In several posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay (now considered a bit dated) on the “end of history” — Marx and Fukuyama, History Degree Zero, and The Zero Hour Thesis — which for Fukuyama means the end of titanic ideological struggles between existential enemies. Here is a definitive passage from Fukuyama’s essay:

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan — horrible as that would be for those countries — does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Do we see, anywhere in the world’s current events, any sign of a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede political liberalism (or has pretenses to supersede liberalism)? Given Fukuyama’s intellectual debt to Hegel, we might begin such an inquiry by looking at some of the conflicts in the world today to see if they betray any signs of any nascent ideological conflicts that may come to define the titanic struggles of the future. Let us consider some of the world’s trouble spots at this moment: Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.

After the hopes raised by the Arab Spring it is deeply disappointing to see the developments in Egypt, and even more deeply disappointing to see the supine reaction of the western liberal democracies (presumably those nation-states that carry aloft the torch of the liberal democracy that Fukuyama still sees as the unchanged political idea and ideal of our time), which have accepted without protest a de facto military dictatorship that has sentenced hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and declared that the only truly representative institution in the country would exist no more. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but the world looks on, once again preferring the elusive promise of short-term stability over the messy but sustainable democratic process. Thus the political context of the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring represent the same old, same old in geopolitics. Egypt is not yet even close to liberal democracy, so it is in no position to move beyond this to an innovative new ideology.

Syria is looking more and more like the Lebanese civil war, with multiple factions fighting over control of a nation-state while simultaneously fighting each other. Syrians are suffering, and the stagnation of the conflict suggests that the people of Syria will continue to suffer. No major power is willing to involve itself to bring about a decisive end to the conflict — Russia is not about to intervene on behalf of Assad, and the western powers are not about to intervene on behalf of the rebels — so the bloodletting will continue until some contingent and unpredictable event ends it, or until those doing the fighting get so sick of killing that they stop (as more or less happened in Lebanon). Syria seems mired in tribalism, so that, like Egypt, it is in no position to represent some novel ideological conflict.

In Egypt and Syria it is autocracy that is asserting itself, re-asserting itself, or attempting to re-assert itself. The Islamists make headlines through a mastery of the hyperreal event, but they have been markedly unsuccessful in bringing about any change. Even the recent displacement of governments by the Arab Spring has not resulted in any clear political victories for Islamists. We see instability, and the consequent attempt to impose stability and restore order; what we do not see is the emergence of an unambiguously Islamist regime, much less the restoration of the Caliphate, which is one of the key symbolic political events to which Islamists look forward. Indeed, Egypt represents the defeat even of moderate Islamists. There is no question that radical Islamic militancy views itself as a systematic idea of political and social justice that supersedes liberalism, but I think that even the advocates of radical Islam recognize that this is not a universal doctrine, and that if it is fit for any people, it is for those peoples who already fall under Islamic civilization.

What some are called the “resurgence of Russia” following the annexation of the Crimea and agitation in southern and Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia could easily be assimilated to a narrative to the “return of history” (which I previously discussed in The Historical Resonance of Ideas, Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, and Anniversary of a Massacre — too easily, as I see it. There is nothing particularly compelling about this narrative, and the “return of history” offers no systematic idea of political and social justice. Its only attraction is its facile familiarity and the ease with which the pundits evoke it.

Russia, which remains the overwhelming military power in Eurasia, is again re-negotiating its borders and its sphere of influence after a contraction of these following the end of the Cold War. This is nothing of great historical importance, however deleteriously it affects the lives of Ukrainians today. All of this is predictable, and should surprise no one. Even less than the situations in Egypt and Syria does the situation in Ukraine represent anything new from the geopolitical perspective. We could just as well assimilate these developments to the rise of autocracy in Russia, and this would be a little more accurate than talk of the “return of history,” except that Russia has rarely deviated from autocracy, so it would be deceptive to imply that Russian autocracy had lapsed and then been reborn under Putin. This patently is not the case.

None of these conflicts cause us to question or to reformulate the basic principles underlying our social order, yet there are developments of interest today for what they portend about the future. In my last post, The Finlandization of Germany, I mentioned what I called the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, as based on the devolution of warfare. During the Cold War, the devolution of warfare emerged as a strategy to avoid the possibility of wars crossing the nuclear threshold and triggering a massive nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. In the post-Cold War period the devolution of warfare has shifted to keep military depredations below the threshold of atrocity, thereby avoiding intervention by the international community.

