In 2012, I named my fledgling blog The State of the Century. Never have I been more pessimistic about the state of the 21st century.
All empires fall. One day, the West too will be a faded memory, to be idealized by those attempting to emulate its affluence, just as the Holy Roman Empire was meant to be the rebirth of its namesake. But never would I have imagined the cause of the West’s decline to be so insidious, a cancer that rots its very core. I intend to trace the growth of this cancer, and present a desperate call for rationalism to prevail.
The West is a haven of peace and prosperity. Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea (which I will collectively refer to as ‘the West’) is home to more than a billion people. Imagine for a second, Norway and Sweden going to war, or Japan collapsing into civil war, or Australia annexing New Zealand, these scenarios currently remain preposterous. In this region people do not starve and they are not slaughtered. Never in humanity’s history have more people enjoyed a higher quality of life.
As such, I greatly fear the collapse of the Western world order. Everyone who lives within its borders must as well; anyone who doesn’t is not self-interested. Even those living on its periphery should fear the West’s fall – a rising tide raises all ships, and a drowning swimmer is liable to drag others down. There are those who exploit the corruption and authoritarianism of the periphery for their personal advantage (Vladimir Putin is an example), who would greatly benefit from the West’s fall. But the periphery’s masses should, and generally do, want to join the West or benefit from the prosperity it enjoys.
The phenomenon of the West, and the prosperity it brings, was made possible by many competing forces, but none more important than the rule of law. All other causational forces (democracy, technology, the free market etc.) can be traced back to the rule of law. Democracy would not function if it were not for a respect for the rules. Technology could not flourish if it were not for the scientific method (in itself a set of laws; evidence must trump prejudice). The free market could not function if contractual obligations were ignored by the government.
If a future civilization is lucky enough to experience institutional learning, its textbooks will trace the West’s decline back to the first year of the 21st century, 2001. It was then that a ragtag suicide cult flew a few planes into a few buildings. This group hated the West, and sought its destruction. Their ringleader hatched a plan that in hindsight can only be called brilliant (evil yes, but brilliant). Osama Bin Laden was an extreme xenophobe. In his mind, his nation (people who share his cultural and religious identity) must conquer all others. But how does a small group of guerilla fighters overcome an empire?
Terrorism, as warfare, does not seek victory on the battlefield. It seeks to disrupt and ultimately disintegrate the enemy. It is meant to cause enemy forces to overreact, to be cast as brutal oppressors, and to sap the enemy nation of its will to fight.
The West’s reaction to 9/11 can only be described as an overreaction. The Bush administration possessed an inflated sense of the nation’s capacity for war. The group that occupied Washington’s halls of power on September the 11th, 2001, could not remember defeat at the hands of an enemy. The Cold War, Desert Storm, and the Balkan Wars had all been won. What does a warrior nation do when it has no one left to fight? With the national fervour still high, and early Afghan victories ripe in the national consciousness, the Bush administration turned on a familiar enemy, but one that had no connection whatsoever to the terrorists it sought to bring to justice.
Predictably, no tangible benefit was brought to the citizens West in the West’s response to 9/11, and as the years ground on the West lost the plot, and with it legitimacy. It ceased to be the prosperous haven of humanity’s collective imagination; it became to many a tyrant reigning over the world order.
Although the narrative of the West’s decline begins on September 11th, 2001, it is a mistake to attach too great an agency to 9/11 and its aftermath. Globalisation, itself caused by the rise of the Western world order, has presented a challenge the West has yet to overcome, rising inequality. Inequality is a fundamental challenge to the Western world order because it erodes the ideal the West was founded upon: the rule of law. If the system works to advance the position of the powerful to the detriment of the weak, the perception is that all are not equal before the law. When no obvious answer to this new challenge presented itself, the Western masses became restless, angry, and eager to lash out.
The challenge globalisation presents exists independent of 9/11. But 9/11 created the climate in which the anger caused by globalisation developed. More than a decade after 9/11, the narrative had turned against the West. The Western political establishment was now at best incompetent in its response to the terrorist threat, at worst it was seen as corrupt and colonial. At the same time, there were those that were inspired by Osama Bin Laden’s brazen rebellion to the Western world order. The Arab Spring brought about failed revolutions, failed states, misery, suffering, and mass migration. It also presented a gaping wound for a group of disenfranchised radicals to infect. Globalisation allowed Western citizens (themselves disenfranchised by the West) to join the infection of ISIS – a cruel twist in the story of the West’s decline. But worst of all, ISIS presented a new narrative to the citizens of the West.
