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A Philosophical Analysis of Anti-Americanism

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“One nation that manages to lower intelligence, morality, human quality on nearly all the surface of the earth, such a thing has never been seen before in the existence of the planet. I accuse the United States of being in a permanent state of crime against humankind.”–Henry de Montherlant

“Men admired as profound philosophers gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America, that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.”   –Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist Papers)

“America has not yet produced a good poet, an able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.” –Encyclopedist Abbe Raynal          

Anti-Americanism is one of the most powerful modes of thought in the world today. It is the lingua franca of the intellectual class in Europe and elsewhere. According to the French analyst Jean Francois Revel, “If you remove anti-Americanism, nothing remains of French political thought today, either on the Left or on the Right.” Revel might just as well have said the same thing about German political thought or the thought of almost any Western European country.

Paradoxically anti-Americanism begins in mid 18th century but not with the critique by Europeans but, believe it or not, with one of the American founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton who has Publius (himself) exclaim during a political discussion in the Federalist Papers that “Men admired as profound philosophers gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.” This is the notion that on the continent of America, due to atmospheric conditions, in particular high humidity, all living things are inferior to those living in Europe and that moreover they are in a condition of decline. That is to say, America was a dying continent. This is known as the “degeneracy thesis” and it was regarded for a time as cutting edge science. As such, it merited lengthy responses from two of America’s most notable scientific thinkers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

According to this bizarre thesis, no sooner did the Europeans debark from their ships than they began the process of decline, physical and mental. America, accordingly, would never be able to produce a political system or culture of any merit. This thesis could not in the end stand up to Franklin’s and Jefferson’s careful empirical criticisms, which demonstrated that nothing, on the surface at least, was degenerating at an unusual rate in America. Nature, as Jefferson put it, was the same on both sides of the Atlantic. But what their responses could not entirely refute was the contention that the quality of life and the political system of America were inferior. Precisely this claim lay at the core of the second layer of anti-American thought, developed by a number of romantic thinkers in the early part of the nineteenth century. These thinkers replaced degeneracy with a new theoretical foundation, arguing that the degeneration was not the result off the physical environment but of the intellectual environment: the very ideas on which the United States had been founded.

We have to keep well in mind that anti-Americanism, while having some elements of prejudice and sheer ignorance, has been mostly a creation of “high” thought and philosophy. Some of the greatest European minds of the past two centuries have contributed to it. The interest of these thinkers was not always with a real country or people, but more often with general ideas of modernity, for which “America” became the symbol. Hence the categories of “Americanization” or “Americanism” which they devised. Also important to notice that many who played a chief part in discovering this symbolic America never visited the United States or showed much interest in its actual social and political conditions. They resented the US usurpation of the designation America but then at the same time allowed that anti-Americanism should refer only to one nation on the continent: the United States. Americanization today, for example, is almost the perfect synonym for the general concept of “globalization.” It is hard to distinguish the two terms.

Although anti-Americanism is a construct of European thought, it would be an error to suppose that it has remained confined to its birthplace. On the contrary, over the last century anti-Americanism has spread out over much of the globe, helping, for example, to shape opinion in pre-World War II Japan, where many in the elite had studied German philosophy, and to influence thinking in Latin American and African countries. Its influence has been considerable within the Arab world as well. What has been attributed to a “clash of civilizations” has sometimes been no more than a facet of internecine intellectual warfare. It is vitally important that we understand the complex intellectual lineage behind anti-Americanism, for our aim should be to undo the damage it has wrought, while not using it as an excuse to shield the US from any and all criticism.

The romantics’ interpretation of America owed something to the French Revolution, which inspired loathing among conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. The French Revolution was seen as an attempt to remake constitutions and societies on the basis of abstract and universal principles of nature and science. The United States, as the precursor of the French Revolution, was often implicated in this critique. These philosophers’ major claim was that nothing created or fashioned under the guidance of universal principles or with the assistance of rational science-nothing, to use The Federalist’s words, constructed chiefly by “reflection and choice”-was solid or could long endure. Not only was the Declaration based on flawed premises, but so too was the U.S. Constitution with its proposition that men could establish a new government. “All that is new in America’s constitution, all that results from common deliberation,” Maistre warned, “is the most fragile thing in the world: one could not bring together more symptoms of weakness and decay.”

By the early nineteenth century, as the principal surviving society based on an Enlightenment notion of nature, America became the target of many romantic thinkers. Instead of human reason and rational deliberation, romantic thinkers placed their confidence in the organic growth of distinct and separate communities; they put their trust in history. Now, merely by surviving-not to mention by prospering-the United States had refuted the charges of the inherent fragility of societies founded with the aid of reason. But the romantics went on to charge that America’s survival was at the cost of everything deep or profound. Nothing constructed on the thin soil of Enlightenment principles could sustain a genuine culture. there was no real community in America, no real volk. America’s culture “had in no sense come up organically from within.” There was only a dull materialism: “The American knows nothing; he seeks nothing but money; he has no ideas.” Surely the image of a Donald Trump surfaces here. Even America’s vaunted freedom was seen by many romantics as an illusion. American society was the very picture of a deadening conformity.

A third sphere of thought in the development of anti-Americanism was the product of racial theory, first systematically elaborated in the middle of the nineteenth century. A mixing of the races was said to be either impossible, in the sense that it could not sustain biological fecundity; or, if fecundity was sustainable, it would result in a leveling of the overall quality of the species, with the higher race being pulled down as a result of mingling with the lower ones. The result would be mediocrity.