I also mentioned the growth in efficacy of guerrilla forces. Both of these developments — devolution of state power below the threshold of atrocity and escalation upward to the threshold of atrocity by guerrilla groups — play a role in the three conflicts discussed above. That powerful states have sought to keep their depredations below the threshold of atrocity, while the most ambitious non-state actors have sought to precipitate hyperreal atrocities and therefore to claim the mantle previously reserved to nation-states, means that state power and asymmetrical warfare converge on a new symmetry defined by atrocity. Asymmetrical warfare converges on symmetry. Some have called this “symmetrizing,” although this term has meant the efforts by nation-states to copy the asymmetrical tactics of non-state actors, the better to counter their efficacy.

While much of this is of purely military significance — the attempt by disparate forces to engage each other on terms that each chooses, even while the other tries to force the other to engage on its terms — and so we can consider this merely the attempt to arrive at a balance of power between nation-state and non-state actors, it is of historical significance that the nearly all-powerful nation-state finds itself challenged by non-state actors, and challenged to the point that it is forced to respond.

Implicit in Fukuyama’s position that liberal democracy is the only systematic idea of political and social justice that survives following the collapse of communism is that that nation-state is the locus of liberal democracy. Beyond this implicit condition that liberal democracy be realized by nation-states, there is the historical fact that nation-states exist in a condition of anarchy vis-à-vis each other, i.e., the anarchical state system. Liberal democracy, then, is contingent upon nation-states embedded in an anarchical international system.

The challenge that asymmetrical non-state actors present to the nation-state they also present to both the liberal democracy realized by the nation-state and to the anarchical international system that is the condition the the contemporary nation-state that realizes liberal democracy. There is a sense, then, in which the ability of non-state actors acting asymmetrically and successfully challenging the nation-state that is a radical challenge to the locus of liberal democracy. However, this challenge does not rise to the level of constituting a systematic idea of political and social justice. At present, it is merely a threat. However, should we see this process continue, and the nation-state loses ground against non-state actors, those who sense the shift may endow this shift with meaning and value that it does not possess at present. At that time, a systematic idea of political and social justice may emerge, but it has not as of yet.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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27 August 2012


Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi addresses the XVI Summit of NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement)

Here is a little geopolitical riddle: in what way is NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) like NATO?

ANSWER: NAM and NATO were both products of the Cold War, and both are now relics of the Cold War that continue in existence out of institutional inertia.

I‘ve written several posts about NATO’s institutional drift since the end of the Cold War and the attempt to find a viable role for an entity constituted for the purpose of containing and confronting Soviet expansionism and adventurism during the Cold War (cf. NATO’s Gambit, inter alia). More particularly, NATO was to be the entity to direct the joint US and European response to the Warsaw Pact and the nightmare scenario of a massive conventional thrust into Western Europe. Fortunately, this scenario never occurred. I say “fortunately” because it would not have been the cakewalk for NATO forces that many assume in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact had numerical superiority in tanks and armored divisions, and as I wrote about in Revisiting Exercise Anatolian Eagle, Soviet MIGs demonstrated their efficacy against US fighters in dogfights over Viet Nam.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, many former Warsaw Pact nation-states are now members of NATO, and even the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved back the hands on its iconic doomsday clock to symbolically recognize the greatly decreased likelihood of a global nuclear war as a result of the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War divided the world into two hostile spheres of influence, one Soviet dominated, the other American dominated. In Europe, almost every nation-state was forced to take sides. Stalin set up pro-Soviet regimes throughout those regions occupied by Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War. Seeing what appeared to be the handwriting on the wall, Western European nation-states banded together under US leadership to prevent their own countries from falling under Soviet influence.

Outside Europe there was a little more latitude for policy vis-à-vis the Cold War dyad, but from a practical point of view almost every nation-state either took sides or leaned to one side or the other — often opportunistically. A sure way to get the attention of the superpowers was the declare yourself in the Cold War. Institutionally weak nation-states who received aid and support from one side were toppled by forces that were aided and supported by the other side.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded in Belgrade in 1961, partly in response to the sea-sawing of influence between the two superpowers. Particularly instrumental in the founding of NAM were Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia, all of them headed by powerful, charismatic, and ambitious leaders — Tito, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno — who wanted to stake out an independent course.

