Three cheers (almost) for Obama vs. ISIS

President Obama’s speech touched on all the right and necessary notes — as good a speech as he has given.

Obama clearly separated the terrorists behind ISIS from both the Muslim faith and the broader Muslim populations that it has attacked.  He laid out the threat and provided a plausible and multi-pronged strategy to defeat it.   Each prong of that strategy — Increased air attacks; a broad coalition with the local countries; starving ISIS of finances; and political solutions for Syria and Iraq — is sound and necessary.

But some things were definitely missing:  Who is our coalition partner for fighting in Syria?  Russia and Iran support Assad.  Turkey is conflicted because of its Kurdish problem — the non-radical opposition in Syria has a large Kurdish component that Turkey is reluctant to build up; will anyone else send troops into Syria to support the Syrian Free Army?   The SFA has shown it cannot compete with ISIS — giving it more weapons is just an indirect way of giving more weapons to ISIS (in the last week ISIS has been using US-built weapons that were earlier given to the SFA).  I think it will take NATO special forces to reinforce the SFA to make them effective.

And will we rely on Assad’s restraint to allow us to fly missions against ISIS within Syria?  Or will we degrade Assad’s air defenses?   Assad has every reason to stop the US, because he has been using ISIS to displace the moderate opposition.  Sooner or later we will have to deal with the Assad regime, and Obama’s mention of a “political solution” for Syria is distressingly vague.

One last thought; I sure hope we get a DIFFERENT campaign than we had in Yemen and Somalia.  Those countries are still total wrecks, half-overrun by terrorists and rebels after years of air attacks.  The attack against ISIS needs to be more successful than our campaigns against the Houthis or al-Shabab; otherwise we will be fighting an endless war with little progress.  In those countries the problem is precisely that we have not had reliable allies on the ground (except when Ethiopia fought  with us in Somalia, and that did bring a major success).  So we need to find or create them in Iraq and Syria, and fast.

But the good news is that the US has committed itself to fight ISIS, and has the reasonable beginnings of a strategy to pursue.  That is a lot for one night.

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The world spins on….

There is good news today on several fronts.  The Arab League, meeting in Cairo, has stated its intention to stop aid to extremists and cooperate in efforts to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).

Also this week, the European Central Bank borrowed a page from the Fed’s playbook, starting the mass buying of securities to fight deflation in the Eurozone.

Obama is set to announce a comprehensive strategy on ISIS — much better than “no strategy,” we hope.

And in the Ukraine, Russia’s President Putin and Ukraine’s President Poroshenko announced a cease-fire and potential peace agreement.

But at the end of the day, these kinds of good news are of the type “The roof is leaking, but the repairman says he is on the way…”    We don’t really know what the repairman will show up with, or if his efforts will do the job, or at what price.

In the Middle east, we are far from knowing whether Arab states will actively join the West in a coalition against ISIS, or what they will contribute.  Especially  critical is their following through on efforts to stop their private citizens from funding ISIS and other extremists; without starving the radicals of funds they will continue to fight on.

It also is not clear how deep the rot is in the Eurozone.  It was depressing that BOTH Italy and Germany had negative economic growth in the most recent quarter, and that France remains flat.  With the largest economies slowing or in reverse, how can the smaller ones hope to recover?  Draghi’s new playbook is an admission that the old one failed to do the job of reviving Europe’s economy.  A sick Europe doesn’t look particularly frightening to Putin or ISIS.

And for both ISIS and the Ukraine, we are a long way from saying the threat of violence and instability is over.  The war against ISIS is just beginning; and the evolution of Ukraine as a newly democratic state has just started.

So let’s hope the repairs on the world’s problems go well; right now we are waiting to see any hopeful results — and worried about the bill!

