Those who allow ideology to trump national interests are poorly equipped to learn from experience. Specifically, euro-federalists are constructivists who believe and work towards the utopia of politically uniting the continent that bred the nation-state. Constructivists are philosophically positivist since they believe that solutions can be engineered without regard for the past or for the context. These old world bastards of the American Enlightenment are thus simply unable to draw conclusions from experience.
This is alas a recurring problem in Brussels – and in Washington D.C., I imagine – where problems arising everywhere never seem to elicit a logical consequential response from those in power, or at least not one that questions the legitimacy of the system in place. Eurosceptic populism, failed nation-building efforts abroad, social conservatism in allegedly euro-enthusiastic societies, challenges from regional hegemons, none of it is worthy of reconsidering the very legitimacy of the sacred union. Instead, bland politically orthodox conferences and workshops in Brussels focus on communication: how does one ‘communicate’ to the European citizens that Brussels is actually doing what is right for them? The fact that past policies fail is admitted on occasion only insofar as it serves the purpose of justifying why European governments must double-down on such policies and/or endow Brussels institutions with even more power to make the policies work; a line of argument all too similar to the neocon creed that “history will do us justice”.
Empiricists on the other hand, look to the past for guidance and usually with greater success. That which is not questioned is that which has worked longest: the nation-state. There is room for innovation but not revolution and utopias. Take Vladimir Putin who finds no alternative but to fight XXI century wars around the control of population centres – as terrorism and the age of humanitarianism now force all states to do – but who also understands that wars must be kept limited in scope and always proportional to the means available. He is not one to go on crusades around the world, intervening in ungovernable exotic vacation spots for whichever asinine cause du jour. Putin doesn’t shy away from war but he tries to negotiate first. The Russian President seeks military control to achieve strategic goals, not to defend idealistic causes.
This long introduction thus serves to prepare the reader for what will be an analysis of what goes wrong when a positivist tries to analyse empirically.
Committed euro-federalist Daniel Keohane set upon himself to learn lessons from the intervention in Libya, a topic made pertinent given that “(…) there is mounting speculation that a coalition of Western countries will launch a new military campaign there to tackle the growing threat from the self-styled Islamic State”. As he tells it, since 2011 “(…) a civil war has prevented the formation of a functioning Libyan government”. In truth, that civil war is not quite so …random. It was the idea of some NATO member-states to abuse a UNSC humanitarian resolution in order to launch a full scale military campaign against the Qaddafi regime which ultimately killed him. It was also the responsibility of both NATO and the EU to abstain from supporting any other strong man – such as General Hiftar for instance – after the Qaddafi overthrow to fill in the power vacuum. That would have pre-empted the emergence of some nasty actors like the Islamic State but of course, that would have meant the puritan Liberal democracies getting their hands dirty …
The Libyan civil war – if one posits the existence of such a coherent entity called Libya – also caused according to the author “(…) large flows of migrants and refugees into the EU”. Oh by Jove, such a nuisance … Say, how come that is identified as a problem but not one single brain in all the think-tanks of the grey city ever came up with an obvious response: stopping the flows? How quick they are to assign military vessels to the Mediterranean …to rescue the illegals, to welcome them, not to stop them. Here’s a thought: if the flows are not a positive development, what about not encouraging or facilitating them?
“(…) Europeans have more direct security interests at stake in Libya, which is why France and the UK initiated the 2011 intervention”. This one is particularly rich: British and French have strong interests in Libya, thus a military intervention that turns the territory into an anarchic hell hole is the way to go. How can someone be so blind or disingenuous? How exactly were the interests of the UK and France defended by overthrowing Qaddafi? Because if the dictator was the problem and only a democracy can serve those interests, then I dare say that relations with any Middle East state are pointless. If the instability resulting from the Arab Spring was the problem then an easier and more productive solution would have been to follow the Michelle Alliot-Marie doctrine: launch an intervention all right, but one on the side of the dictators! In all likelihood the real reason for the Franco-British intervention was the prospect of easily getting rid of Qaddafi along with a regime which had been a geopolitical thorn in the Atlanticists side for decades. No love lost for Qaddafi here. Normally the French are utterly pragmatic about their interventions – if Françafrique is anything to go by. What is precisely the corrosive element in the mix here, is the ideological influence of organisations which should have remained intergovernmental but slowly grew into lobbies of their own importance – aimed at self-perpetuation. The EU and NATO are no longer instruments at the service of governments, they have developed rather as a cancer working against the interests of their member-states by promoting normative ideologies irrespective of results. The closer to Brussels a military intervention is carried out, the more compliant it will have to be with the politically correct narrative of the NATO HQ or the European Commission/Parliament. Hence the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy ignited a ‘Ring of Fire’ around the old continent whereas France’s client states in Africa or America’s in the Middle East remain quite stable: idealism breeds disaster, time-tested pragmatism ensures stability.
“(…) NATO now seems unlikely to act, partly because the image of its 2011 intervention is tarnished among some Libyans due to a lack of follow-up, and partly because the alliance is busy deterring Russia in Eastern Europe”. Again, if by lack of follow-up he means that another strong man was not backed to replace Qaddafi, then by all means, this is a valid statement. That, however, is not what he means: he means that more funding, more troops and more state-building would have staved off anarchy – you know, much like it did in Iraq or Afghanistan. In practice what Brussels sees as a solution in Libya, is a more muscled Bosnia-Herzegovina paradigm. “(…) the EU has strongly supported UN diplomatic efforts to form a unity government of rival Libyan factions and has deployed four missions to tackle some of the security challenges emanating from Libya since 2011”, see my point? The solution is to bribe and pacify local contenders ad infinitum. As for the Russian ‘threat’, if the supranational utopia’s legitimacy weren’t tied to universalist maximalist ideological principles, strategic compromises and tactical choices could be made to divert resources from one theatre to another. Yet the EU is no state which therefore prevents it from acting amorally. Therefore the actions of supranational ideological actors will always be maximalist irrespectively of the available means, and they will always move to confront all those who divert from their normative universalism regardless of the level of threat they represent: for universalists, every dissension is a vital existential problem.
“The second lesson is that the EU shouldn’t assist countries without legitimate governments”. True but only if one accepts the unwillingness to support non-liberal-democratic solutions. That said, whereas some EU states such as France have a national interest in protecting certain authoritarian regimes, most EU states in the East and North have nothing to gain by investing the political capital. Once again, divergent national interests prevent interventions overall.
“The third lesson is that the EU has a useful military role in European homeland security”. Comes to mind that enforcing borders against mass migration could be useful but probably not what is on his mind: “(…) a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean code-named Operation Triton and coordinated by the EU’s border agency, Frontex (…) has saved thousands of lives since November 2014”…
The Colour Revolutions of the early 2000s, styled to be Eastern Europe’s logical succession to Central Europe’s Velvet Revolutions of the 1990s, were the response of Eurasia’s Liberal elites to the narrative of the ‘end of History’. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and others around Russia’s periphery, were meant to replace leaderships and regimes still populated by CPSU cadres and Kremlin apparatchiks. The hope was, that just like it had occurred in the Visegrad countries, this would lead to closer ties to the Washington Consensus, renewed Western investment, the West’s military umbrella and more accountability and transparency from the new leaders.
