Saturday, November 29, 2014

History Strikes Back

MADRID – When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the victors were beyond complacent, for they were certain that their triumph had been inevitable all along. Many in the West assumed that liberal capitalism’s victory over totalitarian socialism would necessarily bring an end to wars and sanguinary revolutions. Today, two powerful leaders – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping – are demonstrating just how farfetched this view was.

The predominant Western view was exemplified in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which presumed that Western liberal democracy was the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. In other words, Christian eschatology was transformed into a secular historical postulate.

That transformation was not new. Hegel and Marx embraced it. In 1842, the historian Thomas Arnold stated, with typical Victorian complacency, that Queen Victoria’s reign contained “clear indications of the fullness of time.” All of these historical prophets – whether heralding the realization of the Absolute Idea or the dictatorship of the proletariat – proved to be miserably wrong.

Not long after the West’s Cold War victory, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the return of national tribalism, even in the heart of “post-historical” Europe, challenged the concept of “the end of history.” The Balkan wars of the 1990’s, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bloody Arab revolts, and the exposure of Western capitalism’s ethical and systemic flaws in the global economic crisis undercut the idea further.

But perhaps the most salient reminders that history is still very much alive come from China and Russia. After all, neither China’s one-party state-capitalist system nor Russia’s plutocratic political economy is particularly liberal, and neither country is especially averse to asserting its (self-identified) rights by military means.

For China, this means “defending” its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas with an increasingly assertive foreign policy, conspicuously backed by growing military muscle. This behavior is amplifying long-festering regional tensions, while fueling competition between China and the United States/Japan alliance – a situation that recalls the pre-World War I struggle for maritime dominance between the United Kingdom and Germany.

For its part, Russia has ruthlessly strived to recover its lost continental empire, be it through the brutal repression of Chechnya, the 2008 war in Georgia, or the current assault on Ukraine. In fact, Russia’s recent actions in Crimea share many disturbing features with Adolf Hitler’s 1938 seizure of Czechoslovakia’s German-speaking Sudetenland – an important catalyst of World War II.

The fact is that Putin’s actions are not just about Crimea, or even about Ukraine. Just as Hitler was driven by the desire to reverse the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, Putin is focused on reversing the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.”

Putin is thus challenging one of America’s greatest foreign-policy achievements: the end of the division of Europe and the establishment of free countries that could be drawn into the Western sphere of influence. And, unlike US President Barack Obama in Syria and Iran, Putin respects his own red lines: the former Soviet republics are not for the West to grab, and NATO will not be allowed to expand eastward.

Moreover, Putin has made ethnic nationalism a defining element of his foreign policy, using Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority to justify his adventure there. Likewise, ethnic nationalism drove Hitler’s assault on the European order: the Sudetenland was mostly German, and the Austrian Anschluss was aimed at merging the two vital parts of the German nation.

In his controversial 1961 study of WWII’s origins, the historian A.J.P. Taylor vindicated Hitler’s decision to take over the small successor states that were created at Versailles to check Germany’s power – a strategy by the victors that Taylor called “an open invitation for German expansionism.” The same could presumably be said today of Russia’s fatal attraction to the former Soviet republics.

Of course, no one wants a new European war. But Putin’s provocations and the legacy of Obama’s foreign-policy failures could spur him to cut his political losses by taking unexpected action. After all, Obama’s entire foreign-policy agenda – a nuclear deal with Iran, an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, reconciliation with estranged allies in the Middle East, and America’s strategic pivot toward Asia – now hinges on his capacity to tame Putin.

China’s role is complicating the situation further. By acquiescing in Russia’s actions in Crimea, Xi is joining Putin in challenging the world order that emerged from America’s Cold War victory. In doing so, China has allowed power calculations to outweigh its own long-held principles, particularly non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs – a change that its leaders would defend by asserting that the US has repeatedly demonstrated that power ultimately determines principles.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose East German upbringing should have given her especially acute insight into Putin’s authoritarian mindset – has described the Russian leader as detached from reality, guided by nineteenth-century Machtpolitik. But it is Europe that has been living in a fantasy: a “post-historical” world where military power does not matter, subsidies can tame nationalist forces, and leaders are law-abiding, well-mannered gentlemen and women.

