American Liberals Should Return to Social Democracy

Trump deserved to be routed, but his base stayed loyal—largely because of the left’s perverse obsession with what divides, rather than unites, America’s economically downtrodden majority

The idea of the “Green New Deal,” adopted by the left of the Democratic Party and—belatedly—by President-elect Joe Biden, is a recognition both of the acute menace of climate change and that the scale of the challenges that the US now faces is coming to resemble that of the 1930s when the first New Deal was born. As in the 1930s, failure to carry out deep reforms will endanger US democracy—and liberal democracy in the world.

To achieve change on the scale required, the Democrats need to replicate Franklin D Roosevelt’s success in creating a “new dispensation,” so that for a generation or more even Republican presidents accept its basic premises. For almost four decades after FDR’s death, Republican leaders accepted the terms of the New Deal and governed in effect as moderate Democrats. Tragically, in the 1980s Reagan reversed this, and for almost four decades now Democratic presidents have behaved like moderate Republicans.

To bring about another such transformation, and to overcome the biases built into the US Constitution, the Democrats needed to win solidly and repeatedly as both FDR and Reagan did. As the November elections have demonstrated, the party is at present very far indeed from doing that—though faced with a rival as repellent as Trump amid an economic crisis such an historic victory should have been easy to achieve. Instead, Biden won “only” 51 per cent of the popular vote, and Trump a strikingly solid 47 per cent; meanwhile, the failure to win the Senate is likely to block any chance of serious change. Without the accident of the pandemic, it seems virtually certain that Trump would have won re-election, and the Republicans, if they can only avoid civil war, are very well placed to win in 2024. Truly, a Pyrrhic victory.

Class action

The sole electoral focus of the Democratic Party must therefore be to win and keep a large number of votes from the other side—just as FDR and Reagan did. This should not be such a difficult task. The vote for Trump was in large part an inchoate howl of protest against the abandonment of the white working classes by the elites of both parties; as economic change (now reinforced by the pandemic) immiserates large sections of the middle classes, this constituency can only grow. Even the Financial Times now recognises that the era of the Washington Consensus and Reaganite-Thatcherite economics is over. By the look of things however, in the US at least the rotten framework may stay standing for a long time, simply because progressives are too weak to kick it over—a weakness that is to a great extent their own fault.

In some respects, at least tonally, Trump broke with Reaganomics in a way that resonated strongly with this working-class constituency: he talked about creating jobs by building infrastructure, and vowed to maintain social security and “drain the swamp” of crony capitalism. Trump’s cynical and blatant failure to fulfil those promises creates a great opportunity for the Democrats. If they cannot—in today’s grim and extraordinary circumstances—craft a populist, anti-plutocratic programme capable of winning working-class votes from the Republicans in general and a draft-dodging, tax-evading hereditary billionaire in particular, they do not deserve to win.

A strong role for the left of the Democratic Party is essential to bring about serious change. For it has been made clear repeatedly that without strong pressure from the left, the Democratic establishment will never break with its donors and employers in Wall Street and Silicon Valley and adopt radical economic policies. This has been demonstrated yet again not only by some of Biden’s cabinet choices, but by his very limited plans for increased taxation of the rich.

Tragically, however, the left’s move from traditional social democracy to identity politics has destroyed its capacity to build the necessary national majority for reform. Too many leftists—in Europe as well as the US—have spent too long talking to themselves. They have forgotten that in a democracy, change needs votes; and like it or not, in the US today and for some while to come, this means winning a majority of white working-class votes as well as those of Latinos and black people—or rather, winning back those working-class votes that the Democrats have in recent decades lost through neglect. The fact that most impoverished former industrial towns now vote Republican should be a matter not just of concern but of shame to the American left.

American workers have suffered a double betrayal at the hands of the Democratic Party: by the Democratic establishment, which has been captured by the meritocratic ideology of the capitalist elites (who in effect propound a self-serving and hereditary pseudo-meritocracy), and by the left, which has too often directed its radicalism and capacity for mass protest into symbolic issues that neither threaten the elite nor serve the concrete interests of the poor. Moreover, as Wilfred Reilly, a former member of the Occupy Wall Street movement, pointed out in a November article in USA Today (“I Saw Identity Politics Tear the Occupy Movement Apart”), identity politics, by dividing every progressive movement into fractious squabbling sub-groups, has a disastrous effect on mass mobilisation.

Instead of seeking votes, the left, possessed by what can only be called a Kamikaze spirit, has gratuitously insulted working-class white voters (and in different ways, many Latinos and African Americans) while smugly presuming it could continue to rely on their votes. Given the deep dangers of accentuating racial divisions in an already racially divided and volatile society, this strategy would have been a very bad idea even if it had worked in creating a solid electoral majority for the Democrats.

But it hasn’t worked. “Intersectionality” has failed disastrously as an electoral strategy. Trump won almost a third of Latino votes, increased his vote among Latino women, and even won somewhat more support than expected among black men. It turns out that people will not vote according to the racial and sexual categories ascribed to them from above by the intersectional left.

Divide—and don’t rule

The chauvinism of Trump’s insults towards Mexican immigrants in particular is not in dispute. But Latinos from different backgrounds have different identities and interests and will vote accordingly, not according to a category imposed upon them. Many do not in fact identify as a separate “race.” They must be given a reason to vote Democrat, not told that they are bound to do so as some kind of racial duty. As a Pew survey demonstrated, Latinos and Latinas are also not impressed by being told by English-speaking intellectuals that they must call themselves “Latinx”— a ludicrous insult to anyone who knows and loves a Latin-based language.

Appealing to voters through symbolic appointments does not necessarily work either. Many African American voters do not see Kamala Harris—a Jamaican-Indian member of the Californian elite married to a white man—as one of them, in the way that Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams are.

Support for mass immigration, and especially illegal immigration, is obviously not a vote winner among the white working classes at a time of depressed wages and growing job insecurity. But for their own very good economic reasons, an overwhelming majority of black voters—according to a Harvard-Harris poll—are also strongly in favour of reducing immigration. A core shibboleth of contemporary liberalism is therefore rejected by what is supposed to be a core liberal constituency.

As for gender, Trump’s undeniably vile language and conduct is—again—not the automatic recruiting sergeant for the left that it lazily assumes. Women of all races are, of course, part of their local societies and on the whole vote accordingly.

After these elections—with the less-than-resounding vote for change in objectively dire circumstances, and in particular with the remarkable solidity of the vote for such a dire President—it is surely time to settle the debate that simmers on the left. For a long time, traditional social democrats (like Thomas Frank and Mark Lilla) have argued for a strategy based on class against a new left preoccupation with identity and intersectionality. It is—or should be—apparent to all that progressive electoral victory and radical reform require multiracial progressive coalitions that aim to transcend racial divisions, not accentuate them.

It is politically insane to insult the mass of working-class white voters (including many who are sinking further and further into destitution, social despair and early death) by describing them as innately “privileged” and racist. It is appalling politics to describe their economically threatened families as agencies of “heteronormative oppression” (something that also deeply offends religious black and Latino voters) and to preach “diversity” while ruthlessly suppressing opinions with any trace of the social conservatism and nostalgia which are routine among this electorally crucial group. It amounts to attacking their most cherished symbols and implying that they should get to the back of the queue in any programme to alleviate America’s ills.  

The recent elections have demonstrated, once again, that there is no evidence—and I mean no evidence—that these strategies have gained a single vote for the Democrats that they did not already have.

Everybody who knows the history of Christianity knows how very easily hysterical public admissions of personal guilt can actually become aggressive strategies of moral self-righteousness and superiority. A white CEO or professor may feel a glow of righteous pride (and perhaps moral justification for their individual position) in highlighting their own white privilege. For a semi-employed white worker, it is likely to be just one humiliation too many. Why on earth should they accept being lectured on their “white privilege” and “white fragility” by a perfectly prosperous white professor like Robin DiAngelo?

As Martin Luther King emphasised, while black people are especially badly damaged by America’s economic and social pathologies, they are not the only ones to be so damaged. If the white working classes are to be brought to think coherently about their own desperate need for reforms, it is absolutely essential to create movements based on multiracial class interests, and not racial and sexual identities.

This does not in any way harm real black interests and ambitions. Since black people are indeed disproportionately affected by poverty, police violence and poor access to education, genuinely colour-blind reformist programmes can disproportionately help them without this having to be made their official purpose.

It does not deny the real black suffering at the hands of the police or harm the defence of minorities’ civil rights in any way to point out that working class whites also need police reform, because police savagery and indiscipline can also claim white lives. Of course, there are specific issues of police racism which require a specific focus, but what is wrong with appeals for police reform carrying pictures of victims of police violence of different races? America’s first (but let us fervently hope, not last) black President twice won election by appealing to Americans of every race.

Pragmatism is, however, not the only reason to reject intersectionality as a political strategy. Every American citizen also has a duty not further to worsen racial tensions in a racially diverse and potentially very violent society. Speaking as a former journalist with experience of several civil wars, a future Yugoslav scenario for the US no longer seems to me unthinkable—and must at all costs be avoided. Looking at the last election results according to county, I seemed to see the very battle lines of such a future civil war. The fact that the Republicans have cynically and shamefully inflamed these tensions is no reason for the left to lapse into a similar sectarianism.

Prospect (London) December 2020

The Tasks Before the Biden Administration

The key tasks of the Biden administration are the following:

  • To sustain successful competition with China;
  • To do so without worsening the risk of catastrophic war;
  • To do so without draining national resources that are urgently needed to strengthen America’s domestic infrastructure and technological base;
  • To these ends, to reduce US commitments and risks elsewhere;
  • To strengthen national unity and solidarity at home, as essential goals in themselves and for the sake of US strength in the world;
  • To develop strategies to limit climate change, both to avert future disasters and as part of competition with China.
  • To stabilize and develop the USA’s own neighborhood in Central America;

The competition between the US and Chinese superpowers will be the central issue of international politics for at least a generation to come. Given China’s enormous size, strong nationalism, and successful capitalist economy, this competition cannot end with a knock-out victory for the USA like that over the USSR.

A successful conventional war with China would have disastrous economic consequences; a lost war would shatter America’s international position; a nuclear war would end modern civilization. Military deterrence of China must therefore be conducted in such a way as to minimize the possibility of war.

In the South China Sea, this should involve the minimum naval and air patrols necessary to make clear the US non-recognition of Chinese legal sovereignty. If possible, this should be accompanied by mutually-agreed ground rules.

Chinese possession of these atolls is not in itself very important. A century from now, they will be under water due to climate change. In any conflict, the greatest disruption would be to China’s own trade. The key to America’s position in the Far East is Japan. As long as Japan is an ally with US bases, America will remain a great power in the region.

Maintaining the alliance with Japan and deterring China from aggression requires a US Navy capable of dominating the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It does not require one capable of defeating China in her own littoral waters – a goal that may already be impossible.

To deter China from invading Taiwan, the USA should continue to warn Taiwan against declaring formal independence, while arming Taiwan sufficiently to make a Chinese invasion a bloody affair that would impose colossal political and economic costs on China. This can be accompanied by conciliatory declarations that the USA hopes for long-term reunification, as long as this is accomplished by entirely peaceful and consensual means.

US partnership with India needs to be managed in such a way that the Indian navy and air force will be partners in dominating the Indian Ocean, but that India will not be encouraged to take actions that would provoke China into going to war in the disputed areas of the Himalayas. India would probably lose badly, and the USA would face the choice of going to war itself or suffering national humiliation. India should therefore not be encouraged to take part in operations defying China in the South China Sea.

Rivalry with China and urgent domestic reform require reducing US commitments and costs elsewhere without thereby increasing the risk of local crises that will drag the USA back in again. This requires détente with the two other main rivals of the USA, Russia and Iran.

Urging the West Europeans to strengthen their armed forces against Russia is pointless. Russia has no intention of attacking NATO, and you could create a European army of 20 million men and it still wouldn’t fight Russia over Ukraine. Nor is there any possibility of bringing Ukraine into NATO and the EU. The US goal therefore must be to avert future crises by reaching a settlement in Ukraine that will guarantee both its independence and its neutrality.

In the Middle East, Russia is a key de facto ally in fighting Islamist extremism, and may become an essential ally in containing Turkish ambitions. Co-operation with Russia in the region however also requires détente with Russia’s partner Iran. The USA therefore must return to the nuclear deal, and allow the full opening of Iran to Western trade and investment. This is also essential if Iran is not to become a powerful ally of China, as now seems possible.

The essential factor in competition with China (as in the struggle with Soviet communism) is the comparative success of the US and Chinese domestic systems and their international image. No warships and aircraft will maintain US global leadership if the USA suffers intensified domestic dysfunction and decay. Following Eisenhower’s example in the 1950s, US administrations therefore need to make superpower competition a spur to investment in domestic infrastructure, job creation, research and development, social solidarity and fiscal security.

At the core of its domestic economic program must be the fostering of alternative energy, electric vehicles and energy conservation; both because climate change risks doing more direct future damage to the USA than anything China could achieve short of nuclear war, and because Beijing has made global dominance in these fields a key strategic objective.

As the latest US elections graphically illustrate, there now exists a real possibility of violent political crisis at home, which would destroy the image of US democracy and severely weaken the USA internationally. The Biden administration must therefore make national unity a central goal.

US racial tensions are a dangerous national weakness. Patriotism therefore requires that both US parties cease to exploit them for political advantage. Since high immigration has been a driver of tensions (especially in times of economic depression), existing limits on immigration must be maintained, and a massive effort devoted to the development of Central America.

This is necessary to reduce both the impetus for people to migrate north and opportunities for China to seek regional influence. It is ridiculous that in 2018 Ukraine received more (measly) US aid than Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua put together. No other major power neglects its own neighborhood in this way. China certainly does not.

Contribution to Symposium in The National Interest  December 2020

Historical Memory in Russia and the USA

Contribution to a webinar of the Simone Weil Center: Politics, Tragedy, Sovereignty: A Panel Discussion on the Meaning of Today’s Russia.

View on YouTube.

Panelists:  Marlene Laruelle, James Carden, Anatol Lieven, Boris Mezhuev, Paul Robinson, Richard Sakwa

The USA and Russia: Common Dilemmas of Memory and Identity

by Anatol Lieven

An absolute curse of Russia’s relations with the West not just since the end of the Cold War but throughout modern history has been the Western insistence that we have nothing to learn from Russia, and everything to teach Russia – an attitude which tends to produce among Russians either slavish and humiliating acquiescence or furious and arrogant rejection; or very often the first followed by the second.

This Western hubris is especially fatuous when it comes to questions of national memory, national identity and core national values. These have been central issues for Russia for most of its modern history; and due to a mixture of immigration and cultural change, they have also become central issues for every major Western state. Given the events of the past year, it should be obvious that Americans today should sympathise and learn from Russia’s experience when it comes to addressing contested and tragic historical memories and historical symbolism.

Since Gorbachev’s reforms (or even since Khrushchev’s Thaw), Russians have faced the dilemma of how to remember with pride the tremendous achievements of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War without at the same time defending Stalinist tyranny and its imposition on Eastern Europe; and how to remember the dark sides of Soviet and Russian history without (like the extreme liberals) trashing the entire Russian state tradition – remembering of course how the entirely justified recollection of Leninist crimes helped bring about the collapse of the USSR.

Under Putin, public historical symbolism has become completely incoherent: statues of Tsar Alexander II and Lenin stare bemusedly at each other from opposite sides of roads. Perhaps however this is in the end not just inevitable, but desirable; since the alternative would be the exclusion of huge parts of the historical record, the suppression of the values of large parts of the population; and the creation of new and not necessarily more accurate monolithic historical myths.

The USA today is facing the dilemma of how to recognize the evils of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans without – like not just the American Left but even God help us the New York Times – trashing the entire US state tradition and dissolving the ideological and cultural glue that holds the USA together.

Curiously enough however the endless apologies of Western liberal intelligentsias for past sins of Western racism, imperialism and so on do not diminish in the slightest their attitudes of arrogant ideological superiority towards the rest of the world, and towards benighted (white) conservative elements of Western societies. It seems a bit like the old Catholic practice of Indulgences: a ritual act of apology makes you good and pure again, and therefore in a position to look down on and dictate to those who have not yet adequately apologised for their sins.

Tony Blair represents an extreme form of this attitude, or pathology. None of his apologies for British imperial crimes led him to wonder for a single second whether this record might give people good reason to doubt Britain’s honesty, intentions and capabilities in helping the USA to invade Iraq in the name of freedom, peace and democracy. The French progressive intelligentsia are another example. Having abandoned socialism, but being quite incapable of abandoning a sense of individual and national civilising mission, they have made a cult of preaching human rights to the rest of humanity, a mission that is not at all qualified by their acknowledgement of monstrous past French crimes.

Associated with this are aspects of the widespread cult of victimhood. This psychological shift from legitimate sympathy for victims to compulsory admiration for victims stems partly from a sort of international competition to suggest comparisons between your own collective sufferings and those of the European Jews during the Holocaust; and partly from the demilitarisation (dare I say feminisation?) of broad swathes of Western culture, especially in academia and the media.

Thus in sympathising (quite rightly) with the sufferings of colonised peoples, it has become distinctly unfashionable and frowned-upon to recognise – and respect – the fact that Zulus, Chechens or Afghans were not simply victims, but also tough and courageous warriors fighting in defence of their own traditional orders and values – which were most assuredly not those of contemporary Western liberalism.

In the teaching of the Second World War, this approach contributes to a wider tendency (fuelled by state propaganda campaigns by particular NATO and EU states) to cast the Soviet Union as an enemy and not an ally of the West, analogous to Nazi Germany. On the one hand, the great reduction in attention paid to the battles and the soldiers who fought in them means a great reduction in recognition of the Soviet soldiers who did the great majority of the fighting. On the other, the indiscriminate mixing of Nazi crimes, Soviet crimes and collaborationist crimes creates a historical fog out of which – Hey Presto! – the Western progressive tradition shines once more pure and unsullied.

If there is one book that I would make compulsory reading in any course about the Second World War, it would be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate: a profound meditation on the analogous evils of the Nazi and Stalinist systems that on the other hand does not doubt for a second the justice of the Soviet War, and also praises the idealism of many Communists (however misplaced); and a work of the deepest sympathy for the victims of the war that at the same time celebrates the heroic endurance of the defenders of Stalingrad and their vital role in the salvation of Europe. Grossman was a great Russian classical novelist; a fierce critic of Stalinist tyranny; a strong and devoted patriot; and of course Jewish.

As Grossman’s case illustrates, Russia and the USA today are both in their different ways multiethnic and multicultural states. This fact can be shaped and contained in various ways, but it cannot now be abolished without hideous repression.

Two shaping and constraining forces are of especial importance: loyalty to the state, and a degree of love for a common culture (which does not need to cancel out love for another cultural tradition at the same time).

Loyalty to he state stems from traditional legitimacy but also in the Russian case from a deeply rooted fear of chaos and internal conflict. This is a fear that is now coming to be shared by sensible Americans. We have to pray that foolish Americans will not have to learn fear of chaos the Russian way.

To retain a capacity for cultural and economic growth, states should of course govern through the law; but they have to be strong enough to enforce obedience to their laws and to ensure their own survival. For this they need to enjoy legitimacy in their populations; but populations also need to understand their need for a strong state, and the dreadful consequences for themselves if the state weakens too far.

This leads me to another thing that Americans can learn from modern Russian history: the vital importance of a strong central cultural and especially literary tradition. I don’t know if Allan Bloom has been translated into Russian but Putin would certainly read him with approval.

We may remember that in the Middle Ages, the legends of Charlemagne and the secondary literature in vernacular French that they gave birth to were known as “The Matter of France” just as the Arthurian legends were known as the “Matter of Britain” – and in both cases were critical to the development of the national languages, literatures and identities.

The great Russian classical literature of the 19 th century and its 20 th century descendants, together with the Russian cinema to which it contributed so much, could well be called “The Matter of Russia”.

And of course both to play its full national role and to continue to flourish, such a literature must be open to people of every ethnic background who identify with it and wish to contribute to it, while retaining loyalty to their own ethnic traditions. Vassily Grossman should also be an inspiring symbol in this regard.

The Ethic of Strategic Empathy

The great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau stated that a fundamental ethical duty of the statesman is the cultivation of empathy: the ability through study to see the world through the eyes of rival state elites. Empathy in this sense is not identical with sympathy. Thus, George Kennan’s deep understanding of Stalinism led to an absolute hostility to that system.

This kind of empathy has very valuable consequences for foreign policy. It makes for an accurate assessment of another state establishment’s goals based on its own thoughts, rather than a picture of those goals generated by one’s own fears and hopes; above all, it permits one to identify the difference between the vital and secondary interests of a rival country as that country’s rulers see them.

A vital interest is one on which a state will not compromise unless faced with irresistible military or economic pressure. Otherwise, it will resist to the very limit of its ability, including, if necessary, by war. A statesman who sets out to challenge another state’s vital interests must therefore be sure not only that his or her country possesses this overwhelming power, but that it is prepared actually to use it.

Geopolitical power is really, in the end, local and relative: it is the power that a state is willing to bring to bear in a particular place or on a particular issue relative to the power that a rival state will bring to bear. Furthermore, the degree of the willingness to mobilize and use power and to make sacrifices depends ultimately on whether the issue concerned is believed to be a vital national interest. If it is only a secondary interest, then it is one on which the statesman should be prepared to make concessions and seek compromise.

The first step in this process of empathy is simply to listen to what the other side says. This however is not in itself enough, for they may of course be exaggerating an issue’s importance as a bluff or a negotiating gambit. It is therefore also necessary to study in depth the history, politics and culture of the country concerned. Thus, despite what Chinese officials say, we might doubt that they would actually go to war if Taiwan declares independence. A study of modern Chinese history, and of the importance of nationalism to the legitimacy of the Chinese state, makes clear that they are not bluffing.

What makes this search for understanding easier is that foreign and security establishments generally hold historically-derived doctrines about their country’s vital interests that are relatively easy to identify given study and an open mind.

The greatest enemy of an open mind and a capacity for empathy is self-righteousness. One aspect of self-righteousness is a confusion between basic moral commitments and the inevitable moral compromises forced upon state representatives trying to defend their country’s interests in a morally flawed and chaotic world. 

The morality of Western policymakers lies in their commitment to Western democracy, and their renunciation of absolutely immoral means: notably the mass murder of civilians. This commitment however, while it may restrain Western democracies from the most evil actions, does not confer some kind of innate innocence on their conduct of policy. 

This is especially true of the Middle East where I have worked for a number of years. Given the nature of this region, any outside state, democratic or otherwise, seeking to play an important role there will inevitably be compelled to engage in certain immoral actions — including alliances with corrupt and murderous dictatorships. What Western policymakers can, however, be blamed for is the pretense that because our systems are democratic, this somehow in itself makes these immoral actions better than those same actions when engaged in by other states. 

The least excusable Western failure of empathy since the end of the Cold War has been with regard to Russia because — by contrast to some Middle East countries, let alone North Korea — the attitudes and beliefs of the Russian establishment are not hard to understand, at least for anyone with a minimal grasp of Russian history and culture. Moreover, the realism of Russian policymakers fits the mindset of many American security officials.

The vital interests of Russia are adhered to by the Russian establishment as a whole. They consist chiefly of a belief that Russia must be one pole of a multipolar world — not a superpower, but a great power with real international influence. Also: that Russia must retain predominant influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union, that any rival alliance must be excluded, and that international order depends on the preservation of existing states. In addition, as with any political system, there is a commitment to the existing Russian political order and a determination that any change in it must not be directed from outside.

There are obvious tensions between some of these Russian interests and secondary U.S. interests, but on one issue — the danger from Sunni Islamist extremism and terrorism — a vital interest of Russia is completely identical with our own. Because of this danger, U.S. administrations, like the Russians, have often supported existing authoritarian Muslim states for fear that their overthrow would lead to chaos and the triumph of Islamist extremism. 

In Syria, Russia followed the policy of the U.S. in Algeria 20 years earlier — and indeed in its support for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt today. Russian fears of an ISIS takeover of Syria if the state collapsed were echoed in briefings to President Obama by the CIA. Yet a Western narrative has emerged of Russia engaging in wicked support for “brutal dictatorships” in the Middle East, and that this policy in turn is linked not to fear of Islamist extremism, but implacable anti-Americanism and reckless geopolitical ambition.

Straightforward Western prejudices (now dignified with the abominable euphemism of “narratives”) are part of the reason for these false perceptions derived from the Cold War. The collapse of Communism, however, also led to a growth in Western hubris that led Western policymakers to fail either to listen to their Russian colleagues when they stated Russia’s vital interests, or to study Russia in sufficient depth to understand that they were not bluffing but really meant what they said. Instead, you had the tragicomic picture of American officials lecturing Russian officials on the “real” interests of Russia. 

As a result, U.S. and British officials ignored Russian warnings that if Washington persisted in trying to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia would fight. And when Russia did fight — albeit in a very limited way — this was taken as a sign not of a Western failure to listen, but of Russian “madness,” aggression, and evil. Though if one thinks of the Monroe Doctrine, Russian concerns in this regard should hardly be incomprehensible to an American official. It should also have been easy enough to accept the Russian point that this was a vital interest for the sake of which Moscow was prepared to make very important concessions to Washington on other issues.

Instead, the United States establishment embroiled itself in confrontations with Russia, only to recognize at the last moment in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 that these countries were not in fact American vital interests, and that the U.S. was not prepared to fight to defend them. An additional danger therefore in refusing to study other countries’ vital interests is that it makes it more difficult to think seriously about your own. We had better hope that in dealing with the vastly more formidable challenge of China our policy elites will engage in real study, eschew self-righteousness, and identify and not attack the vital interests of China, as long as Beijing does not seek to attack our own.

Responsible Statecraft, November 3rd 2020

Stay Calm About China

Beijing’s ambitions shouldn’t be treated as an existential threat to the United States.

 A central distinction in Realist international relations thought is that between vital and secondary national interests. Vital interests are threats to a state’s survival, and can take the form either of conquest and subjugation from outside, or the promotion of internal subversion aimed at destroying the existing political and ideological order – the strategy followed by the USSR across much of the world during the Cold War, and by the USA against the USSR and allied regimes.

 Rivalry between the USA and China is not a battle to the death of this kind, and it is very important that the USA not see it as such. The phrase “a new cold war” is a cheap journalistic formula, but it contains real dangers. The geopolitical competition with China is quite different from that with the USSR, and if the US establishment frames it in the terms of the cold war, it may do great damage to the USA and the world in general. For while the Cold War with the Soviet Union  stemmed originally from the Soviet revolutionary threat and the evil nature of Stalin’s regime, many of the ways in which this rivalry was imagined and therefore conducted by the USA did terrible damage to America’s own politics, culture and public ethics.

When states permanently threaten each other with destruction from without or within, even periods of peace have the character of temporary armed truces requiring permanent military and ideological mobilization. This breeds in turn continual international tension and domestic repression, and a cultural atmosphere of fanaticism, hysteria and conspiratorial thinking in all the countries concerned.

We have learned this again over the past generation. The contemporary Middle East is a tragic example of how an entire region can be crippled by the threat of internal revolutions backed by rival ideological states; but our European ancestors learned it more than 350 years ago, and tried to do something about it. The great achievement of the Peace of Westphalia was to end in Europe – for the space of 144 years – ideologically-driven mass rebellions against existing states supported by other states. 

 Crucial to the Westphalia settlement was the principle of Cuius Regio, Eius Religio – “Whose Realm, His Religion”; in other words, that the ruler of a country dictated the religion of his or her subjects without interference from other states belonging to the other religion. Rivalries and conflicts would continue, but states and regimes would no longer pose existential threats to each other.

All this changed again with the French Revolution. Once again, states threatened the basic identity of other states, and did so in part by stimulating internal rebellion. Once again, endangered states responded with ferocious mass repression. Assassination and the execution of defeated enemies returned to the European scene. The French Revolution spawned socialist revolution and conservative counter-revolution, which later characterized the Cold War.

By the standards of the rest of the world, the United States has not suffered from a truly existential threat from another power since the British defeat at New Orleans in 1815. Since then, the protecting oceans and the military and economic weakness of other American states has given the USA an exceptional degree of security, which in turn (as Tocqueville noted) has contributed greatly to its exceptional success. Hence the ability of the USA throughout its history until World War II to maintain only a very weak standing army (but a very powerful navy). The only subsequent existential threat to the USA was internal: the secession of the Southern states, brought about by basic and irreconcilable disagreement over the nature of US society and ideology. As Abraham Lincoln said, “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” 

This remains true today. It is worth pointing that there is no conventional threat to the continental United States today, nor any way that such a threat could be created in the teeth of the US Navy and Air Force. The US Army and Marine Corps today have no part in the defense of the US homeland – at least, on the assumption that the USA is unlikely to be attacked by Canada and Mexico. Their entire purpose is to defend US interests in the wider world; some of them important, others considerably less so.

Even in the Cold War (nuclear weapons aside) the USA itself did not face a truly existential threat. There was never the slightest chance of Communism taking over America either from within or without. On the other hand, in the first years of the struggle, there were good reasons to believe that a combination of Communist ideology and Soviet power was a threat to vital US allies: Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe was indeed a truly evil and monstrous system; the economic chaos of Western Europe after World War II did give opportunities for Communist takeovers; the Soviet army was in 1945 clearly the most formidable land force on earth; and by 1950 China too had experienced Communist revolution.

Within a relatively few years however, the Soviet communist threats to the USA and its key allies, though still real, had greatly diminished. In Europe, Stalin’s death led to a very much milder version of Communism. Stalin’s withdrawal of support from the Communist side in the Greek Civil War in 1949 had already made clear that the Kremlin would not risk a direct clash with the USA in Europe. 

By the early 1960s, the Hungarian revolt and the mass flight of East Germans to the West (leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall to keep them in) made clear the collapse of Communism as an attractive force in Europe. By then, the Communist regimes in the USSR and China were also bitterly at odds, giving the USA the chance to turn China into a quasi-ally. The last two thirds of the Cold War could therefore well have been conceptualized by the US establishment as a limited series of minor skirmishes and holding actions until the Soviet bloc collapsed under the weight of its increasingly dysfunctional economy and its internal national divisions.

 The reality of course was very different. The struggle with Soviet communism became the intellectual framework and the standard operating procedure for the whole of US foreign and security policy. Into this every local issue was fitted, with all the local elements that did not fit the paradigm of universal and existential struggle with the USSR stripped out in the dominant US analysis. 

The result was a series of disastrous misunderstandings, with consequences that haunt the USA to this day: of Mosadeq in Iran as a Communist agent rather than an Iranian secular nationalist; of the Communist revolution in Vietnam as part of a Soviet plan for world domination rather than a continuation of the anti-colonial nationalist struggle against France; of the Afghan war of the 1980s as a struggle for liberation from Soviet imperialism rather than a continuation of a generations-old struggle between the forces of authoritarian modernization and Islamic and tribal conservatism, in which the USSR became embroiled (followed by the USA 22 years later). And of course across much of the world the USA found itself committed to supporting “anti-communist” regimes that were often as vile as the communists, and bitterly unpopular with their own peoples.

 Again and again, the USA was drawn into local conflicts in which it had very few real interests at stake. As today, each one of these is then cast by the US establishment and media in the terms of the struggles against Nazism and Stalinism: as a black and white struggle of American-led good against absolute evil, with complexities abolished and facts twisted to conform to this image. 

As C. Vann Woodward wrote during the Vietnam War:

The true American mission, according to those who support this view, is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end. For what end could be nobler, they ask, than the liberation of man.1

At home, the Cold War exacerbated older tendencies to paranoia, cultural anxiety and Manichean views of the world. McCarthyism passed, but left behind a legacy of hysteria, extremism and paranoia that blights the Republican Party to this day, and has never had much connection to real dangers to the USA, whether external or internal. And of course the US War in Vietnam greatly worsened internal divisions in the USA which also linger to this day, with disastrous results for American national unity and basic political consensus.

It is therefore highly desirable for America’s own sake that rivalry with China should be conceptualized by the US foreign and security establishment as a limited competition in particular areas, and not a universal and existential struggle between good and evil. Apart from anything else, to center the whole of US policy on struggle with China will be a terrible distraction from what are in fact much greater threats to the wellbeing of American citizens: at home, economic inequality and racial tensions; in the world as a whole, climate change and its consequences. 

The Coronavirus pandemic should also help us better to understand the real interests of ordinary Americans. Whatever the Trump administration may now be trying to suggest, it has been a virus (albeit made worse by Chinese and American governmental incompetence), and not a rival great power, that at the time of writing has killed more Americans than died in the Vietnam and Korean Wars put together.

US competition with China is real, serious and bound to increase. That is inevitable, both for economic reasons and because of the incompatibility between Chinese ambitions and the US establishment’s determination to maintain US global leadership. However, it is not an existential struggle between two fundamentally opposed systems, nor is it a universal struggle that must be fought in every corner of the world.

 A comparison with basic features of the cold war with the USSR should make the difference clear. China is not promoting Communist revolution around the world. In fact there is no evidence at all that it is aiming at the overthrow of existing states. As a great capitalist trading power, it has a strong stake in the stability of markets and the safety of Chinese investments. If the Chinese government in principle prefers authoritarian states, it has as yet done nothing to foster such systems. 

Chinese influence operations in the West are real and should be resisted; but they are intended to influence Western policies towards China, not cause state collapse and revolution. And the US has an old and tried arsenal of international influence operations of its own that it can deploy in response. As to the US political system, the impact of Chinese (and Russian) covert propaganda on US politics has been minimal compared to the impact of America’s own domestic problems. It was not China that killed George Floyd.

As a great capitalist trading state, China is dependent on the health and stability of the international capitalist system. Unlike the USSR, it needs a degree of rules-based international order – though not if (as seen from China) this means a system in which the USA sets all the rules and then breaks them whenever it wishes. On the other hand, China has certainly sought with great determination to increase its international influence through international capitalism. Some of these efforts (like Huawei’s role in 5G) must be strongly resisted. They do not however as yet greatly exceed past US patterns of international economic influence.

The defense and strengthening of US capitalism in competition with China is indeed essential, but needs to be seen however not just in terms of tariffs on Chinese imports (as the Trump administration has seen it), but as requiring a massive program of US domestic economic reform and investment in infrastructure and technology – in other words the way the Chinese government conducts this competition.

When it comes to hard geopolitical influence and the expansion of Chinese military power, with one important exception China has proceeded with great caution. It is important to emphasise this, both to avoid US over-reaction and to indicate just how much worse Chinese behavior could become if the USA launches a full-scale campaign against Chinese interests and Chinese communist rule. In the Indian Ocean, until now the Chinese programme of port construction has been entirely commercial (except for a small refueling and repair station in Djibouti, next to a much bigger US one). The Chinese naval presence in the region is insignificant compared to that of the USA, let alone the USA plus India.

Above all, China has not sought to exploit US difficulties in the Middle East, despite multiple opportunities to do so. The contrast between the strategies of Beijing and Moscow in this regard is extremely marked. Readers may wish to imagine for example the impact on the US position in the region if China were to devote even a fraction of its resources to a full-scale program of strengthening Iran economically and militarily.

 The reasons for this Chinese abstinence are not of course altruistic. In the first place, China as the world’s greatest energy importer depends on the stability of the Persian Gulf –far more than does the USA, since thanks to fracking the USA is now self-sufficient in oil and gas. Secondly, as a Chinese official told me a decade ago, China has studied the repeated and disastrous messes that the USA has got into (and sometimes caused) in the Middle East, and has no desire to follow suit. There is no evidence that this very sensible approach has changed in the years since.

The great exception to this Chinese caution has been the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as its back yard (as a Chinese journalist remarked to me recently, it is after all called the South China Sea, and not the South American Sea). Here, the USA must continue to reject Chinese territorial claims (while however recognizing that the claims of Vietnam are just as outrageous – Hanoi just has much less power to enforce them).

It should also be recognized however that Chinese control of these reefs and sandbanks (which climate change will in any case eventually place under water) does not threaten international trade or US maritime supremacy. If China were mad enough to block trade through the South China Sea, the US Navy (especially if backed by India) has the power to interdict Chinese maritime trade with the whole of the rest of the world. Elsewhere in East Asia, the USA has a formal military alliance with Japan, which is by far the most important state of the region after China, and which has no intention of submitting to Chinese hegemony. This alliance, and US forces in Japan and South Korea, must of course be maintained.

The only truly dangerous issue between the USA and China remains, as it has always been, Taiwan. Of course, the USA cannot and must not give any kind of green light to Beijing to invade Taiwan. At the same time, the US security establishment must clearly recognize (in private) that in future, whatever the USA does, growing Chinese military power and the proximity of the Chinese mainland will make it impossible for the USA to defend Taiwan against blockade or invasion without an unacceptable risk of military defeat or nuclear war. The goal must be to make sure that Beijing remains convinced of the catastrophic economic and political damage that it would suffer as a result of such an invasion. 

US geopolitical competition with China should therefore be handled by the USA on a pragmatic and case by case basis, and combined with continued co-operation with China on other critically important issues, like climate change and disease control. Washington must be careful not to be drawn into local conflicts in which the USA has no national interest, and where the rights and wrongs are uncertain and the dangers of escalation very great: the Sino-Indian border dispute, for example.

The really key area of struggle in the Cold War was Europe, and it was there that the evident economic, social and political superiority of the West eventually led the Soviet bloc to collapse from within. In Europe, however, US allies were (mostly) successful liberal democracies ranged against Communist dictatorships. In Asia, the picture is very different. The key Asian regimes that the USA needs to cultivate include Narendra Modi’s Hindu chauvinist and quasi-authoritarian regime in India, the Vietnamese Communist state, and the ferocious authoritarian populist government of Duterte in the Philippines. These are hardly convincing allies in a struggle to defend and promote democracy.

Above all, as Stephen Walt has written in Foreign Policy, conceptualizing the competition with China in terms of an existential ideological conflict will both distort US strategy and make the competition vastly more dangerous:

Focusing on the internal characteristics of other states is also tempting because it absolves us of responsibility for conflict and allows us to pin the blame on others…[P]inning most of the blame for conflict on an opponent’s domestic characteristics is also dangerous. For starters, if conflict is due primarily to the nature of the opposing regime(s), then the only long-term solution is to overthrow them. Accommodation, mutual coexistence, or even extensive cooperation on matters of mutual interest are for the most part ruled out, with potentially catastrophic consequences. When rivals see the nature of the other side as a threat in itself, a struggle to the death becomes the only alternative.2

The competition with China cannot be won by the sort of systemic knock-out that finished the USSR, and that the USSR dreamed of inflicting on the West. Its most important aspect is the relative success of the two capitalist systems in terms of economic growth, the maintenance of social stability, and ability to cope with new crises. This is indeed where China, as a successful capitalist country, is a more serious challenger than the USSR. For the USA to compete successfully with China in these areas does not however require more warships, more CIA operations, or more money for Voice of America. It requires long overdue reforms at home.


1 C. Vann Woodward, Burden of Southern History, pp 205-207.
2 Stephen M. Walt, “Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War”, Foreign Policy, June 30th 2020.

Foreign Policy, August 2020

Anatol Lieven teaches at Georgetown University in Qatar. His latest book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World, was published in April by Oxford University Press.

Tocqueville in the 21st Century

The American Creed, and the civic nationalism of which it is the foundation, have been the essential glues that have held a wildly diverse country together.
Without the Creed, America risks becoming something like the Habsburg Empire without the Habsburgs.

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM is in an exceptionally parlous condition. The Right declares with metronomic regularity that America is exceptionally good; the Left that it is exceptionally bad. Neither side makes much of a pretense at serious historical study or international comparisons. Meanwhile, the liberal establishment consoles itself with the belief that America is a very good thing, but only when it is governed by very good people like themselves.

For now, the demonstration of their own goodness to themselves and the world, however, tends to take a very Protestant evangelical form: that of loud public confessions of their own badness, the public admission of which goes to show how exceptionally good they are.

These attitudes put together might make for a diverting picture if some of its implications were not so menacing. American exceptionalism— or what the scholar D.W. Brogan once called the illusion of omnipotence—has all too often led to grief at home and abroad. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it contributed to military adventures that damaged U.S. interests and the stability of the Middle East.

At the same time, it is hard not to be worried by serial assaults on the foundation of American exceptionalism, which is the “American Creed”: a belief in exceptional American commitment to and success in the practice of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Take, for example, the recent “1619 Project” of the New York Times, which essentially reduces the U.S. political tradition, and U.S. independence itself, to no more than a long series of hypocritical cover-ups for slavery and racism.

The reason for worry (leaving aside disputed issues of historical fact) is that the American Creed, and the civic nationalism of which it is the foundation, have been the essential glues that have held a wildly diverse country together. The 1619 Project essentially does just what the chauvinist “Jacksonian” and now Trumpian tradition in the United States has always been accused by critics of doing: reducing the American Creed from a set of universal principles to an ethnic badge of white American civilizational identity and superiority which non- whites cannot share or practice. We should remember Richard Hofstadter’s words: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” Without the Creed, America risks becoming something like the Habsburg Empire without the Habsburgs.

Any halfway objective observer must however recognize that the American polity is indeed in pretty poor shape, that American exceptionalism is looking rather battered, and both are in urgent need of renewal. And this should be of concern to liberal democrats all over the world. For while it is true that since 1945 democracy has spread to many more countries, it is also true that in many of these the liberal form of democracy is severely threatened. Furthermore, in the growing ideological rivalry with China, the United States cannot rely on the threat of communist revolution to drive social and economic elites around the world into alliance with America, because of course China is not threatening any such thing. Unlike the Cold War with the USSR, the contest with China is not one to preserve the free market or religion from bloodstained fanatical revolutionaries: it hinges on the comparative success of two capitalist systems in economic development, the distribution of benefits for the good of society as a whole, social tranquility, and freedoms guaranteed against both state oppression and mass collective hysteria. In this rivalry, the maintenance of international respect for the U.S. political and economic model will be absolutely critical.

IF THE activist and missionary form of American civic nationalism has contributed to disasters, the U.S. democratic example, therefore, remains of critical importance to democracy in the world as a whole. In order to understand both what American exceptionalism was originally grounded in, and the dangers it now faces, it is useful to turn to the foundational analysis of the subject: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (published 1835). Tocqueville’s purpose was to analyze the sources of American democratic success, to herald not just what Tocqueville saw as the inevitable spread of democracy (which he also used to mean what we would call “modern mass society”) in Europe, but also to warn Europeans about the dangers for democracy that lay ahead.

Tocqueville, far from seeing liberal democracy as the inevitable and eternal “end of history,” worried constantly about how liberal democracy could in effect lead to the destruction not only of itself but of what he regarded as enlightened civilization. And unfortunately, much of Tocqueville’s work should make very uncomfortable reading for the American political elites of today: Republicans, chiefly on economic grounds; Democrats, chiefly on cultural grounds; both, on political grounds.

[I]n America it is religion that leads to liberty … Anglo-American civilization is the product (and one should continually bear in mind this point of departure) of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvellous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.

As Robert Bellah and his colleagues pointed out in Habits of the Heart, Tocqueville differed from his French near-contemporary Crevecoeur in not seeing the American as a “new man,” but rather as a man who could live happily and successfully in a new society precisely because his own identity was firmly rooted in biblical Christianity. This, Tocqueville also believed, was an essential barrier against an unrestrained and therefore socially, morally, and psychologically destructive individualism which he feared would otherwise take command of Americans’ souls and wreck their communities—as it has indeed often done in recent decades.

With the partial exception of the Southern slave-owners (the nearest approximation to European hereditary landowning aristocrats), Tocqueville was also unequivocal about the fact that the American culture that underpinned successful democracy resided in the American protestantoid middle-class—“protestantoid” because a particularly brilliant perception of his was how new religions in America (starting with the Catholics) have had a strong tendency to adopt many of the forms and attitudes of Protestantism, and in the process also to assimilate to American democracy.