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Obama and the world

If President Obama wished to give substance to his belief that the U.S. is no longer the world’s sole superpower, or a superpower of any kind, he has certainly done so this week.  By admitting that has no strategy for responding to the Islamic State’s actions in Syria, including seizing a border post abutting Israel on the Golan Heights and capturing UN observers; and showing no prompt response to Russia’s confirmed movement of Russian heavy weapons and soldiers into Ukraine, he has shown the world that the U.S. is no longer planning to act as a global guarantor of international peace or as first responder to international threats.

So what will the U.S. do?   Evidently, very little.  No response to militias marauding in Libya; no response to the Islamic State’s expansion; no response to Russia’s now open invasion of Ukraine to sustain puppet states within Ukraine’s borders.

It may well be that the U.S. cannot respond to these threats alone.  A pact between NATO and the Gulf cooperation council is necessary to respond to the Islamic State; all of NATO and other European states are needed to deal with the war in Ukraine; and at least Egypt and Turkey and Algeria are needed to limit the depredations of Libya’s militias.

Yet Obama is not even acting to rally his potential allies to deal with these threats.  U.K. PM David Cameron is doing more to highlight the threat from the Islamic State, even if Britain can do little or nothing by itself to halt the Islamic State’s advance.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the western world and its allies are in a moment of grave weakness.  In Japan, Abenomics is starting to crack.  In Europe, the economy remains weak, with Italy back in recession and growth everywhere – except in Britain — stalling out.  Brazil, the world’s sixth largest economy and a major democracy, has slipped into recession.  Even in the U.S., despite a strong second quarter, economic growth for the first half of 2014 remains well under 2% at an annual rate, much less than hoped for.  Against this backdrop, enemies of the Western-led international order should feel emboldened to pursue their own interests, without much regard for a western response.

So we see beheadings in the Middle East, encirclements in Ukraine, chaos in Yemen and Libya, a hard anti-democratic crackdown in Egypt, the collapse of democracy in Thailand, and a host of other problems, with western nations apparently lacking any will or ability to stop them.

What will come next?  Either the U.S. — still the leader of the free world — starts to marshal its allies and assets to fight these threats, or they will grow worse and worse.   Truly severe sanctions, military countermeasures, and diplomatic successes are necessary to reverse the current trends of lawlessness and depredation.  Without that response, the U.S. will not be “safe” behind its oceans and money.  It will simply be another floundering late empire, destined to be cut off all around its edges by weaker barbarians, before collapsing at its center.  Time is not on Obama’s side.


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What is ISIS?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as the most terrifying and brutal of extreme jihadist groups (and that is against tough competition, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Why have such extreme Islamist groups emerged in so many places in recent years?

Odd as this may sound, it is not because of the appeal of extreme Islam itself.  A study of fighters in Syria by Mironova, Mrie, and Whitt found that most fighters join ISIS and similar groups because (1) they want vengeance against the Assad regime and (2) they found from experience that the Islamist groups take the best care of their fighters — caring for the wounded, supporting them in battle.   In situations of social breakdown — which are generally NOT caused by the Islamist groups themselves, but by problems of finances, elite divisions, and popular unrest due to oppressive or arbitrary actions by the state – extremists tend to have major advantages.

This has always been the case throughout the history of revolutions: moderates are usually outflanked and outmaneuvered and out-recruited by radicals; so much so that the triumph of radicals over moderates is a staple of academic work on the trajectory of revolutions, from Crane Brinton to my own.

Why does this occur?  In situations of major social breakdown, involving violence, disorder, and the collapse of established institutions, moderates — whose main qualification was usually experience in, and command of, those now-collapsed institutions — simply do not have the resources to establish order, nor do they have the drive and discipline to start from scratch.  Instead, they often are equally concerned about how to protect what remains of their position and wealth, and are distrustful of others competing for power.

Radicals, by contrast, start fresh.  They draw on the inspiration of their ideological cause, but that is not what matters to others.  What matters is that radicals are usually willing to make sacrifices, to embrace all supporters, and to build a new community to pursue their goals.  They are the most zealous in pursuit of what people want and need in times of collapse:  local order, discipline, a supportive community, and success in attacking perceived enemies.

