Tag Archives: international relations

Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared

It’s said that, when asked why he had escalated America’s military campaign in Vietnam, US president Lyndon Johnson pulled down his trousers, whipped out his male member, and said “That’s why!’

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s quite plausible. For LBJ, Vietnam was nothing if not a test of manhood. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward … an unmanly man, a man without spine.”

It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man. But there’s something to it. And as I detailed in my 2006 book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, LBJ is hardly unique. Throughout the ages, war – like international politics generally – has been powerfully influenced by the search for honour, and perhaps even more by the desire to avoid dishonour.

One you realize this, a lot of international politics suddenly makes sense. Modern Westerners tend to be a bit uncomfortable with the language of honour. It sounds a bit archaic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant – just that we’re not very good at recognizing it in ourselves. A case in point is the incident last week when a British warship sailed through what Russia claims are its territorial waters off Crimea. But before we get onto that, we first need to take a little diversion into academic theory.

Honour, as Aristotle put it, is “the reward for virtue.” What virtue consists of is something we’ll come onto in a moment, but the key point is that honour comes from displaying virtue. Honour also comes in two forms – external and internal, otherwise expressed by words such as prestige, reputation, face, etc. in the first instance, or like conscience and integrity in the second. Seen this way, honour is, according to a well-known definition, the worth of a person in his/her own eyes as well as the worth of a person in the eyes of others. Either way, it’s a measurement of worth. But of the two forms (internal and external) the first is the most important – the reason one wants to be considered worthy in the eyes of others is because it makes you feel worthy in your own eyes. Ultimately, honour is all about feeling good about yourself.

Another way of looking at honour is to divide it into two other types. The first is absolute, and is often associated with female honour. This type you either have or you don’t – you’re pure, and so honourable, until you aren’t and you’re not. The second type is relative and competitive – or “agonistic” in the technical jargon. This type is traditionally associated with male virtues – strength, courage, prowess, and so on. Honour of this type has to be perpetually defended, lest one loses one’s relative position. It requires one both to challenge others and to defend oneself any time one is challenged.

This latter type of honour tends to flourish where governance is weak, and people or institutions feel that they need to exert themselves in order to survive. This gives it an instrumental purpose. But it also tends to get detached from this purpose. Strength, courage, prowess etc are considered important in the sense of being necessary to defend against threats. Because of that, societies tend to promote them as virtues, rewarding their display. The result is that people internalize them and feel a need to display these virtues even when it’s not appropriate. Because virtue and worth have become associated with strength, courage, prowess etc, showing strength, courage, prowess, etc becomes almost an end in itself – or at least, a psychological necessity to avoid the sense of shame that comes from failing to live up to the standard of virtue.

The result is a lot of utterly unnecessary conflict, as individuals, including state leaders, feel the need to challenge one another and respond forcibly to anything that is perceived to be a challenge.

Which brings us on to the shenanigans of the Royal Navy last week off the coast of Crimea.

In a recent post, I speculated as to what inspired this particular piece of foolish derring-do. Now we have an answer, courtesy of some waterlogged Ministry of Defence documents found abandoned behind a bus stop in Kent. In these, anonymous defence officials predicted that the Russian response to a British incursion into Crimean waters might be fairly forceful. But they also concluded that this was no reason not to direct the British warship HMS Defender to sail through the waters in question. Were that to happen, said the documents, people might get the impression of “the UK being scared/running away.”

At which point, I hope, the connection with what I said earlier becomes clear. One might imagine that the Russian-British spat was a matter of high principle or national interest. In reality, it’s about not wanting to look cowardly.

In effect, the Russian annexation of Crimea was a “challenge” to the West. As such, the logic of honour requires a response. Failing to face up to the challenge by sailing around Crimea would have meant ducking the challenge, and as such was unacceptable. The fact that the Russians might respond forcefully made meeting the challenge even more essential. If there was no chance of a forceful response, there wouldn’t be any cowardice in failing to meet it. It was precisely the possibility that things might turn violent that made the escapade necessary.

