The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, seemingly by action of pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, has reinvigorated the Russophobe wave in the West. Interventionists and Russia-isolationists alike, feel vindicated in their view that there can be no compromise on Ukraine with Moscow. As tragic as the loss of life may be, it is difficult to conclude the downing of the aircraft changes much in the way of political calculations to any of the actors in question.
If indeed the separatists did it, the intention was surely not to down a civilian airliner, much less one carrying Australians, Malaysians and Dutch. It was not even a surprise attack as the separatists have been shooting down Ukrainian large transport and attack aircraft for the past months and weeks. The much referenced analogy of the German sinking of the ship Lusitania in 1915 is not an analogy at all as that attack was intentional and the result of a clear policy; MH17 was most likely an accident – but an avoidable one if the airspace over a warzone had been appropriately closed.
What is Russia’s motivation in Ukraine? Ukraine is perhaps the most important state for Russia: its market, industrial interdependence, cultural and historical ties and strategic location make it imperative for Russia to preserve Ukraine in its orbit. Moscow had apparently even been willing to allow Kiev to pursue an equidistant path under the leadership of Viktor Yanukovych, so long as that path never strayed from neutrality. Ukraine’s Finlandisation however, was interrupted abruptly by the forceful removal of Yanukovych from power earlier this year. That event empirically proved to the Kremlin that its influence over Ukraine was no longer accepted: its economic subsidies and electioneering could not buy it coexistence of interests with the West as the West was more than willing to recognize and support violent forces in Ukraine, so long as these were pro-Western.
Faced with what it saw as a betrayal – after the West’s governments had declared themselves guarantors of a power sharing agreement between the Yanukovych regime and the Maidan movement, but then reneged on it – Moscow decided to pay back in kind and play the game with the same methods: by exerting force and sponsoring violent pro-Russian movements.
Can the West boast the same concerns and interests? Hardly. Washington, Paris or London don’t have much in the way of economic interests in Ukraine, they share no cultural or historical ties and Ukraine’s location can only really be useful when planning a conflict with Russia. The Atlantic powers do have some economic interests in the country but so far those interests have not been threatened. On the contrary, it will be more difficult for Russia’s economic interdependence with Ukraine to linger with Kiev increasingly tied to the EU.
Never one to discourage the West from defending its interests, there is however a cost-benefit ratio to assess in the matter: is Ukraine worth antagonism with Russia? It often happens that smaller countries become strategically more important than bigger powers. For instance, Israel may be a small economy relatively speaking, but it is a regional power in its own right, culturally close to America and a much more stable regional ally than any Muslim nation. History also teaches that economic ties are not a guarantee for peace in and of themselves: France and Germany, China and Japan, Turkey and Iran, all were great economic partners and the greatest geopolitical rivals.
Thus Russia should not be given a break simply because its economy is more important to the West than Ukraine’s. The problem is that the West has a number of challenges to deal with and creating new ones should not be a priority. In Africa and Latin America, Western powers face increasing economic rivalry from Asian powers, in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, their interests are threatened by regional spoilers such as China and Iran. On top of all this the West is facing a severe economic crisis which limits its power projecting abilities. It is very difficult to see how France’s interests would be served by redirecting its power projection from sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA, to Eastern Europe; how Britain’s interests would be served by involving itself in a continental dispute when its navy is already the weakest it has been in decades; how America’s need to balance its military budget, keep sea lanes open and counter-balance regional spoilers would be positively affected by a new deployment to a region that not only cannot help America but is in fact characterised by its perennial security deficit.
All this assuming, of course, that Europe and America will continue to cooperate rather than rival each other, around the world.
To leave Ukraine to its own fate would not constitute a loss to the West because the West never had Ukraine to begin with. To leave Ukraine would be a statement of stability, it would be a mere recognition of the status quo. The more pressure is put on Russia and Ukraine, the more Moscow will seek to cut its losses by weakening Kiev’s central rule.
In his op-ed at Offiziere, Nick Ottens writes:
1. “Russian president Vladimir Putin stands to gain little from continuing to incite rebellion in Ukraine (…)Russia’s economy expected to hardly expand this year at least partially as a result of Western financial sanctions”
Russia has everything to gain from protecting its interests in Ukraine – hard to see how the opposite is true – and what is at stake is a strategic asset, not a short-term gain. By the same token, what would the US have to gain by defending Taiwan? Or China, by seeking to co-opt it? Russia’s financial pain is to the Kremlin an investment in a more strategically safe future, where a buffer better insulates Moscow from threats from the West – which Western ideological universalism has only made more urgent.
2. “(…) Putin’s strategy failed (…) only hardened most European leaders in their resolve to draw the country into their orbit”
Russia actually needs Ukraine and Russia’s strategic focus does not have a short attention span. Hypothetically, does Nick Ottens believe that Russia should also surrender Siberia to China to avoid short-term economic pains from a Chinese embargo?…
3. “Putin’s actions also alienated the vast majority of Ukrainians”
This is perhaps the most irrelevant of arguments which are often raised in the West. Not only because it in no way changes the calculation of interests but also because; since when do interventions hinge on the targeted populations’ approval?! This is absurd. Should Israelis wait until Palestinians are fond of Benjamin Netanyahu before enacting reprisals against terrorist rockets? Or perhaps the US should wait until Iran’s ayatollahs are sufficiently unpopular before targeting a hypothetical nuclear weapons programme…
“it turned most Ukrainians decidedly away from Putin’s regime and convinced them their future lay in Europe”
Ottens needs only to speak to the instigators of the current regime in power in Kiev to quickly learn that Putin’s regime was never very tempting. Quite to the contrary, if Western Ukrainians were already Russophobic, it was Crimeans and East Ukrainians who became far more pro-Russian with the current crisis.
But lets face the argument’s validity head on: when a state intervenes, it does so to defend the interests of the citizens it represents, no one else’s.
4. “Putin had appeared to warm to the fantasies of the likes of Dugin”
This is another meme that deserves to be disproven since it is another Western lazy myth. Putin is a politician and does not follow any one person’s advice unconditionally. Aleksandr Dugin himself seems anything but Kremlin’s favourite these days. Most importantly, Dugin advises autarky and strategic counter-balancing of both the West and China. This Putin has acted against time and again: by collaborating with NATO on AfPak, with the West on Iran, by siding with China against the West, etc. By contrast Dugin would’ve preferred an alliance with Germany, Iran and Japan against both China and America. Oddly enough, Western mainstream media analysis resembles something more akin to FOX News or Russian media these days, which is ironic given its strong pride in objectivity.
5. Ottens goes on to accuse Russia of crony capitalism and claiming Moscow’s stance on Ukraine is a way for Putin to shore up the support of the working classes. Yet, Putin’s Russia always reacts to any perceived threat – be it in Chechnya, Georgia or Ukraine – regardless of who is voting for Putin at any particular moment.
I would suggest Nick Ottens applies the same analysis instead to the West, whose Liberal post-modern elites persist in mobilizing the limited resources of their respective nations, to serve the interests of the limitless, universalistic, radical and autistic project of converting the planet to the mantra of Western liberal democracy.
