The Corrosive Legacy of the ‘Good War’ Standard

April 28, 2015 at 12:22 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


The Second World War is still held by many intellectuals as the best example of ‘the good war’. Hollywood often pays it tribute by devising heroic epics that depict Allied courage in the face of Nazi barbarism – the same honour is not bestowed to Vietnam War films… Pundits in the West spend their days portraying contemporary conflicts in the light of WWII teachings: analogies with Munich or Pearl Harbor are invoked ad nauseam, Churchillian anecdotes and quotes abound.

For Liberals, WWII represents a true victory of good Vs evil and no other conflict comes close to such a clear moral crusade. In fact, it is probably the worst possible conflict to admire. Yes, Liberals won, and yes, a very destructive force was defeated but it is not a coincidence that it was a ‘moral war’ that caused the greatest conflict the world has ever seen. While technology played an important part in the scope of the war, it was conventional means that caused the most causalities; gas chambers , atomic bombs and planned starvations being responsible for roughly only 15% of total casualties. The key factor was in fact the totalitarian nature of the conflict. If states had not been fighting wars of absolute survival/annihilation, the methods employed would not have been equally absolute. Also relevant are the exceptions: liberal Finland was an enemy of the Allies and an ally of the III Reich, the totalitarian USSR was an ally and did most of the leg work of the ground war – not to mention co-presiding over the Nuremberg Tribunal… – and then of course it was the Allies that burned Dresden, used atomic weapons and equally starved indigenous populations.

Yet, it is crucial to realise that the current narrative is highly pernicious in this regard: a student of International Relations or History will learn that the Bismarckian balance of power system was very flawed and that WWII’s outcome – however horrific – was in fact a blessing in disguise because it set the world on the righteous path of progressive ethics. Then there are those who believe that the result of WWII was not even a matter of chance but that Liberal values would have always triumphed, given their natural superiority.  In truth, as Azar Gat demonstrated very lucidly, WWII was won largely because of “contingent factors”, not because of any practical superiority of Liberal ideals. If the Axis powers had enjoyed the large imperial holdings of the British Empire, the USA or the USSR, they too would have won what it ultimately became a war of attrition.  

The Second Great War should instead be regarded as  the worst possible conflict because it consisted in a complete erosion of the Westphalian system in Europe. Whereas Münster and Osnabrück had established a structure averse to moral/ideological interventionism and reliant on geostrategic alignments to ensure a balance of power – and, in turn, limited war – the outcome of WWII was precisely the destruction of Westphalia by allowing as victors two out of three universalist powers. If in the east of the old continent the Brezhnev doctrine was to rule until 1989, in the west the Washington Consensus would, in its triumphalist moment of the post Cold War, seek to intervene to punish dissenters on a regular basis and even promote gratuitous evangelizing interventions.

The direct result of the victory of one of the ideological empires was a predictable hegemony of the values of said empire in the predominant political narrative; it helped that the United States also functions as the main source of Western soft power and lingua franca. The American revolutionary enlightenment and liberal exceptionalist narrative has in time contaminated states that used to be particularist by their very nature, namely in Europe. The commonality stems from the replacement of utopian internationalist and universalist ideologies of the past such as communism or Christianism, with democratic liberalism. The idealists of the past have either left politics/political philosophy behind or converted to the doctrine of the temporal winners of WWII – and only consequently, spiritual winners.298822-alexfas01 - Cópia

Problems arise when the very structure of polities around the world is incompatible with a specific ideology which is why universal doctrines are usually a bad idea. In Europe, those facing such a reality eventually turned to the European Union and NATO as the natural bridge between their admiration for their new Church/International – carrying the mantle of ‘leadership of the free world’ – and the millenia of antecedents sustaining political power as a measure of local ethnic identity. In the case of such nations as Britain or the Netherlands, it is actually easier because much of their historical experience has been based around liberal values such as Grotius’s Mare Liberum or England’s parliamentary system. In more homogeneous and unitary nations such as Poland or France, more perverse forms of populism come to the fore as a consequence.

The most serious problem of American/Liberal exceptionalism is not however related to the domestic dysfunctions that it causes in nation-states – and not, as in the case of America , idea-states – but rather in the overall conduct it incites in Western states’ foreign policy. Every conflict that pits a Western democracy against a non Western or non liberal-democratic regime is automatically viewed as a Manichean moral contest whose outcome must be an absolute victory of the ‘good’ against ‘evil’. Apart from a complete absence of consideration for the national (not ideological) interest, there is also an inherent and fundamental strategic incompetence of not considering means when advocating for ends. In other words, the moral cause is the casus belli, not whichever specific political grievance motivates it. This implies that a limited political settlement involving territorial or economic concessions is not the desired end but rather an unconditional surrender of the morally inferior opponent.

WWII has been reified by its own ultra-normative admirers because they mythologize it. Had they been in power then, they would have never allied with the USSR and probably would have gone to war with it over its invasion of Finland by the time Berlin arose as a threat. Finally, there is enormous danger in looking at the least ‘normal war’ the world has ever seen and viewing it as an example to follow and emulate.


