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How peace became unthinkable

A couple of articles in the New York Times really struck me this Sunday. For they reveal with the utmost clarity the bizarre way that Americans view the world, especially the respectable folk of the ‘moderate’ Democratic left who write and read the New York Times.

First up was a front page article about the US withdrawal from northern Syria in the face of the newly commenced Turkish invasion. The withdrawal has driven good-thinking liberals into a really tizzy. Trump withdraws American troops from a country they had no legal right to be in in the first place! How dare he?! To express its indignation, The Times cited a series of experts who explained that the president’s decision would have serious consequences for America’s credibility (while ignoring the possibility that fighting a whole bunch of unwinnable wars might be rather worse for one’s reputation). Repeated promises by American leaders to reduce their country’s troop presence in the Middle East has had the result of ‘unnerving partners like Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies which rely on American protection’, The Times tells us. Why these countries can’t defend themselves given the vast amounts of money they spend on defence we aren’t told (Israel and Saudi Arabia are hardly military minnows). What we are told instead is that:

Critics say that Mr. Trump’s zigzagging in Middle Eastern politics has emboldened regional foes, unnerved American partners, and invited a variety of other regional or international players to seek to exert their influence. … ‘It is chaos’, said Michael Stephens, a scholar of the region at the Royal United Services Institute in London, ‘The region is in chaos because the hegemonic power does not seem to know what it wants to do, and so nobody else does.’

This really is the most palpable nonsense. Is the chaos in Iraq a product of the US not knowing what it wanted to do? Or is it a direct product of the USA knowing only too well what it wanted to do – invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein? Did the USA not know what it was doing when it supported regime change in Libya and Syria? Does it not know what’s it’s doing supporting the Saudis in their failed war in Yemen? Really? The chaos in the Middle East is due to the lack of American decisiveness and leadership?? Come on. This is ridiculous. But it tells us something about how The New York Times and the US establishment views itself and its military adventures – as necessary for world order. In this view of the world, American intervention is always benign; American withdrawal in circumstances short of absolute victory is inevitably bad, not just for America but for the world as a whole.

This attitude is so deeply entrenched that faced with somebody who argues the opposite, its believers are simply stumped. They can’t understand why anybody would challenge the obvious truth. It can’t be because they actually believe that the mainstream narrative is wrong – that would be incomprehensible. It must be because somebody somewhere is pulling their strings, probably some foreign power. And so it is that Trump completely baffles the liberal establishment. He doesn’t believe in America’s wars. He doesn’t see how ending them would be a disaster. There’s only one explanation – he must be a foreign agent.

But not just Trump. For in the second New York Times article, the newspaper takes on Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard thinks that America should be fighting fewer wars, a position which both the Times and much of the American left apparently find more than a little threatening. The overall sense of the article is well expressed by the headline: ‘Left Scratches Its Head and Far Right Swoons at Gabbard Campaign’. The first half of the headline confirms what I said above  – that the mainstream left finds an anti-war platform utterly baffling, and leaves it scratching its head. The second half of the title then shows how it plans to bring Gabbard down – by smearing her through association and insinuation.

And so we are told that Gabbard has little support among Democrats, but

Alt-right internet stars, white nationalists, libertarian activists and some of the biggest boosters of Mr. Trump heap praise on Gabbard. … Then there is 4chan, the notorioiusly toxic online message board, where some right-wing trolls and anti-Semites fawn over Ms. Gabbard … In April, the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, took credit for Ms. Gabbard’s qualification for the first two Democratic primary debates.

The Times provides not a jot of evidence to show that Gabbard herself is a ‘white nationalist’, ‘anti-Semite’, ‘neo-Nazi’, or the like. Moreover, they’re hardly the only people who favour non-interventionism. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans consider that their country needs to end its wars and bring its troops home. So why doesn’t the newspaper focus on the fact that Gabbard’s views are in line with a large segment of the American population, across the political spectrum? Why mention only the far right? The obvious answer is to blacken her name by association. Put her name in the same paragraph as words like ‘neo-Nazi’ and some of the mud will stick.