Only this tremendous bias could possibly justify Western obsession with a territory it is barely connected with or thinly depends on. Western obsession with Ukraine is ideologically corrupt – no other conflict deserves as much Western attention under the justification of the same declared principles – but most of all it is incommensurately strategically incompetent.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H. W. Bush hailed the coming of what he called the ‘new order’. This new order was ambiguously interpreted throughout the globe: whereas in the Third and Second Worlds, it meant only the end of the bipolar geopolitical system, in the West it meant something else entirely. For Europeans and Americans the new order was a post-modern one and globalization was its hallmark. ‘Peace through democracy’ and ‘democracy through trade’ were the rallying cries of all those who, in their Fukuyama moment, saw the ‘end of history’ and the ultimate triumph of Western values, as Mankind’s normative synthesis for future prosperity. This civilisational pride would result in a number of ideological trends in all fields of human endeavor, from economic neo-liberalism or religious agnosticism to foreign policy universalist doctrines such as liberal and conservative interventionism.
Politics was now perceived as corrupt and obsolete following the end of the ideological blocs, thus giving way to the age of the NGO. Unlike such predecessors as the ICRC, the new NGOs aimed not at operating under the scope of the state – making up for its shortfalls – but rather at replacing it: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Greenpeace are critical of state action and seek to mobilize the civil society into realizing autonomously their view of the ‘good society’. Hugo Slim describes this vision as consisting of the full implementation of rule of law, democratic political practices, freedom of speech, equality of gender, sustainable development, respect for the rights of women and children as well as pacifism.
Thanks to this politique engagée, state responsibilities previously seen as foundational and primary are now neglected. ‘Democratic peace theory’ empties the once absolute need for ‘manu militari’ for instance and politicians find it difficult to justify military spending in a world where inter-state conflict is taboo and asymmetric threats are described as ‘strategic’. Security has throughout history been the state’s foremost function with the very definition of secular power being authority over the military, but social programmes have taken its place without concern for the foundations of the modern state – in Iraq, Coalition forces paid a heavy price for daring to put development before security. Therefore we can also conclude that the western citizenry understands military action only IF it serves a moral cause and, according to the vision of such constructivist authors as Slaughter or Ikenberry, consequently soldiers are no longer soldiers but are instead painted as social workers, they exist not to defend interests but to build states and nations, they altruistically fight for the rights of others not for ours, warfare is not enemy centric but population centric, ‘responsibility to protect’ trumps ‘national security’.
As morally righteous as it may be, the practical outcome of such policies is often strategically detrimental: authors such as Edward Luttwak or Nikolas K. Gvosdev agree that NATO operations in the Balkans did not stop the killings but prolonged the conflict by instilling parity in offensive capabilities, interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo did not prove that Europe lives now in democratic peace but rather made it inevitable the presence of foreign troops to enforce the peace indefinitely, Operation Iraqi Freedom did not spread democracy in the Middle East but rather weakened the counter-weight to Iranian and Syrian regional influence thus emboldening their interference in Lebanon and Palestine, the overthrow of Qadhafi did not deter other tyrants from oppressing their populations but drove them into massacre frenzy so as to suppress any notion of territorial bridgehead for foreign interventions, Libya also proved to normatively dissonant regimes that WMDs are adequate means of deterrence whereas trust and cooperation with democracies is not – given the latter’s tendency for foreign policy inconsistency.
One of the best barometers for poor strategic planning is the concept of ‘overstretch’: many an empire have found themselves biting more than they can chew as a result of hubris. Not only does this seem to be happening to the West but worse still the rest of the world is not following suit. While Western nations easily jump to the next humanitarian crisis without providing a stable outcome to the previous one, Russia and China refrain from foreign adventurism but are very zealous in maintaining their own regional spheres of influence. In fact, be it Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, the pattern repeats without consideration for the consequences. This is due to the belief that hard-power and high-politics have no place in post-modernity and whatever strategically negative consequences may derive from humanitarian policies, the long term benefits outweigh ‘short term’ losses: both the European Commission and the US State Department often declare that democratic governance and human rights are the best guarantee of stability on the long term, and both institutions claim to work to bring these priorities to fruition.
There is then an abandonment of realpolitik principles for state action and their replacement with moralpolitik. Nowadays decision-makers are contrived to ‘do something’ and ‘do what is right’, and because the Machiavellian maxim of politics being necessarily amoral is understood as old-fashioned, when confronted with good society lacking, humanitarians adopt linear constructivism and call it a ‘work in progress’: Bosnia lacks nationhood but only on the short term since as a EU associate, state-building and nation-building as per Brussels Consensus will eventually complete its inexorable development towards EU standards; ditto for Kosovo who along with Bosnia symbolically earned a brand new flag with EU colors.
Conversely, together with Iraq and Libya the Balkans remain strictly ethnically divided. Security dilemmas and historical rivalry seem more relevant now since these societies remain democratically imperfect – according to Freedom House – their political liberties were largely exogenously introduced – taking into account American geopolitical pressure for normative conformity and EU accession conditioning to achieve the same – and dangerously favor the development of partisan civil society association – which may give rise to sectarianism as it happened in Iraq or the post-soviet space. In fact ‘doing what is right’ only seldom accomplishes the ‘good society’ standards aimed at – post-war Germany and Japan for instance.
On the other hand because doing what is right translates as ‘standing up for the little guy’, ‘doing good’ usually involves applying manicheist categories. It is simplistic to call Kosovo Albanians the good guys simply because they are being oppressed or doing the same today for the Syrian opposition. If we were to apply truly objective principles, the key would be to ascertain not who is ‘good’ but rather who will behave according to humanitarian standards. In non-western states though, few political factions would live up to such standards. This was observed by Stathis Kalyvas who studying the Philippines during the Second World War, found that the real struggle was between local elites who adopted the ideological narrative of Americans or Japanese depending on which side they were fighting. Thus the civil strife may have been a fight by proxy between Americans and Japanese, but ideology was only a guise for legitimacy. Similar patterns can be seen in the Balkans where both Bosniaks and Croats were guilty of the same crimes as Serbs during the War in Bosnia or where Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs were equally guilty of atrocities and ethnic cleansing be it before or after the 1999 NATO intervention. Particularly troublesome is the example of Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring, where the West either did involve itself under the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, or was instigated to do so. In both cases the opposition to the oppressive regime was guilty of much of the same atrocities during and after the civil war, a reality ironically epitomized by the 2012 Al-Qaeda attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
It is often the case that Western politicians prefer to yield to simplistic categorization and choose sides morally. The risk inherent to morality based decision-making is to recurrently side with the weak against the strong as it was done in the Balkans by supporting Bosniaks and Croats against Serbs or Kosovo Albanians – again – against Serbs. However this is a global pattern with any given ‘cause’ resonating with American voters and leading to US government support for: nationalist Chinese – Taiwan – and Tibetans against mainland China, Israel against the Islamic world, Gulf monarchies against Republican Arabs, post-Soviet states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine) against Russia and of course Albanians against post-Yugoslav states.
But there is a cost to invariably siding with David against Goliath: Goliath always has a better chance at victory. Since the end of the Cold War, as the remaining superpower, America has managed to create a balance of power in favor of the status quo but with the Asian awakening and the emerging economies narrowing the power gap, one has to wonder for how long the US and the West in general, will manage to keep the ‘little guy’ from being overwhelmed by its demographically and economically senior neighbors. American troops protecting the Gulf monarchies and Albanians won’t be around forever, nor will the treasury propping up Israel, Taiwan and Russophobe Europe. Europeans will find equally hard to justify the projection of their forces to the Balkans, Darfur and the Gulf when there is a weak chance of success and increased risk of loss of life, which Western electorates cannot bear.