When it was founded during the Cold War, NAM meant something: it meant not being allied to either the US or the Soviet Union, and therefore not falling within either sphere of influence. This was a powerful idea at the time, as it represented not only a kind of power politics for ambitious third world leaders, but also a kind of ideal that implicitly (and often also explicitly) rejected the Cold War and MAD and the nuclear arms race.

With the end of the Cold War, what does NAM mean? It means as little as NATO. It is an institution without an agenda or a direction. NAM, like NATO, has entered a period of institutional drift.

Of course, the enthusiasts of NAM don’t see it like this at all, and they are no more willing to close up shop than the NATO generals who have dedicated their careers to that institution.

So how do you sell non-alignment after the Cold War? Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying, “Meddling of aliens in regional developments is not acceptable and run counter with democracy.” (Cf. Salehi: Regional nations never tolerate meddling of aliens) As Salehi frames this (and his remarks were variously quoted by several news organizations, e.g., NAM Summit Opens With Call To Resist ‘Egotistic Interference’), it is clearly an expression of what I have recently been calling the Principle of Autocracy: “…the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory.”

The Iranian Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported Ali Reza Mosaferi, apparently the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s representative on Kish Island (though I was unable to confirm this independently, but since he was quoted as an authority by IRNA they obviously know more about it than I do), saying NAM was about “non-alignment to the global imperialism” and “fighting monopolistic world and bullying powers’ unilateralism.” This is a slightly different spin than that of Ali-Akbar Salehi. The latter was concerned that non-aligned nation-states would not be the object of outside interference; Mosaferi seems concerned that non-aligned nation-states not be forced into a de facto global monopoly on power. Both of these criticisms of the contemporary international order have legs, and we can expect to see them time and again in the coming decades, but the fact that two officials gave very different theoretical justifications for the existence of NAM is a clear indication of post-Cold War institutional drift.

During the Cold War, no one would have hesitated to say that the mission of NATO was to oppose the Warsaw Pact, that the mission of the Warsaw Pact was to oppose NATO, and that the mission of NAM was to opt out of the Cold War to the extent possible. Now the idea of a NATO or a NAM mission is as clouded as the diverse motives of protesters carrying signs and chanting slogans in the streets of any major city.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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This map purports to show the spheres of influence of US cities, which just goes to show you that spheres of influence need not necessarily be conceived in terms of relations between nation-states.

In several posts I have attempted to understand autocratic regimes “from the inside,” as it were, seeking to grasp the reasoning of those who take a principled stance in the denial of freedom to entire peoples and populations. I gave one formulation of this in Modeling the Other, and offered a practical interpretation of this in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2012. Moreover, I suggested that these formulations of autocracy cannot be dismissed as being merely amoral, since there is even an utilitarian moral justification for this, as I described in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights.

The moral defense of autocratic governance is that autocratic institutions are necessary to secure the greatest good for the greatest number, which is an unambiguously utilitarian conception. While this would be laughable in relation to the Taliban, were it not for the miserable condition of the Afghan people — one could even argue that the Taliban while in power secured rather the greatest harm to the greatest number, constituting the pure inversion of a utilitarian morality — but this argument is deadly serious when it comes to the Chinese, who both preach and practise it. More importantly, the Chinese have their admirers even among Westerners. While I am quite certain that these Western admirers of Chinese utilitarianism would be loathe to surrender their own individuality to the good of the masses, they seem quite content to argue that the Chinese should accept the surrender of their individuality to the state. Some of the worst hypocrites in this respect even imply that such political models should be brought to Western countries, though, again, their own personal autonomy is not to be infringed, but it is fine to infringe the autonomy of others who they take to be much less important than themselves.

However, I am not interested in exposing the hypocrisy of China admirers — Tom Friedman is often cited as an admirer of the efficiency of Chinese autocracy, though for my money Robert Kaplan is the more dangerous China admirer, since he makes the moral case for autocratic utilitarianism — who are today the useful idiots of autocracy as others once played the role of serving as the useful idiots of communism. Rather, today I am interested in extrapolating the principle of autocracy, understood in its full moral, social, political, and diplomatic dimensions, which brings us to the consideration of a perennial feature of the politics of power: spheres of influence.

