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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poems, Prayers and Promises

Poems, Prayers and Promises

What's in a name? Sometimes a lot. For example, depending on what your country is

called, it could be sanctioned or attacked - or it could have billions of dollars

spent on its behalf.

Making categories is a kind of naming. It differs importantly from the other kind

of naming: individuation. Which shows that you can't even talk about categories without

making categories. And talking is only one category of action. A characteristic it

shares with all other categories of action is that you can't act at all without appealing

to categories.

Unless you act arbitrarily, you will always act in light of some system of categories.

Eating requires categories like "poisonous food" and "non-poisonous

food". It appears that running the international system requires categories

like "failed state" and "rogue state".

Madeleine Albright told reporters during her visit to Phnom Penh that when she took

her job as the new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. she started categorizing the states

in the international system.

As a former professor, she said "I have tried to think what the concept is,

what [international] system exists at the moment. What I see is that there are really

four groups of countries." Those nations satisfied with the system, "emerging

democracies", "failed states", and "rogue states"

Albright says that rogue states are 'defiant regimes', those who have no stake in

the system" and "are doing everything to disrupt it". Iraq and North

Korea fall into this category. "Failed states, are those that want very much

to become states again". According to Albright, Cambodia and Somalia belong

in this category.

Who creates these categories? Categories like "poisonous food" derive from

something that is true about the world, something that is a fact. Are there similar

facts about rogue and failed states that make their categorization as defensible

and as obvious?

Blow Fish are poisonous and edible-depending on their preparation. When correctly

prepared they are a delicacy, when not, they are lethal. That is an accepted fact,

one open to verification.

Categories like "poisonous fish" need no justification, nor do the actions

that we take in light of them. Like "new people", political categories

demand justification because they are the basis for political action, like the deployment

of UNTAC or the war against Iraq.

Are there facts that makes one state a "rogue state" and another a "failed

state"? Or, are someone's interests served by this categorization?

These are important questions, because we may start wars against some states and

we may spend billions of world tax dollars on others - depending on what we call

them.

Ambassador Albright's inventory was a starting point for analyzing what the U.N.

should be doing in the world. As she sees it, the U.N.'s "role in the next year

is to reform the 'rogue regimes' ... and restore the failed states."

The cold-war international system was "cut up" by contending ideologies.

Categorizing nations between Free, Communist, and Non-Aligned allowed and justified

action. It was a world of "we's and they's", a world of "if you ain't

fer us yer agin us". It was a dangerous world. The leaders of the two major

"blocs" seemed intent on expanding the number of nations under their influence

-- no one was exempt from the categories of that world -- a lesson Sihanouk and Cambodia

learned. It is not a world to which we want to return.

In the post Cold War world of heterogeneity and pluralism, creating categories is

still important. And even though this world seems to be much safer than the one it

replaced, we can't blindly accept a world "cut up" for us.There are about

160 nations in the world. Action requires simplifying. That much diversity has to

be glossed over, or action is impossible.

But simplifying can be done in light of the "facts of the situation" or

in light of the interests of the most powerful. It is always useful to ask whose

interests might be served by a given categorization, especially one that can mobilize

billions of dollars of help and billions of dollars of harm.

Hopefully we will always be able to say that the consequences of the U.N.'s activity

fell into the category of serving the interests of the world community as a whole.

But we should also ask: " who gets to create this category?"

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