the lower depths

I returned from a week away without internet, newspapers, or email, to discover that Russian-US relations had plunged to a new low following the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The only positive element of the whole affair is Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play the game of tit-for-tat. Overall, the event does not strike an encouraging note on which to end the year. Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom, and might start getting at least a little better.

Reports in the past couple of months have suggested a growing sense of frustration in Moscow as a result of its inability to get an agreement with the US government about Syria. In the end, Moscow bypassed Washington and reached a deal with the Turks and Iranians. Now, Putin has elected not to respond to the American decision to expel Russia’s diplomats. Together, these acts suggest that the Kremlin has given up on the Obama administration and has decided more or less to ignore it.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the growing impotence of the United States has caused great angst among the hawks in the American foreign policy establishment. These are accusing Obama of making their country ‘irrelevant’ by failing to take a sufficiently robust line against Russia. In reality, the cases above suggest that America’s increasing irrelevance is more a product of Obama’s refusal to cooperate with countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Fed up with Washington’s behaviour, others have decided to go it alone.

Obama’s critics are thus in some ways correct, but for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that his years in office have not been good for Russian-Western relations. This is not entirely Obama’s fault. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent civil war in Ukraine would have been bound to aggravate relations no matter who had been in the White House. But the United States could have played its cards better. It didn’t have to push forward with plans for missile defence in Europe, encourage revolution in Ukraine and Syria, refuse to collaborate with Russia in the latter, and so on. Obama and his advisors underestimated Russian power and resolve and consequently failed to pay Russia due respect. In the pursuit of what are fairly minor US interests (such as its objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya), the White House lost sight of the far more important interest of maintaining good relations with the world’s largest country.

That may, however, be about to change. The election of Donald Trump has generated a huge amount of anxiety among the chattering classes in the Western world. But it does provide at least a glimmer of hope that Russian-Western relations may begin to improve. It may be no more than a glimmer, but any ray of light which penetrates the lower depths is to be thoroughly welcomed. Obama began his reign using the slogans ‘change’ and ‘hope’. In reality he provided precious little of either. The arrival of a new administration, therefore, makes this new year more hopeful than most.

The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.

Happy New Year!

 

Hybris and the politics of condemnation

Somebody complained recently that I never condemn the Russian Federation for its actions, even when it’s obviously in the wrong. This isn’t entirely true. I have on occasion made critical comments. But it isn’t entirely incorrect either – I’m not a fan of the current fad of condemning foreign countries for all sorts of alleged sins.

In the first place, I tend to agree with the Gospel of St Matthew, which asks ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? …  Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ When it comes to foreign policy, I think it decidedly hypocritical for citizens of Western states to condemn others for the motes in their eyes, when we in the West have a bloody great big beam in our own. Once we have earned the moral authority to preach to others about international affairs, then perhaps we can start doing so. But right now, we can’t. We should sort our own affairs out first.

Second, there is already a surfeit of condemnation, much of it of an extreme nature. Adding to this surfeit would hardly be helpful. Somebody needs to be pointing out just how exaggerated a lot of the criticisms are, and thereby contributing to building better international relations. That is this blog’s purpose.

Third, moral condemnation often detracts attention from the real problems. I don’t see, for instance, how adding my voice to those condemning Russia for its support of the Donbass rebels would help solve the problems within Ukraine which produced the civil war in that country and still perpetuate it. On the contrary, it would merely encourage a false belief that the solution to that country’s difficulties lay entirely in coercing Russia. From a practical point of view, the politics of condemnation can be very counterproductive.

Given all this, why are the politics of condemnation so popular? To answer that question, I think it productive to turn to the ancient Greek concept of hybris.

Hybris is often misunderstood having meant simply arrogance. But as N.R.E. Fisher has pointed out in a book on the subject, it meant something more specific. Hybris, writes Fisher, ‘is essentially the serious assault on the honour of another … and the typical motive for such infliction of dishonour is the pleasure of expressing a sense of superiority.’ As Aristotle put it:

Hybris is doing and saying things at which the victim incurs shame, not in order that one may achieve anything other than what is done but simply to get pleasure from it. …. The cause of the pleasure for those committing hybris is that by harming people they think themselves superior.