Tocqueville saw the United States—as it was in the 1830s—as a country overwhelmingly dominated by the middle-classes (including, of course, middle-sized “yeoman” farmers). He was also convinced that the stability and the long-term survival of democracy depended on this class and on the maintenance of a society without great extremes of wealth and poverty. Democracy in America begins,

No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions … the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived, and all my observations constantly returned to this nodal point.

When Tocqueville repeatedly equates “democracy” with “equality of conditions” and makes the former dependent on the latter, he is speaking not only of legal equality of status (unlike traditional and previously feudal Europe), but also of a society which (once again, with the tragic exception of Southern slavery) did not have great extremes of rich and poor. Moreover, he wrote, so dominant were middle-class mores that even the few rich were careful to practice middle-class behavior and avoid ostentation and conspicuous consumption.

Tocqueville also saw the wealthy American businessmen and industrialists of his day as lacking strong influence over politics and deferring to the middle-classes. Nonetheless, he worried that “equality of conditions” could not be permanently guaranteed, and warned that,

The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction [the potential development of a capitalist plutocracy]. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.

Tocqueville, however, emphasized the key importance not only of the relative absence of social inequality, but of the homogeneity of culture and ideology, due to middle-class cultural hegemony, lack of extremes of wealth and poverty (among whites), universal respect for religion (but not tied to one state church), and also to a combination of almost universal (for whites) access to primary education with very limited higher education.

Far from worrying about the diversity of American culture and ideology, Tocqueville worried that their uniformity, and the crushing power of public opinion, contained the potential to degenerate towards what would later be called totalitarianism, one generated from below rather than imposed from above.

With the exception of the issue of slavery, these features also led to a lack of bitterness in American politics (under the superficial froth and spume of party politics), compared to most European countries:

In the United States there is no religious hatred, because religion is universally respected and no sect is predominant; there is no class hatred because the people is everything and nobody dares to struggle against it; and finally, there is no public distress to exploit because the physical state of the country offers such immense scope to industry that man has only to be left to himself to work marvels.

In his emphasis on middle-class cultural homogeneity, Tocqueville was heavily influenced by the unhappy example of his own France, where prospects for stable democracy were for many years ruined by the deep cultural-political divide between Republican anti-clericals looking to the example of the French Revolution, and Catholic monarchists nostalgic for the ancien regime. Much of Democracy in America can be read as advice to his French compatriots on how this divide could be overcome.

Even in the vastly more ethnically homogenous (white) United States of the 1830s, Tocqueville did not however attribute this cultural homogeneity simply to common ethnic Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish roots. He noted how Irish and German Catholic European immigrants were being homogenized to Protestant middle-class culture, and how the Catholic Church, which in the Europe of the 1830s was closely associated with monarchical authoritarianism, had in the United States taken on strong democratic features. Heavily influenced by the miserable example of France during the Revolution, Tocqueville viewed the strength and prosperity of these property-owning middle-classes as crucial to resisting both the growth of a new plutocratic aristocracy and the redistributive frenzy of the poor. He emphasized their centrality to the participatory local government which he saw as forming the essential basis of real democracy and as an essential barrier to democratically-elected but potentially tyrannical central government.

The importance of these protestantoid middle-classes, however, went far beyond the merely political. Tocqueville anticipated Max Weber by sixty years in seeing specific forms of Protestantism, and Protestant- like behavior, as essential to the success of capitalism. He also saw this specific culture as central to the power and strength of the American family, which he regarded both as the supreme social good in itself and as essential to the maintenance of social and moral stability, and, therefore, to preventing American society from being carried away by the waves of mass hysteria which had overwhelmed his own country during the Revolution.

Finally, he believed that the cultural homogeneity of the American middle-classes (once again, with the partial exception of the South of his day), was essential not only to the effective working and maintenance of democracy and to the survival of the American union but also to the process of assimilating and civilizing the rough and violent world of the frontier settlers. He contrasted this with the experience of the former Spanish colonies in Latin America, which were regularly overwhelmed by frontier violence and anarchic militarism.

If the ultimate foundations of the exceptional strength of U.S. democracy were as described by Tocqueville, then it might be no exaggeration to say that the present Republican and Democratic parties are in a de facto conspiracy to destroy them. FOR THE past two generations, the Republican Party has worked to deepen economic inequality in American society, to ignore and even encourage the economic decline of the middle-classes, to encourage rampant economic individualism stripped of collective identity and responsibility, to wreck communities at the local level and a sense of American society at the national level, to increase the wealth of an American plutocracy, and to remove any legal barriers to plutocratic political influence. Much of this plutocracy or “overclass” (in Robert Reich’s formulation) has ceased even to pretend to have the interests of the United States or American society at heart, instead moving both jobs and money overseas for their own profit. At least the eighteenth- century French aristocracy, for all the faults which Tocqueville condemned (speaking as their descendant), had certain values of patriotism, courage, personal honor, military service, and high culture. It would be hard indeed to attribute these virtues to the American plutocracy of today.

Moreover, when Tocqueville talked about the threat of plutocracy in his own time he talked of “industrialists”—possibly dangerous but also legitimate products of the protestantoid industriousness that he praised. It is not likely that he would have regarded hedge-fund managers in this light, while as for someone like Donald Trump, Tocqueville would have seen him and his family as a negation of every economic, cultural, and moral foundation of U.S. democracy and exceptionalism.

The Democratic Party establishment, for its part, has also been so dominated by the plutocracy that it has made only halting, limited, and ineffective attempts to check these tendencies. Meanwhile, the cultural revolutionary wing of the party has consciously and deliberately set out to destroy the cultural unity and shared moral values that Tocqueville viewed as essential to a stable democracy.

Amazingly enough, wild free-market Republicans and wild cultural liberals have even formed a de facto conspiracy to destroy families. While Republican economic policies (usually with Democratic assent) have undermined the material base of middle- and working-class families, cultural revolutionaries on the Left have attacked the family itself as “heteronormative” and, therefore, illegitimate, and have declared that “The Coronavirus Crisis Shows It’s Time to Abolish the Family.” This despite vast and incontrovertible evidence about the link between family disintegration, poverty, child abuse, and social despair that previous generations of progressives would have seen as an imperative call to support and strengthen working families. Liberals talk of “community,” but in fact strip out all the features that have ever shaped and maintained real communities.

Tocqueville could not have predicted the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its consequences. Nor, writing before Charles Darwin, could he have predicted the depth of the cultural and intellectual gulf that would later emerge between liberals and religious conservatives in the United States. Nonetheless, it is entirely clear from what he did see and write that he would have regarded the Democrats’ deliberate promotion of the politics of a morally-empty “diversity” and of separate ethno-cultural and gender identities as nothing short of lunacy, and a grave threat to American democracy.

Liberals must of course, defend liberal principles, and all Americans have a duty to defend basic rights of personal choice and freedom. But all sensible and patriotic democratic citizens also have a duty to maintain some basic unity of their societies, on which in the end the survival of pluralist democracy depends.

In the United States today, precisely because the old non-sectarian religious consensus that Tocqueville wrote of has disintegrated over the past sixty years, it is even more important for both liberals and conservatives not to stoke the fires of the “culture wars” in cases where their own fundamental principles are not truly engaged. This applies especially to those members of the cultural Left who would turn the defense of minority sexual rights into an attack on the family as such— a position that is certainly not held by the vast majority of Democratic Party voters, and that only strengthens both the paranoia and the propaganda of the chauvinist Right.

THIS IS not the first time that American society and the U.S. economy changed into something that Tocqueville would have regarded as incompatible with the survival of democracy. By the end of the nineteenth century, the mainly rural, middle-class, and Anglo-Saxon America of the 1830s had been transformed by the enormous growth of industry and of cities, the development of a colossally rich and politically powerful plutocracy, the entry of huge numbers of (European) immigrants from very different cultures, and the appearance of impoverished urban masses suffering—amongst other things—from a severe problem of alcohol addiction. Despite its tremendous success, the U.S. economy also contained elements of instability and vulnerability that led to a series of economic depressions culminating in the crash of 1929.

This transformation of the old United States created great anxiety among the American elites and the older white population. The response was essentially twofold. On the one hand—from Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalist” measures to break up monopolies and initiate Social Security to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal—a series of reforms curbed the power and wealth of the plutocracy, reduced economic inequality, established basic social security, and committed the state to the creation and maintenance of national infrastructure as an essential foundation for successful industrial capitalism. On the other hand, a program of state education instilled in the new immigrants and their children American middle-class values, American civic nationalism, and adherence to the American Creed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a row of great thinkers, following Tocqueville’s own concerns and reacting against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, critiqued the resulting tendency of American society to produce mass ideological and cultural conformism punctuated by episodes of mass cultural and ideological hysteria. Or, in the words of Louis Hartz, “Even a good idea can be a little frightening when it is the only idea that a man has ever had.” Nonetheless, by the 1950s the United States had become a society that Tocqueville would have recognized as still possessing enough of the old social, cultural, and economic bases for exceptionally stable democracy—along with the tendencies to mass conformism that he feared, and together with (in a changed form) the exclusion and oppression of the blacks and Native Americans that he had noted and deplored in the 1830s. This, however, also began to change in the 1950s, albeit far too slowly.

This American national renewal, therefore, did not just happen. It was the product of a series of far-reaching reforms (and admittedly of victory in World War II), involving the creation of a new national consensus (or dispensation) that for several generations was accepted by both political parties. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were as much political descendants of the two Roosevelts as were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created a similar dispensation but of a different kind. Such a national consensus requires a much greater majority than either political party currently hopes, or can hope, to gain; it depends totally on winning over large numbers of voters and politicians from the other political camp.

Such a new dispensation cannot, therefore, be founded on the current ideology and mythology of either of the present U.S. political parties. Anyone hoping to create such a consensus should remember that much of Democracy in America was written with the intention of helping the French overcome their own political and cultural divisions; and should read with attention the last works of another great French scholar, the French-Jewish medievalist and soldier Marc Bloch. These were written after these divisions had led to one of the greatest catastrophes in French and European history, and while France was ruled by the quasi- fascist (and deeply anti-Semitic) client state of Vichy.

After the French defeat in 1940, Bloch was urged by friends to flee to America. He refused, joined the Resistance, and was eventually captured by the Nazis, who then tortured and shot him. In his book Strange Defeat, Bloch analyzed both the military causes of the French collapse in 1940 and the bitter political and cultural divisions, dating back to the French Revolution, that paralyzed the French government and national will in the years leading up to 1940. In words that should be taken to heart by both sides of the present political- cultural divide in America, he wrote that,

There are two categories of Frenchmen who will never really grasp the significance of French history: those who refuse to thrill to the Consecration of our Kings [emphasis mine] at Rheims, and those who can read unmoved the account of the Festival of Federation [the Revolutionary celebration that preceded Bastille Day on July 14]. I do not care what may be the color of their politics today; such a lack of response to the noblest uprushes of national enthusiasm is enough to condemn them.

Looking at the breakdown of cultural-political consensus in the United States today, Tocqueville for his part, could he rise from the dead, would almost certainly say that American democracy is doomed. Let us hope, however, that his judgment would be too pessimistic. Remembering how the Great Depression of the early 1930s gave rise to the New Deal, we should also remember that the New Deal was not only a matter of state economic, social, and infrastructural policies. As symbolized by the paintings sponsored by the Federal Arts Project, it also had a philosophical aspect: the restoration of a sense of morally and nationally purposeful collective work, linked to the restoration both of local communities (which Tocqueville also saw as crucial to a stable democracy) and of a sense of American national purpose.

In this way, the New Deal looked back to the “New Nationalism” of Herbert Croly and Theodore Roosevelt; and it can also be said to have anticipated to some degree the philosophical work of Alasdair MacIntyre (who might simplistically be described as a morally conservative, economically progressive, Christian Marxist), who has argued for the regeneration of moral and social value, social trust, and local communities through the practice of purposeful and meaningful work in the service of shared projects and not for the sake of endlessly expanding personal consumption. These communities will in the America of the future have to achieve the exceptionally difficult task of being simultaneously multiracial, reasonably pluralistic, yet also sufficiently morally and socially cohesive to work together for essential common goals.

Although the signs so far are hardly encouraging, we can hope that the cumulative effects of the present crisis, the shattering of traditional middle-class labor by automation and artificial intelligence, and the menace of climate change will between them summon up the traditional American virtues of which Tocqueville wrote; and that these virtues will be capable of meeting the ancient challenges to democracy that he accurately portrayed, as well as new ones that he could not have imagined.

The National Interest, Washington DC 
August 16th 2020

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. His most recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World was published by Oxford University Press in April 2020.

Uniting Nations Against Climate Change

Could a turn inwards provide us with the weapons we need to combat global threats?

If the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic does indeed turn out to be the worst in peacetime since the Great Depression of the 1930s, then we need to start thinking very hard about what will make it possible for western liberal democracies to survive it. After all, for anyone with the slightest historical awareness, there never really was any excuse for the ‘end of history’ belief that wealthy liberal democracies are immortal and invincible.

In the 1930s, the New Deal pulled the US through the crash with the social basis of its democracy strengthened. In France, democracy fell into a state of embittered polarisation, paralysis and cynicism that paved the way for the collapse of 1940. And in Germany and elsewhere, the combination of mass impoverishment with deep social, cultural, economic and political faultlines resulted in fascism.

If we can pull ourselves together to meet the current crisis successfully then, terrible though it is, the pandemic may even be seen by future historians as having had a longer-term positive effect. For in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that, if left unchecked, climate change on its current trajectory will produce a global catastrophe in the next century. And, long before that, the effects of climate change in certain parts of the world (often places that are already struggling due to a number of factors) will produce economic change and subsequent mass migration that will result in life-threatening crises for all states, including western democracies. Our response to the pandemic can and should prepare us better to meet these future scenarios.

The end of laissez faire?

In Europe at least, the pandemic is already bringing about a return to ideologies and programmes of social solidarity (especially support for the unemployed and semi-employed) and moves away from the laissez-faire capitalist ideological consensus that has reigned for the past 40 years. Even before the crisis, debate was growing about the possible future introduction of systems of state-funded Universal Basic Income (UBI), because of the threat that automation and artificial intelligence will destroy huge numbers of jobs or turn them into part time and insecure ones. The pandemic is likely to intensify this process, as firms discover that they do not need so many people in the office. What governments also need to look at (as in the New Deal) is massive programmes of state-supported job creation to rebuild infrastructure and transform cities along ecological lines.

Without such programmes, enormous numbers of people will sink into economic misery and despair, leading to political upheaval. Who would have thought at the start of 2020 that only three months later a British Conservative Party dominated by heirs of Margaret Thatcher would take responsibility for paying the wages of millions of British workers? In this sense, the Covid-19 crisis resembles the Second World War, the aftermath of which converted many former free market liberals to a form of social democracy.

However, for these new measures of social solidarity to be effective in strengthening our societies against inevitable future disasters, they need both to be made permanent and to be linked to two other things: a massive programme of infrastructural renewal and technological development, and a national aspect focused on the mutual responsibilities of common citizenship and commitment to the collective interest. The US New Deal is an important source of inspiration in both regards. This time around, the programme should be directed above all at reducing carbon emissions and weakening the extent and threat of climate change. It should also involve the promotion of energy conservation throughout the construction sector. Along with programmes that promote social solidarity, this has been dubbed the Green New Deal, and it has been gaining traction in both the US — where it was the core of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020 — and Europe, where several Green political parties are trying to develop a similar programme.

State interests The pandemic has also reminded us that it is only strong nation-states that have either the physical power or political legitimacy to demand great sacrifices from people. International institutions have at best been able to play only a coordinating and advisory role. International agreements like the Paris Agreement on climate change are vital, but it is states that have to implement their provisions — or not. The same is true of international protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. They are necessary, but necessary in order to pressure states to act. And states act principally in their own interests (or rather in some combination of collective and elite interest). It has long been miserably apparent that populations and governments simply will not engage in massive transfers of resources to other states unless they perceive their own national security to be immediately and vitally involved (as with the US’s Lend-Lease policy and its Marshall Plan).

The EU, the only international body with quasi-governmental powers, failed in this regard during the economic crisis that followed the 2008 financial crash and is failing again now. Germans and Dutch will not help Italians and Spanish in the way that they are willing to help poorer sections of their own populations. All efforts to get western states to radically increase their economic aid to poorer parts of the world have failed (in part because of a well-founded belief that a great part of any aid would be stolen by corrupt elites in the recipient countries). Fortunately, in the struggle to limit climate change, by far the most useful thing that western states can do is in their own hands. By moving to carbon-free energy, wealthier states will not only help save the world overall from runaway climate change, but can also promote their own technological and economic development.

Collective effort

But even with new measures of social protection, the pandemic will probably mean that the greater part of most societies are likely to experience a sudden and steep decline in their material wellbeing. Such economic crises have a proven tendency to increase social, political and ethnic tensions. It is therefore of both moral and political importance that sacrifices are seen to be shared. It will be politically and financially essential to restore high levels of progressive taxation, coupled with introducing rigorous and punitive measures against tax avoidance and money laundering. The well-founded perception that the financial elites who caused the financial crisis of 2008 did not pay any share of its costs and continued to prosper immoderately afterwards compared with the rest of society was as politically damaging as the crisis itself.

Everyone is going to have to get used to austerity. And this, by the way, only anticipates by a generation or so what we were going to experience anyway once the effects of climate change really began to kick in. Are western societies and political orders still capable of this kind of collective effort? Much evidence from recent years would suggest not. There are frightening indications, especially in the US, but also in parts of Europe, that we are approaching a situation where large sections of populations have such radically opposed ideas of the fundamental national identities of their countries that, in the short term, the state becomes largely paralysed, and in the longer term truly free electoral democracy becomes impossible. For how can the basic identity and nature of a state swing to and fro every few years depending on the result of an election? This is the syndrome that helped to wreck hopes of Middle Eastern democracy after the Arab Spring.

As in Iran or Turkey today, a qualified form of democracy is possible in these circumstances, but it is one where a permanent authority lays down strict limits and absolutely prohibits any changes to the basic cultural and ethnic foundations of the state.

In the UK, the centre right and centre left both share responsibility for the decay of the national consensuses that after the Second World War created welfare states and guaranteed two generations of democratic stability. Taking its cue from Margaret Thatcher’s grotesque statement that “there is no such thing as society” (grotesque because she herself was the product of a very specific form of English provincial society), the centre right abandoned truly conservative positions in favour of a wild free market capitalism stripped of morality, social responsibility and national allegiance.

The centre left accepted much of this package, but gave it a progressive colouring with empty fantasies of international governance. Both came together in blind adulation of globalisation, open borders and mass migration. The disenchantment of large sections of the electorate with this programme, and the sense of having been ignored and abandoned by both sides of the political establishment, have already produced a string of electoral disasters. As worked upon by economic disaster now and climate change later, they have the potential to kill off liberal democracy altogether.

In recent decades, progressive opinion in the west has turned the promotion of ‘diversity’ into an intellectual and political dogma that ignores much of the evidence of history. The experience of the US suggests that diversity can contribute immensely to the vitality of a society, but only if it is combined with a strong civic nationalist ideology and a sense of common citizenship and common national purpose. Where diverse societies have split into clashing identities without a sense of common allegiance and citizenship, the results have all too often been paralysis, dictatorship, or civil war.

As historian Prasenjit Duara has written, “no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power”. The strengthening of national identities and civic nationalisms is necessary both for practical reform and for wider national resilience. In democracies, the kind of changes that will be required to withstand the effects of Covid-19 in the short term and to reduce the danger of climate change in the longer term cannot be achieved by narrow ideological parties with small electoral majorities. Sufficiently strong senses of common national purpose will be required; civic nationalism (or patriotism, which comes to the same thing) is needed. This is what American geographer Jared Diamond, in Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, defines as national “ego strength”.

Like the creation of the New Deal in the US and welfare states in Europe, for these changes to be effected and sustained will require not just sweeping electoral majorities, but a new consensus that will be shared by all the major political parties; just as Republican administrations from the 1950s to the 1970s continued New Deal policies, and Conservative and Christian Democratic parties in Europe continued and extended the welfare state. A situation in which every election leads to a reversal of the previous government’s policies will doom any effective reform programme. As environmentalist Jon Rynn, one of the Green New Deal’s supporters, has said, successfully combating climate change will require long-term projects that do not show results immediately.

More broadly, a sense of common national identity and purpose is necessary if the immediate strains of the pandemic crisis and the longer-term pressures of climate change are not to lead to increasingly bitter competition from different parts of divided societies for their share of a shrinking pie. This scenario could lead to societies eventually accepting authoritarian rule not out of positive cultural identification with authoritarianism but because it seems the only way to end political paralysis and allow the government to actually get things done. There is nothing fantastical about such a scenario. It would continue a pattern of democratic collapse observable since the city-states of ancient Greece.

Tread carefully

Of course, one should be fully and constantly aware of the dreadful forms that nationalism can assume and be careful to guard against them through the promotion of civic not ethnic nationalism. But then, every human ideology is more or less Janus-faced. Religion can take the form of the Inquisition or Islamic State. Socialism can become Stalinism or Maoism. Liberalism can become a cover for elitist egotism, exploitation and kleptocracy. Conservatism can become a cover for stupidity and wilful ignorance. No reasonably objective person would say that these possibilities in themselves invalidate entirely the good parts of these ideologies, or their capacity to learn from each other for the common good.

As a journalist in the Caucasus in the 1990s I witnessed the dreadful side of ethnic nationalism and its capacity to cause conflicts and atrocities. As a journalist and researcher in Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, I have also witnessed how the absence of strong state nationalism cripples the ability of a country to pursue successful development; and in the worst case can destroy a state altogether. As Paul Collier writes in The Future of Capitalism, there are no prosperous societies in weak or failed states. I am in agreement, and this perception has been strengthened further still by recent years spent in the Middle East, watching (this time from a safe distance) the collapse of Syria, Libya and Yemen, all of them torn apart by competing tribal and ethno-religious identities.

The greatest source of a state’s strength is not its economy or the size of its armed forces, but legitimacy in the eyes of its population; a general recognition of the state’s moral right to authority, to have its laws and rules obeyed, and to be able to call on its people for sacrifices in the form of taxes and, when necessary, conscription. Without legitimacy, a state is doomed either to weakness and eventual failure, or to becoming a ‘fierce’ state, ruling by fear. Such states have the appearance of strength, but are inherently brittle, and liable to collapse if people cease even for a day to be afraid of them; as several Middle Eastern rulers discovered in 2011. The basic weakness of the EU compared with its member nations is that it has never achieved real legitimacy as a quasi-state authority in the eyes of most Europeans.

Over the past 70 years, democracy has been an important source of legitimacy, leading to the toleration of failures by elected governments and the acceptance by minorities of majority votes (or, remarkably, in the US, the acceptance by majorities of minority electoral victories). But, as a whole range of democratic and semi-democratic states have discovered over the past century, democracy alone will not preserve a given state over time if that state is deeply divided internally and fails to achieve what the population sees as vital goals. For this, a deeper source of legitimacy is necessary, rooted in a common sense of national belonging. In the modern world, the greatest and most enduring source of this feeling and this state legitimacy has been one form or another of nationalism.

Nationalism’s ability to project its thinking into the future is closely related to its ability to draw upon the past (whether real or re-imagined); what British historical sociologist Anthony Smith called the “national myth-symbol complex”. This is, in turn, largely responsible for nationalism’s ability to inspire effort and sacrifice. This aspect of nationalism — in an entirely positive and unaggressive way — was vividly displayed in the Queen’s speech to the British nation in response to the pandemic, in which Her Majesty’s appeal for resilience, solidarity and optimism was permeated with indirect references to the experience of the Second World War. It is interesting that this speech drew great admiration from certain Russian liberal intellectuals of my acquaintance; partly because the sacrifices of the war remain an immensely powerful image in Russia, and partly perhaps because this was a powerful nationalist appeal free of the aggressive chauvinism and cynical political manipulation which have too often characterised such appeals by Russian governments.

In the longer context of the struggle to mitigate climate change, nationalism is the only force (other than direct personal concern for children and grandchildren) that can overcome one of the greatest obstacles to serious action: namely that it requires sacrifices by present generations on behalf of future generations. In the words of author Milan Kundera, “A man knows that he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life.” The central purpose of nationalism is to prolong that life as far as possible into the future. Sacrifices to ensure the future survival of the nation are legitimised, indeed, demanded, by the fact that previous generations have sacrificed themselves for this purpose. That is the spirit on which western democracies will need to draw if they are to survive this and future crises.

Journal of the Royal Society for the Arts, London.

Issue 1 2020.

It’s Time for an America First Green New Deal

The challenge for U.S. and Western politicians in meeting the short-term crisis of the coronavirus and the long-term crisis of climate change is to create, by democratic means, the sort of national consensus that will make radical and consistent strategies possible.

IF THERE is any good result of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, it is that they may blast both the Right and the Left in the United States and Great Britain out of the ideological straitjackets in which they systematically confined themselves in recent decades. If our political elites can manage this escape, it will leave us in much better shape to face further dire crises down the line: most notably climate change and its effects (including the spread of tropical diseases); mass migration; and deepening social inequality due to automation and artificial intelligence.

This crisis should teach the Right what Theodore Roosevelt and the New Nationalists taught it more than a century ago: that you cannot run a great modern mass society and economy on the basis that the answers to every question are to be found in a sacralized eighteenth-century constitution and blind faith in unrestrained free market economics; and that many areas of modern life need to be managed by technocratic and scientific experts, not amateur political cronies appointed through the spoils system. The Right will also have to relearn that no political order that wishes to survive can stand idly by while large sections of its population sink into economic misery and social despair.

The Left, for its part, should be forced to recognize the sheer frivolity of many of its obsessions of the past generation: ever more arcane and divisive ethnic and sexual identity politics; the unthinking mantra of a hollow “diversity”; and manifestly fantastical dreams of world government. The Left will have to relearn what Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the European social democrats of a previous generation could have taught it: the central importance of effective national states to the wellbeing of societies; states drawing their legitimacy from patriotism, and aiming not only at social solidarity but at national solidarity across lines of class, race, ethnicity, and religion. 

And perhaps our culture as a whole will relearn, that as individuals and families, we can get by without ever-multiplying material goods and self-pitying psychobabble. But we cannot get by without reasonably effective states and harmonious societies.

That Western democracy in general and American democracy in particular were in serious trouble long before the coronavirus pandemic broke can hardly be denied. Economies, even when they grew, no longer distributed remotely equitable returns to the mass of the population. The façade of “full employment” covered vast underemployment, along with insecure and underpaid part-time employment. Mass migration—encouraged by a combination of capitalist greed and liberal internationalist utopianism—became a giant uncontrolled social and political experiment, the indigenous backlash against which has already resulted in a series of electoral disasters. And now a pandemic is demanding state economic interventions so huge and restrictions so draconian that they would have been dismissed as quite out of the question just a few weeks ago; for without such interventions we risk the collapse of our economies and with them of our democratic systems.

Prior to the pandemic, the result of this combination of pressures was not only political polarization but political disintegration—something that we simply cannot afford any longer. On the Right, the Republican elites’ complete failure over several decades to defend their base’s interests and culture has produced in Donald Trump a leader whose policies are mostly a front for the economic interests of the very elites he claims to oppose. Under Trump, the United States has taken a giant leap towards Central America or the Philippines, not so much in terms of dictatorship as of sheer populist vacuity; and the failings of this kind of system are now being cruelly exposed by the coronavirus crisis. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Party, the ethnic and cultural fragmentation of their base produced a “party” that is, in fact, at least three different parties, all incapable of agreeing on anything except their hatred of Trump. And both Democrats and Republicans became completely incapable of cooperating with each other in the national interest.

If these syndromes are not corrected by the impact of the coronavirus, then this crisis is only the first of the disasters that will eventually befall us. Polarization and paralysis will create a reciprocal effect by which governmental failure drives further political paralysis, which worsens state failure. If this pattern is continued for very long, then it will not be the extremes that will call for military dictatorship; it will be the centrists, not because they like the idea, but because everything else has failed and because military rule will seem the only way of avoiding much worse outcomes. This has been the pattern of a good many countries around the world, and contemporary Western democracies possess no magic inoculation against it. We have seen this before: in the 1920s and 1930s several European democracies failed under the impact of economic collapse, political divisions, and state paralysis.

Looming over everything is the threat of climate change, which, if unchecked, risks cataclysm in the long run and increased strains of every kind in the short to medium term. If the overwhelming scientific consensus is correct, then within the next decades we can expect multiple bad effects in the United States and southern Europe, including not only drought and wildfires but the spread of tropical diseases. The coronavirus will be only the first of the epidemics we will experience in the generations to come.

THE SCIENCE of anthropogenic climate change is by now incontrovertible, according to all the standards by which we normally assess scientific evidence. The future extent of climate change, and the precise local effects, are of course still unclear, but this is no excuse at all for a failure to act. In the first place, the extent of climate change depends chiefly on what we do—or do not do—to limit carbon emissions. Moreover, judgement about critical national security issues has always depended not on the establishment of certainties but the assessment of risks—another lesson that our unpreparedness for a pandemic is teaching us.

Among too many U.S. Republicans, however, denial of climate change hardly depends any more on evidence or rational argument. It has become a cultural marker of conservative identity—though one that has nothing at all to do with real conservative traditions and is rather driven by blind free market fundamentalism. Unfortunately, these Republican prejudices have been exacerbated by the way in which the Left has loaded onto the agenda of fighting climate change economic, political, and cultural issues that are either irrelevant to climate change or directly opposed to action: the abolition (as opposed to reform) of capitalism, and a whole rag bag of identity politics and demands for minority “empowerment.” The Green New Deal resolution presented to Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey is an especially egregious and politically damaging example of this tendency.

David Rosenberg, writing in Haaretz, observes:

Climate change hits all the [Republicans’] red buttons – massive state intervention and global cooperation led by pointy-headed bureaucrats … Faced with becoming ideological Luddites, they don’t just reject the solution to climate change, they reject the science. You shouldn’t smugly assume that the left’s interest in climate change is entirely grounded in science either. It pushes all their ideological joy buttons. The difference is that recognition of climate change in the end has real science behind it, while rejection is basically the stuff of cranks.

To sufficiently overcome this divide and make real change possible, the most important priority is to extend the lessons of the coronavirus crisis and recast climate change as a national issue—a threat to U.S. national interests in the short term and to the very existence of the United States in the long term. This is an opportunity to take up Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and do what he has altogether failed to do—give it some actual national (as opposed to racial) content. Climate change is, of course, a threat to humanity in general, but U.S. elected representatives were not elected to serve humanity, and U.S. officials have not sworn an oath of loyalty to humanity. And in terms of effective action, as the response to the coronavirus has illustrated, while international co-operation is desirable, strong action by individual states within their own borders and in defense of their own populations is essential.

Faced with climate change, pandemics, and other growing threats to the United States—which are not speculative but already visibly well underway—the guiding intellectual and political watchword of intelligent, democratic, and patriotic citizens in the years to come should be national resilience on the basis of technological progress, economic prosperity, and social solidarity: a Green New Deal if you will, but in an explicitly national and nationalist form. It is indeed striking how in recent weeks some on the Left have begun to use phrases like “national resilience” and “national self-sufficiency,” which until the pandemic they would probably have dismissed as reflective of “patriarchal values” and “authoritarian chauvinism.”

SUCCESS IN meeting the coronavirus crisis and building and sustaining long-term national resilience through social solidarity will depend largely on the creation of new forms of what Jared Diamond has called national “ego strength,” and Garrett Hardin called “moral capital”: “The degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.”

In the immediate future, preventing the pandemic from plunging great parts of the U.S. population into unemployment and misery on the scale of the 1930s will require a state economic response couched in terms of national solidarity and collective mutual responsibility. In the longer term, a  Green New Deal also needs to be cast in a national form not only for the sake of national unity and resilience, but because to achieve changes on this scale will require a new dispensation in U.S. politics, akin to those created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s: a new national consensus that ensures that, for several decades, both parties when in office are guided by the same basic philosophy and pursue the same basic policies. 

In the past, intelligent conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower understood that Social Security is essential to national strength and wellbeing; and the coronavirus is certainly teaching us this lesson again. By contrast, in recent decades, the idea has become firmly fixed in the minds and propaganda of both the political spectrum’s Right and Left that social security systems and state guidance of the economy were purely creations of the Left. This is useful to both sides: to the Right, it allows them to attack such systems as proto-Communist; to the Left, it allows them to take all credit for these systems. This unanimity does not mean, however, that this picture is true. In fact, conservative forces played a critical role in building social welfare. They had two goals in mind: to ward off the threat of socialist revolution, and to strengthen national solidarity and resilience in the face of possible (and as it turned out, actual) war.

The first systematic national insurance program was created by Otto von Bismarck (not exactly a socialist) in the German Empire of the 1880s. Bismarck’s social program had the full support of the German military high command; they were quite able to see that if you were going to conscript and arm millions of working-class men in order to prepare for European war, basic prudence dictated that you needed to look after their families. It should be noted, incidentally, that despite dire warnings by German capitalists, Imperial Germany’s social security system did nothing to impede economic growth.

A decade or so later, as Germany drew further and further ahead of Britain economically, the possibility of war became increasingly real, and social unrest and labor protests in Britain grew, sections of the British intellectual and political elites began to look to the German model.

The so-called “Social Imperialists” in Britain were a thoroughly eclectic bunch, drawn mainly from the imperialist wing of the Liberal Party, including Winston Churchill and the later architect of the British welfare state William Beveridge. But they also embraced Fabian socialists, including the Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice) and (intermittently) George Bernard Shaw; “one nation” Conservatives; former colonial officials (including John Buchan); and the more farsighted sections of the military elites like Field Marshal Lord Frederick Roberts (plus intellectuals and writers close to the military, like Halford Mackinder and Rudyard Kipling).

What brought them together in a loose alliance was belief in the defense of the British Empire, a conviction of the likelihood of a coming world war in which national unity would be tested to the limit and, therefore, needed to be greatly strengthened, and a deep fear of revolution, class warfare, and social disintegration. In the words of Lord Roberts (not exactly your conventional idea of a socialist): “To tens of thousands of Englishmen engaged in daily toil, the call to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for their country must seem an insult to their reason; for those conditions amid which they work make their lives already an unending sacrifice.”

At the core of Social Imperialism was also a belief in “national efficiency”: that the British state needed to be thoroughly reformed and given increased powers, including to shape and guide the economy. Or according to Winston Churchill (also not a socialist), “Germany is organised not only for war but for peace. We are organised for nothing except party politics.” National efficiency is what the United States and the West need (and have at the time of writing generally failed to show) in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

All the Social Imperialists, of both the conservative and socialist varieties, would have agreed with popular political talk show host Tucker Carlson,

[M]arket capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.

The Social Imperialists’ vision therefore extended beyond social insurance to urban planning, public health, and educational reform. As Lord Milner wrote,

[To sustain the Empire] you must have soundness at the core – health, intelligence, industry; and these cannot be general without a fair average standard of material well-being … Patriotism, like all the ideal sides of life, can be choked, must be choked, in the squalor and degradation of life in the slums of our great cities.

The Social Imperialists generally believed in the need for a new guided “national economy,” the need for higher progressive taxation to pay for both social reform and military preparation, and in limits on free trade to protect British industries and imperial economic unity (“imperial preference”). They were, therefore, in rebellion against the free market orthodoxy that had dominated both political parties since the repeal of the Corn Laws almost sixty years earlier. In an interesting parallel to the present, their thought developed in the context of the decline of British industry in the face of growing international competition, and the steep growth in relative importance of the City of London and the financial services industry.

In Britain, Social Imperialism—though under new names—was strengthened and eventually triumphed as a result of the wars, and especially the Second World War, in which the Conservatives and Labour worked together in government. In the course of that war, Labour became deeply patriotic and the Conservatives for a generation and more became “One Nation” conservatives, committed to the idea of social solidarity. The creation of social security in Britain was thus intrinsically linked to the creation of what we would call today “national resilience.” And it worked: British democracy is still around. Unlike so many other European countries, it did not succumb to the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century, and played a key role in saving them from those catastrophes.

IN THE United States, the impulses which in Britain produced Social Imperialism fed into the Progressive movement and Theodore Roosevelt’s and Herbert Croly’s concept of “the New Nationalism”—though with relatively less focus on welfare and more on the regulation of capitalism and national efficiency. The situation in the United States that produced this tendency had certain analogies to the U.S. situation on the eve of the pandemic, as well as important differences. It followed a period of great economic growth, the fruits of which had been very unevenly distributed. By 1896, it was estimated that one percent of the population owned over half of the wealth in the United States, and that twelve percent owned 90 percent. 

As today, the resulting concentration of wealth and monopolization of industries threatened some of the American republic’s founding values: the idea of a basically middle-class (or in Jefferson’s older formulation, “yeoman farmer”) society with a rough equality of conditions (something which Tocqueville thought an essential basis of American democracy), and equality of opportunity for all citizens in a free economy. 

Corruption had always been part of U.S. public life; but the new huge concentration of wealth meant a huge concentration of political power in the hands of “robber barons” like John Pierpont Morgan and Andrew Carnegie—just as today, huge political power is concentrated in the hands of super-rich individuals and companies whom the Supreme Court has allowed virtually unlimited ability to fund politicians and campaigns.

This power helped the great corporations to form “trusts” aimed at creating monopolies in particular sectors, while the railroads used their domination to impose grossly unequal tariffs between different regions. Out of this came the image of the “Octopus” (the title of Frank Norris’ novel of 1901 about the struggle between Californian farmers and the Pacific and Southwestern Railway), a monster whose tentacles stretched into every part of politics and the economy.

Simultaneously there took place—as in recent decades—massive immigration to the United States from Europe by culturally very different people. This caused deep anxiety in the older population. The enormous growth of American cities led to worry over the increasing role in politics of urban political machines run by immigrants (Tammany Hall), which merged with anger at their corruption; outrage at the dreadful conditions in the urban slums; and  fear of urban revolt, of epidemic disease, and of disasters like the Chicago and Boston fires.

In Herbert Croly’s analysis:

[T]he political corruption, the unwise economic organization, and the legal support afforded to certain economic privileges are all under existing conditions due to the malevolent social influence of individual and incorporated American wealth; and it is equally true that these abuses, and the excessive “money power” with which they are associated, have originated in the peculiar freedom which the American tradition and organization have granted to the individual. Up to a certain point that freedom has been and still is beneficial. Beyond that point it is not merely harmful; it is by way of being fatal … The experience of the last generation plainly shows that the American economic and social system cannot be allowed to take care of itself, and that the automatic harmony of the individual and the public interest, which is the essence of the Jeffersonian democratic creed, has proved to be an illusion.

Like the British Social Imperialists, but very unlike most social reformers of today, Croly’s work was also profoundly nationalist, dedicated to the American national interest and to instilling in the American state and population—and especially the new immigrants and their children—a new sense of national purpose:

The consequences, then, of converting our American national destiny into a national purpose are beginning to be revolutionary. When the Promise of American life is conceived as a national ideal, whose fulfilment is a matter of artful and laborious work, the effect thereof is substantially to identify the national purpose with the social problem.

And while Croly’s grander hopes were not fulfilled, the successful integration of the immigrants (in part through a vastly expanded state education system which the Progressives had championed) helped create the national consensus which a generation later supported the New Deal and the “trust-busting” measures of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, which greatly reduced monopolization.

Croly’s work formed the basis for Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism”: the programme of the short-lived Progressive Party with which Roosevelt attempted to regain the presidency in 1912, set out in a famous speech of 1910 in Osawatomie, Kansas. His advocacy of social and political reform was underpinned by an ardent and convincing personal commitment to nationalism.

Roosevelt’s platform included points which are of great relevance today, including attacks on the power of special interests and monopolies, and a demand that business executives should be held personally responsible for the crimes of their corporations. Roosevelt called for the restoration of what he called the “square deal”: the principle that in America, hard, honest work was adequately rewarded, that every hardworking American had the opportunity to get ahead, and that the equality of the vote should not be subverted by the rich:

The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.

COMMON TO both the Social Imperialists in Britain and the New Nationalists in the United States was a recognition that capitalism left to itself is incapable of regulating and limiting itself. This is hardly a lesson that should need teaching after the experience of the past two hundred years. Were it not for state intervention, seven-year-old children would still be working in coal mines. Or, alternatively, a communist revolution would have destroyed capitalism and ushered in a different set of horrors. The task then as it is now is not to overthrow capitalism (whatever many of the capitalists themselves may profess to believe), but to save capitalism from itself. The coronavirus is only a particularly sudden and savage reminder of this truth; certainly, there is no chance at all that undirected laissez-faire capitalism will save us from its economic consequences.

The nation state has to play a central role in regulating the economy, based on the wider interests of the state, the people, and the democratic political order. Unregulated financial speculation inevitably leads to crashes like those of 1929 and 2008 and the renewed structural weaknesses that are being revealed by the pandemic. Even more importantly, without state and social controls, the capitalist search for increased profit tends to inevitably result in the immiseration of large parts of the population, the destruction of the environment, and the disintegration of society. Wise capitalists see this themselves, though it seems they must relearn the lesson over and over again.

The first objective of states pursuing reforms, including the policies needed to limit climate change, is to raise the money to pay for action. Globalization, deregulation, and the power of the global overclass mean that even very powerful states once again face an ancient challenge in this regard. If the United States and other states try to deal with the coronavirus economic crisis simply by borrowing and printing money, our economic systems will be left disastrously weakened.

In the words of Patrick J. Greary, “the West was faced with the paradox of immensely wealthy individuals and an extremely poor treasury.” The United States and European Union in the first quarter of the twenty-first century? No, the Western Roman Empire in the last quarter of the fourth century. The great senatorial landowners had used their power largely to emancipate themselves from paying taxes, thereby passing the burden on to the mass of the population. So crushing did this burden become that it has been suggested that, by the fifth century, many Roman citizens in the West actually preferred to be conquered by the barbarians. The early modern state was shaped through the struggle with such “overmighty subjects”—who never went away and are now back with a vengeance, though in a new form.

The weakness of some modern states like Pakistan is intrinsically related to their inability to raise taxes from the population in general and the elites in particular. This creates a vicious circle in which the state is unable to pay for services to the population (except for the army, of course), which means that the population sees no point in paying taxes and does not believe that the state has any real right to ask for them, leading to further mass tax evasion. The inability to raise taxes from the rich, therefore, strikes at the very heart of the legitimacy of the state and the moral contract between the state and its people. The results of this lack of revenue for health services in Pakistan and elsewhere is now going to be revealed in a dreadful way.

Another essential role of the state is in building strategic (but not immediately profitable) infrastructure, which a capitalism focused on short-term profit is incapable of creating. This begins with transportation infrastructure. In the United States, and still more in Europe and Asia, the state played a critical role in building railways, either for directly military purposes (as with the British railways in India) or to create industrial economies capable of supporting modern militaries and sustaining economic competition with rivals. Thus, in the twenty years before 1914, spending on railways came second only to spending on the military in the state budgets of the German Empire.

 In the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s, both the role of the state in helping to create infrastructure and drive technological innovation was almost universally acknowledged, as was the link to national security. Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was publicly intended to create “A National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” This built on its predecessor, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944—not coincidentally, passed during World War II. Under the Act of 1956, 90 percent of the cost of the interstate highway system was paid by the Federal government out of taxes.

Indeed, the role of the state (at both federal and state level) in building and maintaining transport infrastructure has come to be generally accepted. The problem is that it can no longer raise enough money to pay for this—as is only too miserably apparent from journeys through the country. The complete inability of the United States to compete with China and Europe in building high speed rail lines is not only a massive obstacle to effective action against climate change. It is also deeply economically inefficient; as anyone who travels from the Bay Area to Los Angeles by plane and automobile can testify. As Senator Elizabeth Warren and others have mentioned (but not yet with nearly enough resonance, alas), one aspect of a Green New Deal is the urgent need to strengthen U.S. technology and infrastructure in order to compete with China. This at least ought to be a national goal that could unite all Americans, as it did during the space race with the Soviet Union.

