Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The End of Europe’s Splendid Isolation

A personal favorite piece of early American wisdom, one that I first learned as a boy of ten and have never forgotten, is Thomas Jefferson’s injunction of “Peace and commerce with all nations- entangling alliances with none.” Of course, the world has never known a simple order of “peace and commerce,” nor have nations ever, in all of history, managed to avoid “entangling alliances”. To expect any country, big or small, to be able to conduct its foreign policy without partnerships of some sort is quite unrealistic. Unless you’re Switzerland, which has a very unique geography and history, sooner or later any country is bound to get caught in the snares of international politics whether they want to or not.

In my last post, I discussed how many scholars and practitioners of foreign policy and international relations have become burdened with the task of making sense of the “new” world we live in. It has become somewhat vogue to draw parallels with the state of affairs in 2014 with those of 1914. Of course there are indeed many similarities, and anyone familiar with my writing knows that I am a major advocate of using history as a guiding light for modern issues. But I accept the use of history as a compass only up to a point.

Nevertheless, if there is one lesson we can definitively draw from, it’s that no matter how hard a nation or polity tries to prevent itself from being ensnared in the tangles of international politics, sooner or later (again, unless you’re Switzerland), you are bound to get caught up in the throes of international politics. America’s founders had a vision for a quiet and peaceful United States, and aside from some foreign adventures the US managed to pursue a relatively isolationist policy on the global stage. That definitively came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War. Now it seems that the new Europe of the post Cold-War era, which seemed to be enjoying an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity and stability, is once again being dragged out of its blissful aloofness from the troubles of the chaotic global order.

Pope Francis recently warned of the beginning of a “piecemeal” World War III, which he believes has already begun, given all of the localized conflicts that have spread around the world. While I appreciate the pontiff’s calling out the horrendous situation developing across the world, the parallels between 2014 and 1914 are far from a perfect facsimile. Some scholars have pointed out the relatively isolated and (numerically-speaking, in terms of costs and casualties) low-calorie conflicts that have emerged across the world, which were the impetus for the Pope’s statement. Nevertheless, the international political landscape as a whole bears marked contrasts, along with some similarities, to the way it looked a century ago.

In brief, the First World War was essentially started because the rivalries between several great powers became entangled in a set of geopolitical alliances. All it took was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a street in Sarajevo, and soon colonial troops as far-flung as the Namib Desert in Southern Africa and some of the lesser islands in the Pacific were fighting each other in the name of distant European imperial metropolitans. True, the assassination was one isolated event that took place in some “silly place called the Balkans” (as one leading German public figure of the time predicted where a war in Europe would start). But it seems unlikely now that a true “world war” will emerge due to one incident or even one conflict.

The Second World War--again, in an incredibly simplistic overview given the scope of this blog post--was started in many ways due to unresolved issues from the first war. Again, that’s a great over-simplification, but for our purposes it will have to do. One thing that distinguished the first and second wars from each other was that in the first, empires had already been more-or-less established. The second war involved a greater amount of imperial expansionism--Germany’s Lebensraum and Japan’s thirst for more land and resources to satisfy national glory and an increasing industrial base.

Today, Twitter memes of Putin and the streets of Aleppo have replaced the Punch magazine caricatures from Edwardian England featuring “Kaiser Bill” (which are quite funny, by the way). The US and Russia have also continued to jockey for power, particularly in East Asia to assert their own strategic positions and, in the case of the US, to contain China. Yet the political and social landscape of today is vastly different from that of yesteryear. The throngs of young men responding to the Lord Kitchener posters, lying about their age and desperate to get into the “good fight” are nowhere to be seen, and instead we in the West have developed little appetite for any more war. Nowhere is this more apparent than our retreat from the Middle East, followed by a much less conspicuous return in the form of airstrikes against IS, and in NATO’s highly-cautious treatment of the situation in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, one thing that we can certainly draw a parallel between is the Britain of the early 20th century and the Europe of the early 21st. Britain’s foreign policy through much of the 19th century was described by the phrase “splendid isolation,” meaning that, aside from the Indian Mutiny or the odd war with the Boers or Zulus in Southern Africa, Britain was able to escape from the majority of bloody conflicts that has beleaguered the other great European powers throughout much of the century.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Britain found she could no longer remain free from the snares of continental security and balance-of-power politics. Indeed, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm even stated his desire to end Britain’s “free ride on the coattails” of other European powers. Today we see a similar situation unfolding, in which Europe is no longer able to depend exclusively on the United States for its security.  In Of Paradise and Power, Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan likens modern Europe to a retirement home, which essentially farms out its security to the United States.

