By D. J. Webb
I need to be careful writing about history on the Libertarian Alliance blog, where a number of experts blog on historical themes. But I will plunge in regardless. I regret having mislaid the edition of Living Marxism (LM) published in the 1990s in which Dr Frank Furedi spoke of the “unfreezing of history” after the end of the Cold War. LM is, of course, defunct, and most of its theoreticians and writers are represented on the Spiked Online website (spiked-line.com), where it can be seen that the group has adopted a strong libertarian stance on many issues, although their views do not coincide in every detail with a libertarian approach as I would recognize it. They play an important role in public debate in the UK, and we should welcome that.
The unfreezing of history theme of Dr Furedi suggested back then that the Cold War—the contest between capitalism and state socialism—had frozen international relations in aspic. In terms of domestic politics, there are many possible ramifications of this that could be brought out. The lines of domestic political debate appeared set around a left-right divide, the loss of which has considerably disoriented political parties throughout the West, resulting in the Blairite/Cameroon form of politics where both sides of the political debate have been able to jettison long-held political standpoints, hollowing out democracy in the process. Multiculturalism, the extreme enforcement of egalitarianism and the deepening reach of international bureaucracies into local politics of all Western nations could, arguably, be held to have prospered amid such disorientation. At the very least, during the Cold War, Western nations proclaimed their adherence to “freedom” as the defining characteristic that set them apart from the Eastern Bloc. Once the Iron Curtain came down, freedom seems to have been kicked aside by the new political elite. Of course, much of this was also predicated on the generational emergence of the baby boomers who had chafed under the older politics for some time.
However, in this article I would like to address international relations: the freezing of history in the Cold War meant that American leadership remained unquestioned by America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere. NATO and the EU were set up as Cold War institutions to buttress the alliance under US supremacy. American leadership was, of course, challenged by the Soviet Union, but the boundaries appeared stable, other than in parts of the Third World, such as Nicaragua, where superpower rivalry continued to be played out. Within Europe itself, the Cold War provided a predictable and stable format of international relations.
Marxist claims of the unfreezing of history appeared at one point to suggest that “imperialist” tendencies to war had been suppressed, and that international rivalry would begin to emerge once again, possibly leading to warfare in long-stable parts of the globe. Other than on the periphery, such as with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, however, the post-1989 era gave way to a phoney hegemony of the US, which appeared to artificially congeal international relations as they were immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with the US now the sole superpower and Russia gravely weakened.
Consequently, while NATO and the EU were Cold War institutions from the start, the end of the Cold War did not see either institution folded up. As the point was to maintain US leadership and keep the Western Alliance together—supposedly cemented by a joint geopolitical commitment to abstract notions such as “democracy”—NATO and the EU remained in situ and even considerably enlarged their geographical footprints. It would have been possible to take a magnanimous view and seek to integrate a reforming Russia politically, economically and culturally into the Western Alliance, and such a decision would have made sense given the rising profile of China and India, which showed that Western hegemony was a temporary phenomenon. However, what happened instead was that NATO continued to define itself against Russia, a country that was deliberately excluded from normal relations with the rest of Europe. Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe were quickly gathered up into NATO, contravening verbal assurances given at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would never be expanded eastwards, and then, later on, the Baltic states formerly part of the Soviet Union were incorporated in NATO too, giving a military alliance whose only rationale is to confront Russia a border on Russia not far from St. Petersburg, a city that had come under siege from Nazi Germany in the Second World War for a period of 872 days, during which at least 1.5m Soviet soldiers and civilians died, many of starvation.
Similarly, the EU expanded right up to the Soviet borders and beyond into the Baltic states. All of Russia’s former satellites and its former Baltic republics now enjoyed free trade and free movement of labour throughout Europe and considerable financial subsidies from the prosperous Western half of the continent. Such treatment was denied to European states further east. The prosperity of countries such as Poland and Estonia is a testament to the assistance received. It is scarcely believable, for example, that in 1990 the Ukraine had been one of the most prosperous republics of the USSR, noted for good educational facilities, agriculture and industry, and consequently expected to outperform Poland as an independent state, whereas by 2015 the Ukraine had recorded no net economic growth whatsoever (at least as far as the official figures accurately record matters), whereas Poland was now three times as rich.
