History on the Move Again

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 5-12 September 2014

The ‘ordering’ of the ‘non-West’ is undergoing a huge shift. Although this new patterning is still fully to crystallise, some of its emerging characteristics are becoming salient, and they portend important consequences, particularly for the future of Europe; but also in the longer run, for the US.  And it is the present conjuncture of events that seems almost certain to maroon Europe in the stagnant, but rapidly ebbing waters of its own domestic situation - whilst allowing itself to embark on dangerous escalation with Moscow, and an adventure in the Middle East that will result in burgeoning troubles at best, and the region’s virtual disintegration, at worst. Europe has put its own ‘project’ in jeopardy.

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow has written: “The quarter-century of Russia's efforts to find an acceptable place for itself in the US-led Western system have ended in a bitter disappointment”.  Not only have these efforts (including the Russian initiative to reach a settlement with the US by brining the Cold War to a close) ended in a sense of bitterness and feelings of slight, but it has upended a key political balance. The Atlanticist current in Russia has been routed, and the re-soveignitisation dynamic has become unstoppable.

What is so striking is that the almost equally lengthy efforts in Iran to reach a modus Vivendi with America over its place in the Middle East order, also are turning sour.  There is a palpable and widely held feeling in Iran now, that the (extended) P5+1 talks will bring no end to western sanctions.  In a key pointer to the meaning of this shift in political consciousness, Iranian Reformists last week received a drubbing in an important election for the Chair of Tehran’s City Council (a post more significant than it may appear).  In short, the vision of Iranian Atlanticists (Reformists) of being able to find an acceptable accommodation with the western order, like that of their Russian counterparts, has faded. President Rowhani is finding it necessary to re-position himself politically to avoid collateral damage.  And the Reformists will have to shift their posture too.

In one way of thinking, these events are unrelated – they are simply coincidental, having different ‘causes'. But in eastern thinking, when two events, reflecting a very similar quality, suddenly occur synchronously, one needs to look not so much at causality, but at whether a new more general ‘directionality’ and meaning is being reflected in events.

In the present fetid climate of info-war against President Putin, many in the West might (mistakenly) assume that the Russian President simply has always been anti-western.  But this is not so.  He, like many other senior Russians, once held to the Andropov thesis that the elites of America and Europe would converge (but not merge) sufficiently to be able to treat each other with mutual esteem. Putin was never a pure Atlanticist, but rather, was in the middle (between the Atlanticists and those favouring re-soveignitisation, which is the route by which he came to power).  But, now, with the Atlanticists wholly eclipsed, Putin’s Presidency, as one adviser noted, ultimately will be defined not so much by the his handling of the Ukraine crisis, but by his ability to articulate and define this ‘directionality’ – and to articulate a new concept for the Russian nation.

In fact, this ‘directionality’ has been around – in one way or another - for about 15 years, and can be traced back to Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s and others’ longstanding critique of ‘market-liberal democracy’. Or to be more precise, of democracy founded in a ‘market fundamentalism’ that reduced politics to little more than technocrats making markets ever more effective, and with foreign policy viewed as little more than another market – a market in international power, rather than of money.  Orban argued that market-liberal democracy failed to protect collective property (what is now often called ‘the commons’), loaded the state with debt, and more importantly, that its promise of prosperity for all, has proved to be an illusion.  He and his allies have sought to define an alternative that would better protect their own citizens. Critics have lampooned this critique of liberal western values as ‘illiberal democracy’ and a return to authoritarianism.

How to correct for these failings of western liberalism has been a somewhat, but not entirely, hypothetical discussion until now; but the Ukraine crisis has suddenly required the answers to this important question - not just to be given - but to be directly enacted. Trenin again: “Essentially, the Kremlin [now] sees Russia’s future as separate from the rest of Europe’s. [Putin’s] proposal for a Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, cold-shouldered by many in the EU, has now been finally withdrawn by its author … The Russians have been bitterly disappointed by the EU twice in the past six months”. Russia is joining the ‘non-West’.

But it was America’s adamant insistence to use its financial ‘neutron bomb’ (exclusion from the global financial system), and Germany’s readiness to support sanctions that has so shocked the Russian leadership – and  actuated a fundamental re-think about how the Russian state should protect itself.

Firstly, it gave rise to two main considerations: how to recover some real sovereignty and autonomy to Russia (hence the emphasis on an alliance with a China which largely has kept its sovereignty in Russia’s view; together with an opening for these two allies to disengage, when and as necessary, from the dollar-based financial system by creating an alternative financial clearing system) - and secondly, by generating greater economic self-reliance.

These have been the practical responses, but beyond these, the Russian leadership is considering how to consolidate the revived surge of patriotism (sparked by Ukraine) into a ‘non-liberal’ ethos - to serve as the new basis for Russian nationalism. A senior Russian political figure has described to CF, Russia’s strong conviction that the unfolding new world order will be crafted only by those who have managed to regenerate the vitality of their people - and who have recovered their sovereignty.