This concern with the little guy or omegamania, also brews bad blood with emerging powers and spawns ad-hoc anti-Western coalitions as it happens today in the UN Security Council a propos of Syria or happened earlier with Sudan during the Darfur crisis. More to the point, what would the West’s response be if such structures as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas were to move towards an equally interventionist approach against Western partners?…
Yet the West is capable of making wise decisions as well. Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait was successful largely because it was conducted with pragmatic interests in mind, Lebanon’s cedar revolution was a good example of Western pressure and soft-power, the decision to abstain from intervening in Georgia in ’08 or Syria in ’12 was sensible, as was to refrain from going to great lengths in chastising China over strife in Xinjiang, to maintain support for Bahrain’s regime in the face of the Arab Spring or to recognize the new Singhalese post civil war political reality. What all these decisions have in common was the recognition by the West that the minority party did not have a sufficient chance of success against the majority, or at least chance enough worth risking Western political capital supporting.
The secret for sound strategic planning is not to always side with the strong and the predictable winners of violent conflicts but rather to apply strategic criteria when choosing sides, rather than moral criteria. It is often advantageous to prop-up the weaker party but this should be done sparingly. To indulge in systematic white knight grandstanding is dangerous and destabilizing; the West must pick its battles, not the other way around.
The fall of the Berlin Wall did not originate a united world, it generated a tragedy of the commons on a planetary scale which the West has failed to take advantage of since. While opportunistic powers moved quickly to establish spheres of interest and seize resources, the West wasted time and capital to consolidate its own particular and ethical vision of the end of history. Future multipolarism may yet forcefully invert this tendency but the West is capable of making informed and rational decisions on its own and all it takes now is for Westerners to understand that the return of history has deprived them of their former normatively exceptionalist status.
The conflict in Syria has raised many questions about international intervention. Critics from the right and left alike have berated President Obama for staying America’s hand and thus preventing any form of intervention. Indeed without US capabilities, as much as other states like France and the UK would like to intervene, they are unable to.
The Obama administration came under media fire especially when its self-imposed catalyst for intervention was reached: the use of chemical weapons by the regime. Obama’s red line was discovered to be more hazy than expected and the press cartoonists had a field day.
However, it is not unusual for democracies to display incoherent foreign policies given the political representatives’ dependence on popularity with the public. Other countries do not face the same level of scrutiny and Russia has been particularly coherent throughout the length of this conflict and even throughout the past decades. Vladimir Putin has himself drawn lines in the sand before, the difference being he tends to keep them. The West might want to borrow a few lessons from Putin’s playbook.
The first indicator of such an attitude was Chechnya. In the primordial days of Vladimir Putin’s top level political career, the PM was touted by President Boris Ieltsin as a prodigal son to bring order to Russia. The most distinctive legacy of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s first stint as PM was undoubtedly the 2nd Chechen War. Under his premiership Russia adopted a very clear policy of rejecting any secession that was not based on the territorial precedents of the USSR administrative divisions. The Russian Federation itself, while the self-proclaimed successor state of the SU, based its legitimacy for independence on self-determination for all the Soviet Socialist Republics.
Until then there was no consensus or doctrine on where the limits for self-determination should be drawn and Moscow had even briefly recognised the Chechen Republic. At the end of the first Putin government, Chechnya was subdued and Russia’s territorial integrity was no longer a matter for debate.
With the internal front consolidated, Putin turned to foreign affairs. Unlike what Russian leaders had always pleaded, NATO progressively encroached into Eastern Europe by extending membership and similar agreements to central and Eastern European states. Russian leaders claimed that Eastern Europe should be left as a neutral buffer zone but Moscow was politely ignored and given the NATO-Russia Council as a reassurance.
In the 2000s, with Putin now President and Russia reeling in considerable oil profits, the tone changed and soon enough so did the actions: NATO’s plans to establish a missile defence system for Europe which was partly based in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania met with considerable Russian resistance and counter-pressure. Russia still maintains its Cold War nuclear armed intermediate-range missile deterrence, which makes Russian diplomatic outrage somewhat bewildering (as NATO’s limited systems could never hope to best Russian capabilities) but even if only motivated by Moscow’s preference to keep Eastern Europe as unimportant for NATO as possible, this has however been a battle that Vladimir Putin has chosen to fight.
It is difficult to assess whether it is being won since NATO’s system is yet to be made operational but officially the deployment continues. Will Russia’s threat to redirect the targeting of its own ballistic devices towards Eastern European sites be fulfilled and will it persuade NATO to recede? It would seem Moscow is attempting to put forth objections to further fading of the geostrategic neutrality of Eastern Europe but given these countries inclusion into NATO, it is too late for that.
Another important red line was that drawn against the colour revolutions which Putin has now succeeded in reversing in practically every country they struck: the Orange coalition is out of power in the Ukraine, the Tulip revolution’s leaders were driven from Bishkek and then there was Georgia, the original sin. The Rose revolution was the first in which a Russophobe pro-Western regime came to power through civil society pressure. Saakashvili wasted no time in switching allegiances and soon found himself at loggerheads with Moscow. These tensions would eventually culminate in the 2008 Ossetian War, trade embargoes declared against Georgia, Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and finally Saakashvili’s own defeat in Georgia’s national elections.
Moscow was thus conveying a clear message: while Russia’s advanced Warsaw Pact buffer zone was now lost, the new buffer’s politically neutral integrity is sacrosanct. In other words, regardless of regime or leadership, no European state east of the ‘near abroad’ curtain – east of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova – has permission to adopt an anti-Russia geopolitical positioning.
The US, the French and the Germans understood and backed off; Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession to NATO was indefinitely postponed. It is not as if they could do much seeing as how their forces were not only tied in the Middle East but the campaign in Afghanistan actually depended on Russian air routes.
So far Putin has successfully drawn 2 out of 3 red lines against the West. There are those who would criticise Putin for his anti-Western stance and actually accuse him of anti-Western bias. Secretary Brzezinski notably stated as much last April in Bratislava, outraged that Moscow cannot see its interest in cooperating with the West against more dangerous foes like China. Putin however is flexible and has a keen strategic mind. Putin only cooperates with China as long as it is the West trying to encroach on Moscow’s sphere of influence; China on the other hand, attempts nothing of the kind. Putin probably does not believe that Russia can rely and trust in Beijing ad eternum, or even that Russia’s culture should be viewed as Eastern rather than Western, he however understands that were China to make any menacing moves towards Siberia, it would be as much a Russian interest to fight back as it would be a Western interest in general.
Syria is Putin’s latest attempt at drawing a line in the sand. This time Putin is not securing its domestic legitimacy or its hegemonic sphere of influence, this time Russia is claiming back a chief role in world affairs. Russia would never attempt something similar in Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia. The Mashreq though is of vital importance to a number of Russian strategic and geoeconomic interests. Russia is then drawing a line in which world affairs it perceives itself to be too weak to influence and those where it simply cannot allow its stakes to be overlooked by ultra-voluntaristic Western forces.
If Putin succeeds it will have proven once again that the new Russia is not to be trifled with. If he doesn’t, he will understand he overstretched his country’s projection abilities.
For the time being however, Russia’s actions cannot be criticised since the West rhetorically entrapped itself into being unable to negotiate with the Syrian regime. The time to negotiate was when the regime was on the defensive, but last year the West was too busy making arrogant demands for Assad to step down and surrender unconditionally. Now it may be too late.
If Putin can be accused of making mistakes, then the S-300 delivery to Syria would be one of them. If this actually takes place rather than being used as a bargaining chip, then Putin will be escalating the strategic implications of the conflict by risking that Syria delivers such systems to its patron Iran. This would incur the rightful wrath of both Israelis and Westerners and would unnecessarily broaden the conflict.
