Has The World Never Changed?

I understand that’s a ridiculously broad question, but it arises from a ridiculously broad analysis:

Obama says Putin is on the wrong side of history and Secretary of State John Kerry says Putin’s is “really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century.” This must mean that seeking national power, territory, dominion — the driving impulse of nations since Thucydides — is obsolete. As if a calendar change caused a revolution in human nature that transformed the international arena from a Hobbesian struggle for power into a gentleman’s club where violations of territorial integrity just don’t happen.

Is it possible things are just a little bit more complicated than that? It could be that the impulse for national power, territory, dominion is now not obsolete, but simply much more attenuated now than it once was (and that argument is easily compatible with Kerry’s phrase). And the case for that is pretty strong. I mean: if nations have one driving impulse – “seeking national power, territory, dominion” – and if the record shows no change or evolution in this eternal truth, how do we explain huge tranches of recent history?

war2012Why on earth, for example, would European countries pool sovereignty in the EU? How could they be deluded into thinking that giving up “national power” could be a good thing? And why, for that matter, would this arrangement remain attractive to other countries as well, not least of which Ukraine? Why on earth did the US invade and conquer Iraq only to leave it a decade later? Why did we not seize the oil-fields with our military might to fuel our economy? What was Krauthammer’s hero, George W Bush, doing – singing hymns to human freedom rather than American hegemony?

Why, for that matter, have military incursions into other countries become rarer over time? Why has the level of inter-state violence in human affairs declined to historically low levels?

The answers to that question are, of course, legion, and I’m not trying to settle the debate here. I’m just noting that if the classic aims of territory acquisition and dominion never change, Krauthammer has a lot of explaining to do.

Even with Putin, I think it’s worth noting that his current Tsarist mojo is not exactly triumphalist. Krauthammer concedes as much:

Crimea belonged to Moscow for 200 years. Russia conquered it 20 years before the U.S. acquired Louisiana. Lost it in the humiliation of the 1990s. Putin got it back in about three days without firing a shot.

So this is less like Hitlerian aggression and more like a sad attempt to re-seize one tiny portion that was part of Russia proper far longer than it was “lost”. More to the point, Putin “got it back” only in the wake of Ukraine deposing its democratically-elected, Russophile leader in a violent, popular putsch. Yes, if your contention is that the desire for territory/dominion/power is “obsolete,” you’re a fool. But if your contention is that this impulse plays a much less critical role in international affairs than in almost all previous periods in human history, you’d be merely making an empirical observation.

The truth is that global interdependence – the immensely complex and proliferating global economy that vastly expanded as communism collapsed under the weight of its own lies – clearly mitigates the classic impulse that Krauthammer approves of. It doesn’t abolish it – but it shapes it.

One reason we won’t see major armed conflict over Ukraine, for example, is because the Germans and Brits have too much to lose in terms of their economies – and Russia does too. In the end, economic power is the basis for military power. Economic power, in the global capitalist economy, is also related to soft power, to where human capital wants to go, and where money wants to flow. Becoming a global pariah is not GERMANY-CARNIVAL-ROSE-MONDAY-STREET-PARADEgood for that kind of thing – and it has a direct relationship to power as a whole. And one reason why Putin’s attempt to coerce Ukraine is not as win-win as Krauthammer suggests is that controlling and occupying countries by brute force is much more difficult than it used to be. The most advanced military machine in history occupied Iraq for a decade and lost. Ditto Afghanistan – for both the Soviets and the Americans. Ditto, for that matter, the Israelis on the West Bank. In each case, the occupying power’s cost-benefit analysis looks weaker than ever. And if Putin attempts to invade or annex Crimea, his headaches are sure to become even worse, as he manages Russia’s steep decline by beginning an armed conflict within what used to be the Soviet Union’s undisputed territory.

Then there is the simple matter of collective memory. For many Americans and for Krauthammer, the key referent is the Second World War which America won with almost none of the devastating trauma experienced by Germany, Britain or the Soviet Union. But in Germany and Britain right now, the collective memory is much more indelibly that of the Great War, where small matters of territory – like Crimea – metastasized through miscalculation into a generational catastrophe. Hence the resilience of the EU, even as it seems to cripple the economies of its weaker members through punishing austerity. Hence also, of course, the survival of the UN and the countless instruments of collective security we’ve built in its wake.

Concerns Grow In Ukraine Over Pro Russian Demonstrations In The Crimea RegionIn other words, power rests on money; and money rests on the global economy. Russia is able right now to get away with its somewhat lame attempt to annex Crimea because its core economy is so primitive and petro-based. But even then, its potential vulnerability to economic retaliation – through global trade and travel and finance – makes this a mug’s game at some point.

Putin, of course, may not see it this way. And understanding that is critical to dealing with him. But that means, in Merkel’s alleged phrase, that he is in “another world.” That may be disastrous, of course, when you’re running an autocracy with nukes. But in the real world, he is misreading his country’s and his own actual interests. In the real world, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a huge defeat for the US. In the real world, permanently occupying the West Bank is national suicide. And in that sense, Putin is not a symbol of the world order reverting to its eternal nineteenth century dynamic. He is a symbol, in fact, of how that dynamic has ended, and how attempts to restart it are unlikely to result in the glorious military victories some still seem so eager to celebrate.

(Chart from systemicpeace.org. Photos from Getty)