The problem inherent to all of this is the belief that post-communist Europe was fundamentally transformed by the Washington Consensus. It was not: free markets of course bring more prosperity but Bulgaria and Romania still lag behind Poland and the Czech Republic, slavic countries are still more corrupt. Culture doesn’t change that easily.
The fall of the Milosevic regime in Serbia was the proto Colour Revolution. It was led by youth movements, inspired by Western values, and finally led to an EU path for Serbia. As with Ukraine, the EU path came at territorial cost: Belgrade was forced to abdicate its more than pristine claim to Kosovo, just as Ukraine’s Liberals compromised the country’s territorial cohesion by forcing an alignment with the West and a destruction of the neutrality consensus.
The problem is not the existence of Liberal movements in Eastern Europe since the proximity of the great Western capitals would have always led to some soft power and ideological influence in its periphery. The problem is the artificial expansion of the elites dependent on the Liberal narrative, through private and public Western funds flowing to societies where the natural Liberal instinct is small. Had it not been for the think-tanks, scholarships, NGOs and an elite dependent on Western funding for social and political relevance, the Colour Revolutions would have ended up in the same place as the Arab Spring.
Indeed, as soon as Moscow decided to match Western efforts and act as a spoiler to Western soft power in its near abroad, most Colour Revolutions either collapsed or burnt themselves out. The Orange Revolution, originating in the Liberal pro-Western intelligentsia of Kiev and Lviv, lost momentum and Moscow was even able to sponsor Viktor Yanukovych into the Presidency. The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan lost steam and the Rose Revolution in Georgia achieved so little, other than in symbolic terms (new flag, Bush avenue) that Saakashvili decided to escalate politically by trying the military path, hoping for a quick victory and a rally-to-the-flag wave. The war turned to blunder and soon the hero of the revolution was ousted from power and is today on the run from Georgian judicial authorities.
Unlike what Russian propaganda will seek to infer, the revolution was not planned by the White House or the Pentagon. Most liberal democracies have no capability to think strategically or plan long-term and if some did, the incompetence of politicians would guarantee the planning went nowhere. It was most certainly not the European Union to arrange it as utopian Brussels has no notion of what ‘national interest’ actually means. What the West contributed, it did without planning and out of ideological obsession and cultural arrogance or condescension.
The Euromaidan Revolution was a different animal but was it a Colour Revolution? There is a case to be made that it was not.
If on one hand, the revolution brought little in the way of a change of paradigm, it cannot be denied that the ruling regime has fundamentally changed. Ukraine was largely a free-market economy and a liberal democratic system before the revolution, and remained so after the revolution. What changed was its foreign policy and geopolitical alignment. The approach to the EU may yet bear fruit in terms of increased democratic transparency and less economic protectionism but for the time being, the oligarchic cliques are still in power and corruption did not magically disappear. Russia’s economic war on the country can keep it impoverished resulting in continued corruption levels. Moreover, the artificial attempt to homogenize a territory that was never autonomous or cohesive will either result in Russophones becoming second class citizens or renewed conflict. Nonetheless, the structural impediments to a more prosperous economy, will not go away with EU para-membership, just as they did not in the Balkan countries which joined the EU.
Finally, there is the issue of external agency. If in the case of the Arab Spring and the Colour Revolutions, the West was not active in the process of regime substitution, that was certainly the case with Euromaidan where the West quickly endorsed the demonstrations and then the new regime. Similarly, Libya and Syria are not the best examples of the Arab Spring because the West intervened. These two along with Ukraine, should instead be regarded as a new phase of Liberal Revanchism after Iraq. 2003 Iraq, 2011 Libya and 2014 Ukraine belong in a separate category of conflicts and regime-changes with active Western agency, which is motivated by a perceived distinct failure of the Liberal model in the casein question. In Iraq, the ‘rogue regime’ had not been overturned by its shia and Kurdish rebellions, in Libya the rebellion was faltering and in Ukraine, Russia had actually seized the opportunity to kowtow Yanukovych into joining the Eurasian Economic Union.
Liberal Revanchism is a particular type of revisionism which translates an inability to cope with the failure of the ‘end of History’ narrative. Coping would require pragmatism and ideological concessions which elites in Washington D.C. and Brussels find too distasteful and inconvenient, for their own agenda and personal standing.
The current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is a direct consequence of having elected counter-culture politicians and being under the influence of a May of 68 generation of journalists. It is staggering that under the weight of such incontrovertible evidence of, what can only be called, a disastrous policy, the public opinion – including those most affected – remains unchanged. Perhaps the most egregious example at the moment is that of the island of Kos in Greece or that of Calais, in the channel.
When the illegal immigration crisis began in earnest, two camps emerged advocating for diametrically opposed policies. One led by the centrist and left-wing parties as well as supported by the politically correct media, defended opening the doors to the migrants and rescuing as many as possible. The other, for the most part limited to fringe right-wing and populist parties, advocated for the use of law enforcement means to turn the boats around, reject the migrants and deter any future temptations to cross the Mediterranean.
Greece, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, followed the open door policy. In the island of Kos, 1/4 of the population is now made up of illegal migrants. A major surprise seemed to have been that a government struggling to secure the miserable pension paychecks for its own population (and with much of the working-age segment unemployed), was unable to find financial means to provide adequate aid to the enormous wave of migrants. The solution, the media keeps parroting, is for the well off countries of northern Europe to pick up the bill for the subsistence costs of the newly arrived migrants. This is typical of those who despise the nation-state and non-ideological policies. Be they Euro-federalists or Global humanitarians, that Greece and Europe should be turned into a multicultural United States, with the associated problems, in the middle of an economic crisis, is actually a good idea. The riots of Paris, London, Malmo or the terrorism of France, the Netherlands, the UK; none of it matters. That ghettos emerge in countries such as Belgium where the fantastic wave of unqualified, culturally dissimilar, immigrants only adds to the enormous problem of unemployment and social security unsustainability, all that is unimportant. Mere details to be ignored by high-minded
Let us say that the policies of the left were followed to their logical conclusion: the north paid for the rescue of and aid to the migrants, immigration was made legal and all migrants naturalized. Let us assume that the tens of millions fleeing Africa and MENA were welcomed in Europe. What evidence is there that Europe would turn into anything but another Brazil, with slums, extreme crime and bad economic governance? The West has spent trillions in development aid and yet the societies it seeks to transform have not been transformed. Are we now to adopt them into change? What does this say of the responsibility and probity of politicians who should look after the best interests of their constituencies rather than trying to transform them top-down according to whichever ideology they espouse?