The individual most responsible for elaborating a complete theory of race was Arthur de Gobineau, known today as the father of racial thinking. Gobineau’s one thousand-page opus, Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, focused on the fate of the Aryans, whom he considered the purest and highest of all the races. His account was deeply pessimistic, as he argued that the Aryans were allowing themselves to be bred out of existence in Europe. David Hume and even Kant echoed this theory. America became an important focus of Gobineau’s analysis since, as he explained, many at the time championed America as the Great White Hope, the nation in which the Aryans (Anglo-Saxons and Nordics) would reinvigorate their stock and reassert their rightful dominance in the world. In this view, while America’s formal principle was democracy, its real constitution was that of Anglo-Saxon racial hegemony.

But Gobineau was convinced that this hope was illusory. The universalistic idea of natural equality in America was in fact promoting a democracy of blood, in which the very idea of “race,” which was meant to be a term of distinction, was vanishing. Europe was dumping its “garbage” races into America, (read South Europeans) and these had already begun to mix with the Anglo-Saxons. The natural result of the democratic idea, he argued, was amalgamation. America was creating a new “race” of man, the last race, the human race which was no race at all. Gobineau’s racial system was modeled on Hegel’s philosophy of history, substituting however, blood for Spirit as the active motor of historical movement. The elimination of race marked the end of history. It presented-and here one could, in his view, see America’s future-a lamentable spectacle of creatures of the “greatest mediocrity in all fields: mediocrity of physical strength, mediocrity of beauty, mediocrity of intellectual capacities.” And this mediocrity applied to all Americans. Paradoxically, the response was another extreme at the other side of the spectrum: the extreme of exceptionalism: if you are not born in America you are an inferior human, even when one acquires citizenship. One is liable to be asked: what keeps you here? Let us not forget that the extreme of racialist thinking in the early twentieth century served as the foundation of Nazism.

The fourth layer in the construction of anti-Americanism was created during the era of heavy industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. America was now associated with a different kind of deformation, this time in the direction of the gigantesque and the gargantuan. America was seen as the source of the techniques of mass production and of the methods and the mentality that supported this system. Nietzsche was an early exponent of this view, arguing that America sought the reduction of everything to the calculable in an effort to dominate and enrich: “The breathless haste with which they [the Americans] work-the distinctive vice of the new world-is already beginning ferociously to infect old Europe and is spreading a spiritual emptiness over the continent.” The spread of American culture was likened to a form of disease, or what came to be called the mentality of “technologism.” Americanization was defined here in the “economic sense” as the “modernization of methods of industry, exchange, and agriculture, as well as all areas of practical life,” and in a wider and more general sense as the “uninterrupted, exclusive and relentless striving after gain, riches and influence.”

The fifth and final layer in the construction of the concept of anti-Americanism-and the one that still most powerfully influences contemporary discourse on America was the creation of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Like his predecessors in Germany, Heidegger once offered a technical or philosophical definition of the concept of Americanism, apart, as it were, from the United States. Americanism is “the still unfolding and not yet full or completed essence of the emerging monstrousness of modern times.” But Heidegger in this case clearly was less interested in definitions than in fashioning a symbol something more vivid and human than “technologism.”

Heidegger in 1935 echoed the prevalent view of Europe being in a “middle” position: Europe lies today in a great pincer, squeezed between Russia on the one side and America on the other. From a metaphysical point of view, Russia and America are the same, with the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man. Even though European thinkers, as the originators of modern science, were largely responsible for this development, Europe, with its pull of tradition, had managed to stop well short of its full implementation. It was in America and Russia that the idea of quantity divorced from quality had taken over and grown, as Heidegger put it, “into a boundless et cetera of indifference and always the sameness.” The result in both countries was “an active onslaught that destroys all rank and every world creating impulse…. This is the onslaught of what we call the demonic, in the sense of destructive evil.” America and the Soviet Union comprised, one might say, the axis of evil. But America, in Heidegger’s view, represented the greater and more significant threat, as “Bolshevism is only a variant of Americanism.”

In a kind of overture to the Left after the Second World War, Heidegger spoke of entering into a “dialogue” with Marxism, which was possible because of its sensitivity to the general idea of history. A similar encounter with Americanism was out of the question, as America was without a genuine sense of history. Americanism was “the most dangerous form of boundlessness, because it appears in a middle class way of life mixed with Christianity, and all this in an atmosphere that lacks completely any sense of history.” When the United States declared war on Germany, Heidegger wrote: “We know today that the Anglo Saxon world of Americanism is resolved to destroy Europe…. The entry of America into this world war is not an entry into history, but is already the last American act of American absence of historical sense.” In creating this symbol of America, Heidegger managed to include within it many of the problems or maladies of modern times, from the rise of instantaneous global communication, to an indifference to the environment, to the reduction of culture to a commodity for consumption. He was especially interested in consumerism, which he thought was emblematic of the spirit of his age: “Consumption for the sake of consumption is the sole procedure that distinctively characterizes the history of a world that has become an unworld…. Being today means being replaceable.”

America was the home of this way of thinking; it was the very embodiment of the reign of the ersatz, encouraging the absorption of the unique and authentic into the uniform and the standard. Heidegger cited a passage from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: Now is emerging from out of America pure undifferentiated things, mere things of appearance, sham articles…. A house in the American understanding, an American apple or an American vine has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, or the grape that had been adopted in the hopes and thoughts of our forefathers. Following Nietzsche, Heidegger depicted America as an invasive force taking over the soul of Europe, sapping it of its depth and spirit: “The surrender of the German essence to Americanism has already gone so far as on occasion to produce the disastrous effect that Germany actually feels herself ashamed that her people were once considered to be ‘the people of poetry and thought.”‘

By 1945 Europe was almost dead and Heidegger refused to show any regrets for joining the Nazi party, but not quite. It might still put itself in the position of being ready to receive what Heidegger called “the Happening,” but only if it were able to summon the interior strength to reject Americanism and push it back to the other hemisphere on the other side of the Atlantic. Heidegger’s political views are commonly deplored today because of his early and open support of Nazism, and many suppose that his influence on subsequent political thought in Europe has been meager. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Heidegger’s major ideas were sufficiently protean that with a bit of tinkering they could easily be adopted by the Left as well as the right who is now also anti-American. Following the war, Heidegger’s thought, shorn of its national socialism but fortified in its anti-Americanism, was embraced by many on the left, often without attribution. Through the writings of thinkers like John-Paul Sartre, “Heideggerianism” was married to communism, and this odd coupling became the core of the intellectual Left in Europe for the next generation.