In Russia, this ‘new nationalism’ is taking shape through a reaching-back to traditional values (including Russian religiosity and spirituality). It is therefore no longer grounded in the purely secular mode of thinking. It looks to the role of the Orthodox Church in generating moral values based around the traditional family, and around the community of ‘being’ – especially in the context of the peaceful cohabitation of different ethnic groups throughout the country.  It comprises also a re-assertion of the social contract as requiring an empowered state sufficient to fulfil its primary obligation, which is to protect its citizens.  This concept of the state would encompass protecting core Russian values from aspects of a culturally interventionist neo-liberal zeitgeist - as well as from the consequences of market fundamentalism).  It also requires that the state be strong enough to protect itself from the vicissitudes of the western-dominated global order (including info-wars).

It is hardly surprising after the long era of colour revolutions and regime change initiatives, that a ‘strong state’ able to resist such incursions, should be being sought across the globe. History is indeed on the move.

The point here is that were we, very loosely, to substitute Iranian Reformists for ‘Altanticists’ and Principle-ists for Russians who favour re-soveignitisation, and change Orthodox Church for the Marjahiyya (the sources of moral emulation in Islam), there would not be a very great difference.  The same could be said for many in the ‘non-West’, including China and India.  In short, we are seeing many in the ‘non-West’ deliberately walking away from western liberalism – having ‘given up’ on it.  The latter effectively is now no longer their model for governance, nor does it reflect the principles by which they believe that the world should be ordered.

Though the Ukraine crisis, and the fading prospect of a P5+1 settlement with Iran, may have been partial catalysts to a ‘non-West’ block emerging, the main driver however, undoubtedly has been America’s manipulation of the global financial system in pursuit of its own financial and political ends.  Since the 2008 crisis - and the unprecedented and massive monetary expansion which followed it - the asset bubbles so created, and the concomitant dilution of ordinary citizens’ wealth - have become the very sine qua non necessary simply to sustain the financial system itself.

The noxious combination of the global monetary system being used as a devastating tool of political coercion, and of a monetary policy (excessive QE) that has hurt everybody (other states and all individuals other than ‘the 1%’), has turned into the true ‘recruiting sergeant’ for non-liberalism and an alternative (conservative) financial system.

Hence the surprise in Moscow: Germany understands this.  Germany initially seemed to be playing the long game over Ukraine: trying to act as a bridge to Russia in order to settle the crisis, but then (for whatever reason - it is not clear), Germany veered into supporting escalating sanctions – even as a ceasefire was put into place.

Germans know that Europe needs a new mission, a new definition of what exactly it means to be a part of the European ‘project’ now. The danger of Europe having no security policy autonomy (being tied to NATO), and of a European unity defined only in terms of its support for a declining, and increasingly dysfunctional power, were all the subject of hot debate amongst the German leadership. The crisis of the ‘liberal market vision’ is not exactly ‘far off’ either, but is right here at the heart of Europe too – with 95% of Greeks, 91% of Spaniards and 90% of Italians believing  their country to be heading in the wrong direction. Scottish secession, riots in Barcelona, the rise of fascism, economic recession: all the signs point to trouble ahead.

Yes, ‘old Europe’ at Newport did much to limit any NATO lurch closer towards Russia’s borders and maintained the 1997 Founding Act, nonetheless NATO - qua institution – still got its adrenalin rush. Institutionally it is on a ‘high’ now. The decisions taken at Newport are likely to lead only to escalating NATO-European-Russian tensions.  And the EU has chosen to impose a further round of sanctions. The Russia Ambassador to the EU has responded that Russia has no alternative but to take counter-measures.

It is doubtful that Germany can now escape the inexorability of the consequences to its decision to support further sanctions. Russia has moved on: Tensions will escalate.  Again we see strategic incoherence: What is Europe’s end game for Ukraine now? Is it to inflict a complete defeat of the Donbas insurgents (and on Putin)?  America, anxious that it is widely perceived to be a declining power, has laid on an (admittedly impressive) demonstration of sheer power to deny it is in decline (scripting and enforcing the narrative on Ukraine, demonising President Putin utterly, and dragging the EU into sanctions). And, as a further show of power, has enticed Europeans into a strategically incoherent war against ISIS - again just to show that America can go where it wants, and do what it wants. This will further roil the Middle East. The Europeans will soon find that they have no real allies in the region for this enterprise.

The consequences are profound: Germany, by reversing the European project back into the failing ‘box’ from which it needs really to find its escape, and by again only being able to find European ‘unity’ around the reductive terms of support for America’s war plans, has marooned Europe with its deepening troubles. By burning its bridges with Moscow, the option of re-imagining Europe in a different way – as an empowered 'Concert of Europe', for example - is gone. Indeed, we shall soon see that the eventual pipelines of Iraq and Iran will be heading East - not towards a western backwater on the Atlantic.  Europe too remains hostage to a global monetary system that requires more and more stimulus to prevent the financial system from collapsing – even as the effect of aggressive monetisation incubates more disaffection across the continent.

No, the auguries are not good.