Sunday, August 31, 2014


Disgrace, also known as adding insult to injury. From the ravaging of the Benghazi consulate to this, the occupation of the abandoned American embassy annex in Tripoli. It is not surprising that the promoters of the gratuitous overthrow of Gaddafi are now largely silent.

As Talleyrand pointed out at the time, their game in Libya was ill timed, not just for poor, tragic Libya but also for a much bigger fish: Syria. Anyone paying attention knew in the spring of 2011 that Syria could become the central theatre in the moment some were then calling revolutionary in the Arab world. And anyone who knows anything about diplomacy knew then that all the prestige and power of the West and the affected regional states (not to mention Russia, then menacingly desperate to be seen, however pitifully, as a great power) had to come together to prevent what is, to date, the largest state collapse in recent memory, with the most far reaching consequences. If anyone thinks the contagion will stop at the Tigris in Iraq, or wait for outside powers to come up with a “strategy,” he is surely mistaken.

A good deal was squandered in the Libya adventure. But remembering how close NATO came to screwing it up (in good part because of America’s visible ambivalence over the wisdom of doing it at all), it is worth posing the question: was Gaddafi’s head really worth it? Prestige, power and public will are fragile, and sometimes finite. The action in Libya militarized the Western response to the Arab revolution. Someday things may look very different. But for now it’s hard to say that this was not a tragic case of too little, too soon.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

P.R. Laboratory

Over the years Talleyrand has developed a certain respect for the uncanny way Americans get what they want in the world. But he is wondering what it will take for them to stop treating diplomacy and statecraft as a branch of public relations. The last team that looked like they understood the job left office in 1992. Since then,

Mr. Clinton thought by saying all the right things, the world would get along. Then he changed his mind.

Mr. Bush (fils) thought he could say all the wrong things then shock and awe the world into doing his bidding. Then he changed his mind.

Mr. Obama thought he could say clever things and that the world would readjust to running itself on its own terms. Then he changed his mind.

Mr. Putin once said that Americans see the world as a laboratory. He had a point.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Conservative Idealism

Mr Andrew Sullivan, the popular Anglo-American blogger, has posted another small cri-de-cœur in favour of the retreat of US power which he calls hegemony. He makes a good case. The interventionists do sound like sad nostalgics by his account. How hard it is for them to give up the assurances they know so well, the standard operating procedure inbred over a half-century of world leadership…

Talleyrand worries that this will become the dominant view of the cognoscenti. For it is no less nostalgic, even romantic, about the use and responsibility of power. For all his sense of timing and fashion, Mr Sullivan sounds like a classic little Englander suffering from a higher form of knownothingism. It may not be fair to ask, but the reader wonders:  to how many lands has he been? How many languages does he know? How much of the world, splendid window vistas notwithstanding, has he seen beyond what lies directly in front of his nose?

These things matter because he writes from the capital of the country which still runs the world’s biggest economy, has the biggest army, the world’s lingua franca, the legal, institutional, scientific, and educational infrastructure and human capital upon which much of the world still depends, the most to contribute to keeping the world as safe and as orderly as it can be, and the most at stake. There is more to that world that ‘troops on the ground’; there is more to it than slogans and admonitions. The world, the ‘real world’, as sceptical, self-identifying conservatives like to say, is not so divisible. It is not so far away, across wide channels or vast oceans. It is here; we are in it. All of us.

Mr Sullivan should read more history. He is correct; America is no longer a super-power. But it ought to be, and behave, like a great power. For its sake and the world’s, its polemicists should end their theoretical debates over whether or not it should wield its significant power, and instead educate themselves in the best ways to wield it in collaboration with others, and realise, after having been so fortunate as to be on the winning side of three world wars, that just walking away from its global responsibilities now is not an option. Indeed it as dangerous and delusional in the longer term as knee-jerk interventionism may be more immediately.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

There is one question Western military planners should be asking now: how can the imminent war between Russia and Ukraine be "contained" to the eastern border regions of the latter?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Know Thine Enemy

A bit of historical empathy may be in order; or, as the Americans like to say, we need to stand in the other guy’s shoes every now and then.

When John Kerry accused Vladimir Putin of living in the 19th, not the 21st, century, he must have meant the early 20th. For the 19th century—at least up to the last Crimean War when, for a few strange reasons, Britain and France decided to terminate their half-century-long arrangement with Russia and switch sides—was a comparably peaceful and well-ordered period in Europe, when nearly every major, and even minor, power played by the rules.

Three times in modern history the powers of Europe were overtaken by passions and nearly committed continental suicide. Three times—in 1648, 1815 and 1945—their statesmen gathered to pick up the pieces by asserting a rather simple geopolitical principle: that borders should not be violated, least of all by passions. The final one, begun as it happens also at Crimea, took a while to set but finally, in 1975, did in something called the Helsinki Final Act.

Helsinki’s shelf-life was rather short. For the organization which underwrote it—the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—gathered in Istanbul in 1999 and declared, in the words of a well- known Czech-American, that “human rights trump sovereignty.”

In the meantime the borders of Europe had moved. Putin is told again and again that the 21st century mind does not think this way, and that Europe—especially Europe—has progressed to a new era of human society where Machtpolitik is no longer waged with maps, armies and gold. He could easily reply that this is what European imperialists have always said to defend and promote their empires. A German hegemony underwritten by American nuclear weapons and Chinese consumers is no different. And every year it swallows even more territory.

Thus it may be reasonable to depict Putin and his country as stuck in a time warp, “on the wrong side of history,” etc. It may also be reasonable to draw analogies not to 1938-39 but to 1999 or perhaps to a year before the Helsinki Final Act, 1974, in a place not too far from Crimea called Cyprus. Putin may or may not be a “revisionist” on a rampage. Or he may just be fed up at being lectured to by people who can’t get their centuries right.


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