One reason why the US has stayed its hand is because Barack Obama prioritises Iran and China over small sideshows like Syria. While defeating Assad would deal Iranian projection a severe blow, it would do nothing against the Iranian regime and its nuclear programme. Syria is also very much a regional power game rather than a global one. For the US to intervene would be to ask the Chinese to drop their cooperative diplomatic attitude in the UNSC.
Democracy is Geostrategy-adverse
One of the sad conclusions of the whole ‘red lines’ affair is once again that democracy does not deal well with long term planning. In a way, it is precisely because Russia has kept the current leader in place for over a decade, that such red lines can be drawn and successfully implemented. As much as liberal democracies would like to do the same, their emphasis on soft power undermines their red lines, as do their ever-changing geopolitical doctrines. There is much to be said for stability and coherence. Putin is not a firebrand, quite to the contrary he has remained remarkably steady in the course he set for himself and for Russia, and done so in the face of explosive interventionism by the West as well as unforeseen shifts like the Arab Spring.
Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron have all declared multiculturalism a failure. Berlin, Paris and London all realise that in the continent where nationalism was born, the harmonious melding of cultures is not achievable.
In Europe and much of the old world, History has served the purpose of separating cultures. Europe especially, due to its geography, has been a perfect case of identity politics trumping any ideology. It was in Europe afterall that nationalism was born. Unlike what many believe, nationalism was not born in the XIX century. Identity politics had been an integral part of the Scottish rebellions, the German reformation and countless other phenomena prior to the modern era. Modernity codified these trends but it did not inaugurate them.
The ultra-nationalism of the XX century was short lived, yes, but this trend was extreme and in many ways self-consuming. The reaction to ultra-nationalism however has been equally extreme, being characterised by universalism, radical individualism and pacifism at any cost. This recipe is beginning to crumble since the European Union is now more than ever a project in distress. Those who dread disintegration claim more integration is the only alternative but this does not stand to reason: if integration was the answer Europe would not be in distress after having begun political on top of economic integration. What could Euro-bonds and ECB fiscal controls do to prevent dissimilar productivity in the different European states? Monetary and financial engineering cannot prevent radically different work ethics and civic mentality. The Greeks will not become more individualistic anymore than Finns will become more collectivist – barring any totalitarian social engineering practices of course.
Instead of uniformity, the only enduring reality in Europe is that of disunity and dissimilarity, however close the civilisational contacts may be. The Treaties of Westphalia epitomised as much by bringing the concept of sovereignty into current use. European sovereignty though can only exist through ethnic homogeneity and the subalternation of the normative. This was the political translation of the end of the Thirty Years War which saw the crystallisation of multipolarism in Europe. After Rome and the Franks, the Habsburgs had been the third polity to vie for continental domination and fail. At the same time, Europe being the smallest continent had allowed for cross-cultural interaction to an extent whereupon the different peoples shared a common cultural legacy. Westphalia was thus the codification of ethnic separation (proto-nationalism) with normative consensus (Christianity). The respublica christiana was politically disunited but ideologically cohesive – with theological divides often serving only to make salient the ethnic fault lines (Catholicism/Presbyterianism in Scotland, Catholicism, Islam or Orthodoxy in the Balkans, etc).
Among the necessary consequences of the Westphalian system in Europe (especially Western Europe) has been xenophobia but also internationalism. It is inevitable that stark frontiers and centralized states will invariably lead to cooperation: European states are small and multipolarism requires geostrategic variable geometry. On the other hand, in a hermetic ethnic monopoly, minorities will invariably find it hard to integrate as Jews and Gypsies would attest. Both these tendencies are perhaps better observed in simplistic regime types of the totalitarian tradition, namely with both communism and fascism.
In Asia multicultural empires have rather been the norm, with eastern Europe and the Balkans corresponding to some standard somewhere in between western European nation-states and Asian multi-ethnic empires. This is why sovereign borders are notoriously difficult to create in the Middle East but multi-ethnic harmony comes naturally (Istanbul, Jerusalem and Baghdad or Persia, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia being good historical examples). The artificial emulation of western state apparatuses in the Middle East leads to necessary ethnic tensions given that within a small state, unlike within an empire, ethnic identity is crucial to the monopoly on legitimate violence. Empires demand at most an ethnic core but due to their extension it would make little sense to fear one or another minority.
The colonisation of the Americas originated a peculiar misfit: the settlers were European but the territory did not lend itself to European style nation-states. Quite to the contrary, America’s near absence of major topographical barriers and the mixed nature of its settlers favoured an Asian type polity formation. The initial immigration was largely comprised of Europeans which meant that integration was easier given it was intra-civilisational. African slaves, Hispanic-Americans or Asian migrants either did not possess citizenship or were too small in number to be of consequence. The system endured and prospered until the War of Secession when apart from all the economic tensions between North and South, national identity was propelled by abolitionists as a fracturing issue.
Now, unlike what the founding fathers had intended, economic and political liberalism was beginning to spillover to society at large and the fundamental incompatibility of liberalism with raison d’état began. To be clear, America was only a multicultural society so long as it remained a European anglophone republic in its core. The next question then should be whether the US could have afforded to remain a slaver state: it doesn’t seem very likely given the incompatibility with liberalism. However, the rejection of domestic slavery is a very different proposition from the promotion of individual freedom abroad, from the automatic granting of citizenship to millions of the illiterate and economically disenfranchised overnight, and finally from forceful universality of the abolition.
Other societies have evolved very differently and cannot require the same cultural and political solutions as the anglophone ‘new world’. Citizenship is not equivalent to nationhood and ultra-inclusiveness risks cohesion – one wonders what would have happened if Spartans had granted Helots their freedom as well as full citizenship rights in Laconia… Finally if abolition was indeed a social concern of the American people, why not simply allow each state to approve it in their own timing – surely there was no doubt such a path was unidirectional?…
The Confederacy’s decision to press for independence was a dramatic one but not illogical. The South was betting on a North American Westphalia. They had the precedent of Yorktown (1783) – continental secession from the British empire – and they had the sympathy of overseas powers as well as Native Americans. This could have meant a partition of north America and a multiple state balance of power in the long run. As Grant would come to prove however, North America is not Europe: Appalachia cannot be ruled by more than one power and the Atlantic ocean is too large to allow European polities to project much force into America. Topographical and geographical obstacles made the Habsburg quest to control central Europe too much of a logistical challenge: the ‘Spanish road’ was vulnerable (i.e. Palatinate), the western approaches and the English channel too risky (Spanish Armada), all this even with the advantage of superior numbers as well as tactics; the North Sea and Baltic polities always free to project uninterrupted influence over continental Europe. Conversely, the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia were almost always chosen by generals rather than imposed by geography, armies were free to roam around the great plains of the Midwest and rivers proved to be avenues for troops rather than natural defences against them. Unlike Europe, America cannot be divided from within and is too far to be divided from without.
Therefore, the significance of Appomattox was the very opposite of Westphalia: like Worms in 1122, Appomattox in 1865 meant that normative power bests temporal power, ideological identity trumps cultural identity. Above all, the extremism of abolitionists lay in them being constitutional fundamentalists – which the same founding fathers who signed a peace treaty that saw the need for all the Dunmore Proclamation black freedmen to be exiled, were not – Some might say ‘so much the better!’ since that allowed for the liberation of the slaves but it did also sow the seeds of systemic dysfunction for forthwith the question of identity would be one resolved by the supremacy of beliefs over ethnicity, values over interests, ideology over identity. As the last US election of 2012 proved though, the interests of minorities (loose immigration laws) trump their ideological background (Catholic, Methodist, Southern Baptist conservatism) as it trumps in almost every polity. The inconsistency then is that of identity: if minorities vote according to their ethnic identity rather than according to their ideological identity, how can they then be American?
