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International Law

Civic and Ethnic Nationalism in a Populist World: Behind the Facade of Dichotomies

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Economy Building

The Rise of Anti-System Politics

The walk into the twenty-first century is marked by enormous structural shifts. The rise of neoliberal capitalism and the vulnerability created by financial crises has mobilized the politics of resentment. This process of asymmetrical development has created both the winners and the losers of modernity. The nuanced horizontal and vertical inequalities are giving rise to what Jonathan Hopkin calls the ‘Anti-system Politics’ or simply populism. This phenomenon is marked by the tussle of two homogenous groups; the people and the elite, which are at loggerheads with each other.

However, there is not any stream of anti-system politics; rather it falls at both ends of the political spectrum; left and right. It is marked by the Pink Tide in Latin America, rise of nationalist strongmen in the Central and Eastern European states, Hindu nationalism in India and the white ethnic nationalism in the Anglosphere. And the reason why the materialization of populism is distinctive in the spatial-temporal zones is because all the states have different welfare systems. They have distinct ways of filtering the effects of socio-cultural or economic changes. In doing so, they cushion some groups while exposing others to risks. In such a scenario, populism with its alternative action channel fills in the vacuum through its ‘moralist appeal’ to reclaim power of ‘the people’.

Both populism and nationalism being mass movements hold a focus towards the collective. And the ‘empty heart’ of populism with its ambiguous definition of the people, finds ‘elective affinities’ with nationalism. This profusion has further tangled the varying streams of anti-system politics. However, there are two similarities. First, all anti-system politics is about caching power. And secondly, it acts on myths of dichotomies. In furtherance, when the Kohnian civic ethnic distinction is applied to right-wing left-wing populism, the conclusions become mostly erroneous. It leads to an assumption that right-wing populism is nativist, exclusionary, and ethno-cultural by nature whereas left-wing populism is more inclusive and civic.But both civic and ethnic dimensions of nationalism are the part of populist politics. 

The right-wing populism of the BJP in India, Tea Party wing and Donald Trump of the Republican Party in the US, Le Pan in France and United Kingdom Independence Party in the UK are all marked by an appeal to right-wing populism. But in addition to that, these movements are not ethno-nationalist in the Kohnian sense rather they are ‘ethno-traditional nationalist’.And they instrumentalize the civic nationalist narrative to broaden their vote-base. This is precisely the justification of exclusion carried out in civic terms as the biological language is replaced by an ideological one.

Political Entrepreneurship: Instrumentalization and Mobilization

The political entrepreneurs: in both electoral populism and populist movements, act as an agency for strategically articulating the latent grievances. Thus, both the demand and supply side perspectives are crucial vantage points for a prudent analysis of the populist rise.The demand-side resentment is both addressed and tailored by the supply-side entrepreneurs through the perspective of nationalism.

In electoral populism, dissent is instrumentalized and it is mobilized through nationalistic appeals. Populism coupled with nationalism leads to the radical right-wing politics that it is witnessed in both Eastern and Western Europe, Latin America, and South Asia. Both the ideologies indicate a sense of social closure in one dimension or another. It is done by fixing what Bankim Chandra calls the ‘cultural attitudes’ which limit the sense of inclusivity and pluralism. But the question is why to appeal to the people on national, cultural, or ethnic grounds? Isiah Berlin suggested in the 1960s that nationalism is a core characteristic for the success of any political movement. And as both the ideologies are an antithesis of an open society, their profusion generates cognitive, social, and political rigidities.

The political entrepreneurs utilize these ‘banal’ ideas to introduce their own political agenda. It helps in building a foundation of the new system on the entrenched realities of the old system. A case study of various electorally successful right-wing populist parties like the Swiss People Party in Switzerland, French National Front of France, National Democratic Party of Germany and Pim Fortuyn List in Denmark indicate that populist leader or political entrepreneurs who make use of national ‘symbolic resources’ with a civic appeal perform better in their political system. And the civic nationalism in the West provides the platform to the radical-right populists who attain and maintain their share of power based on civic values without undermining their exclusionary ethno-traditional policies. Civic and ethnic nationalism are the means to attain the ends of populist politics. The political entrepreneurs tactically oscillate between both the civic and ethnic dimension of nationalism by persistently engendering a sense of threatened ‘bounded moral community’ at risk from the outsiders.

Akin to electoral populism, populist movements use grievances as a latent force. But that does not explain why the anti-immigration protests by PEGIDA were not instigated prior to 2014, or why the Occupy Wall Street movement came after the major shockwaves of the Great Recession were absorbed. To explain this there is a need to understand the role of political entrepreneurs as opportunity seekers who articulate the shared grievances when the time is ripe to fulfill their agenda backed with shared resentments.

Populism and Nationalism: A Bi-Dimensional Analysis

In all mass movements, ‘sociological necessities’ are invented and instrumentalized by the political elite. Nationalism and populism are no exceptions. A national myth is invented through a common heritage and mobilized through horizontal differences. Whereas the populist myths are brought back from ‘under the rug’ and mobilized through vertical antagonisms. And when combined, this the bi-dimensional dissidence defines the politics of the new age.

The resentment against those at the top and outsiders are mutually constitutive of the populist politics. The right-wing variant of this infusion criticizes multicultural politics, acceptance of refugees and the elite’s consideration of the indigenous population as xenophobic. This is the prime scene in the European and North American contexts as Hilary Clinton reportedly called Trump’s supporters as ‘basket of deplorables’. Such differences accentuate the need of people’s sovereignty over the state. And because the ethnic/cultural nationalism signifies ‘the people’ over the nation, it is easily juxtaposed with the populist discourse.

The ‘civic nationalism normalization’ strategy is used to disguise the exclusionary cultural politics behind the facade of legitimizing only the interests of the in-group. The Front National (FN) and the Alterative for Germany (AfD) both use a value-laden out-grouping of the Muslims based on their anti-Islamist agendas. And they instrumentalize civic nationalist discourse to legitimize their claims that Muslims are not an outgroup based on their ethnic descent rather on voluntarist reasons as they do not adhere to the democratic values. This is a supply of populist ideas through nationalist channels; covertly ethnic/cultural and overtly civic.

Manichean Myth to Chameleon Reality

Nationalism has its roots in the Greek city states and was crystallized as an idea of organization in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. During the decolonization from 1945-1960, nationalism was at its pinnacle. However, since then it has been on a downward trajectory. But the populist utilization of the nationalist concepts has given it a new color. The entrenched resentments are being voiced not just by the minority ethnic/cultural groups but also the majority who feel threatened by the minority’s rising rights and political participation in what Rawls calls the post diversity era. The Muhajirs in Karachi are a classic example of a chameleon nationalism which has utilized both ethnic and civic strands to widen the vote base. Both the political movements, populism and nationalism are political projects which are in continual process of transition.

Despite modernization, the center-periphery distinction still pertains based on a deliberate exclusion of the peripheral identities to form a homogenous power circle at the center. And the grievances and opportunities created in this gap are mobilized and exacerbated by the political entrepreneurs. And the infusion of populism and nationalism are changed with the changing socio-political and economic contexts to cache the rising opportunities. The right-wing populism is not based on rigidities of objective identities but on the flexibility to catch the opportunity situations.