Permalink 3 Comments

Democracy derived Rhetorical Entrapment

July 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Bombing of Hiroshima

Western foreign policy suffers from a major flaw: rhetorical entrapment.

What are Western interests in Syria? The question is not often asked because it is not politically correct to mention interests when innocent people are being slaughtered. In these situations only values are of importance. Our values dictate that we strive to save as many lives as possible.

But what do our interests dictate?

Syria is a nuisance for the West. It fights the West’s strategic and economic interests in Lebanon, the Levant and the Mashreq in general. Unlike Iran it does not do so out of prejudice but rather out of pure self-interest. Syria being dependent on the Lebanese economy and strategic position does not have an interest in seeing any other power dominate Lebanon other than Syria. Damascus had no interest in allowing the US to dominate Iraq and thus becoming a major hegemon in the Middle East, and it was a balance of power reasoning that compelled the Assad regime to help jihadists and Iranians in subverting Coalition rule of occupied Iraq. Syria has kept an alliance with Iran for the same reason: because without sharing borders and conflicting spheres of interest, Tehran and Damascus could mutually cooperate to counter-balance Turkey, Iraq and to discuss the Kurd problem. In addition relying on each other also meant becoming more independent from international superpowers like the US or Russia.

Syria is thus a nuisance because it interferes frequently with Western interests. Syria is not however a major threat since unlike Iran, it does not have the capability to project power (soft or hard) in the region and limits itself to acting in its adjacent periphery. It also does not have energetic resources that might influence the behavior of world markets – like Iran.

The West has therefore only one interest in Syria: to alter its foreign policy paradigm. The best way to do this is to break its alliance with Iran so as to make it more dependent on international superpowers and co-opt it into becoming more acquiescent regionally to Western concerns. An extra benefit would be to see Iran’s isolation grow and sufficient barriers to its adventure in Lebanon, be created.

Taking this into account, should the West intervene in Syria? The answer is ‘no’. Syria is not important enough for a financially vulnerable West to spend resources on, especially when Iran is much higher in the list of priorities. That said, why not make a small contribution to the subversion of the regime?

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – Mme Albright demanded of Slobodan Milošević nothing short of a perfect human rights record in Kosovo but no such demands were ever made of the UÇK

Here is where American and European foreign policy incurs in an error: Washington and Europe should only try and replace the old regime if there were sufficient guarantees the new regime would be loyal. At this point in time there are none since much of the rebellion is carried out by jihadists and much of Syria’s Sunni majority is by default anti-Western.

The subversion of Syria should serve the one and only purpose of forcing Bashar al-Assad to negotiate. It is not his regime which matters replacing but merely his foreign policy.

Yet the West will not negotiate and the reason is simple rhetorical entrapment. Assad and his regime have by now been so vilified that any political compromise with it would be politically damaging to all the Western leaders who helpless and unwilling to intervene, chose to attack with words instead.

The pattern is not new: during the Second World War, Hitler outsmarted the Franco-British strategy of setting Germany and Russia against each other by securing a non-aggression pact with the USSR and by attacking the West first. Instead of learning from Hitler’s example, the West refused to make a separate peace with the Reich and paid a heavy price for it: eastern Europe under Soviet orbit for the next 40 years. With Japan too, in spite of the fact that the militarist regime was not as ideological as Nazi Germany, no dialogue was opened and unconditional surrender was the only exit offered to Tokyo. The result was the resort to atomic weapons, the cost was a quarter of a million lives.

Since, the tendency has endured with Western demands for humanitarian and democratic principles to be upheld to impossibly high standards and resulting in military interventions by the West in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, which were ultimately counter-productive for its interests. The unwillingness to compromise is recurrently a consequence of populism and demagoguery in justifying military expenditure and intervention, to Western citizens. Instead of justifying them with pragmatic interests, politicians with a 4/8 year policy-making horizon, prefer to justify them manicheistically, making use of a Western fundamental rights and liberties narrative which confronted with violations of those rights automatically confers merit to action (“we have to do something”) and finally warrants intervention. This is nothing but short-termism and is now standard operating procedure in spite of some honourable exceptions such as President George H. W. Bush.

Gulf War

Gulf War

This tendency is a disservice to Western interests which often reaches the absurd of empowering adversaries of the West against Western allies.

It is a tendency also brought about by Western civilisational individualism, which sees the individual as the base of society (rather than family, clan or ethnicity), therefore requiring equal universal [individual] human rights which are reflected in foreign policy by an unreasonable demand for compliance with values endogenous only to the West.

A responsible and skillful politician would have negotiated a political solution to the conflict in Syria months ago. Populists in election year will stick to demands for unconditional surrender.

The West plays a dangerous game for not only does it force extreme outcomes – instead of middle of the road ones – but it also will be compelled to systematically trust the challengers of the regime: every regime has flaws in its ‘good society’ record – be these in democratic practices or humanitarian standards – whereas the challengers are by definition starting anew and are therefore as innocent as a newborn infant – a politically convenient tabula rasa…

Permalink 2 Comments