Does the immigration policy solve the refugees problem? No. Does it benefit the Greek population or the local economy? No. Is it a sustainable policy in any way shape or form? Not at all. Will the policy be maintained? Of course it will. Naturally, the establishment is stupefied that such political pearls as Golden Dawn make gains in the popular vote…
This is a suicidal policy but why be surprised at the monstrous irresponsibility and lack of patriotism when this is the same political class that spent into bankruptcy and left it up to the next generation to pick up the tab?
Ukraine and the Euromaidan revolution were a turning page in History. One could argue that the Colour revolutions, the Arab Spring, the Ossetia War and even the Atlantic interventions of the preceding decades, had been proof enough of the limits of the ‘end of history’ but Ukraine is more meaningful because it had everything to become the poster child of globalism: it is an avowedly pro-Western movement, nurtured by the West, while not depending on the West in military hard-power terms. Yet, Ukraine’s economy is the worst performer of 2015, corruption endures, extremists now occupy positions of importance in the government and armed forces, such civil liberties as gay rights might actually be more in peril today than during the Yanukovych days, and far from being a triumph for NATO, Ukraine quickly revealed itself the quicksand of Western soft-power (potentially also hard-power) that many had foreseen.
It was not always so. The record of Atlanticist interventionism at the service of universalist policies spans all the way back to the Enlightenment. Liberal governments in London, Paris and Washington have been proselytizing their creed for centuries, now. Before the Islamic world and the pan-Slavic territories, it was the Catholic world and Latin-America. With the possible exception of the Russian Civil War, Atlanticist interventions have consistently sought to exclude Traditionalists from power and replace them with Liberals, in the Atlantic Ocean rim. For the most part such support has been discreet but at times also overt. Led by Britain and America, liberal governments intervened in Spain’s Carlist Wars, in the Portuguese Civil War, waged successive wars against the South African Boers (against independent Boer states and then the Apartheid regime) and encouraged coups, actions and secessions throughout Latin America.
The instance of the American Civil War was also a slight deviation as France and Britain were divided between their interests, their ideology and military calculations. Ideologically opposed to slavery, economically and strategically motivated to preclude New England from building an industrial competitor apparatus to their own and from raising tariffs on cotton exports, and finally fearful of projecting power over the Atlantic, considering the results of the American Revolutionary and 1812 wars.
Is interventionism always successful? The rare occasions when domestic liberal forces, supported by exogenous Liberal financing and political endorsement, were not effective was usually when some alternative power was willing to equally sponsor the opposing faction in the domestic conflict, as was the case in the Spanish Civil War, or earlier when the Holy Alliance was willing to finance the status quo against the 1848 movements. The instances of the Arab Spring and of the Colour Revolutions diverge from the otherwise victorious streak of liberal Atlanticism because in both examples the host society was poorly suited to manage a liberal socio-economic model but mostly because the economic and political pressure of the Liberal governments had to contend with opposing economic and political pressure, spoiling the endeavour: be it the reactionary GCC in the case of the Arab Spring or the counter-revolutionary Russia in eastern Europe.
The main conclusion then is, as always, that structural forces carry more weight than normative ones. Just as was discussed a propos of the Second World War, in the case of Atlanticist triumphalism there are also pecuniary and strategic incentives speaking louder than values. As Timothy Garton Ash once observed, democracy tends to implant itself more easily in those societies economically dependent and culturally more permeated by already democratic powers.
To be clear, it is not a foregone conclusion that a liberal latin world would exist without express northern Atlantic pressure. Same being true for the ‘reconstructed’ American South, the ‘British’ Boers or ‘decolonised’ Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Atlantic Liberals bear a fundamental intolerance for the concept of sovereignty because the Enlightenment philosophical foundation of the ideology is inherently universalist and thus, structurally incompatible with the Westphalian system.
Does this then mean that liberal expansionism is over? Not so. It is difficult to imagine how the Atlantic rim can in any way digress from the normative consensus of the rim’s hegemon, especially considering such a hegemon is itself structurally a deterritorialised idea-state. Russia, as strong as it may be, does not possess the power to challenge the North-Atlanticists in the rim and China cannot efficiently project power that far either. The southern hemisphere is devoid of any major military power that might help.
The only possibility would be a collapse from within. If the USA were to undergo a second civil war, particularly one that opposed New England to the Midwest, then the vacuum of power would provide countries like France and Brazil, the opportunity to conciliate an alternate centre of power. This, however, is not a plausible eventuality.
There is plenty wrong with America and the need for reform is indeed urgent. Given the scope of the recent financial crisis, Senator Sanders makes a good point about learning from the past and regulating Wall Street – Glass Stiegel would for one bring some measure of stability.
One can also identify with Bernie Sanders’s appeals for a more moderate and restrained foreign policy, given the blunders of the interventionists in the past years.
That said, the rest of his agenda is in fact quite dangerous for the US because when it comes to economic policies, Senator Sanders would be repeating the mistakes of Europe and setting America for decades of stagnation.
Mr Sanders denounces the encroached special interests in the Washington establishment – which is common knowledge – but fails monumentally to address the liberal special interests which are equally encroached, such as the trade unions, or the many other instances of federal subsidisation. What is his position on Common Core and the imposition of Federal laws and subsidy-bribery by Washington?
On these matters, Rand Paul is much more of an outlier: yes, he does not hesitate to attack the Democrats on interventionist policies be they in foreign policy or social subsidies, but he also attacks his own party on the military industrial complex and the war on drugs. If the young can be swayed by an integrity contest, Paul is much better placed to win it.
However, perhaps the most dangerous policies of which Sanders is a proponent, are the economy and immigration.
The Senator from Vermont, as most socialists in the world, lives obsessed with Scandinavia. In fact, Scandinavia is used as a role model by both the Left and the Right but this is a very dangerous example to use. Not only because it is not the socialist paradise many believe it is but also because the strength of the Nordics is not in their specific policies or legislation but on their culture and mentality.
The Nordics are strict in applying regulations but it is also true that their societies are some of the most open in the world and far from the protectionist dream leftists imagine it to be. It is not a coincidence that fugitives like Julian Assange end up in Sweden or some of the highest incidence of firearm violence in Europe is found in Finland.
With the highest incidences of atheism in the world, ethnically homogeneous Scandinavia displays few parallel bonds between the individual and the state. The relatively small dimension of the populations and territories assures their export economies are nimble at adapting to world trends.
None of this can be reproduced in America. WASPs are fairly diverse but with African-Americans and Hispanics it would always be problematic to reach such high production and low corruption levels as those in Nordic economies.
This leads to the final point: immigration. The scores of tens of millions settling in the US for the past decade or two, come not from similar productive cultures but mostly from Mexico and Latin America, ensuring that the WASP features which made the American economy so competitive are bound to diminish in the future. Worse still taking into account that all the violence and welfare expenses which will have to be deducted from the inflow of dissimilar migrants. Bernie Sanders however, sees no evil in amnesty after amnesty, in what amounts to basically wide open borders.