Ancient Greeks put a great value on honour. Theirs was also an ‘agonistic’ (competitive) society, in which honour was measured in relative terms. There were, therefore, two ways to gain honour. The first was to display some great achievement, which would mark one out as better than others. The second, and far simpler, method was to humiliate other people. By pushing them down, in relative terms you pushed yourself up. This second method was the essence of hybris.

In his study of ancient Greek warfare, historian Hans van Wees has shown that the Greeks rarely fought for material benefits; they didn’t generally annex each other’s territories, conquer each other’s cities, or demand financial reparations. Inter-city conflict was about status. Consequently, there was a lot of hybris. City states would insult or otherwise seek to humiliate others, in order thereby to raise their own relative status. Those at the receiving end of hybris would invariably respond to the insult by waging war, the climax of which would be a shoving match between opposing phalanxes to prove which was the stronger city.

Modern international politics, I would suggest, isn’t so very different. The United States along with its NATO allies (the contemporary equivalent, perhaps, of the Delian League) has the greatest status in the world, but it feels that its relative position is under challenge. Western states therefore insult the potential challengers in order to dishonour them and thus reduce their status. This is the key to the politics of condemnation. We condemn Russia and Putin and throw all sorts of exaggerated insults at them not because it actually helps us achieve any practical results (in fact it probably hinders us) but because it gives us a smug sense of own moral superiority. It’s all about feeling good.

This is pure hybris. The insults serve no practical purpose other than giving the insulters the pleasure of feeling superior. But as the Greeks knew very well, the eventual consequence of hybris is nemesis – downfall. Those who insist on practising the politics of condemnation should beware.

The peaceful city

The newspapers here in Canada (as elsewhere in the West) have been full of commentary lamenting the recapture of Eastern Aleppo by the forces of the Syrian government. For instance, in today’s copy of The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders says that ‘The Libyan option was preferable. … Libya is an unstable mess verging on a civil war of its own. But it is not the site of the sort of enormous-scale monstrosities, involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, that it would have been if Moammar Gadhafi had been kept in power.’ Saunders suggests that the Western world should have done in Syria what it did with Gadhafi and overthrown Bashar Al-Assad when it had the chance.

Elsewhere in today’s Globe, though, is an article by reporter Justin Giovannetti entitled ‘What the world lost by ignoring Aleppo’. Despite the headline, this contains a somewhat different message.

The article cites a former resident, Bakri Azzin, saying that before the war, Aleppo ‘was a warm, welcoming city, where you could spend your days in peace’. Giovannetti records that in those days, Aleppo was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city, which was ‘shaped by every major empire since the Roman and thrived through centuries of relative peace and stability.’ It ‘was a city that didn’t sleep’, says Mr Azzin, ‘I’ve never seen it anywhere else, whenever you wanted to go out, you could always find a restaurant that was open.’ Giovannetti writes that, ‘Centuries of trade had made Aleppo a welcoming place, where helping strangers was considered a duty, according to Mr. Azzin. If you got lost, you could knock on a door and get helpful directions.’

Similarly, the article cites a book about the city by British historian Philip Mansel, which says: ‘Until 2012, Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously.’ Giovannetti then quotes Canadian Tania Frangié, whose family lived in Aleppo for many years:

‘There was a joie de vivre in Aleppo, there was constant excitement,’ Ms. Frangié says of a city that has always loomed large in her life … ‘The biggest part of Aleppo that I remember was the harmony. … There was a marvellous energy everywhere’, she said. When her father returned from a trip to his hometown in 2000, she says he could barely contain his joy about how much the city had changed. Money was pouring in and new districts were going up, while UNESCO’s attention had helped propel conservation efforts in the city. ‘He was just so impressed about how modern it had become’, she said.

Finally, the article cites ‘Len Davis, an American film-maker based out of Seattle’, who ‘visited Aleppo during the same time as Ms Frangié was there.’ Mr Davis ‘says he was struck by its international feeling’, adding that:

Drinking in the shadow of the city’s centuries-old citadel, he later met a gay artist lobbying the government for more liberal acceptance in the art scene. ‘It was a capital of creative thought as I understood it’, he added.

