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 founding pillars. 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 wealthy and powerful.
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 are).
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.
Understanding the Kremlin’s new found aggression towards Ukraine requires an understanding of Russia’s history, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign-policy motif. An understanding is essential in avoiding the frigid hostility of the Cold War.
In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. The world turned a blind eye, partly because Georgia is an insignificant state on the fringe of Europe but mostly because the costs of cutting Russia adrift would be too high. Days after the Sochi Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea. The world accepted it because Crimea should have been Russian all along – the territory had been transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. If the Soviet leader were alive today he would likely admit that in hindsight the transfer was a mistake. Now the Russian army is infiltrated eastern Ukraine, albeit subversively. Putin denies any such action, however this is highly implausible. The attacks were co-ordinated, and in strategically useful places that had seen few prior protests. Ukraine is a part of Europe, it was moving towards EU membership, and despite Moscow’s perception it is a sovereign state. Disregarding minor sanctions, why is the West standing by while Russia destabilises its neighbour? The answer is that ultimately, Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence and the land matters more to Putin than it does to any Western leader. Those two reasons are what the whole conflict is over, after all.
Its all about geography – the vast Russian landmass and its foreign policy
The Russian foreign-policy paradigm is one I have examined many times; recent events make the explanation relevant once again. The Russian landmass is incredibly large, flat, and thus vulnerable. Throughout history, the peoples that populated this landmass secured their frontiers aggressively. This is true of the Scythians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Russian Empire of the Czars, the Soviets, and the modern Russian Federation. Throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945.
Today Russia is the most vulnerable it has been in centuries
During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gave up much of its influence of both the Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Republic states. Many of these states subsequently joined the EU and NATO. This left Russia even smaller, and in Moscow’s eyes even more vulnerable as a result than it was in the aftermath of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the Central Powers. Indeed, Russia holds a similar amount of territory today as it did under Peter the Great.
Expanding EU integration is seen by Moscow as an attempt to install Russia-hostile political regimes in Russia’s former sphere of influence. In contrast to the EU’s value-driven foreign policy, Russia’s government places importance on stable governance, it believes the promotion of democracy and the rule of law risks regional stability. Thus, Moscow remains very wary of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an attempt to deepen EU ties with the post-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Moscow this is an attempt by the EU to contain Russia by removing the legitimate authoritarian regimes and installing Russia-hostile governments. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Ukraine is of utmost importance. If the country were to slip out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, Russia would be left that much more vulnerable. The nation feels cornered.
The man with the plan
Putin has stated that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He sees the world as in a state of transition from an American dominated power balance that began with the fall of the USSR to one that is made up of several global powers. As such the Russian President’s goal is to re-establish Russia as a great-power, if not in a bipolar state system than in a multipolar state system. Allowing Ukraine to drift westwards is in direct conflict with this goal, and thus the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in favour of a European oriented interim government is anathema to the Kremlin. The Ukraine is in particular a more personal-desire to the Russian national narrative, as it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Furthermore the country borders Russia, cutting deep into its southern flank. To the Kremlin, a western-oriented Ukraine is likely even more undesirable than a western-oriented Poland.
So what does Putin hope to achieve in the Ukraine? It is unlikely that the intention is to annex Ukraine’s east, occupation would come at heavy costs, both politically and militarily. It is more likely that the Kremlin hopes to incite civil conflict to erode the authority of the new pro-Western government in Kiev. In Putin’s eyes, a destabilised Ukraine is better than a Western one.
The West’s Balancing Act
With this in mind, how best can the West counter Russia’s new found aggression? Both sanctions and NATO military exercises are certainly necessary, the latter to assure the Baltic states that they are not second-class NATO members, and can count on NATO to come to their defense. However, the West must be very careful not to overact, thereby plunging the world back into a Cold War, or worse. A complete isolation of Russia would be devastating to Europe’s economy, a distraction to America’s “Asian Pivot,” and destructive to overall global security. A cornered bear is a dangerous one, and West must understand where it can act, and what is outside of its own sphere of influence. Henry Kissinger eloquently described the balancing act the West must achieve in order to counter Moscow without ostracising it, and it all comes down to understanding Putin’s motives.
