So where isn’t NATO when you really don’t need it?

Hard as it may be to remember now, there was a time twenty-five years ago when the future of NATO looked like being short and undistinguished. The end of the Cold War took NATO completely by surprise, and the organisation and its members were in a state of frozen disbelief for quite a while. I remember being in NATO headquarters in January 1990: half of the offices were empty, as though the bureaucrats had run away to hide somewhere, and there was an almost tangible atmosphere of depression and shock throughout the building.

Of course, NATO did not die then, because its continuation served the interests of too many different states and lobbies. Although nations had claimed throughout the Cold War that the only reason for NATO’s existence was the Soviet Threat, and that this was why millions of young men were conscripted every year, and hundreds billions of dollars spent on defence, there was always much more to it than that.

An incomplete list of reasons why states really supported NATO would include the following. For the United States, the chance to have a decisive voice in European security issues without being militarily committed to the defence of the continent. For Britain, the chance to exert influence over the United States, and to play a role through NATO that it could not have played otherwise. For Germany, a ticket back to international military respectability. For France, the hope of not being left alone as in 1940. For many smaller countries, on the other hand, NATO was a useful counterweight to the developing Franco- German axis that threatened to dominate Europe. For Belgium, it was another international organisation to add to the collection. For just about every European state it was a way of keeping Germany under control, as well as providing assurance of international help if some of the continent’s large and powerful Communist parties looked like coming to power.

Whilst these factors were well understood, for obvious reasons they were seldom talked about in public So after the confusing first few years, it was necessary for NATO and its member states to come up with at least a formal new justification for its existence. Unfortunately, NATO was set up as a wartime military alliance, even if few people believed after the mid-1950s but it would ever actually fight a war. An essentially military organisation, organised along the paralysingly bureaucratic lines of the American military, was always going to find it hard to do other things successfully. Efforts at defence reform in Eastern Europe were best a modest success. Other attempts to extend NATO’s mandate into softer security areas (most recently Afghanistan) were in general a failure. When NATO actually came to conduct military operations, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, it turned out not to be very good at them. So if it couldn’t do war, and it couldn’t do peace, what could it do?

The answer, or at least an answer, turned out to be enlargement. Indeed, for most of the twenty years that followed the Cold War, NATO was primarily occupied with getting bigger. In spite of what is sometimes alleged, this was never a deliberate long-term plan. The assurances that the Americans gave the Russians in 1990 that NATO would not expand towards the East were probably at least partly genuine at the time. Certainly, many European capitals were very worried about the possibility of uncontrolled expansion of a military alliance which one day would find itself on the borders of Russia. But what else was NATO to do? It was like a bike: either it goes forward, or it falls over. And the potential problem of German tanks on the Russian border was one that future generations of politicians and generals could be left to solve.

Well, we are there now. In a sense, also, we are back where we were in 1990, except that all the pieces are considerably further east. Unable to expand any further, and with most of its members decidedly unenthusiastic about declaring war on any more Arab states, NATO is effectively forced into a posture of military confrontation to justify its existence. As it has been from the beginning, NATO is desperately casting around for a role, and allowing itself to be driven by events in the direction of anything that looks promising.

Over the last generation, American governments have been more or less enthusiastic about NATO depending on their complexion. Some Republican administrations have been decidedly lukewarm, but in the end have always come round, prodded by the foreign policy establishment. But, whilst it’s too soon to draw conclusions, it’s quite possible that one of the effects of Trump’s election victory will be to finally begin the process of burying NATO. The neoconservative hawks who have dominated American foreign policy for so long do appear to have been strangled, or at least put in cages, and the policy of confrontation for its own sake seems to be over now, for which we can all be thankful. NATO, which has been in an existential crisis for more than 25 years, is perhaps about to be put out of its misery.

The difficulty is that we have become used to the rhetoric of “defence” and of Europeans “taking responsibility” and “paying their share”. This rhetoric is the biggest single obstacle to actually seeing and dealing with European security problems as they really are, which have little to do with NATO, except inasmuch as it is a large part of many of the problems. For a long time, we had Cold War nostalgia by people who missed the certainty that the Cold War provided. We now have Cold War nostalgia by people who missed it in the first place because they were too young. Wars have been fought for many bizarre and improbable reasons in history, and we may have escaped, through Clinton’s defeat, the first war ever to have been fought out of nostalgia and the desire to escape an existential crisis. .

Watch out: liberal democracy

A bit like a second-rate cover-band performing a version of an old  hit single, it was common not so long ago for your average bog-standard pundit to construct an entire presentation or article from the following couple of verses:

End of the Cold War, triumph of liberal democracy, that American guy with a Japanese name, Kantian Universal peace

Chorus, Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Return of nationalism, conflict everywhere, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Islamic extremism, ISIS, guys whose name we can’t pronounce. 

