by Mark English
Questions of geopolitics are all too easy to talk about, but very difficult to talk about sensibly. In this respect they are not unlike a lot of other “big questions” that take us beyond the limits of the relatively small and circumscribed worlds in which our distant ancestors struggled for survival and within which our brains and linguistic capacities evolved.
Part of the problem with geopolitical debate is that it is closely intertwined with macroeconomic and ideological issues. You have to deal not only with the empirical complexities of social, political and economic reality on a broad canvas, but also with values. Consequently, there is no firm, objectively ascertainable position to serve as a starting point. You can hardly think or say anything without taking sides on various important and contentious issues or committing to a particular narrative. Because of this – and despite the complexities – I don’t see geopolitics as an area that we can safely leave to the experts.
My personal starting-point is an intuitive reaction against what I see as an insidious and extremely dangerous approach to foreign policy and which is popularly associated with the term ‘neoconservatism’. I am particularly concerned with legislators, policy-makers, intellectuals and journalists who see national military forces not just as protectors of national security but as tools to promote and advance a particular global agenda. Neoconservatism is an essentially imperialistic ideology. This in itself is not enough to condemn it. There have been empires in the past which have kept the peace and advanced the cause of human civilization. But the empire that the neocons envisage – certainly if that is seen as an enhanced version of Pax Americana – is just not going to happen.
In fact, the hawkish actions of establishment forces within the U.S. government are weakening the network of alliances that the U.S. has fostered since World War 2 and strengthening countervailing alliances. Witness the (very flawed) sanctions bill that was recently signed into law. Despite last-minute changes made to accommodate some of the European Union’s concerns, it seems clear that America is charting a course that not only puts it at odds with its old Cold War adversaries and Iran, but also potentially with its most powerful allies.
The term ‘neoconservative’ – like any ideological label – involves oversimplification and can be misleading. I am using it as convenient shorthand for a particular tendency of thought which I see as being fraught with danger. I myself used to be quite sympathetic to the neocons, but I saw the damage and destruction that their policies caused and now fear that we are heading for more of the same.
In the US, the neoconservative movement has a well-documented history. Its roots lie in the writings of a number of thinkers associated with the anti-Stalinist left in the post-World War 2 period, who gained an increasing influence within both the Democratic and Republican Parties and also within the bureaucracy of government, the intelligentsia and the media.
To a large extent, today’s neoconservatives inherit the role of the Cold Warriors of the immediate post-World War 2 period. But, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism is no longer the issue, so the demonization of designated enemies takes various, and sometimes obviously opportunistic, forms. On more than one occasion in the relatively recent past, humanitarian concerns have – arguably – been used as cover for military interventions that have had other (geo-strategic and/or economic) purposes. (1)
The tendencies with which I am concerned – however they are labelled – have evolved into a global movement (or set of related movements) that is supported by powerful media organizations (public and private, national and international) and a variety of well-funded advocacy and activist groups. Arguably, they are more dangerous today than ever before because of a combination of political dysfunction in the U.S. and Europe and rapidly shifting global power balances. The perception that the days of American and West European economic and political dominance are numbered plays into this, because it may prompt certain parties to want to strike in a military way while they still have the upper hand.
NGOs and activist groups are playing an increasingly important role here, as their focus goes well beyond purely humanitarian concerns and impinges on many foreign policy questions. Once upon a time there were countless independent and significant not-for-profit organizations and charities which were locally-based and largely apolitical. Many of these organizations have disappeared, and the surviving ones tend to be not only linked to national and international networks but also very political. A global network of NGOs has to a large extent replaced the old-fashioned charities and local mutual-aid groups that were once such an important feature of the social fabric in Western countries.
Within this general context, new groupings such as a loose confederation of radical progressive activist groups (e.g. Antifa) on the one hand and neoconservatism on the other have to some extent served to fill the ideological vacuum which had developed in the wake of the collapse of the old (basically Marxist) intellectual left and, with it, the anti-Communist right.
As I see it, recent forms of neoconservatism – not entirely unlike earlier manifestations – are based on a potent mix of idealism, paranoia and self-interest. The idealism relates to a deep belief in certain American and European values and rights that are seen as universal. The paranoia is seen in the demonization of nations and cultures (like Russia, China and Iran and political leaders and movements within many Western countries) which are perceived not only to reject these universal values and rights, but also to be actively engaged in undermining the societies that uphold them.
I see the idealism as genuine, but as having become rather more prescriptive and doctrinaire in recent years. The media has played a major role here, with publicly-funded broadcasters exercising great power and influence in some countries. Of late we seem to be seeing a more politicized – and homogenized – mainstream media. One sign of this is that the American media has, at least in the last two decades or so, provided a platform for neocons but not, on the whole, for foreign policy realists. (2)
Generally, the mainstream news sources with which I am familiar take a subtly moralizing line on geopolitics, emphasizing the suffering of new immigrants or asylum-seekers, for example, and characterizing those (both in Europe and America) who speak out against the free movement of people across national boundaries as being motivated by xenophobia. Some are. Some aren’t. But there is little doubt that the flood of impoverished non-Europeans into Europe and other instances of uncontrolled mass migration are causing many social problems, while doing nothing to improve the situation in the migrants’ home countries.