A decade and a half after 9/11, it becomes necessary to recap the interrelated forces that are contributing to the West’s decline. First, the existing political establishment is seen as incompetent and corrupt. Rising inequality is eroding the hope the Western order inspires. The Western masses are angered. A villainous insurgency persists on the West’s periphery, itself a regrown head of the hydra that the West had initially sought to slay. Technological advances work to spread the hydra’s xenophobic message. And, no easy answers present themselves.
With no easy answers, the collective Western imagination is tempted by the memory of the golden decade the West enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. What had changed between then and now? The world then had been less globalised and connected. It is easy for the collective imagination to become enthralled by the belief that global connectivity is itself the route of problem. This belief is particularly attractive because it is not entirely untrue; however raising walls will not work to advance the position of the Western world order.
When the Western masses are fed a daily stream of reports of peripheral terrorists thwarting Western responses, and when these terrorists flaunt a message of national superiority (ie. “our nation is superior”), it is easy for the Western masses to respond with an equally xenophobic message (ie. “no, our nation is superior ”). With mass migration brought about by both globalisation and the Arab Spring, it is easy for a small group of nationalist bigots to inspire a perception that barbarian hordes are at the Western gates.
When times are desperate, when the existence of the nation is threatened by barbarian hordes, the rule of law becomes secondary to security. Efficiency becomes all important. It becomes necessary to center power upon a few who can focus the nation’s efforts against its perceived enemy. When the ends justify these means, patriotism becomes fascism. In America, this new fascist trend has been embodied by an ill-qualified narcissist (as fascist trends often do).
Not all nationalism is fascism. The support you hold for your country’s World Cup team is nationalism, but not fascism. Fascism is when an authoritarian government derives legitimacy from ultra-nationalist sentiments. The rise of fascism is the advancement of nationalist government policies, the correlated vilification of other nations both foreign and domestic, and general erosion of the rule of law as power is centered upon a single authority. With its demonization of outsiders and opposition alike, it is difficult to describe the political trend that the West is currently experiencing as a desire for anything but fascism (even if the authoritarian aspect has not been achieved quite yet).
It is the rule of law that makes the Western world order what it is, and it is the rule of law that is most compromised by the rise of Western ‘strongmen’ who spout false hope and exploit the trumped-up national fear of being overrun by ‘barbarians’. Those who present a reasoned and nuanced solution, wherein globalisation itself works to spread the rule of law through greater connectivity, fail to inspire those in search of an easy answer. Technological advances combined with the Western ideal of freedom of speech (itself a necessary component of the rule of law) work to drown out the complicated in favour of the simple.
And so the rise of Western fascism becomes a vicious cycle. Easy answers and misinformation spread like contagion through globalised communications technology. The truth becomes murky. Facts can be debased and dismissed as mere opinion. Conspiracy theories can be paraded as legitimate debate. Then, when our constitutional foundations are breached, how can we hope to reverse the decline? How can we hope to counter the onslaught of fascist ends-justify-the-means rhetoric? The problem is endemic, insidious, and a cancer that rots the institutions that make the Western world a haven of prosperity.
It is truly unfortunate that at this time in history, when the West is most divided by false hope and hatred, the most perilous problem humanity has ever faced has presented itself: climate change. The western world is addicted to a fuel that provides prosperity but undermines our planet’s terrain. As such, it deserves the Western world’s entire focus. But climate change is a problem that cannot be personified upon an enemy. Thus, the solution is anything but easy, and the masses have already become drunk on simple sentiments and xenophobic lies spun by ‘strongmen’ who have been and are being swept to power around the Western world. It is now that the West can least afford complacency.
I find little on which to base optimism for the state of the Western world order. The solution is not easy. It lays (as I have alluded) in a reasoned and nuanced approach, the scope of which I do not attempt to describe. Terrorism is a distraction. Misinformation is the problem. Reason and rationality must triumph, or else the West will fall. But when half-truths can be elevated to doctrine by neo-fascist Western leaders, I have little hope for reason.