The spitefulness and vindictiveness of the exclusion of Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia and Armenia from normal relations with the rest of the continent is clear. However, Russia’s oil wealth allowed that country to prosper, and pay off nearly all of its national debt. Comment on the performance of countries like the Ukraine and Belarus that have understandable conflicting loyalties based around their ethnic and cultural ties to Russia tends to blame their political and economic backwardness on Russian interference. However, it was never clear that NATO and the EU were prepared to take on any of those countries—even now, after the Ukrainian pro-EU Maidan protests and resultant coup d’état in 2014 the question remains unresolved—and to do so without incorporating Russia too would only serve to perpetuate the geopolitical division of the continent. The Iron Curtain is gone, but a cordon sanitaire leaves half of the continent out of the co-operative arrangements that exist further west.
The rise of the non-Western world
This is more or less where the international system stood in early 2014, before the Western-inspired fall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. The unfreezing of history that some predicted early in the 1990s has been slow in working itself through at the level of great power politics, although the impact on less central areas such as the former Yugoslavia is clearer. Most conflicts in the developing world have been affected by the end of the Cold War, which facilitated, for example, the dropping of Western objections to an ANC-led government in South Africa (previously seen as likely to have links with the Soviets). But at the top table of international affairs, it remained the case that the US was predominant, supported by European lapdogs. Germany was now united, but remained politically quiescent on the international stage as the absorption of East Germany worked through and as the country focused on the adoption of the euro, imposed, absurdly, as the French price for permitting the reunification of Germany. Similarly, Japan remained under the US penumbra, with both Japan and South Korea continuing to depend on the US for defence. (The US also remains obliged by law to assist Taiwanese defence in any war with Mainland China.) Russia remained a less happy member of the international order, as it felt it deserved a Great Power status it no longer fully justified. China was rapidly developing, but quiescent on the international stage too. The country appeared to have a chip on its shoulder, but, unlike Russia, could patiently bide its time, sure in the knowledge it would eventually displace the US as the beating heart of the global economy.
Despite the apparent superficial durability of US hegemony, the slow movement of the geopolitical tectonic plates has continued all the while. It seems like only yesterday that China was poor; now it is the second-largest economy in the world, flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and building its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Russia has emerged from the turbulence of the post-Soviet years, and the years before 2009 saw it develop rapidly, as did India and Brazil, leading to popularization of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) acronym to describe the challengers in the global economy. (This later became the BRICS, including South Africa, but a heavy dose of political correctness was required to place South Africa in the same league as the other BRICS nations.)
Meanwhile, the relative economic decline of the US has continued. In the immediate post-war period, the US economy is believed to have accounted for 50% or more of the global economy. Today the figure is just under 25%. As with all declining great powers, imperial overstretch has become increasingly evident. Not only could the US not win its wars of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan against foes that were decidedly inferior, or even utterly trivial, forces, compared with the US army—or, at any rate, could not win them decisively in a manner that saw those countries stabilized under pro-Western regimes, but the country is also saddled with a burdensome array of longstanding commitments including those to the defence of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan; the protection of international navigation rights in the South China Sea; the defence of Israel; and the mutual defence clauses that require all NATO members to come to each other’s aid. If the country could not win the war in Afghanistan, it seems absurd to believe that the US could fight simultaneous wars against Russia, China, North Korea and the Middle East, and yet that, theoretically, is what their web of international commitments implies.
Russia and the Middle East
This brings us to where we are now. The US president, Barack Obama, has sought to minimize new commitments, sitting out, for example, the Anglo-French intervention in (and destabilization of) Libya, and reluctant to respond to the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by the injection of hundreds of thousands of US boots on the ground. I don’t doubt that the US has the world’s best fighting machine, but in the context of the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, the huge sums (trillions) spent or wasted on unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caution against plunging headlong into new land wars.
Yet the neo-conservative obsession with intervention around the world continues. Maybe this reflects an awareness that this may be the last good chance of the US to reconfigure the world in its own image and install pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. The Arab Spring seemed to offer a chance to do this on the cheap. Part of the reason why the US deserves to suffer a fall from grace as international hegemon, however, is that the neo-con approach is informed by bad politics: the idea that every nation is equally amenable to democratization and that Syria and all the rest will become model democracies overnight if only a small amount of intervention is carried out.