Europeans truly believed that the Great Game between Russia and the West was settled in 1991. Putin’s message is that the last quarter-century was merely an intermission.

Read more from "The Great War Revisited"

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (9)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedsri ram

      And for some, history peaks with Narendra Modi coming to power in India. Some desi Fukuyamas ail sprout in India!!!

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      If Mr. Shlomo Ben-Ami rejects Francis Fukuyama's view in "The end of history and the last man", history may strike back. Fukuyama argues that the Cold War had led to "an end to history" and the triumph of liberal democracy. Mr. Ben-Ami on the other hand sees "China’s one-party state-capitalist system" and "Russia’s plutocratic political economy" as a threat to Western liberal democracy, because "neither country is especially averse to asserting its (self-identified) rights by military means".
      The end of the Cold War saw the rapid spread of democracy. In Europe the EU and Nato oversaw their eastward enlargement right to the Russian border. The new democracies managed to assert individual rights and market economy helped create jobs and lift millions out of poverty.
      Both China and Russia had emerged stronger economically after 1991. With growing self-assertiveness over the years, the two are embarking on a quest to challenge America's hegemony, which had played a crucial role in promoting idealism and creating a world order. They see international relations in terms of ideology instead of a pragmatic approach to solving problems together. Their flexing of "military muscle" annoys the neo-cons in Washington, who are advocates for tit-for-tat policies.
      Mr. Ben-Ami says, the Obama administration has already a full agenda - "a nuclear deal with Iran, an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, and a reconciliation with estranged allies in the Middle East", so the Ukraine crisis and China's "acquiescing in Russia’s actions in Crimea" has put more weight on its shoulders.
      It is true that many in Washington don't feel comfortable with a strong China. Not only has it an enormous stake in American's economy, it also believes that the US is no longer the only player in a power game and that the cards should be reshuffled. Its rise is also seen as a threat by countries, who are embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing. America's strategic pivot toward Asia is said to be Washington's response to its allies' plea for help.
      The US had in the past not taken Putin seriously. He was seen as an old-fashioned, cynical nationalist, who advanced Russia's interests . The West thought Putin's steps in the wrong direction were temporary. One remained silent and hoped that he would soon return to a more democratic pro-West path. Since he returned to power in 2012, he has enraged the international community with authoritarian rule and shown himself a revisionist.
      Mr. Ben-Ami claims it is not Putin, who, as Chancellor Angela Merkel described is "detached from reality", but "it is Europe that has been living in a fantasy", in which "military power does not matter". European countries have cut military spending, as many believed Europe were safe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Besides the economic crisis does not allow money flow into defence. Yet the Russia's invasion changes the view of those, who were former members of the Soviet Union. As long as Putin is in power, they fear his revanchism.

    3. CommentedYuriy Gorodnichenko

      Here's an interesting comparison of Hitler's and Putin's path

    4. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      I don't think that geopolitics were really forgotten. The forces of Offensive Realism as proposed by Mearsheimer did not ever relent.

      The US tried to expand their power by expanding NATO and by establishing new military bases, and Europe just went along, because it seemed comfy under the umbrella of the US Empire.

      Russia and China were simply to weak to have their say and expand their influence. Due to the results of the economic crisis in 2008, the West's economic clout has been shrinking, and Russia's and China's stars are back on the ascendance.

      The following decades the extent of power and geopolitical influence will be decided by these factors that I rank according to their importance:

      1. Military power.
      2. Access to (cheap) energy sources.
      3. Economic power.

      Russia is in a prime position because it has an abundance of the two most important factors.

      Europe, if it wishes to have any say at all over its own destiny, will be forced to invest more in its military forces and put some distance between itself and the US.