Communist parties, for their own obvious purposes, seized on the weapon of anti-Americanism. They employed it with such frequency and efficacy that it widely came to be thought of as a creation of communism that would vanish if ever communism should cease. The collapse of communism has served, on the contrary, to reveal the true depth and strength of anti-Americanism. Uncoupled from communism, which gave it a certain strength but also placed limits on its appeal, anti-Americanism has worked its way more than ever before into the mainstream of European thought. Only one claw of the infamous Heideggerian pincer now remains, one clear force threatening Europe. If Europe once found identity in being in “the middle” (or as a “third force”), many argue today that it must find its identity in becoming a “pole of opposition” to America (and the leader of a “second force”). NATO ought to be thrown out the window, never mind the threat of Russia and the common roots of what is called the West.

Emmanuel Todd develops this logic in his book on the clash of civilizations, arguing that Europe should put together a new “entente” with Russia and Japan that would serve as a counterforce to the American empire. There is a great need today for both Europeans and Americans to understand the career of this powerful doctrine of anti-Americanism. As long as its influence remains, rational discussion of the practical differences between America and Europe becomes more and more difficult. No issue or question is addressed on its merits, and instead commentators tend to reason from conclusions to facts rather than from facts to conclusions. Arguments, no matter how reasonable they appear on the surface, are advanced to promote or confirm the pre-existing concept of America constructed by Heidegger and others.

In the past, European political leaders had powerful reasons to resist this approach. Such practical concerns as alliances (NATO, for example) the personal ties and contacts forged with American officials, commercial relations, and a fear of communism worked to dampen anti-Americanism. But of late, European leaders have been tempted to use anti-Americanism as an easy way to court favor with parts of the public, especially with intellectual and media elites. This has unfortunately added a new level of legitimacy to the anti-American mindset. Not only does anti-Americanism make rational discussion impossible, it threatens the idea of a community of interests between Europe and America. Indeed, it threatens the idea of the West itself.

According to the most developed views of anti-Americanism, there is no community of interests between the two sides of the Atlantic because America is a different and alien place. To “prove” this point without using such obvious, value-laden terms as “degeneracy” or the “site of catastrophe,” proponents invest differences that exist between Europe and America with a level of significance all out of proportion with their real weight. True, Europeans spend more on the welfare state than do Americans, and Europeans have eliminated capital punishment while many American states still employ it. But to listen to the way in which these facts are discussed, one would think that they add up to different civilizations. This kind of analysis goes so far as to place in question even the commonality of democracy. Since democracy is now unquestionably regarded as a good thing-never mind, of course, that such an attachment to democracy arguably constitutes the most fundamental instance of Americanization-America cannot be a real democracy. And so it is said that American capitalism makes a mockery of the idea of equality, or that low rates of voting participation disqualify America from being in the camp of democratic states.

Hardly any reasonable person today would dismiss the seriousness of many of the challenges that have been raised against “modernity.” Nor would any reasonable person deny that America, as one of the most modern and the most powerful of nations, has been the effective source of many of the trends of modernity, which therefore inevitably take on an American cast. But it is possible to acknowledge all of this without identifying modernity with a single people or place, as if the problems of modernity were purely American in origin or as if only Europeans, and not Americans, have been struggling with the question of how to deal with them.

Anti-Americanism has become the lazy person’s way of treating these issues. It allows those using this label to avoid confronting some of the hard questions that their own analysis demands be asked. To provide just one striking example, America is regularly criticized for being too modern (it has, for example, developed “fast food”), except when it is criticized for not being modern enough (a large portion of its population is still religious and that makes it medieval and not modern). Which way do we want it?

A genuine dialogue between America and Europe will become possible only when Europeans start the long and arduous process of freeing themselves from the grip of anti-Americanism-a process, fortunately, that several courageous European intellectuals have already launched. One that jumps to mind is Jurrgen Habermas and his notion of multiple modernities.

But it is also important for Americans not to fall into the error of using anti-Americanism as an excuse to ignore all criticisms made of their country and responding with an equally misguided approach: we don’t want to be Europeans. European conceived as an insult of sort; but our roots are surely Europeans, at least partially so. This temptation is to be found far more among conservative intellectuals than among liberals, who have traditionally paid great respect to the arguments of anti-American thinkers. Much recent conservative commentary has been too quick to dismiss challenges to current American strategic thinking and immediately to attribute them, without sufficient analysis, to the worst elements found in the historical sack of anti-Americanism, from anti-technologism to anti-Semitism. It would be more than ironic-it would be tragic-if in combating anti-Americanism, we were to embrace an ideology of anti-Europeanism, but that, I strongly suggest, is the challenge we face on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

Note: This article has recemtly appeared in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Tackling migration crises: Fighting corruption may help

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Increasing numbers of migrants are moving towards the Belarus/Poland border.photo: Belarus Red Cross

Twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Rasheed was at a loss after returning to Iraq from a grueling failed attempt to cross the Belarus-Polish border. “There’s no life for us here. There are no jobs; there is no future,” he told a Washington Post reporter.