The ethnic groups too are not homogenous which indicates their divided politics to gain benefits. The myth of groupism is instrumental not factual. In this way they utilize both civic and ethnic nationalist appeals firstly, to cater to their in-group and secondly, to widen their prospects of political ins. In this way their politics becomes amorphous which is easily utilized by thin ideology like populism and the mix generates popular differences.Thus, the ethnic conflicts in the populist world are not the pure outcome of ethnic groups rather of ethnic organizations and populist political entrepreneurs.

Conclusion

Ethnic and cultural nationalism are not primarily nativist rather opportunistic. The populist world has provided nuanced avenues for the articulation of the ethno-cultural resentments which are exacerbated by the modern inequalities. However, the Kohnian civic-ethnic dichotomy is too rigid to explain the anomalous instrumentalist nature of the populist movements which build up on the combination of both ethnic and civic nationalism.

The analysis suggests that the populist world is a juggernaut of various thick ideologies which are used as an opportunistic context to propagate the agenda of the political entrepreneurs. Civic and ethnic nationalism were relevant before and instrumental now. They are both entrenched and tailored, natural, and transitive and contextual and opportunistic. Hence, the idea of nationalism is in a vicious cycle of constructive usage by the populist leaders and not merely a matter of some fixated identities.

Before the coronavirus in late 2019, there was a rise of a counter-populist wave on the fringes as observed through the leaderless protests where the middle class who once supported the populist movements was ‘revolting against the revolt’. However, the rise of the pandemic exacerbated a kind of nationalist populist response.Now the question is about who writes a better political bargain to satiate the rising middle class and that shall determine the course of future politics.

Student of Politics and International Relations and a Researcher associated with the Center for Global and Strategic Studies. Areas of Interest: International Political Economy, South Asian Politics, Nationalism and Populism.

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International Law

Water on Boil: Weaponization of Water in Contemporary Geopolitics

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Image source: war.ukraine.ua

Authors: Rahul M Lad and Prof. Ravindra G Jaybhaye*

A huge Kakhovka dam in the Russian-controlled area of southern Ukraine has been devastated on June 6, unleashing a flood of water in Southern Ukraine. The military of Ukraine and The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are accusing Russia with blowing up the dam, but Russia has placed the responsibility on Ukraine. Simultaneously, the tensions between Afghanistan and Iran have risen to the point where recent border incidents have left both countries on high alert. The Helmand River is the main source of discontent in a disagreement over shared water resources, which is the root of this conflict.

These two separate incidents confirm that water will remain continue to be one of the contested resource in future. Water, unlike other natural resources, endowed with the ability to move spatially. This unique feature makes it likely to be contested. But the aforementioned incidents, particularly the destruction of the dam, implies the severity of the conflict manifold. Although historically, countries have not often used water as a catalyst for conflict, the aforementioned events have forced humanity to reconsider this in the near future. The use of water as weapon against the adversaries is thus, dangerous trend.

Russia-Ukraine War and Use of Water as a ‘Weapon’

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has seen the use of water as a weapon immediately following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Following annexation, Ukraine built a dam along the North Crimean Canal, a primary source of water to the Crimean peninsula which accounts for 85 percent of the peninsula’s water supply. This almost cut off all water access to the Crimean Peninsula, which is under Russian control, and diverted water to the Kherson region of Ukraine. This move was intended to punish Russian aggressiveness and force a Russian retreat—a strategy that was clearly unsuccessful. Since then, the conflict got culminated in the destruction of a Kakhovka dam, potentially escalating it into uncharted territory. The massive Dnipro River in Ukraine is blocked off by the dam, creating a sizable water reservoir. The dam itself is hundreds of metres broad and 30 metres high.

The reservoir it contains holds an estimated 18 cubic kilometres of water, about the same volume as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Bursting the dam might cause a wall of water to flood settlements below it, including the nearby town of Kherson. The use of water as a weapon resulting in a number of issues, such as water scarcity, energy issues, flooding, hydroelectricity production, and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cooling system issues, among others. The canal system that irrigates much of southern Ukraine, including Crimea, would undoubtedly be devastated as a result.

Iran-Afghanistan Conflict

The two Asian countries, Iran and Afghanistan, locked in a water dispute over river Helmond. Clashes erupted once again between Afghan and Iranian border security forces in the Afghan border province of Nimruz on 27 May 2023, resulting in the deaths of two Iranian security forces and one Taliban border guard. Both sides blamed each other for the incident, with the Taliban accusing Iran of firing first and Iran accusing the Taliban of violating a water-sharing treaty.

A water allotment treaty signed between Iran and Afghanistan in 1973 is the only mechanism available for the water sharing of the Helmond river.  According to this Helmand Water Treaty, Afghanistan should annually share 850 million cubic metres of water from Helmand with Iran, at twenty-two cubic meters per second with an option for Iran to purchase an additional four cubic meters per second in “normal” water years. But, Iran accusing Afghanistan for the disregarding the principles outlined in the treaty. “In recent years, this treaty has not been adhered to by Afghanistan’s rulers, including the Taliban,” CIP’s Toossi told Al Jazeera, adding that Kabul has delivered only “a fraction of the agreed amount”. Amid these tense situation, Iran Warns Afghanistan by saying that The Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its rights to take necessary measures and emphasizes the full responsibility of Afghanistan in this regard. So far, both sides have committed to ease the tension by expressing need to engage in dialogue.

These kind of incidences underlines the dangerous trend of water weaponization in the tense situation against the adversaries. Some countries find it lucrative because water as a military tool can have a disastrous impact across the border.

Weaponization of Water and International Law

As per the principle 4 ofThe Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure’, the parties to the conflict should refrain from using water infrastructure and water-related infrastructure as a means of warfare. Furthermore, Principle 6 makes it clear that infrastructure related to water is assumed to be a civilian object and as such cannot be attacked or damaged unless it is being used for military purposes.

The Madrid Rules of 1976 by the International Law Association addressed the use of water infrastructure and water itself in the context of armed conflict. To safeguard the civilian population and the environment, the rules outline two particular prohibitions: a) When it would result in disproportionate suffering for the civilian population or significant harm to the ecological balance of the area in question, diverting rivers for military objectives should be outlawed. Any diversion that is carried out with the intention of endangering or destroying the fundamental ecological balance of the affected area, the minimal circumstances for the survival of the civilian population, or the intent to terrorise the populace should be forbidden (Article III). b) When there are serious risks to the civilian population or significant harm to the ecological balance of the area, it should be forbidden to cause floods or interfere with the hydrologic equilibrium in any other way (Article V).

During the drafting of the UN Watercourses Convention, it was proposed by the Special Rapporteur at the time to include provisions on employment of water and water infrastructure as means of warfare. Even though these proposals were later excluded from the draft convention, the paragraphs of the draft Article 13 exclusively curb to use water as weapon against civilians.