For this reason, it seemed to me that Russian opposition to US meddling in Syria was a key reason for the US decision to provoke a pro-Western uprising in Kiev, by way of punishment or recompense. While NATO and the EU did not want to take on the Ukraine, the Ukrainian people were seen in this narrative as pawns in a Western game that could be irresponsibly encouraged to take actions that would destroy their relationship with neighbouring Russia. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had come to be seen in Washington as a problem. This illustrates clearly that imperial overstretch is at work: Putin is president of Russia, and there is little reason why anyone in Washington should have any preference as to who leads Russia or what type of country Russia is or becomes. A game of manipulation is being carried out in Eastern Europe (as in Syria and elsewhere) despite the fact that the US lacks the economic weight it once had in the world economy, and lacks both the financial ability and the political/cultural will to engage in major land wars at this juncture in history.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, in response to the US installation of a pro-Western government in Kiev, has protected Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, located in Sebastopol, whose presence in the Ukraine had been governed by leasing agreements with the independent government in Kiev. The Crimea is also entirely Russian-speaking and, by a large majority, ethnic Russian. Russia also has a long-term interest in ensuring that the Ukraine does not join NATO. As I have mentioned, there is no direct evidence that NATO will allow Ukrainian membership, although there are calls for this among some Western officials, and, either way, the Russians see the proposal as hostile to them. This explains the Russian interventions in Donetsk and Lugansk, although these interventions floundered somewhat, as local separatist fighters were not able to engage in warfare as efficiently as a trained army.
Yet the fall in global oil prices (possibly engineered by Saudi Arabia partly with an eye on torpedoing Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria) has thrown Russia into recession, and the Western powers have warned that further intervention in the Ukraine—clearly a country in the Russian sphere of influence—will see Russia cut off from the global financial system. With signs that Ukrainian reforms are running into domestic opposition, Russia appears ready to sit out the crisis in the Ukraine while it decides on its next move. Nevertheless, Russia has clearly been humiliated by the West in the Ukraine, and the inability to mount more effective military opposition to the Western installation of a handpicked government in Kiev is likely to rankle with Moscow. The issue is far from resolved.
Enter the Turks
The 25-year congelation of international affairs in Europe after 1990 appears to be over. Russia has been definitively alienated. The Ukraine has been brought into the pro-Western orbit, although it finds itself lacking real financial assistance now that it has lost more than 20% of its GDP. Against the background of humiliation in Kiev, Russia is seeking in its stepped-up intervention in Syria to prove its status as a major power in the world, one that is indispensable and that the West has to engage with. The Ukrainian débacle has not led Russia to abandon its support for the Syrian government and focus its attention purely on the Ukraine. Russia is able to point to Western pusillanimity against jihadis in Syria and the need for someone to do something to curb huge flows of migrants from Syria and elsewhere into Europe. In doing so, it will disprove the neo-con notion that Syria was ripe for democracy or that the removal of the Assad regime was a logical step forward for a deeply divided country.
One is struck by how history comes back to bite those who intervene where they have no national interests. The rise of al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups stems directly from the US decision to intervene in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where the Soviets had intervened in an attempt to stabilize a country that held the potential of exporting instability and extremism to the Muslim-majority Central Asian Soviet republics. The absurdity of funding Islamic extremists to prevent the stabilization of Afghanistan—merely because to do so would allow the Soviets to score a military victory in the country—was lost on the Western media. The Western-fostered creation of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan then paved the way for Muslim terrorism in the West once much larger inflows of immigrants began to be received from the 1990s onwards. The Trotskyist view that mass immigration from Muslim countries was to be welcomed in the name of internationalism and that population groups were all essentially interchangeable didn’t truly gain acceptance in the chancelleries of the West until after the fall of the Soviet Union. My reading is that the post-1989 disorientation of conservative politics in the West led to an early end to the promotion of patriotism in Western countries, allowing the Trotkyist neo-cons and cultural Marxists to score an easy victory. The result has been to create large communities of Muslims in all Western countries, posing a growing terrorist threat in core Western countries since the attack on the Twin Towers in the US in 2001.