Radicals thus add organizational power and discipline to their ideological message.  It is the former, not the latter, that draws in followers.  Yet the ideological message cannot be neglected; as I argued in my work on revolutions, once radicals are in power, that message shapes their post-revolutionary policies.  Extremists in seeking power are often extremists in power, which makes them so dangerous.  Moreover, those who initially join radical movements for discipline and community support are often indoctrinated and become convinced supporters of the radical cause.

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime that it views as more socially just (the Islamic caliphate) than the secular dictators it is fighting.  It is interwoven with several other conflicts that it did not produce but that have given it the opportunity to thrive: that between Sunnis and others Iraqis for control of Iraq, a conflict that goes back to Saddam Hussein and was heightened by the US invasion and the civil war it unleashed; that between Sunnis and other Syrians for control of Syria, a conflict that goes back to the founding of the Assad dynasty and beyond; and that between Sunnis and Shias for control of the Middle East, a struggle that goes back over one thousand years but has recently been inflamed by struggles among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates for domination in the region.  ISIS feeds off of all of these conflicts, and offers its followers a way to be powerful and secure amidst chaos.

This analysis indicates a three-fold approach to dealing with ISIS.  First, military reprisals to blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts.  These can only come from forces at least as well-organized and disciplined.  However, at present the only such force in the region is the Kurdish peshmerga; but this is a militia without heavy arms or air power and which has no ability to project power beyond the borders of its own enclave in northern Iraq.  Thus external forces — the U.S., or NATO — must play a major role.

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility.  In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness.  And as long as the main support of the Iraqi government is Iran, with its policy of seeking a strongly Shia dominated and anti-Sunni regime in Iraq, no Iraqi government will gain credibility with the Sunnis of Iraq who support ISIS.  Given that the Assad regime looks unlikely to topple given its support by Russia and Iran, and that Iran is unlikely to give up its goals to shape a friendly regime next door in Iraq, the prospects for the second step remain poor. This raises a huge strategic question for the U.S. — even if military intervention stops ISIS for now, how can the second phase of putting effective moderate regimes in power that will win supporters away from ISIS be accomplished?

Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group:  Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others.  At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty.  This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

In sum, America’s hasty retreat from Iraq left much unfinished business, which has now arisen in the form of the radical ISIS threat.  To contain that threat will require both a coordinated military response, and the sustained effort to create credible and legitimate government institutions that the U.S. abandoned too soon.  It may also require stronger efforts (air strikes similar to those aimed at ISIS) to undermine the Assad regime; as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed.  Once the radical threat has been defeated, then efforts can advance on moderating broader Sunni-Shia conflicts in the region and developing a general framework for peace (which would include Israel and Palestine).

This sounds costly and time-consuming.  It is; much as it took an international coalition to bring Napoleon to his Waterloo it will take an international coalition and sustained effort to bring down radical Islamist movements in the Middle East.  Yet the lesson of history is that without this effort, we will see the rise of an increasingly powerful radical jihadist revolutionary state spreading across the entire Middle East.  That is the present choice that our past choices have left us.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To get away from the depressing news of the day, from Ukraine to Gaza, I went to see a fantasy movie with my family:  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Except it did not turn out to be a fantasy.  Rather, it was a remarkably accurate parable on the causes of current global conflicts!

In the movie, a synthetic virus escapes its test lab (a standard science-fiction premise), killing most humans but endowing apes with human-level intelligence.  The apes — many of whom escaped from labs where they had been subjects of animal testing — move to the forests of northern California, while a few hundred surviving humans nestle in San Francisco.

At first, both groups simply want to live in peace in their separate areas.  But then the humans need to enter the ape domain to restart an abandoned hydro-electric dam.  They bring guns and in a moment of misunderstanding and fear one ape is shot and wounded.  This threatens to escalate; the apes make a show of force to the humans and urge them to stay out of ape territory.   However, a courageous individual human persuades the ape leader to grant a few humans a couple of days at the dam to start work.  The small group of humans is good-hearted; they want no trouble and even help provide antibiotics to the ape leader’s mate.