This seems strange, but the logic is entirely in keeping with the perverse incentives provided by the honour code. The possibility that an incident might escalate into war isn’t a reason to back off; it’s actually all the more reason to press on.

The thing about this, though, is that the challenge in question was purely imaginary. It existed in the minds of the Royal Navy, but not anywhere else. People weren’t actually going to think that the British were a bunch of cowards if they decided to sail from Odessa to Georgia by some other route. In fact, nobody would have noticed, let alone cared.

Thus, going back to what I said earlier, the internal aspect of honour is what matters here – it’s all about self-perception rather than the perception of others. What’s driving this is a feeling in the British establishment that their status in the world isn’t what it was. The sense of internal dishonour this provokes makes them feel bad about themselves. And so they incite a conflict in order to boost their self-esteem.

If you have a spare hour, I recommend Bill Moyer’s documentary LBJ’s Road to War. A lot of it consists of recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls with his advisors about Vietnam. What comes out of it is that all concerned knew that escalating the war was a bad idea and wouldn’t succeed. But more important from LBJ’s point of view was that he didn’t want to look weak. And the rest as they say, is history. The lesson is obvious, and its one that the Brits – and everybody else – would do well to learn.

Napoleon, Kutuzov, and the changing international order

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy challenged the idea that ‘great men’ change the world. In reality, he claimed, the underlying forces of history determine the outcome. Some people, however, try to resist these forces. They inevitably come a cropper. By contrast, others recognise which way things are going and let these processes determine what they should do, or not do. It’s these people who succeed. In War and Peace, Napoleon is an example of the former; Marshal Kutuzov an example of the latter. Kutuzov doesn’t so much do anything as lets happen what is going to happen anyway. It’s this which makes him a great leader.

Tolstoy tended to overdo things, and most people wouldn’t accept his theory of history in its entirety. But there’s an element of truth in what he said, if you take it not as a reason for fatalism but as an argument for riding with the wave rather than against it. If you look at the world of economics, for instance, companies which resist change, or who respond to it by using monopoly power or political influence to close down competition, end up failing. By contrast, companies which correctly identify future trends and put themselves at the head of them, end up thriving (until such time as they themselves grow old, become inflexible monopolists, and are brought down by the next generation of newcomers, a process Karl Marx failed to anticipate when predicting that monopolization was a one-way process). In short, success is a matter of perspective; the key is viewing change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that most international affairs analysts look at the world. An example is the annual forecast ‘Russia and the World’, produced by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. Each year, following its publication, the Czech journal New Perspectives produces a special edition devoted to responses to the IMEMO forecast. I covered the replies to the 2018 forecast on this blog a while ago. Now the responses to the 2019 forecast are out, including one written by my good self. You can find them here. I don’t have room to discuss them all, but I will touch upon a few which relate to the discussion of change above.

In my own article, I note how the IMEMO forecast paints a very gloomy picture of international affairs, speaking of ‘the crisis of the international system’, ‘the dismantling of the global order’, ‘the erosion of the established post-war and Cold War system’, ‘an unstable world’, and so on. In line with what I’ve written elsewhere, I cast doubt on whether everything is really as bad as IMEMO makes it out to be. Russia’s main challenge, I argue, ‘is not a global order facing potential collapse … Rather, Russia’s primary problem is internal – a political, social, and economic system which seems to have hit a wall,’ particularly in terms of delivering rapid economic growth.

In another response, Australian academic Cai Wilkinson takes a different approach. Rather than debate whether IMEMO’s analysis is correct, Wilkinson uses it to examine the mentality of the people of who made it – i.e. she uses the forecast as a tool for understanding the forecasters. What the IMEMO forecast reveals, she says, is the ‘avowedly Realist worldview’ of the Russian foreign policy community as well its ‘aversion to the uncertain.’ The forecast is underpinned by a ‘distinctly fatalistic air’ and is accompanied by an obsession with stability. Wilkinson criticises this attitude, quoting technology forecaster Paul Saffo as saying that, ‘uncertainty is a friend, for its bedfellow is opportunity.’ She continues:

In uncertain times, a Realist and fatalistic worldview that prioritises stability risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, blinding policy-makers and forecasters alike to the truth that, as Alexander Wendt famously put it, ‘anarchy is what states make of it.’