A striking example of a national infrastructure program with intrinsic links to national security is the Israeli approach to water, which virtually embodies the principle of “national efficiency.” Water shortages will be a critical issue for much of humanity even before the effects of climate change really kick in. Israel has led the world in this field, through pioneering achievements in drip irrigation, self-powered desalination plants using reverse-osmosis, and wastewater recycling. As a result, Israel has been spared the effects of the droughts that have plagued the Middle East over the past generation; pride in “making the desert bloom” is a key part of Israeli national identity.

In Israel, 85 percent of purified sewage is recycled—more than three times the rate in Spain, the next country on this scale, and around eight times the proportion in the United States. The most important factor of all has been getting the population to save water by making them pay high prices for it. This was only politically possible because of an awareness rigorously instilled in the Israeli population. As the writer David Hazony describes it, “‘Every drop counts.’ Every Israeli you meet has had it drummed into them that faucets shouldn’t be left on. Water conservation has been a part of elementary-school education in Israel for generations … It’s just a part of the culture.”

This consciousness does not exist in isolation but is part of a deep sense of nationalism and national insecurity. The Israeli approach to water also contradicts the argument of Bjorn Lomborg and others that it would be better to wait to introduce measures against climate change because future generations will be richer and more able to pay for them. Israel is, of course, a rich country, but it was a lot poorer sixty years ago when it laid the foundations of its water conservation strategy. And had it not done so, it would be a poorer country today, with a lower quality of life and lower national security. Or as Theodore Roosevelt put it,

National efficiency has many factors. It is a necessary result of the principle of conservation widely applied. In the end, it will determine our failure or success as a nation … Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children.

In 2011, President Barack Obama spoke in Osawatomie, Kansas. Referencing Roosevelt’s reformist programme, he reminded people that this was a former Republican president and compared the illegitimate power of the rich then and now. Obama’s ability to draw on bipartisan American national traditions were part of the reason for his being elected, and then re-elected, the first black president of the United States.

In his speech, however, Obama did not really evoke the spirit of nationalism, of national efficiency, and of competition with other nations that permeated Roosevelt’s attitudes. A future U.S. president will need to combine Obama’s appeal to core U.S. traditions with much greater radicalism, backed by a much stronger appeal to nationalism.

The challenge for U.S. and Western politicians in meeting the short-term crisis of the coronavirus and the long-term crisis of climate change is, therefore, to create by democratic means the sort of national consensus that will make radical and consistent strategies possible. The first New Deal, which saved American capitalism from itself, and went on to save Western democracy in World War II, was founded on two things: a recognition that capitalism had fallen into deep crisis; and the creation of a new long-term national consensus.

Every opportunity should be seized to present the economic response to the coronavirus crisis as a great bipartisan national project, intended not just to save masses of Americans from economic desperation in the short term, but to lay the basis for a new national consensus and a new national strategy that will strengthen America and American democracy in the face of future crises.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did not just win elections and form administrations. They created new dispensations which lasted for a generation and more. These figures were achieved not through party loyalism, ideological arrogance, and purism, but by appealing to voters who had previously been on the other side. Roosevelt won by attracting millions of former Republican voters. Reagan famously won by attracting former New Deal Democrats.

Perhaps most importantly, both Democrats and Republicans need to have the moral courage to escape from their ideological comfort zones, even if this means losing friends and offending comrades. The challenge set by Herbert Croly more than a century ago is once again true today:

[J]ust in so far as Americans timidly or superstitiously refuse to accept their national opportunity and responsibility, they will not deserve the names either of freemen or of loyal democrats. There comes a time in the history of every nation, when its independence of spirit vanishes, unless it emancipates itself in some measure from its traditional illusions; and that time is fast approaching for the American people.

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a fellow of the New America Foundation. This essay is based on the author’s new book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World, which is published this month by Oxford University Press.

The National Interest (Washington DC)  
April 26th 2020

Why global warming needs national solutions

Climate change is global, but we need to get real— and grasp that the most practical way to save the world will often be one country at a time

It wasn’t really much of an epiphany. I was reading yet another think tank report about the threat posed by China’s fortification of sandbanks in the South China Sea—a move to expand Beijing’s military reach far beyond its home waters, which has provided much of the basis for suggestions of a “New Cold War” between China and the US, and inspired massive redeployment of US warships and aircraft to East Asia. Suddenly, my mind just brought together the word “sandbank” with the words “climate change” and “sea level rise,” and—behold!—I realised that there is a high probability that 100 years from now, historians will consider these so-called “islands” an utterly baffling preoccupation because they will all be under water.

And yet such is the gulf between military and scientific elites—between the intellectual worlds of international relations security studies and that of climate analysis—that this obvious prospect is one that appears to have eluded almost everybody else working on this subject.

The obsession of US security elites with South China Sea sandbanks will one day seem irrational to the point of wilful lunacy. But history teaches us that security establishments can and do get it exactly this wrong. Consider Fashoda, a village in South Sudan otherwise known as Kodok. In 1898, when a French expeditionary force reached Fashoda just as the British arrived from the north, Britain and France came close to war over which empire should control southern Sudan. Two great nations, which for much of the succeeding half-century would be allies in fights for survival together, almost became mortal enemies, and for what? Only a few years later, the question of southern Sudan was all but forgotten, in the wake of the rise of Germany.

Today, the idea of great power competition over a small town on the banks of the Nile seems utterly crazy. As indeed will today’s great powers’ readiness to be distracted by passing rivalries from the reality of climate change as, by a mile, today’s pre-eminent national security threat. The vital interests of the US (and many other western nations) are threatened by ecological changes that if not checked will—even in the medium term—flood its coastal cities, ruin much of its agriculture, -and produce new and disruptive mass movements of migrants. In the longer term, these changes could potentially destroy the US as a country.

The appeal of climate change activists is generally pitched as about saving humanity as a whole

The appeal of climate change activists is generally pitched as about saving humanity as a whole. That is understandable, but it urgently needs to be accompanied by a greatly increased emphasis on the specific threats to individual nations. This is necessary both because it is individual states that will have to organise and drive through the actions and sacrifices required to prevent further climate change, and because appeals to national communities are the most effective available means we have of rallying human beings to collective action. We are seeing that right now in the dramatic responses to coronavirus, which are overwhelmingly being organised at the level of the nation state.

But it is in relation to the collective defence of the interests of our descendants that the power of the nation applies with special force. Modern history has shown that the bond of nation engenders a uniquely effective willingness to make shared sacrifices for shared survival—stronger than class, faith, or appeals to humanitarianism. At a time when sacrifices are urgently required, however alien it may be to some political tastes, the role of nationalism is not one we can afford to eschew.


Central to security thinking is, or should be, the calculation of risk. The risks posed by climate change come in two broad categories. The first concerns the effects we can already observe, and which we can expect with near certainty to worsen in the decades to come: increased heatwaves, drought, floods and disease. With heavily-populated countries in Asia and Africa already under ecological stress, the result of all this will certainly be increased mass migration, and—in the west—much more of the political upheaval that has already come in its wake.

The second category of risk concerns the future potential for runaway climate change, which will take hold at that hard-to-call moment when the world falls prey to ruinous feedback mechanisms—such as the melting of the permafrost which is all that currently keeps vast amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the ground. Despite having been unleashed by humanity, at this point rising temperatures would no longer be amenable to human action but would instead be on their own trajectory—a trajectory which could seal the end of modern civilisation.

As things stand, even after having been caught off guard by a pandemic, many nation states are again grotesquely miscalculating the relative risks they face. This may in part be because the new threats to national security are not the sort of dangers they are conditioned to look out for. Historically, the dangers have usually come from rival nations, which might be why there is still so much fretting about the danger posed by competitor states. The real twist today is that the chief threat that nations have to answer is one that, to a greater or lesser degree, threatens them all.

Other than the US, the western country that has spent most time worrying about the rise of China is Australia. Yet as the recent months of unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires show, Australia is already suffering damage from climate change colossally in excess of anything China could do to Australia (short of nuclear war), or would wish to do. Meanwhile, China itself has just been the first of several countries to receive a severe lesson in how epidemic disease can not only exert a terrible human cost, but also inflict severe damage on national economies. The experience of coronavirus ought to wake all these countries up to yet another predicted result of climate change—the spread of tropical diseases.

While the existential threat to humanity as a whole from runaway climate change would probably only appear in the next century, the threat to many individual states—and to western democracy—will appear in the next decades. Easily within the lifetimes of many people living today, climate change will combine with other, related developments—notably migration and economic change—to put intense pressure on the political and social orders of many nations, including our liberal democratic ones. These are already in serious trouble as a result of the political backlash against migration and inequality, and cannot take much more pressure without crumbling into chauvinist authoritarianism.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the combination of material disappointment with national insecurity and decline is a potent one. Climate change threatens both things, and so could translate into a politics of rage that though it rises through the ballot box, goes on to destroy democracy.

Clear-eyed national establishments will need to make a radical shift in focus and resources away from traditional great power threats (which, though real, are minor by comparison), and towards a new understanding of national security in a much wider sense, requiring new forms of national mobilisation in response.

Even in the short to medium term, climate change will kill more western citizens than died in most recent wars. For the moment the victims are mostly much older than soldiers, but comparing the raw numbers is nonetheless striking. The European heatwave of 2003 killed some 35,000 Europeans; more casualties than those of France in the Algerian War lasting eight years. The Russian heatwave of 2010 killed around 55,000 people—twice as many Russians as died during the 10-year-long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and roughly matching the US death toll in Vietnam which had, a few years further back, shaken a society to its core. (Some of these numbers are, already, comparable to some of the prospective national death tolls from coronavirus, which have jolted governments to take so many extraordinary measures.) But if climate change continues unchecked, such heatwaves will become not individual events but annual summer temperatures.

In Europe, the most dramatic direct effects will be seen in the Mediterranean states, where the summer is predicted to last for an additional month, heatwaves (with temperatures over 35 degrees) to be extended by more than a month, and rainfall to decrease by up to 20 per cent. The result will be severe damage to existing agriculture, the radical transformation of ecosystems towards semi-arid conditions, and greatly increased wildfires. The first effects are already here, as the repeated heatwaves of recent years, and the unprecedented forest fires of 2018 in Greece and Portugal demonstrate.

All this is before we consider the potential for runaway climate change down the track, which would desertify the whole region. Moreover, these countries of southern Europe are also those which will be asked to accommodate the largest number of migrants from the even worse-affected countries on the North African shores of the Mediterranean. Just compare this with one of the other issues that obsesses western security elites: does Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine threaten to turn Greece, Italy and Spain into an extension of the Sahara?

The when and even the if of truly runaway climate change taking hold are uncertain, but should we slide down this slipway it would be so catastrophic—involving the destruction of the nations which militaries are sworn to defend—that even a remote possibility should be enough to mobilise militaries in response. In a more conventional national security context, we would not wait until there was a certainty that terrorists would acquire nuclear weapons before acting to prevent them doing so—because by then, it would be too late. Instead, by their very nature military forces have to plan for “worst-case scenarios.”


In the decades to come, the most important single branch of the US armed forces will become not the Marines or the special forces but the Army Corps of Engineers. This corps has been tasked since its inception with flood control, coastal defence and river management—these tasks are going to become more and more obviously key to the national security of the US. The same will be increasingly true in other countries as well. In a sense, we will all become Holland. The most important motto of our armed forces will not be “For Queen and Country,” but the old motto of the inhabitants of Romney Marsh: “Serve God. Honour the Queen. But first, maintain the dyke!”

In the decades to come, the most important single branch of the US armed forces will become not the Marines or the special forces but the Army Corps of Engineers

Another increasingly important military task will be fighting wildfires. In recent months in Australia, we saw the grotesque spectacle of comparatively tiny forces of volunteer and semi-amateur firefighters trying to control immense blazes (without nearly enough firefighting aircraft to help them), while tens of thousands of Australian troops essentially sat staring out to sea waiting for a Chinese invasion. Enormously increased forces will need to be deployed for emergency relief across the world, both for humanitarian reasons and to stop natural disasters creating new waves of migration. And in the last resort, troops may be needed as in the past to prevent pandemics creating social collapse.

But the need for western security establishments to prioritise climate change is not just about such practical reallocation of resources; an even more important impact could be about political persuasion. Strong warnings by -military figures about the threats to nations posed by climate change will help to win over those sections of the population that instinctively reject action against climate change.

Consider the Republican voter base in the US. In recent decades, most of its members have moved away from even a pretence of considering the evidence, and towards a belief that rejection of the idea of anthropogenic climate change is part of what distinguishes conservatives culturally from supposedly metropolitan, atheist, and unpatriotic cultural liberals. Not “We aren’t convinced by the evidence” but “We aren’t the kind of people who believe in climate change.” But while the conservative sections of the US electorate deeply distrust “experts,” they make an exception for the military in their role as experts on national security. We cannot afford to write huge sections of electorates off as a lost cause: the huge changes needed today will require not small and fleeting electoral majorities but the forging of an enduring consensus.

A general recognition of climate change as a threat to national security in the short term and national existence in the long term would allow the mobilisation of the only modern ideological force that retains wide enough popularity to inspire collective sacrifice: nationalism (or patriotism, which is essentially the same thing by a nicer name). Nationalism and ecological thinking may appear to be poles apart. But they converge in the capacity of both to demand sacrifices on the part of existing people for the sake of future generations. As Yael Tamir has written in her book Why Nationalism:

“Nationalism endows the state with intimate feelings linking the past, the present and the future. The fact that individuals feel that they are part of a continuous entity induces in them mutual dependencies and responsibilities and invigorates the will jointly to pursue common ends.”

Nationalism therefore helps address one of the greatest obstacles to action against climate change: namely, that considerable sacrifices will have to be made by present generations, but the most terrible results of refusal to make these sacrifices will only affect generations yet unborn.

It was only when I began to read how mainstream economists thought about climate change that I came fully to understand our moral decadence as a culture. They look at things from a standpoint that deems that the interests of future generations matter little, or even not at all. One “discount rate” which has been used by economists when it comes to valuing future benefits is 6 per cent. As Nicholas Stern has pointed out in his book Why Are We Waiting? this is no innocuous technicality. It implies that a “unit of benefit” in 50 years is being valued 18 times lower than it would be today, and in 100 years, 339 times lower: “To assume such a rate comes close to saying ‘forget about issues concerning 100 years or more from now.’” Such an attitude is antithetical not just to nationalism, but to the very idea of a nation (or of a family, for that matter).

The tremendous emotional power of the nation stems largely from the way in which it can echo loyalty to the family and appeal to that most fundamental of all instincts, the desire of the living organism to propagate its genes. This has always set conservative nationalists at something of a tangent to radical free market liberals, and today brings them closer to the moral and philosophical thinking of environmentalists. Nationalism is rooted in a sense of national society in Burkean terms, as a covenant between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born—a sentiment close to the environmentalist maxim that “the world is not given to us by our fathers but borrowed by us from our children.”

The idea of a nation thinking of itself as living for only one generation is a contradiction in terms; and this is true not only of those nations founded (whether accurately or not) on the idea of ancient ethnic identity, but those founded on a civic ideology like that of the US, an ideology that is meant to endure. The motto on the US Great Seal reads Novus Ordo Seclorum: “A New Order for the Ages.”

Above all, with communism gone and religion in abeyance in the west, a sense of nationalism is essential to motivate sacrifice. For the melancholy fact is that whenever western electorates have been asked in concrete and specific terms to make sacrifices to limit fossil fuel emissions, majorities have voted or protested massively against the measures concerned. This was seen with President Macron’s fuel tax in France, and of the carbon tax proposals in Australia and the US state of Washington. In the UK, a planned “fuel duty escalator” was postponed so many times, that in the end it was simply switched off. In the Democratic nomination campaign in the US, opposition to higher taxes helped wreck the chances of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The fears of even small tax rises could yet spook enough Americans into re-electing Trump in November. And even if—pray God—Trump is removed, the US Constitution gives the Republicans enormous opportunities to block both climate change legislation and the new taxes needed to finance it.

We should not be surprised that individualistic and materialist cultures struggle with the most collective of all collective action problems. Even where these cultures are liberal and rational, they can do nothing to challenge the mindset of the individual who looks at the potentially big sacrifice being asked of them, and rationally judges that it will on its own make no difference to the big picture. Real change will need a new political dispensation.


Appealing to nationalism in the fight against climate change is abhorrent to most environmentalists, coming as they do from liberal and socialist internationalist traditions. Indeed, in many cases this hostility extends to the nation state itself, and the national legitimacy that is necessary for effective states. The Green Party in France, to take one of the most florid of many exemplars from across the continent, appears to conceive of the borders that define nations as a wicked thing. Its “plan of action” for climate suggests eschewing serious attempts to manage them in the wake of the coming migratory pressure, and instead proposes simply “welcoming the men and women whom global tumult has thrown onto the roads.”

The Greens’ blindness to the political importance of stable and rooted national communities risks driving voters into the arms of the chauvinists, while their contempt for the nation state leads to an overwhelming focus on international agreements demanded and driven by global movements. International agreements are indeed necessary, as is the mobilisation of opinion around the world by Greta Thunberg and others. These figures can play a very valuable role, but in the end, neither the treaties nor the movements themselves can do anything at all to limit and replace fossil fuel consumption. Their role is to get the states, who retain a monopoly on the power to honour (or breach) any treaty, to actually implement the agreed policies. And in this, most have so far manifestly failed. The environmentalist slogan “Think globally, act locally” actually means—or ought to mean—“Think globally, act nationally.”

The language of “empowerment” that permeates much left-wing environmentalist discourse misses an absolutely central point. If you really want to act for the climate, then you need powerful allies, not powerless ones whom you have to expend energy empowering. This means state elites, state institutions, and, in the democracies, sweeping electoral majorities who can push through the painful changes required.

The centrality of states and nationalism also applies to very important proposals in the US and elsewhere for “Green New Deals” combining different goals: to support a new industrial revolution based on alternative energy and thereby convince dubious voters that climate change action is not an enemy of economic progress and prosperity; to build social solidarity by providing jobs and social welfare to the population, and especially workers in fossil fuel industries; and to legitimise the necessary sacrifices by ensuring that they will be shared through progressive taxation. I would add that such programmes are also necessary to build the social and national resilience that we will require if our political orders are to survive the inevitable shocks of the next decades.

Any Green New Deal and the new bonds of social solidarity that it can engender will inevitably be national, not international. After all, every successful welfare state has been created by a strong national polity, often in the context of strengthening national solidarity in wartime or in preparation for war. In the UK, for example, the Beveridge Report that laid the basis for the British welfare state was drawn up during the Second World War on the basis of ideas originally formulated in the context of preparations for the First.

The alternative idea of massive transfers of resources from wealthy countries through systems of international solidarity has long been proved a complete fantasy, and will remain so. Even within the world’s most developed transnational entity, the European Union, cross-border solidarity and transfers have been achievable only on a very limited scale, as Greeks, Spaniards and others discovered to their cost during the eurozone crisis. To imagine we can achieve much more across the world as a whole is to indulge in a utopianism the planet can ill afford in the face of this emergency.

The fundamental issue at stake has been well expressed by the development economist Paul Collier: “The brute fact is that the domain of public policy is inevitably spatial… elections generate representatives with authority over a territory… The non-spatial political unit is a fantasy…” He rightly concludes that there is a pressing need for “viable” “national identities,” to which I can only add that if states are to demand the sacrifices necessary, it will not be enough for the national bonds to be “viable.” They will have to be strong.

So nationalism is indispensable, even though we also know it can often be dangerous. Thankfully, it does not have to be nationalism of an ethnic chauvinist variety. Western nations have developed strong traditions of civic nationalism based on the equal rights of citizens. Nor is there any contradiction between the need for nationalism and international co-operation on climate. In order to co-operate effectively, nation states need to bring effective powers to the table. In the apt formulation of the Oxford political theorist David Miller, “Nations are communities that do things together” [my italics].

Looking back at us from the perspective of a hundred years hence what may strike historians most (assuming for the moment that civilisation remains vigorous enough for historians still to exist) is the extent to which our institutions and political classes have become trapped by their own traditions. Military establishments amass huge arsenals at huge cost, though the existence of nuclear weapons has long banished any serious risk of direct war between the great powers; conservatives adhere blindly to a free-market ideology that has long been proved to be inadequate to the management of great modern states; and progressives remain fixated on dreams of an internationalist utopia that stand no chance whatsoever of being realised. All of these are the preoccupations of a rapidly vanishing age. We are now moving into a new and much grimmer age, in which our watchword must be survival.

Prospect (London), May 2020.

The pandemic and international competition: How the US can save itself with a ‘Green New Deal’

If there is one good result of the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, it may be to remind the U.S. establishment that in the end, the international strength and influence of a country depends on its domestic strength.

No amount of military power or propaganda can compensate for economic, political, and social weakness and division at home. If the United States can assimilate this lesson, it will be in a much stronger position to withstand future shocks like climate change and its consequences. If it cannot, the pandemic will be seen by future historians as another steep downward step in the West’s decline.

This truth was obscured for much of the past three decades by the triumphalism generated by U.S. success in the Cold War. On the one hand, the collapse of Soviet communism was so complete that it appeared to prove beyond question the eternal, self-evident validity of the democratic capitalist political and economic model that was embodied in Francis Fukuyama’s notorious work “The End of History.”

Ironically, Fukuyama’s idea of perfected liberal capitalist democracy echoed in many ways the Soviet doctrine of “Real Achieved Socialism” in the USSR. The effect in both cases was to deprive elites of capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism, and therefore of capacity to think about reforms. Why reform an already perfect system?

Ronald Reagan was held to have played a key part in the collapse of communism through a combination of his fervent anti-communist ideological rhetoric and his adoption of the “Star Wars” missile defense program which supposedly convinced the Soviet elites of their technological inferiority and need for radical reform.

In fact, as former Soviet sources have made clear, “Star Wars” had only a minimal effect on Gorbachev’s decision to launch his reforms. It formed only one element in a growing awareness of relative Soviet technological and economic backwardness stretching back almost two decades. And as far as the system’s increasing loss of ideological legitimacy both among ordinary Soviet citizens and younger members of the elites, missile defense had nothing to do with it. Cynical Soviet jokes about the Soviet system were about the stupidity and incompetence of communist officials and the permanent shortages of consumer goods and foodstuffs, not about military competition with the U.S.

For Gorbachev and his allies in the Communist Party, figures like former Ambassador to Canada Alexander Yakovlev — who had lived in the West and could report on the growing gulf between Soviet and Western living standards — played a key role. Western liberal capitalist democracy was quite simply and obviously working better than Soviet communism.

Reagan’s democratic rhetoric also had very little impact. In Eastern Europe it wasn’t necessary: East Germans, Czechs, and Poles had been rebelling long before Reagan came along, in part for nationalist rather than democratic reasons.

Russians had mostly been turning a deaf ear to Western propaganda for the same period. The moment that doomed Soviet domination in Eastern Europe was the Solidarity Movement in Poland, when the Soviet government backed away from military invasion and instead backed a fragile, unstable, and illegitimate form of Polish military rule that by the late 1980s was visibly coming apart.

In the bipartisan American establishment, however, the belief that the collapse of communism was a victory for the U.S. and the West became mixed up with the idea that it was a triumph of the supposedly Reaganite strategy; something that also ignored the way in which Reagan’s nuclear compromise with Gorbachev at Reykjavik helped convince the Soviet leader that the U.S. was not an enemy of the USSR and would not take advantage of internal disruption caused by his reforms.

Since the end of the Cold War, a combination of military pressure, economic sanctions and ideological propaganda has been applied by both Republican and Democratic administrations to Iran, Russia, and China, with steadily diminishing success. The reasons for this lack of success differ somewhat in each case. In all of them however, public hostility to the U.S. has been strengthened by the accurate perception that American rhetoric of democracy and freedom is often a cover for implacable U.S. hostility to their nations.

To this in recent years has been added something quite new: a perception of American domestic incompetence. As Stephen Walt has written in Foreign Policy, this is unprecedented. However much people may have despised the U.S. in the past, nobody ever doubted American efficiency; and as Goethe wrote, “Hatred harms no-one. It is contempt that drags men down.”

This perception has grown over time as a result of a whole range of developments: failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; the shambolic response to Hurricane Katrina, with its evidence of the political spoils system on state efficiency; the 2008 recession, and the U.S.’s inability to regulate its financial sector or punish malefactors; the visible decay of U.S. public infrastructure, especially when contrasted with China; repeated tax cuts for the rich; the age of U.S. political leaders, which reminds older Russians of the Soviet gerontocracy of the 1970s; the grotesque public antics of President Trump; and now the dreadfully inadequate initial response to the pandemic — once again, as compared with that of China.

Both domestically and internationally, the legitimacy given by America’s democratic tradition can buy time for reform, time that would be denied to weaker political orders; but no state legitimacy can survive forever repeated failures to achieve vital state tasks.

Domestically, the pandemic crisis should lead to radical reform in the U.S.. As argued in my book, “Climate Change and The Nation State,” this should ideally take the form of a “Green New Deal,” intended to build technological progress, economic growth, job creation, and social solidarity as well as to limit climate change.

Internationally, the pandemic’s lesson on the comparative insignificance of security threats from China and Russia to American lives and wellbeing should divert U.S. rivalry with these countries into a new course: not colossally expensive military confrontation and hostile propaganda, but a competition of state efficiencies. This is a competition that Russia has already largely lost, and China does not have to win.

There is a precedent for this in American history. At the turn of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt linked the idea of a “New Nationalism” to that of “National Efficiency.” This was intended both to equip the U.S. to meet the immense new challenges thrown up by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, and to strengthen the U.S. in competition with other nations.

Otherwise, the United States may come to resemble the later Roman Empire, once an example to all its neighbors. By the fifth century AD, a combination of epidemics, economic decline, tax evasion for the wealthy, and the expense of the military had made the demands on ordinary citizens so terrible that many preferred to be conquered by the Barbarians.

Climate Change and the State: A Case for Environmental Realism

Strong and legitimate states remain central to any efforts to limit climate change and maintain Western democracy.

On the day when the death-roll touched thirty, Dr Rieux read an official telegram which the Prefect had just handed him, remarking, ‘So they’ve got alarmed – at last.’ The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague stop Close the town.

Albert Camus, The Plague1

In recent years, the internal challenges to Western liberal democracy and the early effects of climate change have both intensified drastically. In early 2020, the impact of the coronavirus outbreak added a harsh reminder of the capacity of epidemic diseases not only to kill human beings but to cause massive economic, social and political disruption.2

To shape an appropriate intellectual response to these challenges, security establishments need to prioritise the gravest actual threats to states. Furthermore, proponents of human security (and the environmentalists among them in particular) need to understand the central importance of states, and state legitimacy and strength, to any efforts to limit climate change, to maintain Western democracy, and to defend the lives and well-being of Western citizens.3

Climate change as a security threat

Since anything that has the ability to end human lives could potentially be seen as a security threat, the first thing to note about climate change and its associated effects is the number of casualties they are likely to cause. The threats posed by climate change should be divided between the long term (from 2100 CE) and the short to medium term, as much intellectual and political confusion stems from mixing up the two. In the long run, if the rise in global temperatures continues unchecked and leads to runaway climate change, human civilisation itself will be destroyed, except perhaps for a very lucky, very rich and very small minority of humans, or possibly genetically engineered post-humans. The long-term threat is thus existential in the clearest sense of that term.

In the short to medium term, the direct effects of climate change in Western democracies will be more limited, though still acutely unpleasant, as heatwaves and wildfires in California, southern Europe and Australia already demonstrate. The direct effects of heat alone will almost certainly kill far more people than all but the greatest wars. Even before climate change really kicked in, a heatwave in Europe in 2003 killed some 35,000 Europeans, more than the number of French casualties in the eight years of the Algerian War.4 A Russian heatwave in 2010, compounded with the effects of smoke inhalation from forest fires that same year, killed at least 41,000 people – twice as many as the number of Russians who died during the ten-year Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.5 The continuous rise in global temperatures over the past 20 years indicates that in many places, heatwaves are going to get far worse and more frequent – not in some distant future, but in the next two decades.6

The indirect effects of climate change can also be deadly. Wildfires in Greece in July 2018 killed 102 people, and fires in Australia that started in 2019 had killed more than 30 people by February 2020. The eventual effects of smoke inhalation – for a week in early January, Canberra had the worst air quality in the world7 – will cause many more deaths. Tropical diseases will spread, possibly reaching epidemic proportions. The coronavirus epidemic of 2020 originating in China, though not itself linked to climate change, is a warning of just how much diseases can harm even highly developed societies.8

The economic, social and political effects of the coronavirus on the Chinese economy and governance demonstrate that identifying a security threat is not simply a matter of counting the number of dead. As Richard Ullman has written:

A threat to national security is an action or a sequence of events that (1) threatens drastically and over a relatively brief period of time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of a state, or (2) threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to a state or to private, non-governmental entities (persons, groups, corporations) within the state.9

In Europe, the most dramatic direct effects of even relatively modest global warming will be seen in the Mediterranean, where the summer is predicted to last for an additional month, heatwaves (with temperatures over 35°C) to be extended by more than a month and rainfall to decrease by up to 20%.10 The results will include severe damage to the region’s agriculture and tourism, the radical transformation of ecosystems towards semi-arid conditions and greatly increased wildfires. Runaway climate change would lead to the complete desertification of the region.

Climate change is bound to increase migration, especially to southern Europe, from badly affected areas in Africa and Asia, though by how much we do not know. Yet migration is helping to undermine the political unity of Western states at a time when such unity is necessary to adopt climate-change policies that will involve sacrifices by national populations.11 Every opinion poll on the motivations of those who have supported Brexit, Donald Trump or nationalist parties in Western Europe has pointed to anxiety over immigration as a principal factor.12 With a backlash against migration clearly under way, the only question is how much worse it will get. Moreover, mass migration to the West is likely to coincide with greatly intensified automation of the economy, including the development of some kinds of artificial intelligence. If present patterns continue, many forms of employment, including new ones, are likely to be lower in pay, job security and status than those destroyed by automation. Not just the working classes but sections of the middle classes as well are likely to be badly affected.13

For too many unskilled or semi-skilled migrants, poor, insecure jobs are the only ones available. These jobs trap migrants and their descendants in impoverished ghettos, from which bad schools, crime, low property prices and social isolation make it very difficult to escape. At the same time, nativeborn members of the working classes are competing with migrants for the same low-quality jobs.14 Thus, climate change will worsen current threats to liberal-democratic legitimacy in the West by amplifying the problems created by economic stagnation, social inequality and above all migration (or, perhaps more accurately, the negative reaction to migration among some citizens). These problems do not pose an existential threat to Western states as such, but they certainly do imperil existing Western political orders.

The existential nature of the risk to democratic regimes in the medium term, and to all states in the long term, means that climate change, unlike other phenomena on which ‘war’ has been declared, can legitimately be considered a vital issue of national security. Barry Buzan and his colleagues wrote back in 1998:

The need is to construct a conceptualisation of security that means something more specific than just any threat or problem. Threats and vulnerabilities can arise in many different areas, military and non-military, but to count as security issues they have to meet strictly defined criteria that distinguish them from the normal run of the merely political. They have to be staged as existential threats to a referent object by a securitising actor who thereby generates endorsement of emergency measures beyond rules that would otherwise bind.15

It is not unheard of for states to securitise their response to natural disasters, both in terms of organising relief efforts and in adopting measures to prevent criminal activity, such as looting. The role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in disaster prevention and relief is a case in point. As the quote from Albert Camus at the start of this essay suggests, disease epidemics have also been treated as a security issue through the proclamation of a state of plague (in effect, a form of martial law) that has allowed the military as well as the police to quarantine cities, and to confine and presumably treat the sick. The plague depicted by Camus may be fictional, but the outbreak of coronavirus in China is all too real, and the Chinese state has effectively imposed martial law in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started, to limit people’s movements and construct emergency hospitals. So far, the penalty for trying to evade these measures has only been arrest. In the Venetian Republic and elsewhere in the past, rulers ordered guards to kill people attempting to escape from quarantine.16 Given that the spread of disease is very likely to be a consequence of climate change, Western liberal democracies cannot afford to ignore the prospect that such temptations may arise if they want to remain liberal democracies.

Western security establishments and military chiefs must declare much more strongly and consistently that climate change poses a potentially existential threat to the nations that they are sworn to defend.17 There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the resources devoted to limiting climate change have so far been grossly inadequate, especially compared to those devoted to military security. Secondly, the sacrifices required from populations will be similar to those needed in times of war. Thirdly, there will be no chance of persuading conservative voters to accept crucial economic changes and sacrifices unless the military can speak authoritatively of an existential threat.18 This is of particular importance in the United States, where so many Republicans have now adopted climate-change denial as an element of their political culture, and have developed a deep distrust of scientific experts.19 Only the military retains the cultural prestige among Republican supporters sufficient to convince them that climate change really is a threat to the United States.

On the face of it, Western securitising actors have already spoken. All major Western militaries – even that of the US – have identified climate change as a security threat. But for a statement to be effective, it is not enough just to say it. It needs to be said loudly enough to be heard above the hubbub of other issues. Western security establishments have allowed their intermittent statements about climate change to be drowned out by discussion of the traditional threats posed by China and Russia. Not surprisingly, the Western media has followed suit. Concerning NATO’s approach to climate change, a RAND Corporation report noted:

In the case of nuclear weapons, terrorism, and cyber issues, each offers more uncertainty than climate change. However, vast amounts of resources are dedicated to the sponsoring of research, understanding the threat, and the preparations for potential consequences. The contrary is true for the potential security impact of climate change … The lack of engagement at NATO headquarters on this point is more appropriate for the management of a tolerable or acceptable risk, while the literature suggests that climate change presents risks that likely won’t be tolerable or acceptable.20

For their part, most climate-change activists have liberal-internationalist or Marxian backgrounds that have given rise to a visceral hostility not only to the ‘securitisation’ of issues but to nation-states as such. They have addressed their own statements to sympathetic transnational communities, but while these messages have been effective in these circles, it has become miserably apparent that the people to whom they are directed lack both the tools to take effective action and sufficient ability to inspire sacrifices among the wider population.

Security and legitimacy

Securitisation theory, with its emphasis on broadening the concept of security threats to encompass problems without an obvious military component, emerged in the 1990s in response to the apparent collapse of traditional security threats with the end of the Cold War. In recent years, however, Russia’s limited recovery and China’s rise have supposedly resurrected the old security threats and launched a ‘new cold war’. Yet to see the Cold War chiefly in terms of traditional military threats is to radically misunderstand that struggle. It was a cold war, not an incandescent one. The threat of direct military conflict in Europe between the superpower blocs had in fact receded enormously by the mid-1950s.21 Indeed, it can almost be said that the West had won the Cold War by the late 1940s, with the failure of communist parties to gain power in Western Europe, either by election or revolution, and the resumption of Western European economic growth with the help of the Marshall Plan. After that, it was really a matter – as George Kennan presciently realised – of containing the communist bloc until it collapsed under the weight of its own failures and oppressions, while the economic and political superiority of Western democracy and social-market capitalism became more and more apparent.22

In that sense, the most important battle of the Cold War was fought on the field of state legitimacy. Each side sought to assert and maintain the credibility it derived from victory in the Second World War; to encourage the acceptance of its ideology as superior both at home and further afield; and to demonstrate its success in achieving vital state tasks. Actual war between the superpowers was only likely as the result of miscalculation or accident (as during the Cuban Missile Crisis), rather than deliberate strategy. Of course, the struggle between communism and capitalism became violent outside of Europe, as the Western and communist blocs engaged in proxy conflicts in the developing world.23 Yet the question of whether Angola or El Salvador would become quasi-capitalist or semi-communist was never of decisive importance; and in these struggles too, the issue of the legitimacy of the state among the population played an important role. The Soviet Union’s communist system derived tremendous legitimacy from its victory in the Second World War, but it was never fully accepted in Eastern Europe and some of the Soviet republics, and its economy ended in utter failure, at least by comparison with the West. Thus, the communist political order was eventually overthrown, and the Soviet Union itself broken up, not because of external invasion or the threat of it, but because of the system’s own internal failings and lack of legitimacy. In the West today, only the truly paranoid (or those seeking to protect military budgets) seriously assert the possibility of a Russian invasion of NATO. Western security anxieties concerning Russia (and increasingly China as well) have instead become focused on Moscow’s capacity to encourage and manipulate the internal discontent and division within Western democracy, thereby undermining the legitimacy of Western democratic systems.

While the Cold War demonstrates the importance of state legitimacy in determining the fate of regimes, Chinese history shows how ecological factors can play a key part in state weakness and collapse. Situated on the floodplains of two great and unpredictable rivers, China has repeatedly found that the management of water has been central to domestic order and state survival. Even Emperor Yu the Great, one of China’s mythical founding emperors, is primarily credited not for law-giving or victory in war, but for the creation of levee and canal systems to irrigate the land and prevent floods and droughts. On repeated occasions, the failure of Chinese authorities to limit the effects of extreme weather events was seen as an indication of a dynasty’s loss of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ – the ancient Chinese conception of state legitimacy. The result was increased banditry, mass unrest and displacement. Internal rebellion was responsible for the fall of dynasties at least as often as outside invasion, and very often the first led to the second.

In an era of climate change, the legitimacy and security of Western states too will depend on their ability to manage natural disasters and protect populations from their effects. The Netherlands is an example of a society for which defending against the sea has always been just as important as defending against foreign invasion, if not more so, and where the word ‘dyke’ evokes feelings of security.24 In the struggle to limit the effects of climate change, including the rise in sea levels that climate change can be expected to produce, every coastal state is gradually becoming like the Netherlands.

In the short to medium term, however, the threat to the West is not of disappearing permanently beneath the waves, but of experiencing a steepening decline in the legitimacy of liberal-democratic political orders due to a variety of factors that climate change is sure to worsen. States need legitimacy at least as much as military or even economic power to raise revenue and maintain order without having to resort to divisive, debilitating, expensive and deeply unpopular applications of force. States and political systems that enjoy legitimacy can survive failures and defeats that would destroy those seen as less legitimate. The varying consequences of the Great Depression for the US and Britain, on the one hand, and Germany and Japan on the other, illustrate the point. Over time, however, no degree of traditional or legal legitimacy will save a state that persistently fails to achieve the vital goals of its population.

Legitimacy in the West

Opinion polls in Western states have revealed a frightening drop in citizens’ faith in the legitimacy of the democratic political order since 2008. Surveys in Britain showed that dissatisfaction with democracy reached 61% in 2019, no doubt fuelled by the Brexit shambles. In the US, the proportion of the population dissatisfied with democracy has risen by 34% since the 1990s. For the first time in history, a majority of Americans are unhappy with the democratic system itself.

Confidence in democracy in Europe fell sharply in the 1970s and the 1990s too (to say nothing of the 1920s and 1930s). However, as recent reports by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University and the Journal of Democracy argue, the present decline is considerably more serious, if only because a much higher number of young people are now disillusioned with democracy and willing to consider authoritarian alternatives.25 The present decline is also of much longer duration, stretching back almost 12 years to the financial recession of 2008, and is more severe within certain European states – notably France and the Mediterranean countries.26 Faith in the institutions and political processes of the European Union has dropped precipitously in many countries since 2008, crippling efforts at closer union and further expansion.

Unlike the democratic recessions of the 1970s and 1990s, therefore, the prevailing downward trend appears rooted in longer-term causes that seem unlikely to diminish and may well drastically worsen. They include not just prolonged economic stagnation but also new economic patterns whereby even periods of growth provide limited benefits for the majority of the population, and even generally available jobs do not provide the same status or security as in the past. Moreover, anxiety about demographic change seems almost certain to increase as migration continues. Judging by the results of the Syrian refugee crisis, another surge of migrants due to the direct or indirect effects of climate change could plausibly end liberal democracy in several European countries.

In addition, it has become apparent that in some countries different parts of the population hold drastically different views about the cultural and ethnic identity of the nation, and therefore about the basic source of the political order’s legitimacy. As a result, the losing side in elections no longer necessarily recognises the moral legitimacy of election results. In the United States, for example, since the 1990s many leaders and members of the Republican Party have not viewed the Democratic presidents as truly legitimate, not because of any electoral malpractice, but because the two men in question failed to correspond to what their Republican detractors see as the fundamental cultural (and in Barack Obama’s case, racial) identity of the United States.

Democrats also regard the legitimacy of the Trump administration and George W. Bush’s administration before him as undermined by the fact that the curious electoral system established by the US Constitution allowed each to be elected with a smaller share of the popular vote than his Democratic opponent. In the coming years, the considerable electoral advantages enjoyed by the Republican Party – such as the growing mismatch between the distribution of Senate seats and the distribution of the US population – will further sap this legitimacy. Even now, Republicans need not win electoral majorities in order to block legislation and frustrate effective government. In European parliamentary democracies too, it is not necessary for extremist parties to win majorities in order to paralyse democracy; as in Weimar Germany, they only have to win enough parliamentary seats between them to make the creation of a centrist ruling coalition mathematically impossible.

The West may be gradually approaching a situation similar to that of a number of Middle Eastern countries, in which fundamental differences over the identity of the state that cannot be resolved by elections make democracy unworkable. If the legitimacy of the US Constitution is seriously challenged, the very foundations of US democracy will be undermined. No Middle Eastern state has ever doubted that threats to the internal political order were a security issue. Westerners forgot this for a while, because no such threats to Western systems seemed to exist. Now they do.

Realism and climate change

The basic arguments of securitisation theory have been amply confirmed by recent developments. Climate change has evolved from being one of the potential vulnerabilities mentioned by Buzan and his colleagues to the central issue for Western states, and indeed for humanity in general. Likewise, migration and the resulting fear-driven identity politics have turned out very much as predicted by the ‘Copenhagen School’ of Buzan and like-minded scholars, only worse.27 Yet these ideas continue to meet with immense resistance in international-relations and security-studies circles, both from traditional realists and the various schools linked to liberal internationalism and the Marxian tradition.

Realists such as Stephen Walt are, I believe, correct in their opposition to widening the concept of security so far that it becomes meaningless – for example, by extending it to encompass the impact of illegal narcotics under the unfortunate banner of the ‘war on drugs’.28 However, every variant of realist theory is bound up with the interests, security and power of states and political orders – all of which can be undermined in ways that are not limited to foreign aggression or subversion. The challenge for realists in addressing climate change is therefore not to alter their basic philosophy, or to change their basic premise of the centrality of states, state power and state interests. Instead, they must become more clear-eyed and practical about what constitutes contemporary state interests by acknowledging that states are threatened as much by domestic insecurity as by external attack. History confirms it. In China, as noted, ecological threats and their management have been central to state security and legitimacy. Within the European tradition too, many of the greatest and most intelligent realist practitioners – Cardinal Richelieu, Klemens von Metternich, Pyotr Durnovo – were deeply concerned with threats to the security and legitimacy of their countries’ domestic political orders, which was why some of them adopted a very cautious and unaggressive approach to relations with other states. (Whether they were right to respond to domestic threats in the way that they did is another matter.)

Contemporary advocates of this way of thinking have sometimes been accused of drawing some of their ideas from Carl Schmitt, the authoritarian critic of the Weimar system in Germany and (albeit briefly) a Nazi supporter.29 Perhaps the most sinister and frequently condemned aspect of Schmitt’s thought is his insistence on the ‘friend–enemy’ distinction as central to the self-definition of societies and states, and to domestic and international politics.30 This topic raises the question of whether the ‘enemy’ for purposes of defining threats to the state needs to be human. Could climate change and disease possibly play a similar role in consolidating states and societies? This may seem an absurd idea, until one thinks of Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Schmitt would have approved of it, and in the future Western states will probably also have to adopt similarly martial methods to address disease and the civil disorder ensuing from natural disasters.