But wait! Who was ruling Aleppo when it was such a booming, ‘modern’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘peaceful’ city, in which one could meet ‘gay artists’ lobbying the government for a more liberal arts scene? It was Assad!! And how much of this cosmopolitan ‘creative thought’ would have been likely to survive if the rebels had secured full control of the city? Given the rigid Islamism of many of them, not a lot, I suspect.

After four years of internecine violence, the fighting has now almost come to an end. Peace is returning to Aleppo. Let’s not listen to those who want to unleash the dogs of war all over again, but instead do what we can to see that the cosmopolitan Aleppo of old is reborn from the rubble.

Friday book # 48: Volunteer Army & Ukraine

This week’s book is something of a Ukrainian nationalist take on the White movement in the Russian Civil War. According to the cover blurb, ‘The Volunteer Army failed to defeat the Bolsheviks because it was unable and unwilling to come to terms with the Ukrainian question. At critical junctures during the Russian Civil War, its struggle against an independent Ukraine overshadowed its struggle against the Bolsheviks’. Author Anna Procyk casts the blame for the Whites’ failure on the liberal politicians who advised the White generals. She ‘challenges the view that the Volunteer Army’s generals were reactionary monarchists’ and argues that it was the liberals in General Denikin’s entourage who ‘reinforced [his] refusal to deal with the independent Ukrainian governments of 1918-19’. This led to the Whites’ defeat as it forced them to fight a two-front war (against Ukraine as well as against the Bolsheviks).

whites

Fake sex news

Former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky went on trial last week in Britain for allegedly illegally downloading ‘thousands of indecent images of children over a 15-year period’. According to prosecutor William Carter, when confronted by police:

[Bukovsky] responded immediately by saying he did download images and that they would be on the computer in his study. … In an interview, Bukovsky told detectives he had become interested in child abuse images in the 1990s in the context of a debate on the control and censorship of the internet. … ‘Bukovsky said his initial curiosity turned into a hobby, rather like stamp collecting,’ Carter said. The dissident continued to download images between 1999 and 2014, and estimated that he had accumulated a collection of ‘1,500 movies’. His interest varied year by year. The last downloads took place days before his arrest.

Since then, Bukovsky has changed his tune, and he is now claiming that the images on his computer were planted by the Russian secret services in order to discredit him. Despite his earlier confession, and without any supporting evidence, Sunday’s New York Times ran a long story repeating this claim. According to the story:

This blurring of all boundaries between truth and falsehood in the service of operational needs has created a climate in Russia in which even the most serious and grotesque accusations, like those involving pedophilia, are simply a currency for settling scores. Mr. Bukovsky is far from the only one fending off such allegations.

Without a trace of irony, the New York Times alleged that the case illustrated a pattern of behaviour involving ‘the discrediting of foes and the shaping of public opinion through the spread of false information.’

Meanwhile, in a separate story, the Daily Mail reported that ‘Russian and Syrian secret services may be encouraging refugees in Germany to carry out orchestrated sex attacks, in a bid to oust Angela Merkel from office.’ According to the Mail:

The extraordinary assertion was made by an expert from the European Council on Foreign Relations, who said that foreign powers could collude to destabilise Germany ahead of next year’s election. Gustav Gressel, a Russian expert at the think-tank, said small numbers of refugees with links to the Kremlin and Syrian security services could be mobilised to sway public opinion against the Chancellor.

And in a final story, The Guardian published the following headline:

Russian reality TV show to ‘allow’ rape and murder in Siberian wilderness.

The Guardian reports that ‘A new Russian reality show where crimes are “allowed” will begin next year.’ The show in question, entitled ‘Game 2: Winter’ will ‘strand 30 contestants in the -40F (-40C) Siberian wilderness for nine months with the surviving winner receiving a $1.6m prize. “Each contestant gives consent that they could be maimed, even killed,” reads an advert.’