But there’s more. Her platform, we are told, ‘reminds some Democrats of the narrative pushed by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential campaign.’ Furthermore,

Democrats are on high alert about foreign interference in the next election and the D.N.C. [Democratic National Committee] is well aware of the frequent mentions of Gabbard in the Russian state news media. An independent analysis of Russian new media found that RT, the Kremlin-backed news agency, mentioned Ms. Gabbard frequently for a candidate polling in single digits … Disinformation experts have also pointed to instances of suspicious activity surrounding Ms. Gabbard’s campaign. … Laura Rosenberger, a former policy aide to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign … sees Ms. Gabbard as a useful vector for Russian efforts to sow division within the Democratic Party.

Putting aside the fact that this is speculation, the New York Times fails to provide any evidence that Gabbard herself has anything to do any alleged ‘suspicious activity’ or is in any way furthering Russian goals. This is a smear by insinuation. The Times lacks the courage to come right out and say ‘Gabbard is a Russian stooge’, so it merely insinuates it by throwing in some unsubstantiated and entirely irrelevant claims. This is a hatchet job masquerading as journalism.

The article quotes Jon Stolz, charmain of the liberal veterans organization VoteVets.org, as saying that, ‘Tulsi is really running on antiwar message.’ But the message the Times wants to send comes at the end. For the article finishes with a quote from ‘pro-Israel activist’ Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. ‘I can’t figure her out,’ he says.

Let’s face it, an anti-war message is hardly complicated. But, according to the New York Times, when confronted by such a message, the ‘Left Scratches its Head’ and concludes that it just can’t ‘figure it out.’ If you want to know what’s wrong with American foreign policy thinking, you have the answer right there. War has become so normalized that peace has become unthinkable, so far outside the usual realm of experience as to be incomprehensible. It’s extremely sad.

Steinmeier mania

The Russian and Ukrainian media have been abuzz this week over the news that the Ukrainian government has accepted the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which is meant to help regulate the reintegration of rebel Donbass into Ukraine. Supporters of foreign Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of the Ukrainian far right, are denouncing the move as a betrayal. Others, though, hope that it is an important first step towards peace. In reality, however, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government’s decision adds up to very much. For sure, it’s a step forward, but only a very small one, and unworthy of either the hysterical denunciations or the fervent optimism.

The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 laid out the terms on which rebel Donbass would return to Ukrainian control. These included a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the commencement of a ‘discussion’ on how to hold elections in Donbass and on the nature of Donbass’s future relationship with Ukraine. Following this, an amnesty would be granted, elections held, and constitutional reform undertaken and legislation passed to provide special status for rebel-held areas of Donbass. The day after elections, Ukraine would regain control of its border with Russia.

No sooner had it agreed to these terms than the Ukrainian government began to backtrack, insisting that it would not grant special status to Donbass, and also demanding that the rebels disarm and the border be placed under Ukrainian control prior to elections. This reversed the order of events required by the Minsk agreement. The Steinmeier formula, named after its author, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meant in part to find a way out of this impasse. It says that once Ukraine has passed a law on special status for Donbass, local elections will be held, and the special status will come into effect on a temporary basis on the evening of the elections, and permanently once the OSCE has confirmed that the elections were carried out in accordance with international standards.

For hard-line Ukrainians, the Steinmeier formula is seen as capitulation as it admits that Donbass will have to get special status. However, even if the formula is accepted, the question remains of how and when the elections in question are meant to take place, and so get the ball rolling. And on this Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been very clear: the elections must take place under the supervision of the Ukrainian government, and can only take place once all rebel forces have been disbanded and the border has been restored to Ukrainian control. Zelensky also says that any special status for Donbass can only take the form of a law, not of a constitutional reform.

These conditions are completely unacceptable to the rebel leadership and its Russian patrons. First, the rebels insist that they must have a role in running the elections which, they say, they will only accept if held under the first-past-the-post system and not under the Ukrainian system of proportional representation. Second, disbanding their armed forces and handing over the border before any special status is conferred would amount to complete surrender and put the rebels entirely at Kiev’s mercy. This is clearly something they won’t do. And third, special status conferred by a law not by constitutional reform could be simply revoked by a parliamentary majority repealing the law. It provides very few guarantees for the future. This makes it something which is unlikely to be acceptable.

In short, while accepting the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky has imposed conditions which mean that it can never be put into practice. Viewing this, Baylor University’s Serhiy Kudelia remarks that either Zelensky is either ‘genuinely delusional’ or simply making a token concession in order to stay in the good books of his European allies while knowing full well that nothing will come of it.