Self-interest is certainly one of the main driving factors amongst the leaders of the movement with which I am concerned. It works on a number of levels and is variously material and psychological. The income of many who advocate for a more aggressive military stance is directly or indirectly dependent on a continuation of the government funding status quo, especially (but not only, by any means) military and national security budgets. But, more than this, many of these people’s sense of importance (or self-importance) depends on their self-perception as being closely associated with powerful governments and powerful armies.
Perhaps the most pathetic of the neocons are British journalists, academics and politicians (or retired politicians), who have never quite accepted the fact that the days of Empire are long gone. Even some of those who accept that Britain’s imperial days are over still cling to the fantasy of a “special relationship” with their more powerful American cousins.
British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, on a recent visit to Sydney, boasted about plans to dispatch two new British aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. (3) Johnson may or may not be a neocon, but as Foreign Secretary he has made some (I think) stupidly aggressive statements concerning both China and Russia.
Lest all this sounds a bit too cynical, I admit that in some cases genuine social and political ideals were and are in play amongst leading neoconservative figures. But I am inclined to think that this was more likely to be the case in the days of the Cold War. Jeane Kirkpatrick (a foreign policy adviser to the Reagan administration and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) was a woman of substance, intelligence and moral standing, even if some of her actions and views were wrongheaded. Significantly, she was critical of George W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy which she saw as naïve and overly aggressive. I also had respect for Irving Kristol and a few others. Most of today’s leading neocons, by contrast – at least the ones I have come across – seem to be devoid not only of intellectual flair but also of moral depth (or even a moral sense).
In many cases it’s hard to separate idealism from self-interest. In the case of a number of campaigning journalists and intellectuals with whom I am familiar (and their loyal readers and viewers) the real motivating factors are, I think, both personal and ideological. They see the institutions that reflect and support their personal value systems as being threatened from within their home countries (by the “deplorables” and their like) and also indirectly, by shifts in the geopolitical balance of power. As countries like China increase their economic and military clout, they will become more respected in cultural terms – and increasingly effective in projecting and promoting their value systems. Such qualities as loyalty and patriotism and competitiveness, for example, may be put above the sorts of concerns that usually come under the heading of “social justice.” The perception that the Western progressive agenda (which has been spectacularly successful in shaping social, cultural, legal and educational structures and institutions in North America and Western Europe in recent decades) is under threat seems like a fair reading of the current situation. But starting a world war to defend it is a thoroughly bad idea.
Making reasonable concessions to the independence and perceived security interests of countries like China, Russia and Iran, all of which have suffered from disastrous foreign interventions and invasions in the past, is obviously the right thing to do in the circumstances. But Western powers will not willingly give up the control of the framework of international relations that they currently exercise. As I see it, neoconservative writers and intellectuals are – knowingly or unknowingly – providing justificatory narratives for war-mongering politicians and ultimately serving nefarious purposes by promoting a distorted view of the world based half-truths and discredited myths.
The mainstream media’s fixation on Russia – the old Cold War arch-enemy – is both puzzling and concerning. Likewise, there seems to be very little questioning of the official line that Saudi Arabia is an ally whereas Iran is an implacable foe and fomenter of terrorism. How is it that such stories can go (relatively) unchallenged when Saudi Arabia’s track record on the terror front is so bad and so well-known? (4)
There are certainly a lot of bad things happening in countries like Russia, China and Iran, but not all social evils warrant foreign military intervention. North Korea’s aggressive nuclear stance certainly seems to pose serious threats to its neighbors and beyond and in this case some kind of intervention (not necessarily military) may be appropriate. But, given North Korea’s strategic importance and its historical and current economic ties with Russia and China, there are clear dangers of a wider conflict developing. Nothing should be done that risks causing a major war or a destabilization of the region.
Of course we remain individuals, and emotions and values inevitably play a role in all our decision-making, including in the area of foreign policy. Judgments about the desirability of humanitarian interventions, for example, will draw heavily on personal morality. But I don’t think we should automatically apply modes of morality that are applicable to individuals in their personal lives to nation states in their interactions with other nation states. On the whole, geopolitical analysis and decision-making – if it is to be effective – requires a relatively non-emotive approach. In these areas it is often necessary to push emotion aside and think in more or less utilitarian terms and, ever alert to the inevitability of unintended consequences, to keep the focus not so much on doing good but rather on trying not to cause unnecessary harm.
- Humanitarian concerns were part of the sales pitch for the ousting of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
- I’m not sure of Seymour Hersh’s ideological position, but it was interesting that his piece rejecting the standard view that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun was not published on an American site but on a German one.
- To do him justice, Johnson did also make some conciliatory remarks about working with China.
- An exiled member of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family planned the 9/11 attacks, for example, Saudi money was involved, and most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals.