The official mythology is that between 1945 (or 1946) and 1989 (or 1991), the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) confronted each other continuously – politically, militarily, and above all ideologically. This was called the “cold war.” If it was a war, the word to underline is “cold” since the two powers never engaged in any direct military action against each other throughout the entire period.
There were however several institutional reflections of this cold war, in each of which it was the United States, and not the USSR, that took the first step. In 1949, the three western countries occupying Germany combined their zones to create the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) as a state. The Soviet Union responded by restyling its zone as the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
In 1949, NATO was established by twelve nations. On May 5, 1955, the three western powers officially ended their occupation of the FRG, recognizing it as an independent state. Four days later, the FRG was admitted to membership in NATO. In response to this, the USSR established the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) and included the GDR as one of its members.
The treaty establishing NATO was supposed to apply only within Europe. One reason was that the western European countries still had colonies outside of Europe and did not wish to allow any agency to have the authority to interfere directly in their political decisions concerning these colonies. The moments of seemingly tense confrontation between the two sides – the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis – all ended with a status quo ante outcome. The most important invocation of the treaties to engage in military action was that of the USSR to act within its own zone against developments they deemed dangerous to the USSR – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981. The United States intervened politically under similar circumstances, such as the potential entry of the Italian Communist Party into the Italian government.
This brief account points to the real objective of the cold war. The cold war was not meant to transform the political realities of the other side (except in some moment very far into the future). The cold war was a mechanism for each side to keep its satellites under control, while maintaining the de facto agreement of the two powers for their long-term partition of the globe into two spheres, one-third to the USSR and two-thirds to the United States. Priority was given by each side to the guarantee on the non-utilization of military force (especially nuclear weapons) against each other. This came to be known as the guarantee against “mutually assured destruction.”
The collapse of the USSR in two stages – the withdrawal from eastern Europe in 1989 and the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – should have meant in theory the end of any function for NATO. Indeed, it is well known that, when President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR agreed to the incorporation of the GDR into the FRG, he was given the promise that there would be no inclusion of the WTO states into NATO. This promise was violated. Instead, NATO took on a new role entirely.
After 1991, NATO bestowed on itself a role of world policeman for whatever it considered appropriate political solutions to world problems. The first major effort of this type occurred in the Kosovo/Serbia conflict, in which the U.S. government threw its weight behind the establishment of a Kosovo state and a change in regime in Serbia. This was followed by other such efforts – in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban, in Iraq in 2003 to change regime in Baghdad, in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and in 2013-2014 to support so-called pro-Western forces in Ukraine.
In point of fact, using NATO itself turned out to be difficult for the U.S. For one thing, there were various kinds of reluctances of NATO member states about the actions undertaken. For another thing, when NATO was formally involved, as in Kosovo, the U.S. military felt constrained by the slow political decision-making about military action.
So, why then the expansion of NATO instead of its dissolution? This had once again to do with intra-European politics, and the desire of the U.S. to control its presumed allies. It was in the Bush regime that the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked of an “old” and a “new” Europe. By old Europe, he was referring especially to the French and German reluctance to agree with U.S. strategies. He saw the western European countries as moving away from their ties to the United States. His perception was in fact correct. In response, the U.S. hoped to clip the wings of the western Europeans by introducing eastern European states into NATO, which the U.S. considered more reliable allies.
The conflict over Ukraine illuminates the danger of NATO. The U.S. has sought to create new military structures, obviously aimed at Russia, under the guise that these were meant to counter a hypothetical Iranian threat. As the Ukrainian conflict played on, the language of the cold war was revived. The U.S. uses NATO to press western European countries to agree with anti-Russian actions. And within the U.S., President Barack Obama is under heavy pressure to move “forcefully” against the Russian so-called threat to the Ukraine. This combines with the large hostility in the U.S. Congress to any accord with the Iranians over nuclear development.