I suspect the latter, though I think that it may also be a product of the restraints under which Zelensky is operating. Prior to this week’s decision, we witnessed the fiasco of foreign minister Vadim Pristaiko saying that he had agreed to the formula only for Ukraine’s chief negotiator, former president Leonid Kuchma, to then publicly refuse to do so. Eventually, it seems that Zelensky was able to get Kuchma to back down and sign the document, but it’s clear that even this small step was quite a struggle. Going any further would require Zelensky to fight a major political battle internally. It doesn’t look like he’s prepared to do so.

As I’ve said on many occasions, the peaceful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine will only be possible if Kiev makes major concessions. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen all at once. The best we can hope for is little steps which gradually move Kiev in the right direction. In so far as this constitutes such a step, it’s something to welcome. But I’m not overly confident that Ukraine’s internal political situation will permit further moves of the same sort, at least not for some time. I hope I’m wrong, but for now I don’t think that the Steinmeier decision changes very much at all. Peace remains a rather distant dream.

Trudeau’s Jeeps in action

‘An election is no time to discuss serious issues,’ former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell notoriously said. That, of course, is one of the reasons we supposedly value a free press – to hold politicians to account and make sure that they have to talk about what really matters. So given that we have a general election campaign going on at the moment, you’d imagine that when a major international news story breaks, and there’s shown to be a Canadian connection, our press would be on it in a flash. But for whatever reason that doesn’t seem to be the case.

A couple of days ago, news broke that the Houthi forces in Yemen had claimed to have inflicted a major defeat on Saudi forces near the southern Saudi of Najran. Subsequently, the Houthis released videos apparently proving their case. These showed large numbers of dead and captured Saudi troops as well as a significant amount of destroyed and captured armoured vehicles. That much attracted the attention of the our press, but it somehow failed to note that a lot of the vehicles were in fact Canadian.

Back in 2014, the Harper government struck a $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi government. After this deal came in for public criticism, Harper’s successor as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said that there was nothing to worry about, as the contract was only for ‘jeeps’. That, of course, was nonsense, as this drawing from the National Post newspaper makes clear.

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For comparison, here’s a picture of one of the Saudi vehicles captured by the Houthis in the recent battle:

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My not-entirely forgotten military vehicle recognition training teaches me to look for things like hatches and wheels. So let’s do that. Note the position of the hatch in the photo, and compare it to the drawing above. Note also the positioning of the wheels of the captured vehicle – there’s a small gap between the front two, a large one between the middle two, and then a very small one between the wheels at the back. Then compare that to the drawing. I don’t know about you, but the two look pretty similar to me. I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I’d say that it seems that the Houthis now have a least one Canadian-built LAV in their possession.

Here’s some more evidence – a rather blurry photograph from the CBC, showing a Saudi-purchased Canadian LAV. The key item is the triangular piece of metal with two holes in it, which you can see in the bottom right of the vehicle.

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Now compare that to this picture of one of the Saudi vehicles destroyed in the recent Houthi offensive. Look familiar??

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Sadly, this isn’t the least of it. Those Canadian LAVs seem to have had a rather bad day, as you can see below:

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Why does this matter?

The contract with the Saudis has been controversial from the moment it was first signed, with various activists in Canada complaining that we should not be selling weapons to a country with such a bad human rights record. The possibility that the armoured vehicles might be used in Yemen has also been raised as a reason why the contract should be cancelled. At one point it looked as if the Liberal government was having some pangs of conscience, and it announced that Global Affairs Canada (GAC), under the command of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, would review the contract to see whether it should be terminated.  A spokesman for GAC declared that,

Canada does not export items destined for Yemen or that we suspect might be used in Yemen due to the impact on regional stability and security. Careful attention is paid to the potential for the diversion of Canadian exports to the conflict in Yemen. … If there is evidence that Canadian arms are being misused or have been diverted, Minister Freeland will suspend those export permits while an investigation proceeds, as she has done in the past.

Despite some compelling evidence that Canadian equipment had indeed been diverted to the war in Yemen, nothing ever came of that promise, however. Sales of Canadian military equipment to Saudi Arabia have continued apace and the government ‘review’ has disappeared without trace. Meanwhile, Canadian arms continue to fuel the war in Yemen, and as the pictures above show are now actually in the hands of both sides of the conflict!!