Another contribution that realist thought can make to the debate on climate change is the notion of solidarity with future generations. This is an idea that sits uncomfortably in the current zeitgeist, relentlessly focused as it is on the satisfaction of existing consumers. Yet states, and especially nationstates, exist over a long period of time. ‘A man knows that he is mortal’, wrote Milan Kundera, ‘but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life’.31 The central purpose of nationalism is to prolong that life as far as possible into the future. Most realist concerns about the security of states would be completely meaningless if conditions of safety were restricted to existing generations.32 The fact that previous generations have sacrificed themselves for this purpose creates both the expectation and the obligation that future generations will do so too.33

The failures of liberal internationalism

Theorists whose thinking derives from the liberal-internationalist and Marxian traditions (such as those working in critical security studies and emancipatory theory) have greater and more fundamental difficulties than realists in accepting the elevation of climate change and its associated challenges as a national-security threat, because this would require them to qualify or abandon their hostility to existing nations, and to the idea of enduring and powerful collective identities.34

These attitudes have had a significant and damaging effect on thinking about action on climate change among environmentalists, since so many of them draw their basic political views from these traditions.35 Concentrating on global agreements and institutions is not wrong in itself, but it tends to downplay three crucial facts: that whatever international agreements are reached will need to be implemented by states; that states will need to be strong enough to implement them; and that democratic and authoritarian states alike will need to motivate their populations to make the sacrifices required. Furthermore, a desire among many activists to emphasise the dire social consequences of climate change, including greatly increased migration, while simultaneously upholding the traditional liberal-internationalist belief that migration is a good thing, has produced analyses of mass migration that are sometimes self-contradictory to the point of unreason.36

It is true that national and ethnic identities, like all collective identities, are not essential or eternal, but change enormously over time; and that national identities are only one form of identity among the many we all possess. But modern history and contemporary experience decisively refute any notion that such identities change quickly, that they can be changed both radically and predictably by elite manipulation, or that they are no more important for politics and political action than any alternative identities. Radical and sudden change in national identities can happen, but usually only in the context of catastrophic transformations such as the French and Russian revolutions or the Second World War, which on the whole we might wish to avoid.37 Most of the time, the development of national identities tends to be relatively slow and unpredictable, and to carry with it legacies of the past.38

Liberal-internationalist and Marxian theoretical approaches are at their core normative or prescriptive (explicitly so in critical security studies and emancipatory theory), and characterised by what Johan Eriksson has called ‘instinctive moralism’.39 Consider, for example, Antonio Franceschet’s definition of ‘human security’:

Human security is a liberal, cosmopolitan idea that individuals, regardless of their citizenship, location and identity ought to be made secure from a range of fears, threats and deprivations … Human security is made intelligible by the politics of applying law and legalism to global politics. Many of the human security discourses and initiatives to have emerged since the end of the Cold War are shaped, mobilised but also limited and constrained, by this wider problematic of the legal constitution of global politics.40

This approach treats human security as a matter of individuals rather than members of societies and citizens of states whose well-being and security depend on the security of their societies as a whole. It ignores the central and inescapable role of states in providing not just physical but social security for their people, and in actually carrying out any agreements made at the international level. In explicitly disregarding the factor of citizenship, it overlooks the duty of care that states owe to their own people, and the solidarity that people feel with their fellow citizens.

Any suggestion that what has been called the ‘primacy of the state’ is necessarily in opposition to ‘human security’ and the well-being of individuals is fundamentally false.41 Of course, prioritising what are presumed to be state interests can have dreadful results, but it is equally true that none of the great advances in collective and individual welfare of the past century – social security and public-health systems among them – could have been achieved without the action of strong states. In the case of limiting climate change, it should be manifestly obvious that only strong and legitimate states will be able to implement changes on the massive scale required. Social and political movements may often play a key role in spurring states to act, but they cannot of themselves either pass or enforce legislation.

In addition, by conceptualising human security in terms of international legal forms, analyses like Franceschet’s colossally overestimate the importance of international law, as opposed to national interests, in shaping state actions. By casting human security as a ‘liberal, cosmopolitan idea’, such thinking alienates both realists and conservative patriots, making it much more difficult to get them to grasp the new and potentially mortal threats to the security and vital interests of their nations. Moreover, the suggestion that an emphasis on states and national identities undermines globalism and global institutions misses the point entirely. Like it or not, the elites of powerful states, backed by burgeoning nationalist sentiment among sizeable portions of their populations, will not in the foreseeable future (if ever) surrender significant economic or legal power to international bodies. As we have seen, even the EU is only a partial exception to this rule. The liberal-internationalist and human-security view of what ought to happen may be noble in itself, but it does not describe what is actually happening, and there is no sign that it will ever happen.

*  *  *

While appeals to international communities of sentiment have succeeded in mobilising useful activist movements, they have so far failed to move solid majorities of voters in key countries to support policies that will require them to make personal sacrifices. It seems clear, therefore, that if the ruling elites of these countries (and, in democratic states, sufficient numbers of voters) are ever to agree to serious and economically painful measures to limit carbon emissions, they will need to be convinced that the direct and indirect effects of climate change pose a serious threat to the security of their states and regimes.

The expansive mode of Western liberal internationalism, insofar as it ever existed, is now well and truly over. The EU will likely survive, but it is highly improbable that its model will spread. If we wish to resist enormous threats and preserve whatever can be preserved of Western liberal democracy, we need to start thinking in terms of state as well as human survival.

SURVIVAL: Global Politics and Strategy

Volume 62, 2020 – Issue 2.


1 Albert Camus (Stuart Gilbert, trans.), The Plague (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2004), p. 59.

2 This essay is based on the arguments put forward in Anatol Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case (London and New York: Allen Lane and Oxford University Press, 2020).

3 The strongest arguments for the ‘securitisation’ of such interests have been made by the so-called ‘Copenhagen School’ of security studies and international relations. See Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Ole Waever et al. (eds), Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993); Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear: An Agenda for European Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era (London: ECPR Press, 2007 [1983]); and Jef Huysmans, ‘Revisiting Copenhagen: Or, on the Creative Development of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 4, no. 4, 1998, pp. 479–505. For an environmentalist critique of the securitisation of environmental issues, see Daniel Deudney, ‘The Case Against Linking Environmental Degradation and National Security’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 1990, pp. 461–76. It should be noted, however, that Deudney was talking about environmental issues in general, most of which – unlike climate change – do not involve existential threats.

4 Shaoni Bhattacharya, ‘The 2003 European Heatwave Caused 35,000 Deaths’, New Scientist, 10 October 2003,

5 ‘Russia Confirms Deaths Rose by a Quarter in Heatwave’, BBC, 6 March 2012,

6 For an assessment of the impact of climate change on heatwaves, see Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Cornou, ‘Increase of Extreme Events in a Warming World’, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, 20 March 2012,

7 See Amy Remeikis, ‘Canberra Chokes on World’s Worst Air Quality as City All but Shut Down’, Guardian, 3 January 2020,

8 See US Environmental Protection Agency, ‘Climate Change Impacts on Human Health’, January 2017,; US Global Change Research Program, ‘The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment’, 2016,; Elizabeth G. Hanna, ‘Health Hazards’, in John S. Dryzek et al. (eds), Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 217–31; Paul R. Epstein, ‘Climate and Health’, Science, vol. 285, no. 5,426, July 1999, pp. 347–8; and Jonathan A. Patz et al., ‘The Effects of Changing Weather on Public Health’, Annual Review of Public Health, vol. 21, 2000, pp. 271–307,

9 Cited in Marc A. Levy, ‘Is the Environment a National Security Issue?’, International Security, vol. 20, no. 2, Fall 1995, pp. 40, 51.

10 Wolfgang Cramer et al., ‘Climate Change and Interconnected Risks to Sustainable Development in the Mediterranean’, Nature Climate Change, 22 October 2018,; and MedECC (Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change), ‘Risks Associated to Climate and Environmental Changes in the Mediterranean Region’, 2019,

11 For an extended version of this argument, see Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State, chapter 2.

12 See ‘Explaining the Brexit Vote’, The Economist, 16 July 2016; Ispos MORI, ‘Concern About Immigration Rises as EU Vote Approaches’, 31 July 2016; Richard Wike, Janell Fetterolf and Moira Fagan, ‘Europeans Credit EU with Promoting Peace and Prosperity, but Say Brussels Is out of Touch with Its Citizens’, Pew Research Center, 19 March 2019,; Phillip Connor and Jens Manuel Krogstad, ‘Many Worldwide Oppose More Migration – Both Out of and Into Their Countries’, Pew Research Center, 10 December 2018,; Pew Research Center, ‘Top Voting Issues in 2016 Election’, 7 July 2016,; and ‘Exit Polls’, CNN, 23 November 2016,

13 See Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’, Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, Oxford University, 2013, pp. 13, 19,; P. Beaudry, D.A. Green and B.M. Sand, ‘The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks’, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 18,901, 2013; Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, ‘Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets’, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 23,285, March 2017; Ivan Krastev, After Europe (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), p. 24; Michael Chui et al., ‘Where Machines Could Replace Humans and Where They Can’t – Yet’, McKinsey Quarterly, July 2016,; David H. Autor, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, ‘The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 118, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1,279–333; Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (New York: Vintage, 2016), pp. 203–10; and Ian Bremmer, Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism (New York: Penguin, 2018), pp. 16–17. On the threat to jobs in the petroleum and chemical industries, see Arlie Russell Hochschildt, Strangers in Their Own Land (New York: The New Press, 2016), p. 320.

14 See ‘Forgotten in the Banlieues: Young, Diverse and Unemployed’, The Economist, 23 February 2013; Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, ‘Understanding Urban Riots in France’, Brookings Institution, 1 December 2006,; and Karina Piser, ‘The Social Ladder Is Broken: Hope and Despair in the French Banlieues’, Nation, 1 March 2018, For the tendency of social despair in France’s banlieues to turn some young people towards Islamist extremism, see Gilles Kepel, Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 136–9.

15 Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), p. 5, emphasis added. See also Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

16 See Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (London: HarperCollins, 2009); and Carlo M. Cipolla, Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth Century Italy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981).

17 The Copenhagen School coined the term ‘speech act’ to describe the designation of a problem as a security threat to a ‘referent object’ (in most cases a state) by an authoritative ‘securitising actor’, such as a country’s political leadership or military establishment. See Ole Waever, ‘Securitization and Desecuritization’, in Ronnie D. Lipschutz (ed.), On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 46–86. For an intelligent critique of the concept of the speech act and some examples of its dreadful misuse, see Thierry Balzacq, ‘The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005, pp. 171–201.

18 Communication that affirms the sense of self and the basic world views of the intended audience has been shown to create a greater openness to risk information. See Susanne C. Moser and Lisa Dilling, ‘Communicating Climate Change: Closing the Science–Action Gap’, in Dryzek et al. (eds), Handbook of Climate Change and Society, p. 165; Matthew Nisbet, ‘Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement’, Environment, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009, pp. 12–23; Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley, ‘Fear Appeals in Climate Change Communication’, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), available at; Daniel Kahneman, ‘Maps of Bounded Rationality: A Perspective on Intuitive Judgement and Choice’, Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, 8 December 2002,; and Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

19 For a discussion of the American tradition of distrusting experts, see Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1966). On the Republican culture of climate-change denial, see Riley E. Dunlap and Aaron M. McCright, ‘A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change’, Environment, vol. 50, no. 5, 2008, pp. 26–35; Nisbet, ‘Communicating Climate Change’; and Kari Norgaard, ‘Climate Denial’, in Dryzek et al. (eds), Handbook of Climate Change and Society, pp. 399–413.

20 Tyler H. Lippert, ‘NATO, Climate Change and International Security: A Risk Governance Approach’, RAND Corporation, 2016,

21 On the Soviet side, the key moment was Joseph Stalin’s decision in 1949 to withdraw support for the communists in the Greek civil war. On the US side, it was Dwight Eisenhower’s rejection in 1953 of Republican pressure for a ‘rollback’ of Soviet power in Central Europe.

22 George Kennan predicted in a 1948 lecture at the Pentagon: ‘if economic recovery could be brought about and public confidence restored in western Europe – if western Europe, in other words, could be made the home of a vigorous, prosperous and forward-looking civilization – the Communist regime in eastern Europe … would never be able to stand the comparison, and the spectacle of a happier and more successful life just across the fence … would be bound in the end to have a disintegrating and eroding effect on the Communist world’. See Dana H. Allin, Cold War Illusions: America, Europe and Soviet Power, 1969– 1989 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 13.

23 It is interesting to note that of the three Cold War conflicts in which the armies of one or the other superpower became directly involved, only Korea can be described as wise or successful. The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan were tragically unnecessary disasters for the US and the Soviet Union, respectively.

24 This is a key example cited by the Copenhagen School. See, for instance, Buzan, Waever and Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, pp. 27–8.

25 Roberto Stefano Foa et al., ‘The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020’, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, January 2020,; Sean Coughlan, ‘Dissatisfaction with Democracy “At Record High”’, BBC, 29 January 2020,; Richard Wike, Laura Silver and Alexandra Castillo, ‘Many Across the World Are Dissatisfied with How Democracy Is Working’, Pew Research Center, 29 April 2019,; and Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, ‘The Danger of Deconsolidation’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 3, July 2016,

26 Poland and Hungary have largely reverted to old patterns of authoritarian nationalism that were masked – but not eliminated – during the EU accession process.

27 See Waever et al. (eds), Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe; and Buzan, People, States and Fear.

28 See Stephen M. Walt, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, June 1991, pp. 211–39.

29 For an analysis of the influence of Schmitt on the Copenhagen School, see Michael C. Williams, ‘Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly, no. 47, 2003, pp. 511–31.

30 Carl Schmitt (George Schwab, trans.), The Concept of the Political (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 27 ff.

31 Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (London: Penguin, 1980), p. 229.

32 For an extended version of this argument, see Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State, pp. 63–90.

33 See Richard Weaver, ‘The Problem of Tradition’, in Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives (Washington DC: Regnery, 1956); Richard B. Howarth, ‘Intergenerational Justice’, in Dryzek et al. (eds), Handbook of Climate Change and Society, pp. 338–54; Yael Tamir, ‘Pro Patria Mori! Death and the State’, in Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan (eds), The Morality of Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 227–44; and Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (New York: Atlantic Books, 2013), pp. 91–2.

34 For an introduction to critical security theory and emancipatory theory in security studies, see Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases (London: UCL Press, 1997); Bill McSweeney, Security, Identity and Interests: A Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and Ken Booth, ‘Security and Emancipation’, Review of International Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 313–27.

35 See Paul G. Harris, What’s Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), pp. 33–63; Gregory White, Climate Change and Migration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

36 See, for example, Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011), pp. 179–224.

37 For a counter-argument, see Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Is Something Rotten in the State of Denmark? Constructivism and European Integration’, Journal of European Public Policy, vol. 6, no. 4, 1999, pp. 669–81.

38 For an example of this approach, see Bill McSweeney, ‘Identity and Security: Barry Buzan and the Copenhagen School’, Review of International Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, 1996, pp. 81–93.

39 Johan Eriksson, ‘Observers or Advocates? On the Political Role of Security Analysts’, Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 34, no. 3, 1999, pp. 311–30.

40 Antonio Franceschet, ‘Global Legalism and Human Security’, in Sandra J. Maclean et al. (eds), A Decade of Human Security (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), p. 31.

41 See McSweeney, ‘Identity and Security’.

Dance of the Ghosts: A new cold war with Russia will not serve Western interests

In January 2018, the US Department of Defense declared that ‘great power competition’, and not terrorism, was the greatest threat to the United States and should be the chief focus of the country’s military strategy and spending.1

In March, General Curtis Scaparrotti claimed that the United States’ ‘highest strategic priority … is to deter Russia from engaging in further aggression and exercising malign influence over our allies and partners’, echoing comments made by US General Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme commander in Europe, to the effect that ‘Russia … poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners.’2

John McCain, Hillary Clinton and others have called Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election an ‘act of war’ comparable to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.3 Yet Breedlove’s statement only makes sense if it refers to Russia’s nuclear capacity to destroy the US – which is, of course, balanced by the American, British and French capacity to destroy Russia. Moreover, Russia’s actions during the 2016 election, unlike 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, did not kill a single American. At times, the language of senior US figures has even lapsed into crude generalisations about the Russian people as a whole, as in the statement of former National Intelligence director James Clapper, who claimed that ‘Russians … are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favour’.4

The fear and animosity reflected in statements like these do not correspond to the West’s real interests, the historical context in which Russia’s actions have taken place, the extent of the threat Russia poses to the West, the differences between the vital interests of Russia and leading Western states, or even the respective natures of each side’s state systems.5

Such statements also completely abandon any attempt to see matters from the Russian security establishment’s point of view – a fundamental ethical imperative of statesmanship, according to the great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau6 – and to understand why Russia might fear the West. Rather than a response to Russian behaviour based on objective policy analysis, these approaches stem chiefly from the interests of residual elites and institutions; an exaggeration of external threats in an effort to hold together fraying societies and alliances; and the redirection of citizens’ attention away from social and economic questions which threaten the interests and beliefs of existing political elites of both the left and right. Although Western analysts have frequently argued that foreign regimes have manipulated national hostilities for domestic political purposes, including in the case of Russia,7 it is time they applied this logic to contemporary Western states as well. There would be some precedent for their doing so: in the decade before 1914, one prominent historiographical school, established by Fritz Fischer in Germany, argued for the Primat der Innenpolitik (primacy of domestic politics) in the formulation of the external policies of the European great powers. While aspects of this argument have been con- tested, the school’s overall argument that the traditional elites of the time used nationalism as a way of generating mass political support to oppose the domestic socialist threat has since been generally accepted.8 To be sure, Russia does pose some real and direct threats to Western interests that must be countered. These include aspects of Russian policy in the Middle East (though not the country’s overall strategy there, which has in fact served the West’s interests); the pressure Russia has placed on the Baltic states (which falls far short of an invasion threat, but which nonetheless demands the deployment of limited NATO forces as a tripwire and deterrent); the attempted assassination of Russian secret-service defectors in Britain that was probably (though not certainly) ordered by Moscow;9 and the illicit influence exerted by Russia on the US electoral process, the extent of which remains unclear. The final item in this list represents a new experience for the West, one that will require some careful thought if it is to be defended against in future.

The other three, by contrast, are familiar challenges, for which an established and legitimate playbook of responses already exists. None of these threats amounts to either an existential threat or an act of war. Furthermore, while Western national and collective interests obviously demand that these threats be countered, the accompanying moral hysteria should be qualified by the honest acknowledgement that Western nations too have, in living memory, put pressure on smaller states, pursued state policies that included assassination as a consequence, if not a direct tool, and sought to manipulate other countries’ internal political processes.

The questions to be asked about these Russian threats are therefore the following: whether Russian policies threaten vital Western interests, or only secondary ones; whether they reflect implacable Russian hostility to the West, or are largely (though by no means exclusively) a response to the West’s own policies; how far they are balanced by policy areas in which Russian and Western interests are congruent, or in which Russia has acted in ways that are actually in the West’s interest; and how far in consequence it may be possible to achieve a compromise or to cooperate on various key issues.

The lessons of history

Two historical tropes have dominated Western rhetoric about the relationship with Russia since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014: that the current state of relations constitutes a ‘new cold war’, and that parallels exist with the danger posed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The first image suggests not just a tremendous threat, but an overarching international struggle that is both geopolitical and ideological in nature, and that will inexorably lead to countries being divided between the two camps. It also suggests a competition which can only end with the resounding defeat of one of the sides. After all, during the actual Cold War, the communist side aimed – at least initially – to destroy the entire Western ‘bourgeois’ order through revolution; and the conflict only ended with the complete destruction of the Soviet communist order.

The second image, that of the Nazi threat, is even more melodramatic – as well as being a colossally overused cliché. It suggests that Russia harbours an implacable desire to conquer or dominate the whole of Europe, and that, through subliminal association with the Holocaust, the present Russian administration is a force of absolute evil, drawing on deeply rooted, malevolent elements of Russian culture. In terms of policy, the comparison is intended to suggest that every attempt at agreement or compromise with Russia constitutes ‘appeasement’ that will only lead to new, and more extreme, Russian demands.10 Thus, this analogy to some extent contradicts the Cold War comparison, since Western strategy toward the USSR, while ultimately predicated on containment, also included numerous cases of agreement and compromise, and was characterised much of the time by a philosophy of coexistence – if only because the presence of huge nuclear arsenals made the alternative of actual conflict impossibly dangerous. For example (and of considerable relevance to the present situation in Ukraine), the US and the USSR were able in 1955 to conclude a treaty on the mutual withdrawal from, and neutralisation of, Austria. Further examples include various agreements on access to West Berlin; the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis (whereby the USSR withdrew missiles from Cuba, and the US from Turkey); the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the 1975 Helsinki Accords on Security and Co-operation in Europe; and a range of international treaties on the regulation of airspace, maritime trade and so on. One might also note that, despite the overall ideological frame- work of the Cold War, ideology did not in practice dictate US policy in many cases. Thus, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s 1971 ‘opening to China’ (intended to turn China into a quasi-ally against the USSR) took place in the midst of the monstrous Cultural Revolution.

Although a range of factors have contributed to the West’s growing hostility toward Russia over the past decade, the most important of these have been the Georgia–Russia war of 2008 and the Ukrainian crisis (encompass- ing the Russian annexation of Crimea and the covert Russian intervention in the Donbas) that began in 2014. These developments were widely taken in the West to be evidence of Russia’s expansionist ambitions and determina- tion to destroy the US-led liberal international order.

The key point about both the Georgian and Ukrainian crises is that these were post-colonial conflicts, resulting from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Every such collapse, without exception, has led to such conflicts, as sup- pressed ethnic and religious tensions have risen to the surface; different groups have fought to seize the powers of former colonial states; succes- sor states have fought over disputed territories; minorities have revolted against their new masters; diasporas have sought to reconnect with their countries of origin; former imperial nations have attempted to retain some of their former influence; and outside states have sought new influence and advantage. These phenomena were observed, for instance, during the col- lapse of the Spanish Empire in the 1820s; of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires in 1918; of the British, French and Belgian empires from the 1940s to the 1960s; and of the Portuguese Empire in the 1970s. It should further be noted that, as with the conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, conflicts resulting from the end of an empire often break out decades after such collapses – as with the Sri Lankan civil war, which erupted 36 years after the British quit Ceylon.

This is not to say that Russian actions are justified, any more than those of previous imperial powers were. The point is that, rather than reflecting some specifically Russian characteristics, what has happened in the former USSR since 1991 forms part of a wider – and probably inevitable – historical pattern. If anything distinguishes the former Soviet space from other post-imperial cases, it is the relative absence of conflict and the relatively low number of casualties when compared, for example, to Indochina from 1945–75, Algeria from 1954–63, India and Pakistan in 1947, and the ongoing Burmese and Congolese civil wars, among others.11

The post-imperial nature of the conflicts involving Russia is not in and of itself reassuring when it comes to an assessment of the Russian threat to the West. After all, even when the internal calculations of the regimes concerned are taken into account, both the first and the second world wars can be seen as resulting, to a considerable extent, from the decline and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The First World War resulted from the desperate attempt of that empire to save itself through external war. Germany’s involvement resulted from a fear of the growing power of Russia and the widespread belief among Germans that a conflict over who would dominate Central Europe, Slavs or Germans, was inevitable, and therefore should be fought sooner rather than later. Likewise, the first stages of Adolf Hitler’s expansionist programme in the run-up to the Second World War consisted of the merging into Germany of what remained of Austria and of the German- populated parts of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, what Britain and France in the 1920s and 1930s regarded as a liberal international order guaranteed by the League of Nations was seen by the vast majority of Germans as a victor’s peace that overturned centuries of German dominance in Central Europe. This analogy does therefore appear to provide at least some basis for the ‘Vladimir Putin as Hitler’ view.12

A more searching examination, however, reveals the falsity of this conclu- sion both from a realist perspective and from a moral one. Central Europe, as its name suggests, is central to Europe. Whoever controls it is likely to dominate the continent as a whole. The lands of Central Europe border on and overlap with Germany, without which neither the European Union nor NATO would be possible in any meaningful sense. The Cold War began in a struggle over whether the United States or the Soviet Union would dominate post-Nazi Germany, and led to a partition of Germany that lasted more than four decades. By contrast, from a realist perspective, Ukraine, and still more the Caucasus, are geographically and geopolitically peripheral to Europe. The disputed territories there lie nearly 2,000 kilometres away from the Cold War’s front line along the Elbe River in the middle of Germany. No Western strategist has ever satisfactorily explained (nor even tried to explain) why and how areas which, prior to the 1990s, were seen as irrelevant to the security interests of the US, Britain and France suddenly became central to those interests after the Soviet Union collapsed.

For Russia, on the other hand, these areas are of vital interest, and the incursion into them of an actually or potentially hostile Western alliance was bound to provoke a harsh Russian response.13 The protection of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgian reconquest is directly connected to maintaining the loyalty of the Ossete and Circassian co-ethnics living in the northwestern Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation itself. Ukraine is of central interest to Russia as the birthplace of the Russian state, as the home of some ten million ethnic Russians, and as the vital (and now lost) element of the Eurasian Union, an economic and security bloc under Russian leadership. Both Georgia and Ukraine border on Russia, but not on any countries considered ‘Western’ during the Cold War. Moreover, Russian behaviour to date provides no reason to think that membership of NATO and the EU will not be an adequate deterrent in the defence of Poland, Romania and the Baltic states against conventional military threats. As Russian, and some Western, analysts have pointed out, in terms of respective national interests, the Russian response to Western ambitions in Ukraine should be compared to US attitudes toward the geopolitical position of Mexico. In other words, Russian policies in Ukraine are not – as the Hitlerian analogy is intended to suggest – stepping stones to the conquest of the rest of Europe. Ukraine is the goal in itself.

The false Hitlerian analogy also highlights the fact that, far from living up to the portrait of reckless ambition drawn by many Western analysts, Russian strategy under President Putin has generally been reasonably cautious. Putin did not establish Russian protection over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but rather inherited it from the Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin administrations of the USSR and Russia respectively. Conflict first broke out in South Ossetia in 1990 and in Abkhazia in 1992, in both cases initiated by the Georgian side.

When it comes to a moral assessment of the Russian position, Western analysts should recall that while in legal and moral terms there is no significant difference between the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (which has declared its autonomy from Azerbaijan), Western attitudes toward these cases have been very different indeed. In the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute – in which influential Armenian lobbies in the West have been engaged on the side of Armenia – Western governments have generally supported the greatest possible autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh (amounting to quasi-independence), and provided extensive security guarantees. Western approaches to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, by contrast, have been much more supportive of Georgian demands for the restoration of full sovereignty.14 Whatever Western propaganda may claim, it is entirely clear from the evidence that Georgia attacked South Ossetia and Russian forces there in August 2008, and not the other way round.15 Moreover, after defeating the Georgian army in South Ossetia, the Russian government could easily have marched into Tbilisi, overthrown the Georgian government and replaced it with a Russian puppet regime. It did not do so. Similarly, in spring and early summer 2014, there was almost nothing in military terms to stop the Russian army from occupying not just the Donbas, but all the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine.16 Indeed, the killing of pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa in May 2014 by Ukrainian nationalists would have given it a good excuse for doing so.17 The US and NATO had already made clear (as they had in Georgia in 2008) that there was no chance of their fighting Russia over Ukraine.18 In other words, if Putin had been reckless (or ‘mad’, as certain Western commentators have described him19) the Russian army would be in Odessa and Kharkov, rather than in Crimea and in part of the Donbas under the (admittedly threadbare) cover of a volunteer separatist force.

Russian caution in 2014 seems to have been motivated by three factors: an unwillingness to run even a small risk of Western intervention; a desire not to do anything that would drive the Germans in particular (whom Moscow still sees as a long-term partner) back into unconditional alliance with the US; and an awareness of the acute difficulty of governing a huge and, in part, deeply unhappy Ukrainian–Russian population in eastern and southern Ukraine – as opposed to the small and generally pro-Russian populations of the Donbas and Crimea. It should also be pointed out that Crimea had been part of Russia until it was transferred to Ukraine (then a Soviet socialist republic) by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, and is home to Sevastopol, the historic base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In Russia at least, the annexation of Crimea to prevent the possibility of it becoming part of NATO was therefore seen not as an aggressive but as an entirely defensive move.20

The deal sought by Russia under both Yeltsin and Putin, at least until 2008, was Western recognition of dominant (though not exclusive) Russian influence among the countries of the former USSR in return for Russian support on other issues. No less a master of realpolitik than Kissinger has acknowledged that this aim represents the traditional view of Russian state interests within Russia’s ancient sphere – but not megalomaniac ambition.21 Nor does it amount to a Hitlerian programme of limitless international aggression and threats to the international order. Rather, Putin has pursued a limited, corrupt authoritarianism that would be familiar to several US allies. Russia’s ruthless war against ethnic separatism in Chechnya, for example, has counterparts in India, the Philippines, Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, all of which enjoy mostly friendly relations with the US. Moreover, those republics that did not revolt against Russia enjoy extensive cultural and economic autonomy. And while a (small) number of opposition politicians and journalists have been murdered in Russia, the great majority – including the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny – have only been barred from elections and exposed to limited judicial harassment. This is a record that compares very favourably indeed with that of many US allies. As Patrick Buchanan has remarked, ‘Which of these U.S. allies shows greater tolerance than Putin’s Russia? The Philippines of Rodrigo Duterte, the Egypt of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Turkey of President Erdogan, or the Saudi Arabia of Prince Mohammad bin Salman?’22

It is likewise unfair to claim that Putin represents ethnic Russian nationalism, let alone fascism. (Indeed, ethnic nationalism is much more characteristic of the main Russian opposition movement led by Navalny.) Instead, he is best described as a Russian state nationalist, heavily influenced by the Soviet tradition, who believes that the Russian people play a leading political and cultural role, but also that state positions should be open to any citizen who can demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Putin’s longest- serving interior minister (2003–12), General Rashid Nurgaliyev, is a Muslim Tatar, and General Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s defence minister and the man considered most likely to succeed him if he should die suddenly, is a Tuvan Mongol on his father’s side. Nor has Putin ever employed anti-Semitism as a political tactic, a remarkable track record considering the many opportunities Russian politics would present for him to do so. He drove out Putin is a Russian state nationalist or imprisoned Jewish oligarchs from the Yeltsin era who opposed him or tried to control him (such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky), but left in place those who accepted his rule (such as Roman Abramovich, Viktor Vekselberg and Pyotr Aven). Indeed, Putin has explicitly criticised Russian ethnic nationalists, saying in 2012:

The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilisation. But all kinds of provocateurs and our enemies will do their best to snatch this linchpin from Russia, through phoney talk about the Russian right to self-determination, ‘racial purity’ and the need to ‘complete what was started in 1991 – the elimination of the empire that is feeding off the Russian people.’ What they really want in the end is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands.

I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a ‘national’ or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history. Moreover, this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet … The self-determination of the Russian people is to be a multiethnic civilisation with Russian culture at its core.23

The Cold War analogy is no less inappropriate than the Nazi one by implying that Russia and the West are locked in an all-embracing struggle in which almost every local issue or dispute leaves them on opposite sides, and seeking in every case to harm each other’s interests.24 This is a false picture not just because Russia is aligned with the West as a whole in the struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism – portrayed in Washington after 9/11 as the greatest security threat to the West; because it has been aligned with at least some Western countries on every other major issue; or because, in crucial cases, it has adopted positions that turned out to be the correct ones while the US and the UK got it wrong, not just from Russia’s point of view but from that of the US and other Western countries too. It is above all because the Russian conception of the over- riding importance of maintaining reasonably effective and orderly states (as opposed to democratic ones) is shared by a large part of the US foreign and security establishment.

In opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia sided with Germany, France and most other Western European countries – as well as most members of the UN General Assembly, including democratic states such as India. They were right to oppose the invasion. Apart from the blow it delivered to international law (which certainly rivals that delivered by the Russian annexation of Crimea), the invasion of Iraq was a disaster that led directly to the establishment first of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then of the Islamic State (ISIS). This, in turn, led directly to the latter’s intervention in Syria and the transformation of the Syrian revolution into a sectarian civil war. All this is now acknowledged even by many supporters of the Iraq War.

Russia also sided with much of Europe and most of the international community in opposing the way in which the US, the UK and France turned a ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya in 2011 into a campaign to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gadhafi. Here too, Russia turned out to be entirely correct, even from the West’s point of view. As in Iraq, the US intervention destroyed not just the regime but also the state. The resulting anarchy not only helped to spread Islamist extremism throughout North Africa, but was directly responsible for Libya’s loss of control over its sea borders and the con- sequent massive, unregulated flows of migrants across the Mediterranean.

This contributed to the victory of right-wing populist parties in Italy and elsewhere, which poses an existential threat to the European Union. On Syria, Russian fears that the destruction of the Ba’athist state would lead to anarchy and a takeover by the Islamic State were echoed by some members of the US and Western security establishments, and gained credence from what had happened in Iraq and Libya.25

It is important to note that Russia’s stance on these issues is rooted not only in opposition to US interventionism and a defence of Russian interests, but also in a conception of international order that is shared by many Westerners. Neither Russia nor China has opposed Western or international intervention in states that have collapsed, such as Sierra Leone. What they object to is the destruction of existing states by actors lacking the capability to replace them, any clear and practicable plan for what to replace them with, or any reasonable evidence that the resulting situation will not be even worse. This is the same basis on which some US policymakers – including some presidents – have supported a range of authoritarian regimes around the world in the face of local revolts, and continue to do so.

When it comes to the greatest new crisis facing the Middle East today – the United States’ abandonment of the Iranian nuclear deal and the threat of a US or Israeli attack on Iran – Russia is aligned not just with all the leading European states against the US, but also with a large portion of the US foreign-policy and security establishment (especially in the Pentagon) against the Trump administration.

A safe enemy

In view of all this, it is difficult to see how a reasoned and objective Western analysis of Russian policy and the Western–Russian relationship could produce anything like the alarming picture painted by officials such as Scaparrotti and Breedlove. Based on the available evidence, a more accurate portrait of Russia would depict a more or less normal great power pursuing its own interests, sometimes in concord with the West and other times not, but usually in alignment with at least some Western countries. Moreover, the Russian establishment’s views both of international order and of what constitutes national interest do not differ fundamentally from those of the harder-headed members of the West’s own security establishments.

Why then the hysteria? Why the intense focus on the Russian threat, when, in their different ways, both Islamist terrorism and China seem to present much greater challenges? Islamist terrorists have killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of Europeans, and are constantly plotting to kill many more. Islamist terrorism, coupled with mass migration, is also playing a critical role in driving the right-wing populism that is eating away at the European Union and NATO, and threatening the foundations of American soft power. From this point of view, the US Department of Defense’s finding in January 2018 that ‘great power competition’ and not terrorism posed the greatest threat to the United States appears premature at best. It also ignores the fact that the gains made against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were largely the work of Russia and Iran.

While China is a peer competitor whose economy has already over- taken that of the US in terms of purchasing-power parity, the Russian economy is only one-fifth as large as the United States’, and one-tenth as large as the US and EU economies put together. Moreover, while Russia is seeking to re-establish influence in regions that were linked to Russia for hundreds of years, that were never previously of interest to the US, and that are of minor economic and strategic significance in general, China is making new claims and challenging the US in a region where it has exercised hegemony since 1945, which is one of the three economic hubs of the world, and which has been regarded for most of the last 100 years as highly important to US national and geopolitical interests. China’s plans to create a vast overland infrastructure network in Eurasia, if successful (admittedly a prospect that remains in doubt), will redistribute global economic power in ways that are both highly disadvantageous to the US and that vastly exceed anything Russia could achieve. It therefore seems strange that the US would portray Russia as presenting a strategic threat equivalent to that posed by China, not least because doing so seems bound to drive Russia and China closer together.

The reason for this seemingly illogical stance may be that Russia is not just a useful enemy for Western policymakers, but also that paradoxical thing, a safe enemy. The USSR (usually seen in the West, and especially the US, as simply ‘Russia’) was the enemy against which NATO was created and configured to fight – but which it never actually fought. The balance of nuclear terror compelled coexistence rather than attack, and by the mid- 1960s each side had a reasonably clear understanding of where the other side’s red lines lay.

Today too, the red lines on both sides have been clear at least since 2014, and possibly as far back as 2008. It is understood that NATO will not defend any country that Russia might attack, and that Russia will not attack any country that NATO might defend. This leaves both sides – unlike the great powers before 1914 – free to employ the rhetoric of confrontation without running the risk of actual catastrophic war. The truth of this proposition is strongly suggested by the forces that the US and NATO have deployed to meet the Russian threat. Four years after the Ukrainian crisis supposedly heralded the start of a new cold war, most European NATO countries have failed to increase their military spending, and plans to create a new 50,000- strong emergency force remain mostly on paper. The US defence budget of 2018–19 asked for $6.5 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative26 – a hopelessly inadequate sum if a Russian attack were really regarded as imminent. Moreover, the economic costs of confronting Russia remain low for Western countries. Trade between the US and Russia has always been minimal, and trade between European countries and Russia has been little affected by the poor state of Western–Russian relations. This would change if – as President Trump has urged – Germany ceased buying Russian gas; but Germany has no intention of doing so, and Russia has no intention of turning off the tap so long as Germany continues to pay. Nor can Russia credibly threaten to cut off gas supplies to EU states in any scenario other than a full-scale war. Such a move would be extremely damaging to the EU, but it would also deal a devastating blow to Russia’s foreign-exchange earnings and state revenues, and therefore to the domestic position of the Putin administration. Thus, the energy relationship is not a Russian weapon but rather an economic version of mutual assured destruction, which kept the peace during the Cold War.

All in all, Russia appears to be a very safe enemy. It is also a useful one, because it allows Western security structures to do what they were created to do (and did, in their view successfully, for four decades) – and, in the process, to draw attention away from other threats that they were not configured to deal with and that they have proved extremely poor at con- fronting. As Michael Klare and others have noted, the US high command was never really happy with the ‘global war on terror’, and since Vietnam the Pentagon has abhorred messy, inconclusive and potentially disastrous counter-insurgency operations. Such conflicts tend to draw attention and money away from the sophisticated, highly expensive weapons systems that all armed services love. In Klare’s words,

While the long war against terror did fuel a vast, ongoing expansion of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) it provided surprisingly little purpose or real work for the military’s ‘heavy metal’ units: the Army’s tank brigades, the Navy’s carrier battle groups, the Air Force’s bomber squadrons, and so forth. Yes, the Air Force in particular has played a major supporting role in recent operations in Iraq and Syria, but the regular military has largely been sidelined there and elsewhere by lightly equipped SOF forces and drones.

Planning for a ‘real war’ against a ‘peer competitor’ (one with forces and weaponry resembling our own) was until recently given far lower priority than the country’s never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. This alarmed and even angered those in the regular military whose moment, it seems, has now finally arrived.27

By contrast, the other main challenges to the West are ones that Western institutions are not configured to meet, and that tend to cause divisions among Western allies. The principal problems of the Muslim world, including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, have set European nations against the US, against each other, or both. As for the participation by European NATO members in military missions (whether as part of agreed NATO missions, as in Afghanistan, or as ‘coalitions of the willing’, as in Iraq and Libya), results have ranged from the unsuccessful to the catastrophic.

Other than the US, the UK made the biggest contribution to these efforts. Yet its activities in both Basra and Helmand resulted in humiliating failure, redeemed only in part by the courage and self-sacrifice of British troops. British missions that were intended to please and impress the US needed in the end to be bailed out by disillusioned and somewhat contemptuous US forces. These missions, like those of the French and British air forces over Libya, revealed the severe limitations placed on European military forces by a lack of funding, particularly since the recession of 2008. Of course, if the threat of war with Russia were really taken seriously, NATO members would have to contemplate military reconfiguration and spending increases on a politically unimaginable scale – which is precisely why so much of the West’s anti-Russian language is pure theatre, not serious strategy.

Dealing with China promises to be even more difficult and divisive for the West. NATO was not created to confront China, and persuading NATO members to make serious military deployments to support the United States and India against China would be politically impossible for most European countries – including the UK, which, it should be remembered, rejected US appeals to participate in the Vietnam War. China’s colossal and growing economic weight is also inhibiting Western countries from adopt- ing a US-led confrontational stance. The UK, like other European nations, rejected the appeals of the Obama administration not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and like other European nations is likely assiduously to seek contracts under China’s Belt and Road project, assuming these are on offer. Moreover, since the Trump administration came to power, the leading European nations have been aligned with China against the US not just over the Iran nuclear deal, but over climate change and trade as well. Far from serving to reunite the West, Chinese power is helping to pull it apart.

Existential threats

There may be a deeper cause of the exaggerated Western focus on the sup- posed Russian threat. All of the West’s mainstream political forces, on the centre-left as well as the right, are now facing challenges which – if they can be met at all – will require the overturning of dominant ideological paradigms. In the US, for example, the Democratic establishment has no real idea how it can win back the white, working-class vote while maintaining both its appeal to racial and cultural minorities, and its links to Wall Street and corporate America. The Republican establishment, meanwhile, has little idea of how to free the party from the populist monster into whose arms so much of the Republican base has thrown itself. Nor will Republicans’ free-market dogma allow them to contemplate the socio-economic measures necessary to relieve their base’s economic distress, or strengthen the US in its economic competition with China. In Europe, neither the traditional left nor the right is prepared to confront the implications of the Muslim migration which is doing so much to drive the rise of right-wing populism. The left cannot bear to think seriously about the need to reduce migrant numbers, while the right cannot bear to acknowledge that even if the number of new migrants is greatly reduced, higher birth rates, marriages between immigrants and people from their countries of origin, and family reunification will mean that, for the foreseeable future, large proportions of European populations will be Muslim, with critically important implications for domestic cultures and politics, as well as international affairs.

In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, Robert Keohane and Jeff Colgan analyse the importance of the disappearance of the Soviet threat for the current rise of anti-establishment populism in the US and Europe, writing that,

During [the Cold War], the perceived Soviet threat generated a strong shared sense of attachment not only to Washington’s allies but also to multilateral institutions. Social psychologists have demonstrated the crucial importance of ‘othering’ in identity formation, for individuals and nations alike: a clear sense of who is not on your team makes you feel closer to those who are. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the main ‘other’ from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States. Without the specter of communist-style authoritarianism haunting their societies, eastern Europeans have become more susceptible to populism and other forms of illiberalism. In Europe, as in the United States, the disappearance of the Soviets undermined social cohesion and a common sense of purpose.

They go on to recommend that Washington ‘nurture a uniquely American social identity and a national narrative’, a project that ‘will require other- ing authoritarian and illiberal countries’.28 The implications of this advice for American attitudes and policies toward Russia could hardly be clearer. Whether such policies correspond to US interests or actual Russian behaviour is another matter.

Further problems that are defying traditional political solutions include automation, which threatens to eliminate not just working-class but also middle-class jobs, and which may require a rethinking of economic certain- ties that have held for generations; and human-induced climate change, which capitalism (at least in its existing form) may be intrinsically incapable of preventing. Faced with problems like these, it is easy to see why politicians, policymakers and journalists might prefer to concentrate on a threat that is really not that threatening, and indeed, almost like an old friend.

Of course, a realist might argue that exaggerating the Russian threat is still justifiable because doing so helps to hold the West together at a time when the disintegration of Western alliances could produce severe consequences. But this reasoning is inadequate for several reasons. Firstly, as George Beebe argues in his forthcoming book, the fact that neither Russia nor NATO has any intention of fighting the other nevertheless leaves open the possibility of an unintended collision.29 Secondly, unnecessary hostility toward Russia precludes the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, leaving the West captive to the internal troubles of a deeply corrupt, incompetent and divided Ukrainian government. Likewise, the West’s hostility toward Russia is standing in the way of a stable order in the Middle East and, by helping to prevent detente with Iran, tying Western governments to Israeli and Saudi agendas that actually undermine Western interests. In Afghanistan too, the cooperation of Russia and China will be essential if the US is ever to extricate itself from a conflict which may otherwise drag on indefinitely.