The use of water infrastructure as a means of warfare is not specifically regulated by international humanitarian law; however, during armed conflicts, the right of the parties to the conflict to choose methods and means of warfare is not unlimited.

The aforementioned International laws have direct or indirect references regarding the possible use of water as a weapon. The essence of the laws is to prevent the use of water as a means of warfare, and to ensure that access to water resources is not restricted or denied as a tactic of war. 

Stopping the Water Weaponization Tide

It is absolutely necessary to find practical answers to this problem since humanity cannot afford to use water as a weapon. When national governments are the primary offenders of water weaponization, Marcus King and Emily Hardy of Georgetown University claim that international law can be a helpful tool.These laws and treaties might include inter alia the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions on deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure. But, one drawback of these agreements is that each pact has a small number of signatories, and nations with access to significant water resources like Syria, Turkey, and China are absent. However, the consensus of the majority of countries is required in order to forbid governments from using water as a weapon. To start, all members of the United Nations Security Council, notably the permanent members, should be required to sign and approve these kinds of agreements. Because it looks unusual when the nations in charge of upholding global peace and tranquilly aren’t parties to security-related agreements.

 Additionally, there should be strict penalties for any country found to be using water as a weapon, including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. It is also crucial to establish an international body that can monitor and investigate any suspected cases of water weaponization. This body should have the power to impose sanctions on offending countries and provide assistance to affected populations. Moreover, it is essential to raise awareness about the dangers of using water as a weapon and promote peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy. Finally, investing in water infrastructure and management can help prevent conflicts over water resources in the first place. By prioritizing cooperation over competition, we can ensure that water remains a source of life rather than a tool of destruction. 

*Prof. Ravindra G Jaybhaye, currently working as a Professor in the Geography Department, at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India. His research interest includes Ecotourism, South Asian Studies, Remote Sensing and GIS, Solid Waste Management, Sustainable Development, etc.

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International Law

A State as Civilisation and Political Theory

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The new concept of Russia’s foreign policy, unexpectedly for many, introduced the concept of a state-civilisation in official use. Its appearance may be the beginning of a change in the conceptual framework of Russian foreign policy thinking. Moreover, the changes may both be compared with post-Soviet doctrinal documents and with the basic guidelines of the Soviet period. The new conceptual framework faces serious competition with three major political theories. Here we are talking about the “big three” — liberalism, socialism and conservatism. Each such theory has its own concepts (interpretations) of international relations and foreign policy. A shift towards the notion of civilisation can be an alternative line of thought, which, however, will require careful intellectual elaboration. However, until such a study is completed, realism retains its relevance as the basis of foreign policy.

What is Political Theory?

Political theory is how we understand the system of normative views and ideas and the proper arrangement of power relations; the goals, values and means of domestic and foreign policy. What distinguishes political theory from ideology is the presence of arguments which are open to being criticised and contested. Ideology claims a single and undeniable view. Every theory requires scientific reflection and constant re-examination. An ideology can be derived from a theory, feeding on its concepts and assumptions. However, it cannot replace theory. In the case of such a substitution, the theory becomes unviable. Each political theory is a system of concepts, that is, interpretations of individual key concepts—power, authority, good, freedom, justice, interest, etc. Major political theories offer their interpretations of foreign policy and international relations. They can directly or indirectly set the paradigm of foreign policy and the contours of foreign policy thinking. Three basic political theories have developed in modern political thought: liberalism, socialism and conservatism. They have many variations and branches, which does not prevent their fundamental assumptions from being preserved.

Liberal Theory: From the Rational Individual to the Nation State

Liberal theory can be called rationalistic. It proceeds from the assumption of the power of the human mind, which is capable of taming the manifestations of the worst aspects of human nature – aggression, prejudice, ignorance, selfishness and, as a consequence, the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” By analogy with the taming of the elements of nature with the help of rational technical inventions, the elements of war, violence and other social vices can be brought under control by a rational political order. In liberal political theory, the social contract, embodied in the system of legal institutions of the state, has become a cornerstone concept (although the very concept of a social contract has deeper roots and is not ignored by other theories). Institutions, on the one hand, serve the public good, that is, the reduction of disasters and the growth of wealth. On the other hand, they act in the name of freedom from despotism. Justice is understood in terms of legal norms common to everyone. Accordingly, the source of state sovereignty is the nation as a political community of equal citizens of the state. The nation-state is in many ways a liberal concept that has gradually become the “world standard” for conceptualising the state as such. The nation, as the source of sovereignty and legitimacy of power, delegates power to elected representatives who exercise it in accordance with legal norms. The latter, in turn, are determined through rational procedures that are transparent to citizens. The rational order of the rule of law is a means of controlling internal anarchy and serves to establish a community of citizens with equal rights. Liberation from class boundaries and prejudices is the value and goal of the nation state. Historically, all these provisions had a direct connection with political practice. They became the doctrinal basis of a number of bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to tectonic changes in the nature of states. Huge masses of the population were emancipated, and the usual monarchical and imperial orders collapsed. The liberal doctrine of the nation state retained its influence during the process of decolonisation. The overwhelming majority of new states became republics, adopted constitutions, and declared their peoples to be the source of sovereignty. Often the transition to the nation-state was bloody. It commonly failed to lead, properly, to the achievement of liberal ideals. The energy of revolutionary chaos sometimes gave rise to ugly political forms, nominally called republics, which in fact they were modernised despotisms with formal democratic attributes.

The liberal interpretation of international relations was also rationalistic. International relations are anarchic. There is a “war of all against all” going on within them, which cannot be stopped due to the lack of a monopoly on power and the use of force by one specific country or a community of such countries. This means that anarchy must also be taken under the control of a rational order in the form of international institutions. They must be supported by economic interdependence, which makes wars unprofitable. In addition, the guarantee of peace between peoples is their democratisation. From the liberal perspective, wars are the result of the arbitrariness of elites, which are not controlled by citizens. If they are brought under control by democratic institutions, then there will be fewer wars, or they will disappear altogether. By default, the liberal theory of international relations implies that individual countries can take the lead in solving the problem of anarchy and war. They must be democracies themselves, promote democratisation to others, guarantee the stability of world trade, organise the international community in the form of institutions, and, if necessary, use force against violators of the new order. Liberal political theory has become the framework of US foreign policy thinking, although it has not completely absorbed it. The period of the unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War can be considered the pinnacle of the practical implementation of this doctrine: the United States was the leader of the victorious democratic world, its former rivals, the USSR and the Soviet bloc, sought to join the “world community”, the American-centric globalisation of the economy was gaining momentum, and the United States was the key military power, intervening in conflicts and the affairs of individual states at its own will, while simultaneously playing a crucial role in international institutions, including the UN.