The forces in the United States and in western Europe who are seeking to avoid military folly risk being overtaken by what can only be called a war party. NATO and what it symbolizes today represents a severe danger because it represents the claim of western countries to interfere everywhere in the name of western interpretations of geopolitical realities. This can only lead to further, highly dangerous, conflict. Renouncing NATO as a structure would be a first step towards sanity and the world’s survival.
On Oct. 26, Pres. Dilma Rousseff of Brazil of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) won re-election in the second round of voting by a narrow margin against Aécio Neves of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB). Despite the name of the PSDB, this was a clear left-right struggle, in which voters generally voted their class position, even though the programs of the two parties were on many fronts more centrist than left or right.
To understand what this means, we must analyze the somewhat special politics of Brazil. Brazil’s politics are in many ways closer to those of western Europe and North America than almost any other country in the global South. Like countries in the global North, the electoral struggles in the end come down to a struggle between a left-of-center and a right-of-center party. Elections are regular and the voters tend to vote their class interests despite the centrist policies of the two main parties, who usually rotate in power. The result is constant dissatisfaction by the voters with “their” party, and constant attempts by the real left and the real right to push policies in their direction.
How these left and right groups pursue their efforts depends a little on the formal structure of elections. Many countries have a de facto two-round system. This permits the left and the right to run their own candidates in the first round and then rejoin the main party vote in the second round. The major exception to this two-round system is the United States, which forces left and right forces to enter into the main parties and struggle from within.
Brazil has one exceptional feature. While in all these countries politicians change parties from time to time, in most countries this is a tiny group. In Brazil, such party-switching is virtually an everyday occurrence in the national legislature, where neither main party normally has more than a small plurality of votes. This forces the main parties to spend enormous energy on constantly reconstructing alliances, and accounts for somewhat more visible corruption, although probably no greater actual corruption than elsewhere.
In this election, the PT was suffering from the growing disillusionment of its voters. A third-party candidate, Marina Silva, tried to offer a via media. She was known for three qualities: as environmentalist, evangelical, and a non-White of very poor origins. At first she seemed to take off. But as she began to propose a very neoliberal program, her popularity collapsed and voters turned back to Neves, a more traditional rightist.
The disillusionments with the PT centered around its failure to break structurally with economic orthodoxy, plus a failure to carry out its promises concerning agrarian reform, environmental concerns, and the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples. It also repressed popular demonstrations of left movements, most notably in June 2013. Despite this, the social movements of the left joined forces, and very strongly, with the PT in the second round.
Why? Because of the strong positives of the 12 years of PT government. First of all, there was the greatly expanded Bolsa familial, which paid a monthly allowance to the poorest fourth of Brazil’s population and significantly improved their daily life. Secondly, and scarcely mentioned in the western press, there was Brazil’s highly successful foreign policy – its major role in the construction of South American and Latin American institutions that held at bay the power of the United States in the region. The left was sure that Neves would reduce the social welfare thrust of the PT and ally Brazil once again globally with the United States. The Brazilian left voted for these two positives despite all the negatives.
That same weekend, there were three other major elections – Uruguay, Ukraine, and Tunisia. The election in Uruguay was rather similar to Brazil’s. It was the first round of the presidential elections. The governing party since 2004 had been the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and its candidate was Tabaré Vázquez. The Frente Amplio was truly broad – from center-left to Communists and ex-guerillas. Vázquez faced a classically right candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional, but also a candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, of one of two parties – Partido Colorado (Red Party) – that had ruled Uruguay repressively for over a half-century.
On the first round, Vázquez got 46.5% of the vote over circa 31% for Lacalle, not enough to avoid a second round. Bordaberry, with about 13%, has now thrown his support to Lacalle, but it seems likely that Vázquez will win, and more or less for the same reasons as Rousseff has won. In addition, unlike Brazil, his party will control the legislature. So, Uruguay too will reaffirm the effort to build an autonomous geopolitical structure in Latin America.
