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.