Socialist Theory: Reason vs. Alienation

Socialist theory, like liberal theory, also proceeds from the limitless possibilities of the human mind. However, if liberalism was forged in the struggle against obsolete imperial and monarchical forms, socialism challenged both the old order and liberalism itself. Just like liberalism, socialism postulates the idea of liberation (emancipation) of a person from class orders, religious prejudices and despotic rulers. Socialism is also based on the Enlightenment ideas of rational progress. It would seem that both theories are compatible. But socialism takes aim at an important aspect of the liberal model—the capitalist economy. The bourgeoisie is the engine of liberal revolutions. Properly, it freed the citizens from the oppression of classes and prejudices. Free labour is the basis of the capitalist economy. A citizen is limited only by laws that are adopted on his behalf and on behalf of his equal fellow citizens. Free labour is an atom of the capitalist economy, selling its own labour or buying someone else’s labour at its own discretion, while alienating part of the cost of such labour in its favour. It is either an employee or a capitalist. The difference between the two is that the worker receives stability in the form of a predictable income, but alienates part of his labour to the capitalist. The latter, on the other hand, appropriates the added value, but at the same time takes on the risks of the failure of the capitalist enterprise, because the success of the business model is far from guaranteed.

It was the problem of alienation that became the basis of the socialist critique of liberalism. Not without reason, the socialists pointed to the growth of monopoly capital and its concentration, to the alienation of the labour of huge masses of working people, to the social problems generated by such alienation, to the many crises of the capitalist economies, which left millions unemployed and living in the streets. In international relations, the socialists saw the main problem in the acceleration of imperialism. Big capital merged with state institutions. The developed industrial powers were actively expanding, using, among other things, military force. Capitalism gave a powerful impetus to colonialism. While gradually and unevenly forming democratic institutions at home, the capitalist powers at the same time pursued aggressive policies in their colonies. Like the liberals, the socialists offered a rationalist solution though revolutionary changes to put an end, on the one hand, to the old and obsolete monarchical and class order. On the other hand, they sought to crush the capitalist economy to free the broad masses from the trap of alienation. For international relations, the destruction of capitalism would also mean a solution to the problem of imperialism. The working people have no reason to fight with each other and nothing to share. The solidarity of workers is the basis of peace. The economy would be organised in the form of rational planning and distribution, and the state, amid such conditions, would change its nature to embrace true democracy, or even wither away.

It is symptomatic that among the great powers of the early twentieth century, socialism won its first major victory precisely in Russia. On the one hand, by the beginning of the 20th century, Russia retained political forms that were backward for those times. The demand for political change in favour of greater representation of the people and the rule of law was gathering momentum for most of the 19th century. The authorities understood the threat, but the reforms threatened to cost them control, leading to the complete collapse of the political system. Time after time, reforms were incomplete and episodic. Gaining momentum, capitalism exerted a growing pressure on the political system. At the same time, capitalism itself in Russia was largely peripheral in nature. Russia’s place in the international division of labour was far from optimal. The country remained backward, although the pace of its development at the beginning of the 20th century was amazing. This development, however, was extremely uneven, giving rise to new and potentially dangerous social movements. In the 19th century, the key challenge to power was the small intelligentsia, liberal or socialist in orientation. With all its activity (from the coup attempts by the Decembrists and the opposing nobility to the Narodnaya Volya terrorists), the government successfully suppressed the protests. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the urban proletariat became a revolutionary force. Moreover, its domestic version differed from the Western European one. It was more marginal and socially vulnerable. At the same time, it was more developed in comparison with the overwhelming majority of the peasant population and was receptive to revolutionary ideas. The “labour aristocracy” and the middle class were too small compared to the larger and poorer masses of the proletariat. The number of such masses was constantly growing due to unprecedented population growth, the scarcity of land suitable for efficient agriculture, and the attractiveness of a few industrial cities as a source of income. While remaining a small social group across the country, the concentration of the proletariat in the cities acquired an important political significance. The revolution of 1905 was the first harbinger of the catastrophe awaiting the old order. The revolution of February 1917 brought it down. The revolution of October 1917 put an end to liberal throwing forces by a small, but at the same time organised and motivated group that seized power in the country via a coup. At the same time, the victorious Bolsheviks managed to retain power, relying on the attractiveness and innovation of the ideas of socialism at the time. Vladimir Lenin was undoubtedly its most prominent theoretician. Without their political doctrine, the Bolsheviks would hardly have been able to retain power in the country and make it legitimate. Socialism became a powerful tool for maintaining their control and fundamentally modernising the state. The countries of the capitalist world acquired in the eyes of Russia a most dangerous rival, whose strength was based not only on the power of the resources and demographic base, but also on the advanced political theory and ideology.

Moreover, socialism promised to turn Russia into a modern, and therefore much more powerful state. The danger of Soviet Russia was of an ideological and, as it would turn out, quite material nature.

Conservative Answer

The victorious march of liberalism and socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries naturally gave rise to a conservative response. The key thought of the conservatives was that the human mind is far from being as perfect as it seemed to liberals and socialists. Rational schemes simply don’t work. The price of social experiments manifesting in a series of revolutions and subsequent wars is millions of lost human lives. Institutions must change evolutionarily, not revolutionary. It is impossible to destroy traditions mindlessly, to refuse authorities. Too much freedom is dangerous. Besides, it only exists on paper. In reality, power is seized by bureaucrats, who manipulate the masses at their discretion, on their own behalf. It is simply impossible to manage complex social systems with relying on planning methods – they are too complex. Changes must occur, but very carefully and without excesses. Justice cannot be understood as a rational clockwork.

In foreign policy thinking, conservatism manifested itself in the theoretical doctrine that is commonly called realism. The main thesis is that the anarchic nature of international relations cannot be brought under control by any rational scheme like a general international organisation. It simply will not withstand the pressure of contradictions between the great powers. Controlled anarchy is a harmful delusion. What matters is national interests, which are determined by common sense, not by rational abstraction. The optimal strategy for a state is to prepare for the worst-case scenario, be powerful enough not to be the prey of its neighbours, to negotiate and to compromise if necessary. At the same time, the political structure of states is not taken into account by realists. Both democracies and autocracies have the same predatory instincts in the international arena. To say that democracies do not fight is both duplicitous and hypocritical.

Realism emerged as an influential doctrine between the world wars and especially during the Cold War. In the US, it was bizarrely combined with liberal political theory. Liberalism manifested itself in the form of an ideological canvas, but political decisions were often dictated by the logic of realism. Behind the velvet glove of liberalism was an iron conservative hand. A similar model, albeit with its own characteristics, has developed in the USSR. The Soviet leadership quite quickly, by historical standards, cooled down on the idea of a global revolution and the abandonment of the state system. State interests in the field of security have become a significant driver of policy despite external ideologisation. The Soviet Union built a community of socialist states, but their solidarity also concealed very pragmatic interests.