Chorus: Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Well, this isn’t entirely false (at least the second verse isn’t) although if you ever sang the first verse, you were an idiot. But of course it had everything to do with us, or at least those who claimed to act in our name. They encouraged nationalism and religious extremism as weapons against Communism and secular populist regimes in the Arab world, they cheered the fracturing of Yugoslavia, they made friends with anyone who claimed to dislike Putin. Oh, and they rotted up the international economic system with floating currencies, wildly gyrating raw material prices and abolition of trade “barriers”, all complemented by Structural Adjustment Programmes enforced by the IMF, which is the kind of organisation you would get if the Waffen SS had ever set up a satirical comedy troupe.

But the thing that always amazed me about these people was their failure to understand that conflict was not a bug, it was a feature. It’s not that liberal democracy was tried but unfortunately was sabotaged by malevolent foreigners. It’s that attempts to impose “liberal democracy” (as we called it, anyway) were more or less a guarantee of conflict. And not just conflict between others, caused by our own heavy-handed blundering either. What, after all, are the most violent and destructive wars of the last generation? Iraq (twice, plus the bombing throughout the 90s) Afghanistan, Libya….. In other words, wars launched by us. This is not a coincidence or an accident.

“Liberal democracy” (let’s keep the quotes) is normative ideology, and so must be adopted everywhere. It’s values are “universal” so they have to be applied everywhere, or they are not universal. Which makes it very uncomfortable if you don’t share these values, or don’t adopt them quickly enough. There’s a good argument, in fact, that liberal democracy is inherently aggressive, inherently violent, intolerant and hateful, and cannot abide difference. If you see it coming you should get out of the way. It doesn’t matter whether its ideas are attractive, or even sensible, but if a normative ideology is held by a bunch of rich and powerful states, determined to impose it on others, conflict is pretty much inevitable, and you are likely to come of worse.

I’ve noticed fewer cover versions of the song recently. maybe that’s not a coincidence.





Islamic State: Nobody Likes Us, We Don’t Care

Small groups fighting national governments have sought foreign support and assistance for as long as such groups have existed. Except for the Islamic State, however, which stubbornly refuses to adhere to any stereotype, and has sown disbelief and panic in the West by refusing to do so.

The first main stereotype it spits on, is that of gallant rebels battling huge odds in pursuit of freedom. From Balkan countries throwing off Ottoman tyranny, to Gallant Little Belgium in 1914, and Gallant Not So Little Poland in 1939, this worked very well for nation states. It continues to pay dividends, but now also for anti-government movements as well. The opposition in Libya, and the “moderate” Syrian rebels both played this card to perfection, and were rewarded with guns, money and political patronage.

The second main stereotype it sneers at, is the cultivated appearance of weakness and defenselessness, aimed more at public opinion and a credulous media, in an attempt to pressure governments into military action. This was successfully trialled by the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s, and has been successful in a number of later cases (such as Kosovo in 1999) in getting the West to do the fighting for the group concerned.

But the Islamic State refuses to abide by either of these stereotypes; It is anti-western, but has not sought help from other Arab states, or even Russia or China. It is fighting a government which the western world says is despicable and barbarous, but it doesn’t ask for an alliance, or even help. It makes tactical alliances and seems to be buying weapons, and its military wing is led by ex-Baathist officers, but in the last analysis, it doesn’t care what any other nation thinks. That’s what we can’t get our head around. OK, we say, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Why should we care what you think? replies the Islamic State. The idea that there is an armed group, even a small one, in a strategic part of the world that does not define itself by what the West thinks of it, is too horrible for us to contemplate. And when the Islamic State appeals directly to our own populations and they go in their thousands, we feel helpless and lost, not to mention homicidally angry.

When I was a child there was a struggling local football team, Millwall FC, whose supporters were unpopular even with other supporters, which gives you an idea what they were like. But their slogan was “nobody likes us, we don’t care”. The Islamic State might well say the same. Nobody likes them. They don’t care.


America: Wanted, a weak president

One of the most tiresome journalistic tics of the modern era is the incessant, automatic characterization of the President of the United States as “the most powerful individual in the western world”, or, these days, perhaps, the world. It’s true that there’s a very small group of people who could bring human life on this planet to an end, if they chose, and the President of the US is one of them, and has the largest nuclear arsenal.

But power means more than that, and power, we find on examination, is actually rather difficult to use effectively. The US has, certainly, been able to impose its will on other countries at certain times. It forced Japan to deregulate its financial sector in the 1990s, for example (and so ultimately destroy the economy) but the financial lobby behind this initiative didn’t actually benefit from it as much as the Japanese did. Beyond that, the US isn’t actually that good at getting other nations to do what it wants except at the rhetorical level.

