of nuclear weapons. When two states in adversarial relationship achieve the status of nuclear powers they have to stop thinking of conflict and settle down to a dialogue of “normalization,” which means open borders and free trade. This has to happen because the status quo between them gets frozen and the “revisionist” state committed to change of borders and territories is compelled to give up its claims under the threat of international isolation and disapproval.

The recalcitrant nuclearized “revisionist” state runs many internal risks too. Compelled to use “nonstate actors” against the adversary nuclear state it tends to share its sovereignty with elements considered “terrorists” by the international community. Training these nonstate actors as terrorists puts the sovereignty of the state at risk. If the agenda of these “actors” differ from the agenda of the state then “internal risks” emerge that tend to divide and weaken the revisionist state from within. The revisionist state therefore tends to become unstable, which is seen by the international community as a threat to the world.

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