During the Cold War, realism turned into an unofficial, but at the same time significant conceptual framework for Soviet foreign policy. As the resources of socialist ideology were exhausted, realism objectively became more and more in demand. The crisis of socialist theory in the Soviet Union at the late stage of its existence can be explained by many factors. Among them were the excessive ideologisation of theory, cynicism and growing corruption among the political elite, fear of reforming the political and economic system, its reasonable democratisation and emancipation, the actual replacement of the power of the Soviets by the power of an overly centralised and less effective bureaucracy, and growing frustration and cynicism within society. All this took place against the backdrop of colossal achievements in science, technology, industry, and the solution of many development problems. At the same time, the socialist challenge became a powerful stimulus for the renewal of liberalism. Western countries, including the United States, have introduced a number of elements that are commonly associated with the socialist Soviet experience. Among them are major state social programs, the planning of certain areas of economic development, and the fight against poverty. The collapse of the Soviet Union briefly made ideas of integration into the liberal community the central thought process governing Russia’s foreign policy. This was reflected in Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” and doctrinal documents of the early 1990s. During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia moved away from liberal idealism. Foreign policy thinking was based increasingly on the principles of realism, which were finally consolidated in the Munich speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007.

Nationalism and the Big Three

Speaking of the “big three” political theories, the question arises about the place of nationalism. Is it an independent doctrine? Can nationalism be considered a political theory comparable to the Big Three? We should start with the fact that nationalism is a powerful ideological construction that has manifested itself in the political development of the vast majority of modern states. In some cases, it was based on political principles. In particular, it can be considered a derivative of the liberal idea of the nation as a political community. Nationalism coexisted quite well with socialism through the idea of political representation. The Soviet version of socialism added an ethnic component to the concept of a nation. The Soviet republics were a political representation of large ethnic groups united by common socialist principles. Nationalism also found common ground with conservatism. Historical and cultural traditions became an important source for constructing the identity of many modern nation states; more precisely, they constructed modern interpretations of such traditions. The key difference is that any nationalism is local, while the “big three” political theories are universal. The locality of nationalism does not prevent it from being quietly present even in those states that promote universal ideas. American liberal messianism goes well with American patriotism and a specific local identity. Modern Chinese socialism is also combined with Chinese nationalism, giving rise to socialism with Chinese characteristics. The same could be said about the Soviet Union, which combined the state-sponsored nationalisms of the republics and all-Soviet patriotism. With the Soviet Union, this approach played a cruel joke. The national identities of the new states of the post-Soviet space were carefully prepared by the Soviet leadership itself. In some cases, nationalism has degenerated into ugly forms like fascism or national socialism. The defeat of fascism and Nazism by the Soviet Union and its Western allies was the most important event of the twentieth century, but it did not completely solve the problem. Neo-Nazism makes itself known in the 21st century.

Moment of Unipolarity

After the end of the Cold War, the United States reached the height of its power. It would seem that liberal theory had no alternatives left. Russia had withdrawn from the competition, quickly shedding its liberal illusions and focusing on its pragmatic interests and a realist foreign policy paradigm. China has retained its commitment to socialism with its own national characteristics, but at the same time successfully integrated into the Western-centric global economy. The European Union, despite its economic strength, remained in the liberal paradigm and its variations. India concentrated on its development, relying on its self-sufficient national and cultural bonds. The Islamic world, one way or another, had a religious community, but was not politically consolidated. There was no political consolidation in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. The post-Cold War world seemed unshakable in its unipolarity.

However, the moment of unipolarity did not last long. In the United States itself, an understanding of a possible weakening of their role in the international arena began to take shape as early as the 1990s. There were material factors driving such a weakening. Among them was the economic growth of new centres of power, which sooner or later could be transformed into military power and qualitatively new political ambitions. The limits of US influence on internal processes in a number of states have been outlined. It was possible to turn a blind eye to “rogue states” such as the DPRK or Iran, but the obvious course towards autonomous policymaking in China and Russia could only be met with alarm. At the same time, both China and Russia remained an important part of the US-centric global economy. The big question was what would prevail – the benefits of globalisation or the desire to maintain autonomy and independence, including on fundamental issues of foreign policy? Ultimately, it was China and Russia that emerged as the most dangerous threats to American leadership. Moreover, the threats are not only material, but also ideological.

The growing economic and military power of China, independence in political decision-making, persistence in matters of principle in world politics, and the gradual exit of Chinese diplomacy outside the Asia-Pacific region are only part of the problem for the United States, and not the biggest one. After all, the US remains a major military and technological power with a large pool of allies and the ability to contain China. More importantly, China has adapted its own version of socialist theory to the new realities of international relations. Beijing has formulated a systematic and deeply developed doctrine. It is based on the idea of universal gain, the common destiny of mankind, and overcoming dividing lines and conflicts. China reinforces its ideas with a willingness to promote the development of other countries in the common interest, based on its own experience of successful and comprehensive modernisation. Whether willingly or not, China has created a powerful ideological platform based on socialist theory and its own modernisation experience, which is quite capable of becoming an alternative to the liberal vision of the modern world order.

Russia for a long time avoided formulating such ideas, relying on the principles of realism in foreign policy. However, the very fact that Russia has thrown an open challenge to the United States and its allies in the situation around Ukraine is a significant precedent. If the “Russian rebellion” is not suppressed, the blow to US prestige could be extremely painful. Such a blow would not necessarily bring down the US leadership. However, it can become a factor in its erosion. Combined with other factors, the risks for the US are growing.

At the same time, there are signs Russia is going beyond the usual realism and attempts to find new conceptual foundations of foreign policy. A significant indicator is the appearance in the new Foreign Policy Concept of a state-civilisation. It has the potential to develop further into a more systemic paradigm that is not reducible to the “big three” political theories. However, the path promises to be quite difficult.

Civilisational Approaches

The concept of civilisation has long appeared on the “radar” of political theory. For liberalism and socialism, civilisation is determined by the measure of the dominance of the human mind. The more civilised a society is, the more rationality and progress it has. Such a linear picture divides the world into developed civilised societies and undeveloped uncivilised ones, with a large grey area between them.

There was another approach, considering civilisations as large communities, united within themselves by spiritual and material culture and by no means always reduced to separate states. Civilisation can go far beyond the history of a particular state, and also spatially cover a large number of them. On the other hand, we can also talk about the existence of states-civilisations, such as China or India. But even in this case, their civilisational boundaries are wider than national ones, taking into account the large Chinese and Indian diasporas abroad. In addition, in the bosom of one civilisation there may be different ethnic groups that have similar tribal, civilisational features. This approach assumes the coexistence of several civilizsations at once. In their development, they can go through the stages of birth, flourishing, breaking, decline and death, although such a scenario is not necessarily predetermined. The concept of civilisations was developed by such prominent scientists as Nikolay Danilevsky, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee and many others, and their developments went in parallel with the rapid conceptual development of the Big Three theories, forming, as it were, a parallel intellectual reality.

Civilisational Approach: Benefits

What is the advantage of this approach to international relations? First, the historical depth. Liberalism, socialism and conservatism often operate within a relatively narrow range of historical experience. At best, we are talking about several centuries, although their intellectual roots are much deeper. For civilisational studies, the depth of analysis is hundreds and even thousands of years. The system-forming cultural nodes of individual civilisations were laid long before the era of modernity and still retain their relevance. Second, this approach allows us to go beyond the usual scheme in which the players are nation-states. Obviously, cultural and civilisational motives can act as a factor in international politics, where not only interests but also identities collide. In addition, quite specific civilisational components are used in the national ideology of a number of states. A striking example is the states of the Islamic world. Third, the civilisational view covers both spiritual and material aspects of culture. The nation state is but one of the possible political forms born of the Western civilisation and, in a relatively short period of time, became ubiquitous, but not necessarily definitive.