Which brings us, logically enough, to violence. And here’s an odd thing. For a country which has suffered a string of defeats in modern times, the US retains an almost childlike faith in the utility of force and violence to achieve political ends. Every American President seems morally obliged to destroy at least one country during his tenure, often in the professed belief that it will be somehow born again, but better and more virtuous.

What’s the reason for this trail of disasters? Are American diplomats incompetent? No, I’ve met some highly competent ones. Are American policy ideas always wrong? Not necessarily, or at least no wronger than those of most other nations. The reality is that the foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington (in which the State Department is only one player, incidentally) is so huge, and luxuriant, so complex and divided, that managing it dwarfs everything else, including the problems it thinks it is trying to solve. As a result, a foreign policy issue of any importance in Washington simply becomes an aspect of the endless, violent, pointless turf-wars which characterise that unhappy and dysfunctional city, irrespective of the reality on the ground in countries that hardly any of the players know anything about. Back in the 1990s, for example, when I was involved with Bosnia, getting the warring factions in that country to agree to something was actually rather easier that getting the warring factions in Washington to agree to anything at all. As a result, and harsh as it may sound, there are few problems in this world which would not be easier to solve if the US were not involved. That country’s presence twists and distorts all problems into aspects of US domestic policy, which is the last thing that’s needed.

Ideally, the next American President would be a thoughtful individual who would recognize that his (or her) country faces terrible economic and social problems, and that those problems need tackling before the US even thinks of engaging with the rest of the world. That won’t happen, of course, so the best alternative is probably a weak, indecisive  President who won’t do too much damage, won’t start too many wars and won’t destroy too many countries. We can live in hope.

Iraq: What comes after farce?

Any pundit writing about Iraq these days who is lost for an introductory paragraph, will  sooner or later, fall back Marx’s rewriting of Hegel’s famous formula, and remind us that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce.

There’s some truth in that, at least as applied to the current mess (others would use a stronger word) in Iraq and Syria since the latest round of dropping bombs on people began, a few days ago. But haven’t we gone rather beyond farce now? Haven’t we entered a new stage, where the posturings of western leaders have taken on a grotesque, surreal, hallucinatory quality, utterly independent of any reality? We could, I suppose, follow Ionesco, who described one of his plays as a “tragic farce”; certainly the reality will be tragic enough for those Iraqis and Syrians we blow to pieces, burn to death, and drive from their homes.

But in many ways the literary mode that best suits the current political chaos is that of post-modernism. Politicians no longer take action; they play at taking action. Commentators no longer comment; they ironically reference other writers or past events, themselves sometimes invented. It’s hard to read Mr Cameron’s speeches (at all, but let that pass) without seeing a man who is playing an actor, playing Tony Blair playing Margaret Thatcher playing an actor playing Winston Churchill. Likewise, Barack Obama’s decision to start bombing Iraq again is best understood as an ironic, knowing, commentary on the lethal actions of his predecessors, and perhaps an attempt to top even Bill Clinton’s tortured and incomprehensible rationale for bombing Kosovo in 1999 (that turned out well, didn’t it?)

One reason for this post-modernist approach is that the politicians realise that events are out of any control they once might have had, and that they have stumbled into a mess of their own making, which they do not understand, and from which there is no obvious exit. Thus, Cameron, Obama, Fabius and Co can only mumble incoherently about how because we have been hurting people for a very long time, they might now hurt us back, which means we have to hurt them even more. The political posturing now has now completely parted  company with the actual reality on the ground, and become an alternative reality, an intellectual video game in which any number can play. Listening to the solemn debates taking place in Britain, for example, you might think something really large-scale and serious was afoot, instead of the despatch of half a dozen elderly Tornados to drop bombs on the houses of people who are sympathetic to the Islamic State.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on our leaders, who are, after all, trapped in a process which they don’t control and can scarcely influence except for the worse. Deep down, I think most of them understand that their actions, insofar as they have any effect at all, will simply make the coming conflagration in the Middle East even more destructive than it might otherwise have been. They understand that weakening the IS means strengthening the Shia and the Kurds, and that we will have to defend and justify the atrocities sure to be committed by their own militias. They understand that the radical Islamic republicanism of the IS is attractive to people living under corrupt and brutal absolute monarchies. They understand that the West is likely to find itself in an alliance of convenience before long with Iran and Hezbollah. They (rightly) fear that we are on the brink of a political and religious conflict in the region which will resemble the Thirty Years War in Europe.

But the vocabulary and the concepts needed to discuss these issues sensibly don’t exist, or aren’t commonly accepted if they do. So we continue to discuss the new as though it were the old. Once, we could bend reality in the Middle East to our wishes. Now, that may no longer be the case.