Another man, who had just disembarked from a repatriation flight from the Belarus capital of Minsk to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, frowned and obscured his face with a scarf, according to the reporter, as he responded to a question about why he had left.

“Those words cannot leave my mouth. Who dares to tell the truth here?” the man said.

The two men were returning to a country whose population has largely been excluded from sharing in the benefits of its oil wealth. Youth unemployment hovers at about 25 per cent. Public good and services are poor at best. Security forces and militias crackdown on and fire live ammunition at protesters demanding wholesale change.

Mohammed and his fellow returnee could have been from Lebanon, a middle-income country in which three-quarters of the population lives under the poverty line thanks to a corrupt elite unwilling to surrender vested interests irrespective of the cost to others.

In fact, they could have been from any number of countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and their African and Asian peripheries.

Almost half of the youth from non-Gulf countries in the Middle East and North Africa want nothing more than to leave in the absence of opportunities and prospects. They are exasperated with corrupt, self-serving elites.

This is a part of the world where devastating wars have wracked Syria, Yemen, and Libya. More recently, these countries were joined by Ethiopia while others in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel reel from jihadist violence that feeds on social and economic grievances.

To primarily hold responsible for the migrant crisis, human traffickers and cynical authoritarian leaders like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who are willing to play power games and turn a profit on the back of innocent men, women, and children is swatting at symptoms of a problem that goes to the root of instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

To be sure, Mr. Lukashenko and the traffickers are part of the problem. Moreover, many Middle Easterners on the Belarus-Polish border appear to be economic, not political refugees with a legal right to asylum.

One could argue that the European Union’s refusal to take in the refugees on humanitarian grounds led to their repatriation to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, which may have shortened their ordeal. Many risked being ultimately rejected, even if they had been granted entry to the EU because they were not political refugees.

The jury is out on whether the refusal will serve as a warning to the many in the Middle East and North Africa contemplating ways to get to Europe by hook or by crook.

All of this describes the immediate aspects of a dramatic crisis. The danger is that the focus on the immediate will obstruct badly needed thinking of ways to prevent or reduce the risk of future such crises and human suffering, aggravated by the willingness of governments to fight their battles on the backs of the least protected.

The framing of the crisis as a security rather than a political, economic, and social problem further takes away from the development of policies and tools to tackle the root causes of repeated migrant crises – economic mismanagement; political, economic, and financial corruption; nepotism; and loss of confidence in political systems and leadership.

“Addressing population challenges, the youth bulge, and refugee and migration pressure from natural or man-made crises will require measures to promote sustainable economic growth and enhanced educational and healthy capacities,” said George M. Feierstein, senior vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department official with multiple postings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Acknowledging that a broader US policy focus is likely to prove more challenging than one narrowly concentrated on security, Mr. Feierstein argued that the United States could “bring assets to the table that could potentially enhance its role in the region and strengthen its position as the preeminent outside power.” The former diplomat was referring to big power rivalry with China and Russia in the Middle East and North Africa.

Adopting Mr. Feierstein’s policy prescription would involve greater emphasis on regional approaches to global challenges, including climate change and public health; conflict management and resolution efforts to safeguard populations and minimize internal displacement and migration; and institutional capacity and resilience building; all backed by greater US private sector engagement.

Kyrgyzstan has potentially emerged in what could provide evidence that a de-emphasis of the security aspects of the migration crisis would not automatically surrender real estate and /or leverage and influence to China and Russia.

Part of a Central Asian world sandwiched between Russia and China on which the United States has seemingly turned its back with its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is using his election pledges to fight corruption and offer financial rewards to whistleblowers to lure the US back.

Mr. Japarov’s proposition, designed to rescue Kyrgyzstan from the clutches of Russia and China, is the central theme of a document that he has sent to the US State Department. The document outlines proposals to revive a broad political, economic, and civic engagement with the US bolstered by anti-corruption measures and affirmation of democratic freedoms.

S. Frederick Starr, founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suggested that Mr. Japarov is providing a template for US reengagement with Central Asia and Afghanistan. In fact, the Kyrgyz president is offering a formula equally relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.

If adopted by the Biden administration, Kyrgyzstan “would become ‘The Mouse that Roared’ to cite the title of the droll 1959 British film.  This time, however, the lesser power will have advanced its cause not by threatening military action…but with a sensible proposal by which a great power—the United States—…can once more become a serious presence in a major part of Asia that lies on China’s and Russia’s doorstep,” Mr. Starr said.

In contrast to Central Asia, the United States remains the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa. But it’s a power seeking to redefine the role it wishes to play going forward in a region struggling to come to grips with an uncertain but changing US approach.

Kyrgyzstan could be showing the way for both United States and the Middle East. However, to make it work and reduce, if not stop, migration flows, the United States and its Western partners would have to prioritise confronting corrupt elites who will stop at nothing, including displacing populations, to preserve their illicitly gained privileges.

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An election, another one, and yet another one: Will Bulgaria finally have a functioning government?

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As of November, Bulgarian voters headed to the polls four times this year. Therefore, the news of a new election evokes little surprise — almost like in Israel before Netanyahu’s ousting. In both countries, the tension kept rising while expectations became more and more modest with each successive electoral round. However, the contests that took place on Sunday 14th were of the utmost importance for the country; and not only. In fact, Bulgaria is the EU’s and NATO’s south-eastern bulwark and hosts a tract of the South Stream gas duct. Moreover, Sofia is currently blockingthe next round of EU enlargement negotiations over North Macedonia’s disrespect of extant bilateral obligations. Finally, the Biden administration has manifested the US’s renewed interest in the Bulgaria’s internal politics and international orientations. Thus, the result of the vote has wider implication for the European and Euro-Atlantic political and geo-strategic stability.