His capability for empirical analysis is hampered by Liberal dogma, in learning from Europe’s problems with immigrants or even just America’s. Is he oblivious to home-grown terrorism by Islamists in Europe? To outright separatism in the case of situations such as Kosovo or Quebec? Does he happen to believe that Amerindians subsidisation made Canada more competitive?…
There is however one aspect where Sanders has the upper hand in relation to Paul. America is an idea-nation and Sanders is prepared to be more populist and ideological than Rand Paul. He can tap into Americans’ self-perception as a chosen and exceptional people. Senator Paul, on the other hand, has only the most efficient policies. In politics – especially in ideological empires – perception trumps reality more often than not…
The Second World War is still held by many intellectuals as the best example of ‘the good war’. Hollywood often pays it tribute by devising heroic epics that depict Allied courage in the face of Nazi barbarism – the same honour is not bestowed to Vietnam War films… Pundits in the West spend their days portraying contemporary conflicts in the light of WWII teachings: analogies with Munich or Pearl Harbor are invoked ad nauseam, Churchillian anecdotes and quotes abound.
For Liberals, WWII represents a true victory of good Vs evil and no other conflict comes close to such a clear moral crusade. In fact, it is probably the worst possible conflict to admire. Yes, Liberals won, and yes, a very destructive force was defeated but it is not a coincidence that it was a ‘moral war’ that caused the greatest conflict the world has ever seen. While technology played an important part in the scope of the war, it was conventional means that caused the most causalities; gas chambers , atomic bombs and planned starvations being responsible for roughly only 15% of total casualties. The key factor was in fact the totalitarian nature of the conflict. If states had not been fighting wars of absolute survival/annihilation, the methods employed would not have been equally absolute. Also relevant are the exceptions: liberal Finland was an enemy of the Allies and an ally of the III Reich, the totalitarian USSR was an ally and did most of the leg work of the ground war – not to mention co-presiding over the Nuremberg Tribunal… – and then of course it was the Allies that burned Dresden, used atomic weapons and equally starved indigenous populations.
Yet, it is crucial to realise that the current narrative is highly pernicious in this regard: a student of International Relations or History will learn that the Bismarckian balance of power system was very flawed and that WWII’s outcome – however horrific – was in fact a blessing in disguise because it set the world on the righteous path of progressive ethics. Then there are those who believe that the result of WWII was not even a matter of chance but that Liberal values would have always triumphed, given their natural superiority. In truth, as Azar Gat demonstrated very lucidly, WWII was won largely because of “contingent factors”, not because of any practical superiority of Liberal ideals. If the Axis powers had enjoyed the large imperial holdings of the British Empire, the USA or the USSR, they too would have won what it ultimately became a war of attrition.
The Second Great War should instead be regarded as the worst possible conflict because it consisted in a complete erosion of the Westphalian system in Europe. Whereas Münster and Osnabrück had established a structure averse to moral/ideological interventionism and reliant on geostrategic alignments to ensure a balance of power – and, in turn, limited war – the outcome of WWII was precisely the destruction of Westphalia by allowing as victors two out of three universalist powers. If in the east of the old continent the Brezhnev doctrine was to rule until 1989, in the west the Washington Consensus would, in its triumphalist moment of the post Cold War, seek to intervene to punish dissenters on a regular basis and even promote gratuitous evangelizing interventions.
The direct result of the victory of one of the ideological empires was a predictable hegemony of the values of said empire in the predominant political narrative; it helped that the United States also functions as the main source of Western soft power and lingua franca. The American revolutionary enlightenment and liberal exceptionalist narrative has in time contaminated states that used to be particularist by their very nature, namely in Europe. The commonality stems from the replacement of utopian internationalist and universalist ideologies of the past such as communism or Christianism, with democratic liberalism. The idealists of the past have either left politics/political philosophy behind or converted to the doctrine of the temporal winners of WWII – and only consequently, spiritual winners.
Problems arise when the very structure of polities around the world is incompatible with a specific ideology which is why universal doctrines are usually a bad idea. In Europe, those facing such a reality eventually turned to the European Union and NATO as the natural bridge between their admiration for their new Church/International – carrying the mantle of ‘leadership of the free world’ – and the millenia of antecedents sustaining political power as a measure of local ethnic identity. In the case of such nations as Britain or the Netherlands, it is actually easier because much of their historical experience has been based around liberal values such as Grotius’s Mare Liberum or England’s parliamentary system. In more homogeneous and unitary nations such as Poland or France, more perverse forms of populism come to the fore as a consequence.
The most serious problem of American/Liberal exceptionalism is not however related to the domestic dysfunctions that it causes in nation-states – and not, as in the case of America , idea-states – but rather in the overall conduct it incites in Western states’ foreign policy. Every conflict that pits a Western democracy against a non Western or non liberal-democratic regime is automatically viewed as a Manichean moral contest whose outcome must be an absolute victory of the ‘good’ against ‘evil’. Apart from a complete absence of consideration for the national (not ideological) interest, there is also an inherent and fundamental strategic incompetence of not considering means when advocating for ends. In other words, the moral cause is the casus belli, not whichever specific political grievance motivates it. This implies that a limited political settlement involving territorial or economic concessions is not the desired end but rather an unconditional surrender of the morally inferior opponent.
WWII has been reified by its own ultra-normative admirers because they mythologize it. Had they been in power then, they would have never allied with the USSR and probably would have gone to war with it over its invasion of Finland by the time Berlin arose as a threat. Finally, there is enormous danger in looking at the least ‘normal war’ the world has ever seen and viewing it as an example to follow and emulate.
Greece has been a migraine for Brussels since the onset of the financial crisis but it became a very inconvenient headache with the recent election of the Syriza party led radical left wing government of Alexis Tsipras. Until now Greece had been the poster child of the structural problems of the EU currency union but it is now the poster child of radical political populism as well. How have we come to this?
On the financial level, Greeks have no one to blame but themselves. When the euro (€) was created it endowed all EU member states with a currency backed by German reputation. If financial management elsewhere in Europe had paralleled that of Berlin’s – highly inflation averse and fiscally conservative – all would have been well but because mentalities differ according to nation in Europe, the priorities of politicians also differ in expediency.
Hosting international sports competitions for instance, is a luxury that few can afford but whereas Germans or Dutch, with much bigger economies, would do so in a time of economic growth, in 2004 during a time of economic stagnation, the small economy of Portugal hosted the European soccer competition (with 10 new or renovated stadiums) and equally small Greece hosted the Olympics.
Another interesting example is the South’s real-estate bubble. Politicians encouraged the youth and lower classes to purchase property since that was the fulfillment of many a socialist’s dream. Historically low interest rates, brought about by the EU’s single currency, provided the opportunity. Politicians provided the incentive by putting pressure on the banking system to take risks in this regard. In small economies, the number of banks is limited and their ties to politics abound since they are usually a family operation, hence requiring political connections to make it big. In more northern industrialized economies, the multinational nature of the banking institutions voids them of nepotistic traits by opening them to international scrutiny. On the other hand, it also exposes them more to international financial crashes – the 2008 US crisis didn’t much affect smaller economies in southern Europe and the Middle East until northern credit and tourists dried up.