The central principle of autocracy is the inviolability of autocratic rule. In geographical terms, this means the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory, and, if the legitimacy of neighboring regimes is recognized, the inviolability of the neighboring regime’s territory. This was concisely expressed by Mullah Mohammed Omar such that, “The Islamic Emirate does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor allow others to interfere in its internal affairs.” The same idea has been repeatedly expressed by every nation-state that resists political “interference” in “internal” matters. The idea here is that the autocratic regime possesses absolute autonomy within its own territory, including the power of life and death over its citizens, and acknowledges a parallel autonomy to hold for other regimes in other territories.

Every nation-state recognizes a limited form of this principle, out of the pragmatic realities of power projection even if not out of an intrinsic respect for the boundaries of another nation-state, but there are implicit limitations upon this principle, and we have seen these limitations tested repeatedly since the Second World War and its aftermath up to the present day. When a regime’s depredations upon its own people reaches a level which is considered genocidal, even those who recognize a limited form of territorial inviolability will countenance a violation of territorial integrity in the interest of ending a genocidal campaign against a people internal to a given nation-state.

However, since there is no universally recognized application of the idea of genocide to actual historical circumstances, there is always disagreement about the threshold of intervention on humanitarian grounds. We can agree, after the fact, there there was a genocidal program in progress in Nazi-occupied Europe, and we can agree that the Khmer Rouge were engaged in a genocidal program in Cambodia, but beyond these paradigm cases there is little agreement, and therefore thresholds of intervention vary for different political entities.

The autocrat often must involve himself in moral contortions to excuse, explain, and justify his depredations upon neighbors, and this often takes the form of denying the legitimacy of neighboring regimes (putatively the objects of mutual respect and mutual non-interference), much as the advocate of slavery must deny the common humanity of those subject to enslavement even while celebrating the humanity of those other individuals who fall within the charmed circle of the free who are presumably beyond enslavement. Similarly, the autocrat who invades his neighbors denies that neighboring regimes constitute legitimate forms of power and therefore are exempt from his principled respect for other regimes’ internal affairs.

The Japanese Empire in 1942, also called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a Japanese sphere of influence established by Japanese power projection in the first half of the twentieth century.

While depredations upon neighboring regimes are precisely parallel to depredations upon one’s own population — the former is external while the latter is internal, so that these actions represent the external expression and power and the internal expression of power, respectively — the principle of autocracy as defined by power’s own inviolability is an infinitely flexible pretext for action characterized as an attempt to defend this inviolability. We know that one of the most common rhetorical tropes of autocracy is to blame internal dissent on agents provocateurs under the control of external actors; this immediately de-legitimizes dissent as not being an authentic expression of internally subject peoples and therefore constitutes a violation of the autocrat’s autonomy. Exactly this pretext is then naturally extended to the external powers claimed to be underwriting internal dissent. There is no quarter of the globe that lies beyond the reach of an autocrat convinced that he is being “attacked.”

The 70° east longitude general demarcation line proposed in January 1942, which split Eurasia and might have defined the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s westernmost limits. (text from Wikipedia)

The supposed inviolability of internal state security thus is not limited to internal security, but naturally is projected outward and externally. An autocrat, once having consolidated an internal security regime, immediately perceives the possibility of danger from abroad, and so seeks to extend this internal power as far as possible beyond his borders. The ability to project power with impunity beyond the geographical territory defined by state boundaries is a sphere of influence (in the geopolitical sense). Autocratic regimes of expanding influence eventually collide on the far boundaries of their spheres of influence.

The Tordesillas meridian in the Atlantic and its anti-meridian in the Pacific, dividing the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence.

History is rich in examples of powers mutually dividing the world between their respective spheres of influence. The Spanish and Portuguese division of the New World along the Tordesillas Meridian meant that European discoveries in the Western hemisphere would be divided between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. This division continues to the present day, although the English did not recognize the legitimacy of the Papal decree on spheres of influence in the New World and consequently created their own sphere of influence by fiat through the establishment of colonies.

Division of Africa among European colonial powers.