Ukraine was totally different. Far from being constructed around a left-right class struggle with two centrist parties trying to secure votes, Ukraine’s politics are now constructed around a regional ethno-linguistic divide. In these elections, the west-oriented government held elections in which the dice were loaded in favor of excluding any real role for the so-called separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. The latter therefore boycotted the elections and announced they would hold their own for regional offices. In the Kiev-ordained elections, it seems that those who now govern – President Petro Poroshenko in alliance with his rival, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of another party – will maintain themselves in tandem in power, excluding the truly ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) party from any role.
Finally, Tunisia is also quite different. Tunisia has been seen as the launcher of the so-called Arab Spring, and today seems to be its only survivor. Ennahda, the Islamic party that won the first elections, lost considerable strength by pursuing a too rapid program of Islamization of Tunisian politics. It was forced some months ago to yield place to a technocratic interim government, and lost large number of votes (even of Islamists) in this second election.
The winner was Nadaa Tunis (Tunisia’s Call). Its politics are in one sense clear. It is a secular party. Its leader is a venerable 88-year-old politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in the so-called Destourian governments that had led the country after independence until he became a major dissident. His problem is to hold together a very split coalition of many secularist forces – primarily both the young people who led the uprising against President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and various leading members of that very government who have now re-entered the political arena.
In any case, though Nadaa Tunis had a plurality of 85 seats out of 217 and Ennahda reduced to 69, the others are scattered among several smaller parties. There will have to be a coalition government, possibly even an all-party coalition. So, while the Tunisian young revolutionaries of 2011 are celebrating their victory against Ennahda, no one is sure where this will lead.
I say, hurrah for Brazil, where the most important of these four elections was held. But there as elsewhere, the game is not over. Not at all!
Amid the many and ever-evolving shifts of policies and geopolitical alliances in the various countries of the Middle East, one used to be at least sure what are the prime objectives of the major actors, both in the region and in the outside world.
This is not true of Syria today. Syrian politics today are formed by a triad: supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime; supporters of the caliphate that calls itself the Islamic State (IS); and so-called moderate Islamic groups that claim to be fighting both of the other two groups. Triadic struggles are notoriously difficult both to analyze and to predict because triads have an almost fatal way of reducing themselves in the relatively short run to a clearer two-sided struggle. However, in this case many of the main actors in the region and beyond are highly ambivalent about what it is they want. Many of them prefer to maintain the triad if they can, and are afraid of being forced to choose to which dyad they give priority. This ambivalence is particularly true of Turkey, although also of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Turkey shares a large border with Syria. It has been governed for some time now by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), an Islamic party that seeks to project itself as oriented to Islamic values and practices but nonetheless tolerant of other perspectives and commitments. It started its rule with an announced foreign policy of maintaining its links with the western world as a member of NATO and a country seeking to join the European Union while at the same time attempting to restore Turkey’s role as a major power in the Middle East, one that would maintain good relations with all other Middle Eastern countries.
When the civil war began in Syria, Turkey offered its services as a mediator. In the process, at some point, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had lied to him. Deeply affronted, he turned from being a mediator to being a leading proponent of a change in Syrian regime.
Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority to which the successive governments have always denied recognition, devolution, and linguistic rights. Ever since the establishment of a Turkish republic over ninety years ago, Turkish governments have reacted to Kurdish demands with total suppression, some even denying that there was such a group as the Kurds. Some thirty years ago, a Kurdish militant Marxist-Leninist movement, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), sought to achieve Kurdish objectives with armed revolt. The leader of this movement, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A few years ago, the present Turkish regime changed course and surprised the world by entering into negotiations with the PKK to see if a compromise could be realized. For its part, the PKK indicated that they no longer were a Marxist-Leninist movement and were ready to contemplate devolution as an objective instead of independence for the Kurdish region. These discussions have been difficult but ongoing and seemingly promising.