        CommentedDaryl stevens

        I am not sure I agree with your point on EU, only partially. Yes, it will have to re-invest in its Military, yes, at times there will be working at cross-purposes, nothing new here, yet the inevitable sharing of similar values and traditions, insofar as the advance of Man, drive countries, regardless of where they exist on the Globe in directions. If you have an overly territorial, strict sense of National interest, and pine for a past, while the present is dictated by the interests of a small group, who control the levers of a society, pushing backwards against trends driving the future, returning the society to a more ancient History, built on the back of chauvinism, and religious institutions led by former intelligence agents, as the black market and intelligence apparati, of a former regime, control aging sectors of an economy, whose importance, undeniable is heightened beyond reality from past strategic discourse and propaganda, and you want to emphasize those things that all agree with, to provide a bulwark against the flow of history, then, you might have a point.

        But, States, have, and will continue to use all strategems at their disposal, and these should be understood for what they are, rather than taken, on the back of their communicative intent, of professional communictionists, who hope to impact your beliefs, feelings and actions. A bare face of it al, the advancement of Man will continue, or elements that impede will need be limited, simply.

    5. CommentedDaryl stevens

      Jervis is one to read on this; the practices and strategies of states in a Unipolar system, to attempt to inhibit or cooperate with dominant powers.
      Great paranoia pervades topics; on the part of Territorialists and Cosmopolitan Idealists of all veins.
      Zelikow, on the unresolved Political philosophies that still compete and are unresolved; Revolutionary Socialism (giving Nazism and Totalitarian Socialism), Traditional Conservatism (Cultural Autocrats and Anocrats; hereditary transfer), and Liberalism in the middle surrounded by Social Democracy and National Conservatism. The middle is where most people reside, and wan t to reside, and they waste their time fighting each other, when the villains find rationalization within the confines of assumptions that mingle at the middle.

      So, a weak Russia, and a potentially unstable China, with a volatile South (Central) Asia, and the real meat of the future geopolitical landscape, while those around the center, from 19th century idealism, still argue over the form of Liberalism, whether we should push Embedded Liberalism or redistributibve MutliLateralism, as if deciding which color Unicorns need be, as hard real-Politick rationalists, act from weakness, impulsion and or calculated interest, in a world of great delusion.

      If this doesn't break the fairy tale, I am not sure what might. Other of the EU writers, who have addressed this topic, seem to be implying that Europe is finally emerging from the cocoon. Russia is making a longer term strategic mistake; not surprising considering the nature of what they are trying to salvage in the face of longer term difficulties, whose outcome, and movements by others, were just rationalzied by their own actions. Ahhhhh....someone might have just broken the snooze button on the alarm clock, it seems to have become worn out.

    6. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      LOL FINALLY!!! A usefull, compact, and objective analysis of the situation. I doubt however, that it is going to make any impression on the brainwashed "lets all join hands and sing kumbaia" eurocrat crowd.

    7. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree that we have been living in an "intermission", or perhaps more precisely in a dream.
      And not just on geo-political terms but in all levels and areas of human activity.
      The western society has assumed, and still assumes that they got rid of any negative human traits and they were truly building and promoting democracies and freedom in a benevolent and sustainable manner.
      But today the "emperor lost its clothes", we know that unfortunately real democracy and freedom does not work and cannot work until the "user" becomes capable of accepting its place in the interconnected and interdependent human system and works in a mutually complementing way instead of ruthlessly competing, and succeeding at the expense of others. Especially today when humanity evolved into a supra-national, global, integral system.
      Simply there are no "good guys out there", invasions are happening in many different, most of the time extremely refined, covert ways. Imperialism, expansion in order to gain extra resources, extra profit is driving everybody according to their opportunities and available forces.
      The biggest reason Russia is only moderately challenged regarding Crimea is that nobody has the moral standing to stand up against her.
      We have two options from here, we can either continue instinctively following the path we have been driven by our self-serving, egocentric human nature, most probably sleep-walking into some global conflict, even catastrophe, or for the first time in our history, being frightened by the possible negative consequences, we sit down around a global round table and start rising above instincts, rejection and hatred, building something mutually common in order to right the sinking global, integral ship and build a safer and sustainable future.