Civilisational Approach: Disadvantages

There are also obvious disadvantages. First of all, historical depth does not always allow the real influence of distant history on modern politics to be revealed. The political identities of modern states are often artificially constructed. That is, political and intellectual elites choose certain civilisational aspects that correspond to their vision of identity, but just as successfully ignore others. In the same way, the process of constructing the image of a “significant other”, that is, an idea of key rivals or competitors on the world stage, takes place. Such constructs are also biased and do not solve practical and ideological problems. In other words, it would be incorrect to perceive civilisation only from the point of view of culture and history, while losing sight of the construction of culture and history by the elites of modern states. The modern idea of civilisation is not an idea of objectively existing civilisations, which are often politically conditioned.

Another shortcoming is that the civilisational factor plays an extremely contradictory role in explaining peace and war. So, for example, the “Anglo-Saxons” today are united by allied relations and common political interests. But at the beginning of the 20th century, Great Britain seriously considered the scenario of a naval war against the United States. Within the United States itself, in 1861, a civil war broke out between the “Anglo-Saxons”, which claimed more than half a million lives. In 1814, the British burned the White House and many other government buildings in Washington, and a few decades earlier, cultural and civilisational proximity did not help them keep 13 colonies obedient. What can we say about continental Europe, which at the beginning of the 18th century was called a single Christian community, but at the same time stood on the bones of the victims of hundreds of wars between European states, the apotheosis of which were two world wars? The powerful civilisational backlog of the Russian Empire in the form of a common cultural, political and material space did not prevent its collapse. The same is true of the Soviet Union, in which local nationalism at a critical moment in history turned out to be stronger than shared cultural, linguistic, ideological, infrastructural and many other bonds. In the current conflict in Ukraine, the opposing sides facing each other across the front lines are mentally almost the same people. They have similar habits, faith, language, and way of life. However, such proximity does not prevent the interference of nationalism, external forces and specific security interests. There are many such examples.

Another problem is determined by the complexity of combining the concepts of sovereignty and civilisation. The concept of sovereignty was developed in line with rationalist theories and was closely tied to the concept of the nation state. Its attachment to the concept of civilisation is much less obvious. It will work in those cases where the boundaries of civilisation and state more or less coincide. In such cases, albeit at a stretch, the sovereignty of a civilisation can be identified with the sovereignty of a nation. With certain reservations, we are talking about India, China, Japan (if, of course, we consider it a separate civilisation, and not part of the West, which is also undeniable). But what about less obvious cases like Africa, Latin America or the Islamic world? Each of them is home to many states. They have a certain cultural, historical or religious commonality. However, it is not enough for political consolidation. Nation states within such civilisations have different interests, material resources, and local cultures. Since their cultural closeness hardly generates a consolidated and stable political will, one can hardly speak of the sovereignty of civilisation in their relations. It will inevitably become attached to the nation state. If a civilization does not have political subjectivity, then it is very difficult to consider it as an actor in international relations.

The Concept of the State-Civilisation: the Russian Context

Let’s return to Russia. The appearance in the official document of the concept of the state-civilisation brings us back to the fundamental questions of our identity. Who are we? What is the nature of our state? What is our vision for the future for ourselves and for the rest of the world? Who are our “significant others”? To what extent are we willing to deny or accept “significant others”? Issues of identity are fundamental to foreign policy thinking. The direction of answers to the posed questions depends on our choice of the concepts we use to define ourselves. The concept of the state-civilization should hardly be underestimated as such a conceptual framework. However, it should be borne in mind that theoretical and practical work in this direction is complicated by several factors.

The first is the track of Russia’s identity over the last century and a half. At the end of the 19th century, Westernizers and Slavophiles drew a fairly clear picture of the conflict between our identities. For Westerners, Russia’s problem lies in its unfinished Westernization. From the time of Peter the Great and even before him, we adopted certain Western models (organisation of the army, bureaucracy and, to some extent, industry), but for various reasons we avoided larger-scale political, economic and social reforms. Accordingly, Westerners saw the task of Russia as completing modernisation according to the Western model and achieving the proper level of Western civilization. Slavophiles, on the contrary, saw in the reforms of Peter the Great as the beginning of the distortion of Russia’s civilizational identity, the perversion of its culture and way of life, the split of society and the elite, and the “satanisation” of the country. Accordingly, they considered the task of Russia as one of returning to its cultural and civilizational heritage. The victory of the revolution in Russia in 1917 was the unconditional triumph of Westernism. Socialism is of Western origin. The country has made a powerful leap forward. In terms of Westernism, the collapse of the Soviet Union can be seen as the result of the incompleteness of the Soviet modernisation project, the replacement of modern institutions with archaic imitations of them, coexisting with unprecedented and progressive achievements. Actually, the reforms of the late 1980s took place precisely under the slogans of modernisation, and the desire to integrate with the West also reflected the perception of the causes of the crisis of that time in an unfinished or distorted modernisation project. Throughout the 20th century, the West or parts of it were political opponents of Russia. But in terms of views on the organisation of society and its institutions, the Soviet Union developed under the influence of Western ideas. Thirty years of the history of post-Soviet Russia have also passed in accordance with the logic of Westernism. The conservative turn that began in the late 1990s fit in well with it. Another thing is that the movement did not remove specific political problems in relations with a number of Western countries, but in some places exacerbated them. The causes of such problems lay mainly in the conflict of interests, and not in the conflict of civilizational identity. Foreign policy thinking in terms of the state-civilization brings us back to the perception of Russia as a separate civilization for which the West is a “significant other.” This is a way out of the rut of at least one century. Getting out of this rut will not be easy.

The second factor is determined by the specifics of the development of Russian society. The domestic Slavophiles of the 19th century had a serious and real argument in the form of huge sections of the population retaining a system of traditional culture and values. They had not yet been affected by modernisation, had not been distorted by urbanisation, industrialisation and other attributes of modernity. A century and a half of such modernisation has greatly changed Russian society. It has become much less religious. Its traditional way of life was broken. The modern Russian is radically different from his ancestor who lived a century ago. While a number of developing states today have a purely human resource to rely on, offering cultural and civilizational bonds, then such resources, for Russia, are much more modest. The last 30 years somewhat reduced the Soviet excesses, but did not return, and could not return Russia to the past. Moreover, Russia has turned into a full-fledged capitalist state, with all the ensuing consequences for its culture and lifestyle. Of course, Russia has a colossal historical experience, which can and should be one of the foundations of its identity. A lot has been done in this respect over the past several decades. But the direct connection with tradition has narrowed along with the shrinking of the footprint of traditional society. Russia can be imagined as a state-civilization, but it is much more difficult to place it on a real-life civilizational platform. However, many others face the same challenge.