“Paradoxically, a Russia is a country that has enormous internal problems … but it is in a piece of strategic real estate from St Petersburg to Moscow. It is in everybody’s interest that it becomes part of the international system, and not an isolated island. One has to interpret Putin not like a Hitler-type, as he has been, but as a Russian Czar who is trying to achieve the maximum for his country. We are correct in standing up to him, but we also have to know when the confrontation should end.”
Bugajski, Janusz. Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions. Washington D.C.: The Center for Strategic and International Studies Press, 2008.
Insatiable, The Economist, 19 April 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
Kissinger, Henry. GPS, 11 May 2014.
Light, Margot. “Russia and Europe and the process of EU enlargement.” In The Multilateral Dimension in Russian Foreign Policy, edited by Elana Wilson Rowe and Stina Torjesen, 83-96. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Lucas, Edward. The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).
Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Zagorski, Andrei. “The limits of a global consensus on security: the case of Russia.” Global Security in a Multipolar World (2009): 67-84. Accessed March 6, 2012.http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/cp118.pdf
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games will showcase the Russian state, but not for the reasons for which Russia was granted the honour of hosting the Olympics. Sports fans will enjoy watching the endless coverage that comes with the spectacle. So too will those who adore foreign policy.
The Sochi Winter Olympic Games will be the first held in Russia since the breakup of the USSR – the last being the Moscow Olympics of 1980. As such this will be Putin’s opportunity to showcase his new(ish) Russia to the world. And showcase he will. As of October 2013, the budget had already exceeded $50billion, which dwarfs London’s budget of $19billion, and even Beijing’s which cost $40billion.
Unbeknownst to the committee that granted Sochi the games in 2007, back when Russia appeared to be a reforming nation with a promising ‘BRIC’ status economy, the event will be a geopolitical spectacle as well as one of sport. A number of conflicts are converging upon the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. I will examine each in turn.
Russia’s Homophobic Legislation
Modern Western values are at conflict with traditional Russian ones. The Kremlin has passed a law banning “pro-homosexual propaganda.” This has created a climate of aggression, in which vigilantes attack sexual minorities. Vladimir Putin’s purpose for the act is simple. It came as a surprise to the populist Putin to face active protests from the liberal middle class centered mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However the Russian majority remains solidly homophobic, as much of the West did until quite recently. The new anti-gay legislation achieves two things. First the law is meant to drive a cultural wedge between the liberal opposition to Putin and his remaining supporters in the more conservative provinces. Second it differentiates Putin from the West, making the West appear alien and immoral to the traditional Russian public, and making Putin the apparent protector of Russian values.
Many advocated for a boycott of the Russian games in response to this discriminatory legislation, but none came. However I would argue the alternative will achieve more for gay-rights. Soon, thousands of athletes and fans from around the world will cluster in Sochi, and inevitably many of these individuals will be gay or supporters of the marginalised gay community in Russia. It would not surprise me to see rainbow flags in the stands, or perhaps even more ostentatious forms of protest. If this is done by foreigners in Sochi, there is nothing the Russian authorities can do. If it is done by Russians in greater Russia, the whole world will be watching the Kremlin’s reaction.
Unrest in the Ukraine
On December 17th of last year, an agreement was reached between Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych whereby Russia would lend Ukraine $15billion and would slash the gas price from $400 to $268 per thousand cubic metres. This was all a result of Yanukovych’s ditching of an association agreement with the EU.
Ukrainians have poured into the streets in response, besieging government buildings and generally causing unrest. Many must feel their country slowly slipping back behind the Soviet veil. This of course is Putin’s strategy. Russia’s foreign policy paradigm is traceable to the thirteenth century. To maintain its security, Russia must conquer as much territory as it can. Russia was left extremely vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved, more vulnerable even than it was left in the wake of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the central powers. Ukraine is of a more personal desire to the Kremlin, because it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Putin continues to see the world in traditional, realist terms, and he wishes to bring Russia back to great-power status.