If the Canadian government publicly preached hard-headed realism, I wouldn’t mind so much. If our politicians just said, ‘business is business’, or ‘we back Saudi Arabia because we want to fight Iran’, or something like that, it would at least have the virtue of brutal honesty. But that isn’t how our politicians talk. Rather, Canadian foreign policy discourse is nothing if not an exercise in holy-than-thou sanctimonious moralizing. Yet when it comes to an opportunity to make some money, all that goes out of the window.

So why aren’t our media on this? As there’s an election going on, now’s the time to ask the politicians some hard questions. Someone needs to put Trudeau and Freeland on the spot, and get them to give them an answer about what they intend to do about arms sales to Saudi Arabia given the new evidence which has come to light. And someone needs to tackle opposition politicians about it too. Somehow, though, I doubt that they will. Some things are too serious to talk about at election time. There’s just no way to discuss them without looking bad.

Bruised but not broken

Those of you who speak Russian can now have the pleasure of reading my latest article, which has recently been published in the Russian journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas. In English the title is ‘Bruised but not broken: the international order in the 21st century’. It is available online here. Numerous commentators argue that the international order is in crisis, maybe even on the verge of collapse. Others, though, are more optimistic. The point of the article is to determine who is right. For those of you who don’t speak Russia, here is a brief summary of what I have to say.

The international order has been defined as ‘the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations among the key players in the international environment.’ This may be seen as consisting of three sub-orders. The first is the ‘security’ or ‘political-military’ order. This promotes international peace and security. Its centrepiece is the Charter of the United Nations. The second element is the economic order. This regulates and encourages international trade, and is founded on a large number of international laws, institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc), and treaties. The third element might be called the ‘values-based’ order. This promotes good governance, democracy, and human rights, and is based on a body of international human rights law dating from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To determine whether the overall order is in good health, I therefore look first at inputs (i.e. the level of participation in the order) and second at outcomes in each of the three sub-orders (what are the results – is the world becoming more peaceful, more prosperous, freer, etc?).

Inputs: I note that while some treaties have recently been abrogated, most notably those to do with US-Russia arms control, states as a whole continue to bind themselves together with more and more agreements and through membership of more and more multilateral institutions. Specifically, there were around 10,000 international organizations in 1980, and 30,000 in 1992 when the Cold War came to an end. There are now nearly 70,000. States also continue to submit their disputes to international organizations (e.g. WTO) for resolution, and generally abide by the decisions. The nations of the world are therefore more intertwined that ever before. In terms of inputs, the international system seems quite healthy.

Security outcomes: A simple way to measure whether the international order is achieving its objective of international peace and security is to look at statistics concerning conflict. These show us that from 1992 to 2007 the magnitude of armed conflict worldwide fell by 60%. Since then it has been on the rise, but is still well below 1992 levels. Moreover, it is highly concentrated geographically (as is terrorism), with recent increases being primarily due to wars in the Middle East and North Africa. The conclusion we can draw is that we face a regional crisis not a global one. It is true that the situation worldwide is worse than it was 10 years ago, but it’s a lot better than 30 years ago. So, one’s opinion on whether the situation is getting better or worse in large part depends on one’s reference point.

Economic outcomes: International economic integration has stalled in recent years, with the collapse of the Doha round of WTO negotiations and with the United States returning towards protectionism in its relations with key trading partners. However, numerous regional economic institutions have recently come into being (e.g. Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank), no major country is showing any interest in abandoning or reducing international trade, and worldwide rates of economic growth remain fairly high. International trade has yet to recover from the 2008 financial crash, and thus remains below its 2007 peak, but is still high by historic standards. Thus compared to 2007, things  are little worse, but compared to 20, 30, or 40 years ago, they don’t look so bad.

Values outcomes: After 1992, the number of states deemed ‘democratic’ increased sharply, while the number considered “autocratic” declined proportionally. The Global Report 2017 concludes that, ‘the global system … is more democratic than it ever has been.’ Likewise, the Global Peace Index 2018 comments that, ‘Over the past 100 years, democracy has spread, reaching a 100-year high.’ Viewed through a long-term lens, the values-based order seems to be in good shape. In the short-term, though, there has been some backsliding.  Freedom House has recorded a constant decline in global freedom over the past 10 years. The Global Peace Index measures ‘positive peace’ (i.e. factors such as well-functioning government, low levels of corruption, and acceptance of others’ rights), and concludes that, ‘The average level of Positive Peace increased steadily between 2005 and 2013 … However, this trend levelled out in the two years to 2015, after which Positive Peace deteriorated in 2016.’ Once again, the conclusion is much the same as with the security and economic orders – something of a deterioration over the past ten years, but a substantial improvement over the last 30.

