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.
Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron have all declared multiculturalism a failure. Berlin, Paris and London all realise that in the continent where nationalism was born, the harmonious melding of cultures is not achievable.
In Europe and much of the old world, History has served the purpose of separating cultures. Europe especially, due to its geography, has been a perfect case of identity politics trumping any ideology. It was in Europe afterall that nationalism was born. Unlike what many believe, nationalism was not born in the XIX century. Identity politics had been an integral part of the Scottish rebellions, the German reformation and countless other phenomena prior to the modern era. Modernity codified these trends but it did not inaugurate them.
The ultra-nationalism of the XX century was short lived, yes, but this trend was extreme and in many ways self-consuming. The reaction to ultra-nationalism however has been equally extreme, being characterised by universalism, radical individualism and pacifism at any cost. This recipe is beginning to crumble since the European Union is now more than ever a project in distress. Those who dread disintegration claim more integration is the only alternative but this does not stand to reason: if integration was the answer Europe would not be in distress after having begun political on top of economic integration. What could Euro-bonds and ECB fiscal controls do to prevent dissimilar productivity in the different European states? Monetary and financial engineering cannot prevent radically different work ethics and civic mentality. The Greeks will not become more individualistic anymore than Finns will become more collectivist – barring any totalitarian social engineering practices of course.
Instead of uniformity, the only enduring reality in Europe is that of disunity and dissimilarity, however close the civilisational contacts may be. The Treaties of Westphalia epitomised as much by bringing the concept of sovereignty into current use. European sovereignty though can only exist through ethnic homogeneity and the subalternation of the normative. This was the political translation of the end of the Thirty Years War which saw the crystallisation of multipolarism in Europe. After Rome and the Franks, the Habsburgs had been the third polity to vie for continental domination and fail. At the same time, Europe being the smallest continent had allowed for cross-cultural interaction to an extent whereupon the different peoples shared a common cultural legacy. Westphalia was thus the codification of ethnic separation (proto-nationalism) with normative consensus (Christianity). The respublica christiana was politically disunited but ideologically cohesive – with theological divides often serving only to make salient the ethnic fault lines (Catholicism/Presbyterianism in Scotland, Catholicism, Islam or Orthodoxy in the Balkans, etc).
Among the necessary consequences of the Westphalian system in Europe (especially Western Europe) has been xenophobia but also internationalism. It is inevitable that stark frontiers and centralized states will invariably lead to cooperation: European states are small and multipolarism requires geostrategic variable geometry. On the other hand, in a hermetic ethnic monopoly, minorities will invariably find it hard to integrate as Jews and Gypsies would attest. Both these tendencies are perhaps better observed in simplistic regime types of the totalitarian tradition, namely with both communism and fascism.
In Asia multicultural empires have rather been the norm, with eastern Europe and the Balkans corresponding to some standard somewhere in between western European nation-states and Asian multi-ethnic empires. This is why sovereign borders are notoriously difficult to create in the Middle East but multi-ethnic harmony comes naturally (Istanbul, Jerusalem and Baghdad or Persia, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia being good historical examples). The artificial emulation of western state apparatuses in the Middle East leads to necessary ethnic tensions given that within a small state, unlike within an empire, ethnic identity is crucial to the monopoly on legitimate violence. Empires demand at most an ethnic core but due to their extension it would make little sense to fear one or another minority.
The colonisation of the Americas originated a peculiar misfit: the settlers were European but the territory did not lend itself to European style nation-states. Quite to the contrary, America’s near absence of major topographical barriers and the mixed nature of its settlers favoured an Asian type polity formation. The initial immigration was largely comprised of Europeans which meant that integration was easier given it was intra-civilisational. African slaves, Hispanic-Americans or Asian migrants either did not possess citizenship or were too small in number to be of consequence. The system endured and prospered until the War of Secession when apart from all the economic tensions between North and South, national identity was propelled by abolitionists as a fracturing issue.
Now, unlike what the founding fathers had intended, economic and political liberalism was beginning to spillover to society at large and the fundamental incompatibility of liberalism with raison d’état began. To be clear, America was only a multicultural society so long as it remained a European anglophone republic in its core. The next question then should be whether the US could have afforded to remain a slaver state: it doesn’t seem very likely given the incompatibility with liberalism. However, the rejection of domestic slavery is a very different proposition from the promotion of individual freedom abroad, from the automatic granting of citizenship to millions of the illiterate and economically disenfranchised overnight, and finally from forceful universality of the abolition.