Sochi is literally less than a day’s drive from Kiev, and soon Ukrainian athletes and fans will be flocking to the Black Sea resort city. Since their own country’s political crisis is intimately tied to the Russian state, one can expect there to be some animosity between the two camps. However, let us not forget the anti-Putin protests that occurred not so long ago. Perhaps Ukrainian activism will spark something similar in Russia.
Russia’s Support of the Syrian Regime
For nearly three years civil war has raged in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has brutally supressed its own population, stooping so low as to gas Syrian civilians with nerve agents. If that did anything to attract world attention to the crisis, the recent report of three former war crimes prosecutors – saying they have seen compelling evidence of the systematic murder of some 11,000 detainees through starvation, beatings and torture – will only do more. The evidence of the war crimes is hard to fault. A former photographer for the Syrian regime defected. The report’s authors, who interviewed the source for three days, served as prosecutors at the criminal tribunals of the former Yugoslavia.
Despite the growing disgust the international community has for Assad, Russia has remained steadfastly in support of one of its last allies in the region. Moscow has continued to supply Assad’s army with military equipment. Russia possesses a Mediterranean naval-port in Tartous; it could lose this strategically vital military base should the Assad regime fall. But beyond this specific attachment to Syria, one must again recall Russia’s entire foreign-policy motif. It sees the middle-east as its ‘soft underbelly,’ much like United States sees Central America as its ‘backyard.’ To lose an ally in the geopolitically important region of the Middle East would be anathema to the Kremlin.
Soon, all eyes will be on Russia. If anything happens to make Syria of extreme interest during the fortnight that is the Olympic Games, questions will be asked, and Putin will have to explain Russia’s steadfast support of a madman. If nothing happens, questions will still be asked.
The Syrian conflict also exemplifies a broader struggle between Moscow and Washington. This relationship has deteriorated in recent years with Russian acts such as the amnesty granted to Edward Snowden, and American acts such as Obama’s cancellation of a September summit. The two states were most at-odds while during the period in September when America nearly engaged in an armed response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. By engineering a face-saving alternative, Putin emerged from this struggle the apparent victor. The Olympics will allow Putin an opportunity to cement this posturing success.
Terrorism in the Caucasus
Probably the most troubling concern surrounding Sochi is that of the terrorists in the Caucasus region itself. Regions such as Dagestan are highly volatile, rebels there were responsible for the December Volgograd bombings. No doubt this is one of the two central reasons why the games are of such high-cost, the other being corruption. All aspects of the Russian military have been mobilised to prevent such threats – including submarines to patrol the Black Sea. If even a minor event occurs to marginalise security of the games, all eyes will be on Putin, and the Russian response. It is highly likely an attack will occur somewhere, even though Sochi itself has become a veritable stronghold. Russian authorities are known for their ruthlessness when dealing with domestic threats. If human-rights and other Western values are sidestepped, the world will witness it.
Showcasing Russian Authoritarianism
Many hoped Russia would liberalise after 1991. Putin has quashed these hopes. His return to the presidency through a rigged election displays the sham that was Dimitri Medvedev’s presidential reign. The country has returned to its Soviet ideals, or perhaps closer to its Czarist ones. To the extent that the Olympics will be a stage for Putin to dabble in his usual populist stunts, these games remind one of the triumphs of Rome: an opportunity for one man to centralise political power on himself alone. This, of course, is eerily similar to the strategy of Stalin.
Freedland, Jonathan. “Can evidence of mass killings in Syria end the inertia? Only with Putin’s help.” The Guardian, 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
“Most expensive Olympics in history.” RT, February 2013. http://rt.com/business/sochi-cost-record-history-404/
“Putin’s Expensive Victory.” The Economist, 31 December 2013.
Treisman, Daniel. “The Wrong Way to Punish Putin.” Foreign Affairs, August 2013.