The Syrian civil war upended the internal situation in Turkey. The caliphate forces (so-called IS) expanded considerably in northern Syria and have been seeking to control the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. This is actually a region peopled largely by Syrian Kurds. Their main movement, the PYD (Party of Unity and Democracy) has been the principal target of IS attack as well as the principal force in the zone that is resisting the advance of the IS. The IS is presently attacking Kobani, the de facto capital of the Syrian Kurdish region.
The movement of Syrian Kurds is also in close relation with Turkey’s Kurdish movement, the PKK. When the United States announced its policy of creating a “coalition” of forces to fight the IS forces and using its airplanes to try to stem their advance, Turkey found itself immediately under considerable US pressure to join the struggle. In particular, the Kurds on both sides of the border, and the United States, have called for Turkey’s opening its borders in both directions: to permit Syrian Kurds who are under threat in Kobani and elsewhere from the IS forces to enter Turkey for safe haven and to allow Turkish Kurds to enter Syria to assist militarily the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey has been most reluctant to accede to any of these requests. President Erdogan declared that, from Turkey’s point of view, both the IS and the Turkish Kurdish movement, the PKK, are equally terrorist movements, and Turkey saw no reason to open its frontier in this way. This is a strange position to take since the Turkish government has been negotiating for some time with the PKK despite the fact that they label it as a terrorist movement. The Kurdish movements, the PKK and the DYP, cannot in any sense be equated with the IS which is pursuing a very aggressive military campaign against all and sundry.
So what is Turkey saying to the world? The government has argued that fighting the IS will strengthen Bashar al-Assad. This is probably true. But therein lies Turkey’s choice and its ambivalence. The Turkish government is demanding a promise from the United States that it will not be diverted from pursuing a struggle against the al-Assad regime, and in particular that it establish now a no-fly zone on the frontier. The United States argues this is impossible to do without troops on the ground, which they will not send.
And here is the choice: which dyad? If one gives priority to the struggle against the IS, it does reduce the support given to the ever smaller so-called moderate Islamists in Syria. If one gives priority to fighting al-Assad, it does strengthen the IS and will undoubtedly lead to a widespread massacre of Syrian Kurds by the IS, as the United Nations Syria envoy has just warned.
The other Turkish ambivalence concerns their negotiations with the PKK. If Turkey turns its back on the dilemmas of the Syrian Kurds, it will probably lead to a rupture in the negotiations with the PKK in Turkey. They have been so warned publicly by the PKK. But if the Turkish government turns more actively against the IS, the result could be that the PKK would have a stronger position in the continuing negotiations.
In addition, Turkey has been trying to improve its relations with Iran. The two countries share strong common interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even support the same forces in Palestine. But not fighting actively against the IS will interfere with this attempt to increase ties. On the other hand, active opposition to the IS will interfere with Turkey’s attempt to present itself as a champion of Sunni Islamists.
One way or the other, Turkey will have to come to a more coherent policy in the very near future. Otherwise, its claim to be a major actor in the region will fall flat. And its internal struggle with the Kurds will probably explode into violence again. Ambivalence is not admired in a zone of such hot struggles.
When does this story begin? It is difficult to decide. The modern story began in the nineteenth century, when the British and the Russians fought the “great game” competing to influence and control Afghanistan. They struggled directly and via Afghan proxies. The British thought they did better, but it was largely an illusion. I would call the contest a draw.
In the 1960s, the game was resumed with the coming to power of a ruler who sought to institute a new “liberal” constitution. He failed but opened the way for the emergence of parties of the left and right. His successor, Mohamed Daoud, was overthrown in 1978 by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), actually a Communist party. The PDPA established a totally secular regime, with full equality for women. The great game had resumed. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA regime and the United States (successor to Great Britain), supported the mujahidin who struggled against it and in favor of an Islamist regime.
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President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.
The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.
Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014
There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.
They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.
Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014
In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.
This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.
Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014
There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.
The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.
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