All this points to the conclusion that the United States’ existing global agenda, on which its policy toward Russia was founded, is unsustainable. It was formulated by Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who presented it in 1992 to the Bush administration in a notorious memo in which they argued that the US should strive to become the sole hegemon in every region of the world – effectively extending the Monroe Doctrine to the entire planet.30 Generally derided as megalomaniac when it was first leaked, this plan became in effect the strategic goal of all subsequent administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

It has since become apparent that this strategy stemmed from what has turned out to be an extremely brief period of US unipolar dominance, lasting only from 1989 to a point falling somewhere between 2004 (when the occupation of Iraq began to go badly wrong) and the recession of 2008. The US is simply not strong enough, economically, militarily or ideologically, to maintain the Wolfowitz–Libby vision. No country could. Attempting to do so is not only deepening international disorder, but leaving the US beholden to ‘allies’ which may have very different interests, such as Saudi Arabia.

Cooperation between the great powers will be essential for the regulation of global affairs, the avoidance of conflict and the tackling of global problems. As Hugh White argues in his book The China Choice, this will require an acknowledgement not only of other countries’ vital interests, but of the legitimacy of their political systems.31 This acknowledgement on the part of Western democracies should be made easier by the increasingly apparent failings of Western democracy itself in the face of economic, social, demographic and political challenges. Rather than focus- ing on the alleged links between the Putin and Trump administrations, analysts would do better to look at the rise in death rates among Russian working-class males in the 1990s and their American counterparts after 2008, and try to understand just how far trends like these are likely to undermine the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

By concentrating on their disputes with each other rather than on the threats to modern civilisation as a whole, today’s great powers risk making mistakes on the same scale as did the European powers before 1914. The principal difference today is that not just European but all advanced states are at risk. They cannot afford to make things worse by undermining each other. Of course, Russia stands accused of doing just that – of interfering with the American political system. Seen from Moscow, this interference (which is clear, even if its extent and impact may have been exaggerated) was a legitimate response to US pressure and propaganda directed against Russia and Russian interests since the end of the Cold War, and especially to what were believed to be US attempts to stir up revolution against the Putin administration and allied regimes on the territory of the former USSR. The covert nature of Russian manipulation does put it in a more sinister and illegitimate category than most of the United States’ tactics in the former USSR, and certainly necessitates strong US retaliation; but it should be noted that where Russian propaganda has been public and overt, this has also been treated by the US political and media establishment as absolutely unacceptable.

The core point here is that the legitimacy and integrity of political systems is seen by state elites as a vital interest to be defended at all costs, and that it is All advanced states are at risk therefore impossible and illogical to hope for any serious degree of cooperation between states which challenge each other’s basic legitimacy. Russian

interference in the US electoral process has rightly been seen as a threat to vital American interests, to which the country must respond. Given the dreadful consequences of US-backed regime change in a number of countries, it is by no means irrational for Russians (and Chinese, Iranians and others) to see US efforts in this regard as threats to the integrity, the cohesion and even the survival of their states, and to back strong responses. Just as the corruption and oppression of the Putin administration gives the US many opportunities to seek to undermine it, so too do the growing internal divisions, social ine- quality and paralysis of Western democracies give opportunities to Russia. Neither side can afford to play these games any more.

Cooperation between the great powers will clearly require a measure of ideological and geopolitical detente. In the end, communism collapsed in the USSR not because of Western propaganda or support for opposition groups, but because the capitalist democracies were obviously more functional in every way than the Soviet system. If Western capitalist democracy is to maintain its superiority, it will have to go on being seen as working better than its equivalents – something that will clearly require deep and painful reform.

* * *

Nurturing a fear of Russia does not merely distract attention from the problems that are weakening and dividing the West, but by doing so helps to make them worse. A new cold war with Russia will do nothing either to restrict migrant numbers or to develop new strategies for their integration. Nor will it suggest solutions to the structural unemployment and semi- employment occasioned by deindustrialisation and the rapidly increasing pressure of automation. It will do nothing to deal with the structural problems of the EU and the euro, nor the looming threat of climate change and its consequences.

This may be why stoking fears of Russia is such a popular activity among Western politicians. Doing so appears to be helping Western elites – liberal as well as conservative – avoid thinking about these problems, most of which will almost certainly require the abandonment of key Western shibboleths. But it is only in the meeting of these challenges that the democratic West will stand or fall. What happens in Tskhinvali or Donetsk is far less important.

It has been observed that when societies become overwhelmed by forces of change that threaten to end existing ways of life, people often turn to some form of magical thinking, whereby a vanishing past can be restored by the invocation of certain sacred formulae. One well-known example of this phenomenon was the Native American Ghost Dance ritual practised from the 1870s to the 1890s, which was supposed to rid North America of white people, resurrect dead tribal heroes and restore vanishing buffalo herds to the Great Plains.32 In recent years, it has been suggested that the support offered by embattled middle-class whites to Donald Trump in the US and to Brexit in the UK are a modern form of this kind of thinking. In their nostalgia for the Cold War, Western elites may also be trying to revive the comforting ghosts of the past to cope with a frightening present. It didn’t work for the Sioux, and it won’t work today.

Survival (London), 2018-09-03, Vol.60 (5), p.115-140 


1 Idrees Ali, ‘US Military Puts “Great Power Competition” at Heart of Strategy: Mattis’, Reuters, 19 January 2018, russia/u-s-military-puts-great-power- competition-at-heart-of-strategy- mattis-idUSKBN1F81TR. For a critique of this view, see Micah Zenko, ‘America’s Military Is Nostalgic for Great Power Competition’, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 21 March 2018, https://www.

2 For General Scaparrotti’s statement, see ‘EUCOM 2018 Posture Statement’, 8 March 2018, For Breedlove’s, see ‘NATO Commander: Russia Poses “Existential Threat” to West’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 25 February 2016, russia-existential-threat/27574037.html.

3 See Theodore Schleifer and Deirdre Walsh, ‘McCain: Russian Cyberintrusions an “Act of War”’, CNN, 31 December 2016, https://; Kristine Phillips, ‘Cheney Delivers a Statement on Russian Meddling: It’s an “Act of War”’, Washington Post, 28 March 2017, https://www. republican-to-call-russias-alleged- meddling-in-u-s-elections-an-act- of-war/?utm_term=.2c69499d6bf9; and ‘Clinton Calls for Act of War Classification for Cyberattacks’, MeriTalk, 9 October 2017, https:// classification-for-cyberattacks/.

4 Quoted in Stephen Cohen, ‘Russophobia in the New Cold War’, Nation, 4 April 2018, in-the-new-cold-war/. For a history of Russophobia, see Andrei Tsygankov, Russophobia: Anti-Russian Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

5 Indeed, as the former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke has noted, ‘The compulsive hatred of President Putin in elite western circles has surpassed anything witnessed during the Cold War.’ Alastair Crooke, ‘Will the War Clouds Pass Us By, or Will the Storm Break?’, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 3 March 2018, war-clouds-pass-us-by-or-will-the- storm-break-by-alastair-crooke.html. Reflecting this attitude, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (for one) has described Vladimir Putin as ‘a truly evil man’ – a characterisation that seems never to have been applied by a senior US official to any Soviet leader during the Cold War. Damien Sharkov, ‘“Putin Is a Smart, but Truly Evil Man”, Says Madeleine Albright’, Newsweek, 20 April 2016,

6 According to Morgenthau, ‘The successful political act presupposes a respectful understanding of its object, its nature, its interests, its propensities and potentialities. The political actor … must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does, anticipate in thought the way that he will feel and act under certain circumstances.’ See ‘The Limits of Historical Justice’, in Hans J. Morgenthau, Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade 1960–1970 (New York: Pall Mall Press, 1970), p. 83.

7 Former US vice president Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter, for example, have written that, ‘To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it per- ceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy. By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democra- cies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions.’ See their ‘How to Stand Up to the Kremlin’, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018. Other examples include Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, ‘Who Lost Russia (This Time)? Vladimir Putin’, Washington Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015; Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘Russia’s Aggressive Isolationism: Putin Is Leveraging Foreign Policy for Domestic Purposes, a Flip Made Possible by a Globalised World’, American Interest, vol. 10, no. 3, 10 December 2014; and John Sipher, ‘Vladimir Putin Isn’t as Russian as He Says He Is’, Foreign Policy, 6 December 2017.

8 See, for example, Arno J. Mayer, ‘The Primacy of Domestic Politics’, in Holger Herwig (ed.), The Outbreak of World War I (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 42–7; Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon, 1981); Fritz Fischer, Hajo Holborn (trans.), Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2007); John Anthony Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy in German Historiography (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975); Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (New York: Routledge, 2002); and Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Imperial Germany 1867–1918: Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishers, 1995).

9 It is necessary to point out that official Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal remains unproven, and that if circumstantial evidence suggests the involvement of the Russian secret service, it equally suggests an attempt to undermine Putin and Russian foreign policy during the World Cup, which Russia hosted, and in advance of the Trump– Putin meeting in July. See Simon Jenkins, ‘If the Novichok Was Planted by Russia, Where’s the Evidence?’, Guardian, 5 July 2018.

10 Max Bergmann, a former State Department official under Barack Obama and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (a Democratic Party think tank), managed to use the term ‘appeasement’ with reference to US–Russia relations in each of three successive interviews with the Washington Post, on 2 August 2017 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘State Department Dysfunction Reaches New Heights’), 13 February 2018 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘We’re Defenseless Against Russian Sabotage in the Midterm Elections. And Trump’s Not Helping’), and 28 June 2018 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘The Trump–Putin Summit Should Set Off Alarm Bells’). Brian Katulis makes similar comments in Jennifer Rubin, ‘Will Trump Play the Part of Putin’s Poodle, Again?’, Washington Post, 14 March 2018. For other versions of the Hitler analogy in a leading US newspaper, see Paul Krugman, ‘A Quisling and His Enablers’, New York Times, 11 June 2018, trump-quisling-enablers.html; and Roger Cohen, ‘Of Course, It Could Not Happen Here’, New York Times, 29 June 2018, immigration-trump-putin-germany.html.

11 The literature on France’s late-colonial wars and atrocities, and on the US record in Vietnam, is both so volumi- nous and so well known that it hardly needs to be cited. For a reminder that the British Empire was itself not immune to the temptations of colonial violence (to say nothing of the catastrophes that followed the British Empire’s collapse), see, for example, Caroline Elkins’s book on the suppres- sion of the Mau Mau Revolt, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London: Bodley Head, 2014). In Northern Ireland, what was in effect a late-colonial conflict lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s.

12 For examples of comparisons between Putin and Hitler, see ‘Hillary Clinton Says Vladimir Putin’s Crimea Occupation Echoes Hitler’, Guardian, 6 March 2014,; and Aaron Blake, ‘All These People Have Compared Putin to Hitler’, Washington Post, 5 March 2014, hitler/?utm_term=.764188d526c2.

13 See the comments made to this effect by George Kennan, the architect of the US containment strategy during the Cold War, in Thomas L. Friedman, ‘Foreign Affairs: Now a Word from Mr X’, New York Times, 2 May 1998; and John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, Foreign Affairs, 20 August 2014.

14 See Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (New York: NYU Press, 2013); Uwe Halbach and Franziska Smolnik, ‘The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Light of the Crisis over Ukraine’, in Sabine Fischer (ed.), Not Frozen! The Unresolved Conflicts over Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Light of the Crisis over Ukraine (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2016), available at research_papers/2016RP09_fhs. pdf#page=63; and Urban Jaksa, ‘South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh Between a Contested Territory and a Small State’, Centre for Small State Studies, University of Iceland, 26 May 2015,

15 See the September 2009 report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and commissioned by the European Union, at; and C.J. Chivers and Ellen Barry, ‘Georgian Claims on Russia War Called into Question’, New York Times, 6 November 2008.

16 Putin himself made this point during a conversation with José Manuel Barroso. See Ian Traynor, ‘Putin Claims Russian Forces Could Capture Ukrainian Capital in Two Weeks’, Guardian, 2 September 2014.

17 Howard Amos, ‘Ukraine Clashes: Dozens Dead After Odessa Building Fire’, Guardian, 2 May 2014,

18 For details of the discussion within the Bush cabinet on whether to intervene militarily on the side of Georgia (an option rejected by all the principals), see Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 186–8.

19 See, for example, Julia Joffe, ‘Putin’s Press Conference Proved Merkel Right: He’s Lost His Mind’, New Republic, 4 March 2014; Peter D. Coleman, ‘Mad with Power?’, Huffington Post, 29 August 2014; Ian Traynor and Patrick Wintour, ‘Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin Has Lost the Plot, Says German Chancellor’, Guardian, 3 March 2014; and John Kampfner, ‘Putin: A Brilliant Strategist, a Cunning Tactician, or Mad?’, Telegraph, 7 February 2015.

20 See Anatol Lieven, ‘Face-off in Ukraine’, Prospect, 14 March 2014; and Anatol Lieven, Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 1999).

21 See Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘World Chaos and World Order: Conversations with Henry Kissinger’, Atlantic, 10 November 2016; Kissinger’s appear- ance on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’, 18 December 2016,; and Edward Luce, ‘We Are in a Very, Very Grave Period’, Financial Times, 20 July 2018.

22 Patrick J. Buchanan, ‘It’s Time to Get over Our Russophobia’, American Conservative, 9 March 2018, http://www.theamerican-

23 Vladimir Putin, ‘Russia: The Ethnicity Issue’, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 23 January 2012, available at

24 For what I regard as sensible and accurate analysis of the Russian administration’s international goals by academic members of the Russian establishment, see Fyodor Lukyanov, ‘Putin’s Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016,; Andrey Kortunov, ‘Russia’s Changing Relations with the West: Prospects for a Hybrid System’, Russia in Global Affairs, 22 January 2018, with-the-West-Prospects-for-a- New-Hybrid-System-19308; and Ivan Timofeev, ‘Theses on “Russia’s Foreign Policy and Global Positioning 2017–2024”’, Centre for Strategic Research (Moscow), June 2017,

25 See the statement of General Martin Dempsey to the US Congress as reported by Spencer Ackerman in the Guardian (‘US Military Intervention in Syria Would Create “Unintended Consequences”’, 22 July 2013, https:// jul/22/us-military-intervention-syria): ‘We have learned from the past 10 years … that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consider- ation of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.’ For warnings to this effect from within the intelligence community, see Seymour Hersh, ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’, London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 8, 17 April 2014; and John Nixon, ‘Saddam Hussein’s CIA Interrogator: He Should Have Been Left in Power’, Time, 16 December 2016,

26 See Jed Judson, ‘Funding to Deter Russia Reaches $6.5 Billion in FY19 Defense Budget Request’, Defense News, 12 February 2018, https://www. 65b-in-fy19-defense-budget-request/.

27 Michael T. Klare, ‘The Pentagon Is Planning a Three Front “Long War” Against Russia and China’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 4 April 2018, three-front-long-war-against-china- and-russia/.

28 Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane, ‘The Liberal Order Is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017, https:// world/2017-04-17/liberal-order-rigged.

29 George Beebe, The Russia Trap: How Our Gray War with Russia Could Escalate to Nuclear Armageddon (and How to Stop It), forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books.

30 See Patrick Tyler, ‘US Strategy Plan Calls for Ensuring No Rivals Develop’, New York Times, 8 March 1992.

31 Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

32 See James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011).

Ukraine: The way out

What is truly strange and terrible about the looming disaster in Ukraine is that all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing.

As the first heavy fighting began in eastern Ukraine in early May, with an attempt by Ukrainian forces to retake the town of Sloviansk, and as violent clashes spread elsewhere, including Odessa, in the country’s southwest, there has been a growing sense that a larger confrontation, one that could involve Russia and the West, may be unavoidable. Such a perception is a terrible mistake. There is nothing inevitable about the future course of the conflict. It is absolutely essential for Western governments to focus on what they can do to avoid war, preserve democracy, and keep Ukraine united.

What they cannot do is help the government in Kiev to win with military force in the east. The rebel forces that have taken control of cities of the Donbas, the largely Russian-speaking industrial and mining region in the east, appear well organized, have much local popular support, and are implicitly backed by the 40,000 Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border. It would take many months—probably many years—for Ukrainian forces to reach sufficient strength to retake the Donbas swiftly and relatively bloodlessly, or to defeat a Russian invasion of the east and south of the country. Moves to raise Ukrainian nationalist volunteer forces should be strongly discouraged by the West. The intervention of such groups would risk repeating what has just happened in Odessa, where dozens of people were killed in street battles on May 2. It would make a Russian invasion a certainty.

And the West itself will not fight for Ukraine. All the blowhard posturing of US and European government officials cannot hide this essential fact. In these circumstances, to give the unelected interim government in Kiev the idea that we support it with military backing is irresponsible, immoral, and contemptible. Did we really learn nothing from the experience of Georgia in 2008? For that matter, did we learn nothing on the playground at the age of six?

If Ukrainian forces continue their assault on rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine, then only three things can happen, separately or in sequence: they will be beaten back with the help of Russian weaponry, which has so far been used to shoot down three Ukrainian helicopters at Sloviansk; they will retake one or two towns, after which Russia will reinforce other towns with lightly disguised Russian special forces, making their capture much harder; and if Ukrainian forces resort to heavy weaponry to blast the rebels from their positions, Russia will invade. The only question then will be where the Russian army will stop: whether Moscow would be content to hold the Donbas, as it previously held South Ossetia and Abkhazia as quasi-independent statelets formally still part of Georgia, or whether it would go on to seize half of Ukraine.

What is truly strange and terrible about this looming disaster is that all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing: a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. This, not further separation, is what Moscow is proposing; and this is what the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, has publicly hinted at for the Donbas. Although the rebels in Donetsk and other eastern cities have declared the Donetsk Republic, many easterners, too, have indicated that they want some kind of federalization and not independence or annexation to Russia. As interviews published in The New York Times on May 4 make clear, even some rebel commanders themselves hope to keep Ukraine united.

It is extremely important to note that regional autonomy—accompanied by a threat of independence—is what the government of the western region of Lviv, controlled by Ukrainian nationalists, declared for itself back in February, when it seemed that President Viktor Yanukovych would remain in power and take Ukraine into the Russian-dominated Eurasian Union. If Lviv could demand this as insurance for its identity and interests when the national government was going in a direction it did not like, it is very hard to argue that Donetsk does not have the right to do the same. Nor is there any moral reason why the West cannot support federalization. The United States, Germany, Canada, and half a dozen other Western democracies are all federal states. Of course, we all know that a fundamental moral principle of Western foreign policy is that sauce for the goose can never under any circumstances be sauce for the gander—but to oppose a federal solution for Ukraine on such grounds is ridiculous.

Indeed, a constitutional solution to the crisis has already been supported by all sides—including Russia, the US, and Ukraine—in the Geneva Declaration of April 17, which called for Ukrainians from all parts of the country to disarm and take part in a national dialogue that would recognize regional interests. The problem with Geneva is that it did not set out an outline of the constitutional settlement—which will have to be agreed to in advance before the rebel militias in eastern Ukraine will put down their weapons. There is also of course profound disagreement on the process by which constitutional change should be introduced, and how much regional autonomy should be granted.

President Turchynov suggested a referendum on autonomy for the Donbas to accompany the new presidential election planned for May 25; but on May 6, the Kiev government announced that the referendum on autonomy would be delayed until after the presidential election, and there is a question whether the presidential election can take place on schedule, or before peace is restored. Nor, given the precedent in Lviv and the current protests elsewhere in Ukraine, can a case be made for a special status for the Donbas region alone. Far better to have an equal federation across the whole territory of Ukraine. (As for Crimea, we will have to content ourselves with formal statements to the effect that we regard Crimea as still legally part of Ukraine, while in practice making Crimea the subject of separate processes and talks—rather as with the northern Cyprus issue in the past. Unfortunately, if we make a peace process in Ukraine conditional on Russia giving up Crimea, there will be no peace process.)

National and regional elections under a constitution agreed to by all parties are the only way of giving ultimate power over their local affairs to the people of eastern Ukraine, and taking it away from the pro-Russian gunmen who have seized control of much of the region, and from the Russian government. By contrast, for Kiev to continue its military offensive may only empower the pro-Russian gunmen, the Ukrainian ultranationalist militias, the separatists—and Vladimir Putin.

Reality and the long experience offered by such conflicts show that agreement on a new federal constitution for the country as a whole must be reached first, and ratified by a national referendum. The rebel militias in eastern Ukraine and the camp of demonstrators on the Maidan in Kiev should both agree not to use force and not to disrupt such a solution—since clearly neither regional nor national democracy is possible if governments have to submit for approval to unelected crowds. Elections for the presidency, parliament, regional assemblies, and regional governorships can then be scheduled to take place simultaneously later in the year. Ideally, some kind of observer force would need to be put in place with backing from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to report on compliance by all sides.

Throughout this process, Ukrainian forces must continue to hold their positions at airfields and military bases in eastern Ukraine. This will prevent a repetition of the experience of Crimea, where Russia was able to disarm and expel Ukrainian forces. To do this, Russia would have to send in its own army to attack the Ukrainians—something that it is clearly unwilling to do, and that would of course bring all negotiations to an end. The continued presence of Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine will be a guarantee that under a new federal constitution, the region will remain a constituent part of Ukraine—without the appalling risks (indeed, the near certainty of defeat and complete secession) that stem from the Ukrainian army attacking the local militias in their urban strongholds.

Since the tragic killings in Odessa, it is no longer possible to deny that the Ukrainian crisis involves a serious threat from extreme nationalist groups as well as pro-Russian ones—and some of the extreme nationalists are sitting in the present interim government in Kiev. On the other hand, Russia undoubtedly has armed local allies in eastern Ukraine, which it has strengthened with some disguised Russian officers. But the masses of civilians who have blocked the path of Ukrainian troops in the Donbas show that the rebels also enjoy a very considerable measure of local support.

What all this reveals is something that should have been blindingly obvious ever since Ukraine became independent in 1991 and that is deeply rooted in Ukrainian history: Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction, without risking the breakup of the country itself. The huge demonstrations in Kiev this winter showed that Yanukovych’s and Moscow’s hope of taking Ukraine into the Eurasian Union was impossible, because many Ukrainians would literally give their lives to prevent it.

Now, events in the east and in Odessa make clear that a Ukrainian state that defines itself purely in pro-Western and anti-Russian terms is also out of the question, because a great many Ukrainians will not tolerate this either. In these circumstances, it is no good for one side to hope for absolute victory. When Russia tried for this with Yanukovych, the result was a fiasco, which among other things destroyed Russia’s influence over Ukraine as a whole. The West is now risking an even greater failure in the opposite direction.

Critics of federalization say that it would allow Russia to block Ukrainian moves toward NATO and the EU. What is surely apparent, however, is that Moscow and its allies in Ukraine have already done this. The goal of the West must be to get all the opposing forces in Ukraine off the streets and back within a legitimate democratic process that is recognized by a majority of Ukrainians, and that will allow the possibility of economic and political reforms by democratic means. Time is short. We saw again and again, in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and elsewhere in the 1990s, that once fighting begins, previously possible solutions quickly become impossible. This would be a tragedy—Ukraine does not need to be Yugoslavia or Georgia.

Contrary to what is said in much of the Western media, most of Russia’s allies in eastern Ukraine are not separatists. Rather, what many in the Donbas fear is that a government in Kiev—one that is either unelected or elected by a small majority, and that is under the sway of extreme nationalist demonstrators—will be able to decide their fate unilaterally. Thus they are deeply opposed to the interim government in Kiev, but many of them continue to envision being a part of a federal Ukraine in which they would have greater autonomy and recognition of regional rights and interests, rather than full independence. Until now, every opinion poll and election in the east has also suggested this.

But once a few hundred people have been killed, this reasonable position will quickly be destroyed. To return power to a reasonable majority, the international community must put forward the outline of a constitutional settlement on which a majority of Ukrainians can agree. It is hopeless to expect that the opposing sides themselves will be able to abide by a compromise proposal on their own, without outside help.

Germany, as the Western country with the greatest influence on Russia, will be crucial to any solution. The German government has indeed called strongly for a resumption of the Geneva talks with Russia, but it has also insisted that the presidential elections take place as scheduled on May 25. This is both impractical and hard to envisage diplomatically. Instead, Berlin should adopt a strategy that calls for national and regional elections under a new constitution, and puts forward a clear plan for democratic federalism, not as Russia’s plan, but as Germany’s, and in accordance with Western democratic values. The process of adopting this constitution could then take place under UN and OSCE auspices.

Such a proposal from such a source would, I believe, be very hard for Washington, Moscow, and Kiev to reject. By acting in this way, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier have the chance to go down in history as true statesmen, who compensated for some of the past disasters of German history by saving Europe from a terrible and unnecessary war.

New York Review of Books, June 14th 2014

Afghanistan: Risking a Collapse

Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a basing  agreement with the United States is putting at risk the  willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in  Afghanistan at all.

What on earth is Hamid Karzai up to? When I visited Afghanistan in October, most people with whom I spoke assumed that the Afghan president  would resist signing a long-term military basing agreement with the United  States until the Loya Jirga (grand national assembly) had approved it. At that  point, having burnished his credentials as an Afghan nationalist, it was thought that he would sign, since the Loya Jirga would give him cover and  since he must know that the entire future of his state and his own Pashtun  ethnic group probably depends on it. But now that the Loya Jirga has  approved the agreement, Karzai has instead announced he might not sign  until after the presidential election in April—thereby putting at risk the  willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan at all. 

For the agreement is only partly about a continued US military presence after  the withdrawal of ground troops next year. More important is a continuation  of promised US and Western aid. Already there is a strong desire among  Western politicians and populations to reduce that aid, citing both economic  hardship at home and the immense corruption of the Afghan state. In the  event of a complete withdrawal of Western forces it is likely that the  international community’s commitment to go on helping Afghanistan will  rapidly disappear. And if that happens, the Afghan state will collapse, just as  it did in early 1992 when Soviet subsidies stopped after the fall of the USSR. 

To be fair, the current situation is not entirely bleak. Security in the capital  has improved considerably, and at the moment there is no risk of the Taliban  storming into Kabul or even the cities of the East and South. But things will  only stand as they are as long as we go on paying for them to do so. US and  international aid now account for around nine-tenths of the Afghan national  budget, and fund virtually 100 percent of the budget of the Afghan National  Army and of state spending on economic development. In fact, things are  even worse than that: since the Afghan state is incapable of taxing income or  domestic sales, most of its revenue comes from tariffs on imports—foreign  goods that are above all drawn in by Western-funded spending. Absent this  help, the only option for the Afghan state will be to encourage the heroin  trade in order to at least support its troops. 

How can Karzai be so foolish as to risk such an outcome? In the first place,  he may not see how great the danger is. It has been reported that, like many  Afghans, Karzai is genuinely convinced that Afghanistan is so central to  American interests that the US government will never pull out, and that he  thinks he has immense bargaining power in Washington. This is a mistake  that has been made by the leaders of a whole series of US client regimes over the years, including most recently Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in  August 2008. 

Possibly more important, however, is that during the election in April, Karzai  will be playing a game for very high stakes. After two five-year terms, Karzai  is required to step down and is angling to have as much influence as he can  over the election result and the successor government that emerges from it. In  this game Washington will hold important cards, and Karzai may well  believe that he must counter this with every powerful card of his own that he  can possibly stuff up his sleeve. 

Whatever the West may believe, or pretend to believe, or try to insist, next  April’s election was never going to be decided mainly by popular vote. The  vote does matter, but so do other factors: rigging and manipulation, not only  by the Karzai government but by local powerbrokers across the country; and  backroom deals between Karzai and the leading candidates and their backers,  above all concerning the distribution of jobs and money (paid for out of  Western aid). 

The most important question about the election, touching on Afghanistan’s  long-term survival as a country, concerns the Pashtuns, the powerful ethnic  group to which Karzai belongs and from which the Taliban also draw most of  their support. At about 45 percent of the population according to most  estimates—most Pashtuns themselves believe they are in a large majority— the Pashtuns are the country’s largest ethnic group. But they must vie for  power with Tajiks, who make up another 30 percent or so, Hazaras, Uzbeks,  and other groups. Will the Pashtuns accept a non-Pashtun (or someone seen  as non-Pashtun) as president? And if not, how much rigging will be necessary  to ensure a Pashtun victory, and what will be necessary to reconcile the  losers? 

Strictly speaking, all the current presidential candidates are Pashtuns.  However, the one who seems at present to have the largest bloc of support— though in Afghanistan it is impossible to judge these things with any certainty—is former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the losing  candidate against Karzai in the 2009 elections, which were widely believed to  have been rigged in Karzai’s favor. Abdullah’s father was Pashtun, but his  mother was Tajik, and more importantly, Abdullah was a close follower of  the famous Panjshiri Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, assassinated by Al  Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. Few Pashtuns have forgotten the atrocities  committed by Masoud’s militias against Pashtuns during the civil wars of the  1990s and after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Abdullah has tried to  overcome this by choosing as his vice presidential running-mate a Pashtun  linked to the Hizb-e-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Masoud’s former  arch-enemy. 

However, I have found much disagreement in Afghanistan and among  Afghan experts about whether—as on a number of occasions in the past—the  spectacle of a non-Pashtun ruling in Kabul would lead to Pashtun outrage and  create a new wave of support for the Taliban just as US troops withdraw.  This question is particularly critical because Afghanistan was founded and  ruled for more than two hundred years by Pashtun dynasties, and the  Pashtuns have always seen themselves as the people of state. If they turn en  masse against any government in Kabul, there is little hope that it can  survive. 

If in the first round of elections no candidate wins more than 50 percent, there  is a good chance that all the Pashtun factions will come together to ensure the  victory of a Pashtun president in the second round. So Abdullah’s best chance  of victory is to win outright in the first round. But if Karzai becomes convinced that Abdullah could win outright in the first round and decides that  he simply cannot allow this (whether for his own sake or Afghanistan’s) then  he will need to rig the first round in favor of one or more of the Pashtun  candidates, and hope that he can offer enough jobs and money to Abdullah’s  leading followers to get them to accept—however grudgingly—the final  result. He will also of course have to offer a great deal to the different  Pashtun candidates to get them to unite behind whichever one gets through to  the second round.

A likely victor may be former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul, a Karzai  loyalist with little backing of his own who could probably be counted on as  president to defer to Karzai. Others are Karzai’s brother Qayyum, and former  reformist finance minister Ashraf Ghani, once considered a long shot but now  garnering significant support, partly thanks to his alliance with notorious  Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. 

All in all, then, the election is not going to be a pretty sight; and Karzai may  perhaps imagine that his signature on the basing agreement with the US could  be decisive in getting the Obama administration to ignore the less savory  aspects of the contest and accept the outcome that he desires. 

Now all this may seem unbearably cynical, and some readers may conclude  that the West would do better to withdraw completely and cut off aid rather  than continue to support such a corrupt state. For those that do, however, it is  worth reading A Fort of Nine Towers, the new memoir by the Afghan writer  Qaid Akbar Omar. This book recounts the experiences of the author’s family  during the civil war that followed the fall of the Communist regime in 1992,  and that in turn contributed to the rise of the Taliban. In these battles, the city  of Kabul—which had managed to survive the Mujahedin campaign against  the Soviets—was largely destroyed in battles between the different ethnic  factions into which the Mujahedin fragmented. So appalling are some of the  atrocities described in Omar’s book that they would scarcely be credible were  they not amply confirmed by other sources. 

In other words, the choice Afghanistan faces is not between some idealized  version of Western democracy and a corrupt Afghan state; it is between a  corrupt but more or less consensual Afghan state and the horrors of no state  at all. Nor should it ever be forgotten that the US and the West bear much of  the blame for what happened after 1992. Washington and its allies stuffed the  Mujahedin parties with arms and money, helped to block any chance of a  peace settlement between them and the Afghan government, and then lost  any pretense of interest in what happened to Afghanistan the moment the  Soviets withdrew.The guns we provided then helped the Mujahedin parties and their warlords  to slaughter each other and an uncounted number of ordinary Afghans. To  this were added of course the guns carried by the soldiers of the Afghan army  at the time, soldiers who also went to serve warlords and ethnic militias when  Soviet subsidies ran out and the army could no longer be paid. Today, we too  have created an Afghan state and army that cannot survive without our help,  and that will also disintegrate again into warlord anarchy if our help is  withdrawn. The West has a deep moral and historical responsibility to make  sure that this does not happen.

New York Review of Books December 3rd 2013

Afghanistan: The Way to Peace

A very strange idea has spread in the Western media concerning Afghanistan: that the US  military is withdrawing from the country next year, and that the present Afghan war has  therefore entered into an “endgame.” The use of these phrases reflects a degree of unconscious  wishful thinking that amounts to collective self-delusion. 

In fact, according a treaty signed by the United States and the Karzai administration, US military  bases, aircraft, special forces, and advisers will remain in Afghanistan at least until the treaty  expires in 2024. These US forces will be tasked with targeting remaining elements of al-Qaeda  and other international terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan; but equally  importantly, they will be there to prop up the existing Afghan state against overthrow by the  Taliban. The advisers will continue to train the Afghan security forces. So whatever happens in  Afghanistan after next year, the United States military will be in the middle of it—unless of  course it is forced to evacuate in a hurry. 

As to the use of the word “endgame,” this might be appropriate if next year, upon the departure  of US ground forces, the entire Afghan population, overcome with sorrow at the loss of their  beloved allies, rolls over and dies on the spot. The struggle for power in Afghanistan will not “end” and US policymakers should not, as in the past, hop away from a swamp they’ve done  much to create. 

Two major new books, together with a number of lesser works, are crucial to an understanding of  Afghanistan, the flaws of the Western project there, the enemies that we are facing, and therefore  of possible future policies. Barnett Rubin, senior adviser to the US special representative for  Pakistan and Afghanistan in the first Obama term, has been consistently among the wisest and  most sensible of US expert voices on Afghanistan. His book Afghanistan from the Cold War  Through the War on Terror is a compilation of his essays and briefing papers over the years,  framed by passages looking back at the sweep of Afghan history and the US involvement there  since 1979. 

He has edited and introduces Talibanistan, a frequently brilliant collection of essays by different  experts on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including an analysis of the extent to which  their past links with al-Qaeda represent an enduring threat to the West, and of how far a peace  settlement with them may be possible. Rubin’s and Bergen’s works should be read in  conjunction with a fascinatingly detailed new book by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler on the  Haqqani network, the insurgent group led by Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, which  operates on both sides of the Afghan–Pakistani border. Its title, Fountainhead of Jihad, is the  name of a magazine published by the Haqqanis. 

Brown and Rassler bring out the deep roots of the Haqqanis in the history and culture of this  region, on both sides of the Durand Line, which was drawn up in 1893 by the British to mark the  border between India (later Pakistan) and Afghanistan. As far as the locals are concerned it has  always been largely theoretical. In the words of Jalaluddin Haqqani himself, “Our tribes are  settled on both sides of the Durand line since ages. Our houses are divided on both sides of the  border. Both sides are my home.” Brown and Rassler point out that from this point of view, all  the US invasion of 2001 managed to do was “force this [Haqqani] nexus a few dozen kilometers  east.” 

The authors situate the identity and policies of the Haqqanis with respect to three powerful local  traditions: first comes an ancient fight for local tribal autonomy against attempts to impose  outside state power. This led the Haqqanis in 1999 and 2000 to clash with Taliban attempts to  impose their own version of centralized Afghan rule. Next is a history of revolt in the name of  Islam, orchestrated by local religious figures. Finally, there is the region’s long-standing role (in  the phrase of the anthropologist James C. Scott) as the location for “shatter zones,” remote,  usually mountainous areas that have not been fully penetrated and controlled by states, and that  serve as refuges for a variety of fugitives and outlaws from elsewhere, who often create in these  regions their own new communities. The refuge given to al-Qaeda can be seen as part of this  tradition, as well as reflecting ideological affinities and material benefits.

Brown and Rassler see the very close relationship between the Haqqanis and Pakistani military  intelligence, dating back to the 1990s, not as the Haqqanis acting as Pakistani agents, but rather  as a pragmatic alliance with practical benefits for both sides. The Haqqanis get immunity from Pakistani attack and a measure of indirect technical and expert help. The Pakistanis gain a source  of influence within Afghanistan and, equally importantly, in their struggle to contain their own  Pashtun Islamist rebellion. The authors leave open the question of how the Haqqanis would  respond to Pakistani pressure to enter into an Afghan peace settlement. Their first concern no  doubt would be to preserve their own continued dominance in their own region. 

Abasic question raised by these books is what the Afghan experience of the past decade can tell  us about the United States and its Western allies when they “go abroad in search of monsters to  destroy.” Some lessons were taught by the Vietnam War, but then largely forgotten—mainly it  seems because they were too offensive to America’s self-image. During the US debate—to give it that name—that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was appalled by the extent to which  the Vietnam experience had been forgotten: not so much lessons about the nature of guerrilla war  and its horrors as about the United States itself. 

These include the dangers of demonizing the enemy of the moment, on the basis of a belief that  any enemy of the United States must inevitably be evil. Not only does this tendency make  pragmatic compromises with opponents much more difficult (and much more embarrassing  should they eventually have to be reached), but, consciously or unconsciously, it allows the US  government and media to blind the US public, and often themselves, to the evils of America’s  own allies. 

The US did this again and again during the cold war. In Afghanistan it has done it twice: first in  its blind backing of the often murderous and fanatical Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s against  the Soviet occupiers and their Communist allies; then, since September 11, against the Taliban— most of whose Pashtun footsoldiers are descendants of the same ordinary farmers who once  filled the ranks of the Mujahideen, and who are now fighting for the same reasons of religious  orthodoxy and hostility to outsiders. This is certainly not to say that either the Vietnamese  Communists or the Taliban were or are desirable forces in themselves—just that they represent  strong elements in their own societies, and from the point of view of many Vietnamese and  Afghans, they are no worse than the forces that we support. Rubin, for example, is as aware of  the grim treatment of women by the Taliban as anyone else; but he and some of Bergen’s  contributors also find many American allies capable of widespread abuses. 

The catastrophic difficulties that the Western intervention has faced in Afghanistan have been  principally due to the realities of Aghanistan itself; but they have been made far worse by a  series of policy mistakes, and the deeper features of Western government and society that they  reflect. These began with specific and disastrous decisions by the Bush administration, which are  mercilessly dissected by Rubin. The first, from which many of the others stemmed, was also in some ways the most forgivable. This was the decision in the days immediately following  September 11 to give the Taliban the shortest of deadlines to hand the old al-Qaeda leadership  over to the United States. The haste of the American response was understandable in view of the  mood in the US following September 11. The result, however, was to make the US war effort  disastrously dependent on warlords from the surviving anti-Taliban opposition, since they had  the only armed forces on the ground. 

According to Rubin, the hundreds of millions of dollars handed out by US officials to these  figures went, among other things, to finance the restoration of the heroin trade, which the Taliban  (for their own reasons) had temporarily suppressed. Afghanistan is now the largest producer of  opium in the world, and the Taliban forces are deeply involved in its production. The results of  this have not been much felt in the US, where heroin is a relatively minor problem—but they are  all too apparent in Europe, Russia, and Iran. 

These warlords not only were and remain dreadfully flawed figures in themselves but were  detested by much of the Pashtun population in particular. This applies in the first instance to  most—not all—of the warlords from non-Pashtun ethnic groups, grouped in the so-called  “Northern Alliance,” who fought first against the Pashtun Mujahideen of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar  and then against the mainly Pashtun Taliban in the 1990s. But equally detested were the Pashtun  Mujahideen warlords such as Gul Agha Sherzai, who dominated the south and east of  Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist government in 1992. It was indeed to get rid of both  these groups of forces that so many Pashtuns (and some others) had helped the Taliban to power  in the first place. Rubin notes that a Western tendency to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed  by anti-Taliban warlords against the Taliban predates September 11, and began with the UN’s  indifference to such cases in the 1990s. 

As described by Rubin and several of the writers in Bergen’s collection, the return of the Taliban  in southern and eastern Afghanistan can be largely explained by the way in which the United  States restored these warlords to local power, and then not merely allowed but in many cases  actively helped them to eliminate local rivals. In a great many cases, this involved the  persecution or even assassination of Taliban figures who had already expressed their desire to  reconcile with the Karzai administration. One such former Taliban commander in Zabul province  was Hajji Pay Mohammed, who was killed by the new local authorities after he had already  agreed to lay down his arms. His body and those of his men were then publicly displayed for  several days rather than being given to their families to be buried—an appalling breach of the  Pashtun code. 

In his chapter in Talibanistan, Anand Gopal writes that many Taliban did not take up arms simply as an exercise of the principle of jihad or  expulsion of foreigners…, but rather because it was the only viable alternative for  individuals and groups left without a place in the new state of affairs. 

Gopal describes the case of Hajji Burget Khan in the Kandahari district of Maiwand, some 350  miles southwest of Kabul. He was an elderly and respected local figure who had no personal  links to the Taliban. US forces raided his house in 2002, killing him and leaving his son a  paraplegic—an incident that was crucial in persuading local people to rejoin the Taliban.  According to Gopal, “The most likely explanation [for the murder] is that the commanders with  whom US forces had allied had seen Khan as a rival.” 

Ihad a taste of this during a visit of my own to Afghanistan in early 2002, soon after the fall of  the Taliban. During my trip, I met a lesser warlord known to the population of south Kabul as the  “wolf man,” because he supposedly interrogated prisoners with the help of a pet wolf, to whom  he then fed their remains. The truth more likely is that the wolf was a large dog and that the wolf  man was employing some of the tactics later used by US interrogators at Abu Ghraib. But whatever the truth, he was not liked by local people, and the fact that the new authorities  supported by the US had made him a local police chief did not increase public approval of them  or their US backers. Resentment at the United States and its allies has grown so strong that on  February 24, the Afghan government announced that it would bar American Special Operations  forces from working in the strategically important province of Maidan Wardak, which lies just  southwest of Kabul and frequently serves as a base for Taliban fighters attacking the capital.  Afghans employed by the US military were said to have tortured and killed civilians there. 

During the same trip, I met another warlord in Ghazni province who named for me a list of local  former Taliban figures who he said had only pretended to accept the rule of Karzai. Mistaking  me for a CIA officer, he offered to bring me their heads “packed in salt” in return for $100,000.  A number of US officials, it seems, did not decline similar offers. Unfortunately, as I found again  and again in Washington during those years, any attempt to urge reconciliation with parts of the  Taliban was liable to be brushed away with some variant of the phrases “We don’t negotiate with  evil” and “We don’t talk to terrorists.” 

This reliance on hideously flawed local allies also, however, reflected two other disastrous  features of the Bush administration: Donald Rumsfeld’s belief that wars could be won, and their  gains secured, with very limited US forces that thereafter would maintain a “light footprint” in  the countries conquered; and the decision—made, it would seem, immediately after the Taliban  were overthrown—to attack Iraq. This meant that in the spring of 2002, before the US had even  succeeded in driving many al-Qaeda elements from Afghanistan, US troops were already being  withdrawn from there to retrain for the invasion of Iraq. At almost every stage thereafter, US  ground troops were inadequate to the tasks facing them, and every subsequent increase in US and  allied troops was an inadequate reaction to gains made by the Taliban.

Even these errors would not have been so bad had they not been combined with a second project  that was utterly incompatible with the “light footprint” strategy. This was the plan to develop  Afghanistan as an effective, centralized, modern, liberal, and democratic state. Given the nature  of Afghan society and the almost complete collapse of Afghan state institutions, such a project  could only have had the remotest chance of success if the West had been prepared to deploy  large forces and enormous amounts of money and attention over a period of generations. 

The decision to try to create a modern Afghan democracy revealed in part the fundamental flaw  in Rumsfeld’s thinking that should be remembered before the US again launches a war to  overthrow a regime: namely that, in Colin Powell’s words, if “you break it, you own it.” Having  overthrown the Taliban rulers by December 2001, some form of government had to be put in  their place. The vast extent of the Western project in Afghanistan was also, however, a result of  the Bush administration’s adoption of the “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East, largely to help  justify the Iraq war. As in Afghanistan, the nonmilitary resources that the US was prepared to  expend on this agenda were abysmally inadequate to realize its immense ambitions. 