To this day, Western forms of intervention in the Muslim world are based on absurd notions of cultural relativism, leaving Russia to do the donkey work in stabilizing the control over Syria of the Assad regime in the face of Islamic State and assorted “moderate” rebels who are known to include the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda. Russia, which has long had a small naval facility in Syria at Tartus, has suddenly built a new airbase for itself in Latakia, and plans to establish a second airbase in Homs. A country that had until recently chafed under, but accepted, US predominance in global affairs is thus now forging its own path in international affairs. The Islamic State bombings in Paris have caused a chink of reality to dawn in parts of the French establishment, with the result that the neo-con dream of removing the Syrian Assad government appears to have been forgotten. What we see instead is a degree of competition between Russia and the Western powers in their interventions against differing targets in Syria.
It should be pointed out that Russia does have a geopolitical interest in the survival of the Assad regime. This is because of its growing bases in Syria. For centuries, Russia has resented Turkish control of the Bosphorus: Turkey retains the ability to close off Russia’s Black Sea ports. Yet Russia now has a Mediterranean base beyond Turkish influence. Turkey’s own interest, not only in supporting ethnic Turks in Syria—against the Assad regime—but also in attempting to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state have seen Turkey go rogue in Syria too. While ostensibly combating the Islamic State, Turkey has chosen to bomb the Kurds instead. The very criticisms laid against the Putin government could all be laid against the Turks—Turkey is an increasingly authoritarian state under the rule of an Islamic party—and yet, for some reason, Turkey is in NATO, but not Russia. Rather than have a military alliance of the related European nations including Russia, the US has chosen to maintain an anti-Russian setup that includes the authoritarian, Islamic government of Turkey. It is unsurprising therefore that the Russian intervention in Syria has come up against Turkish resistance.
The Turkish shooting down of a Russian military jet over Syria amounts to an act of war, but one that the Russians, with their backs against the wall, have decided to take on the chin for now. However, the age-old Russian problem of how to deal with the Turks and their mastery of what was once Constantinople has become apparent once again. Russia, the Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are in the process of gelling into a wider test of US hegemony in a way that suggests the easy strutting on the world stage of the Americans is over. At the same time, the aggressive Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea—areas of the sea very far from China and closest to Vietnam, the Philippines and other South-east Asian nations—underlines military tensions in East Asia that could easily become more acute. Both China and Russia are advancing plans to use currencies other than the US dollar in a manner that could impair the US ability to financially penalize countries that jeopardize US interests.
The unfreezing process is accelerating
These developments all suggest that the US has been defying gravity in the quarter-century since 1989 and that beneath the surface the conditions have been being put in place for a clearer shift in international relations. Part of the problem in determining how this might play out is shown in the fact that the Russians have had to accept an act of war by a NATO member, Turkey, without a military response. This suggests that the challenger nations will weigh their actions carefully. Even so, the Chinese base in Djibouti and the Russian base in Latakia show that the period of unipolar globalism is over. Some things to look out for are the following:
- What will happen with German relations with the US? NATO’s existence reflects a configuration of global power relations that is gone. Attempts by the US to kickstart a new Cold War are suboptimal for the Germans, as seen in Angela Merkel’s challenge, behind closed doors, to US military statements claiming large movements of Russian war matériel into the Ukraine. Germany has its own secret service—which has produced reports of what is happening on the ground at variance with those given at NATO press conferences. Germany has no interest in allowing the US to talk up warfare on the European continent.
- The euro currency represented an attempt to hold the Western alliance together after the unification of Germany. However, the currency is so starkly at variance with economic logic that it seems likely to eventually break up. The legacy of bitterness between Germany and Southern Europe will bedevil international relations for some time to come: the currency has ended up impairing relations within the Western alliance.
- The absurd encouragement of an invasion of Europe by migrant hordes by Angela Merkel has further exposed intra-European divisions, confirming that the EU itself is a Cold War institution that has no reason to exist. The collapse of the institution will be delayed as long as possible. The only real reason for European co-operation is to prevent the overwhelming of Europe by other civilizations: this is why some kind of co-operation will continue after the EU itself is gone.
- Will failure to integrate Muslim minorities become an issue in relations between European countries? Attacks on the UK that appeared to have been planned in Paris, or attacks on Germany that appeared to have been planned in London or similar events could eventually lead to an annoyance with the pusillanimous policies of neighbouring countries.