I’m fairly sure that the politics of Higher School of Economics professor Glenn Diesen are very different from Wilkinson’s, but in his response to the IMEMO forecast he makes a rather similar point. ‘While the report focuses on the threats from this disorderly transition to a multipolar international distribution of power, the opportunities from moving towards a less Western-centric order tend to be neglected,’ he writes. I tend to agree. As the balance of global power shifts, there will inevitably be disruption, but there will also be immense opportunities. It would do everyone some good if they focused on the positive.

The failure to do so is not a purely Russian phenomenon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended a couple of meetings here in Ottawa at which colleagues and (serving and retired) public servants discussed the changing international order and the implications for Canadian foreign policy. The discussions almost exactly mirrored the conclusions of the IMEMO forecast – the prevailing view was that world is going to the dogs. The language was all about ‘challenges’ and ‘threats’. I kept my mouth shut until right at the end of the last meeting, at which point I finally complained to all and sundry that I’d heard nothing but negativity, and that among all the talk of ‘threats’ I’d not once heard anybody talk about the opportunities which the changing international order offers us. And there are many – growing markets for our products in the developing world, just for starters.

The negativity has important effects. When international change is viewed solely in terms of challenge and threat, the policy response is to try and stop the change. But as Canute pointed out to his advisers, you can’t hold back the tide. It’s pointless trying, for instance, to contain China. You can’t do it. Power is shifting in the world. It’s inevitable. Instead of worrying about the change, we need to think about how to exploit it for our own benefit. Do we want to fight the tide of history, or do we want to ride the waves? Do we want to be Napoleon or do we want to be Kutuzov? Our future depends on our response.

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.

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.

Moscow conference

At the start of September I spoke at a conference in Moscow dedicated to exploring the current tensions in Russia-West relations. Paul Grenier has now produced an excellent summary of the conference proceedings for The American Conservative. You can read it here.

Conference participants raised a lot of really interesting ideas. I don’t agree with them all, but I thoroughly recommend Paul Grenier’s piece to you all, so that you can decide for yourselves. On top of that, his analysis raises a host of questions for future consideration:

  • Is there an ideological/philosophical divide lying at the root of current Russia-West tensions? In my own presentation, I suggested that perhaps there is: Russia and the West seem to have very different conceptions of what constitutes a ‘rules-based international order’. If this is the case, then our current difficulties are rather deeper than many people imagine and can’t be resolved simply by compromising over certain material interests. Instead, they require us to find some way of reaching philosophical agreement – not an easy task.
  • But is agreement even possible? Boris Mezhuev’s idea of ‘civilizational realism’ rests on an assumption that it isn’t, and that the only way for Russia and the West to live in peace is to recognize each other as separate civilizations, in effect to agree to disagree.
  • Is there any way that the West would ever ‘agree to disagree’? Western liberalism is essentially universalistic. I have my doubts that it could ever accept ‘civilizational realism’ as this would mean accepting that Western liberalism is not applicable to all. That puts us in an impasse: Russia and West appear to be philosophically divided; they can’t reach agreement, but they also can’t agree to disagree. I have to admit that I’m not sure how we get out of this.
  • Is the answer to be found in some sort of ‘post-liberal politics’? Is the only solution to our problems a re-imagination of what it means to be liberal, as James Carden suggests? Does it require a disassociation of globalization from Westernization, as Nicolai Petro says? Richard Sakwa raises an important issue, in explaining that the West doesn’t truly believe in dialogue. Globalization to date has largely been about spreading Western standards and modes of operation; it hasn’t involve a genuine exchange of ideas between different parts of the globe. Do we need, then, to abandon liberalism, as Adrian Pabst claims? (If we do, I’m not sure that we are capable of it.)

As I said in the conclusion of my own presentation to the conference, we don’t have any great answers to these questions, but at least conferences like this help us define what the questions are. It’s an important first step. Many thanks to Paul Grenier for  organizing our  meeting in Moscow, and to him and The American Conservative for making our deliberations available to a wide audience.