Background — Two failed elections

April 2021: How the parties ‘hung’ the parliament

Last April, Bulgarians voted to renew the sitting parliament in the general elections. However, after a summer-long wave of protests against the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, established parties looked rather weak.

According to most experts, this new season of contestation has mobilised new voters, previously disenchanted about politics. As a result, the parties and the leaders who casted themselvesas supportive of the protests increased their votes. In particular, the neo-liberal coalition Democratic Bulgaria (DB) got the support of the well-educated and those residing in bigger cities. Meanwhile, the personal parties Stand Up! Bastards Out! (ISMV) and There is Such a People (ITN) fished across the board.

But they cannot persuadePM Boyko Borisov’s supporters that his removal from office is a precondition for societal improvement. Thus, despite the many corruption scandals involving Borisov’s cliques, all polls forecasted his party, GERB, would have won the election.

Or, to be more precise, GERB won the ballot count — but without a majority (see Figure 1). Moreover, the indignation did not spare the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which sometimes vents sympathies  for GERB despite its corruption. In addition, the elderlies are overrepresented amongst the BSP’s voters, the party suffered from Covid’s increasing morbidity during the spring. Hence, the main traditional opposition party lost votes in favour of the abovementioned ‘protest parties’, weakening the wider anti-Borisov front.

Against this background, there was absolutely no chance of seeing a cabinet get through a vote of confidence. In fact, GERB won 75 seats and the DPS, an ethnic-Turkish party closely associated with GERB, got other 30. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had only 93 representatives on the 121 needed to form a government. True, the BSP managed to hold on to 43 seats — enough to make the protest parties’ eventual confidence motion pass. But DB and ITN refused to engage in serious negotiations with the socialists, forcing the parliament to disband.

The President scheduled new election in July.

July 2021: How politicians (did not) made it through another hung parliament

Most Bulgarian parties and their leaders failed to understand the real meaning of the election results in July. In fact, for the first timesince its appearance in 2009, GERB failed to win the most votes. In part, this could be explained arguing that a large share of GERB’s constituency does not vote ideologically. On the contrary, researchers hypothesise that support for Borisov’s party stems chiefly from the networks of clienteleshe has established. Thus, it was relatively uncomplicated for the President-appointed caretaker government to disincentivise practices such as vote buying and controlled voting. Either way, subsequent sociological analyses and available data show that GERB’s voters demobilised more than other parties’ supporters in July.

Conversely, the so-called ‘parties of the protest’ were the main beneficiary of the disengagement of GERB’s voters. True, most of the ITN’s, DB’s and ISMV’s voters were not ideologically committed to their party of choice either. Nevertheless, the results showed that protest voting can be powerful enough of a force to uproot an already-destabilised party system. In fact, all three parties increased their share of the vote and number of seats (see Figure 2). In addition, ITN’s votes increased in absolute terms by 92,000 units despite an eight-percent reduction in turnout.

After having seen the results, Borisov’s adversaries, especially President Radev, imagined the parties could agree on a new cabinet. In fact, GERB and the DPS lost 13 seats. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had as many as 112 representatives and the BSP was left with 36. Eventually, strong of its 65 deputies, ITN came up with the offer for DB, ISMV and the BPS. Essentially, ITN would form a minority “cabinet of experts” following an agenda agreed amongst the four parties. In other words, ITN came up with a confidence-and-supply arrangement which would have denied its partners any post. However, the populist reason which drives ITN’s strategy led to a massive failure although there was a draft government programme. Namely, according to several rumours, DB requested to rediscuss some of the cabinet members’ nomination as part of the agreement. Predictably, ITN’s preconceived denial to negotiate on the names caused DB’s rebuttalof the entire confidence-and-supply mechanism. Obviously, the BSP and ISMV opportunistically abandoned ITN’s wretched locomotive before the egregious failure of its government in pectore.

The President scheduled new election in November.

Yet another parliamentary… and finally a cabinet?

Considering the previous two votes’ result, it is unsurprising that few analysts tried to call the last electoral round. Indeed, much of this unpredictability stemmed from the decision of two President-appointed caretaker ministers to form a new party. Actually, the names of former finance minister Kirill Petkov and former economy minister Asen Vasilev were little known until May. However, the former’s intense public activity in the revealing the corrupt practicesof Borisov’s administration made him very popular. Moreover, Petkov’s rhetoric emphasises, unlike that of most other Bulgarian political leaders, dialogue, trust and teamwork— especially with Vasilev. Lastly, Petkov and Vasilev made a wit choice in calling their party We Continue the Change (PP). In fact, the name underlines continuity with the caretaker government’s activity and suggests a connection with its appointer, President Radev. After all, the President remains the most popular Bulgarian politician and PP benefitted from his informal blessing (Figure 3).

Overall, the results are surprisingto say the least (Figure 4). Although the turnout fell again to slightly less than 40% of eligible voters, PP achieved a convincing lead over GERB. At the same time, the entire political panorama changed dramatically virtually overnight. After a months-long decline, ISMV failed to clear the four-percent threshold to enter the parliament and risks disappearing. Evidently, the BSP continued its decline, ranking fourth – even after the DPS – and losing 54 seats on its pre-2021 level. Interestingly, PP seems to have syphoned offso many votes from the protest party par excellence, ITN, to shrink it to 25 seats.  The same dynamic drove votes from PP to DB, whose leader admitted the two parties’ self-evident ideological affinity recently. Finally, a nationalist ‘protest’ formationmanged to elect 13 deputies, remedying nationalists’ failures in April and July: Văzrazhdane (‘National Revival’).