English-Americans or German-Americans do not rush to defend Britain or Germany whenever these nations disagree with the US or when their brethren have disputes with the Federal government on national soil but contemporary minorities do the opposite. Worse still, unlike Italians and Irish whose integration was already made difficult due to their non-compliance with the WASP standard, Hispanics and African-Americans do not even originate from the same civilisational setting as European America – Hispanics have European roots but also Amerindian and African ones.
(Perhaps this reality helps explain how easily the US find themselves involved in the causes of minorities around the world from Jews or Armenians to Albanians)
The imagery of Monrovia and Liberia is a profoundly ironic one since the same historians who so readily admit the enterprise of resettling American slaves in Africa was a failure, have scarcely a word of doubt about the success of their adaptation to anglophone North America.
Nothing lasts forever. What is being observed nowadays in Europe’s south and the Arab Spring is not just temporary and circumstantial economic woes, it is a change in paradigm for the West. Every major issue westerners tried to avoid for decades is coming back with a vengeance be it unsustainable welfare programs or incompatible immigration trends. Yet the system is bogged down in legislative inertia and political impasse. Bipolarisation plagues the US whereas electoral apathy and lack of leadership plagues Europe.
By pushing the aforementioned issues to the margins in favour of political correctness, western politicians condemned many of those issues to being used only by marginal politicians and it is these that now reap the benefits of political courage and prescience. However, populist parties in Switzerland, Netherlands, Austria or Hungary are not suited to run the fate of a complex state apparatus and if elected are likely to cause strategic havoc. It may as well however, be too late for centrist parties to make a change.
Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels theorised that every system has elites and that these need to allow for ruling elite rotation in order to for the system to function properly. Any accumulation and exclusivity by a ruling elite, forces non ruling elites to plot against the system as an opposition, which often leads to Caesarism.
The Western model is exhausted because democracy no longer allows for a proper ruling elite circulation but no other system does either. This inherent domestic friction in most western states is likely to bring about a complete change in paradigm but not necessarily to something better.
The Left is bankrupt. The fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR were a hard blow to leftist politics worldwide which tried to adapt through ‘3rd Way’ antics. These however were merely a improvisation to a changing political environment; ultimately the combination of neoliberalism with socialism did nothing other than prolonging the inevitable collapse of the welfare system, the Left relied upon for constituency maintenance.
Thus, while it used to be the right to exercise populistic politics in order to sway voters which could not be swayed without a more marxist ideological narrative, today it is the right that holds ideological supremacy. Right-wing ideology is slowly becoming the paradigm in Europe. The left has consequently chosen to divert its speech to more demogagic issues in the hope of persuading non-ideological acolytes on the centre. This however will carry awful consequences for the long term future when neo-Keynesian economics results in yet another market punishment for unsustainable indebtedness.
In the absence of ideology, the left is now subject to the superior influence of utilitarian structures. From Australia to Europe, the left wing party apparatchiks are now empowered by the need for votes which cannot be gained by ideology. Left-wing parties face thus an inner struggle for power with old ideologues facing off against young apparatchiks who can deliver votes, even at the cost of demagoguery, corruption and short-termism, leaching off a dysfunctional system. Rudd vs Gillard or Ed vs David Miliband are the demonstration of this trend and apparatchiks together with the defenders of established corporativist interests and trade unions, are winning.
The right actually sees many of its criticisms of the liberal paradigm confirmed: its criticism of democratic peace theory is confirmed by Arab Spring ‘democracies’ becoming antagonist of western interests, its criticism of multicultural society is confirmed by riots, failure in integration policies as well as intolerant trends among incompatible immigrant demographics with European and American host societies, its criticism of the individualisation of values with the counter-culture movement is proven right by the sharp decrease in living conditions of worse-off segments of society, its criticism of demilitarisation and disarmament proven right by the opposite trend among emerging economies.
Yet, the right is itself afraid of upsetting the established order which has kept stability for so long. It is afraid of empowering too much the Geert Wilders and UKIP alternative-right movements which nibble electorally at its power bases.
Angela Merkel is a dark knight of sorts, delivering solutions to the south which are necessary but deeply unpopular. The southern christian democrats are thus being spared the consequences of their own leniency towards the liberal-left wing paradigm. But even this cannot last forever and like Harvey Dent their failures may yet be exposed by extremist Banes for now lurking in the shadows.
Having often found much ignorance on foreign policy in debates with Libertarians, this post is aimed at them. A number of flawed Libertarian arguments are here counter-argued:
- War is not a legitimate tool of policy
Considering aggressive war as a legitimate tool of foreign policy is not ideological, it is empirical. No state or society having rejected the prerogative of waging war has ever survived. No one can claim to govern and defend the national interest of one’s constituency without reserving the right to go to war to defend that same interest. This defence has never been made exclusively at home and indeed it cannot in a globalised world.
- Iran does not need to be deterred since it is a peaceful state who has never attacked anyone. Iran is not irrational, at least no more than any other state.
Iran does need to be deterred. It has been attacking and undermining American, Jewish and Western interests since 1979: Iran gave up a profitable partnership with the US in favour of isolationism in 79 and this should be a good indicator of its rationality. Iran has been interfering in the internal affairs of Lebanon in an attempt to export its own revolution, it has moved assertively to claim oil resources in the Caspian, projected its terrorism as far as Buenos Aires just to be able to kill Jews. Iran hopes the SCO will become an anti-NATO, it instigated regime change wherever it would have hurt the West and criticised where it benefited it.
It is stunning that Libertarians who readily accuse the US of exceptionalism and adventurism (which is true), are so blind to a completely irrational and destabilising theocracy.
Without a Western presence in the Middle East one of two things would happen: either a protracted conflict between Iran and Turkey and instability in the oil markets for decades to come, or Iranian supremacy and extortion.
- There is no merit to attacking Iran
Iran works against western interests and it is not in the interest of the West, the Arabs or any other regional stakeholder to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons. This would endow Iran with nuclear deterrence against conventional attacks. If right now Iran doesn’t project more financial or military resources to Syria or Lebanon, it is also because it has to concern and burden itself with homeland defence. Endowed with nuclear deterrence, an exceptionalist, universalist and revisionist regional power would be able to devote more resources to exporting its revolution abroad.
- War is not worth the lives of innocent people
There is a difference between valuing the lives of innocent people and believing everyone is innocent… the latter is but totalitarianism.
- Iran needs a nuclear deterrence because it feels threatened and encircled by US bases
This is a straw man argument: the bases in Afghanistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan as well as the ones in Iraq before the withdrawal, were not set up against Iran and because many of these are simply logistical hubs or are directed at different problems such as the war against the Taliban, they would actually be more vulnerable to an Iranian attack than they would be useful for an attack on Iran.
The only bases capable of sustaining an attack on Iran are the ones in the Arabian peninsula. Most of the US outposts in Afghanistan are sustaining a war in which American troops are bogged down. The bases in central Asia are basically transport hubs and the US does not have the right to station aggressive formations. NATO’s bases in Turkey could be used for an attack on Iran but if Turkey didn’t authorise their use against Iraq, odds are they’d never be considered for an attack on Iran.
- To invade Iran is budgetary folly
Yes, it is which is why no one advocates an invasion of Iran but merely a surgical bombardment of nuclear sites; an expanded version of Israel’s raid against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor.