Lawrence of Arabia, your time is up

For the last century or more, the dominant image of the Arab peoples in the West has been been of weak, almost effeminate natural victims. Not the victims in the sense of people you protect, of course, but rather the traditional playground victim whom everybody terrorizes in the sure knowledge that he can never hit them back. Indeed it’s a settled norm of Western policy towards the Middle East that Arabs can’t actually fight; at least not unless they are led by charismatic Westerners like TE Lawrence.

There have been some exceptions to this rule, of course. The Jordanians put up a decent performance against Israel in 1967, although as commentators were quick to point out they had been trained by the British. More significantly, the Egyptians and Syrians mounted a well-planned and co-ordinated attack in 1973 to recover the territory they had lost in the previous war. They did well militarily, and would have done better had it not been for massive support provided by the United States for Israel. And of course they recovered their national territory, which was the point of the exercise

But these examples have not impinged upon the Western strategic consciousness very much. For much of the last 70 years, the Middle East has been a gigantic video game parlor, where both the West and Israel have stamped up and down on vastly inferior forces, winning a succession of easy and one-sided victories. But in the last decade there have been signs that things have begun to change. Surprisingly perhaps, this has had little or nothing to do with enormous Western efforts to arm, train and finance militaries from the Maghreb to Iraq. Indeed, such initiatives seem actually to have made things worse. The Egyptian Army, for example, no longer has the military capability to mount the operation it mounted in 1973, in spite of massive assistance from the United States.

The difference, unfortunately, turns out to be religion. What I mean by that is that the effective fighting forces in the Middle East have turned their backs on nationalism, liberal democracy and professionalism, and all the other things that the West has been trying to inculcate, and gone back to their own warrior traditions. There is no doubt that the effective resistance put up by Hezbollah to the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon came as a real shock to an army used to taking on defenseless women and children. But as the experts began to pick over the fighting, they realised that Hezbollah was actually quite well trained, reasonably well-equipped and highly motivated. Religion in their case acted as a solidifying element, something that gave them purpose, identity  and direction, which had been so much lacking in the armies of the region before.

Of course, it was possible to say that Hezbollah was the creation of  Iran, and to some extent that was true. But it is not possible to say the same thing about the military forces of the new Islamic State. Although their early victories owed more to the weakness of the Iraqi Army, so expensively trained and equipped by the West, it is clear that they have been rapidly acquiring conventional military expertise. They now seem capable of operating weapons and equipment captured from the Iraqi Army itself, which also suggests the presence of former professional soldiers in their ranks. Moreover, like Hezbollah, they seem to be well trained and disciplined and well motivated in what they do. They also seem to be much more efficient than the nominal Iraqi government in administering the areas that they have captured. Their political strategy seems equally well-considered. Brutality can be an effective military weapon, especially against forces that outnumber you but have poor morale and leadership. And beheading unfortunate American journalists on video sends a clear message: mess with us, and we’ll mess with you.

We will have to see how this develops. It is quite possible that the Islamic State will fall apart because of internal contradictions. And as long as it does not have airpower it will be limited in what it can do. But among the rather hysterical western ideas that it represents some kind of a “threat” to us, is the very real and undeniable fact that in a few months a capable and effective political and military structure has been put together entirely without Western aid or Western ideas. This, more than anything else, is what puts the fear of God (or something) into Western strategists. In a few months, the Islamic state has succeeded where the West has failed for decades. Who can say where this might lead?

MH17: Rush to non-judgement

“The Accused” screamed the front page of yesterday’s Libération, always a good guide to what the right-thinking left-leaning French person thinks, against a picture of Vladimir Putin. The argument, inasmuch as there was one, was that Putin, by providing political, and possibly some military assistance to the Ukrainian separatists, is, sort, of, morally responsible for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, by Ukrainians armed with Ukrainian weapons, if they are indeed the culprits. But then what do you expect? Logic?

In effect, all the thunderous vilification of Putin (rather than the supposed perpetrators) has a hysterical and slightly forced quality to it, as though western elites are stuck in a groove they can’t get out of, with a volume control that only goes in one direction. But there’s something perfunctory about it, all the same.

What has happened, I think, is that western political and media elites have just received a terrible shock, a douche of freezing cold water. They have perhaps begun to understand that, yes, the Russians really do not want NATO troops stationed on their borders, and that important parts of the population of the East of the country are looking to Russia for protection. Who would ever have thought it? If this goes on, people could start to get killed. Oh, wait a minute….

Perhaps the irruption of such terrible violence will have a salutary effect on western capitals, and make them less inclined to play silly games in future. We must hope so. In the meantime, as usual, the guilty have been named before the investigation has even taken place.