In The Minority Report (2002), Steven Spielberg’s last film based on a Phillip Dick short story, criminals are arrested before they commit their crime, since three humans who, through monstrous scientific experiments, acquired the capacity to foresee the future, can exactly predict their acts (the “minority report” from the title refers to those rare cases where one of the three mediums employed by the police disagrees with the other two about a crime to be committed)… If one transposes this idea to international relations, does one not get the new “Bush (or, rather, Cheney) doctrine,” now publicly declared as the official US “philosophy” of international politics (in the 31 pages paper entitled “The National Security Strategy,” issued by the White House on September 20 2002)? Its main points are: the American military might should remain “beyond challenge” in the foreseeable future; since the main enemy today is an “irrational” fundamentalist who, in contrast to Communists, lacks even the elementary sense of survival and respect of his own people, America has the right to preemptive strikes, i.e., to attack countries which do not already pose a clear threat to the US, but MIGHT pose such a threat in the foreseeable future; while the US should seek ad hoc international coalitions for such attacks, it should reserve the right to act independently if it will not get sufficient international support.

So while the US presents its domination over other sovereign states as grounded in a benevolent paternalism which takes into account the interests of other states, it reserves for itself the ultimate right to DEFINE its allies’ “true” interests. The logic is thus clearly formulated: even the pretense of a neutral international law is abandoned, since, when the US perceive a potential threat, they formally ask their allies to support them, but the allies’ agreement is optional, the underlying message is always “we will do it with or without you,” i.e. you are free to agree with, but not free to disagree — the old paradox of the forced choice is reproduced here, the freedom to make a choice on condition that one makes the right choice.

The US displeasure of Gerhard Schroeder in September 2002, when he won the elections with his firm stance against the American military intervention in Irak, was a displeasure at the fact that Schroeder did what a normal politician in a functioning democracy and a leader of a sovereign state does — while agreeing that the Iraqi regime is a threat, he simply articulated his disagreement with the way the US government proposed to deal with this threat, thereby stating an opinion shared not only by many other states, but also by a considerable percentage of American people and congressmen. Schroeder was thus the first to get the full taste of the Bush doctrine — and, to pursue the homology even further, was his disagreement with the US plans to preventively attack Iraq not precisely a kind of real-life “minority report,” signaling his disagreement with the way others saw the future?

We all remember the MAD (“mutually assured destruction”) logic elaborated at the height of the Cold War; from our retrospective view, compared with the Bush doctrine, the MAD logic cannot but appear today relatively rational. Back in the 1970s, Bernard Brodie pointed out how this logic effectively worked: “It is a strange paradox of our time that one of the crucial factors which make the /nuclear/ dissuasion effectively function, and function so well, is the underlying fear that, in a really serious crisis, it can fail. In such circumstances, one does not play with fate. If we were absolutely certain that the nuclear dissuasion is one hundred per cent efficient in its role of protecting us against a nuclear assault, then its dissuasive value against a conventional war would have dropped to close to zero.”

In short, the MAD strategy worked not because it was perfect, but on account of its very imperfection. The perfect strategy (if one sides nukes the other, the other will automatically respond, and both sides will thus be destroyed) had a fatal flaw: what if the attacking side counts on the fact that, even after its first strike, the opponent continues to act as a rational agent? His choice is now: with his country mostly destroyed, he can either strike back, thus causing total catastrophe, the end of humanity, or NOT STRIKE BACK, thus enabling the survival of humanity and thereby at least the possibility of a later revibal of his own country? A rational agent would chose the second option… What makes the strategy efficient is the very fact that we cannot ever be sure that it will work perfectly: what if a situation spirals out of control for a variety of easily imaginable reasons (from the “irrational” aggressivity of the one part to simple technological failures or miscommunications)? It is because of this permanent threat that both sides do not want to come even too close to the prospect of MAD, so they avoid even conventional war; if the strategy were perfect, it would, on the opposite, endorse the attitude “Let’s fight a full conventional war, since we both know that no side will risk the fateful step towards a nuclear strike!” So the actual constellation of MAD is not “If we follow the MAD strategy, the nuclear catastrophe will not take place,” but: “If we follow the MAD strategy, the nuclear catastrophe will not take place, expect for some imprevisible incident.” (And the same goes today for the prospect of the ecological catastrophe: if we do nothing, it will occur, and if we do all we can do, it will not occur, expect for some imprevisible accident.)

The problem with today’s “Bush doctrine” is that, with it, the loop is closed, there is no longer any room even for the “realistic” opening to the imprevisible which sustained the MAD doctrine: the “Bush doctrine” relies on the violent assertion of the paranoiac logic of total control over the FUTURE threat and preemptive strikes against it — the ineptness of such an approach for today’s universe in which knowledge circulates freely is patent. The loop between the present and the future is thus closed: the prospect of breath-taking terrorist act is evoked in order to justify incessant preemptive strikes now. The state in which we live now, in the “war on terror,” is the one of the endlessly suspended terrorist threat: the catastrophe (the new terrorist attack) is taken for granted, yet endlessly postponed — whatever will actually happen, even if it will be a much more horrible attack than that of 9/11, will not yet be “that.” And it is crucial here to grasp how the true catastrophe ALREADY IS this life under the shadow of the permanent threat of a catastrophe.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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