Looking at the mere numbers of seats in the parliament, one would reach a simple conclusion. And some already say that the Bulgarians will soon have to deal with a new cabinet, with Petkov as PM. However, the most refined analysts have noted that the parties may fail to form a government for the third time.

Conclusion — What to look for in the next weeks and months

The most fascinating aspects of Bulgaria’s current election cycle is not new to those who follow Israeli politics, for instance. In fact, as it happened in Tel Aviv after Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, many feel changes coming. However, in Sofia like in Tel Aviv, there are still many unknown quantities to deal with in politics’ general equation.

Obviously, the reference is most directly to Văzrazhdane — this absolute newcomer to parliamentary politics. First, the party has adopted rather ‘atypical’ stances on, amongst other topics, Bulgaria’s NATO and EU membership. Curiously, most of the party’s propaganda material is freely and easily accessible online through social networksand Văzrazhdane’s website. Besides the fact that the majority of its activists and candidates are open to have an online chat with anyone. Hence, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of Văzrazhdane’s 127,568 voters is well aware of its ideals. Nevertheless, it may not be able to coalesce with a strongly pro-EU, neo-liberal and verticalized party as PP without denaturing.  Second, the party’s modest success may be more sustainable in the medium to long term than that of PP. Differently from PP, ITN, ISMV and otherBulgarian leader-driven political projects, Văzrazhdane has been growing up for year. In effect, a few sociologists and analysts were already singling out the party’s positive trajectory in July. Thus, its ideas may turn into a long-lasting destabilising factor for Bulgaria’s usually dull foreign policy in the coming years.

Furthermore, one can argue at length on what these results say on the state of Bulgaria’s liberal democracy. Sure, neither PP nor GERB are a serious threat to democracy as a procedural rule involving elections. However, both parties pose an unmistakable menace to the country’s already fledging liberal institutions. In fact, both Borisov and, in his short tenure to nowadays, Petkovhave shown little appreciation of parliamentarism. Moreover, Petkov embraces a brand of neoliberalismwhich implies a few carrots(e.g., raising pensions) and much more stick. In fact, he has only criticised entrepreneurs whom others have already associated with Borisov and promised not to raise taxes. In addition, he has an open feud with the Constitutional Courtover his dual citizenship — which invalidated his ministerial appointment. Finally, Petkov and his associated have approached the pandemicas a common-sense matterdespite the ongoing compression of citizens’ freedoms.

Therefore, the future remains unpredictable. Especially assuming that a Petkov cabinet would have the support of both the EU and the President. In fact, left unconstrained by Brussels in the name of stabilitocracy and supported by Radev to finish off his archenemy, Borisov, Petkov and his associated may end up rewriting the rules of Bulgarian politics in an elitist way. After all, they have already done it by violating all constitutional customs on caretaker governments’ self-restraint. Why not to try again?

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Europe

Engaging Morocco: A Chess Game Spain Does Not Want to Lose

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In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game they are playing and takes turns moving the pieces. In addition to the relative advantage of making an opening consistent with your objectives, you must anticipate your opponent’s moves and plan accordingly.

Morocco moved pieces on May 17 and 18, 2021, when it let in 8,000 immigrants in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish territory in Africa and external border of the European Union. It did so without warning, neglecting its functions as border guardian and allowing the entry of a mass of migrants amounting to 9.5% of Ceuta’s population.

This episode is of unprecedented character: it occurred in the context of a geopolitical change in the Maghreb, within an unparalleled worsening of Rabat-Madrid relations, and it was of an unmatched magnitude. The particularity of the event demands an assessment of the relations between both countries and of Spain’s strategy towards Morocco. Does Madrid know that it is playing chess with Rabat? Is it capable of reading the moves of Morocco in advance? Does it have an effective strategy?

Background

This act takes place during a period of dramatic change in the Maghreb area. Namely, hostilities over Western Sahara broke out again in 2019. Further, Morocco’s relations with Algiers have drastically deteriorated, while its relations with Europe have become more strained following the CJEU rulings in 2021 and conflicts with France and Berlin. Washington has increased its support for Morocco, recognizing its sovereignty over Western Sahara and providing arms supplies and military cooperation. In parallel, Rabat is making a pivot to Africa, strengthening ties with the Sahel and extending its diplomatic contacts with Nigeria, Senegal and other West African countries. These changes enhance the importance of Morocco’s movements and highlight the relevance of its interactions with its only European neighbor: Spain.

Relations between Spain and Morocco have always been conflictive and prosperous in equal parts. In addition to the positive aspects of trade relations, economic complementarity and cooperation in the fight against terrorism, there are also problematic aspects: territorial claims over Spanish possessions in Africa, maritime delimitation issues and immigration. Morocco’s rejection of the principle of Uti possidetis juris, seeking to change the borders inherited from colonialism, has brought conflict to its relations with its neighbors. With Spain, this is evident in events such as the Ifni War (Morocco-Spain), the Green March, the Perejil crisis and the events in Ceuta in May of this year.

In the media, relations between the kingdoms of Spain and Morocco are shaped by conflicts, such as the Perejil Crisis in 2002 and 2010-2011 without a Moroccan ambassador to Madrid. These confrontations, usually involving Spanish territories in Africa or issues of great public sensitivity such as migration or the Western Sahara, are short-lived and normally quickly resolved. As a result, relations between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical in nature and form part of Spanish domestic politics. This conditions that the high points in their relations never last long and that Spain’s responses in discussing the Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla publicly are avoidant rather than assertive. Within this framework, the events in Ceuta 2021 can be understood as a new setback in the development of complex relations.

