Police power, all the way to heaven

Cujus est solum and the no-fly zone

RP 182 () / Article

What is a no-fly zone? Formally, it is a prohibition on flying in order to call a halt to hostilities in the region, usually enacted in aid of a group or groups which might otherwise suffer violence. When the Libyan civil war broke out in early 2011 one of the first demands made by several political actors of varying political persuasions was for a no-fly zone. The debate surrounding this continued until the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, on 17 March 2011, imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. This was one in a growing line of no-fly zones imposed for ‘humanitarian reasons’ by the ‘international community’. The ‘humanitarian reasons’ are important, since, although within the Security Council the case was made by major military states such as the USA, the UK and France, the decision had wider support from those progressives and radicals who have insisted on an international ‘responsibility to protect’ (‘R2P’ in its increasingly popular formulation in International Relations) or to intervene in support of democratic resistance movements, and which often follows calls from within those same movements. With this ‘humanitarian’ rationale, the no-fly zone appears to be a form of geopolitical action with widespread appeal. This was the case in Libya, has been the case in the debate about a no-fly zone in Syria in 2013, and was true of previous no-fly zones such as those imposed over Iraq (in 1991, expanded in 1996 and lasting until the US-led invasion of the country in 2003), and Bosnia (in 1992–95).

Yet is ‘military intervention’, ‘humanitarianism’ or even, for that matter, ‘military humanism’,1 the best way of thinking about the no-fly zone? How might we understand the no-fly zone better from a radical perspective? Steps towards this goal have been made by an important body of work within critical geography, in which the no-fly zone has been framed as a question of ‘territorial integrity’, ‘vertical geopolitics’ and a ‘crisis in aerial sovereignty’.2 In so doing, the approach overlaps with the way the subject has been framed in international law and strategic studies.3 However, to understand the no-fly zone we need more than discussions of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territoriality’, whether these are in crisis or not. Rather, I suggest that we need to think of the no-fly zone as a form of police power.

One of the remarkable features of contemporary official discourse concerning air power is that it openly looks back to and seeks to learn from the use of air power in colonial pacification campaigns of the 1920s, and is often clear about the reason for so doing: the use of air power between the wars is widely held to be a model for contemporary counter-insurgency strategies.4 I have elsewhere shown that this is because from its very inception the use of air power in the colonies was structured around the police concept, and have suggested that this fact should be important to how we understand contemporary air power.5 Here, I aim to develop that argument in terms of the no-fly zone. This requires situating the no-fly zone within a much longer and wider historical debate about ‘international police’ and, in particular, the central space in which such police operates: the air. The ‘space’ of police has historically been the city, as Foucault once suggested,6 but the space of international police is the air. At the very least, the no-fly zone needs to be understood as one of the manifestations of this international police power.

At the same time, however, focusing too heavily on the international issues surrounding ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘vertical geopolitics’ obscures what is probably a far more challenging fact, and thus a far more challenging issue for radical politics: that no-fly zones are now a fundamental mechanism of police power per se, and not just internationally. As such, we need to consider the no-fly zone as a key transformation in the zone of engagement of police power, and to connect this transformation with the rise of that other key technology of air power, the drone. Most of the critical literature and radical commentary on drones says next to nothing about no-fly zones, and part of the implication of my argument here is that …