The third factor is related to the fact that other states-civilizations, and indeed a large number of other states, maintain close ties with the West and are not going to give them up, even if political relations with these countries spark on separate issues. Many are in favour of a multipolar world and constructive relations with Russia, but are in no hurry to give up certain products of Western civilization. China remains a socialist country, albeit with its own specifics. India is cultivating democratic institutions, even if they are not considered liberal by some Western observers. Numerous countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America generally distance themselves from the choice between the West and non-West, pragmatically using those elements of Western spiritual and material culture that they consider acceptable and beneficial for themselves. With the same success, elements of, for example, Chinese culture may be absorbed in the future. Civilizations that are more or less pure become abstractions. Whereas political practice still requires specifics, especially in building a dialogue on individual issues. The need to diversify world finances and move away from the dominance of the dollar is easier to justify by common security interests than in terms of civilizational differences from the West.

All things considered, the concept of a state-civilization makes it possible to construct our political identity, to complete it with new elements. But this will require a lot of theoretical work both on the concept itself and on a wider range of topics. It will not be easy to create a new, full-fledged political theory, an alternative to the Big Three. Russian reality, and international relations themselves, are permeated with the conceptual apparatus of the three “big” theories. Time will tell to what extent the concept of the state-civilization will be developed both in theory and in practice. The new Foreign Policy Concept leaves room for manoeuvre. In the meantime, the realism of foreign policy remains relevant.

From our partner RIAC

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International Law

Beware the Munich Lesson… especially in Ukraine

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“Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble, and might be the surest and only path to world peace”.  – Winston Churchill, 1950.

The recurrent blunders and incompetence of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military in Ukraine have destroyed the country’s previous aura of military might. Yet it is somewhat counterintuitive that the weakening of one of the warring parties has intensified the unease of the international community. The war has resuscitated a looming wrangling in history: how to deal with a decadent and diminished but still dangerous state. Historian Stephen Kotkin recently noted how “this aggression derives from weakness, a sense of grandeur that is unmet”[1] in Russia’s self-perception; history often emphasizes how the end of empires are seldom peaceful processes.[2] As Russian resources and options run out, the glitter of nuclear weapons becomes a more appealing last resource. Still, the West must be wary and avoid the ‘fear of looking weak’ as the bedrock for the design of foreign policy; this prejudice has led to preventable violent escalations in the past.

With the growing compilation of failures in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has fallen into the trap and urge to micromanage and meddle in all kinds of military tactics and subtleties, raising the risk of mistakes, further escalation, and the creation of a personal link with the conflict that could diminish his power. As Tzar Nicholas II was warned during World War I about his own participation in the war, “beware of creating a personal association with the outcomes,” one of his advisers alerted, remember that the “[T]he army under your command must be victorious.”[3]

Earlier in the conflict, Vladimir Putin and his accomplice, Chinese President Xi Jinping, issued a joint statement: “Friendship between the two states has no limits; there are no forbidden areas of cooperation.”[4] Yet the “no-limit” friendship has to survive the persistent incompetence of Russian forces, their sinking morale on the battlefield, the internal opposition of Russian citizens, and the embarrassment on the international stage. It is unlikely that all this wreckage hasn’t made Putin cognizant that “he has no way to retire gracefully after all the damage he’s done.”[5] Hence the danger. The possibility of using nuclear weapons at least give him the cowardly solace to grumble, ‘après moi, le dèluge.’ In this volatile scenario, crammed with cruelty and grudge, the West should be careful not to misuse one of history’s most referenced and misunderstood lessons: the ‘Munich lesson.’

Appeasement is one of the worst insults in politics—a synonym for cowardice and naivety. The well-known image of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping out of his airplane, waving a piece of paper in front of a cheering crowd, proclaiming “peace for our times” became the yardstick of weakness and political short-sightedness. But political strategies are rarely suitable or harmful in the abstract; they are advantageous or ineffective in specific contexts. The Munich Lesson needs to be reconsidered and used more scrupulously. The agreement of 1938 extended territorial concessions to Germany, allowing Adolf Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland, an ethnically German area in Czechoslovakia, hoping to stop further territorial claims by the Reich. Nonetheless, the event left the wrong lesson in history because it has been recreated as a binary scenario for action: tyranny must always be met with force. Not doing so represents moral bankruptcy, or as Churchill described it, “one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”[6]

Appeasement has been a significant reference point in U.S. foreign policy on more than one occasion. It was explicitly pointed out to justify the invasion of Iraq during the G.W. Bush administration and to bolster the harsher versions of neoconservatism.[7] Journalist Gideon Rachman asserts that “misapplied ‘lessons of Munich’ have led to repeated foreign policy disasters since 1945”.[8] The gist of the ‘lesson’ and its use as the moral podium to advocate for the benefit of force and military interventions rests in the simplification that democracies in the 1930s ‘lacked the will’ to stop Hitler. The analogy was likewise employed during the Vietnam War. President Nixon wrote in his memoirs that “what had been true of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 was no less true of the betrayal of South Vietnam to the communists advocated by many in 1965”.[9]  But the analogy is deceptive because it draws a deduction in hindsight, a conclusion that at the time was “neither simple nor obvious.”[10] When Chamberlain made the agreement, the decision was the result of a political context that included the risk of Britain’s military overstretch, American isolationist trend, distrust of the Soviet Union, guilt for a recent vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the constraints of public opinion.[11] The correct ‘Munich lesson’ is not that appeasement is a moral disgrace, but rather that “appeasement failed because Hitler was unappeasable”; Hitler wanted war.[12] The narrower pejorative connotation needs to be reexamined, as it rests on the generalization that all “states are inherently insatiable.”[13] Furthermore, hindsight bias gives the wrong impression that facts were self-evident at the time and their consequences were predictable.

But security threats must not be confronted as simple dichotomies. A more sensible lesson is distrusting the tendency to use military responses as the ultimate and imperative foreign policy tool. This reconsideration is not an argument to turn a blind eye to bullies; but an invitation to outmaneuver them. The 1930s reveal “the danger of underestimating a security threat [however] the post-World War II decades contain examples of the danger of overestimating [one].”.[14] To grasp the events in Munich, we must consider other historical examples where “short-term self-discipline set the stage for long-term success,” like how H. Truman’s moderation in North Korea or D. Eisenhauer’s refusal to intervene in the Soviet invasion of Hungary[15] led to positive results. History shows that moderation and restraint must be considered as options in foreign policy; compromise is not tantamount to appeasement.