Of course, some European powers have begun “pulling their weight” by intervening in the crises in Libya and the Sahel regions. But now the combination of preparing NATO to defend against further Russian aggression on the continent along with more coalition-style intervention by European powers against the Islamic State shows that there is a greater universality to the nature of Europe’s security complex.

While I don’t think we are “reliving 1914” or on the cusp of “World War Three” as many have postulated, I do think we can agree that the era of Europe’s relatively comfortable position and freedom from security threats is over. Perhaps we will see the rise of a Europe once again that is more willing to take up arms. While many had hoped that after such a blood-soaked history on the European continent, Europe would finally come to enjoy a measure of peace. But it seems Europe will have no such privileged position. True peace in international relations, it seems, can only be temporary.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Class of 9/11

In the spring of 2005, when I was a graduating high school senior, TIME Magazine ran a cover feature titled “The Class of 9/11,” which displayed cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The phrase was originally coined by National Public Radio to refer to the graduating high school class of 2005, and how we had to deal with aspects of being teenagers during those years.

The TIME article detailed how the graduating class at West Point, which were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army, entered as freshmen candidates just before the nature of America's war-fighting and the security issues changed dramatically. In the course of their studies, the cadets learned a whole new set of strategy, tactics and other war-fighting methods. In fact, however, so would their would-be commanders and the policymakers governing the U.S. military. The West Point graduating class members were told that they were "a special group forged by historic events."

In many ways, however, all of us foreign policy professionals who have developed our careers in the post-9/11 era can be considered a sort of “class of 9/11.” Not so much because of the direct effects of that single, horrible event on our academic, policy and practical execution of international relations and foreign policy, but because that day marked the beginning of a new era in which, over the course of the next decade-and-a-half, we all would have to learn, or really re-learn, how to contend with a multi-faceted and new world order.

Indeed, that horrific event did mobilize an entire generation of professionals: young men and women in uniform, ambitious youth aspiring to become intelligence analysts and other Middle East and security experts, etc. Over a decade later, many people continue to be attracted to the world of international security and foreign policy out of sheer interest as well as a desire to serve their country. Yet for all noble intentions, we must be wary of two potential pitfalls: the tendency to become too narrowly focused on one issue or region, and not being able to adapt our analytical frameworks to the changing realities of the times.

Thirteen years after the events of what I often refer to as “Bloody Tuesday” in my own mind, we face a Middle East that is worse-off and more unstable and insecure, thanks in no small part to the Islamic State, as well as a renewed Russian threat to European security, and festering geopolitical tensions in the northern and southern parts of East Asia. This is to say nothing of the narco-insurgency occurring on the U.S.’s southern border, and the horrible ravaging of the Ebola virus in West Africa, among other things.

Some scholars, such as my biggest intellectual hero Robert D. Kaplan,the prominent geopolitical analyst, have asserted that old historic tensions, which were suspended during the Cold War, are now re-emerging. Still others have even attempted to draw parallels between the year 2014 and 1914. Indeed, while the common wisdom is that “the world is getting smaller,” “the world is flat” or even “we are all getting closer together,” the reality is that what has changed is not the level of integration among nations, but rather the speed with which we are able to move and exchange ideas, goods and capital. The volume of international trade is not that much bigger now, relative to the size of national economies, than it was 100 years ago.

Thus, in some ways we are not in uncharted territory, but rather must regain our footing after the academic, policy and other facets of foreign policy have grown used to a Cold War order. The biggest task we face as academics and practitioners in this new era is to define exactly what we mean by “post-Cold War” and “post-9/11.” With so many issues flaring up in a plethora of regions around the world, we must take care not to hyper-focus on one part of the world, and not allow ourselves to be beholden to antiquated ways of thinking about our world.

After over twenty years without a clear purpose, NATO is re-calibrating itself in the face of Russian aggression and expansion. The Middle East is now not only ravaged by ruthless dictators, but also by a chaotic and violent vacuum of power and institutional authority. With the specter of “mutually-assured destruction” between two nuclear superpowers gone, we have forgotten that nuclear weapons are still a major instrument in many regional geopolitical conflicts (such as India and Pakistan).

Perhaps then, the biggest issue facing all of us involved in various aspects of international relations and foreign policy is that we still are a “class of 9/11” in that, rather than graduating seniors, we are still the awkward, insecure and unknowing freshmen trying to figure out our way. Maybe we, just as we were in our teenage years, too cool to listen to those who have gone before us.  But, if you ask me, we ignore the lessons of the past at our peril. At the same time, of course, we must remember that this is not a perfect repeat of history, and that we must adapt and innovate based on new realities. Perhaps the “class of 9/11,” which must contend with the issues while still remaining very much “in school”, can combine the best of our past guidance with our own flexibility and creativity in analyzing and executing foreign policy.