Other societies have evolved very differently and cannot require the same cultural and political solutions as the anglophone ‘new world’. Citizenship is not equivalent to nationhood and ultra-inclusiveness risks cohesion – one wonders what would have happened if Spartans had granted Helots their freedom as well as full citizenship rights in Laconia… Finally if abolition was indeed a social concern of the American people, why not simply allow each state to approve it in their own timing – surely there was no doubt such a path was unidirectional?…
The Confederacy’s decision to press for independence was a dramatic one but not illogical. The South was betting on a North American Westphalia. They had the precedent of Yorktown (1783) – continental secession from the British empire – and they had the sympathy of overseas powers as well as Native Americans. This could have meant a partition of north America and a multiple state balance of power in the long run. As Grant would come to prove however, North America is not Europe: Appalachia cannot be ruled by more than one power and the Atlantic ocean is too large to allow European polities to project much force into America. Topographical and geographical obstacles made the Habsburg quest to control central Europe too much of a logistical challenge: the ‘Spanish road’ was vulnerable (i.e. Palatinate), the western approaches and the English channel too risky (Spanish Armada), all this even with the advantage of superior numbers as well as tactics; the North Sea and Baltic polities always free to project uninterrupted influence over continental Europe. Conversely, the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia were almost always chosen by generals rather than imposed by geography, armies were free to roam around the great plains of the Midwest and rivers proved to be avenues for troops rather than natural defences against them. Unlike Europe, America cannot be divided from within and is too far to be divided from without.
Therefore, the significance of Appomattox was the very opposite of Westphalia: like Worms in 1122, Appomattox in 1865 meant that normative power bests temporal power, ideological identity trumps cultural identity. Above all, the extremism of abolitionists lay in them being constitutional fundamentalists – which the same founding fathers who signed a peace treaty that saw the need for all the Dunmore Proclamation black freedmen to be exiled, were not. Some might say ‘so much the better!’ since that allowed for the liberation of the slaves but it did also sow the seeds of systemic dysfunction for forthwith the question of identity would be one resolved by the supremacy of beliefs over ethnicity, values over interests, ideology over identity. As the last US election of 2012 proved though, the interests of minorities (loose immigration laws) trump their ideological background (Catholic, Methodist, Southern Baptist conservatism) as it trumps in almost every polity. The inconsistency then is that of identity: if minorities vote according to their ethnic identity rather than according to their ideological identity, how can they then be American?
English-Americans or German-Americans do not rush to defend Britain or Germany whenever these nations disagree with the US or when their brethren have disputes with the Federal government on national soil but contemporary minorities do the opposite. Worse still, unlike Italians and Irish whose integration was already made difficult due to their non-compliance with the WASP standard, Hispanics and African-Americans do not even originate from the same civilisational setting as European America – Hispanics have European roots but also Amerindian and African ones.
(Perhaps this reality helps explain how easily the US find themselves involved in the causes of minorities around the world from Jews or Armenians to Albanians)
The imagery of Monrovia and Liberia is a profoundly ironic one since the same historians who so readily admit the enterprise of resettling American slaves in Africa was a failure, have scarcely a word of doubt about the success of their adaptation to anglophone North America.
Nothing lasts forever. What is being observed nowadays in Europe’s south and the Arab Spring is not just temporary and circumstantial economic woes, it is a change in paradigm for the West. Every major issue westerners tried to avoid for decades is coming back with a vengeance be it unsustainable welfare programs or incompatible immigration trends. Yet the system is bogged down in legislative inertia and political impasse. Bipolarisation plagues the US whereas electoral apathy and lack of leadership plagues Europe.
By pushing the aforementioned issues to the margins in favour of political correctness, western politicians condemned many of those issues to being used only by marginal politicians and it is these that now reap the benefits of political courage and prescience. However, populist parties in Switzerland, Netherlands, Austria or Hungary are not suited to run the fate of a complex state apparatus and if elected are likely to cause strategic havoc. It may as well however, be too late for centrist parties to make a change.
Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels theorised that every system has elites and that these need to allow for ruling elite rotation in order to for the system to function properly. Any accumulation and exclusivity by a ruling elite, forces non ruling elites to plot against the system as an opposition, which often leads to Caesarism.
The Western model is exhausted because democracy no longer allows for a proper ruling elite circulation but no other system does either. This inherent domestic friction in most western states is likely to bring about a complete change in paradigm but not necessarily to something better.