Yet the humans back in SF are fearful and so start arming themselves in case the lead party in not successful and the apes return.  A scouting party of apes sees them accumulating weapons, and judges the humans to be too dangerous to be left alone.  One of the scouts — an ape who had been tortured as a lab test animal and nurses a bitter mistrust and hatred of humans — wants a war to deal with the human threat once and for all.  His desire for war is so strong that he steals a gun and uses it to shoot the ape leader from a hidden position; he then pretends to “find” the gun, claims that humans shot their leader, and rouses the apes to war.

I won’t give away what happens next.  Suffice to say that we find out that there are good-hearted humans, good-hearted apes, and spiteful humans blinded by fear and rage, and spiteful apes blinded by fear and rage.  Sadly, the forces of fear and rage carry the day.

No doubt the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, would like to just live in peace.   Yet on each side, there are leaders who nurse old grievances and seek to mobilize supporters by fanning their fears — Israelis are occupiers, Palestinians are terrorists, Ukrainians are fascists, Russians are imperial tyrants.   As one of the apes sums up their situation: those willing to stand up for peace are few and shunted aside, the rest follow the leader to war out of fear.

Fear and anger then fuel real acts of war: Palestinians shoot rockets at Israeli civilians,  Israel attacks Palestinian rocket launchers to halt the attacks.  But the rocket launchers have been placed near civilian homes and schools, so civilians die by the thousands, fueling hatred and support for more war (like the ape who shoots his own leader with a human weapon to create a pretext to war, Hamas invites casualties on its own civilians to win world sympathy for its cause).

The movie certainly has this right — it is impossible for a small number of well-meaning and peace-seeking individuals, even in positions of leadership, to create peace when others are working even harder to foment hatreds, create pretexts and causes for conflicts, and want to have a war because they believe they can conquer their enemies or use violence to advance their own security.

Is there any way out in the real world?  Academic research on wars suggest there are only two paths to lasting peace: a clear victory by one side, or a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer so much from ongoing conflict that they consent to international mediation.

Israel/Palestine is not in either situation.  Israel cannot gain a clear victory over Hamas as long as its leaders have safe refuge in other countries, and the international community supports Palestinians’ claims.  But neither can the Palestinians hope to win against Israel.  As to a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer severely, that is not happening either; Israel is fairly secure behind its walls, its occupation of Palestine, and its “Iron Dome” missile shield.   However anxious and insecure Israel may be (and legitimately so, with millions of Arabs and several states openly committed to its destruction and having experienced decades of repeated terrorist attacks), most of the suffering is on the Palestinian side.

So the current situation endures:  Israel seeks to control Palestine out of fears of attacks, while Palestine periodically attacks hoping to win sympathy from the world and pressure for Israel to loosen its grip.   Neither side, at present, has any real incentive to change course, nor any practical alternative.  So the current situation of indefinite anxiety and insecurity punctuated by periodic short and destructive open conflicts goes on, as it has gone on for many decades.

The only way to change this situation would be for outside powers to purge Palestine of terrorists and ensure Israel’s security in return for guarantees that Israel reduce its military occupation of Palestine.  This would be somewhat like the agreement that ended World War II in the Pacific, with America promising to underwrite Japan’s security in return for Japan adopting a pacifist constitution.  Given, however, that Islamic jihadists are on the march in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and northwest and northeast Africa, with the world being unable to stop them, the chances for external dismantling of Palestinian terrorist leadership and security provision for the region are nil; that leaves Israel no choice but to manage its own security and for the current tragedy to continue.