Because self-reliance is not the European South’s prime commodity, people have come to expect much from the state in the way of entitlements: education, healthcare and social security making up the bulk of public expenditure in the Mediterranean belt. The social-democratic model of northern Europe serves as paradigm but the North is highly industrialized and wealthy. For poor economies dependent on mostly agriculture, tourism and residual foreign direct investment (FDI) – attracted mostly by low wages – though, expecting the same resulting standards is asking too much from the state but it is outright unreasonable when one factors in the relative profligacy of corrupt politicians as well as ordinary tax-evasion schemes of the citizenry.
In a way, the political narrative also demanded it. Greece went through a civil war in the aftermath of World War II, with the communists on the losing side. Centrist politicians have a special burden to prove to the population that communism is not needed for prosperity and social well being. In Portugal, over 90% of its territory was abandoned by the post dictatorial regime between 1974-75 during the decolonization, with a million Portuguese displaced and most of those moving to Portugal. In return, the new democratic regime promised to have Portugal accede to the EU to guarantee prosperity.
Therefore, endowed with a strong currency, southern EU states began to rack up debt at record levels. Worse still, this debt served to hide the economic stagnation from the public and was therefore used for consumption rather than investment. In general, no politician wants to be the bearer of bad news but additionally, the more south one goes in the planet, the more politics resembles a rent-seeking scheme for parallel interests, with certain parts of Africa and Latin America going to a kleptocratic extreme.
It is the Greeks’ responsibility and theirs alone to manage their own budget and bear the consequences of their own actions. Some say that banks should not have lent irresponsibly and unsustainably but the banks not only depended on ECB and EU goodwill to operate in the single market, they all bought into the ‘German guarantee’. They were right to do so as indeed Germany and northern Europe did come to the rescue of the southern trouble-makers by making available loans at generous rates, at a time when the ‘PIGS’ were no longer able to finance themselves in the international lending markets. The price to pay was to enact budgetary reforms to ensure the problem would not repeat itself.
Both Greece and Portugal have been mentioned so far because this is where they parted ways: Portugal went on to enact austerity measures involving tax hikes and cuts in salaries – particularly painful cuts considering that the state apparatus in southern nations, invariably accounts, directly and indirectly, for about half of the GDP – but Greece dragged its feet. Austerity was implemented but not only were many of the intended targets not met, the debt had to undergo a ‘haircut’ and there was a public backlash which reflected, first in the threat of a Greek PM to hold a referendum on the deal with the IMF and European lenders, and now in the actual election of a government which promises to “end austerity”. The result is patently obvious: in the same EU finance ministers Council of February, where the Greeks tried to renegotiate the conditions of their loans, the Portuguese instead asked to be authorized to repay their loans from the IMF early, and thus save half a billion euros in the process.
At this point, it is important to make a distinction between accounting and development. There are many paths to development, many economic models one can follow, depending on the conditions of the economy in question: some states become tax havens, others tax heavily; some are transit hubs and others are export economies; some depend on natural resources, some on competitive labor force. Development models are not universal but mathematics is; no human culture has ever, in the history of Mankind, been able to spend more than it produces. From the most high-tech society in the northern hemisphere, to the most traditional tribe in a southern rainforest, accounting obeys the same rules of arithmetic. Mathematics really is the only universal language.
This must be understood because some on the Left have argued that Greece be allowed to relinquish austerity altogether. Utopians believe a Greek default would have no impact on the country’s reputation; somewhat less utopians want the EU to foot the bill, ignoring the so-called ‘moral hazard’ involved. They all argue for European unity though. Economists have pointed out that a currency union without a fiscal union is systematically dysfunctional. The European Left therefore argues that there should be systemic wealth transfers within the EU, from the most productive members to the most in need. This would reproduce the US system where impoverished US southern states, obtain proportionately higher federal funds, than their northern counterparts.
There are two problems with this proposition.
Firstly, the impoverished countries already receive higher EU budget transfers. The ‘cohesion funds’ serve to finance member-states struggling to reach average EU development standards, ‘accession funds’ sponsored the economies of – almost exclusively – impoverished states before they acceded to the EU, through the EU budget many non members of the euro currency area have been paying for members that actually possess the strong currency and the EU rescue package for the PIGS was predominantly a northern transfer of wealth to the south. This state of affairs makes one wonder what would change with additional transfers, and perhaps more importantly, whether such a ‘solution’ would not be …artificial.
Secondly, the problem runs much deeper in structural terms. Cultural individualism prevents EU statesmen from being open to discriminating between different societies, thus being condemned to trying to square a fundamentally imperfect circle. Brussels is the perfect storm in this aspect because technocratic economists operating under the assumption that individuals behave equally across borders, come together with politicians who must toe the euro-federalist line of an “ever closer union”. Brussels, like Washington D.C., is a micro-cosmos of EU dependent interests and all who live and work in the ‘EU bubble’ have a vested interest in transferring additional political competences to the EU.
The dynamic is such that national politicians, regularly meeting in Brussels to deal with EU matters, aspire to retiring from their national careers to a comfortable position in the Belgian capital. They are also influenced by the ‘groupthink’ that develops in a city where every solution offered by experts will deal with what they know best: the EU.
Then there are the ‘Eurocrats’. One of the basic principles of economics is ceteris paribus or ‘everything being equal’. Inhere lies a big problem for EU economic planning since different societies behave differently. How then to apply such common standards as the ‘Maastricht criteria’ – for acceptance into the Euro area – or the actual ‘Luxembourg criteria’ – for accession to the single market?
Deficit problems amounting from the introduction of the euro were not unknown to the EU and a number of policies had been attempted to address them, prior to the financial crisis. The ‘Stability and Growth Pact’ was one of these and envisaged 3% caps on annual budgetary deficits, with penalties to be paid by transgressors. It was dropped after Germany and France both broke the 3% cap. This too reveals much in the way of differences within the EU for the bigger the economy and the more central to the economic system, the less fragile it is to the moods of the markets. Germany and the US can actually afford to run high deficits or tax heavily because the size of their markets will always guarantee investment. Smaller economies like Greece need to value their reputation much more highly since the slightest hiccup can drive away FDI.
Apart from critical mass, there are inherent incompatibilities with the American model applied in Europe. Economist Robert Mundell wrote on ‘optimum currency areas’ and observed these required such factors as: labor mobility, free flow of capitals, similar business cycles and a risk sharing system in the likes of an automatic fiscal transfer mechanism. Not all of these are in place in the EU’s single market but even if they were, they would not overcome such basic differences as language or work ethics. The best economist in Greece cannot be recruited by a German bank unless he speaks German. More fundamentally, if sovereignty were to be removed from the equation, which state’s interests would ultimately drive a unified European federal interest? Whereas California and Texas bargained their adhesion to the Union without territorial subdivisions and were able to remain institutionally influential, most small EU members could never hope for the same.