I call those who share my affection for rationality to remain vigilant. Do not be complacent when you hear an opinion that advances the insidious spread of Western fascism. Stand up and be counted. If nothing else you will be remembered as being on the right side of history, as it is presented by the textbooks of some future civilization that lays on the far side of the dark-age humanity currently stares in the face.
Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans. Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam. This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918. The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.
While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead. Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry. Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate. Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne. To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War. The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.
Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe. It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat. But the city fell to the Turks in 1453. If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.
Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople. Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun. The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome. One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan. This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.
The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair
Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse. Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians. This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia. Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised. Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish. From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.
It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse. It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.
The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip. Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages. Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth. Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves. This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.
Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated. They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik. Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised. When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.” Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East. Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon. The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.
The British motives were clear. For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area. This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area. Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India. Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.
Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement. While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453. It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”
A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes
As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians. By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace. Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general. His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed. In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization. Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics. Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.
Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate. He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means. Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed. It was truly the end of an age.
Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.
The classic example of a preventive strike is the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen. Since this battle was used as a precedent for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it only seems right to compare the two preventive attacks. A US or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would also be a preventive strike. Granted, it is difficult to compare events that occurred across over 200 years, the world’s international norms are indeed almost incomparable. Despite this some broad lessons can be drawn.
First a note on definitions. A pre-emptive strike occurs when a state fears real foreign aggression, and thus attacks to gain the advantage in an impeding conflict. A preventative strike occurs when a state fears another state may change the balance of power against itself, and attacks to counter this.
The failure of appeasement is often falsely used to justify preventive attacks
Since the 1939 Munich agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany, ‘appeasement’ has been labelled as a bad strategy. If only the allies had pre-emptively attacked Hitler, the devastation of World War 2 would have been prevented. Often this example is cited as a reason to attack preventivey to prevent radical states from acting aggressively. This argument is flawed because it does not argue for a preventive attack, but rather a pre-emptive attack, since it was clear Nazi Germany was preparing for war. Furthermore it does not even cite a pre-emptive attack working, but rather the lack of a pre-emptive attack failing. A more accurate example of a preventive attack being used with success occurred during the Napoleonic wars: Copenhagen 1807.
Battle of Copenhagen 1807: Brutal but effective
Never was Napoleon Bonaparte able to muster enough ships to rival the British Royal Navy on the high seas. He was thus never able to directly threaten the British mainland. He instead attempted to starve Great Britain of European trade by imposing the continental system wherein the continental European states were forbid to trade with England. Both the Peninsular War which resulted in what would soon be coined as the ‘Spanish ulcer’ and Napoleon’s disastrous Russia-campaign were caused by Napoleon attempting to impose this trade-regime. Thus these developments were caused by Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy.
Napoleon’s lack of a significant Navy – and thus his inability to impose the continental system – was in turn at least partially caused by a preventive strike by England. In June of 1807 Napoleon had crushed Russian forces at Friedland. In July he had made peace with Czar Alexander I of Russia at Tilsit. This treaty created the Duchy of Warsaw, a new state allied to Napoleonic France. Previously, the newly formed Confederation of the Rhine had also joined forces with Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz. The Baltic was quickly becoming a French controlled lake, and a significant battle-fleet based in Copenhagen was at risk of falling into French hands. To prevent this from happening, in August of 1807 British troops led by Sir Arthur Wellesley landed and surrounded the city, while the British Navy set to bombard the capital from sea. When the Danish commander, General Ernst Peymann, refused to surrender the city and subsequently the Danish fleet, the bombardment began. On September 7, 1807, the Danish fleet was surrendered to England.
The modern view of pre-emptive and preventive war
Today both pre-emptive and preventive attacks are considered aggression, and both are considered illegal by international law unless approved of by the United Nations Security Council. Despite this preventive attacks still occur, from the Six Days War in 1967 (which actually can be considered both preventive and pre-emptive) to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, the Battle of Copenhagen has been criticized heavily, being called one of the first terror attacks on civilian population in warfare. 2,000 civilians were killed causing US President Thomas Jefferson to memorably brand the British action as being “signalized by the total extinction of national morality.” Although there is little doubt the bombardment of Copenhagen was brutal, it is fallacy to hold military actions of the early-1800s to today’s moral standards. What must be remembered is that the Battle of Copenhagen was successful in preventing Napoleon from mustering a significant fleet, and thus Britain was never rivalled on the high seas. As such this preventive strike was thus used as a precedent for other preventive strikes, from the British bombardment of the French fleet at the Algerian coast at Mers el-Kebir in 1940 (to ensure the French fleet would not fall into Hitler’s hands) to the United States invading Iraq in 2003.
