Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review: The Chickens of Empire Come Home to Roost - "Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing"

Sun, 04/12/2020 - 11:10am

SWJ Book Review: The Chickens of Empire Come Home to Roost - Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing 

Nils Gilman


Stuart Schrader, Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019 [ ISBN: 9780520295629, paper, 416 pages].

The thesis of Stuart Schrader’s Badges without Borders is simple: policing is counterinsurgency, and vice versa. Badges without Borders is a history of the global circulation of intertwined ideas and methods of policing and counterinsurgency, focused in particular on the third quarter of the 20th century.  Schrader’s main protagonist is Byron Engle (1910-1990), a former Kansas City policy chief, whose career was “dedicated to mounting a single border-crossing war on crime and left-wing radicalism that utilized the same practical techniques and technologies and similar policies overseas and at home.”(p. 6)  The federal institution Engle built, the Office of Public Safety (OPS), which operated from 1962 to 1974, worked hand-in-hand with liberal foreign policy elites who envisioned counterinsurgency as a way to manage an “unruly globe” beset by the risks associated with what Walt Rostow, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Security Advisor, would call the “disease of the transition” to modernity, namely Communism. Schrader focuses on the continued circulation and development of policing and counterinsurgency techniques through OPS and related organizations in the second half of the twentieth century, arguing that the growth of the “carcereal state” during the late 20th century “grew out of an expansion of policing capacities around the globe that the United States stewarded to prevent communist revolution.”(p. 5)

The equation of criminality and leftwing (or merely antinomian) political radicalism has been common among elites across the North Atlantic world since at least the 19th century.   In the United States, moreover, mainstream opinion among both liberals and conservatives also associated crime and political radicalism with racial others.  The empowerment and potential equality of African-Americans was often represented as particularly threatening to the existing social order.  With the arrival of the postcolonial moment in the 1960s, the liberation of what Vijay Prashad as called “The Darker Nations” from the colonial yoke became connected to projects of racial liberation at home.[1]  As domestic political radicalism, black liberation, and third world revolutionary ambitions became seen by proponent and opponents alike as aligned,[2] the techniques used to maintain social and racial order at home came to be seen as relevant for also maintaining global social and racial order.  “What police assistance aimed to do,” says Schrader, “was to reformat the social terrain from which revolutionary impulses and organizations could grow.”(p. 265)

OPS’s mission was about what today is called “state capacity building,” specifically focused on helping states in the Global South develop a stronger capacity to maintain the status quo political order. While the experts who developed the new techniques of “pacification” insisted on “the foreign-domestic divide in assessing the seriousness” of the radical/Communist threat, their “practical recommendations obliterated it.”(p. 9)  Crime became seen as incipient social revolution, which made opposing political radicalism a natural complement to crime-fighting.  As Schrader concludes, “the managerial approaches to insecurity” tended “to travel back and forth across borders.”(p. 44)

Previous accounts of the globalization of policing techniques, like Jeremy Kuzmarov’s Modernizing Repression (2012), argued that the United States essentially exported techniques of repression across the globe, diffusing methods developed by police forces at home.[3]  By contrast, Schrader argues that the causal arrows were much more multi-directional, with techniques promoted by OPS being reformulated in local contexts and then reimported back into the United States.  In this respect, he follows the trailblazing work of Alfred McCoy in Policing America’s Empire (2009), which argued that modern American domestic policing methods were born in the long counterinsurgency and pacification campaign in the Philippines in the first decades of the 20th century.  McCoy documented how security techniques developed under colonial rule migrated homeward through personnel and policies, which shaped a new federal security apparatus during World War I and eventually gave birth to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[4]

During the early-to-mid-1960s, a reformist logic had prevailed in both policing and counterinsurgency strategies: the goal was to attack what were seen as the “root causes” of crime and insurrection, namely poverty and cultural backwardness, while rehabilitating criminals and reprogramming political radicals. Cold War liberals envisioned “modernization” as a process that would use similar carrot-and-stick methods to overcome both racism and crime at home and underdevelopment abroad.  As Rostow told President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, “At home your appeal is for law and order is the framework for economic progress. Abroad we fight in Vietnam to make aggression unprofitable while helping the people of Vietnam build a future of economic and social progress.  The equivalent of domestic law and order on the world scene is that nations forego the use of violence across international frontiers.” In this way, explains Schrader, “The tools of eradication of racial fracture at home were the tools of development abroad.”(p. 42)

While as a formal institution OPS would be wound down as part of the reining-in of the US state security apparatus in the wake of the abuses of the Nixon administration and growing skepticism about counterinsurgency in the wake of the Vietnam War, “the overseas model of police assistance” refused to go away.  Indeed, Schrader argues, it would find a second life as “the blueprint for the War on Crime.”(p. 9)  If Rostow-style modernization theory-inspired counterinsurgency doctrine conjoined anti-radical coercion with social assistance for development, both at home and abroad, the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 on a “Law and Order” platform spelled a conservative turn in the policing-counterinsurgency nexus.  Part of what had driven Nixon to victory was the perceived failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, but perhaps even more importantly, a backlash again the domestic urban unrest of the late 1960s and a more militant black power movement.  In this context, “US streets could suddenly appear to those charged with pacifying them like foreign territory.”(p. 12) Coding both political radicals and criminals alike as racial others helped to reinforce the political narrative that common techniques were appropriate for combatting both.  “Crime and race,” Schrader argues, “became mutual surrogates.”(p. 39)

During the Nixon years, the “reformist” elements of the police/counterinsurgency nexus would be largely dropped, as conservatives “disdained any sort of social intervention beyond crime prevention or attenuation”(p. 218) either at home or abroad.  Overseas that meant pulling back from the “developmentalist” agenda of US foreign assistance. Domestically it meant the response to urban “insurrection” in the United States increasingly moved toward “avowedly coercive approaches [that] dispensed with economic development components.”(p. 236)  The loss of faith in and patience for “development” in the Global South in the 1970s, and the turn to a repression-only approach to dealing with radicalism, thus mirrored the domestic turn toward “order-maintenance policing,” as well as the replacement of rehabilitative carcereal strategies with more purely punitive ones.  In the end, Badges without Borders shows how the logic of policing and counterinsurgency, as developed in interlinked ways both and home and abroad, were and remain inseparable from racialized logics that see empowerment of non-whites as inherently subversive of the established order.

End Notes

[1] Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (The New Press, 2008).

[2] Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2016).

[3] Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

[4] Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Dr. Nils Gilman is Vice President of Programs at the Berggruen Institute. From 2013 to 2017 he served as Associate Chancellor and Chief of Staff to the Chancellor at U.C. Berkeley, and as the Founding Executive Director of Social Science Matrix, Berkeley’s flagship interdisciplinary social science research center. Earlier in this career, he worked as a research director and scenario planning consultant at the Monitor Group and Global Business Network, and in software companies such as and BEA Systems. He is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (2004), Deviant Globalization: Black Market Economy in the 21st Century (2011), the Sidney Award-winning essay, "The Twin Insurgency," (The American Interest, 2014) as well as numerous other articles on intellectual history and political economy. He holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in History from U.C. Berkeley.