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
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
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?"