Worse still, if the intention actually were to standardize culture within the EU and one were to choose to forget the obvious social engineering involved, who is to say that the German culture is the one that should serve as template? It is one thing for Texas and California to join the American Federation since these societies were already run by American elites and settled by Americans. It is another altogether to Germanefy or Nordicise entire nations. Nationalism was not born in Europe by accident.
The inconsistencies in Brussels policy and the faults of the Greeks aside, why did Greece so fundamentally underperform the other economies under austerity?
Europe is usually divided into three linguistic areas: the Germanic, the Latin and the Slavic. Perhaps in the case of Greece, it would be more useful to work with political theology and separate between protestant, catholic, orthodox and Islamic.
Italian historian Merio Scattola studied the differences between the models in what concerned the relationship between Church and State and found a line of gradation spanning from Mecca to Wittenberg regarding the preeminence of spiritual power. In Islam, the spiritual is zealously ritualized and religious authority is highly centralized. The Caliph rules the Ummah on behalf of the divine first and the temporal second. In Protestantism however, the believer’s connection to God is personal with rituals and symbols being seen as obstacles to devotion and communion with the divine. Political authority is merely political and even in monarchies, the role of the royal head of the Church is purely nominal. In between there is the catholic model where temporal and spiritual are parallel and the orthodox where they are melded. The line of gradation pertains to the individual’s role in the metaphysical: the more individualized the culture the more responsibility the individual assumes in his own salvation, the more collectivized the more the social hierarchy will assume competence.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule and no society is perfect, even in terms of financial management. Moreover, political leadership has a deep impact in financial policy and the human factor is unpredictable. Regardless, if there is a lesson to learn it is that there are limits to political and economic integration and that the EU’s “ever closer union” formula is in dire need of an overhaul.
In the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march, it is interesting to observe the foreign policy consequences of the civil rights movement. The empowerment of African-Americans in the mainstream narrative goes together with conscientious objection, the anti-war pacifist wave, and the overall May of 68 counter-culture movement. However, at the time, the Vietnam War was more popular with African-Americans than it was with WASPs…
While this might seem contradictory, it actually makes a certain sense. On one hand, the armed forces were an easy conduct for employment to a minority without qualifications, and this would also enlist the GIs’ families into the patriotic narrative. On the other hand, in the process of ending electoral and economic disenfranchisement, Blacks had a vested interest in appealing to the Appomattox roots of American nationalism.
Based on a more fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the constitution, Northern liberals advocated for a national absolute abolition of slavery. This was something the founding founders – many of them slave owners and Southerners – had not envisaged and even rejected during the revolutionary war against the British, by ignoring the Dunmore Proclamation. This helps explain the Confederate flags raised against the Selma march – whose participants conversely waved the stars and stripes – since for Southern whites the argument revolved around states rights. Whereas great federalists such as Lincoln and Roosevelt originated from the Midwest and New England, the Confederacy had been a reaction against centralisation. The spirit of the original constitution was that of a confederal system, where the absence of a federal army was the very proof that the initial compromise was far less ‘national’. Indeed, while the American Revolution began in Boston, much of the financial war effort was Southern, as the South was then richer than the North.
As with the Jewish Brigade or the Free French Forces during WWII, or even the national legions serving in the Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars, the aim of many of the anti segregation but pro war African-Americans , was to exchange military service for political concessions; to reinforce their claim to full citizenship rights. There is in fact a vested interest on the part of ethnic minorities to promote a US national narrative that is interventionist. Jews, Greeks or Armenians all lobby the Congress to keep the US engaged in a number of conflicts around the world. While there are no statistics, it would not be surprising to similarly observe a stronger tendency among Blacks and Hispanics , to lend support to liberal humanitarian initiatives by the US, internationally. It is the more parochial/rural WASPs as well as Native-Americans – coincidentally also the Confederate constituency – that represent the more paleoconservative opposition to internationalist policies.
The Selma activists triumphed because their cause was one in which the post Lincoln regime was deeply invested. The question was never ‘whether’ African-Americans would attain full citizenship but rather ‘when’. Southern segregation was only furthered by the civil war trauma and by Reconstruction but it was always doomed to be suppressed entirely, in a reality where the abolitionist puritanical and evangelical North was hegemonic within the Federation.
In contrast to federal exceptionalism, in Westphalian Europe such modern phenomena as PEGIDA reflect instead the triumph of state particularism; the attempt to import the US model into Europe which the EU represents, though, always finds significant opposition. Everyone in the EU system has a political mission but the more political the institutions try to become, the more popular reaction they seem to incite.
The European nation-state system is seen as repulsive by the multiculturalist Liberals who ultimately would like to see nationalism disappear – the very word has become synonymous with racism. This, however, reveals ignorance since it brushes aside the empirical teachings of the Thirty Years War: in Europe, the tendency of states to proselytise rival normative systems had led to a massively bloody and destructive, continental wide war and such an outcome was meant to be avoided if the imperative of nationalism kept conflicts local and limited. Westphalia instituted the paradigm that after a millennium of Respublica Christiana, the normative would henceforth be rendered subordinate to the political. This system would prevent political rivalry from equating normative rivalry, and consequently preclude dragging all political entities into a universal doctrinal dispute – often caused by mere local grievances.
After 1648, there were many conflicts but few universal ones: the Napoleonic Wars, the Second World War and the Cold War being exceptions. The First World War deserves a more attentive analysis. It is true that the conflict was not caused by universalist reasons, and it is therefore an easy argument to the detractors of Westphalia but what most Liberals often forget is that the end of the conflict was not a traditional Westphalian solution. As in WWII, the Allies demanded an unconditional surrender from the Central Powers. By doing so, the conflict was transformed from a particularist dispute over a specific grievance inflicted in Sarajevo, into an absolute moral contest between the forces of ‘civilisation’ and the forces of ‘imperialist barbarism’. If the Great War had truly been a pure Westphalian conflict, the outcome would have been a negotiated settlement sometime in 1916/17, akin to the preceding Franco-Prussian War or Italian Unification Wars.
The old continent evolved as a fractured territory. Throughout its history, slowly but surely, cultural identity became synonymous with territory. Europe is divided topographically by several mountain ranges, large rivers; it is characterized by islands and peninsulas as much as it is by continental space. Many an empire failed in trying to unify it: the Romans were stopped in Germania and so were the Habsburgs, Napoleon and Hitler never managed to subdue England and Russia. The formula that best captured the political essence of Europe was the one produced by the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia: ‘Cuius regio, eius religio’.