The essence of appeasement is probably best summarized by the phrase attributed to Churchill: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war”.[16] But this is an incomplete story. As former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain understood the confines of Britain’s crippled economy at the time. A vast array of foreign policy options was not the defining setting of a country traumatized by the Great War. Chamberlain was no feckless dove; he was a man of his generation, a man deeply abhorred, along with his countrymen, by the memory of the recent war, “the British and French people greeted the Munich agreement with heartfelt relief. It was not until “March 1939, when Hitler occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia, a revulsion of feeling had occurred in Britain, where war was now widely accepted as inevitable”.[17] Moreover, Chamberlain was aware of Britain’s insufficient military preparedness. He had received a report from the military chief staff concluding that the army’s capabilities were inadequate to stop a German takeover of Czechoslovakia[18]and to the possibility of a German air assault, “Britain was defenseless in the face of the bomber.”[19]  The Committee of Imperial Defense argued that delaying the outbreak of war was necessary for the acquisition of airplanes to counter the Luftwaffe.[20]

The events at Munich developed under a much more sophisticated and adverse context than it is usually recognized, “the failure to stand up to Hitler was not the real lesson to be learned […] For a liberal democracy to effectively oppose aggression, especially if it comes at the risk of a long and costly war, it requires the overwhelming support of the people”.[21] Delaying war was essential and ineluctable for Britain. The country needed to build up the army, and, not less importantly, the public was divided, “[…]public opinion dreaded the prospect of another war and welcomed any diplomatic initiative that might avert one.”[22] Additionally, Britain had no treaty obligation to defend Czechoslovakia. It was not until Hitler invaded Poland, violating the Munich Agreement, Britain was united and militarily prepared.[23] Historian Michael Howard proposed an insightful explanation of how Chamberlain and his generation understood the world and their context, which, of course, constrained what they envisaged as viable options:

“It is difficult for historians in retrospect, with all the wisdom of hindsight and all the time in the world, to comprehend the complex processes that went to the creation of the Third Reich and the nature of the society to which it gave political expression, we should not be too quick to condemn those contemporary British statesmen who so tragically misunderstood the phenomenon in their own day. For their perceptions were also constrained by their cultural framework. Neville Chamberlain and his closest colleagues had been brought up in the England of Queen Victoria and were middle-aged when the First World War began. Their world was that of the British Empire. The problems posed by the Congress Party in India, by the Wafd movement in Egypt, and by the relations of Briton and Boer in South Africa were more immediate to them, more real, more urgent, than were the racial antagonisms of Central Europe”.[24]

Back to the repercussions for our age, the West’s response -or lack thereof- to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the aggressions in Georgia in 2008 was condemned as bashful and insubstantial, a careless green light that emboldened the Putin regime for the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Appeasement swiftly returned as the once again always-forgotten lesson of history. Once more, a tyrant in violation of international law, invaded a neighboring territory to protect stranded ethnic populations’ captured by made-up countries and corrupt Western regimes’.[25]

With Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggressions, Western leaders became paranoid and wary of being associated with arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain.[26] Arguably, then as now, the unwillingness to establish redlines emboldened the dictators to demand more. The Munich lesson applied to Ukraine is often argued along the following lines:

“Any talk of a negotiated peace would only appease the aggressor, reward blatant aggression and crimes against humanity with territory or a neutral status of its target […] The Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of Czech Sudetenland did not prevent the Second World War; rather, global acceptance of these compromises hastened and invited it”.[27]  Therefore, the lesson is “confront evil regimes as soon as possible.”[28]

The problem with this rigid reconstruction of the analogy is that the world is different now than in the 1930s. Back then, with all its cruelty, war did not imply nuclear Armageddon. The far-fetched interpretation of Munich does not solve the usual complex details and more intricate aspects of policy and war, the concealed, and not so thrilling, role of economics, alliances, and function of public opinion in democratic politics. For example, does avoiding Appeasement means that the West should give Ukraine everything it needs to succeed? How should the U.S. deal with foes supporting Russia or with the “Ukrainian fatigue” as assistance becomes increasingly a partisan issue? The ghost of Chamberlain often hunts down those who even dare to have doubts or consider options in foreign policy.

Ukraine must win and Vladimir Putin should be persecuted as the fugitive criminal that he is. But historical lessons are usually misguidedly retrieved to shrink our options for action instead of widening our path and scope to appraise political dilemmas. The recollection of history seldom creates consensus, albeit it should be upheld for its capacity to shed light on dangerous zones and build signposts along the way of statecraft.

In hindsight, once catastrophes occur, it is not unusual to ask why these were not prevented in due time. Every crisis has its “where were you when” moment. If we only “had ‘stood up’ to Hitler sooner; or if we had given greater encouragement to the clandestine opposition within Germany,” we tell ourselves. But the “sad paradox of Munich is that when thuggish aggressors can be easily stopped, there’s rarely the moral case necessary for democracies to take action.”[29] Are all other options short of war only emboldening to the aggressor? This can undoubtedly be the case, but more often than not, bullies have already made up their minds.

The ‘Munich lesson’ is not a straightforward guide to action nor an unwavering moral principle. Its careless use sprouts from the generalization that all authoritarian regimes are equally insatiable, but a one-fits-all solution to all tyrants is irresponsible. Every autocrat needs to be faced according to their foibles. Dictators must be stopped, and their means condemned, yet a stringent application of the ‘Munich lesson’ constrains policy options and the required imagination to outwit their regimes.


[1] Stephen Kotkin, Foreign Affairs Podcast, “What Putin got wrong about Ukraine, Russia and the West, May 26, 2023: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/podcasts/what-putin-got-wrong-about-ukraine-russia-and-west

[2] Niall Ferguson, “Why the end of America’s Empire won’t be peaceful”, The Economist, August 2021:

[3] Tom Nichols, “Russia’s nuclear threats are all Putin has left”, The Atlantic, September 2022:

[4] Tony Munroe and Andrew Osborne, “China, Russia partner up against West at Olympics summit”, Reuters, February 2022:

[5] Andreas Kluth, “A decision tree for Biden if Putin goes nuclear”, The Washington Post, September 2022:

[6] Mathew Wills, “Reconsidering Appeasement”, Jstor, August 2055:

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[10] Ibid.

[11] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, “Thinking in Time. The uses of history for decision makers”, The Free Press, 1986, p. 87.

[12] Jeffrey Record, “Appeasement reconsidered: Investigating the mythology of the 1930’s”, August 2005:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Samuel Charap and Michael Mazarr, “The wisdom of U.S. restraint on Russia. As in the Cold War, Washington cannot wish Moscow away”, Foreign Affairs, September 2022:

[16] Mark W. Davis, “What would Churchill do?”, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2015:

[17] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111.

[18] Ishaan Tharoor, “In defense of Neville Chamberlain, hindsight’s most battered punching bag”, The Washington Post, July 20, 2015.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[22] Michael Howard & WM. Roger Louis, “The Oxford History of the 20th Century”. Oxford, 1998, p. 111

[23] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[24] Michael Howard, “The lessons of history”, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 15.

[25] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist:

[26] Ibid.

[27] Yaroslav Baran, “Ukraine and the Price of Appeasement”, Policy Magazine, February 23, 2023:

[28] Gideon Rachman, “The wrong lessons from Munich”, Financial Times, September 24, 2007: https://www.ft.com/content/9680de94-6aaf-11dc-9410-0000779fd2ac

[29] John Storey, “War in Ukraine and the forgotten lesson of Munich”, The Strategist

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