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.
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.