Conclusion: From this I conclude that the short term trends across the three elements of the international order are largely negative. In the past decade, there has been an increase in violence (albeit mostly in just one part of the world), a slowing, or slight reversal, of economic integration, and some regression in terms of democratization and human rights. However, these negative phenomena have only slightly dented the positive progress made in previous decades. Compared to the Cold War era, the current international system appears to be doing fairly well. The international order, in other words, is bruised, but far from being broken.

Liberal illiberalism

This is turning out to be a good week for hearing from top-level Russian ministers. First Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov penned an article for Russia in Global Affairs, and then Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave an interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets. The latter has got the most publicity so far, in large part because it’s the first interview Shoigu has given in many years, but I didn’t find much of interest in it. The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. The fact that this is considered such a great thing makes it clear just how terrible conditions in the Russian army were until very recently. Beyond that, the interviewer tried occasionally to ask Shoygu personal questions, but the defence minister generally refused to be drawn, except to say that ‘I have great nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ and to inform us that his mother comes from Ukraine and that he himself was baptised, aged 5, in a church in Stakhanov in Lugansk Oblast. That last revelation drives home the point that the war in Donbass is quite personal to many Russians. Is someone like Shoigu going to let the Russian state abandon Lugansk?? Somehow, I doubt it.

Beyond that, Shoigu’s perspective on world events was pretty much what one would expect. The world is ceasing to be unipolar, he argued, ‘And naturally, the West doesn’t like this, and it’s exerting every effort to regain its monopoly of influence in the world.’ To this end it’s doing what it can to overthrow potential rivals, ‘And of course this is done under the pretext of spreading democracy.’

This is pretty much the consensus viewpoint in Russia as far as I can tell, and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that in his article Sergei Lavrov says pretty much the same thing. But what makes Lavrov’s article interesting from my point of view is where he goes from there. The main theme of the article is the failings of Western liberalism. Again, this is hardly something new. But what I found revealing was the logic that Lavrov used. This is what he had to say:

The West’s reaction to what is happening allows one to judge the true principles of its wordview. The rhetoric on the themes of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ are accompanied by the promotion of approaches based on inequality, injustice and egoism, and conviction of their own exceptionalism.

‘Liberalism’, which the West claims to be defending, gives centre place to the person, his rights and freedom. And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …

As for Europe, the zealots of the liberal idea get on fine with massive breaches of the rights of the Russian speaking population of the European Union. …

And what’s ‘liberal’ about the visa and other sanctions imposed by the West against those living in Russian Crimea? They are punished for the democratic expression of their will to rejoin their historic motherland. …

Liberalism in its healthy, undistorted meaning, was traditionally the main constituent of world, and Russian, political thought. However, the multiplicity of models of development do not permit one to conclude that there is no alternative to the Western ‘basket’ of liberal values. …

[The West] has developed the concept of a ‘rules-based order’. … Its aim is to undermine internationally agreed legal instruments. …

In the economic realm, protective barriers have become the norm. …

What’s the result? In politics, the shaking of the international legal foundations, the growth of instability … in the realm of security, the washing away of the boundary between coercive and non-coercive methods of achieving external political goals … in the economic world – increased volatility, and fierce competition for markets.

Much has been said of late of Russia’s alleged ‘conservative turn’. Lavrov’s assault on liberalism will no doubt be added to the evidence in support of that. But read it closely. How does Lavrov attack Western liberals? By reference to liberal ideals! He appeals to human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. In short, it’s a homage to classical liberalism – liberalism in its ‘healthy, undistorted meaning’ as Lavrov puts it, liberalism which is, in his words, ‘traditionally the main constituent of … Russian political thought.’

In other words, the complaint is that Western liberals are hypocrites and have ceased to practice what they preach. They claim to be liberal, but they’re not. But there’s nothing here which challenges the ‘liberal international order’. If anything, it’s a call to return to the liberal international order.