Europe bears its own share of the blame for this mismatch. On the one hand, the European Union  and America’s NATO allies were pathetically anxious to demonstrate their importance to  Washington by “nation-building” in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Europeans’ real  commitment was even weaker than that of Americans. I remember in 2002 listening to a German  official talking about how by 2006 Afghanistan would have had presidential and parliamentary  elections, established a stable democracy, “and we can leave.” When I objected that nothing  serious could possibly be achieved in such a time, the response was “Yes, but we have to tell the  German voters that we are out of there quickly or they will reject the whole mission.”

Having inherited this mess, and having so far failed to resolve it either through victory or  negotiation, how should the Obama administration proceed as it begins its second term? The first  work that US officials should read in this regard is the last chapter in Talibanistan, the Afghan expert Thomas Ruttig’s essay “Negotiations with the Taliban”—a model of lucid analysis. As  Ruttig writes, central to the problem is the number of forces and persons involved. A short and  by no means exhaustive list of these includes, on the anti-Taliban side: the US government and  military (which of course have their own serious differences); the Karzai presidency and clan, and their immediate allies; non-Pashtun warlords and other leaders opposed to the Taliban; and  Westernized Afghan officials and NGO figures in Kabul. 

Among the armed opposition, the list includes the Taliban under Mullah Omar (which also has  potentially serious internal divisions); the Haqqani network; the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin  Hekmatyar; the remnants of al-Qaeda in the region; the Pakistani Taliban; and anti-Indian  terrorist groups based in Pakistan, some now in rebellion against the Pakistani state, others still  allied to it. Then there are the other nations involved: Pakistan, and above all the Pakistani  military and military intelligence service, India, Iran, China, and Russia. 

Each of these distrusts all the others, including, not least, their own ostensible allies. By the same  token, all fear any peace negotiations in which they are not included. Thus Karzai wishes to  pursue talks with some Taliban leaders (though, as seems likely, to try to split the Taliban rather  than to make a deal with the organization as a whole). But he detests talks between the US  administration and the Taliban. Most of these actors are themselves internally divided. All have  the capacity to damage peace negotiations, and most can destroy hopes for peace altogether if  they choose. 

I strongly support the argument of Thomas Ruttig that the first essential step for a US  administration is to commit itself fully to a political solution, and not—as has too often been the  case up to now—try to use talks to split and weaken the Taliban rather than reach agreement  with the organization as a whole. Only a genuine commitment along these lines will allow  Washington to play the part of an honest broker between all the forces I have outlined above. In  Ruttig’s words: 

Instead of the current double strategy of “shooting and talking” at the same time, it  [the United States] should concentrate on “talking instead of shooting.” This means  turning the tanker round, not steering it a bit more to the east or west. It would  redefine the current understanding of “position of strength” away from strictly  military terms to political and moral terms. In this framework, military means would  be used only for self-defense (which includes defending Afghan institutions and their  officials)…. Such a shift in the military approach would also significantly remove a  major recruitment factor for the insurgents: civilian casualties. 

The commitment then should be first and foremost to Afghan peace. This also serves the vital  interests of the United States and its Western allies. For as long as the conflict continues, al-Qaeda will continue to have opportunities to make itself useful to the Taliban and the Haqqani  network; and all the different armed actors involved will need to go on taxing the heroin trade in  order to support their armed forces. 

A peace settlement would also be a considerable boost to America’s image in the Muslim world;  and perhaps most important of all, would allow for a reduction of the dangerous level of tension  between the United States and Pakistan, which is a major source of radicalization in Pakistan and therefore of terrorist threat to the US and its allies—especially those like Britain that contain  large Pakistani minorities. 

Certain indications from the Taliban side are encouraging. In July 2012, I was part of an  academic group that held conversations in the Persian Gulf with leading figures close to the  Taliban. 

They told us that there is a widespread recognition within the Taliban that while they can  maintain a struggle in the south and east of Afghanistan indefinitely, they will not be able to  conquer the whole country in the face of the Afghan and international forces arrayed against  them. 

The crucial reason for this belief is that in their own estimate the Taliban have the support of  only around 30 percent of the Afghan population. This is in accordance with a recent opinion  survey by the Asia Foundation, and seems plausible, since it would represent around two thirds of the Pashtuns. We were told  that the Taliban therefore recognize the need for compromise with other groups in Afghanistan  (which I took to mean groups representing other nationalities such as the Tajiks). However, they categorically ruled out any deal with the Karzai government, and insisted that  there would have to be a national debate including the Taliban on a new constitution—though,  interestingly enough, they also said that the constitution that emerged would probably not be  very different from the existing one. They said that there can be no return to a pure “government  of mullahs” as before September 11 and that any Afghan government would have to include  technocrats, and allow modern education (albeit with women and men strictly separated). It is  possible that this view reflects a growing awareness of Afghanistan’s mineral and energy wealth,  and the need for a technocratic elite capable of exploiting it. 

Finally, and most strikingly, they said that the Taliban might be prepared to agree to US bases  remaining until 2024. This seems to reflect the greatest fear of the Taliban, and many other  Afghans, that the country will fragment into different ethnic warlord fiefdoms backed by  different regional powers like Russia and India, as occurred in the early and mid-1990s. Even a  prolonged US presence, it seems, may possibly be acceptable if it helps prevent the Afghan  National Army from disintegrating along these lines.

All of the figures with whom we spoke said that breaking with al-Qaeda would not be a problem  for the Taliban—as long as this was part of a settlement, and not a precondition for talks. They  reminded us that the Taliban leaders have repeatedly distanced themselves from international  terrorism, and said that ordinary Taliban fighters also see al-Qaeda as non-Afghans who brought  disaster on Afghanistan. 

The people we talked to became highly evasive, however, when asked whether the Haqqani  network would be willing to accept the views they had put forward. Brown and Rassler’s book  also gives no definitive answer to this question. However, reading the evidence they present, and  drawing upon the historical record of the tribes from whom the Haqqani forces are drawn, my  own provisional conclusion would be the following: the Haqqanis will support any settlement  that is acceptable to Mullah Omar and to the Pakistani military, and that leaves the Haqqanis in  de facto control of their own region on the Pakistan frontier; as part of this they would be  prepared to exclude any significant presence of al-Qaeda from that region. But on the other hand,  nothing on earth will prevent this region from remaining a haven for smaller groups of assorted  outlaws, since this has been the case for many hundreds of years. 

The first thing that the Obama administration needs to decide, therefore, is whether it really  wants Afghan presidential elections under the existing constitution to go ahead next year, in view  of the immense twofold risk involved. First, such an election will make a peace agreement with  the Taliban impossible in the short to medium term. Second, repetition of the widespread rigging  of the vote of 2009 will render the result illegitimate as far as most Afghans are concerned,  plunging the country into a deep political crisis just as US ground troops withdraw. 

The alternative would be for the US to acknowledge the deep flaws in the existing constitution  (which in truth was imposed on Afghanistan from outside), and to declare that it supports the  idea of a new constitutional assembly. This would also help open the way to genuine peace talks  with the Taliban. If the Obama administration cannot summon the nerve to take such a step, it  will have to decide who it thinks would be the best candidate to be the next Afghan president. 

The one thing the Obama administration cannot honorably and realistically do is to walk away  from all this with the declaration that it is “a matter for the Afghans themselves.” This might  sound modest and democratic, but it would in fact be an abdication of responsibility for an  Afghan mess that is to a considerable extent of America’s own making; and responsibility to the  American soldiers—the troop trainers and advisers and others—and officials who will be left in  the middle of this mess after US ground troops withdraw next year.

New York Review of Books April 4h 2013

Military Exceptionalism in Pakistan

Since Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, the country’s military has  governed the country outright three times and exerted a strong political  influence even when not in power. Pakistan’s tradition of military dominance stems above all from the fact that the Pakistani military is the only  institution that works more or less as it is meant to, as measured against  the generally accepted standards of a modern state institution.

This creates  the belief among some sections of Pakistan’s population that the efficiency  displayed by the military within its own sphere can be extended via military  government to the working of the state as a whole. This belief, however, is  a mistake. Each time the military takes over the entire Pakistani system, it  soon finds that the state is so weak that it has no choice but to work through  the same old local elites, using the familiar methods of patronage, corruption and exploitation of kinship ties. 

Within its own sphere, the military is undeniably impressive. One reason  for this is that the military is the only state institution that truly embodies a  modern (and potentially modernising) ideology, that of Pakistani national ism. Another, closely related reason has to do with the ancient question of  how a society that is ethnically divided and structured around kinship loyalties and rivalries can generate an army that will not itself be riven by these  divisions, and therefore be rendered useless or, worse, become a source of  endless civil wars. 

The Mameluk imperative

From its first years, the Pakistani high command has been haunted by the  fear that the factionalism of Pakistani politics would spread to the military,  dividing it along ethnic, political, personal or clan lines. Hence the categori cal resistance of the military to any involvement of elected prime ministers  in the military-promotion process, the threat of which has several times led  to military coups or the threat of them. In the words of a senior officer of  Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with  whom I spoke in 2009,

Under the British, the military was kept in cantonments very separate from  society. That was a good model, because in Pakistan, there is a permanent  threat of politicisation and corruption of the military. We fear this very  deeply and try to keep ourselves separate … We have a great fear of the  politicians interfering in military promotions and appointments. This  could split the Army and if you split the Army you destroy the country.  Look at what happened under Nawaz Sharif’s last government. Karamat  [General Jehangir Karamat, then chief of army staff] accepted a lot from  Nawaz, but in the end the Army couldn’t take any more. Whenever a  civilian government starts trying to interfere in this sector, we have to act  in self defence.1

In both past and present autocracies, one way of preserving the unity  of the military has been to restrict membership in the armed forces to the  monarch’s own tribe. This approach is still alive in the Middle East, as seen  in the efforts of the late Saddam Hussein to create an army composed only  of Tikritis, of the Assad dynasty in Syria to establish an all-Alawite army  (Alawites are a religious sect but with many of the characteristics of a tribe),  and of Colonel Muammar Gadhafi to similarly favour his own tribe in Libya. 

This strategy has two massive drawbacks. Firstly, it creates an army that  may be useful for internal repression but which will be too small to engage  in wars of conquest or national defence against a powerful enemy. Secondly,  the monopolisation of the military by one tribe is likely to cause such resentment among the other tribes that they eventually unite in revolt against it.

The simplest solution to the unity dilemma is to recruit only eunuchs as  state servants, as these cannot form kinship groups and loyalties. A wide  range of states have resorted to this solution, but for some reason (despite  the glorious record of the Byzantine eunuch General Narses), this is not an  approach that has ever caught on among militaries. 

Instead, faced with the twin challenges of excluding kinship divisions  from the army and guaranteeing its loyalty to the sovereign, Muslim rulers  of the Middle Ages and the early modern period resorted to a solution  which was at once successful and disastrous: the recruitment of soldiers  from outside the dominant society. In the Middle East and South Asia,  Muslim rulers recruited Turkic troops from among prisoners of war. These  troops were called Mameluks, from the Arabic word for ‘owned’ (hence the  name often given to the Mameluk dynasty of Delhi from 1206 to 1290 CE,  the ‘Slave Kings’).  

In their first centuries, the Mameluks were extremely successful mili tarily, defeating the Crusaders and beating back the Mongols. At the same  time, however, they also overthrew their Arab sovereigns and took state  power for themselves. Perhaps with this history in mind, the Ottoman  Turkish sultans adopted a different approach, conscripting (and converting  to Islam) boys from the Christian minorities of the empire, who by defini tion could have no kinship links to the Turkish tribes. These were known  as the Janissaries, from the Turkish for ‘new soldiers’, yeniceri. Given their  backgrounds, the Janissaries could not seize supreme power, but they did  become such a powerful and obstructive force within the state that in 1826  a reforming sultan, Mahmud II, felt compelled to disband and massacre  them.2 

Pakistani soldiers do not serve a hereditary autocrat, and are neither  Mameluks nor Janissaries. However, they do owe their unity, discipline and  effectiveness largely to the fact that they are at least partly separate from  society and therefore independent of the kinship loyalties that dominate  the Pakistani political system, and which are bound up with the extraction  of patronage that so cripples and corrupts the rest of the Pakistani state.  Consequently, the military functions to a great extent as a modern meritoc racy, and internally is remarkably free of corruption, at least as compared with the civil service, the police and the judiciary, let alone the elected poli ticians. While electoral politics are dominated by a mixture of wealth, birth  and kinship links, in the army, as an officer told me,

You rise on merit – well, mostly – not by inheritance, and you salute  the military rank and not the sardar [tribal chieftain] or pir [hereditary  religious leader] who has inherited his position from his father, or the  businessman’s money. These days, many of the generals are the sons of  clerks and shopkeepers, or if they are from military families, they are the  sons of havildars [non-commissioned officers]. It doesn’t matter. The point  is that they are generals.3 

Indeed, at the time of writing, Pakistan’s chief of army staff was General Ashfaq  Kayani, the son of an non-commissioned officer from a peasant family, while  the heads of the main political parties and factions (with the exception of the  Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and the purely urban Muttahida Qaumi Movement  in Karachi) were all hereditary landowners or hereditary industrialists.

Kinship, politics and patronage

Kinship is central to the weakness of the Pakistani state not just because of  the way it is entwined with the plundering of state resources for political  patronage, but more fundamentally because, in much of the Pakistani coun tryside (and still more in neighbouring Afghanistan), true sovereignty – in  the sense of primary collective loyalty and the enforcement of collective cus tomary law, and even the provision of effective security forces at the local  level – resides in the kinship group rather than the state. Thus, Pakistan is in  some respects at an earlier stage of state formation than the Western states  on which its institutions are formally modelled. 

In addition to the competing demands of kinship loyalty, the Pakistani  state suffers from rivalry between two more sets of alternative loyalties. The  first, a modern loyalty, is to ethnicity, leading at its weakest to a deep-seated  unwillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of Pakistan, and at its strongest  to outright demands for secession, as have already been made by Pashtuns,  Sindhis and Baloch. The second, a much older loyalty, is to forms of religious belief and allegiance which are in conflict with the demands of the state, a  phenomenon going back to the very first decades of Islam. This has led to  the current rebellion by various Islamist groups against the Pakistani state. 

The strength of kinship ties, which can vary considerably depending  on the circumstances and degree of kinship, is rooted in a sense of collec tive solidarity directed at the defence and promotion of kin-based interests.  These interests do not just involve the pursuit of concrete advantage, but  are also inextricably bound up with powerful feelings of collective honour  or prestige (izzat) and shame; and indeed, a kinship group which is seen  as dishonoured will find that its interests decline in every other way. This  sense of collective honour is reflected most dramatically in the prevention or  punishment of any illicit sexual behaviour by the kinship group’s women,  but is also seen in efforts to advance the political and economic power and  public status of the group.  

As Alison Shaw and others have noted, the immense strength and flex ibility of the kinship system in Pakistan (and in most of India too) are shown  by the way in which it has survived more than half a century of transplanta tion to the very different climes of Britain. Shaw writes that

families [of Pakistani origin] in Oxford are … best seen as outposts  of families in Pakistan whose members have been dispersed by labour  migration … [In Britain] a distinctive pattern of living near close kin  has emerged, echoing that of earlier migrations within the Indian  subcontinent.4 

The need to defend the honour and interests of the kinship group usually  outweighs loyalty to a party, to the state or to any code of professional ethics,  not only for ordinary Pakistanis, but for most politicians and officials. Thus,  Pakistani corruption is not the result of a lack of values (as it is usually seen  in the West) but of the positive and ancient value of loyalty to family and  clan.  

Since the kinship group is the most important force in society, the power  of kinship is inevitably reflected in the political system. As in much of the  rest of South Asia, a majority of Pakistan’s political parties are dynastic. The Pakistan People’s Party, for example, is the party of the Bhutto family; the  Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz is controlled by the Sharif family; and the  Awami National Party is the party of the Wali Khan family. 

The local political groupings that serve as the building blocks of these  parties are themselves based on local dynasties. With the exception of the  Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the religious parties, all of Pakistan’s  political parties are controlled by landlords, clan chieftains and urban bosses  seeking state patronage for themselves and their followers and vowing  allegiance to particular dynasties. Most of these individuals inherited their  positions from their fathers or (more rarely) other relatives. In cases where  new individuals gain political power, they invariably found political dynas ties of their own, and seek to pass on their power, influence and followers to  their own sons (or occasionally their daughters). 

Indeed, the most powerful remaining ‘feudals’ in Pakistan owe their  power not to the extent of their personal landholdings but to the fact that  they are the chiefs of large tribes. This type of authority extends to the lesser  gentry as well. The way in which individual landowners are embedded  in landowning clans (such as the Gujjars of Attock, the subject of a classic  study by Stephen Lyon) gives them tremendous strength and resilience, and  allows them to go on controlling the politics of the countryside, and indeed  of the country as a whole.5 

If the political power of the kinship group in Pakistan depended only  on the distribution of patronage, this power might well have declined over  time, given that patronage will always be limited. However, it is also rooted  in the oldest of social compulsions: collective defence. As one landowner politician in Sindh told me,

This is a hard country. You need family or tribal links to protect you,  so that there are people who will stick with you and sacrifice for you  whatever happens. That way you will not be abandoned even when out  of government. The tribal people gives even ordinary tribesmen some  strength and protection against attack, whether by dacoits [bandits], the  police, the courts – your tribesmen will get you out of jail, lie for you to the  court, avenge you if necessary.6

Since the days of British occupation, outside the Baloch and Pathan areas  collective defence has rarely been a matter of the whole clan taking up arms  against a rival clan. Rather, in a violent society in which none of the institutions of the state can be relied upon to act in accordance with their formal  rules, close relations with kinfolk are essential for securing help against  rivals, against the predatory and violent police, in the courts, in politics, and  in the extraction of political patronage, all areas of activity which overlap  and depend on each other.  

The weakness of the state, combined with the power of kinship, is an  important reason why urbanisation has had a much smaller impact on political patterns and structures than one might otherwise have expected. Rather  than driving the emergence of a new urban population, the huge influx of  peasants into the cities has instead caused the reproduction of rural cultural patterns in urban areas. The peasants remain deeply attached to their  kinship groups, which are still needed for many of the same reasons as they  are in the countryside. Underlying all this is the fact that a large proportion  of the urban population remains semi- or informally employed, rather than  moving into modern sectors of the economy, largely because such sectors  usually do not exist.  

Of course, while the power of kinship is necessary to defend against the  predatory state, it is also one of the key factors making the state predatory,  as kinship groups use the state to achieve their goals of attaining power,  wealth and dominance over other kinship groups. As Muhammad Azam  Chaudhary put it,

Below the level of the High Courts all is corruption. Neither the  facts nor the law in the case have real bearing on the outcome. It all  depends on who you know, who has influence and where you put  your money.7

In addition, the power of Pakistan’s elites, rooted in the leadership of local  kinship groups and in control over local sources of wealth, also allows them  successfully to resist paying taxes, thereby undermining the state’s ability to  invest in essential infrastructure and services.

The roots of military exceptionalism

The virtues of the Pakistani military as compared to the rest of Pakistani  society are due to four factors, which can be summed up as isolation,  recruitment, money and morale. Several of these features originated in  the British Indian Army from which the Pakistani Army is derived and on  whose structures it is still largely based. Following the Indian mutiny of  1857, the British were perennially anxious about the loyalty of their Indian  soldiers. In response to these fears they adopted a range of strategies, which  included isolating the soldiers as far as possible from Indian society as a  whole, recruiting them from a very limited number of areas and ethnic  groups, and extending the considerable rewards of military service not just  to soldiers but to soldiers’ families as well.  

The mutiny in 1857 of most of the soldiers from the traditional British  recruiting grounds of Bihar and Awadh left the British unwilling to trust  soldiers from these regions again. By contrast, Muslim and Sikh soldiers  from the recently conquered Punjab mostly remained ‘true to their salt’. In  the case of Muslims, this was partly because the British had delivered them  from the hated rule of the Sikhs. To this was added British racial prejudice,  which saw the tall, fair-skinned Punjabis and Pathans as ‘martial races’,  superior in military terms to the smaller and darker peoples of the rest of  India – a prejudice that is shared by the Punjabis themselves, Pakistani and  Indian alike.  

By the 1920s, Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and  Nepal (home of the Gurkhas) were providing some 84% of the soldiers of  the British Indian Army. Punjabi Muslims alone accounted for almost 30%  of soldiers in the lead-up to the Second World War. These were recruited  chiefly from the Potwar (Potohar) area of northwestern Punjab adjoining the NWFP, where the chief British military headquarters and depot at  Rawalpindi were located. The Jat, Rajput, Awan, Gakkhar and Gujjar tribes  of this region, together with Pashtuns from a few neighbouring districts of  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) continue to provide a majority (though a diminishing one) of Pakistani soldiers  today.8 Thus, more than 80% of the rank and file of the Pakistani army (and  even more of the infantry and armoured forces) is drawn from less than 15% of Pakistan’s population. This has regularly allowed the army to be used to  suppress rebellions or disturbances in Sindh, Balochistan and even some  Pashtun areas (though this has caused severe problems of morale in the mil itary). Whenever unrest has spread to northern Punjab, the high command  has become anxious concerning the loyalty of its troops. 

The British also sought to consolidate the loyalty of their troops through  pay and benefits far above those available in the villages from which they  came. This practice has endured and today the Pakistani armed forces offer  both high pay and services that measure up to world standards. In addition, these services are offered not just to active soldiers and their immediate  families, but also to retired soldiers and to soldiers’ parents. The effect has  been to make military service very attractive for many ordinary Pakistanis,  and to ensure a high standard of volunteer. It has also meant that the armed  forces are less susceptible to corruption, as a journalist in the Sindhi town of  Larkana explained:

One friend of mine, a colonel in the army, is about to retire. He has been  allocated a plot of land in Islamabad, which he can either build a house on  or sell for a big profit, and there is also a job in the Fauji Foundation. So  he doesn’t need to steal. Another friend, an SSP (Senior Superintendent of  Police), will also retire soon, and he will have nothing but his miserable  pension to live on, so he has to secure his retirement through corruption.9

Equally, the superintendent of police will need to maintain all his kinship  links and loyalties so as to gain political cover and protection for his corrupt  activities. In return, he will have to offer the protection and help of the police  to his kinsmen in their disputes with other kinship groups. 

Benefits to servicemen are therefore of immense importance in maintain ing discipline and obedience to the high command, even when this conflicts  with the soldiers’ own feelings on specific issues. This has been of immense  importance in the context of Pakistan’s assistance to the United States in  Afghanistan and of its actions (at least until 2009) against militants within  Pakistan itself, activities that have been very unpopular with many soldiers  and the communities from which they are drawn.

To maintain the military’s benefit scheme and to ensure that it is not  plundered requires both a strong sense of collective solidarity, with the  dedication and honesty that this creates, and a great deal of money. Neither  element can exist without the other. The Pakistani military has been able  to maintain its relative immunity to the demands of kinship ties and the  imperatives of corruption in large part because, since 1947, it has been able  to direct a huge share of the resources of the Pakistani state to its own ends. 

Of course, military benefits, and the very large share of the overall  state budget they require, have proven unpopular among other sections  of Pakistani society. Two types of benefit have been especially criticised.  The first is the grant to the military of huge urban landholdings, plots of  which are then sold to officers on easy terms in order to help them prepare  for retirement, a practice with roots in the British system of providing land  grants to Indian soldiers, and beyond that to the Mughals.10 

Lt-Gen. (Retd) Tanvir Naqvi justified the military’s system of land purchase to me this way:

The officer in general sees himself as leading a frugal life compared to  the civilian officials, let alone the politicians and businessmen. An officer’s  career may seem privileged, but it involves a nomadic life, living for long  years in freezing or boiling garrisons in the middle of nowhere, not being  able to look after your children after a certain age because they have to  be sent off to school and live with your parents. Wages have gone down  radically compared to the private sector over the past 30 years, though  you are still quite handsomely rewarded at retirement. That is why it is  so important to have the possibility to buy land for a house over a long  period and on easy terms.11  

The problem is that the military’s power over and importance to the  state have meant that over the years it has given the military free land in  what used to be the outer suburbs of cities but which is now among the  most expensive pieces of real estate in Pakistan. In the case of land grants  in Lahore, for example, the BBC has reported that the real value of a plot  increased from $65,000 in 2000 to more than $1.5 million in 2006.12

Inevitably, officers, who can acquire up to four plots depending on their  rank (or even more at the very top: President Pervez Musharraf had seven)  are purchasing plots at subsidised rates and then making a fortune by selling  them at market prices. This practice, while perfectly legal, could be said to  come under the heading of behaviour that is not illegal but damned well  ought to be, and has even attracted some criticism from within the military  itself.13 

The second main area of criticism relates to the military’s possession  of extensive industrial holdings, which also serve to look after retired  and disabled soldiers.14 The foundations were laid by the British Military  Reconstruction Fund for retired and wounded Indian soldiers during the  Second World War. In 1953, the Pakistani military decided to invest its share  of the remaining funds in commercial ventures, with the profits used to  support needy soldiers as before.  

In 1967, the resulting complex of industries and charitable institutions  was renamed the Fauji Foundation. By 2009, the Fauji Group (the commercial  wing) had assets worth Rs125 billion ($1.48bn), while the Fauji Foundation  (which runs the welfare institutions) controlled assets worth Rs44bn ($510  million). Contrary to popular belief, the Fauji Group’s commercial activities  are not exempt from taxation, and in 2005–06 it paid Rs32.4m ($380,000) in  taxes. The Fauji Foundation’s welfare spending, however, is tax-exempt. 

One of the key activities of the Fauji Foundation, with a budget of around  Rs4bn ($50m) a year, is to provide health care, education and vocational train ing for the children and dependents of ex-servicemen, and for the parents,  widows and families of soldiers killed or disabled in action. Men actually  serving in the military are helped by the welfare trusts of the Army, Navy and  Air Force. The Army Welfare Trust has total assets of some Rs50bn ($590m),  and owns, among other things, 16,000 acres of farmland, rice and sugar mills,  cement plants, and an insurance company.15 Unlike the Fauji Group, the  welfare trusts benefit from lower rates of tax and other state subsidies. 

The military and nationalism 

The Pakistani military distributes its internal benefits in an honest and  orderly way, for the good of soldiers but also of the armed forces as a whole. Thus, in some ways the military could be regarded as a kind of  kinship group, extracting patronage from the state and distributing it to its  members. The military could not do this, however, without a strong sustain ing and disciplining ethos. Instead of the blood ties that sustain ordinary  kinship groups, this ethos is provided by Pakistani nationalism, of which  the military feels itself to be the embodiment.16 

A central reason for the military’s belief in its own indispensability and  superiority over all other institutions is that it feels itself to be the only section of Pakistani society, and certainly the only state institution, which is  a true bearer of Pakistani loyalty. Outside the military, Pakistani national ism is seen as hopelessly qualified by some mixture of corrupt self-interest  and loyalty to other kin-based, ethnic or religious allegiances.  

Loyalty to Pakistan is drilled into both officers and the rank and file  from the moment they join the military, and great care is taken, not least  by Military Intelligence, to discourage soldiers from holding any other  allegiance, at least as long as they remain in the service. For this reason,  with the exception of General Zia’s term as military dictator, the Army  has not favoured open religious preaching within the military. (General  Zia favoured the preaching of the Tablighi-Jamaat organisation, which  is explicitly non-political, but even so his successors have sought, with  some success, to roll back its influence.) Despite the growth of explicitly  Islamist allegiances, the military continues to regard Islam as a personal  matter and as a feature of the national identity, rather than as a guiding  ideology. 

Of course, nationalism can be just as dangerous as religion. True, it has  been crucial to state-building and economic and social progress in many  parts of the world. Often, an appeal to strengthen the nation is the only thing  that can motivate large numbers of people to overcome their separate loyalties and identities and pool their efforts behind a common purpose. Equally,  nationalism very often is the only force that can legitimise the beating down  of old customs and entrenched elites for the sake of modernisation. On the  other hand, nationalistic appeals have frequently been directed at strengthening the nation against enemies, and the wars that have resulted have all  too often plunged whole societies into disaster.

In Pakistan, leaders such as Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and military rulers Muhammad Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf have explicitly  patterned their rule on that of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, whose secular,  modernising nationalism laid the foundation of modern Turkey. Both  Generals Khan and Musharraf publicly honoured Ataturk’s memory and  saw themselves as promoting programmes of Kemalist-style nationalist  modernisation in Pakistan. Both were strongly opposed to religious con servatism, and both made some attempt to modernise Pakistani society, especially concerning the treatment  of women.17 Despite the rise of the conservative lower middle classes in the officer corps, some aspects of this  commitment to social modernisation have remained in  the military. This can be attributed in part to a recognition that some degree of modern thinking and attitudes  are essential to the maintenance of effective armed forces. 

Also of great importance is the fact that, in fighting with Baloch tribal chieftains and Pashtun Taliban ultra-conservatives, the Army has developed an  idea of itself as representing some degree of social progress and modernity. 

This aspect of the military struck me rather strongly during a visit in  March 2011 to the district of Swat, which was largely controlled by the  Pakistani Taliban and their local allies until spring 2009, when the militants  were driven out by a ruthlessly effective military counter-offensive. At a  military centre for the rehabilitation of lower-level Taliban prisoners, I saw  how the Army was trying to counter Taliban ideology with a mixture of  Pakistani Muslim nationalism and education in literacy and other modern  skills.  

Even more striking was a visit to a centre for the vocational training of  women near the town of Matta, formerly a Taliban stronghold. Local women  were being taught sewing and handicrafts, and helped to market their products in Pakistan’s cities, both to boost their incomes and to encourage them  to use their influence in their families against the militants. Twice a week, a  female military doctor held a clinic to treat these women and their children.  The photographs on the walls of the clinic, which depicted women in the  military, were clearly intended to inspire these women with a belief both in Pakistani nationalism and in their own capacity for development and progress. The largest image showed one of Pakistan’s six women fighter pilots  climbing into the cockpit of her plane, wearing her helmet and goggles – a  sight to gladden any Kemalist’s heart. 

Unfortunately, there is almost no chance that the Pakistani military will  be able to successfully pursue a nationalist modernising strategy, as the  failures of both Ayub and Musharraf demonstrate. For this, the military  would need its own strong sense of nationalism to be replicated among the  general population, something that Pakistan’s deep ethnic and ideological  divisions have worked against. While the restricted ethnic make-up of the  military may be crucial to preventing it from disintegrating along ethnic  lines, an Army composed chiefly of northern Punjabis cannot possibly  mobilise Sindhis, Baloch or even southern Punjabis to revolt against their own elites in the name of strengthen ing Pakistan. Unlike Ataturk, who benefited from a very  strong sense of Turkish ethnic nationalism among large  sections of the population, Pakistan does not enjoy such  unity and cannot generate it. 

The contrast with Kemalism highlights another way  in which nationalism is not only inadequate for the trans formation of Pakistan but also threatens Pakistan with destruction. Ataturk’s ability ruthlessly to modernise Turkey was founded  not just on a strong sense of nationalism but on a national military victory,  which saw Turkey defeat the French, Armenians and Greeks, confront the  British and expel all non-Turkish forces from Anatolia. These were enemies  the country could feasibly defeat: the weak forces of Greece and Armenia,  and the exhausted ones of Britain and France, had been worn down by the  horrors of the First World War. Pakistani nationalism, on the other hand,  especially among the military, is structured around hostility to India,  a country with six times Pakistan’s population and almost ten times its  economy.18 (Over the past decade, the United States too has in some respects  become Pakistan’s enemy, through Washington’s ‘tilt towards India’ and  through the US military presence in Afghanistan, which is detested by most  Pakistanis and seen by the Pakistani security establishment as embodying a future threat of Indian domination of Afghanistan.) Yet India (to  say nothing of the United States) is a rival far beyond Pakistan’s strength.  Ayub’s prestige was shattered, and his modernising programme brought  to an end, by the failure of his war against India in 1965. In 1971 in East  Pakistan, the Pakistani military suffered a defeat from which its prestige  has never fully recovered. The US and international response to the Kargil  adventure of 1999 and to the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 (carried out by  Lashkar-e-Tayiba, a group established with the help of the Pakistani military to attack India) should have demonstrated to Pakistan that, quite apart  from India’s own strength, the international community will not tolerate  Pakistani attacks on another nuclear-armed power. The Pakistani military  dreams that China’s growing power will in future allow Pakistan to balance  against the United States and India, but so far China has pursued a very cautious strategy in this regard. Meanwhile, the military’s anti-Indian strategic  calculations over the future of Afghanistan have brought it into ever greater  conflict with the United States.  

Thus, while the Pakistani military can maintain the existence of Pakistan, it  is not nearly strong enough to transform the country into a successful modern  state. The armed forces’ Mameluk-style features, so important for saving it  from disintegration, work against its ability to unify the country. At the same  time, the nationalism on which the military relies to maintain its own morale  and discipline serves to draw the country into dangerous international rivalries and equally dangerous entanglements with extremist groups such as the  Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayiba. If there were to be another successful  terrorist attack on the United States by a Pakistan-based terrorist group, US  retaliation could threaten Pakistan and its army with destruction.


1 Interview in Islamabad, 15 July 2009.

2 For a fascinating discussion of  Mamelukism and its origins see  Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of  Political Order (London: Profile Books,  2011), pp. 189–228.  

3 Interview in Peshawar, 1 September  2008. 

4 Alison Shaw, Kinship and Continuity:  Pakistani Families in Britain (Reading:  Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000),  p. 99.

5 Stephen M Lyon, An Anthropological  Analysis of Local Politics and Patronage  in a Pakistani Village (Lampeter: Edwin  Mellen, 2004). 

6 Interview in Shikarpur, November 1988.

7 Muhammad Azam Chaudhary, Justice  in Practice: The Legal Ethnography of a Punjabi Village (Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 1999), p. 43. 

8 Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords: Pakistan,  Its Army and the Wars Within (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.  570–1. 

9 Interview in Larkana, 25 April 2009.

10 See Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State:  Military, Government and Society in  Colonial Punjab, 1849–1947 (London:  Sage Publications 2005), p. 26. 

11 Interview in Karachi, 1 May 2009.

12 Adnan Adil, ‘Pakistan’s Post 9/11  Economic Boom’, cited in Brian Cloughley, War, Coups and Terror:  Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books,  2008), p. 157. 

13 Criticism from General Naqvi and  other officers with whom I have  spoken. 

14 See Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.:  Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy  (Karachi: Oxford University Press,  2007). 

15 Figures available at the Fauji  Foundation website,

16 Stephen P. Cohen, The Pakistan Army (Karachi: Oxford University Press,  1999), pp. 105–6. 

17 Shahid Javed Burki and Craig Baxter,  Pakistan Under the Military (Boulder,  CO: Westview Press, 1991).  18 Cohen, The Pakistan Army, p. 179.

Survival (IISS) 2011. Anatol Lieven (2011) Military Exceptionalism in Pakistan, Survival, 53:4, 53-68, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2011.603562.

Pakistan’s Surprising Stability

It is worth remembering the legacy of the Raj when we look at Pakistan. In the 1930s, one of my maternal uncles, as a Gurkha officer, spent some time with his regiment in Waziristan dealing with a religiously-inspired Pashtun rebellion led by the Fakir of Ipi – and we never did catch him, or, in 100 years on the Afghan frontier, “solve” the problem of Pashtun unrest, often led by religious figures and conducted in the name of “jihad”. We only contained and managed the problem.

There is a certain tendency, not only in the United States, but even among some less informed Brits, to feel that the issues we are facing in that part of the world are completely new and therefore have to be dealt with by completely new methods; and also that we have to aim at “solving” them, rather than managing them. In fact, when it comes to patterns of insurgency and Islamism among the Pashtuns, or Pathans as we used to call them, some of the patterns are very old indeed and there is a good deal that we can learn from our ancestors.

It is also worth pointing out that Pakistan, as a country, is Britain’s most vital interest in the Muslim world. Other issues in the Muslim world may be important and serious – like the war in Afghanistan – but Pakistan is vital to Britain, for the simple reason that we are Pakistan to a considerable extent, or at least Leicester is, Bradford is, Leeds is, and so are extensive parts of London. The terrorist threat to Britain is principally a problem of Pakistanis in Britain and their links to extremist groups in Pakistan.

Britain, as a country, would therefore be making a fool’s bargain if it contributed to throwing away the stability and future of Pakistan for any other cause or interest in the Muslim world. It is an issue of pure national interest, almost an existential interest when it comes to the safety of British citizens.

Events in Pakistan, particularly at the moment, are often so volatile that they eliminate from the picture consideration of deeper issues in the country and attempts at a deeper understanding. So this article is divided into three parts. In the first, I review current events in Pakistan; in the second, I look at the underlying structures of society and power in Pakistan; and in the third I consider how far these are threatened by Islamist extremism and revolution.

Current events

My point of departure is that what Pakistan is facing today is a threat of terrorism and local unrest, not a threat of revolution and the overthrow of the state, or loss of the state’s control of its nuclear deterrent. We are nowhere near the situation in Algeria in the early 1990s, let lone Iran in the late 1970s. This terrorism and unrest is extremely damaging, above all to the Pakistani economy and the prospects of future economic and social progress, but it is not, at present, and in my view for a very long time to come, an existential threat to the state.

Terrorism, as we have seen from the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi and the previous attack on her in Karachi, can now take place anywhere in the country, but when it comes to actual armed unrest and the taking over of particular territory, this is overwhelmingly a Pashtun issue, in the Pashtun areas. Even the extremist movement at the Red Mosque in Islamabad (which I visited in May before it was stormed) was chiefly staffed by Pashtuns. That is to do with the old patterns of Pashtun Islamist mobilisation, but it is also very much to do with the situation in Afghanistan, and the mobilisation of Pashtun ethnic sentiment within Pakistan in support of the militant Pashtuns in Afghanistan and their support for the Taliban.

The greatest single danger in Pakistan today, and the only danger which begins to impinge on the real integrity of the state and the existing system, is the fact that, unfortunately, the Pashtuns make up a disproportionate percentage of the Pakistani army – around 20 per cent, though they are only about 12 per cent of the population. The Pakistani army is a Punjabi/Pashtun army, with Punjabis in the large majority, Pashtuns second, Mohajirs, like General Musharraf himself, restricted to the officer corps and Baluch and Sindhis almost nowhere to be seen.

I should perhaps add that traditionally the Shias have been reasonably represented in the officer corps, because they are over-represented in the Punjabi aristocracy. But the Shias are very poorly represented in the rank and file of the army for the simple reason that the Pakistani military is recruited from the same areas that the British military was recruited from, where there are very few Shias. So there is not a concern over Sunni/Shia tension in the army.

Interestingly, the Punjabis are northern Punjabis, from a relatively limited number of districts, some of which, though Punjabi-speaking, are heavily coloured by Pashtun ethnic traditions. So the Pashtun areas are where the deepest concern lies. This is where we have seen the most dangerous incidents over the last few years, and including recent months when we have seen Pashtun units of the army, sent in to fight against the Taliban and its local allies in the tribal areas, refusing to fight and surrendering. As part of the unrest following the storming of the Red Mosque, we saw a major surrender with 120 or so men and several middle-ranking officers. There have also been desertions and, while there have been few court-martials, there have been several processes leading to dismissal from the army.

This makes the current unrest different and more dangerous than the previous very frequent instances of regional unrest in the history of West Pakistan. I’m not going to discuss the history of united Pakistan before 1971 because that was a quite different and completely unviable country. I don’t believe that West Pakistan is necessarily unviable. It is worth pointing out that the Pakistani Army has shown again and again that it can crack down successfully on armed secession, unrest, call it what you will, in Sind, in Karachi, in Baluchistan.

The moment when things begin to look tricky, and the moment when the generals get really worried, is when unrest spreads to the areas from which the soldiers are recruited. Then there begins the nightmare scenario: that the soldiers will copy what happened in Petrograd in 1917 – ground arms and refuse to fight. That is when you would begin to see the High Command of the army looking at a change of regime; whether the regime of the time is civilian or military.

However, one should not, at present, exaggerate this threat. The Pakistani Army is still prepared to fight, and will fight, against Islamist unrest and attempts to take territory, when this occurs outside the tribal areas. This is confirmed by recent events in Swat, where we, the British, once again had very considerable and repeated difficulties. Swat is not exactly in the tribal areas, but it is not exactly settled either. Ever since we created the system of indirect rule of the tribal areas, they have been governed, or rather not governed but managed, at a certain distance.

Now when it comes, not just to the willingness of the army to fight, but to attitudes in Pakistani society as a whole, it is very important to recognise and understand the following complex but critical distinction in the minds of Pakistanis. This is between on the one hand taking action against behaviour by the Islamists and radicals which threatens the Pakistani state and the stability of Pakistani society and on the other hand taking action in support of the United States, whether in the War on Terror more generally, or most particularly in Afghanistan.

The difference can be illustrated by figures. Support for the Islamists and the actual Islamist political agenda within Pakistan is very low in most of Pakistan. At the last elections, when, particularly in the Pashtun areas, public sentiment was tremendously coloured by reaction to the American invasion of Afghanistan, and when there may well have been an element of manipulation by the military government in support of the Islamists, they still only got barely 12 percent of the vote. The general assumption is that this time round that will go down to 9 percent or so. They will still be very important in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, whose northern belt is a heavily Pashtun area. But what those figures indicate is that we are nowhere near the situation which we saw in Algeria in the early 1990s, let alone Iran in the late 1970s. There is not mass support across Pakistani society for an Islamist revolution.

Similarly, according to opinion polls a majority of Pakistanis, especially outside the Pashtun areas, supported, albeit unwillingly and with regret, the decision in the end to crack down on the Red Mosque militants. They deplore acts of terrorism within Pakistan, like that against Benazir Bhutto, but also the repeated attempts to assassinate Musharraf and other senior officials.

On the other hand, according to every public opinion poll, there is absolutely overwhelming hostility to America’s War on Terror and to the Western campaign in Afghanistan. The only partial exception is the 15 percent Shia minority. At the moment the Shias in Pakistan have enormous problems with the Sunni radicals, who have mounted a number of savage attacks on them in recent years. But if the United States attacks Iran, and thereby alienates the Pakistani Shias as well, hostility to the United States will approach 100 per cent. The only exceptions would be a tiny proportion of Christians, Hindus and westernised Pakistanis.

This truth was also illustrated for me during my visit to Pakistan in May 2007, when I went round asking a particular question. In Washington over the past year, in discussions in which either explicit or veiled representatives of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) talked to American audiences, I heard again and again the following argument: America must press for a return to democracy in Pakistan, by which they meant rule by the PPP, so that the Pakistani government will have the democratic legitimacy and the mass support to really crack down on the Taliban in the tribal areas, and on the Islamist activities more generally.

But when I got to Pakistan and started talking to PPP activists (especially, but not exclusively, in the Pashtun areas), I heard a rather different story from many of them: “We need a government of Pakistan with democratic legitimacy and mass support so that it will be strong enough to tell the Americans to go to hell, when they come and ask for help.”

So it was clear that the Americans who believe the PPP line in Washington have not exactly done their homework on the ground! Now of course my visit was in May and the murder of Benazir Bhutto and the death of almost 200 PPP supporters in two attacks since then may well have changed the views of PPP workers. But this is because the Islamists are attacking the PPP and trying to kill Benazir, not because the PPP has some wider ideological commitment to fighting on behalf of, or in alliance with, the United States. This is obviously a complicated issue on the ground because the Islamists, or at least the Taliban and its allies, have a dual agenda of attacking both the West and the present Pakistani authorities. But it is worth bearing in mind when it comes to trying to understand on what issues and how far it is possible for the West to get the Pakistani government – any Pakistani government, whether civilian or military – to do what we want in the “War on Terror”.