In Ukraine, Russia would like to see a “hurting stalemate.”  Russia has shown it is willing — in its fortitude regarding sanctions — to endure pain in return for trying to cause sufficient pain in Ukraine for the regime in Kiev to have to accept a deal that would entrench Russian influence and relative autonomy in eastern Ukraine.    Ukraine, however, is pressing for victory, encircling separatist forces in Donetsk and shelling their positions.   What we do not know is how far Ukraine is willing to go to pursue a complete victory, nor how far Russia is willing to go to prevent that.

One hopes that international mediators can persuade both Ukrainian and Russian leaders that the costs of an open conflict would be so high that a face-saving settlement is preferable to the risks of continuing the military pursuit of their goals.  I fear, however, that we will see further rounds of escalation of both economic sanctions and military actions before a settlement is reached.

Go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It may not provide an escape from the real world — but it makes it very plain why war is such a recurrent situation, and so difficult to escape, for all humans.



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Israel and Palestine–Locked in Tragedy

It is impossible to truly say when the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine began.  Was it when Mahmoud Abbas engineered a joint agreement with Hamas to create a unified Palestinian government, and Israel refused to deal with it, saying any government with Hamas was a terrorist organization, thus leaving no way to negotiate a peaceful settlement of Israel’s blockade?   According to the NY Times,  the new government “offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.”  Yet Israel responded by refusing to recognize the new government and announcing 3,300 new settlements in the West Bank.  Was it when Hamas decided to continue taking in shipments of rockets from Iran and to extend its network of tunnels deep into Israeli territory?  Was it when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by rogue Hamas members in defiance of Hamas’ leaders?  Or when Israel retaliated by arresting 500 members of Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank?

However we got here, rockets are now flying from Gaza, and Hamas has refused to accept a ceasefire unless their demands are met.  Meanwhile, with unprecedented internal solidarity, Israelis are demanding actions to finally end Hamas’ ability to wreak terror in Israeli territory, whether by rockets or by tunnel-based raids.

Can Israel in fact end Hamas’ ability to harm Israelis?  That is doubtful, or will at least take longer than expected; one Israeli intelligence officer suggested it could take years of occupation of a border strip between Gaza and Israel to ensure the tunnels are destroyed and not rebuilt, and a far more intrusive blockade to ensure that no rockets or explosive materials reach Gaza (although even pipes and fertilizer can make home-made rockets capable of reaching southern Israeli towns).

At this point, Israel is brushing off claims of genocide and mass murder.  The tunnels represent a new level of offense and an existential threat to Israeli peace and security; the Israeli public and government is right in insisting they be destroyed.

There is no genocide here — Hitler rounded up Jews all across Europe on no other grounds than that they were Jews, and despite they never having threatened or  lifted a finger against Germany he ordered them to be enslaved and executed. That was genocide.  The Israelis are not rounding up Palestinians and sending them to camps for work or execution; the Israelis are not attacking people who wish them no harm.  Israel is responding to a regime that has not only called openly for the destruction of their state and the deportation of their population, they are responding to direct attacks on their people by rockets and to infiltration of their territory by tunnels for the sole purpose of making terror attacks.

When Osama bin-Laden planned an attack that killed over 3,000 Americans (the equivalent of killing 80 Israelis, in proportion to population), America responded by invading Afghanistan and pursuing a war that left tens of thousands dead and created over two million refugees.  It may have been a misguided and ultimately ineffective response, but no one claimed it was not a military response to a military threat.

Israel is killing civilians because you cannot pursue a war against an enemy that wants to destroy your state, and which is fighting an asymmetric war and basing itself in an area crowded with civilians, without civilians being killed.  That is as much a direct result of Hamas’ war-fighting strategy as it is of Israel’s response.  If Hamas had an air force and tank force capable of meeting Israel’s army in open battle then probably fewer Palestinian civilians would be killed.  But then many more Israeli civilians and soldiers would be killed, and that would be exactly what Hamas wants.