- Israel is the real cause of instability in the Middle East
Israel has never done anything gratuitous to bring instability. Israel has ever only acted in self-defence. It did not endanger the supply of oil to the West. Iran on the other hand has tried to export its own values and socio-economic model to Lebanon and Iraq, and has also propagated terrorism in the region which Israel has never done.
Israel has been persistently threatened not only with war but also with annihilation which is why it requires a nuclear deterrence but Iran does not since no one wants to destroy Iran but merely to contain it. Iran is an exceptionalist, expansionist, millennial, apocalyptic, self-proclaimed anti-western and anti-liberal.
Israel never invaded anyone. Every single war it fought was defensive, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran have all waged aggressive war against Israel for no rational reason. Israel has not responded in kind.
- If Iran is economically and militarily crippled it cannot project power beyond its borders
Agreed it is but lets see, it is helping to prop up the regime in Syria, it has helped to carve out a state within a state in Lebanon (one by the way which is capable of defying Israel, one of the world’s foremost military powers). Plenty of projection power for an economically and militarily crippled third rate power.
- Iran is only a threat to the US
It is also to the Arabs – they are Iran’s neighbours who provide us with oil and who own much of the American debt – to Israel and countries such as Turkey, Russia or Pakistan have no interest either in seeing Iran go nuclear.
- How many foreigners has Iran killed since Israel has existed?
Iran has killed thousands. Not just in Lebanon or during the tanker war with Iraq but also by sponsoring Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorism throughout the world as well as interfering in the Balkan wars.
Israel however has not interfered in the affairs of other states nor did it sponsor terrorist groups unless the target state had previously declared war on it. Israel does not declare to want to exterminate or expel other ethnicities or religions. Israel allowed for no entity to use its territory to attack Lebanon, or other countries. Others allowed this against Israel. Israel actually has borders with Lebanon, it needs to care about what goes on in Lebanon lest it not fall victim to military invasions or terrorist raids. Iran is thousands of kms away and has no conceivable interest or need to do so.
Regardless, one cannot measure a country’s negative impact by the sheer number of deaths its direct actions cause. The US and the UN coalition who expelled Iraq from Kuwait killed more Iraqis than Iraqis killed Kuwaitis but that is easily explained by the differences in technology and means available to each side. But that doesn’t mean that Kuwait should not have been liberated.
- Iranians are being targeted; not just scientists but the entire population
The conflict between Iran and the West was unilaterally started by Iran. If Iran has the right to produce nuclear power, the West also has the right to declare embargoes. The fact that most of the world agrees that Iran should be sanctioned proves that the concern is not solely Western. Iran is and has always been intransigent in regards to its nuclear programme so its motivations are dubious. Iran doesn’t even try to establish a dialogue with opponents like Israel and is in fact antisemitic.
Targeting scientists also proves that the target is not Iran as a country and not even its regime but just its nuclear programme. Far more principled approach than indiscriminate terrorism.
- The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys
No moral judgements involved. The West tries only to defend its interests; some states can help and others can get in the way. US and Israel are ‘good’ simply because they defend Western interests in MENA.
- Iran broke its alliance with the US because of US support to the Shah’s repressive regime
Yes the US was supportive of the Shah but that support was not conditional on the Shah’s repression. The US wanted and needed an ally in the region. They didn’t care what kind of regime was in place; The West tried to befriend Iran. It tried to do so under the Shah and under Khomeini. Besides the Islamic Republic is much worse than the Shah and it is not richer or more influential.
Israel did not interfere in Iran and it was discriminated against. Arab states and Russia did interfere and they were not considered ‘satanic’. It is not like Iran itself did not meddle in other states too.
In this outlet we are in favour only of a conditional intervention against Iran: provided the Arab states participate.
Thus, not toeing the neoconservative line of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ as far as an attack on Iran is concerned, there should be no suspicion of our being belligerent tout court.
It is important though to analyse the liberal-libertarian-marxian case against an attack on Iran and dispel the myth of blowback.
It is said for example that the reason why Iranians today hate America is due to the Anglo-American subversion of the Mossadegh government and their installing a repressive regime thereafter. According to this logic, not only has Western policy towards Iran been flawed through the years but so would more belligerence today lead to additional negative results.
First of all it should be said that Iranians don’t hate America – in fact they are one of the most westernised peoples in MENA – that British and Americans wanted only more control over the Iranian government and that they were not behind the repressive tactics – albeit having provided the training – that Iran prospered to become a major regional geostrategic power under US sponsorship and most importantly that the decision to separate Iran from the West geopolitically was taken by the revolutionary regime and not by the Iranian people.
In fact, the assertion that the Islamic revolution was detrimental to the West because Iranians as a people were enraged against Western interference is ludicrous: the Arab states financed Iraq’s war against Iran, Russia had attempted to annex parts of northern Iran during the Allied occupation of World War II, and yet there were no chants of ‘Death to Russia’ or ‘Arabs are the middle Satan’ after the ‘people’s revolution’. The truth is that the regime conducted anti-Western indoctrination and even if the average Iranian would not approve of external interference in Iranian domestic politics then and now, it is also true they realise Iran has been playing with fire unnecessarily for a long time – even though they support the nuclear programme, only the regime’s puppets go on marches to shout ‘death to America’.
American and British resolve to remove Mossadegh came about quite simply because Mossadegh offended his patrons in the Cold War by nationalising the Iranian oil industry. Undoubtedly his intentions were pure and patriotic but they were also misguided for Iran was not strong enough to stand on its own in a bipolar system dominated by the superpowers. It was Mossadegh’s foolhardiness that brought about the end of his government, not gratuitous interventionism on the part of the West – the only blowback was that of his policies against the West.
It is also not as if Iran was alien to interfering in the affairs of its neighbours. Its designs over the Persian Gulf and the Mashreq have been well known for centuries and surely the Iranians, knowing their own history are not blind to the routine of intervention in an anarchic international system.
The coup that removed Mossadegh bought the West an additional quarter century of control during the dangerous period of the Cold War. True statesmen always plan on the long-term but the plans are made to defend national interests, not those of any other state. It is too bad if interference in Iran causes Iranians to blindly rally to the flag in favour of an irrational regime but if one were to always wait for the right timing, nothing would ever get done.
Additionally, it is also false that blowback is an inevitable consequence of intervention. Given enough time and resources, an intervention can manage to legitimise itself. We have but to think of Iranian subversion of Lebanon, of Pakistani operations in Afghanistan, Israel bombing of Iraq, Russian intervention in Georgia, etc.
Finally one must weigh the pros and cons of bombing Iran’s nuclear programme. What is more costly? To allow a fanatical regime to acquire all the invulnerability it needs to destabilise a pro-Western MENA? Or to spend a few millions in bombs and temporary high oil prices, and incur the also temporary wrath of the people of one single country who don’t even appreciate the regime that rules them?
Ultimately the logic of Liberals is that democracy is more important than the West, that regime is more important than state. The logic of Libertarians is that market forces will take care of a state’s interests and that non-interference will miraculously take care of those forces that are prejudiced or interested in thwarting Western interests. The logic of Marxians is that developing-countries inherently carry more moral authority than developed ones and whatever they do or risks they take, the outcome must always ‘justly’ benefit them in detriment of developed countries so as to equalise the world.
Liberals do America and the West a disservice because as democratic as any country may be, democratic peace theory is a fallacy and does not necessarily bring with it automatic sympathy towards or peace with the West. Libertarians are also counter-productive because without force and hard-power, many parts of the world would succumb to forces more influential than money. Marxians keep advocating a utopia with no practical incarnation and would find it difficult to justify an inevitable ‘levelling’ down of developed societies’ living conditions in favour of developing ones’.