But as the report then admits, ‘the rules also state that police are free to arrest anyone who commits a crime on the show. “You must understand that the police will come and take you away,” the rules state. “We are on the territory of Russia, and obey the laws of the Russian Federation.”’ So, despite the headline, it turns out that rape and murder aren’t ‘allowed’ after all.

Moronic speech of the day

Amidst hyperbolic, and it has to be said unsubstantiated, claims that the Syrian army is massacring civilians in Aleppo, the British House of Commons held a debate today to discuss taking action to protect the city’s inhabitants. MPs discussed ideas such as creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ into rebel held areas, ignoring the rather obvious fact that these areas hardly exist anymore. The debate had a distinct air of unreality about it.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t seem to feature much in Britons’ understanding of international affairs and their country’s role in them. After 20 years of failed military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, almost nobody in the upper echelons of British society seems to be willing to question the fundamental principles of the UK’s foreign policy. Perhaps the only prominent figure who does so is the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the general consensus is that this eminent good sense marks him out as an extremist lunatic. The problem, you see, is not that Britain’s military interventions have been wrong per se, but rather that they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough. The world doesn’t need less Anglo-American aggression; it needs more!

At least that’s what former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in today’s debate.  According to Osborne, the destruction/liberation (depending on your point of view) of Aleppo was a direct result of the British parliament’s prior refusal to bomb Syria. Osborne said:

We lack the political will as a West to intervene. … I have some hope out of this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.

We did not intervene in Syria: tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result, millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world; we have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of Isis, which we are now trying to defeat; key allies like Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised; the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowed fascism to rise in eastern Europe, created extremist parties in western Europe; and Russia, for the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s, is back as the decisive player in that region.

That is the price of not intervening. … let’s be clear now that if you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.

If by ‘we’, Osborne means only the United Kingdom, he is thoroughly deluded about the UK’s capacity to control international events. If by ‘we’, he means ‘the West’, then he’s just talking out of his hat. The ‘West’, in the form of the United States, has intervened in Syria from the start of the civil war there, providing arms, money, and training to rebel forces. In any event, Britain has not stayed out of the war, as reports suggest that British special forces have been operating in Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office has also been helping the Syrian rebels in their propaganda efforts.

Osborne’s claim that ISIS was a product of Western failure to intervene in Syria is also bizarre. ISIS is a product in large part of the chaos created in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and of the subsequent failed counterinsurgency campaign. The British Army spent several years fighting to gain control of Basra province. Its efforts achieved absolutely nothing. Similarly, the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan was a dismal failure, and several former British officers (most notably Frank Ledwidge) have credibly demonstrated that the British Army actually helped to destabilize Helmand rather than the opposite.

What good precisely did British intervention do in these cases? How did it help bring law, order, and good government to Iraq and Afghanistan? And how did it help bring any of those benefits in other cases such as Libya?

The recent dismal record of the British military is not an aberration. In fact, the overall historical record of British military involvement in other countries’ affairs is decidedly poor. In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, Jeffrey Pickering  and Mark Peceny concluded that of the all the cases studied,

Not a single target of hostile British military intervention liberalized or became a democracy. Hostile British intervention consequently drops out of [our model] because it predicts failure perfectly. Furthermore, hostile British intervention has a negative and significant impact on political liberalization.

Other states have been a bit more successful, but not a lot. As Stephen Walt points out:

Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war. 

What then explains the continuing belief in the value of bombing, invading, and occupying foreign countries? I find I cannot easily explain it, except perhaps in terms of post-imperial delusions of grandeur combined with an arrogance brought about by the West’s victory in the Cold War and by the West’s belief in the universal supremacy of its own supposed value system. The combination of untrammelled military supremacy and a total belief in their own moral superiority has created an incentive to act which some find too tempting to resist, despite the fact that acting has been shown to fail again and again.

I registered as a British overseas voter in order to vote in the Brexit referendum. That means I will get a vote in the next general election (in East Hull). For the first time in my life, I will vote Labour – not because of the mass of Labour MPs, most of whom remain committed interventionists, but because in Corbyn they have a leader who actually realizes how counterproductive British policy has been. I disagree with just about everything else Corbyn stands for, but at least he’s right on this. It makes me understand why Americans voted Trump.