The reason why normative matters are exclusive jurisdiction of the ruler of each state is precisely because it is impossible to enforce them universally in Europe. Indeed, religion is often used as a dividing line between different nationalities, rather than as a means for unity as can be clearly observed in the British Isles or in the Balkans. As a result of Westphalia, the normative was forever rendered secondary to the ethnic in Europe. The Hapsburgs accelerated the German national awakening in trying to enforce Catholicism and Bonaparte’s invasions were always poorly received in spite of their ‘international volunteers’ – sometimes local – fighting for universal republican enlightenment. In short, when it comes to identity, Europe is fundamentally particularist.
This does not prevent wealthy nations from financing universalist policies around the globe but it is an affordable choice, not a necessity. It is also in part because of this evolution that many immigrants in Europe feel discriminated against, even in its most tolerant and generous nations. Europe has never been multicultural and when such a model was tried, the outcome was less than successful. The tacit civic compromise of being a migrant in a nation-state is the mandatory assimilation of the host culture. Failure to do so results in ostracism, as Jews and Gypsies painfully learned. Conversely, the American dream requires only compliance to normative values enshrined in the US Constitution; there is no mention of identity.
The USA is a country-idea. America’s system was put to the test during the Civil War when the Confederates tried to implement a Westphalian solution to North America. General Grant eventually proved that the cohesive continental US was not a terrain prone to political fragmentation. Appomattox cemented the very opposite of Westphalia: in the US, identity is primarily defined by the normative and only secondarily by the ethnic. African-Americans were citizens because the Constitution required as much and only marginally because they were Christian and spoke English. It is not unlike the Asian standard of multi-ethnic empires where executive power was not necessarily related to the ethnicity of the citizenry but to the laws emanating from the imperial capital. America is thus a paradoxical country: demographically European but geographically Asian.
In the past decades things began to change and this might be related to the current growing polarization. The WASPs’ proportion of the general population is decreasing. More importantly, the Democratic Party now rarely carries the white vote and Obama is certainly a President who does abnormally well with the minorities (vice-versa is true of the Republicans). Because no one ethnicity can be said to be completely politically supportive of any one side and because the American system privileges ideology over identity politics, it is then unsettling that the ethnic vote is becoming more and more neatly packed along racial lines – as is the political polarization of news media, with phenomena like FOX News.
One of the problems plaguing Ukraine’s political system is precisely ethnic divisions. There are those who will argue that all Ukrainians are opposed to corruption and authoritarianism, and that all would like closer relations with Europe, along with the trade benefits that come with it. This is, however, misleading. The same could have been said of Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia before the breakups but true democracy didn’t bring its constituent ethnicities closer, it drove the factions apart. Ethnic separatism doesn’t start with outright claims of independence, it creeps in as just another political argument, it simmers in mutual civic distrust and matures in partisan charismatic leaderships. Fear-mongering can only mobilize popular opinion if there is a fertile and conducive political climate in the mix. In turn, this is only possible if the demos is absent from the democracy in question. Nevertheless, Ukrainians are highly similar in culture just like Serbs and Croats or Czechs and Slovaks were before them. The same cannot be said of WASPs and African-Americans or Latinos.
Will the Peace of Appomattox survive the loss of WASPs as America’s ethnic core?
In his theory of cultural dimensions, Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede identifies a number of dimensions of national cultures. One of them is that of individualism and it pertains to a “preference for a loosely-knit social framework”. According to comparative studies of the Hofstede Centre, the most individualistic nations on Earth are found in the north Atlantic with Scandinavians and Anglophones on top.
At least part of the explanation can be found in the Ricardian model. Northern winters are harsh and farming is more difficult in adverse weather. Thus from very early on, the scarcity of food stuffs originated a sparsely populated territory. Unlike southern Europe where the weather is mild and farming easy, in the north, the number of potential workers being limited and the territory vast, causes social hierarchy to remain levelled. In the south, conversely, the bargaining power of a landowner with his workers is higher given the bigger competition amongst labourers.
Northern cultures also naturally emphasize entrepreneurship: summers must be efficient to make up for long winters.
The industrial revolution was particularly beneficial to individualistic cultures but especially so for the smallest and most homogeneous ones. Mechanization robbed densely populated nations of their natural comparative advantage in relation to individualistic ones. Israel, Switzerland, Austria and the Nordic tigers, thanks in large part to their cultural homogeneity, can quickly adapt to global trends in trade – since they are export economies – and are not as dependent on agricultural and natural resource based economic models.
One of the features of individualistic societies is also their tendency for universalism and formal political structures at large. With parallel structures such as family, clan or tribe weakened by distance and self-reliance, the social imperative is for individual equality to be enforced impartially. Neutral bureaucratic constructs such as a state apparatus, are therefore crucial for the maintenance of the national individualist ethos. Larger, more complex and diverse societies on the other hand, deal badly with formal structures of governance because the emphasis on direct links between individual and government is corrupted by parallel social loyalties. This in turn explains why democracy tends to become dysfunctional in ethnically heterogeneous societies and why the grey economy is so prevalent in those cases too.
This reality is of interest for those who study the current economic crisis and how well the international institutions are faring in their response.
The European Commission, of course, is a regulatory entity par excellence. Its original mandate was to manage the implementation of the common market and its current legislative power stems from that mission. However, by legislating in more and more areas of governance within the European Union, the Commission is also inadvertently exporting the northern relative disadvantage of regulation, to weaker and less export driven economies in the south.
Southern cultures such as Italy while legislating plenty, also legislate worse and the effectiveness of regulation is further eroded by competing loyalties to family connections and the inertia of strong vertical hierarchy. Yet, a less effective legal system also provides more room for the informal economy and works as a competitive advantage in relation to more efficient economies; these, in spite of providing higher quality products, also impose more of a burden on investors in regards to rules compliance. Informality however can be an asset when fostering commercial ties with other informal societies.
Given that the EU’s benchmarking models feature the Nordic tigers as the paradigm of best practices, the incentives given to poorer nations such as the PIIGS, when it comes to ‘cohesion funds’, are bound to be based on further industrialization and export intensive models. This is best epitomized by the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy which basically tries to transpose Nordic virtues in the mythical Green or Knowledge Economy, into general European practice.
This is not necessarily negative since modernization is always welcome. The problem lies instead in whether the Nordic model is actually adaptable to different realities. In Mediterranean countries for instance, agricultural industrialization can only do so much if the majority of explorations are too small to sustain industrial monocultures. In Eastern Europe the funding of education will only go so far if the free flow of people facilitates brain drain into the bigger markets of Western Europe.
This concurrently begs the question of whether the northern economies themselves are subject to the same push for reform, as their southern partners are. If all the member-states have something to offer to the Union, then what exactly are the Nordics being asked to adapt to? If the answer is ‘not much’, then more serious issues are at stake such as whether the Commission’s envisioned path is unidirectional – and where that leaves countries that struggle to adapt – or how fair is a Union whose reforms are meant for some but not all.