This blog stood against the intervention in Iraq, it condemns any conventional attack on Syria and it also criticised the Libyan adventure. Iran is different and this is not an endorsement of an immediate attack on Iran but rather the apology of a consequential and rational debate, based on facts rather than myths: is it in the West’s interest to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Absolutely! Should the West attack Iran to accomplish this? Debatable. Should it be one of the possible options? Always.
Western foreign policy suffers from a major flaw: rhetorical entrapment.
What are Western interests in Syria? The question is not often asked because it is not politically correct to mention interests when innocent people are being slaughtered. In these situations only values are of importance. Our values dictate that we strive to save as many lives as possible.
But what do our interests dictate?
Syria is a nuisance for the West. It fights the West’s strategic and economic interests in Lebanon, the Levant and the Mashreq in general. Unlike Iran it does not do so out of prejudice but rather out of pure self-interest. Syria being dependent on the Lebanese economy and strategic position does not have an interest in seeing any other power dominate Lebanon other than Syria. Damascus had no interest in allowing the US to dominate Iraq and thus becoming a major hegemon in the Middle East, and it was a balance of power reasoning that compelled the Assad regime to help jihadists and Iranians in subverting Coalition rule of occupied Iraq. Syria has kept an alliance with Iran for the same reason: because without sharing borders and conflicting spheres of interest, Tehran and Damascus could mutually cooperate to counter-balance Turkey, Iraq and to discuss the Kurd problem. In addition relying on each other also meant becoming more independent from international superpowers like the US or Russia.
Syria is thus a nuisance because it interferes frequently with Western interests. Syria is not however a major threat since unlike Iran, it does not have the capability to project power (soft or hard) in the region and limits itself to acting in its adjacent periphery. It also does not have energetic resources that might influence the behavior of world markets – like Iran.
The West has therefore only one interest in Syria: to alter its foreign policy paradigm. The best way to do this is to break its alliance with Iran so as to make it more dependent on international superpowers and co-opt it into becoming more acquiescent regionally to Western concerns. An extra benefit would be to see Iran’s isolation grow and sufficient barriers to its adventure in Lebanon, be created.
Taking this into account, should the West intervene in Syria? The answer is ‘no’. Syria is not important enough for a financially vulnerable West to spend resources on, especially when Iran is much higher in the list of priorities. That said, why not make a small contribution to the subversion of the regime?
Here is where American and European foreign policy incurs in an error: Washington and Europe should only try and replace the old regime if there were sufficient guarantees the new regime would be loyal. At this point in time there are none since much of the rebellion is carried out by jihadists and much of Syria’s Sunni majority is by default anti-Western.
The subversion of Syria should serve the one and only purpose of forcing Bashar al-Assad to negotiate. It is not his regime which matters replacing but merely his foreign policy.
Yet the West will not negotiate and the reason is simple rhetorical entrapment. Assad and his regime have by now been so vilified that any political compromise with it would be politically damaging to all the Western leaders who helpless and unwilling to intervene, chose to attack with words instead.
The pattern is not new: during the Second World War, Hitler outsmarted the Franco-British strategy of setting Germany and Russia against each other by securing a non-aggression pact with the USSR and by attacking the West first. Instead of learning from Hitler’s example, the West refused to make a separate peace with the Reich and paid a heavy price for it: eastern Europe under Soviet orbit for the next 40 years. With Japan too, in spite of the fact that the militarist regime was not as ideological as Nazi Germany, no dialogue was opened and unconditional surrender was the only exit offered to Tokyo. The result was the resort to atomic weapons, the cost was a quarter of a million lives.
Since, the tendency has endured with Western demands for humanitarian and democratic principles to be upheld to impossibly high standards and resulting in military interventions by the West in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, which were ultimately counter-productive for its interests. The unwillingness to compromise is recurrently a consequence of populism and demagoguery in justifying military expenditure and intervention, to Western citizens. Instead of justifying them with pragmatic interests, politicians with a 4/8 year policy-making horizon, prefer to justify them manicheistically, making use of a Western fundamental rights and liberties narrative which confronted with violations of those rights automatically confers merit to action (“we have to do something”) and finally warrants intervention. This is nothing but short-termism and is now standard operating procedure in spite of some honourable exceptions such as President George H. W. Bush.
This tendency is a disservice to Western interests which often reaches the absurd of empowering adversaries of the West against Western allies.
It is a tendency also brought about by Western civilisational individualism, which sees the individual as the base of society (rather than family, clan or ethnicity), therefore requiring equal universal [individual] human rights which are reflected in foreign policy by an unreasonable demand for compliance with values endogenous only to the West.
A responsible and skillful politician would have negotiated a political solution to the conflict in Syria months ago. Populists in election year will stick to demands for unconditional surrender.
The West plays a dangerous game for not only does it force extreme outcomes – instead of middle of the road ones – but it also will be compelled to systematically trust the challengers of the regime: every regime has flaws in its ‘good society’ record – be these in democratic practices or humanitarian standards – whereas the challengers are by definition starting anew and are therefore as innocent as a newborn infant – a politically convenient tabula rasa…
George W. Bush and his acolytes are these days fond of claiming that history will eventually judge the administration of the former American president kindly. This is supposedly especially true of their foreign policy legacy: the “freedom agenda.” They went as far as to claim the “Arab spring” as vindication.
Bush and the neoconservatives are unlikely to ever find their swan song adequately praised in history manuals but by no means is foreign policy out of fashion as far as swan songs go.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency for one was controversial enough but unlike Bush’s, his track record may yet be vindicated.
In France itself, Sarkozy is currently reviled for his collaboration with Germany and toeing the line of “austerity” as far as dealing with Europe’s financial crisis goes. This, too, while more of a domestic legacy may also be vindicated as François Hollande’s reforms seem to amount to a “spare no expense” doctrine in a country on the verge of financial collapse. Then again, that was what he was elected to do.
In terms of foreign policy though, the Sarkozy doctrine should stand as a standard for future foreign policy decision-making. Not only did it promote French business interests; it promoted Paris’ strategic imperatives in the European Union.
Sarkozy had his ups and downs and his tactical populism did not always serve France well. Polemics over the Chinese Olympics for instance were unnecessary and France’s ties with China may have suffered from it. Equally less worthy of praise was the overall reaction to the Arab spring where Sarkozy and his government, while weary of the outcomes of the revolts, still chose the populist path of appealing to the success of the rebellions.
However, in policy arenas from Europe to the United Nations, France was extraordinarily assertive, pragmatic and ultimately efficient.
Facing an ever more independent Germany, Sarkozy chose to safeguard the Berlin-Paris axis as far as European questions were concerned but sought to hedge France’s bets by re-approaching Britain and the United States and reconstituting the Atlantic allies. France rejoined NATO’s political structure—mind you, at a time in which NATO’s political coherence is far from what it once was—thus pleasing its transatlantic ally—and paired with the United Kingdom in a number of industrial, military and geopolitical projects.
Germany, in spite of the French president’s efforts, turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Berlin united with the Central and Eastern European member states to downgrade Sarkozy’s Union for the Mediterranean into a meaningless discussion forum and inefficient member bloated exercise. The original plan, however, had been good. The point was to endow the EU’s southern neighborhood with a Finlandized area of its own. Open to preferential trade with the EU, willing to apprehend European values but devoid of actual membership—tout sauf institutions.