Civilian deaths and refugees are a tragedy but inescapable fact of modern warfare.  Until Hamas gives up its attacks and weapons used against Israel, (both rockets and tunnels), then both Hamas and the population that supports it and in which it shelters its activities will suffer.   The German population suffered massive bombings until Hitler was defeated and Germany surrendered; the Japanese suffered even worse bombings (both conventional fire-bombings and two nuclear blasts) until they surrendered.  Hamas will be able to stop the damage to the civilian population of Gaza any time that they surrender.  Until then, they will pay the price for having accumulated an arsenal of rockets and building a network of infiltration tunnels and choosing to use them to attack Israel, whatever their original motivation or cause.

Do the Palestinians have valid grievances against Israel and its occupation?  Of course they do — the Israeli settlements that invade their lands, and the treatment of their civilians by the settlers and the military that defends them, is wretched to the point of being intolerable.   Gaza had some support for access to food, medicines, and construction materials from Egypt before the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime; but the new Egyptian military government has tightened the blockade and wanted to undermine Hamas as well, leaving Hamas desperate to do anything to change the current situation.

However, none of that justifies rocket or terror attacks on Israel; none of that justifies spending scare resources and construction materials on building infiltration tunnels many kilometers into Israel.  West Bank Palestinians were building a case for membership in the UN, and mounting non-violent public protests against their treatment by Israel.  Those were viable strategies, although slow-moving and requiring patience.  The Hamas approach of staging terror attacks, seeking to provoke Israeli violence in order to win sympathy for the deaths of Palestinian civilians and children is a callous, cruel strategy, one that neither Israel nor the world should reward.

The unfortunate problem now is that however the current military campaign ends, Israel and Palestine are locked in an endless embrace.   The more damage that Israel does to Gaza’s infrastructure and leadership, the more likely Israel is to inherit responsibility for the population left behind.  “You break it, you own it,” warned Colin Powell regarding America’s invasion of Iraq.  That invasion was also a great initial success, with overwhelming force destroying Iraq’s ability to resist.  Yet in the longer run, America’s inability to create a stable, self-governing state from the ruins of its invasion created the even bigger problem of the Islamic Caliphate taking over eastern Syrian and Western Iraq today.   If Israel destroys Hamas by force, will the result be a Gaza warmly receptive to the West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas?  Or will the result be a broken, chaotic territory providing fertile ground for ISIS or other extreme groups to mount even more desperate suicide attacks against Israel in the future?

Israel can only extricate itself from this mess by getting an international authority to take responsibility for the Israel/Gaza border and play a more active role in the administration of Gaza.  Whether that is a UN force, or a joint Turkish/Egyptian/American force, or a NATO force is less important than creating some buffer between Israel and Palestinians that will provide the former with security and the latter with peace.

Clearly, the leadership of Hamas has not been able to promote peace, or even to abide by the terms of brief cease-fires.  Replacing Hamas may be necessary to move forward; but replacing Hamas’ authority by that of Israel, or of West Bank leaders who have had no traction in Gaza, will likely only move the situation toward greater violence in the future.

Part of the Palestinians’ turn to violence has been because they believe no one in the West has been sufficiently active in supporting their cause.  Perhaps once Hamas has been disarmed or destroyed, the time will come for the West to take a more active role; not to support the Palestinians against Israel, but to enforce security for all sides.

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New World Disorder — How we Got Here

The world is in extraordinary turmoil — a violent Islamic Caliphate overturning the borders of Syria and Iraq; a war in Europe pitting Russia and pro-Russian rebels against the new regime in Ukraine; Israel invading Gaza and trading rocket exchanges with Hamas; Egypt, Libya and Yemen disrupted by the Arab uprisings; confrontations among Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South and East China Seas; and gang wars in Central America driving thousands of young families and children across borders. Worse yet, Europe is caught up in its own internal squabbles, leaving the U.S. without the full support of its most powerful and reliable allies in dealing with these crises.

This is not what was expected when the collapse of communism ushered in a “new world order” based on universal support for liberal democracies! How did we stray so far from expectations? The answer is really quite simple. America ignored the twin lessons of World War I and II, and the more recent experiences in the Balkans, and forgot the vital importance of nationalism, the “dark side” of democracy.