The Left is bankrupt. The fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the USSR were a hard blow to leftist politics worldwide which tried to adapt through ‘3rd Way’ antics. These however were merely a improvisation to a changing political environment; ultimately the combination of neoliberalism with socialism did nothing other than prolonging the inevitable collapse of the welfare system, the Left relied upon for constituency maintenance.
Thus, while it used to be the right to exercise populistic politics in order to sway voters which could not be swayed without a more marxist ideological narrative, today it is the right that holds ideological supremacy. Right-wing ideology is slowly becoming the paradigm in Europe. The left has consequently chosen to divert its speech to more demogagic issues in the hope of persuading non-ideological acolytes on the centre. This however will carry awful consequences for the long term future when neo-Keynesian economics results in yet another market punishment for unsustainable indebtedness.
In the absence of ideology, the left is now subject to the superior influence of utilitarian structures. From Australia to Europe, the left wing party apparatchiks are now empowered by the need for votes which cannot be gained by ideology. Left-wing parties face thus an inner struggle for power with old ideologues facing off against young apparatchiks who can deliver votes, even at the cost of demagoguery, corruption and short-termism, leaching off a dysfunctional system. Rudd vs Gillard or Ed vs David Miliband are the demonstration of this trend and apparatchiks together with the defenders of established corporativist interests and trade unions, are winning.
The right actually sees many of its criticisms of the liberal paradigm confirmed: its criticism of democratic peace theory is confirmed by Arab Spring ‘democracies’ becoming antagonist of western interests, its criticism of multicultural society is confirmed by riots, failure in integration policies as well as intolerant trends among incompatible immigrant demographics with European and American host societies, its criticism of the individualisation of values with the counter-culture movement is proven right by the sharp decrease in living conditions of worse-off segments of society, its criticism of demilitarisation and disarmament proven right by the opposite trend among emerging economies.
Yet, the right is itself afraid of upsetting the established order which has kept stability for so long. It is afraid of empowering too much the Geert Wilders and UKIP alternative-right movements which nibble electorally at its power bases.
Angela Merkel is a dark knight of sorts, delivering solutions to the south which are necessary but deeply unpopular. The southern christian democrats are thus being spared the consequences of their own leniency towards the liberal-left wing paradigm. But even this cannot last forever and like Harvey Dent their failures may yet be exposed by extremist Banes for now lurking in the shadows.
Having often found much ignorance on foreign policy in debates with Libertarians, this post is aimed at them. A number of flawed Libertarian arguments are here counter-argued:
- War is not a legitimate tool of policy
Considering aggressive war as a legitimate tool of foreign policy is not ideological, it is empirical. No state or society having rejected the prerogative of waging war has ever survived. No one can claim to govern and defend the national interest of one’s constituency without reserving the right to go to war to defend that same interest. This defence has never been made exclusively at home and indeed it cannot in a globalised world.
- Iran does not need to be deterred since it is a peaceful state who has never attacked anyone. Iran is not irrational, at least no more than any other state.
Iran does need to be deterred. It has been attacking and undermining American, Jewish and Western interests since 1979: Iran gave up a profitable partnership with the US in favour of isolationism in 79 and this should be a good indicator of its rationality. Iran has been interfering in the internal affairs of Lebanon in an attempt to export its own revolution, it has moved assertively to claim oil resources in the Caspian, projected its terrorism as far as Buenos Aires just to be able to kill Jews. Iran hopes the SCO will become an anti-NATO, it instigated regime change wherever it would have hurt the West and criticised where it benefited it.
It is stunning that Libertarians who readily accuse the US of exceptionalism and adventurism (which is true), are so blind to a completely irrational and destabilising theocracy.
Without a Western presence in the Middle East one of two things would happen: either a protracted conflict between Iran and Turkey and instability in the oil markets for decades to come, or Iranian supremacy and extortion.
- There is no merit to attacking Iran
Iran works against western interests and it is not in the interest of the West, the Arabs or any other regional stakeholder to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons. This would endow Iran with nuclear deterrence against conventional attacks. If right now Iran doesn’t project more financial or military resources to Syria or Lebanon, it is also because it has to concern and burden itself with homeland defence. Endowed with nuclear deterrence, an exceptionalist, universalist and revisionist regional power would be able to devote more resources to exporting its revolution abroad.
- War is not worth the lives of innocent people
There is a difference between valuing the lives of innocent people and believing everyone is innocent… the latter is but totalitarianism.