Sadly, Germany’s insistence for the inclusion of all EU member states in the Mediterranean Union would finally prevent it from ever emerging as a meaningful institution. It managed nevertheless to alter the EU’s paradigm of political approach to its southern neighborhood from a post 9/11 belief in promoting normative reform in illiberal regimes, to a more pragmatic and non-interfering engagement.
It was also Germany that prevented an easier French triumph in the Libyan war. France followed its diplomatic victory in Côte d’Ivoire, where it succeeded in replacing the regime with a more reliable one while using relevant international organizations as the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations, with another impressive diplomatic mobilization of international organizations into adoption of the French narrative in Libya; Paris now being very likely to inherit the preferential commercial and military ties Tripoli used to respectively maintain with Italy and Russia and freed from Muammar Gaddafi’s nefarious influence over Françafrique.
Sarkozy wasn’t shy in advocating a heavy hand against Iran, a state which seeks to undermine Western interests in the Middle East. Along the way, apart from making France a front seat player in the world’s major developments and organizations (two successive French presidents of the International Monetary Fund) Sarkozy was good at securing a ceasefire between Georgia and Russia which for the most part secured the previous status quo (appeased Moscow, cooperative Tbilisi).
The truth is that Nicolas Sarkozy served the French people well in foreign affairs. One hopes that they are sensible enough to apprehend as much.
(Originally published in the Atlantic Sentinel)
It would seem a natural consequence of our belief system that the more egalitarian political system should go hand in hand with the most humane legislation but it may very well be the opposite, the Geneva Conventions may be fundamentally incompatible with a democratic system.
Interestingly, of the 12 original signatories of the first Geneva articles on conduct in armed conflicts, Baden France, Hesse and Prussia were not democracies. Belgium was a democracy on paper but an oligarchy in practice and so was Italy Spain and Portugal. Most importantly the political regime is not mentioned in the Conventions and seemed of little or no importance to the original signatories which should take us to the obvious conclusion that coming out of a Westphalian order, the agreement was between states and not regimes.
This is an essential fact given that according to Clausewitz war is a continuation of politics by other means, while the sacrosanctness of the physical integrity of civilians in armed conflict can only be preserved if they are dispossessed of political power and are therefore ‘innocent’ to the political process in question.
The term ‘innocent’ is important as it is supposed to signify the opposite of ‘sinful’ and is usually applied to individuals who are yet to either experiment sexual relations or the assassination of another human being. In political terms of course it is related to political power, meaning thus those who do not exercise it. However in liberal democracy the political system is representative which means all citizens possess political power to a greater or lesser degree.
If one were to contend representative democracy would preclude equating citizens to politicians, one has but to look at new experiments at direct democracy with referenda or online legislating and initiatives under the scope of universal jurisdiction to bring rulers who waged war to justice for not having respected UN Charter procedure. Saddam Hussein was allegedly targeted because he was the supreme commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces and not because he was part of the military. Well most heads of state/government in democracies are simultaneously commanders-in-chief.
Traditional democratic theory’s view of citizens relation to war is more like that of the Grande Armée which is why some of the most envied systems of democracy in the world still preserve mandatory military service and stockpile weapons to be distributed to reservists in emergency mobilisations. That is the case with Israel, Finland, Switzerland and others.
Why then should a terrorist not target civilians if these have the power to recall their rulers or prevent them from waging war? It is easy to argue that sanctions that target the wider population of a given country are pointless when the regime in question is a dictatorship but if said country is run by a democracy, how then to justify abstaining from collective punishment?
The source of the dilemma is old and two fold: states are not regimes and Europe is not the world. As Edward Luttwak explains, terrorism is a new phenomenon because in the days of old the army held the ‘monopoly of legitimate
violence terror’. No one would challenge an army without expecting retribution and such retribution outside the battlefield was not discriminatory; it targeted insurgents and civilians alike until any challenge was bettered. In fact most invading armies would routinely eradicate an entire city when entering a foreign polity so as to discourage resistance to occupation from the others. The army was the main source of ‘order’ as well as ‘security’. The army was the main source of political legitimacy and therefore also of legitimate political violence, which granted it solely the authority to carry out ‘exemplary deterrence’.
This system became peculiar in Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. On one hand the Catholic Church held normative precedence in the whole continent and on the other the feudal system depended not on equal citizenship but rather on unequal social stratification without citizenship rights but only class duties. Harmony was achieved through a chivalrous code which instituted the obligation of feudal vassals to obey and the obligation of feudal lords to protect. In this order with no social mobility, the aristocracy was thus naturally armed both to protect and to oppress and all those of no noble birth had to be defended from other competing ‘war lords’.
This state of affairs was later extrapolated by renaissance writers into what became known in modernity as ‘sovereignty’. Max Weber ending up defining the situation of ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ by the state. The ‘state’ emanated from Machiavellian concepts which clearly separated domestic from exogenous relationships. The prince was to have absolute power within the state but take care to relate equally to other princes. The interest of the state or raison d’état therefore translates the concerns of its political leadership and bureaucratic apparatus and only at large that of its population. The principality’s militia is to comprise all citizens but receives its orders from the prince, not the citizens.
The chivalrous definition of combatants and non-combatants thus passed into the modern age since it still made no sense to punish the individuals who had little to do with the ultimate political outcome of any military contest. Republicanism and democracy changed this forever as today citizens are an integral part of the political process and in many
demagogic cases, the constant source of decision-making by popularity dependent politicians.
In the rest of the world the masses remained unemancipated and enjoyed only nominal rights until the advent of Pax Occidentalis. In no other society did individualism go so far as to equate all the nationals’ political rights.
The next logical step in the West was then to separate uniformed individuals from non-uniformed but then we reach our contemporary problem of insurgents and terrorists who do not comply with the Geneva Conventions. Are they civilians or military? If we have to ask, the answer is given: they are not ‘innocent'; nor are for that matter the populations that sustain their political activities – Hezbollah in Lebanon being a paradigmatic example. The crux of the problem being of course non-uniformed civilian political constituencies.
The best example of this is the Rwanda genocide: the genocidaires were violating the law but they carried the control of the ‘order’ in the country, not the UN. The peacekeeping forces did have a mandate but even if that mandate had included the provision to ensure the preservation of security in the country and there had been enough peacekeepers they would have had to target ‘
guilty innocent civilians’ and perhaps even have had to exercise ‘exemplary deterrence’ in order to keep the mobs away from the Tutsis as well as from themselves.
Another curiosity would be the case of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession in which this rationale may even play out more interestingly since the secessionists claimed to be acting democratically whereas the Yugoslavs/Serbs were still living under an authoritarian regime. In this case the moral authority as far as war atrocities go, would have to rest primarily with the Serbs who did not declare war nor claimed to be a liberal democracy.
Simply put, one cannot have it both ways: power encompasses responsibility and to have one without the other is a childish delusion. Humanitarian law is not compatible with democracy or any totalitarian system that equates the masses to the political decision-makers (national-socialism). The decision to apply or not the Conventions should then be taken bilaterally on a case by case basis. This would be the only way to assure a modicum of justice and proportionality in any conflict. This of course would mean that any democracy intervening abroad would have to refrain from targeting any civilians, and insurgents devoid of conventional military assets would have to voluntarily accept the new political order of the intervention forces…
This may appear absurd but it would at least be logical, fair and in the interests of both parties – maybe. The alternative is to see terrorists and insurgents get away with murder; at least according to the opinion of those who were opposed to the targeting of Osama bin Laden.