As to the impact of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination: she had many virtues, including great physical courage and immense determination; but she was no more a modern democrat with a coherent reformist agenda than her equivalents in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

She was a populist aristocrat, with all that means in terms of grace under pressure, presence of style and absence of substance; and her party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has long been a dynastic party, not a modern mass party with a common and credible program. For that reason it is unlikely to survive the death of the last adult and politically credible representative of the Bhutto dynasty.

In the long run, the decay of the PPP will benefit both the Pakistani army and the Islamists: The army, because it will be able to bring bits of the PPP into government through offers of jobs and patronage – something that Musharraf has already done quite successfully in recent years. This will greatly help the military to put together coalition governments which the army will control from behind the scenes.

The Islamists will stand to benefit because if the PPP decays or disappears altogether, only the Islamists will remain as a political force promising reform of Pakistan’s deeply corrupt, unjust and incompetent governing system. The PPP’s promise to do this may have become more and more obviously hollow over the years, especially during Ms Bhutto’s two corrupt and unsuccessful terms as prime minister – and this was reflected in the PPP’s decline in the public opinion polls.

All the same, the poor of Pakistan had not completely forgotten her father’s vow to bring them “clothing, food and shelter”. No other politician in Pakistan can possibly offer this with a straight face – least of all Nawaz Sharif, with his roots and support among the industrialists of Punjab. So anyone who really wants radical change (as opposed to incremental change stemming from economic growth) will now have nowhere to go but the Islamists.

But that is for the future. In the next few months the twin questions are of how bad violence and unrest will become in Pakistan, and whether any kind of transition to elected civilian government can take place while Musharraf remains President. Neither answer will be clear for some time. Things have not begun well with the irresponsible talk of many politicians about the army having been responsible for Ms Bhutto’s assassination – something for which there is no evidence whatsoever, while all the prima facie evidence points to an Islamist suicide attack – of the kind which a few days before Bhutto’s murder targeted Musharraf’s Interior Minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao.

On the other hand, at least so far none of the PPP leaders have called for mass attacks on the military and the state. Such attacks by PPP supporters that have taken place seem to have done so spontaneously. It may not be too cynical to suggest – and cynicism in analyzing Pakistani politics is rarely misplaced – that none of the possible successors to Ms Bhutto as PPP leader want to burn their bridges to the military, and thereby destroy the possibility that they will replace Benazir Bhutto as Washington’s candidate for Prime Minister in an alliance with Musharraf or a military successor.

A question in this regard however, is whether an absolutely explicit secular alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto is a good thing for the struggle against Islamism and terrorism and extremism in Pakistan, or whether it will only further inflame Islamist feeling and make it less possible to split the Islamist camp between extremists and moderates (or pragmatists).

I have no clear answer, but the question is worth raising, for at present, as we saw over the Red Mosque episode, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA–United Action Front), the Islamist coalition/alliance which runs the government of the NWFP, has been careful to distance itself in public from terrorism and from the most extreme groups like those who seized the Red Mosque.

If, however, the MMA parties saw themselves being excluded from power and patronage, the temptation for some of them at least openly to join the extremists would be considerably heightened.

This leads to another critical question: What sort of strategy should in fact be adopted by Pakistan against Taliban and extremist support in the tribal areas. Is it best to follow the strategy of “Divide and rule” adopted by the Pakistani state in the past, and favoured by most of the military for the future, and try to split off from the Taliban those local Islamist forces regarded as less committed to it? Or is the US administration right in advocating a blanket approach to “cracking down” on the extremists in that region? This debate mirrors to a considerable extent the disagreement between Britain and the US over strategy in Afghanistan, between those who would like to split off “moderate” Taliban elements as against those who treat the Taliban as a whole as an implacable foe.

Both approaches involve limited chances of success as against very real dangers. The problem of the Pakistani approach has become obvious. Agreements with “moderate” Taliban have done almost nothing to stop infiltration into Afghanistan; and at least since the Islamist backlash following the storming of the Red Mosque, they do not even seem to have prevented attacks within Pakistan itself.

The danger of a blanket “crackdown” approach is however even greater: namely, the risk that a significant part of the army will not go along with it, and may even mutiny in protest. Military revolt by lower ranks against the high command raises the greatest threat to Pakistan – indeed the only real threat in the near-to-medium terms to the viability of the existing Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army is a disciplined and obedient force, not like some African armies. But it would not be prudent to push it too far against its own sentiments.

May there then be a case not for a PPP–Musharraf alliance against the Islamists, but for a new push to split the Islamist camp in Pakistan by bringing the MMA into central government. This would create a coalition between the MMA and Musharraf’s existing bloc, the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) (PML-Q) (basically an alliance of landlords and urban bosses), and might involve bringing Nawaz Sharif back from exile to lead it, under Musharraf’s presidency (admittedly, a prospect even more difficult in personal terms than an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto).

The point of coalition building with the MMA is both to split the Islamist camp, and because while the MMA may not be very strong in terms of parliamentary seats, the Pakistani parliamentary scene is so fragmented that the MMA could find itself in a position in which it could hold the balance of power. Its support will certainly be important to any future coalition which does not include the PPP.

Finally, we need to recognise that any effective and lasting Pakistani government, of whatever political complexion, has to include the army as a de facto partner in power.

Short-term predictions about the immediate future are hazardous in the extreme, but whatever happens, the army will continue to play a leading role. Whether you call it a return to democracy – I have real problems with that word in Pakistan – or whether you call it a return to civilian government, whether Musharraf is President, or whether Musharraf goes, the army will remain the single most important institution in Pakistani society.

As the only modern Pakistani state institution that actually works more or less as it is meant to, the army is vital to the working of the state in general, and especially of course to anything involving an armed struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism. Any idea that Benazir, or any other Prime Minister, can come in and simply tell the army what to do and the army will salute and say “Yes” is absurd in terms of Pakistan’s history and present realities.

But what if a deal is not made and trouble spreads? “Trouble” is by no means just Islamist trouble. As we saw earlier in 2007, there is a continuing potentially explosive situation in Karachi, between the Sindhis and the Mohajirs, or at least between the PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which a PPP government could exacerbate. The murder of the Sindhi Benazir Bhutto makes this danger even greater. For there is always a tendency, on the part of those people in the army and elsewhere who are determined to stop the PPP, to try to use the MQM as an anti-Sindhi force in Karachi and cause clashes, ethnic riots, even massacres. We have already seen that kind of trouble beginning again in recent months. We may also see a growth of what might be described as armed protest in Baluchistan, as well as the spread of Islamist unrest and terrorism. This will involve not a united revolutionary movement against the state, but a wide breakdown of order in many different areas and a situation in which mass movements from different directions are fighting against each other and at the same time agitating against the present government.

Whether elections still take place, or whether Musharraf postpones them, if the situation continues to deteriorate and massive trouble spreads to northern Punjab, then ultimately I believe one of two things will happen. They are not difficult to predict because they have happened so often before. The first, and overwhelmingly the more likely, is that Musharraf receives a visit from the High Command of the Pakistani Army. They tell him what they told Ayub Khan: “Sir, we respect what you have done for the army and for Pakistan, but looking at the situation, it is time for you to step down for the good of the army and the country. If you do that, we will guarantee your personal safety and that of your family.” Of course, Ayub Khan was not facing a terrorist threat, but he had had a fair number of people shot down the years. Nonetheless he lived peacefully to the end of his days in his villa in Islamabad.

At that point, I believe Musharraf would go, he wouldn’t try to hold out. Even if the retained considerable support in the High Command, if enough generals wanted him to go and were willing to say so to his face, he would go. But I also believe that if enough generals asked him to go and he refused, then, with equal respect and a measure of affection, he would be assassinated. But I don’t think that would be necessary. Musharraf is deeply loyal to the army and devoted to its corporate interests.

The army would then orchestrate the succession to Musharraf, just as they have done on several occasions in the past. But who would the army try to bring in to succeed Musharraf? In this context, it would be unwise to write off Nawaz Sharif. It is difficult to imagine him working with Musharraf, who overthrew him in 1999 and whom he detests. But with Musharraf gone he would be a very attractive figure to many generals, just as he was after Zia’s death in 1988. He is extremely determined and above all has a very strong northern Punjabi base. That should never be forgotten. With 63 per cent of Pakistan’s population, Punjab is the pivot to Pakistan and with some 75 per cent of the rank and file, northern Punjab is the pivot of the army.

If Nawaz could stitch up a deal with the people who broke from him when Musharraf took power, meaning the rest of the former PML, including the followers of the Chauduries of Gujrat, he could still be the leader of a future coalition against Benazir, with army backing.

This would be especially possible if, as appears from the latest news, the Saudis still regard Nawaz as their potential candidate for future Prime Minister. Saudi backing makes a tremendous difference from two points of view. One is straight finance, the other is that they have a certain ability to put pressure, not on the terrorists, but on the Islamist parties – once again above all when it comes to financing them, or allowing private groups in Saudi Arabia to finance them.

The underlying structure of society and power

It will be noted that so far I have said almost nothing about the nightmare scenario which dominates so much of Western media reporting and policy discussion, namely an Islamist revolution, the collapse of the existing Pakistani state, and the passing of its nuclear deterrent into the hands of extremists. This is because I think this scenario highly unlikely, and only possible in the context of a massive and prolonged violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty by US ground forces in pursuit of the Taliban. Barring such a catastrophic development, Pakistan is actually a great deal more basically stable than the extreme surface volatility of its politics would suggest.

When I visited the country in 1988 we were talking about a transition from military rule to rule by Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, leading parties overwhelmingly dominated by rural landlords and urban rentiers with a few industrialists. Modern mass party politics were restricted to the urban Mohajirs of Karachi, grouped in the MQM, and the Islamist modernisers of the small but highly organised Jamaat Islami. Twenty years on we were talking about the same scene and the same prospects until Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

This is not just chance. It reflects the fact that Pakistani politics, and power within Pakistan, have been dominated over the 60 years since independence by the same socio-economic elites. Except for a brief interlude in the early 1970s, these have continued to rule the country whichever civilian or military regime has been in power.

These groups have of course changed over time, but they have not changed nearly as much as the volatility of the surface politics would suggest. Pakistan is essentially ruled at the local level, and to a considerable extent at the national level, by an interlocking set of clans. These are not just the rural “feudal” clans of which one hears so much but also urban clans – partly because even the better-off “feudal” clans draw their actual cash from urban property. It is not agriculture which brings them most of their money.

These clans live off a mixture of their own property and access to state patronage and jobs, which they take for themselves or distribute to their followers (or, in the old Roman phrase, “clients”). They use their influence over the authorities, courts and police to protect their followers against their neighbours or by state forces. They reward them above all with patronage drawn from the state. This consists not just of jobs, but access to water, of critical importance to so many.

At the national level the parties are also based chiefly on patronage, with ideology playing a real but distinctly secondary role. The political biographies of many leading Pakistani politicians shows a constant tendency to flit from party to party, and government to government, according to which one can make a more credible offer of patronage.

That is why Pakistani society is so stable but Pakistani governments are so unstable. Society is stable because the groups which control it have a core vested interest in opposing any radical change. Governments are unstable because in the long run there is never enough patronage to go round. Every government comes to power making extravagant promises to gain support, and then cannot possibly fulfil all of them. Many are bound to feel dissatisfied or slighted. Over time, they come together in coalitions to overthrow the existing government and re-divide the patronage pie.

This structure of clan control and patronage – in some ways reminiscent of the world of 15th century England described in the letters of an East Anglian gentry family, the Pastons1 – has provided Pakistan with a remarkable degree of underlying stability. It is also a critical factor in resisting the threat of Islamist revolution. One reason why the Islamists have not spread to the countryside is that the local land-owning clans are totally opposed to the radical land reform agenda of the Islamists (or at least their Jamaat Islami wing). The landowners are not only opposed to a local mullah preaching revolution, they are also in a position to prevent this, firstly through their control of the appointment of mullahs and secondly by their control of the local police and the tough measures they can employ if necessary. In that respect they are in the same position as 18th century English landlords dealing with radical Protestant preachers advancing the virtues of egalitarianism and the distribution of land to the peasants.

A key problem is that while in one way the rule of these inter-locking clans is very positive for Pakistan because it prevents revolution and chaos, in other ways it is intimately linked to failures of economic progress, reform of the state, reform of society, and social progress in general. All of these have been severely retarded by a ruling class which either has no interest in modernisation or is actively opposed to it – and this is very nearly as true of the populist landowners in the PPP as it is of the conservative landowners in the PML – who over time have in any case very often been the same people. It is these deeper structures of Pakistani society, much more than the identity of governments which have been the most important obstacle to Pakistani progress. For every government institution except the military has been to a considerable extent hollowed out by the actions of these clans and their incessant search for state favours.

Pakistan’s lack of progress should admittedly not be overdrawn. Once again, this is not sub-Saharan Africa we are talking about. Under Musharraf and his very able Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, impressive economic growth has taken place. If only this could be continued for a generation, Pakistani society and Pakistan’s culture would be transformed. Moreover, when making the inevitable comparison between Pakistan and India it is also worth remembering that most of Pakistan should not be compared with the successful parts of India like Bombay and Bangalore; given the general background of Pakistan and where it is situated, it would be fairer to make the comparison with Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. And compared to these very backward and violent areas, much of Pakistan is actually doing rather well. Unfortunately, however, this is not true of the Pashtun areas from where the Islamists draw most of their strength. Even in the best circumstances bringing stable growth to these regions would be the work of many years.

Threats to overthrow the system

As to threats to overthrow this whole system: The PPP tried to overthrow the system in the 1970s under Bhutto père and abandoned the attempt in favour of a compromise with the landowning and urban elites. Zulfikar Bhutto himself was a great landowner. He hated much of his own class for personal reasons, but he did not create a modern reformist mass party. It is not clear whether this was because of his own class prejudices or whether he just couldn’t manage it, given Pakistani social realities and the power of those same elites. Whatever the reason, the PPP is not a modern mass party, but a dynastic party like several others in the subcontinent. It has repeatedly backed away from radical social and economic change, which is not surprising if you look at the class background of the great majority of its leadership. These are Filipino-style landowning populists, not serious reformers.

The army too has never really tried to overthrow the system, though it has backed some fairly radical forms of capitalism under Ayub and now under Musharraf. But it has never tried to carry out a Kemalist-style revolution as in the Turkey of Ataturk (Musharraf’s professed role model) or a “White revolution”, of the kind pursued in different ways by both Reza Shah and his son in Iran. None of Pakistan’s military rulers have seriously attempted to create their own mass parties. Instead, like Musharraf, they have put together alliances formed from the existing political and social elites.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, in Turkey and Iran the state was able to rely on a nationalism which cannot generated in the case of Pakistan, because Pakistan is not a nation, it is a federation.

In some ways it is a much more successful federation than many people think, given the very disparate elements of which it is composed. There is no such thing as Urdu nationalism, for the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis Urdu is a second language, a learned language, not as alien as English but still not native. It binds the country together, but unlike Turkish nationalism, cannot be made the basis for a national revolution. On the other hand, an attempt to base a revolution on Punjabi sentiment, even if successful in Punjab, would simply tear the country apart.

The other reason for the failure of the army to carry out a revolution is that the army itself has always had a deep stake in the existing socio-economic system. For a long time, from British days on, the officer corps was drawn from the landowning gentry elite, and therefore obviously opposed to social reform.

Now, in general, the officers are not aristocrats like Ayub Khan but – like Musharraf – middle class. In principle, therefore, they might be willing to contemplate radical reforms aimed at smashing the domination of the rural gentry and the urban bosses. However, since Zia ul Haq, the army as an organisation has itself moved very heavily into landownership and corporate business. The corporations which it runs are actually pretty efficient by Pakistani standards. By distributing well-paid jobs to retired soldiers they are also very good at keeping the army happy – which if you worry about African-style mutinies is a good thing. But good or bad, it certainly helps identify the army with existing structures of social and economic power in a way which rules the army out of a revolutionary programme, except in radically changed circumstances.

So the only powerful force with a revolutionary agenda is the Islamists. But once again, we are not in Algeria in the early 1990s or in Iran in the late 1970s. There are however two possible scenarios for state collapse, one short to medium term, one longer term. In the next decade or so, the only way the existing state itself can be overthrown is if the army splits. As long as the army stays united, the state will remain united because in the end the army will kill enough people to keep the state together. And the Pakistani Army, whatever its other faults, is an impressively disciplined and solid institution which through most of Pakistani history has been loyal and obedient to its own generals.

How might the army split? The only way I can see that happening is if, as a result of Taliban activity in Aghanistan, America were to launch a really large-scale and long-term military incursion on the ground into Pakistani territory. I don’t mean something like a brief American raid into the tribal areas to attempt to recover captured US prisoners. That would cause great unhappiness, but would be tolerated by the army, especially if the army was associated with the operation in some way.

The situation would however be very different if future US action resembled anything like the wilder suggestions flying around in the US Congress – and expressed by Senator Barack Obama – of “Going in and cleaning out the Taliban support in the Tribal areas.” I hope and believe that this is a remote possibility, but if it did happen, then, according to one Pakistani with very close links to the military with whom I spoke in May, captains, majors and possibly lieutenant-colonels would go to their commanding officers and saying

We are going to fight the Americans. We offer you a choice: you can let us go and promise that those who survive will not face court-martial and will be accepted back into the army. In that case we will take our weapons, but we will leave our uniforms behind. Or you can refuse to let us go, and try to prevent us by force. In that case we will go in uniform, as military units.At that point, the army splits and the whole show comes down. The Pentagon is well aware of this kind of thing and is briefing repeatedly against anything like an incursion into Pakistan. So it is not likely, but it is not completely impossible, if the speeches of Obama and others are to be believed.

As to the long term, by which I mean two generations, the greatest threat is one which is almost never talked about in Pakistan in this context. This absence really illustrates how essential it is to bring together the different strands of our foreign policy mentality, our whole world view. This factor is ecological change, and above all water shortages.

According to a very sober study by the World Bank a couple of years ago, if present trends in water supply in Pakistan continue over the next two generations, and are exacerbated by global warming (in ways which seem overwhelmingly probable if one looks at what is happening to the Himalayan glaciers) then at the end of this century 250 million people will be living in a country much of which will be as dry as the Sahara desert. If this happens, then we will most probably begin to see the sort of general melt-down of the state and organised society we have seen in Somalia and parts of Sudan in recent decades. Quite apart from the insuperable social and economic problems that such a meltdown would have for the rest of South Asia, as in Somalia, radical Islamist groups would almost certainly be among the chief beneficiaries.

You can say that all this is so far off that it is not worth bothering about; except that our fundamental and most important nightmares when it comes to Pakistan is control of its nuclear weapons, combined with the actions of Pakistani terrorists on our own soil. A hundred years from now Pakistan will most probably still have nuclear weapons; and many British cities will most probably still be to a considerable degree extensions of Pakistan.


1. Norman Davis (ed.), The Paston Letters. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1999.

Asian Affairs 2008. Anatol Lieven (2008) PAKISTAN’S SURPRISING STABILITY, Asian Affairs, 39:1, 57-68, DOI: 10.1080/03068370701792004. This is an updated version of the lecture which Anatol Lieven gave to the society on 30 October 2007.

Georgia and Pakistan: A Tale of Two Client States

As the situations become more complicated in Pakistan and Georgia, both American allies, the U.S. is faced with some tough choices.

Every empire-indeed, every state that wishes to project dominant influence beyond its borders-sooner or later runs into the question of how to manage client states: states which imperial powers can closely influence without having to incur the expense, risk and unpopularity of occupying and ruling them directly. Empires like Rome, China, the Netherlands and Britain have all used a strategy of clientism as well as direct rule. For the U.S., this is the core of America’s entire global project, since in the vast majority of cases direct empire is ruled out both by democratic ideology and sheer lack of manpower.

While cheaper in every way than direct empire, client states have however always been extremely tricky to manage. If they are too strong, they will either escape from your influence altogether-or on the other hand use that influence to pursue their own local ambitions, which may have nothing in common with your interests. If they are too weak, they will collapse in the face of their external or internal enemies, leaving the imperial state with the agonizing choice of either accepting a serious geopolitical defeat or stepping in and ruling these states directly, with everything that this entails.

An extra complication is that quite often, it is precisely the influence of the imperial state which is responsible for weakening the client state: whether externally, by embroiling it in wider geopolitical conflicts with more powerful neighbors or internally, by demanding various forms of tribute that weaken its domestic prestige and infuriate powerful sections of its population. This may be through the provision of military help, agreement to unfavourable terms of trade, official conformity to the imperial religion or unpopular domestic reforms. These are dilemmas that have faced one great power after another. Two of the most disastrous examples of mismanaging a collapsing client state were the U.S. in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

If you take “democracy” (albeit often of a very thin and formal kind, better described as “democratism”) as the official religion of the contemporary American empire, then every one of these factors and problems applies to present U.S. efforts to exert predominant influence in various parts of the world. At the present moment, they are dramatized by the travails of two very different American clients, Pakistan and Georgia. The similarities and differences between them illuminate wider issues in America’s current global strategy.

The first, and most obvious, is the difference between essential and non-essential clients. Pakistan is obviously in the former category, both because Pakistan is vital to America’s interests as presently defined, and because-occasional gibberings like recent ones by Frederick Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon notwithstanding-a U.S. invasion and occupation of Pakistan is simply not an option. Even a more limited military intervention in Pakistan’s tribal areas or to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be fraught with truly appalling risks. In other words, however unsatisfactory the relationship from America’s point of view, it has to remain a relationship of influence, not direct control.

If the U.S. is to remain engaged in the Muslim world at all, then Pakistan is vital to U.S. interests: Most immediately, because of its critical impact on developments in neighboring Afghanistan; more generally, because its sheer size and extensive diaspora (especially in Britain) make it a vital potential prize for enemies of America (with six times the population of Afghanistan or Iraq, Pakistan is well over half the size of the entire Arab world); and finally, because of the apocalyptic threat of terrorists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons-a threat which is far less real than it can appear from much Western analysis and reporting.

The opposition that Musharraf’s administration is facing from within the Pakistani elite is due partly to his own mistakes and partly to certain inexorable patterns of Pakistani politics, which eventually doom every regime to failure because it cannot satisfy the incessant demands for jobs and other patronage from its own supporters.1

As far as the Pakistani masses are concerned, however, by far the most important reason for the steep fall in his popularity has been his subservience to the demands of the U.S. in the “war on terror”, which most Pakistanis detest. But while the U.S. might modify its policy somewhat in this regard, as long as the U.S. remains heavily present on the ground in Afghanistan and committed to the Karzai “administration” there, it obviously cannot afford to let any Pakistani administration off the hook over this-quite apart from the need for Pakistani help in pursuing international terrorists based in Pakistan and breaking up plots aimed at the U.S., or more frequently Britain.

The U.S. now finds itself in the embarrassing position of either backing to the bitter end a man who has after all undertaken immense risks in order to help the U.S., or ditching him in the name of “democracy”-which would send a pretty discouraging signal to U.S. allies elsewhere in the region. Washington thinks that it has a replacement candidate available in the person of Benazir Bhutto, but if she misgoverns Pakistan as she did twice before, and also fails to do more to crack down on Islamist extremism, then in a few years time the U.S. may find that it does not have many options. Washington would either have to back a return to full military dictatorship-which would leave America’s official religion in tatters-or accept an Islamist presence in a ruling coalition, which would raise risks that much of the Washington establishment would find completely unacceptable.

The U.S. has to confront these extremely difficult dilemmas in the case of Pakistan because it has no choice but to do so. But Georgia, on the other hand, presents a set of dilemmas which are lesser in scope, which have a smaller impact on U.S. policy because of the willingness of much of the U.S. media to ignore developments in Georgia which do not suit dominant U.S. paradigms and ambitions. Of course, objectively speaking, the geopolitical risks and moral embarrassments involved in supporting the Saakashvili regime in Georgia should be condemned more than those involved in supporting Musharraf because they are to a great extent gratuitous: they are not compelled by truly vital U.S. interests.

The risks for the U.S. in Georgia are essentially twofold. The first is already occurring: the Saakashvili administration could become so authoritarian at home that it will reduce the entire U.S. democracy promotion agenda in the former Soviet Union to a farce. The second is much more serious: It is that faced with growing domestic discontent, Saakashvili will seek to rally the nation behind him through an attack on one of the two Russian-backed separatist territories, Abkhazia or (more likely) South Ossetia. The president could gamble that faced with the humiliation of seeing a favored client crushed by Russia, the U.S. will feel impelled to come to Georgia’s aid.

If Saakashvili ever does make that grave decision, it will be the last one he makes as Georgian president. For in practical military terms, there is almost nothing that the U.S. could or would do to help Georgia in these circumstances. Nonetheless, this would indeed represent a humiliation for the U.S., as well as a very great and totally unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. It would also have serious implications for Russian behavior in other areas of truly vital U.S. interest, like Iran.

Fortunately, in the case of Georgia the danger of this happening is to some extent mitigated by the fact that-at least judging by the remarks of European officials-recent events have made it much less likely that Georgia will join NATO. Therefore one reason for Russian hostility to Georgia will fade, or at least not grow further.

Above all, Georgia illustrates a fundamental historical truth about client states: a great power should only adopt them when it has no other choice to defend vital interests, or when they are strong enough to act as an effective buffer against a real enemy. Pakistan meets the first of these criteria; Georgia meets neither. Georgia might qualify as at least an important interest if there were a real chance of the energy of Central Asia (and not just Azerbaijan) flowing through Georgia to the West. But for a long time to come, a mixture of geographical reality, legal ambiguity, and Russian, Iranian and Chinese power seems almost certain to prevent this from happening.

In the case of Pakistan, the U.S. needs to maintain its influence by increasing but redirecting its aid, as recommended in an interesting paper last week by Senator Joseph Biden. If necessary, Americans need to be asked to make the kind of sacrifices to help Pakistan that they made to strengthen European and Asian states against Communism. In the case of Georgia, U.S. policymakers should take a hard look at what aid and influence in that country really bring to the U.S. at all.


1 See Anatol Lieven, “A Difficult Country: Pakistan and the Case for Developmental Realism”, The National Interest (Spring 2006).

The National Interest November 2007

A Difficult Country: Pakistan and the Case for Developmental Realism

There are no textbook solutions for the problems of a country like Pakistan–but a creative approach can go a long way.

ON JANUARY 13, a U.S. missile strike on the Pakistani village of Damadola, intended to kill Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, missed its target but killed at least 17 other people, probably including Al-Qaeda members but certainly including local women and children. If it had succeeded, this would have been a notable coup in the struggle against Al-Qaeda. Instead, this violation of Pakistani territory has humiliated the administration of President Pervez Musharraf and compromised his government’s assistance to the United States.

The Damadola incident illustrates a central dilemma in the War on Terror. It seems not only necessary but also just that the United States should retain the right to strike against acknowledged terrorists in those areas of the world where states cannot or will not take action.

There are, however, two central problems with this approach. First, most of the countries where large-scale terrorist activity is occurring are like Pakistan, where governments do control the greater part of their territory–just not all of it. They are not failed or even failing states, but functioning states suffering from certain weaknesses. Moreover, while their governments are allied with Washington, their populations are largely unfriendly to the United States.

The second, even more obvious point is that the United States and its allies cannot in fact invade and control such territories themselves. In the case of Pakistan, the United States will never have any choice but to work with and through a Pakistani government–almost any Pakistani government–if it wishes to exert any wider control over the fight against terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. This is especially true of the indirectly administered tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

But the importance of Pakistan goes beyond developments in Afghanistan or its possession of nuclear weapons. With some 160 million people, Pakistan has a population more than half the size of the entire Arab world. Many Pakistanis are tempted by radical Islamism. And of all the major Muslim states, Pakistan has some of the deepest underlying ethnic fissures and social problems, leading to a long-term threat of disintegration.1

The danger of tactics like the Damadola attack is that a U.S. strategy that has the unintended consequence of weakening the Pakistani government’s moral authority over its own population (and most especially its soldiers and police) may be utterly self-defeating. Even if such attacks succeed in killing leading Al-Qaeda figures, if their effect is also in the end to bring down the Musharraf government and bring to power a much less helpful or even weaker one, then the United States will have traded a limited tactical victory for a very serious strategic defeat.

The difficulty that Pakistan presents to U.S. policymakers, however, goes beyond that of tactics. This country challenges some dominant and paradigmatic American ways of seeing the world and thinking about history, democracy and progress–ideas that are common both to the Bush Administration and most of the Democratic opposition.

Pakistan and “Democracy”

UNLIKE MOST of the Arab world, Pakistan has had several prolonged experiences of democratically elected parliamentary governments in the past, from 1947 to 1958, 1971 to 1977 and 1988 to 1999. None of these democratically elected governments succeeded in lifting the country out of mass poverty, and some were economically disastrous. All civilian governments have been guilty of corruption, election-rigging and the imprisonment or murder of political opponents, in some cases to a worse degree than the military administrations that followed.

All of these periods involved serious unrest in some or all of Pakistan. The losing parties in elections have, as a rule, denounced these elections as rigged (which admittedly they often were) and encouraged the military to seize power. When the army eventually did so, in all three cases this was initially at least welcomed by a large majority of the population, utterly fed up with the experience of “democratic rule.”

Given these three previous experiences, to argue that if formal democracy were to be reintroduced in Pakistan tomorrow it would be radically different and better, one must be able to present credible evidence that something fundamental about Pakistan has changed radically for the better since the 1990s.

It is true that the economy has grown very well in recent years, thanks to a mixture of write-offs of debt since 9/11, increased flows of Western aid and wise economic policies on the part of the Musharraf government. In 2005 GDP grew by more than 8 percent, on top of growth of 6.1 percent in 2004. This is the highest growth rate in Asia after China and compares to average growth rates of only around 3 percent in the 1990s. Nonetheless, given the continual rise in the population, present growth rates will take decades to lift a majority of the population out of poverty and create large, stable and progressive middle classes. And as in Pakistan in the 1960s, high economic growth that is very unevenly distributed can actually increase political unrest. Finally, as history demonstrates, there is usually a considerable lag time between economic change and the development of political structures that reflect that change.

Lack of political progress in recent decades has been generally attributed in the West, and by Pakistani liberals, to the military’s repeated seizures of power. There is an element of truth to this, but it is also true that those interventions have usually occurred because the civilian political order has already broken down.

For democracy is representative not only of the people, but of all those classes, groups and institutions through which the popular will is refracted until it eventually finds some kind of distorted reflection in elected institutions. In other words, democracy usually reflects not so much “the people” or “the electorate” as the distribution of social, economic, cultural and political power within a given society. And if that power is held by groups like most of the Pakistani rural and urban elites, then the resulting democracy is not going to be a force for good governance, economic progress, respect for human rights, fair elections or even orderly transitions of elected government.

The nature of Pakistani society, and the weakness of real democratic development, is shown above all by the lack of real, modern, mass political parties. Without such parties, democracy is bound to be more or less a sham or facade for oligarchic rule–just as it has been in so much of Latin America. In Pakistan the only true national political parties are those of some of the Islamists. The parties routinely described in the Western media as “democratic” are in fact congeries of landlords, clan chieftains and urban bosses vowing more-or-less temporary allegiance to some national leader like Benazir Bhutto. As noted, all have been more than willing to adopt highly undemocratic methods when necessary. Most Pakistanis have fully accepted the form of democracy but are still far from truly accepting the content. The same set of attitudes prevails to a considerable extent with regard to the law, or at least laws derived ultimately from British rule and not sanctioned by religion or by tribal or communal tradition.

It would be quite wrong to see these features of Pakistan as reflecting simply the absence of “modern” values of democracy and the law. Rather, they also stem from the continued presence of traditions of overriding loyalty to family, clan and religion (often in a local form, which is contrary to the precepts of orthodox Islam as well as the Pakistani legal code) and to the rules of behavior that these loyalties enjoin. Similarly, “corruption” in Pakistan, as in so much of the world, is not the kind of viral infection instinctively portrayed by much of Western analysis. Insofar as it is entwined with patronage and family allegiance, it is an integral part of the system as a whole. Corruption cannot therefore be “cured.” Rather, as in South Korea and other societies, it can only be changed organically into less destructive forms of patronage.

A genuine, even passionate belief in law and democracy in Pakistan therefore co-exists with a belief that these institutions are like the ropes around a boxing ring. They may help to limit the area of conflict, but they do not in themselves govern what goes on inside the ring.

That includes violence. During a visit to Sind in 1989, a member of a great local landowning and political family told me:

“This is a difficult country. If neighboring landowners see that you are weakening, there are always a lot of people to take your place, and they will hit your interests in various ways, like bringing lawsuits to seize your land or your water. If you can’t protect yourself, your followers and tenants will ask how you can protect them. A semblance of strength must be maintained, or you’re finished. The trick is to show your armed strength without getting involved in endless blood-feuds. . . . Such rivalries between families and clans are also conducted in the law courts, but the ultimate decision always lies with physical force.”

This is a description straight out of the 15th-century English Paston letters–or from the old American world of the Hatfields and the McCoys. And the speaker, by the way, was no rural thug, but a senior official of a European-based bank, as highly educated and cultivated as were no doubt the Earl of Warwick or the Duke of Lancaster in their day. And as the example of the Hatfields and the McCoys suggests, these patterns, though old and deep, are not permanent or intrinsic. They can be changed radically, and Pakistan can be turned into a modern democracy–but this will take a long time and immense effort.

As to the Pakistani army, it sees itself as fulfilling the role of referee within the political boxing ring–but a referee, it must be said, with a strong personal interest in the outcome of many of the fights and a strong tendency to make up the rules as he goes along. This referee also has a long record of either joining in the fight on one side or another, or clubbing both boxers to the ground and taking the prize himself. This does not encourage respect for democratic boxing as a profession.

On the other hand, since the civilian boxers have not just boxed but often gouged, bitten, knifed, kicked, bribed the referee, corrupted the jury and encouraged their supporters in the audience to climb into the ring with baseball bats and knuckle-dusters, I must confess that I have never been able to summon up the paroxysms of righteous anger about military rule that are expected of right-thinking Western observers.

Nor can I feel too outraged about the military’s diversion of state patronage into its own pockets, especially since a good deal of this does not stick with the generals but is circulated to the lower ranks, helping to keep them disciplined and loyal. Of course, if the civilian politicians loot the state, then the men with guns are going to take their share. But because the military have been schooled in a loyalty to the country that is missing from most of the population and are a disciplined and hierarchical force, their corruption tends to be somewhat more regulated and limited than the Pakistani norm.

Finally, and most strikingly, Pakistan–and indeed South Asia and much of Latin America–demonstrates the frequent irrelevance of democracy even in an area where we instinctively think that it makes all the difference, namely human rights. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses in Pakistan take place not on the orders of the state, but as a result of state weakness. They stem from a mixture of freelance brutality and exploitation by policemen, working either for themselves or local elites; actions by local landlords and bosses; and punishments by local communities of real or perceived infringements of their moral code.

This kind of behavior has continued unchanged whether democratic or military governments are in power. Western human rights organizations, given their obsession with state oppression and the protection of small numbers of “dissidents”, find it extremely hard to recognize this basic fact, which is known to every inhabitant of a Pakistani or Mexican village.

This is also entirely characteristic of much of neighboring democratic India, as starkly revealed in a recent book about police and criminals in Bombay by Suketu Mehta called Maximum City (2005). Once again, this is a subject on which the U.S. media tend to be silent, as for example in the total lack of American reporting of an incident in the Indian state of Orissa on January 2, in which police shot dead twelve tribal people protesting at the seizure of their land. If this had happened in Pakistan or China, it would have been cited as another consequence of “dictatorship.” But since it occurred in India, the world’s largest democracy, it could not be fitted into any convenient U.S. paradigm and, therefore, in a certain sense could not be seen at all.

The Limits of Realism

BUT IF Pakistan reveals the grave limitations of the Bush Administration’s pseudo-idealistic “democratization” strategy when it comes to the War on Terror, it is also true that classical realism is seriously challenged when it comes to Pakistan. For in one regard, the democratizers do have it right. They recognize that in the long term, addressing the threats to the United States from Pakistan means changing the internal nature of Pakistani society.

Classical realism–with its obsession with the relative strength of states, and also its instinctive tendency to see states as basically unchanging–has always had a problem recognizing the profound importance of internal factors. By far the greatest danger from Pakistan to U.S. security–and even to that of India, though most Indians naturally cannot be expected to see this–comes not from Pakistani strength but Pakistani weakness.

In the short to medium term, the threats to the existing state from Islamist militancy have been greatly exaggerated. Electoral support for the Islamist parties is concentrated among the Pashtuns of the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, and makes up less than 15 percent of the Pakistani population. The army has shown again and again that it can control mass unrest in Pakistan as long as it does not spread to northern Punjab, from where most of the army’s own soldiers are recruited. Even if Musharraf is–God forbid–killed or the army is forced by mass protest to replace him, the result will almost certainly not be an Islamist takeover, but as in the past some form of transition to limited democracy, managed by the military.

Then again, nuclear weapons are forever; and so will be the potential threat from Pakistan to the United States. I’d bet a large sum of money on Pakistan surviving for the next ten years. I would hesitate to bet on it surviving for the next fifty, if current demographic, social, economic, cultural and above all ecological trends continue, and if U.S. actions in the War on Terror continue to inflame the Pakistani population. If Pakistan does one day go the way of Somalia or other African states, then Al-Qaeda or its descendants will have tremendous opportunities to fish in the wreckage.

The traditional tools of realism, from direct U.S. military or economic pressure to the use of local U.S. allies (in this case, India) to “balance” or “contain” Pakistan, are of course not without value. After 9/11, this kind of U.S. threat was critical in forcing the Musharraf government first to cooperate in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and later seriously to reduce Pakistani support for Islamist insurgents fighting Indian rule over Kashmir. Without this pressure, Musharraf himself might never have agreed to cooperate–despite his genuinely secular and national-liberal attitude to basic issues; and it would certainly have been quite impossible for him to get much of the rest of the military high command and Pakistani establishment to agree.

On the other hand, U.S. policymakers need to keep two things firmly in mind when it comes to trying to use India against Pakistan. The first is that India cannot control Pakistani internal developments any more than the United States can. In the end, only Pakistanis can rule Pakistan. The second is that very few Pakistanis, and virtually no Pakistani officers, are simply going to accept Indian hegemony in South Asia and trust in a hegemonic India to guarantee their security. They would regard this as not just treason but insanity.

It is indeed absolutely necessary to help convince the Pakistani military and civilian establishment that a continuation of the military competition with their much larger and richer neighbor threatens to ruin their state in the same way that the Soviet Union was ruined. But this should be done not through an overt U.S. security tilt towards India, but by working with both countries to help them find a settlement to the Kashmir conflict and to reduce tensions between them.

This need for balance applies especially to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear deterrents. From this point of view, the Bush Administration’s relaxation of restrictions on India has been a very negative step. We should not forget that the nuclear arms race in South Asia was initiated by India, not Pakistan, and that to ask Pakistan to forego nuclear arms when India has them is impossible.

The problem was that, because Pakistan was in a greatly inferior position to India, and under greater U.S. pressure, its search for nuclear technology necessarily led it into deals with North Korea and other “rogue states” and increased the dangers of nuclear proliferation. To prevent Pakistan from again engaging in nuclear smuggling, it is of course necessary to face Islamabad with serious threats, but it is also necessary to work hard for a nuclear weapons freeze and confidence-building measures in South Asia.

U.S. policymakers therefore need to recognize two basic truths about dealing with Pakistan; and unfortunately, both of them, for different reasons, are extremely difficult for contemporary Americans to accept. The first is that the problems presented by Pakistan are not amenable to solution, but only to long-term management and gradual amelioration. The second is that, while the only policies appropriate to dealing with Pakistan are “realist” ones, this needs to be “developmental realism”, focused on using U.S. assistance to help build up the country over a long period.

Developmental Realism

DEVELOPMENTAL realism draws upon U.S. strategies in East and Southeast Asia from 1950 to the 1970s, when very large sums in U.S. aid were directed to states from South Korea to Indonesia so as to strengthen their resistance to communist subversion. U.S. trade policy was also tailored to promote economic development by giving preferred access to U.S. markets.

Certainly, a good deal of corruption attended these efforts. But contrary to the perception of many Americans, this strategy was not only very successful overall in preventing the spread of communism but laid the basis for the development of democracy in the region. Moreover, in a country like Malaysia, the boost given to the local economy has helped Malays resist the lures of radical Islamism.

With regard to Pakistan, the biggest single focus of U.S. aid should be the improvement of Pakistan’s water infrastructure, especially in the area of conservation and reducing the present appalling degree of waste. Water shortages present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society. If present demographic and ecological trends continue, then in a few decades Pakistan will have 250 million people living in a country much of which will be as dry as the Sahara desert. In particular, given the dependence of much of Pakistan’s agriculture on river-based irrigation, the melting of the Himalayan glaciers could face populations downstream with a literally existential challenge.

The second focus of U.S. aid should be helping to provide jobs. Improving Pakistan’s educational system is important, but if this only produces unemployed and embittered graduates, the effect will be only to increase Islamist radicalism. And since the ultimate reason for U.S. aid to Pakistan is not charitable but political, it must bring visible benefits to ordinary Pakistanis.

Finally, U.S. aid should help turn Pakistan into a transport route for goods and energy between India and Europe via Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is also essential if Afghanistan itself is to be stabilized and its population given any real alternative to the heroin trade. This U.S. strategy should form part of a genuine and direct offer to Iran to help integrate that country into the regional and world economies in return for Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons program. Encouraging Iranian and Central Asian links to India via Pakistan should be made central to U.S. attempts to diminish Indian-Pakistani tension and to give both countries a critical stake in regional peace and stability. Helping Pakistan will also require U.S. responsiveness to Pakistani needs in the area of exports to the United States and the wider regulation of international trade.

These may seem wholly quixotic recommendations, given the present state of the U.S. budget deficit and the attitudes of the U.S. Congress. However, even radical improvements in Pakistan’s economy would require only a tiny fraction of the U.S. funds thrown away on the Iraq War. And, as Stephen Cohen has rightfully observed,

“The Pakistani people must see tangible evidence that the government’s tilt in favor of the United States brings significant benefits to all socio-economic strata. Most aid is invisible to the average Pakistani, who cares little about debt relief or balance of payments problems.”

The United States was capable of such enlightened realist generosity during the Cold War, and from Western Europe to South Korea to Thailand this often had spectacularly successful results in helping countries to resist communism. And if the threat from Islamist extremism and terrorism to U.S. interests and U.S. lives is not comparable to that of communism, then what has all the fuss been about these past five years?

So far, U.S. assistance has been frankly inadequate. By the end of 2006, Pakistan will have received about $3.4 billion in U.S. aid since 9/11, which sounds like a lot but is, in fact, very small in comparison to Pakistan’s needs and the size of its population, and given that almost half of this aid is not for economic development but is security related.

“Democracy”, in the shapes that it has been adopted in Pakistan so far, is not going to transform the country. Equally, direct U.S. intervention is out of the question. The United States will always have to try to shape the policies of Pakistani governments from the outside. The United States, therefore, will always require a Pakistani government that is not only responsive to U.S. wishes, but also strong enough to carry them out. Pakistan is likely to remain a kind of client state of the American empire, sometimes cooperative and sometimes recalcitrant, and U.S. policy will have to be calibrated accordingly.

The good news is that this is a problem that has faced empires throughout their history, so that we have a huge corpus of experience to draw on; the bad news is that as the Damadola incident has once again reminded us, the management of client states with unruly populations is an extremely delicate and complex task, and one that has often broken down in disaster.

Two of the world’s most spectacular modern instances of empires mismanaging this kind of relationship happened almost simultaneously in the late 1970s: the fall of the American-backed shah of Iran to one Islamist revolt, and the crumbling of the Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan in the face of another. The disastrous consequences of the Iranian revolution haunt American strategy to this day. The Soviet military intervention to save its Afghan clients was even more catastrophic, contributing both to the fall of the Soviet Union itself and to the rise of Al-Qaeda. It is essential that we do everything possible to prevent the United States in Pakistan repeating similar mistakes on an even greater scale.