The lessons of World War I and II are that ending a war and creating a durable peace are two wholly different things. At the end of World War I, the victorious allies thought that their victory had earned them the right to dictate the shape of the world to come. Imposing harsh reparations and penalties on Germany, and carving up the Ottoman Empire into French and British protectorates, the allies ignored the nationalist aspirations of Germany and various Arab and Kurdish peoples.   Yet those nationalist aspirations could not be wished away or suppressed. The result was a boomerang of German nationalism that triggered World War II, and an eruption of Arab Nationalism under Nasser and other Arab leaders in the 1950s and 1960s that kept the Middle East in turmoil for decades.

By contrast, at the end of World War II, the allies set out to craft a durable peace that would respect the aspirations of various nations. Although Germany was kept divided, West Germany was welcomed into NATO and became, along with its former enemies Britain and France, a key part of the European Union. Japan was pacified and disarmed but became part of a strong security pact with the United States. More importantly, multi-lateral institutions were established — the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, and world trade agreements – to safeguard international trade, enforce global peace and human rights agreements, and aid the development of the emerging nations. In short, enormous efforts were made to create a durable peace that constructively engaged both friends and former foes.

At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, American faced another moment like that at the end of World War I and II. What should have happened was for America to lead an effort to create new multi-lateral institutions to ensure a post-Cold War peace.   This would have included a stronger EU leadership that was capable of giving Europe an effective foreign policy and a unified banking and currency system; an expansion of NATO to end the focus on anti-Soviet operations and instead embrace a global role promoting democracy and human rights, with NATO partners such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand fully integrated into a new global security alliance; and rules to add membership and voting rights for newly emerging nations as they inevitably gained economic and demographic weight in a post-superpower world.

Instead, the US acted much like the victors in WWI. Under neo-conservative leaders, America assumed its victory in the Cold War gave it the right to shape the world’s future. Seeing ourselves as the “sole superpower,” we unilaterally expanded NATO up to Russia’s front porch, and believed we could reshape Afghanistan and Iraq simply by taking out their dictators and calling for democracy.

Yet in doing so, America wholly forgot the recent lesson of the Balkans: democracy has a dark side, namely nationalism, that can promote turmoil and bloodshed. When the Yugoslav dictator Josef Tito died, nationalist politicians began competing for power. After turmoil in the 1980s, the various nationalities that composed Yugoslavia began to break apart into ethno-nationalist states. However, the struggle for people and territory among those states led to war, ethnic cleansing, and revolutions. It took several years, a NATO bombing campaign, supervised negotiations, and two revolutions (in Kosovo and Serbia) to resolve the various crises in the region. Thus the lesson: overturning dictators in pursuit of democracy unleashes nationalist passions; it does not necessarily resolve them.

At the dawn of this century, the promises of Arab nationalism remained unfulfilled, and have transformed into Shia and Sunni nationalisms that are fueling current conflicts. The EU, having assumed nationalism would fade, is instead facing resurgent right-wing nationalist and anti-EU parties. In Russia and Ukraine, nationalist aspirations to overcome the humiliations of the Cold War and Russian domination, respectively, are playing out in deadly conflict. And in East Asia, the nationalisms of a booming China, declining Japan, and aspiring Vietnam and Philippines are set for further collisions.

Nationalism is a force that cannot be ignored. It can be tamed by a framework of international agreements that accord dignity and respect to the interests of diverse nations. But to ignore the power of nationalism and treat other nations with disdain is to repeat the errors of World War I.   One must hope that it is not too late for Europe, America, Japan, Australia, and other countries (Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey?) to work together to restructure and strengthen existing multi-lateral institutions to reflect current global realities. Failure to do so will leave us facing the real risk of a World War III – not the nuclear superpower war that some had feared, but a bonfire of extremist nationalism among developing nations that has already begun to sweep many parts of the globe.

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