- Iran needs a nuclear deterrence because it feels threatened and encircled by US bases
This is a straw man argument: the bases in Afghanistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan as well as the ones in Iraq before the withdrawal, were not set up against Iran and because many of these are simply logistical hubs or are directed at different problems such as the war against the Taliban, they would actually be more vulnerable to an Iranian attack than they would be useful for an attack on Iran.
The only bases capable of sustaining an attack on Iran are the ones in the Arabian peninsula. Most of the US outposts in Afghanistan are sustaining a war in which American troops are bogged down. The bases in central Asia are basically transport hubs and the US does not have the right to station aggressive formations. NATO’s bases in Turkey could be used for an attack on Iran but if Turkey didn’t authorise their use against Iraq, odds are they’d never be considered for an attack on Iran.
- To invade Iran is budgetary folly
Yes, it is which is why no one advocates an invasion of Iran but merely a surgical bombardment of nuclear sites; an expanded version of Israel’s raid against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor.
- Israel is the real cause of instability in the Middle East
Israel has never done anything gratuitous to bring instability. Israel has ever only acted in self-defence. It did not endanger the supply of oil to the West. Iran on the other hand has tried to export its own values and socio-economic model to Lebanon and Iraq, and has also propagated terrorism in the region which Israel has never done.
Israel has been persistently threatened not only with war but also with annihilation which is why it requires a nuclear deterrence but Iran does not since no one wants to destroy Iran but merely to contain it. Iran is an exceptionalist, expansionist, millennial, apocalyptic, self-proclaimed anti-western and anti-liberal.
Israel never invaded anyone. Every single war it fought was defensive, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran have all waged aggressive war against Israel for no rational reason. Israel has not responded in kind.
- If Iran is economically and militarily crippled it cannot project power beyond its borders
Agreed it is but lets see, it is helping to prop up the regime in Syria, it has helped to carve out a state within a state in Lebanon (one by the way which is capable of defying Israel, one of the world’s foremost military powers). Plenty of projection power for an economically and militarily crippled third rate power.
- Iran is only a threat to the US
It is also to the Arabs – they are Iran’s neighbours who provide us with oil and who own much of the American debt – to Israel and countries such as Turkey, Russia or Pakistan have no interest either in seeing Iran go nuclear.
- How many foreigners has Iran killed since Israel has existed?
Iran has killed thousands. Not just in Lebanon or during the tanker war with Iraq but also by sponsoring Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorism throughout the world as well as interfering in the Balkan wars.
Israel however has not interfered in the affairs of other states nor did it sponsor terrorist groups unless the target state had previously declared war on it. Israel does not declare to want to exterminate or expel other ethnicities or religions. Israel allowed for no entity to use its territory to attack Lebanon, or other countries. Others allowed this against Israel. Israel actually has borders with Lebanon, it needs to care about what goes on in Lebanon lest it not fall victim to military invasions or terrorist raids. Iran is thousands of kms away and has no conceivable interest or need to do so.
Regardless, one cannot measure a country’s negative impact by the sheer number of deaths its direct actions cause. The US and the UN coalition who expelled Iraq from Kuwait killed more Iraqis than Iraqis killed Kuwaitis but that is easily explained by the differences in technology and means available to each side. But that doesn’t mean that Kuwait should not have been liberated.
- Iranians are being targeted; not just scientists but the entire population
The conflict between Iran and the West was unilaterally started by Iran. If Iran has the right to produce nuclear power, the West also has the right to declare embargoes. The fact that most of the world agrees that Iran should be sanctioned proves that the concern is not solely Western. Iran is and has always been intransigent in regards to its nuclear programme so its motivations are dubious. Iran doesn’t even try to establish a dialogue with opponents like Israel and is in fact antisemitic.
Targeting scientists also proves that the target is not Iran as a country and not even its regime but just its nuclear programme. Far more principled approach than indiscriminate terrorism.
- The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys
No moral judgements involved. The West tries only to defend its interests; some states can help and others can get in the way. US and Israel are ‘good’ simply because they defend Western interests in MENA.
- Iran broke its alliance with the US because of US support to the Shah’s repressive regime
Yes the US was supportive of the Shah but that support was not conditional on the Shah’s repression. The US wanted and needed an ally in the region. They didn’t care what kind of regime was in place; The West tried to befriend Iran. It tried to do so under the Shah and under Khomeini. Besides the Islamic Republic is much worse than the Shah and it is not richer or more influential.
Israel did not interfere in Iran and it was discriminated against. Arab states and Russia did interfere and they were not considered ‘satanic’. It is not like Iran itself did not meddle in other states too.