Iraq 2003: Going too far
If a preventive war is to ever be justified in the modern world, it must neutralize a legitimate threat, and must limit cost and loss of life. The United States launched a preventive attack in 2003 against Iraq. In the wake of September 11, the United States believed invading Iraq would tip the balance of power in its favour and against Islamic terrorism. But, as I argue in The Utility of the War on Terror the invasion of Iraq worked against the Bush administration’s interests because it did not understand the nature of Islamic terrorism.
Perhaps Iraq can be seen as a pre-emptive attack because the Bush administration believed attacking Iraq would be an effective way to maintain US security (despite being mistaken) and it believed Iraq possessed WMD (as I argue in The Weapons Weren’t There – The Intelligence Failure that was Iraq). I believe it is preventive because it did not fear an immediate Iraqi attack, but rather Iraq’s influence. It thus attempted to make Iraq an example to states and networks that worked to threaten American security in the wake of 9/11.
Lessons from Copenhagen and Iraq applied to Iran
Despite Iraq, preventive war comes with its proponents. I can see the value of a surgical airstrike of Iran’s nuclear facilities should all other tactics of prevention fail. Doing so would be less dangerous than allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East (I explore this further in A New Strategy on Iran). Thus we must examine the recent and classic history of preventive war. When comparing Copenhagen’s legacy with that of Iraq, three broad lessons can be drawn. These lessons can be loosely applied to Iran.
First, the goal is not to defeat and occupy the enemy state itself, the goal is to prevent it from causing a threat. This is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten by the Bush administration when it attacked Iraq in 2003. English forces did not work to occupy Denmark in 1807, they simply nullified the threat the Danish fleet posed. To truly prevent Saddam from harbouring and/or using WMD in 2003 (the stated goal of the invasion) the Bush Administration should have targeted individual sites and facilities. Instead it embarked on a long and costly occupation of Iraq. Granted, the true political goal of the Bush administration was to make an example of Saddam to enemies of the United States – one can only wonder if there was a less heavy-handed way of accomplishing this. Concerning Iran, America and/or Israel must surgically destroy nuclear sites and facilities with as little loss of civilian life as possible. Only by targeting the specific threat can the political goal of the preventive attack be achieved.
Second, the goal of a preventive attack must be clear and easily achievable. The invasion of Iraq occurred in the wake of 9/11 and was thus used loosely meant to combat foreign Islamic terrorism. The Bush administration believed by invading Iraq it could intimidate other international actors by displaying the fact that America was prepared to use force first. Changing the willingness of international jihadist networks to prevent a terrorist attack through the invasion of a unrelated state is not clearly achievable. As such the attack failed. In 1807 it was clear Napoleonic France could use the Danish Navy to its advantage, and it was clear capturing the fleet would prevent this from occurring. As such the attack succeeded. Concerning Iran the goal is clear, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It is also easily achievable, by destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities . Whether Iran decides to continue developing nuclear weapons after this setback is an unrelated matter. Napoleon could have decided to invest in ship-building after 1807’s setback, but decided not to. Like Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran may give up after such a setback.
Third, a pre-emptive strike must always be used as a last resort. To avoid being branded an aggressor all other options must first be explored. In 1807 the British first requested that the Danish fleet be willingly surrendered. One wonders if the Bush administration could have implemented a more long-term strategy.
A final reminder
One thing not learned from Copenhagen but integral for Iran’s success is the precision of the attack. The world is not like it was in 1807, and the death of civilians is exponentially more undesirable. The United States and/or Israel must be extremely careful when limiting the the death of innocents. In fact any collateral damage would work against the United States and Israel by turning the Iranian population against foreign influence.
Davies, Peter. Copenhagen’s Second Battle Remembered, The Times. London: 2007.
Markham, David J and Cameron Reilly. Napoleon 101 Podcast.
Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2010.
Simms, Brendan. “Castlereagh’s Catechism,” Foreign Affairs vol. 92 no. 2 March/April 2013.
Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, 2005.