These conflicts contrast with Spain’s deeply intertwined economic interaction with Morocco. Sectors such as automobiles, textiles and agriculture form part of the same value chain. Morocco is Spain’s second largest non-EU partner while Spain has overtaken France as the main supplier to Morocco. This responds to the concept of the “cushion of interests” put forward by Spain in the 1990s. The core idea of this strategy is that increased economic interdependence will reduce political tensions. According to this theory, since Morocco’s economy is more dependent on Spain than Spain is on Morocco, Rabat would be constrained in its political movements. However, given the frequency of conflicts between the two kingdoms, this liberal approach is of doubtful effectiveness.

The combination of frequent misunderstandings and growing economic interaction is not the only paradox to be noted in the relations of the two kingdoms. On the political level, the synchronization between the countries’ royal houses (mainly between Juan Carlos I and Hassan II in the past but also between Mohamed VI and Felipe VI at present) stands in contrast to the six years without the annual high-level meetings required by the Treaty of Friendship between the two countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Sanchez has broken with the Spanish tradition of paying the first foreign trip to Morocco, in place since the 1980s.

In short, the problems between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical and greatly affect Spanish domestic politics. Neither the strength of the commercial interaction nor the closeness between their kings are enough to smooth relations between the two countries.

The axes of the relationship between Spain and Morocco

The complexity of the relationship between Spain and Morocco revolves around six axes: migration, terrorism, energy, Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla, and the European Union. Each axis generates a series of opportunities and vulnerabilities for Spain, and it is the confluence of these axes that determines the ups and downs between the two countries.

The first of these axes is migration. Due to its sustained omnipresence in the media, it is the one that most concerns Spanish domestic policy. Sub-Saharan and Moroccan immigrants arrive to Spain through two different routes: by sea (to the peninsula and the Canary Islands) and by land (through the Spanish cities in Africa of Ceuta and Melilla). Since 1992, Madrid has increased cooperation with Rabat in this area.

Currently, the border externalization system is present in the repatriation of immigrants, the joint maritime police patrols, the joint police stations, the raids against massive assaults on border fences, and the construction and control of the Nador fence in Morocco. These projects are financed by European funds, which Morocco would like to see increase. This collaboration is asymmetrical: Morocco has sole control of the border, and Spain depends on its goodwill. Rabat, aware of this, does not hesitate to instrumentalize the issue.

The second axis is anti-terrorism and security cooperation. Collaboration in this area originated with the terrorist attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Cooperation now extends to police, judicial and intelligence cooperation. In addition, with the aim of controlling radicalization, Rabat appoints part of the imams in Spain. Here again, the asymmetry is in favor of Morocco. The Moroccan imams could position themselves in favor of the interests of their country of origin. Moreover, anti-terrorist cooperation is essential for Spain’s national security, and its potential loss would put Spain at risk.

The third axis is energy. The Spanish presence in this field is extensive, with participation in Morocco’s solar and wind power development and in its combined cycle power plants. In addition, Spain exports electricity to Morocco through two interconnections with the Iberian Peninsula, which accounts for 20% of the Moroccan demand. Spain used to be dependent on the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which passed through Morocco. Its closure in November 2021 has reduced this dependence but has posed a problem to guaranteeing gas supplies to Spain. In this field, Spain has the upper hand: it has vetoed the Mediterranean Solar Plan in Morocco (to avoid competition with Spanish renewable production) and has rejected a 3rd electricity interconnection requested by Morocco.

The fourth axis is that of Western Sahara. This former Spanish colony is of visceral importance to Morocco. In the heart of its territorial claims, the conflict remains ongoing since it began in the 1970s, and Rabat lacks international support on its position. Moreover, it is a topical issue, around which Morocco has recently won American support, French and German rejection, and on which it has declared that it will not sign trade agreements that do not include Western Sahara.

Spain faces a dilemma since it must choose between its public opinion (sensitive to the Saharawi cause) and its trade relations with Morocco. As a result, it maintains a dual position. Officially, Spain supports a solution through the UN, sends humanitarian aid to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, recognizes the Polisario Front as representative of the Saharawi people and rejects Moroccan claims to Canary Islands waters on the grounds that Rabat has no sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Nevertheless, it applauds the autonomy project proposed in 2007 by Morocco (which does not envisage independence), rejected the US initiative to extend MINURSO’s mandate to human rights monitoring in 2013, and defends Morocco’s interests (and its own) before the judgments of the CJEU on trade agreements involving Western Sahara. The complexity of this axis, which forces Spain to walk in two directions at the same time, is a threat to any constructive relationship with Morocco.

The fifth axis is Morocco’s claims over the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the Spanish islands off the Moroccan coast. Rabat’s endeavor to re-establish its “authentic” borders does not end in the Sahara, further extending into these Spanish territories, over which it has a permanent claim.

These territories have four problems.

  1. Economically, they are dependent on Moroccan trade and on Spanish subsidies,
  2. demographically, the growth of the population of Moroccan origin causes changes in the social structure that can be a source of conflict,
  3. international protection is relative, since the Spanish territories are not explicitly protected by NATO, and although they are part of the EU and the Schengen Area, they are not within the Customs Union,
  4. the islands do not appear in the Spanish Constitution nor in the Spanish territorial organization.

Taking advantage of these weaknesses, Morocco has used different strategies to strengthen its claims: economic blockades, vetoes against further integration into the EU, a rhetoric of colonialism, and comparisons to Gibraltar, and even the Perejil crisis in 2002, in which a small group from the Moroccan navy occupied one of the Spanish islands. This axis has a latent presence in the relations between both countries: although Madrid avoids its public mention, Rabat’s claims may end up in direct confrontation Spanish national interests.

