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.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Predictable, and Predicted

The crisis in Ukraine has now become a tragedy. It probably will get worse. It is not too early to begin to examine the wisdom of the actions and policies of the country’s self-proclaimed allies.

The diplomacy of the EU and its 'Eastern Partnership' now appears to have been too little, and both too early and too late, not least according to the Americans, whose own contribution, leaked rhetoric aside, rates even less, and even later. If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna. Statesmen nowadays rely on something called 'people power' to do that. They have been, and will keep on, encouraging this, evidently, down to the last Ukrainian.

This is not the time or the place to denounce geopolitics; Talleyrand believes in little else, in fact, even when a concept like solidarity is tossed into the mix. The EU has been criticised therein for failing to put its money where its mouth is. So too have the Americans. It’s all very well to pass out cakes in the Maidan in a sad, singlehanded imitation of the Berlin airlift. But if solidarity really matters, where were the American do-gooders when so many uprooted Greeks, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish and other Europeans took to the streets in desperation during the past couple of years? 'F*** the EU' might have been taken more seriously there. Now it’s immaterial. The people of Kiev have begun to learn self-reliance the hard way.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bourbon Europe

It is a sign of today’s topsy turvy world that Western Europeans dismiss and debase the EU while Eastern Europeans clamor for it. It reminds Talleyrand of a certain line about learning and forgetting. The uprisings taking place now in Ukraine are sad mainly because they are so unnecessary. What will Vladimir Putin gain by having such people on his side of the ledger? More to the point, if the EU cares so much about Eastern Partnership, then why didn’t it offer the same to Russia? Even the architects of the Marshall Plan found it in their hearts to do so back when such inducements came in more sophisticated—and successful—packages. Today’s draftsmen of virtual borders should be careful. They may get much more than they wish for.


Monday, October 14, 2013


In watching the familiar drama now underway in the American legislature, Talleyrand is reminded of the portrait drawn by Henry Fairlie in his superb book about the 1960s, The Kennedy Promise, and of the cycle of expectation and crisis which then dominated the country’s politics. It is summed up in this paragraph:

It is one of the uses of political activity that it enables us to listen to the conversation of a society. Part of the justification of politics, therefore, lies merely in the continuation of the activity itself, the carrying on of the conversation. These—the activity and the conversation—take place in the political institutions which are today regarded, not least by those who should know better, with an ignorance and an impatience which are unprecedented. The character of a political institution seems no longer to be comprehended. No matter that the draft of its keel is deep; people expect it—trade union or party or legislature or department—to respond to fashionable cries. But a political institution of true value does not answer to these ripples; it feels the tow of public opinion on great issues, slow and undramatic, beneath the surface. One cannot neglect the fact that the total effect of the political method of the Kennedys was to bring the political institutions of the country into disrepute by the promise to transcend them.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The French Mandate

Alexander Stille makes a nice case for why the French have gone out on a limb over Syria. Yet he neglects to mention the fact that Syria (and Lebanon) were once under French control as a League of Nations Mandate. Perhaps this grants a special responsibility? (We recall that Iraq was under a British mandate.)

Some people have suggested that today’s Middle East is undoing a century of geopolitics: ending once and for all the Sykes-Picot division of postwar spoils. Sykes and Picot are long dead. But does anybody take a mass redrawing of borders seriously? Let’s pray not.

For now the evident sentimentality of some Europeans touches the heart. It also makes for a convenient explanation of why the French once reflexively took the Serbian side in the wars of Yugoslav succession while the Germans took the Croatian side, etc. Thankfully Americans don’t much go for this kind of thing: if they give a toss about a place like the Philippines, it won’t be because anybody knows about their occupation of it long ago.

Too much emotion is never a good thing, however. "A sentimental policy knows no reciprocity."


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