This debate is not just theoretical. In matters of foreign policy as well as trade policy, the EU as a general rule pushes for more regulation and compliance with universalist – international law based – principles. Once again, this course is typical of knowledge economies in northern Europe: Norway has long since specialized in conflict mediation, the Swiss founded the Red Cross and most Nordic, Alpine and Low Countries capitals have at one time or another served as venues for major diplomatic treaties or organizations. These countries are also coherent with their foreign policy goals and regularly call for embargoes or sanctions against international human rights violators.
Of course it is easier to do so for a small export based economy. Many European member-states are not. They have larger populations whose economic fortunes depend much more on the market price of commodities and many have also historical links to the developing world which suffer every time the organizations in question denounce illiberal regimes or promote international discriminatory legislation against them.
The current crisis in Europe has exposed many fault lines. If we do not mean to widen them, then the opportunity must be seized by European decision-makers to rethink their approach to the process of European integration. It is time the EU embraces the diversity of its unity.
It has been a historical constant that after periods of heightened social and political upheaval such as wars, citizens turn to icons of stability and fortitude. America is no exception and unsurprisingly, the greatest military achievers of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Second World War, were all elected President – respectively Generals George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.
After the acrimony of war and its ultrapartisanship, a good administrator and leader of men is the perfect choice to manage peacetime reconstruction. In addition, military figures possess the advantage of appearing meta-partisan: they are admired for their deeds, not their words and the defense of the motherland is a matter of bipartisan consensus. This may even mobilize anti-establishment protest votes.
Concurrently, rumors have circulated in Washington DC on the likelihood of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal running, since the drawdown of combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only did they distinguish themselves during the War on Terror campaigns, they were the intellectual architects of the military doctrine – counter-insurgency (COIN) – that successfully dealt with the terrorist insurrections the US battled with.
While McChrystal left his duties in a rather inglorious manner and is said to be a Democrat, Petraeus’s scandal was much less controversial militarily and he is known to lean Republican. Given that the Republican Party’s foreign policy circle is nowadays dominated by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, a military President would intuitively appear like an ideal choice. Nevertheless, not much enthusiasm has been observed for the occasional touting of Petraeus’s name but rather derision. Why is that? After all, neocons often repeat that the ‘surge’ – Petraeus’s brainchild – was a resounding success and that if only US troops had remained behind, not only would Iraq have remained stable but the Islamic State would not have been allowed to cannibalize on the country’s territory, resources, people and grievances for growth.
The reasons why Petraeus would in fact be unpalatable for the GOP’s neoconservatives are found in the forgotten detours of the Bush doctrine and the opaque origins of counter-insurgency doctrine itself.
Let us start with George W. Bush. The 43rd President made many mistakes in his first term but he did show signs of empirical learning in his second. Many of the advisors who had served him counter-productively in the first term were either let go (such as SecDef Donald Rumsfeld) and replaced with their ideological opponents (the realist Robert Gates), or they were simply promoted away from the White House (Paul Wolfowitz went to the World Bank). The President also reversed course on some war policies: namely by allowing the ‘awakening’ campaign to dismantle the initial deBaathification of Iraq, in working together with former Saddam regime cadres to counter al-Qaeda. There was also a move away from pressuring illiberal allies into democratizing (elections in Egypt or Kuwait not having gone well for liberal democracy). Most notably though, there was the ‘surge’: an additional deployment of infantry to a military campaign that was supposed to liberate rather than occupy, that was supposed to be one of many simultaneous fronts in the Global War on Terror rather than a chief battlefield, that was supposed to fight technologically rather than socially against America’s foes.
This backpedaling on Bush’s part is inconvenient to those whose advice – taken and found wanting – was eventually ignored; and as already pointed out, Petraeus was very much a focal point of the backpedaling.
But apart from bitter memories, why does the COIN General rub Washington’s interventionists the wrong way? Was he not just a soldier following orders?
The problem lies with counter-insurgency and what it symbolizes ideologically. David Petraeus didn’t invent COIN, he adapted it from French military doctrine designed during the Indochina and Algerian wars.
It was David Galula, a French military officer, who decided to draw on the teachings of insurgent tactics in Indochina to turn the Algerian War around. The French contre-insurrection with its population-centric social operations constituted in fact a reverse-engineering of Maoist guerilla tactics in China and Indochina. Inhere lies also the root of all ‘evil’. Maoist tactics, originating in a brutal totalitarian ideology, brought such political brutality, in turn, to the battlefield. Instead of focusing on attacking enemy soldiers, equipment and infrastructure, Maoists sought instead to exercise control over populations. This of course brought the war to the civilians and caused mass casualties. After all, throughout the 20th century, individuals have been empowered across all societies and so too the responsibilities of state have progressively been put on the shoulders of the common man.
Because COIN draws on a totalitarian tactic, COIN is itself partly totalitarian. Perhaps the first person to notice was General Lansdale, David Galula’s American friend who facilitated the introduction of counter-insurgency doctrine in US military thinking. Lansdale admired Galula’s innovative ideas but he did not fully subscribe them. Theirs was actually a debate between a colonial officer and a revolutionary; between French culture and American culture. Galula’s thinking was strictly pragmatic: a combatant cannot hope to win by abstaining from using methods his enemy uses. Lansdale however, took issue at the forceful control of populations to deprive them of enemy influence as well as their indoctrination through propaganda instruments. Galula on the other hand saw this is as essential.
Iraq was a manifestation of this very debate. The neoconservatives believed Coalition forces would be greeted as liberators and they could not fathom that a society could possibly attribute secondary importance to individual liberties; yet Iraq’s sectarian politics proved just that. In such context, the political lustration of Baathist cadres only made sense from a neoconservative point of view: ostracizing those who injure individual liberties could only result in gaining the favor of the citizenry because according to natural law, every individual longs for freedom, first and foremost. Concurrently, all was necessary was a high-tech blitzkrieg (‘shock and awe’) liberation campaign to destroy the oppressive forces and then allow the natives to naturally rule themselves as a free society. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime had been an aberration in the natural progress of civilization which America’s operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ had helped destroy, in order to advance the democratization and liberty of the Middle East.
What General David Petraeus did was to set aside the ideological dogma and play by the rules of the locals: he brought tribal leaders and former Baathist military officers back into the fold and bribed local entities into joining his anti-jihadist cordon sanitaire. Whereas Lansdale believed the ultimate goal of war was to liberate, Galula believed the ultimate goal of war was to exercise executive control.
This is the fundamental incompatibility of neoconservatism and counter-insurgency: COIN is not consistent with universalism but is rather a direct philosophical challenge to American exceptionalism. COIN relies on cultural relativism to win hearts and minds. Worse still, COIN is the result of materialistic and utilitarian logic – rather than moral principles – in that it posits that any population can be controlled, with the correct application of coercive and persuasive means; which certainly contrasts with the Liberal ‘end of History’ teleology.
The pursuit of a noble mission is at the center of Straussian neoconservatism. For this reason the neocons will never cease to call for military power projection and will always praise the troops and generals. In the case of General Petraeus though, they will stop short of inferring political potential from military merit. Another neoconservative paradox.