Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The view from over here - 1

The lunchtime meeting today had been organized by the Henry Jackson Society, the Left's particular bugbear, in the House of Commons (luckily in one of the committee rooms where the acoustics were good and the mikes worked). The guest was the eminent academic and commentator, Professor Walter Russell Mead and his topic was an obvious riff on a once highly influential book by Professor Francis Fukuyama: The Crisis in Europe: the Return of History and what to do about it.

As one would expect, Professor Mead gave a very cogent and exhilarating analysis of the many problems the world is facing today but, as a journalist from Die Welt pointed out, we have all heard a great many depressing talks and read a great many even more depressing articles of that kind recently. What did Professor Mead think were some of the answers?

Professor Mead's main solution was (and, to be fair, we were coming to the end of the session but, to be equally fair, that was supposed to be part of the presentation) that the US should restore its interest in Europe and re-engage in a dialogue with its European partners. Or, in other words, as he said the Lone Ranger, having ridden away, should now return (no word of how Tonto might feel about  that).

The European Union, Professor Mead explained, was American foreign policy's greatest accomplishment; it had been one of the aims of the Marshall Plan (some stretching of history here), had been supported diplomatically and politically throughout its history but has, to some extent been left to its own devices in the last few years. The US underestimated the difficulties European weakness and lack of cohesion will cause to it. Having, as it thought, defeated the bad guys (twice, presumably), knocked all the European heads together, the US announced that it will do what the European had always said they wanted and that is leave them all alone. Apparently, that is not what the Europeans wanted deep down and it is time to recognize this fact.

We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.

Well, that's fine, except that it would appear that it is never going to be over, over here. We saw that when Yugoslavia disintegrated into a series of wars in the nineties, the EU though the egregious Jacques Poos announced that "this was Europe's hour" only to plead with the Americans to come back and sort the mess out after all. It seems that they will have to come back again in the sense of taking greater interest in this pesky little continent and its pesky problems.

Is that really the answer? Obviously, as an Atlanticist and an Anglospherist I want to see a continuation of the existing links between certain European countries and the United States, adding Canada, Australia and New Zealand into that network. But would a greater involvement by the US in the EU's problems really help anyone? Somehow, I doubt it.

Let us go back to the beginning of Professor Mead's talk. We are, he said, facing the greatest geopolitical crisis since the 1960s with President Putin's Russia displaying the most obvious signs of naked aggression since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (Whatever happened to Afghanistan in 1979 and, more recently, Georgia?)

Facing this growing aggressiveness we have a West that is in some disarray, both politically and economically; in fact, in most disarray since the 1930s.

I have a problem with these shock-horror announcements because they seem to be so wobbly in their evidence. Are we facing the greatest crisis since the thirties or the sixties? Is this the biggest geopolitical upheaval since 1918, 1945, 1989 or last year?

Not long ago Legatum Institute tweeted a link to a discussion by various global thinkers, put together by Foreign Policy whose premiss was that "the world as we know it fell apart in 2014". This was said on a number of occasions at the Institute's events by no less a person as Anne Applebaum Director of Transitions Forum and author, among other books, of an excellent history of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war period. She has also written about the Gulag. It seems to me that compared to what she described in those books makes the events of 2014 rather small potatoes.

As the presentation went on, Professor Mead narrowed down the time scale and focused on three countries that are unhappy with the world order that was established in 1989 - 91, that is after the fall of the Soviet Union, and are ready to challenge it. So we are really talking about a possible world order that is twenty-five years old. Could it be that there was no world order established in those years but that events were the beginning of the break-up of the post-Second World War order and that break-up is still going on? That is one explanation of events.

The three countries that are challenging the world order, according to Professor Mead, are China, Iran and Russia. Of these China is the most powerful and capable with the greatest long-term potential. It is, however, already interdependent with the existing world order and benefits from it greatly; therefore, its challenge is unlikely to be a particularly destructive one. There are issues on which it feels aggrieved but, on the whole, it has had less effect on the surrounding area than the other two countries.

When challenged on this subject during the discussion by a somewhat long-winded China expert, Professor Mead, defended himself robustly. China, he reiterated, has not made any real changes in the geopolitical structures close to her, partly because she faces stronger countries than Iran and Russia and partly because its leadership miscalculated in  2008 - 9: the US had not been weakened quite as much as they thought and the sudden aggressive reaction alarmed various countries like Japan who now have a far more active foreign and defence policy.

To the point that China was now the second largest economy (that keeps changing and it is never clear to me how these things are defined) Professor Mead replied that the connection between GDP and world influence is not all that straightforward, pointing to the fact that in the mid-nineteenth century France's GDP was greater than Britain's but that did not lead to French domination of the world.

Moving on to Iran, the picture is a little odd. That country has the least long-term potential of the three yet it is the one that has made the greatest changes, in its favour, in the area that immediately surrounds it. When one looks at the situation in Iraq and Syria one cannot argue with that. Turkey, Iran's rival for influence in the Middle East, has retreated. But Hezbollah is, as far as one can tell, not as strong or powerful as it used to be. For all of that, Iran has done well and that is without going into the convoluted negotiations it has been conducting for decades about its nuclear power.

To a great extent the reason is the basic weakness and unsustainable structure of its immediate neighbours (Israel being the one exception but they are satisfied with keeping a watching brief for the time being), made worse by the events of the so-called Arab Spring.

Does this affect the rest of the world? Well, not so that you'd notice at present though that may change if Iran really does develop a nuclear bomb.

That brings us to Russia, which is, according to Professor Mead betwixt and between those two. It ought to be very powerful, in possession of a nuclear arsenal (whose efficacy is not altogether clear) and in possession of a vast reserve of oil and gas. But unlike China, Russia has not been able to use these advantages to strengthen its economic base even if we ignore the various rumours and news items that indicate a greater weakness in the former than has been assumed.

Russia is alienated from the existing world order in a more fundamental way than China and that is despite the enormous efforts made after the collapse of the Soviet Union to integrate the country into that world order: G7 turned into G8, membership of G20, various agreements with NATO, membership of WTO and so on. For reasons that were obviously beyond the scope of the talk Russia has not managed to take advantage of any of it and has returned to her historic distrust of the West.

When one adds to that the obvious fact that most of the countries that border on Russia have weak governments, chaotic economic policies and, for the most party, dysfunctional structures, one can see that Russia is in a better position than China to make geopolitical changes as well as being more willing to do so.

Of course, one needs to add a few points. Russian interference in those countries has contributed to those weaknesses as well as to Russia's own stagnation. Furthermore, not all countries fall to her machinations. The Baltic States are managing reasonably well for the time being and even Georgia has recovered from the last war sufficiently well to look to the West again.

[This is becoming rather a long blog. So, I shall stop here and write up Professor Mead's comments about the European Union in a separate posting.]


  1. Helen I have to disagree that Iran has not affected the rest of the World. I've noticed that every time I go to the airport I have to queue to be humiliatingly searched, and if I point out the futility of searching the people who are least likely to be the enemy, just to not be seen discriminating against a minority I'm liable to be arrested for my pains. OK that's not all the doing of Iran, but as a fermentor of trouble in the Middle East it's at least partly due to them.

  2. That has been going on for considerably longer than Iran's serious involvement in geopolitics.