I fully appreciate that this is a controversial interpretation of Russian thinking. Again and again we are told that the Russian government is illiberal and hell bent on destroying the ‘liberal international order’. I think that makes the mistake of taking radical geopolitical thinkers like Aleksandr Dugin and assuming that the Russian state shares their ambitions. But, as I see it, the Russian state is actually far more cautious. Far from wanting to destroy the international system, it would rather like to preserve it, but considers that the West is undermining it. For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc. Even when criticising liberalism, the Russian state uses its language. In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa noted that, ‘Russia makes no claim to revise the existing international order, but demands that the leading powers abide by the mutually established rules.’ I think that Lavrov’s article backs that conclusion up.

 

The Narcissism of the West

Yesterday I was given a copy of a recent report published by the London School of Economic’s !deas think tank. Entitled ‘Five Years after Maidan: Toward a Greater Eurasia’, its foreword (by LSE Emeritus Professor Michael Cox) begins with this provocative, but I think rather penetrating, statement:

The West’s increasing self-absorption verging on the narcissistic … has made many of us ‘over here’ forget that there is another very different world ‘out there’ about which most of our leaders know very little and think about even less. … other people in other places have other, rather more important things to worry about than the comings and goings of western politicians and pundits.

I’ve been wondering for some time about Russiagate, America’s inability to end its ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East, and other phenomena of the modern era, and trying to puzzle out what explains it all. It seems to me that Cox has found an important part of the puzzle – the narcissism of the West. Boosted by victory in the Cold War, believing that our systems represent the ‘end of history’, we in the West have come to see ourselves as ‘masters of the universe’. We are all that matters. And so it follows that we must be at the top of everybody else’s agenda, and that whatever anybody else in the world does, it must somehow be about us.

Take the paranoid stories I’ve been covering on this blog about how the Russians are bound to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s upcoming general election. Why on earth do people here think that this is so likely, given that the choice is between a governing party whose foreign minister is banned from entering Russia and an opposition party whose leader is banned from entering Russia? The answer lies in our strange belief that we’re actually really important. Canada is a G7 country after all. Of course the Russians will target us. We matter! Except that in reality we don’t. As was mentioned in the report by Sergey Sukhankin which I critiqued a week or so ago, Russians who study international affairs don’t look at Canada as a truly independent country. To most of them, we’re just an appendage of the United States. Our belief that the opposite is true – that we’re a big player, that our elections really matter to foreign countries, that they’re bound to try to undermine us because ‘WE’RE IMPORTANT!’ – is narcissism pure and simple.

Canadians aren’t the only one guilty of this. Americans have a similar problem. It’s why they had such a huge problem understanding what Saddam Hussein was up to after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Faced with apparent Iraqi obstruction of US demands, they assumed that this meant that Saddam was plotting some sort of evil revenge against the United States. In fact, it turned out that he wasn’t thinking of the Americans at all; his real concerns were to do with Iran. You can find lots of examples like that. Americans are told that they must fight the Taleban because of the danger that terrorists might again use Afghanistan to strike the United States. But is the average Talebani really thinking about America? Or is he thinking about his home, his family, his village – all things local? If the Iranians are helping the Syrian government, is it because they view the war in Syria as part of a global struggle against the United States, or is it because Syria is next door to Iran and what happens there is of direct importance to Iran’s own security? The answers, I think, are pretty clear.

To put it another way, states (and non-state actors) have their own interests unconnected to us. The fact that their pursuit of their interests sometimes makes them clash with Western states who are pursuing different interests doesn’t mean that they’re doing what they doing because of us. Moreover, as the balance of power in the world shifts, it’s likely that more and more often the West will become less and less of a factor in non-Western states’ calculations. As Derek Averre says with reference to Russia in another part of the LSE report:

We are in danger of missing the fact that European norms are becoming less important as a reference point against which Russia’s political elite measures its policy. Indeed, Ted Hopf’s argument – that Russia constructs its identity in relation to the US/Europe as ‘significant others’ – should be subject to appraisal at this time of far-reaching change in Russian foreign policy.

In short, it’s not all about us, and becoming less and less about us with every passing day. But arrogance and narcissism prevent us from seeing this. As a result we stumble from foreign policy blunder to foreign policy blunder. Unless and until we are able to come off our high horses and recognize that we’re not the centre of the universe, we’re going to keep getting things horribly wrong.