The European colonial divisions of Africa and Asia are now notoriously cited as examples of spheres of political influence and domination, and indeed the very idea of a “sphere of influence” carries with it a certain taint of colonialism, but since the political world cannot really get past the idea of a sphere of influence, it persists, even if it is called by other names and practised most grievously by those who have been the loudest in their condemnation of colonialism.

France once had a significant sphere of influence in the Americas.

Spheres of influence can be carefully for formally defined, as in the British, US, French, and Soviet occupation areas of Berlin following the Second World War. Berlin proved to be a microcosm of Cold War spheres of influence, which were not nearly so well defined, due to shifting alliances and the ideological opportunism of potential client states. As the Cold War developed and its paradigmatic divisions emerged across the planet, the reality of spheres of influence were felt in every aspect of life. The Cold War was a Total War the transformed the lives of all peoples inducted into the struggle; the global division between US and Soviet spheres of influence defined the boundaries of the Cold War.

Berlin and the whole of occupied Germany were divided between Soviet, US, British, and French spheres of influence at the end of the Second World War.

There is a fundamental asymmetry between autocracies and non-autocratic regimes, and that asymmetry is that non-autocratic regimes recognize some form of popular sovereignty and have some form of democratic institutions, which limit the depredations of a regime upon its own people, whereas the autocratic regimes of the world have no such limitations upon their depredations. Thus the “internal” affairs of a non-autocratic regime are not likely to involve mass atrocities, whereas autocratic regimes may pragmatically choose to limit their depredations, but there is no restraint in principle on an autocratic regime’s depredations. And while autocracy begins its justifications at home, in terms of its internal security, we have seen that this internal security regime cannot in fact be limited within the borders of an autocratic nation-states. Therefore there is in principle no limitation on the depredations of a autocratic regime either upon its own people or upon neighboring regimes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Modeling the Other

17 July 2012


There is a well known passage from Henri Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics where he explains what it is that he means by “intuition,” which is a term Bergson invoked often:

“By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.

Perhaps this is not very helpful, but it occurred to me in thinking about the difficulty of understanding other people. Bergson formulated his account of intuition in a purely general way, in terms of placing oneself in an object. It may seem odd to think of placing oneself in an object that is not a person, but I think that Bergson intended to capture this level of generality.

There is a sense in which it would be much easier to attain this Bergsonian intellectual sympathy with a person than with an object that is not a person, give that we have the human condition in common with another person. But there is another sense in which it can be enormously difficult to attain intellectual sympathy with a person, because we know that there are persons with whom we disagree so profoundly that it might be easier to attain intellectual sympathy for a starfish that for a reprehensible individual. Nevertheless, we must make the effort.

There is no more important task in understanding how the world works than arriving at a sympathetic understanding of the perspective of the Other, even, if not especially, when the Other is one that one finds reprehensible. I feel that in several recent posts I have made substantial progress toward understanding political systems and their advocates that are fundamentally at odds with my own views.

Yesterday in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights I outlined a utilitarian conception of human rights that could be said to privilege the rights and needs of groups over the rights and needs of individuals.

A few days prior to that in The Fallacy of State-like Expectations I outlined a conception of international law that contrasted the primarily Western conception of an anarchical international state system with the rule of law observed internally within a nation-state to a conception of international order that privileges the actions of nation-states within their own borders as long as these nation-states do not interfere with other nation-states.

Before that, in commenting on an article in the Financial Times, Syria savagery suggests regime in despair at loss of control, I quoted this interesting characterization of a “social contract” that the author thought provided the basis of Syria’s stability:

“…the coerced social compact underpinning Syria’s security state is in tatters. The old deal was that the regime denied its citizens freedom and, in exchange, stamped tolerance on Syria’s religious mosaic. It offered real if stifling stability, and shared enough of the economic pie to keep the Sunni middle classes inside the status quo.”

I think that if these formulations are taken together they come close to understanding the internal self-justification of reprehensible regimes around the world. This is a problem that I have been pondering and writing about for some time. Early in the history of this blog, in Anniversary of a Massacre, I discussed how in Robert Kagan’s book The Return of History, Kagan suggested that one of the global conflicts that will characterize the future will be that between democracy and autocracy.

I argued in that and other posts that autocracy was simply an excuse for an elite to pillage its people, but now I see that it might be possible to formulate an account of autocracy that understands such a political force as a truly political and even a moral force. This is certainly an advance and an improvement of my understanding of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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