1Valuable recent works on Pakistan include: Stephen Philip Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan (2004); Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror (2004); Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (2005); Mary Anne Weaver, Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (2002); and Kathy Gannon, I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror; 18 Years inside Afghanistan (2005).

The National Interest 2006

The Pressures on Pakistan


The survival of Pakistan in its existing form is a vital U.S. security interest, one that trumps all  other American interests in the country. A collapse of Pakistan — into internal anarchy or an  Islamist revolution — would cripple the global campaign against Islamist terrorism.  Strengthening the Pakistani state and cementing its cooperation with the West have thus become  immensely important to Washington.

So far, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appears firmly committed to the U.S.-led coalition,  and he seems to have the solid support of his military high command. In the short term, the  defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan will strengthen Musharraf’s domestic position. Most of the  causes of Pakistan’s decline over the last few decades, however, remain in place and have not  been changed by the war against terrorism. If these serious flaws in Pakistan’s governance  remain unaddressed, the country will sooner or later slip into a profound state of crisis. Even in  the shorter term, growing unrest as a result of economic crisis could well prompt Musharraf’s  military colleagues to shunt him aside in favor of a civilian government less supportive of the  United States. Musharraf’s power depends very much on the will of the military, and if faced  with its disapproval it is unlikely he would stay in office very long. 

Were a replacement government to pursue a pragmatic but more moderate course — somewhere  between absolute support for Washington and outright hostility to it — it would not pose a dire  threat to the U.S. antiterror campaign. Limited numbers of Pakistani tribal and religious  volunteers slipping over the border will not revive the Taliban. Outright support for the Taliban  from a radicalized Pakistani state, however, could do just that. 

To avoid Musharraf’s fall, Washington has already begun to deliver a significant flow of  economic aid, some of which was blocked after Pakistan tested its first atomic weapons in 1998.  A limited resumption of military assistance may also be forthcoming. To keep Musharraf in  power during a global economic recession, however, more will be needed; the money given so  far has not made up for the negative economic consequences Pakistan has suffered from the war  in Afghanistan. Musharraf has promised his people that they will reap rewards from siding with  the United States. But up until this point, such claims have been met with widespread public  skepticism, based on partly accurate — if exaggerated — perceptions that the United States has  broken its promises in the past. Washington has yet not done enough to prove that this time will  be different.


The United States also does not seem to fully appreciate the centrality of India in Pakistani  thinking about the current crisis. Strong popular support for the Taliban was present only in  Pashtun areas of Pakistan, closely linked to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. But Pakistan is  dominated by its Punjab province, and it is Punjabis, not Pashtuns, who have always decided the  fate of the country’s regimes. Punjabis account for 63 percent of Pakistan’s population and an  even higher proportion of the army, the officer corps, and the administrative elite. Pashtuns,  meanwhile, make up only 10 percent of the population. 

Relatively few of Pakistan’s Punjabis — many of whose parents fled India as refugees during the  dreadful communal massacres that attended partition in 1947 — seem to share the pro-Taliban  attitudes of their Pashtun neighbors. In October 2001, for example, when Pakistan’s ethnically  Pashtun regions saw serious demonstrations against the Musharraf government, the mood in  most of neighboring northern Punjab remained relatively calm. People there may have been  unhappy with the U.S. air campaign, but they never came close to taking up arms. 

Similarly, Pakistan’s long-standing policy of seeking an allied or client state in Afghanistan has  never been driven mainly by affinity for the Taliban. Rather, Pakistan’s chief motivation has  been the fear of strategic encirclement by India (which could occur if a pro- Indian regime took  power in Kabul) and the wish to achieve strategic depth against India. Musharraf has sold his  support for the current U.S. war effort to his fellow citizens by convincing them it is the best way  to avoid the formation of a hostile alliance between Washington and New Delhi. And most of the  population seems to agree; in an October Gallup poll, 56 percent of Pakistanis declared their  support for Musharraf’s strategy, even while 83 percent expressed opposition to the U.S.  campaign. 

To preserve this delicate balance within Pakistan, the United States will have to avoid tilting one  way or the other in its relations with the subcontinent. Within Pakistan, the army will have to be  treated once again as the United States’ key working partner. The army is Pakistan’s only  effective modern institution and the backbone of the Pakistani state. It is largely thanks to the  army’s discipline and unity that Musharraf has been able to keep protest against the U.S.  campaign within bounds. Maintaining a military focused on Pakistan’s core national interests,  therefore, remains the best way to save the country from being caught up in international  revolutionary Islamist delirium.


The threat that Pakistan might one day succumb to an Islamist revolution or dissolve into chaos  stems less from the strength of its Islamists than from the weakness of their opponents. Together,  Pakistan’s Islamist parties have never garnered as much as six percent of the vote in a general  election. They remain deeply divided by personal allegiances, political opportunism, regional  origins, and doctrinal differences. Still, the Islamists have managed to exert a political and  ideological influence in excess of their numbers, largely because, absent Islam, Pakistan has little  else in ideological terms to keep the country together. 

The smaller of Pakistan’s two Islamist parties, the Jamiat-ul- Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), has taken the  lead in fomenting violence against the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. The JUI is not only more  radical than the larger Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, but is also based among the Pashtun of the Northwest Frontier Province and northern Baluchistan, who have strong links to their  brethren in Afghanistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other hand, draws its main strength from  Punjab and from the mohajirs (migrants from India) of Karachi. Although the Jamaat-e-Islami  has joined in recent anti- American agitation, it remains less a true revolutionary force than a  dissident Islamist part of the Pakistani establishment. 

In recent years, the most menacing development related to the Islamists has been not shifts in  electoral politics but rather the growth of Taliban-linked radical armed groups within Pakistan.  The Pakistani army has actively helped some of these groups by providing them with training  camps and weapons, so as to strengthen their cadres fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir. But  such groups have had a destabilizing effect within Pakistan itself. One organization in particular,  the Sipah-e-Sahaba, has launched a vicious terrorist campaign against Pakistan’s Shi`a minority,  killing more than 3,600 people over the last decade. And the largest international group fighting  against Indian control of Kashmir, the Jaish-e-Muhammadi, has been officially named a terrorist  organization by the United States. 

Fortunately, the Jaish-e-Muhammadi may soon become the object of an army crackdown. In a  similar vein, although Islamabad’s attempts to gain greater control over Pakistan’s radical  madrassas (Islamic schools) made little progress before September 11, efforts are now being  intensified. These include imposing a broad, modern curriculum on the schools, registering all of  their foreign students, and forcing them to cut their ties with militant training camps. Washington  should keep the pressure on to ensure that Islamabad follows through on these efforts; the  madrassas have become training grounds for radical groups all over the Muslim world, and their  graduates have caused mayhem in Pakistan itself as well as staffed the Taliban. 

If Pakistan were to fall prey to radical Islamists, the blame would lie heavily on the country’s  secular and mildly Islamic political parties, which have dominated the country for the past 30  years. These parties have failed lamentably to develop Pakistan or improve the living conditions  of its people, thus making the radical option seem all the more attractive. One governing  politician after another has turned out to be incompetent, nepotistic, and corrupt. And when it  comes to government-sponsored human rights abuses, even Musharraf’s authoritarian regime has  been a good deal less dictatorial than several of the civilian governments that preceded it. 

The 1990s were a particularly depressing period for Pakistan in political terms. During that  decade, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party alternated turns in office with Nawaz Sharif’s  Muslim League, each forming a government twice. And both Bhutto and Sharif were ultimately  ousted after their regimes fell into a welter of corruption, incompetence, oppression, and  infighting. By contrast, the policies Musharraf has pursued since coming to power in 1999 have  been generally progressive — even, surprisingly, when it comes to freedom of the press, which  suffered considerable restriction under Sharif. Musharraf comes from a progressive family; his  mother worked for the International Labor Organization. Possibly for this reason, his government  has proved one of the most positive in Pakistan’s history as far as women’s rights are concerned – – introducing, for example, a new rule reserving 33 percent of local council seats for women. 

Given the poor record of recent elected governments, Musharraf’s openly expressed disdain for  his country’s politicians is understandable — as is his refusal to give them a place in his  government. Nonetheless, his exclusion of political parties is a mistake, and Washington should gently nudge him to change his approach. Because of the Punjabi domination of the army,  military rule increases discontent in Pakistan’s other provinces. And such unrest could soon  become a serious problem for Musharraf, since many Pashtuns of the Northwest Frontier  Province are already infuriated by the Afghan war. Pakistan’s politicians, whatever their faults,  retain great influence in their home districts, and Musharraf needs to use that support as a buffer  against mass discontent. 

To ensure that support, however, Musharraf needs to give Pakistan’s mainstream politicians a  share of government patronage. After all, Pakistani politics run on a mixture of such patronage  and kinship. Without perks and government funds to distribute, politicians’ influence in their  home districts may crumble — particularly given public unhappiness with the record of past  civilian regimes. 

One good sign is that Musharraf has already announced his intention to hold national elections in  October 2002. The general appears ready to allow politicians to form the government, while he  stays on as president and supervises governance through the Council for Defense and National  Security — rather after the fashion of the Turkish military. Much can happen between now and  October, however. If, in the meantime, Pakistan’s economy deteriorates and the government fails  to rally political support and strengthen the mainstream parties, the Islamists might finally  become a serious force at the polls. Were this to occur, the military would then face an acutely  dangerous choice between canceling the elections and allowing the possibility of a massive  hostile vote. 

Meanwhile, the precarious state of the economy makes that danger even more acute. Annual  GDP growth in the 1990s averaged only 4 percent — not nearly high enough above the  population growth rate of around 2.5 percent to produce real improvements in living standards.  To make matters worse, in the same period India’s annual growth rate averaged 5.6 percent.  Now, with a global economic downturn, probable political chaos next door, and the necessary  austerity measures all at hand, improving Pakistanis’ lives is going to be even more difficult — if  not impossible. Indeed, Pakistan will be lucky if it can avoid further serious economic  deterioration in the coming years. If, after the failure of the civilian parties, the army regime also  fails to improve conditions, the Islamists may come to look like the last ones standing. Policies  ostensibly based on the Koran and the shari`a may emerge by default, the only options not  already tried and failed.


Pakistan’s most successful period, at least in economic terms, was the reign of General Ayub  Khan from 1958 to 1969. By contrast, its most disastrous time came during the civilian rule of  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto. During this period in the 1970s, Bhutto’s  socialist-inspired nationalization of various industries nullified much of the country’s previous  gains. The military regime that followed, however — that of General Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq,  who ruled from 1977 to 1988 — was little better. Zia squandered the most favorable economic  circumstances Pakistan has ever enjoyed: the oil boom, which at its height produced some $25  billion in remittances from Pakistanis working in the Persian Gulf states; and the Soviet  occupation of Afghanistan, during which U.S. and other Western aid brought in billions more.

Over the years, Pakistan’s military has been responsible for diverting a huge proportion of the  country’s resources to support itself. The military has always argued that such huge subsidies are  essential for defense against India. But this massive spending has left disastrously little for  infrastructure, education, and other fundamentals of economic development. Over the past ten  years, military spending has averaged more than 30 percent of the budget, and most of the rest  has been spent on debt servicing. 

Two other causes often cited for Pakistan’s repeated economic failures over the past 20 years are  “feudalism” and corruption. Neither is an adequate explanation, however, and both are  misleading. The prominence of hereditary landowners in Pakistani politics is striking, especially  when compared with the way the middle classes and wealthy peasants dominate politics in India  and Bangladesh. Pakistan’s “nobles” (only some of whom hold formal titles) owe their influence  partly to their wealth but also, and more importantly, to their positions as leaders of tribes, clans,  families, or hereditary religious organizations. Although this “feudal” elite is drawn from a much  narrower range of families than are the political classes of northern India, it functions politically  in much the same way, protecting followers through physical force or by influencing the civil  service, the police, and the judiciary. 

Over the past 20 years, the effect of the violent traditions in this society has been intensified by  the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Automatic weapons have become readily  available, heroin smuggling has increased, and armed radical Islamist militias have grown  drastically. In this environment, political and even business figures have had to provide physical  protection to their supporters, encouraging the feudalization of what might otherwise have been a  relatively progressive urban capitalist class. 

In both Pakistan and much of India, it is the overwhelming supremacy of loyalty to blood over  trust in the state or the law that lies at the root of corruption and a host of other social ills.  Kinship links are the fundamental building block of society and thus cannot help but dominate  politics as well. In such a social and political environment, modernization is devilishly difficult.  But without progressive reforms, the power of the Islamists will almost certainly grow in the  long term, despite the defeat they have suffered in Afghanistan.


Both of Pakistan’s Islamist parties are now seeking to extend their influence over the military.  The Jamaat-e-Islami hopes to inspire a traditional, orderly military coup by a collective of the top  generals. The JUI, on the other hand, appears to be taking the more radical course of fomenting  mutiny in the lower ranks. 

A coup from the top, if it were only partially inspired by Islamists, would not necessarily pose a  dire threat to U.S. interests. By contrast, a mutiny from below would pose appalling risks,  especially pertaining to control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Even a radical regime would be  unlikely to ensure its own annihilation by using such weapons, but the danger of nuclear material  finding its way into the hands of terrorists would become very great indeed. 

Fortunately, the risk of Islamist rebellion within the army, although real, is very far from  imminent. Pakistan’s military remains highly disciplined and obedient, content with its privileges and prestige. The army’s stability has three roots. The first is the enormous proportion of  Pakistan’s resources that the military is allowed to consume. These resources come not just from  budgetary expenditures, but also in the form of state-owned land and property that has been  transferred over the years to the army’s Fauji Foundation. The foundation is the biggest  corporation in the country and generates profits of around $30 million a year. It serves, among  other things, as a financial support mechanism for retired soldiers. 

The other explanations for the army’s loyalty are the warrior traditions of northern Pakistan and  the modern frame given these traditions by the British Indian army, from which the Pakistani  military is descended. The army maintained its British officer culture until the early 1970s, but  this ethos could not endure forever in a service drawn from a poor Muslim country. Some form  of Islamization of the army, including its upper ranks, was inevitable. And that Islamization was  further encouraged when, starting in 1990, the U.S. military broke off its training and  consultation programs in response to Pakistan’s attempt to build a nuclear weapon. These  American programs should now be resumed as a matter of urgency. 

It remains unclear how far the Islamization of the military has translated into support for the  Taliban, terrorism, or radical anti- Americanism. The role that the army, and specifically the  Inter- Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), played in helping build up the Taliban is now a  matter of record. So too is the way in which the army has helped extremist groups fighting in Kashmir. On the other hand, the Musharraf regime and the military high command had been  growing increasingly exasperated with the Taliban for at least a year before September 11. A key  moment occurred in March 2001, when the Taliban destroyed several huge, pre-Islamic statues  in defiance of a direct personal appeal from Musharraf. One official exploded, “Friendly Afghan  regime? What friendly Afghan regime? They never listened to a word we said!” 

Much of the army, like most of society, had some sympathy for the Taliban as it faced the might  of the United States. This sympathy did not mean, however, that the military was ever prepared  to commit national suicide for the Taliban’s sake. Furthermore, of all the ISI chiefs over the past decade, only one, Lieutenant General Javed Nasir, can fairly be described as a radical Islamist.  Some of the others have had certain leanings in this direction, but their Afghan strategy was  chiefly dictated by their perception — mistaken and exaggerated as it may have been — of  Pakistan’s strategic interests, of the anti-Pakistani attitudes of the Northern Alliance, and of the  hostile intentions of India and Russia.


Pakistan’s central preoccupation, as far as the army is concerned, remains not Afghanistan but  Kashmir. Pakistan’s struggle with India over control of Kashmir began within weeks of the two  nations’ independence in August 1947. Over the decades since, the battle over this province has  become a key part of Pakistan’s army, and even its state, ideology. 

The conflict reached a new peak in the winter of 1998-99, when Sharif was prime minister and  Musharraf his army chief of staff. Pakistan launched a militarily brilliant but politically reckless  operation in Kashmir, helping militants (possibly including Pakistani troops, and certainly  backed by Pakistani artillery and logistics support) occupy heights on the Indian side of the de  facto border near Kargil, overlooking the main Indian line of communication. The Pakistani-backed fighters held their own against Indian counterattacks, but Pakistan was eventually forced  to withdraw under heavy pressure from the international community, led by the United States. 

The result of this diplomatic debacle was that, even before September 11, the Pakistani military  and civilian elite had begun to moderate their attitudes on Kashmir. This new attitude was soon  displayed in a new openness to bilateral talks with India. The Pakistani elite also seems finally to  have woken up to the domestic threat created by all the radical mujahideen the country has  supported. Sartaj Aziz, a former foreign and finance minister, explained recently, “For every ten  [militants] who are trained here to fight in Kashmir, one goes and the rest stay in Pakistan to  cause trouble.” And retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood observed, “Thanks to the U.S.  antiterrorism campaign, the mujahideen fighting in Kashmir will have to be reined in. The state  has to have a monopoly of armed force. Above all, our possession of nuclear weapons makes this  essential, because if there is internal instability here, there will be attempts at intense  international scrutiny of us.” 

Not that resolving the Kashmir issue will be easy. India will not give up its possession of most of  the province under any terms. Pakistan’s long-running insistence, therefore, that India comply  with U.N. resolutions calling for a referendum on independence in Kashmir is a non-starter. Only  when Pakistan accepts some degree of Indian sovereignty will it become possible to work toward  a settlement involving partial demilitarization, open borders, and the restoration of partial  autonomy to Indian Kashmir. A settlement might also encompass some territorial adjustments  between the two Kashmirs and, as in Northern Ireland, new cross-border institutions embracing  both territories. But as part of this process, Pakistan would have to stop giving military help to  the Kashmiri insurgents. 

None of this will happen, however, if Pakistan is expected to make the first move alone. India  too has to make important concessions for a peace process to begin. These sacrifices should  include recognition of the international community’s role in seeking a settlement and of the  centrality of Kashmir to the Indo-Pakistani relationship. India will also have to address the  legitimate grievances of Kashmir’s Muslims, their fear of the Indian security services, and their  frustration at New Delhi’s unconstitutional meddling in local affairs. Although U.S. leverage  over India is slight, the United States should try to encourage this process. 

After all, as long as the contest over Kashmir continues, it will remain a draw for radical  mujahideen from throughout the Muslim world and will encourage groups within Pakistan to  give them support and shelter. Islamist terrorists also know that the best way to encourage  revolution in Pakistan is to provoke New Delhi or Indian Hindus into savage repression of India’s  Muslim minority. The war between India and Pakistan that might ensue would radicalize  Pakistani Muslim feeling — especially if India were seen as being backed by the United States.  Such a war also would entail the horrendous risk of a nuclear exchange between the two  countries. 

The United States cannot now hope to limit this risk by ridding the subcontinent of nuclear  weapons. One reason neither India nor Pakistan will give up such assets is the fundamental lack  of symmetry between the two countries. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is that country’s key deterrent  against India. It plays the same role as did Western nuclear forces during the Cold War: it deters  a potential adversary with a heavy superiority in conventional forces. India’s development of nuclear weapons, by contrast, was not focused solely on Pakistan. Rather, India was as or more  concerned about its rivalry with China, its own desire to be seen as China’s equal in Asia, and its  aspirations to become a great power on the world stage. 

The nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan, then, will not be easy to eliminate. It could,  however, be contained and made less dangerous — especially if the United States would make the  right moves on Kashmir. Doing so would also help reduce the devastating economic impact the  continued conflict has had on both countries, especially the much weaker Pakistan. Maintaining  a military rivalry with a country that has a population seven times larger than its own is steadily  bankrupting Pakistan. In the 1990s, India spent around two percent of its GDP annually on its  military. Pakistan spent five percent of its GDP, which is one-eighth the size of India’s, on a  military less than half the size of its rival’s. 

With no money left over for investment in infrastructure, Pakistan is unable to do much to  promote its economic growth. Nor can it afford to improve the deep inadequacies in its state  education system. Such inadequacies encourage the country’s poor to turn toward radical  madrassas, since these do not demand fees and provide free food and clothing. The military  rivalry with India, in short, has become a key factor pushing Pakistan toward long-term  disintegration. And radical Islamists are waiting to pick up the pieces. 

In the long term, only serious economic growth and the development of accountable political  parties will stabilize Pakistan and end this threat. In the short-to-medium term, however, the  army remains the best bulwark against chaos and revolution. It is on the army, therefore, that Washington must base its immediate efforts. Inevitably, this will require providing Pakistan with  some of the new weaponry it seeks. But it will also require a resumption of training programs  and different forms of contact with Pakistani officers at all levels. If Pakistan’s military is going  to remain supportive of the United States and take the difficult steps necessary to defend the U.S.  war against terrorism, these officers must be convinced that their actions are in Pakistan’s  national interest. And Washington still has a lot of convincing to do.

Foreign Affairs January/February 2002

Against Russophobia

Ever since the Cold War ended, Western officials and commentators have been telling the Russians how they need to grow out of their Cold War attitudes toward the West and Western institutions, and learn to see things in a “modern” and “normal” way. And there is a good deal of truth in this. At the same time, it would have been good if we had subjected our own inherited attitudes toward Russia to a more rigorous scrutiny. For like any other inherited hatred, blind, dogmatic hostility toward Russia leads to bad policies, bad journalism, and the corruption of honest debate – and there is all too much of this hatred in Western portrayals of and comments on Russia.

From this point of view, an analysis of Russophobia has implications that go far beyond Russia. Much of the U.S. foreign pol- icy debate, especially on the Republican side, is structured around the belief that American policy should be rooted in a robust defense of national interest – and this is probably also the belief of most ordinary Americans. However, this straightforward view coexists with another, equally wide- spread, view that dominates the media. It is, in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words, that “the United States stands taller than other nations, and therefore sees further.” The unspoken assumption here is that America is not only wise but also objective, at least in its perceptions: that U.S. policy is influenced by values, but never by national prejudices. The assumption behind much American (and Western) reporting of foreign conflicts is that the writer is morally engaged but ethnically uncommitted and able to turn a benign, all-seeing eye from above on the squabbles of humanity.

It is impossible to exaggerate how irritating this attitude is elsewhere in the world, or how misleading and dangerous it is for Western audiences who believe it. Not only does it contribute to mistaken policies, but it renders both policymakers and ordinary citizens incapable of understanding the opposition of other nations to those policies. Concerning the Middle East, it seems likely that most Americans genuinely believe that the United States is a neutral and objective broker in relations between Israelis and Palestinians – which can only appear to an Arab as an almost fantastically bad joke. This belief makes it much more difficult for Americans to comprehend the reasons for Palestinian and Arab fury at both the United States and Israel. It encourages a Western interpretation of this anger as the manipulation of sheep-like masses by elites. At worst, it can encourage a kind of racism, in which certain nations are classed as irrationally, irredeemably savage and wicked.

Concerning Russia, the main thrust of the official Western rhetoric with respect to the enlargement of NATO, and Russia’s response, has been that the alliance is no longer a Cold War organization or a threat to Russia, that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with Russia, that Russia should welcome enlargement, and that Russian op- position is not merely groundless but foolish and irrational. It is of course true that Russian fears of NATO expansion have been exaggerated, and some of the rhetoric has been wild. Still, given the attitudes toward Russia reflected in much of the Western media (especially among the many supporters of NATO enlargement), a Russian would have to be a moron or a traitor to approve the expansion of NATO without demanding guarantees of Russian interests and security.1

This is not to deny that there has been a great deal to condemn in many aspects of Russian behavior over the past decade, the war in Chechnya being the most ghastly example. But justifiable Western criticism has all too often been marred by attacks that have been hysterical and one-sided, and it has taken too little account of the genuine problems and threats with which Russians have had to struggle. This has been especially true of comment on the latest Chechen war, which began in the summer of 1999.

Outworn Stereotype

Western Russophobia has various roots. One shoot is the continuing influence of what the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum has called “residual elites”: groups and individuals who rose to prominence during the Cold War and have lacked the flexibility to adapt to a new reality. To these can be added others who have sought to carve out careers by advocating the expansion of U.S. influence into the lands of the former Soviet Union, in direct competition with Russia. Then there are various ethnic lobbies, whose members hate and distrust Russia for historical reasons and whose sole remaining raison d’etre is to urge an anti-Russian geopolitical agenda. Finally, there are those individuals who need a great enemy, whether from some collective interest or out of personal psycho- logical need.

Much of the intellectual basis for, and even the specific phraseology of, Russophobia was put forward in Britain in the nineteenth century, growing out of its rivalry with the Russian Empire.2 Given Britain’s own record of imperial aggression and suppression of national revolt (in Ireland, let alone in India or Africa), the argument from the British side was a notable example of the kettle calling the pot black. Many contemporary Russophobe references to Russian expansionism are almost word-for-word repetitions of nineteenth-century British propaganda3 (though many pre-1917 Russians were almost as bad, weeping copious crocodile tears over Britain’s defeat of the Boers shortly before Russia itself crushed Polish aspirations for the fourth time in a hundred years).

When it comes to Western images of other nations and races, there has been an effort in recent decades to move from hostile nineteenth-century stereotypes, especially when linked to “essentialist” historical and even quasi-racist stereotypes about the allegedly unchanging nature and irredeemable wickedness of certain peoples (though it seems that this enlightened attitude does not apply to widespread American attitudes toward Arabs).

If outworn stereotypes persist in the case of Russia, it is not only because of Cold War hostility toward the Soviet Union (identified crudely and unthinkingly with “Russia,” although this was a gross oversimplification). It is also the legacy of Soviet and Russian studies within Western academe. Its practitioners were often deeply ideological (whether to the right or left) and closely linked to Western policy debates and to the Western intelligence and diplomatic communities. On the right, there was a tendency, exemplified by the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, to see Soviet communism as a uniquely Russian product, produced and prefigured by a millennium of Russian his- tory. In a 1996 article, Professor Pipes wrote of an apparently fixed and unchanging “Russian political culture” leading both to the adoption of the Leninist form of Marxism in 1917 and to the problems of Russian democracy in 1996 – as if this culture had not changed in the past 80 years, and as if the vote of ordinary Russians for the Communists in 1996 was motivated by the same passions that possessed Lenin’s Red Guards.4 Even after the Soviet collapse, this tendency has persisted, and developments in post- Soviet Russia are seen as a seamless continuation of specifically Soviet and tsarist patterns – patterns which, it goes without saying, are also specifically and uniquely wicked.5

To be sure, many of the crimes of communism in Russia and in the Soviet bloc were uniquely wicked. But the behavior of the tsarist empire and the dissolution of its Soviet version in the 1990s can only be val- idly judged in the context of European and North American imperialism, decolonization, and neo-colonialism. Pre-1917 imperial Russia’s expansionism was contemporaneous with that of Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Britain, and the United States. As far as the Soviet Union’s disintegration is concerned, Russophobes cannot have it both ways. If the Soviet Union was to a consider- able extent a Russian empire, then the legitimate context for the study of its disintegration is the retreat of other empires and their attempts to create post- or neo-colonial systems. In this context – particularly bearing in mind France’s retreat from its Asian and African empire – the notion that the Soviet/ Russian decolonization process has been uniquely savage becomes absurd. Such com- parisons are essential in attempting to deter- mine what has been specifically Soviet, or specifically Russian, about this process, and what reflects wider historical realities.

A Historicist Approach

These comparisons are rarely made. References to allegedly unique and unchanging historical patterns in Russian behavior are an ongoing trope of much of Western journalistic and academic comment. Take for example a recent statement by Henry Kissinger: “For four centuries, imperialism has been Russia’s basic foreign policy as it has expanded from the region around Moscow to the shores of the Pacific, the gates of the Middle East and the center of Europe, relentlessly subjugating weaker neighbors and seeking to overawe those not under its direct control.”6 This not only implies that expansionism was uniquely Russian but that it represents an unchangeable pattern. Yet for virtually this entire period, the same re- mark could have been made about the British, the French, or (within North and Central America at least) the United States. It is also extremely odd that in 1989-93, “Russia” conducted what was probably the greatest, and most bloodless imperial retreats in history and that this has simply vanished from Kissinger’s account. At worst, such attitudes can approach a kind of racism, as in the conservative political commentator George Will’s statement that “expansionism is in the Russians’ DNA.”7

Another example of such thinking is former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s statement that “[the Russians] have denied many, many times now that they have committed atrocities [in Chechnya]…. In 1941, they killed 15,000 Polish prisoners, officers in Katyn, and they denied that for 50 years.”8 In his account, “the Russians” as a collectivity are fully responsible for the crimes committed by the Soviet Union under the Communist dictatorship of Joseph Stalin – an ethnic Georgian who at the time of the massacre at Katyn was also responsible for murdering or imprisoning millions of ethnic Russians who were accused of hostility toward communism or toward Stalin himself. This Stalinist past is then made part of a seamless continuity of “Russian” behavior, running unchanged through the years since Stalin’s death. The condemnation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev, the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, the peaceful Soviet withdrawal from Poland, the Russian recognition of the independence of the other Soviet republics – all this is ignore.

As Brzezinski’s statement illustrates, this essentialist attitude toward Russia has played a major part in the reporting of and commentary on, the latest Chechen war. Take, for example, a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times: “Russians also fight brutally because that is part of the Russian military ethos, a tradition of total war fought with every means and without moral restraints.”9 Unlike, of course, the exquisite care for civilian lives displayed by the French and American air forces during the wars in Indo-China, Korea, and Algeria, the strict adherence to legality in the treatment of prisoners, and so on. The editorial read as if the wars against guerrillas and partisans involving Western powers had been wiped from the record. (What was most depressing was that it followed two articles on Russian and Chechen atrocities by Maura Reynolds and Robyn Dixon in the same newspaper that were the very models of careful, objective – and utterly harrowing – reportage).10

This historicist approach toward Russia also reflects the decline of history as an area of study, an ignorance of history on the part of international relations scholars, and the unwillingness of too many historians them- selves to step beyond their own narrow fields. The attitudes it reveals also spring from a widespread feeling that Russophobia is somehow legitimized by the past Western struggle against Communist totalitarianism, a struggle I strongly supported. This is deeply mistaken. With communism dead as a world ideology, dealing with Russia – or China for that matter – has become the much more familiar, historically common- place question of dealing with nations and states, which we on occasion may have to op- pose and condemn, but whose behavior is governed by the same interests and patterns that historically have influenced the behavior of our own countries. In fact, both the policy and the statements of Russian generals with respect to Chechnya not only recall those of French generals during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), but of Turkish generals during the recent war against the Kurdish pkk: the ruthless prosecution of the war (including in the Turkish case major attacks on PKK bases in Iraq); a refusal to negotiate with the enemy; no role whatsoever for international organizations. None of this is, or ever was, praiseworthy, but “communism” plays no role in it.

I might add that many old hard-line Cold Warriors-turned-Russophobes like Brzezinski and Kissinger have in any case rendered their pretensions to anticommunist morality dubious by the warmth with which they embrace the Chinese state, as well as their wooing of hard-line ex-Communist dictators in Central Asia and elsewhere.11

Architectures of Hatred

Russophobia today is therefore rooted not in ideological differences but in national hatred of a kind that is sadly too common. In these architectures of hatred, selected or in- vented historical “facts” about the “enemy” nation, its culture, and its racial nature are taken out of context and slotted into pre- arranged intellectual structures to arraign the unchanging wickedness of the other side. Meanwhile, any counterarguments, or memories of the crimes of one’s own are sup- pressed. This is no more legitimate when directed by Russophobes against Russia than when it is directed by Serb, Greek, or Armenian chauvinists against Turkey, Arabs against Jews, or Jews against Arabs.

The most worrying aspect of Western Russophobia is that it demonstrates the capacity of too many Western journalists and intellectuals to betray their own professed standards and behave like Victorian jingoists or Balkan nationalists when their own national loyalties and hatreds are involved. And these tendencies in turn serve wider needs. Overall, we are living in an exceptionally benign period in human history so far as our own interests are concerned. Yet one cannot live in Washington without be- coming aware of the desperate need of certain members of Western elites for new enemies, or resuscitated old ones. This is certainly not the wish of most Americans – nor of any other Westerners – and it is dangerous. For of one thing we can be sure: a country that is seen to need enemies will sooner or later find them everywhere.

As an antidote, Western journalists and commentators writing on the Chechen wars might read Alistair Home’s A Savage War of Peace (about the French war in Algeria), Max Hastings’s Korean War (especially the passages dealing with the capture of Seoul in 1950 and the U.S. air campaign), any serious book on the U.S. war in Viet- nam or French policies in Africa, or more general works like V. G. Kiernan’s Colonial Empires and Armies, With regard to Russian crimes in Chechnya, they could also read some of the remarks on the inherent cruelty of urban warfare by Western officers in journals like the Marine Corps Gazette and Parameters. Neither Home nor Hastings (both patriotic conservatives) were “soft on communism”; nor are most military writers “soft on Russia.” They are true professionals with a commitment to present the facts, however uncomfortable – and they have the moral courage to do so. Concerning the pre- 1917 Russian Empire in the context of Euro- pean imperial expansion in general, I could also recommend (by way of a family advertisement and to reveal my own intellectual influences) my brother Dominic Lieven’s re- cent book, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals.12

A familiar counterargument to this approach is that Western colonial and neocolonial crimes are long past, and that we have atoned for them. To this there are a number of responses, the first of which is that some allowance has to be made for the fact that Russia only emerged from Communist isolation about ten years ago, whereas at the time of their crimes the Western colonial powers were democracies and longstanding members of the “free world.” And while some have excused the crimes of other for- mer communist states on the nature of the system they have abjured, such leniency has not been shown toward Russia.

Then there is geography. Western powers escaped involvement in ex-colonial conflicts by putting the sea between themselves and their former colonies. Britain, for examples, was not directly affected by wars in any former colonies except Ireland, because they occurred at a distance. Russia thought it was making a similar break when it with- drew from Chechnya in 1996 – but in its case of course there was no ocean in between. If France had had a land border with Algeria, the war there might well have gone on far longer than it did.

I believe that the Russian invasion of Chechnya in October 1999 was a terrible mistake, and that the government in Moscow ought to have done everything in its power to find other ways of dealing with the Chechen threat. At the same time, any honest account must recognize that forces based in Chechnya had carried out attacks on Russia that would have provoked most other states in the world – including the United States – to respond forcefully. How would France have reacted if the French withdrawal from Algeria had been immediately followed by Algerian raids into France?13

And then there is the question of the brutal way in which the Russians conducted the war, especially the destruction of Grozny. Since the early 1970s, it has been difficult to say whether the Western conduct of antipartisan wars or urban operations has improved because, as a result of Vietnam, Americans have taken enormous care to avoid involvement in such wars – and once again, geography has given the United States that option. But when American soldiers became involved in a lethal urban fight in Mogadishu in 1994, the indiscriminate way in which retaliatory firepower was used meant that Somali casualties (the great majority of them civilian) outnumbered U.S. casualties by between twenty-five and fifty to one.14 In other words, to some extent the degree of carnage in Chechnya reflects not inherent and historical Russian brutality, but the nature of urban warfare.

That the Russian have been extremely brutal in Chechnya is beyond question – but explanations for this should be sought in Russian history than in the common roots that produced U.S. atrocities in Vietnam – a demoralized army under attack from hidden enemies operating from within the civilian population. I have no doubt that even in Chechnya, Western troops would have behaved much better than the Russians. But then again, the West’s soldiers come from proud, well-paid services, and are honored and supported by their societies. If American, French, or British troops had undergone the treatment by their own state that Russian soldiers suffered in the 1990s (notably the catastrophic decline in spend- ing on the armed forces, and especially on military pay), and were then thrown into a bloody partisan war, one would not like to answer for their behavior.

Moreover, especially with regard to the French and their sphere of influence in Af- rica, it is not true that Western crimes are necessarily long in the past. If one examines French “sphere-of-influence” policies toward Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide (as analyzed by Gerard Prunier, Philip Gourevitch, and others), one finds a record uglier than anything Russia has done since 1991 beyond its own borders. Why should Russians listen to French lectures? In France, leading figures deeply implicated in the Algerian debacle – like former president Francois Mitterrand – continued to play leading roles until their deaths. In both Algeria and Vietnam (and in British campaigns such as that against the Mau Mau), the punishments meted out to Western officers accused of atrocities were either derisory or nonexistent. Is this of no relevance to pre- sent demands that Russia punish its soldiers for atrocities in Chechnya?

To draw these parallels in no way justifies Russian crimes in Chechnya or else- where – and I firmly believe that the Russian state should try to punish some of the officers directly responsible for crimes in Chechnya – both as a matter of justice and morality, and as a means of reimposing order on what too often resembles an armed rabble more than a modern organized force. I also believe, however, that Western pressure for this would be better phrased in the terms used by President Clinton during a visit to Turkey. When he criticized the Turkish government and military for their policies toward the Kurds, he made it clear that he was doing so not from a position of moral superiority but as the representative of a country which itself had been guilty of racism and ethnic suppression.

This I believe is a more honorable and effective way of making the point. In contrast, I would condemn the statements of certain German and Belgian politicians who oppose Turkish membership in the Euro- pean Union – not for economic reasons or because of particular actions by contemporary Turkish governments, but because of supposedly innate, unchanging Turkish national features such as adherence to a negatively stereotyped Islam.

Rejecting Bigotry

Rejecting this sort of bigotry with regard to Russia, and insisting on proper balance and use of evidence, is what has led me to the extremely unwelcome position of appear- ing to defend some aspects of Russian policy in the Caucasus – not because I wish to de- fend Russian crimes (which have been legion) but because I cannot accept that Russia should be judged by utterly different standards than those applied to other countries.

The crimes of a General Massu against Algerian civilians in the 1950s do not justify the crimes of a General Kvashnin in Chechnya, any more than the crimes of a General Kitchener against South Africans during the Boer War justified those of Massu. Nor do French sphere-of-influence policies in Africa in themselves justify similar Russian policies in its “Near Abroad.” In fact, if the French (for example) who harangue Russia on its sins would make some reference to their country’s own past crimes, it would actually make their arguments stronger. Then, one could have a rational argument with a Russian about historical, ethnic, political, and geographical similarities and differences between, say, Algeria and Chechnya, and about what are Russian crimes, what is truly in Russia’s interest, and how Russia should reasonably be expected to handle Chechnya.

Such a comparative approach would eliminate the essentialist, or chauvinist/ historicist/racist element in critiques of Russia. It would allows an analysis based on common moral standards and, equally important, common standards of evidence and logic in the reporting and analysis of Chechnya and other issues involving Russia. This, in turn, would permit a policy toward Russia based on reason and Western interest, not on bigotry, hysteria, and nationalist lobbies.

An example of how blind hostility to- ward Russia – and the absence of any com- parison to other postcolonial situations – can warp Western reporting may be seen in the following passage from the Economist of last September: “Russia may be using still dodgier tactics elsewhere. Uzbekistan, an autocratically run and independent-minded country in Central Asia, is facing a mysterious Islamic insurgency. Its president, Islam Karimov, said crossly this week that Russia was exaggerating the threat, and was trying to intimidate his country into accepting Russian bases.”15 As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” I do hot know of a single shred of evidence or the testimony of a single reputable expert to support this insinuation, which is in any case counterintuitive, given the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s links to Russia’s most bitter enemies. It is a passage reminiscent of the baroque Russian conspiracy theories suggesting, among other things, that the CIA is actually behind the terrorist Osama bin Laden.16

Instead, we would do better to listen to Owen Harries, editor of the National Interest, a conservative who was a tough anticommunist and is certainly no Russophile:

During the Cold War, a struggle against what was truly an evil empire, there was some justification in maintaining that similar behavior by Washington and Moscow should be judged differently, because the intrinsic moral character of the two actors was so different. But that was due less to the unique virtues of the United States than to the special vileness of the Soviet Union, and even then applying double standards was a tricky business, easily abused. In the more mundane world of today there is no justification for applying one standard to the rest of the world and another to America. Not only does insistence on double standards seem hypocritical to others, thereby diminishing American credibility and prestige, but even more seriously, it makes it impossible to think sensibly and coherently about international affairs. And that is a fatal drawback for an indispensable nation.17

Hatred of Soviet communism helped take me to Afghanistan in 1988 as a journalist covering the war from the side of the anti-Soviet resistance, and then to the Baltic States and the Caucasus in 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was prepared to justify nasty Western crimes as a regrettable part of the struggle against communism. But I never pretended these crimes did not occur, or that the reasons for them did not include a good measure of crude traditional national power politics.

The Cold War was a profoundly necessary struggle, but it was also one in which Western morality suffered and Western soldiers on occasion behaved badly. Westerners greeted their qualified but peaceful victory with overwhelming joy and relief. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, it is time to liberate ourselves from Cold War attitudes and to remember that whether as journalists or academics, our first duty is not to spread propaganda but to hold to the highest professional standards.

World Policy Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Winter, 2000/2001), pp. 25-32 (8 pages)


1 . See, for example, the attitudes toward Russia reflected in Ariel Cohen, Thomas Moore, John Hillen, John Sweeney, James Phillips, and James Przystup, “Making the World Safe for America,” in Issues ’96: The Candidate’s Briefing Book (Washington, D.C., Heritage Foundation).

2. The classic study of this tradition remains John Howard Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950).

3. A favorite example of mine – and one be- loved of anti-Russian geopoliticians then and now – is captain Fred Burnaby, a British Guards officer who traveled extensively in the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, and wrote some brilliantly vivid accounts of his experiences with a strongly anti-Russian cast. Burnaby was later killed fighting with a British expedition to the Sudan. What was he doing there, one may ask? Well, he was trying to introduce Christian civilization to the Sudanese with the help of the Maxim gun and the Martini-Henry rifle. This of course bore no relation- ship whatsoever in his own mind to Russia’s introduction of Christian civilization in Central Asia with the help of slightly different brands of armaments. See his A Ride to Khiva, first published London 1877 (republished, London: Century Hutchinson, 1983).

4. Richard Pipes, “Russia’s Past, Russia’s Fu- ture,” Commentary, June 1996. See also his “A Na- tion with One Foot Stuck in the Past,” Sunday (London) Times, October 20, 1996. For a similar his- toricist view, see Mark Galeotti, The Age of Anxiety: Security and Politics in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia (New York: Longman, 1995), esp. pp.3-24.

5. For a milder version of such thinking, see Laurent Murawiec, “Putin’s Precursors,” The National Interest, no. 60 (summer 2000), in which the Putin regime is slotted into a desperately simplistic theory of a division between “Westernizers” and Slavophiles” that allegedly runs continuously from the eighteenth century through the era of the Soviet Union to the present.

6. Henry Kissinger, “Mission to Moscow: Clinton Must Lay the Groundwork for a New Rela- tionship with Russia,” Washington Post, May 15, 2000.

7. George Will, “Eastward-Ho – And Soon,” Washington Post, June 13, 1996.

8. Interview with Gene Randall on CNN, February 26, 2000.

9. “The World Must Not Look Away,” editorial, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2000.

10. Maura Reynolds, “War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Fighting in Chechnya,” and Robyn Dixon, “Chechnya’s Grimmest Industry,” Los Angeles Times, September 17 and 18, 2000, respectively.

11. For the contrast between Brzezinski’s approach to human rights abuses in Russia and in China, or in the states of Central Asia he wishes to turn into anti-Russian allies, see, for example, his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Trade Relations with China, July 9, 1998, or his interview in Cyber-Caravan: News and Analysis from Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 1 , no. 2, February 18, 1998.

12. Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (London: Macmillan, 2000).

13. See my essay, “Nightmare in the Caucasus,” Washington Quarterly vol. 23 (winter 2000).

14. See Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999).

15. “Russia and Its Neighbours: Frost and Friction,” Economist, September 30, 2000.

16. See, for example, Konstantin Truyevtsev, “Ben Laden v Kontekste Chechni,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 30, 1999.

17. Owen Harries, “America Should Practice the Foreign Policy It Preaches,” International Herald Tribune, August 24, 1999.