Finally, the sixth and last axis is the European Union. Spain´s relationship with Morocco is based on the European Neighborhood Policy and on the Union for the Mediterranean. Besides, this relationship currently revolves around the provision of funds to Morocco for the externalization of borders, the agriculture and fisheries trade agreements, and the rulings of the CJEU on these, which since 2015 have complicated Brussels’ relations with Rabat. Indeed, Morocco has changed its attitude towards the EU since 2008, reducing its concessions, increasing its demands and adopting a more pragmatic discourse. In the framework of Madrid-Rabat relations, the EU has acted as an appeaser, reducing bilateral conflicts. However, Spain is limited within the multilateral structure, since it cannot impose its preferences and its power is confined to blocking initiatives (as it did with agricultural liberalization for example). Moreover, the judgments of the CJEU have poisoned the bilateral relations between Spain and Morocco.

What nowadays is cooperation in migration, security and energy, due to conflicts around the Sahara or Ceuta and Melilla may one day become an undesirable dependency. Too many issues related to Spanish national security are subject to Rabat’s goodwill. That is why the disagreements between the two countries cause so much commotion in Spain, even if they do not always revolve around each of the 6 axes described above.

Ceuta 2021 — Another crisis or a point of no return?

This article begins with the events of May 18, 2021, when Morocco loosened its border controls and allowed more than 8,000 undocumented migrants, mostly young Moroccans, to enter the city of Ceuta. The figure is unprecedented, around 10 times higher than what used to be received until then. It is worth asking whether this event is a simple downturn in the cyclical relations between Morocco and Spain, or whether it implies something different.

When the Ceuta crisis in 2021 is put into context, an extraordinary deterioration of relations between Morocco and Spain is observed, enhanced by unilateral actions by Rabat. In 2018, Morocco closed the commercial border with Melilla. In 2019, it toughened the fight against smuggling in Ceuta, hindering the border crossing and prohibited its officials from entering Ceuta or Melilla. To this day, this has subjected both cities to an unprecedented economic asphyxiation. In 2020, Morocco vetoed the entry of Moroccan fish into Ceuta and revived the dispute over the delimitation of maritime borders in Canary waters. In 2021, it installed a fish farm in Spanish waters near the Chafarinas Islands without permission. In recent years relations between the two countries have worsened gradually, camouflaged behind the Covid-19 pandemic and around issues of relative relevance, which only indirectly affect the 6 axes above mentioned.

In contrast, the Ceuta crisis is relevant in almost every aspect.

  1. Morocco is instrumentalizing immigration, leaving aside its obligations as border guardian.
  2. The Western Sahara conflict lingers in the background: the crisis was a form of protest by Rabat against the hospitalization in Spain of the Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, organized in an opaque manner by Madrid.
  3. Despite Rabat’s attempts to keep the crisis within the bilateral framework, it escalated to the European Union, where Spain received the support of the European Commission, the European Parliament (which issued a condemnation for violation of children’s rights against Morocco), and even of France.
  4. The crisis was followed by the reactivation of territorial claims over Ceuta and Melilla: The Moroccan Prime Minister compared the situation to Western Sahara.

Faced with the numerous and unusual vectors of this crisis, Spain must identify what objective Morocco is pursuing, and what its next steps will be. Rabat is obviously trying to capitalize on the momentum provided by the U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara and its vigorous relations with some of its African neighbors.

Moreover, the deterioration of relations has coincided with a deterioration of Spanish domestic politics, while Morocco is taking advantage of independence, government instability, COVID-19, etc. Is Morocco pursuing a strategy against Spain? That is what the Spanish intelligence presumes, without knowing very well what strategy it is. In fact, the CNI considers the Ceuta crisis not to be an immigration problem, but an invasion that can be repeated again. Rabat could have taken the conflict into a gray zone, in which case it would be establishing the environment, waiting for opportunities.

The current situation is not part of the cyclical pattern that characterizes its relations with Morocco. Ceuta and Melilla are suffocating, Spanish intelligence fears losing anti-terrorist collaboration with Morocco, Rabat is in a strong position, and Madrid is unable to recognize what Morocco’s next step will be, limiting itself to trying to put an increasingly entrenched relationship back on track. The impetus with which Rabat is pushing for the recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara, and its extrapolation of this to Ceuta and Melilla, suggests that the disagreements with Spain are not over.

In all this, Spain’s strategy towards Morocco is ineffective. The liberalism of the cushion of interests has failed. It was based on elements that were of national interest for Spain (migration, terrorism, etc.) but not for Morocco. The only sphere where Madrid has an advantageous position is energy: Spain exports electricity to Morocco, continues to refuse to establish a third electricity interconnection, and is receiving Moroccan requests for Spain to re-export Algerian gas. Moreover, Spain has learned that Morocco fears losing its reputation with the European Union and is trying to prevent the EU from getting involved in its bilateral relations. Thanks to the EU intervention, Morocco made a misstep during the Ceuta crisis this year.

However, everything suggests that Madrid is confident that the ups and downs will continue to prevail in its relations with Rabat and it accepts Mohamed VI’s invitation to inaugurate an unprecedented stage in the relations between the two countries. It is foreseeable, therefore, that Spain will keep Morocco as one of the two pilot countries of its Focus Africa 2023 plan, giving it and Senegal unparalleled attention in the development of constructive relations, and will export this experience to other African countries. In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game he is playing and takes turns moving the pieces. Spain knows that it is playing, but it has not realized that the game has changed, and that the chessboard is different. It has skipped several turns and, for too long now, its pieces have been sitting immobile.

From our partner RIAC

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