- Will the eventual emergence of a non-European majority in America destroy the very basis of the Western alliance, which was that all the members of this alliance had a common racial and cultural origin? US anger at the UK for joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank illustrates the fact that alliances don’t last forever. US refusal to back the UK in the Falklands vis-à-vis Argentina is another case in point.
- Will terrorism and migrant flows lead European nations eventually to oppose the neo-con style of US intervention throughout the Middle East? Will the US be seen to have created this problem? Will Russia be seen to have followed a more rational policy by supporting the Assad regime?
- Will Turkey come to be seen as a problem in NATO, especially by the European members of NATO? Turkey is only willing to help stem migrant flows if it gets visa exemption for its citizens in Europe, a form of blackmail. Turkey is a less logical partner for Europe than Russia, and its shooting down of a Russian plane threatens to involve European nations in a war with Russia not of their choosing.
- Would a rise in oil prices embolden Russia to take more aggressive military action in the Ukraine and Syria, or even against Turkey? Will Russia seek to neutralize Turkey by encouraging a Kurdish rebellion in Turkey in a way that would dismember a country that will, objectively, always be a geopolitical rival of Russia as long as it holds the Bosphorus?
- A policy failure by the US in Syria in a way that brought instability closer to Israel’s door could lead the Israelis to become increasingly dissatisfied with the neo-con narrative. A more realistic view of the likelihood that Arab nations could adopt democracy overnight would seem to fit Israel’s interests better.
- Civil war in Saudi Arabia is a wild card: could the US be forced to intervene and then get bogged down? The impact on oil prices could work to Russia’s advantage. Buffoonish attempts to transplant democracy to the desert kingdom would only make the US position worse.
- When does America’s “Suez moment” take place? Just as the UK continued a muscular foreign policy until 1956 until the US informed them they could no longer do so, at some point the US will announce that it will bomb a certain developing country only to find that the Chinese are now strong enough to tell them that they will not do so.
- Will an eventual military clash between the US and Russia expose the “bluff” at the heart of NATO that claims that an attack on one is an attack on all? Would Portugal and Belgium really fight on behalf of a US intervention in the Black Sea region? It seems NATO could disappear as quickly as the Warsaw Pact.
- Will Japan come to doubt that the US would fight a major war with China on their behalf to uphold the mutual security pact? Surely an accommodation with China is well worth considering from Tokyo’s point of view.
- In the case of any US miscalculation that led to an unexpected war in East Asia over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the UK and European nations should be careful not to get involved and back the US losers.
Change is coming, and it appears to have begun to speed up over the past year or so, although exact forecasts are impossible to produce. We must not be wedded to past forms of international relations, but look to fundamental interests instead. For example, could a stripped-down form of the EU that allowed for free trade and easy migration of labour between European nations, including Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus, eventually come on the agenda as a more intelligent way of fostering European co-operation? Will European nations one day realize that if they need spare labour, the parts of the continent currently excluded from the EU are a better source of labour than Africa and the Middle East?
Finally, our interests as Europeans are to prevent domination of our continent by others. New predictions that the African population will verge on 4bn by the end of the century are a salutary warning of the problems of our current migration policies. European co-operation is therefore likely to remain a good idea, if it can be focused on keeping Europe European. If the US has gone Latino and opposes this, then that country can’t be an ally. Migrant flows, terrorism, African demographics—all indicate that European nations will be forced to realize that their current multicultural policies are deeply flawed. Will they realize in time to change course? It seems the end of US influence over European politics will be the key to a positive shift in the tenor of the debate in the UK and in Europe: the unfreezing of history gives grounds for hope that we can emerge from under the US shadow. Russia, the Ukraine, Syria, Turkey and the migrant invasion all point to a more exciting future ahead when a greater range of possibilities might come into view.
“If the US has gone Latino and opposes this”
It’s not the Mexicans who control the US, or are ever likely to do so. The US ruling class may well be hostile to UK interests, but not because they are or will ever be Latino. They will continue to be of primarily WASP & Jewish descent.
An interesting and very thoughtful article. I’ll just point out though (a minor thing) that the US support of Islamists in Afghanistan was part of a foolish Cold War plan of the 1970s to bring down the USSR by surrounding it with a “ring of fire” of crazy Muslims; which also included installing the Ayatollahs in Iran.