That 1913 feeling

I spent the last four days at the Munich Security Conference, which is the global gathering for all those interested in international relations and matters of war and peace. It takes place in a historic Bavarian hotel whose hallways and coffee lounges are much too narrow for the throngs of diplomats, parlamentarians and statesmen, along with their security goons, and of course the hordes of think-tankers and journalists like me. Everyone jostles and bumps into everyone else. All of which is usually a good thing in world politics.

This year was different, as the old-timers told me. Nobody could remember any instance over the years when a speaker was jeered with derisive laughter. But that’s how the audience reacted to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, as he spouted Putin’s propaganda from the stage. Lindsey Graham, an American senator who talked a gun-slinging Fox-Newsy tough talk, called the statements by another Russian on his panel “garbage” and “lies”.

He, like John McCain, another American senator, also harangued Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, as if she were an unruly child. McCain told German television that she clearly does not care that Ukrainians are dying–for if she did, she would offer to sell them weapons. (As though there were no other reasons to oppose sending arms.) Germans don’t like that American tone, just as Americans would not like it in reverse. As if Russia vs the West were not enough, we’re also getting more West vs West.

Merkel, for her part, has not properly slept for a week and won’t for another. With her French colleague, Francois Hollande, she flew to Kiev on Thursday, then to Moscow on Friday. The talks with Putin were evidently as frustrating as ever. On Saturday she came to the Munich conference to address us. Then it was on to Washington, where she is today with Obama. Then on to Canada tomorrow, and then to Minsk on Wednesday. She is killing herself trying to get one especially stubborn and unreasonable man with a dangerous inferiority complex and several other slightly less stubborn men to step back from the brink.

In the hallways and over the lunches I talked it over with the veterans and experts. We went deep into history and jargon (“hybrid warfare”, “escalation dominance”, …). But wonkishness is a thin veneer over gut feelings. And almost everyone there had a bad gut feeling about the whole thing.

The diplomatic currency of talking–of listening to opponents and believing at least part of what they say–is used up. The ghosts of the past are coming unburied. Europe is in incredible danger.

25 thoughts on “That 1913 feeling

  1. As I understand the situation, Putin wants to maintain/establish a Russia-friendly security buffer zone, comprised of the former Soviet Union states, so as to guard against Western aggression a la Napoleon and Hitler. Given history, this doesn’t seem so unreasonable from the Russian perspective, does it?

    • Well, that’s what “we” in the West consider spheres-of-influence thinking, ie an atavism from the 19th and mid 20th centuries. Until recently, we liked to think that Europe today accepts rules and norms–in this case: 1) borders and 2) the right of countries (Ukraine) to choose freely and democratically with whom they wish to trade/ally. Putin broke those rules.

      He may paint his actions as, in your words, guarding against Western aggression. But that does not mean the West actually ever was aggressive. Until very recently, the West, especially Germany, did everything it could to make Russia prosper in the existing international order.

    • The West may not have been aggressing against Russia of late, but it did invade Russia twice within the past 200 years (Napoleon and Nazi Germany respectively). It would seem a bit naive to operate on the assumption that something that happened twice in relatively recent history couldn’t possibly happen again.

      And then there was the Cold War.

      Hence, it seems somewhat logical, from a strategic perspective, that Russia’s respect for the right of countries to choose freely and democratically with whom they wish to trade/ally would stop short of countenancing a NATO member at their Western border, only a few hundred miles from Moscow. So once the Ukraine seemed a bit overly interested in joining NATO, the alarm bells went off in the Kremlin.

      Judging from a glance at the map, on purely geographical grounds, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states just look like a natural protective cushion for Russia that Russia wouldn’t want to lose. (Protective against what? Against history repeating itself, as it all too often does.)

      This is not to say that Putin isn’t a sinister and paranoid megalomaniac on top of it all.

    • It all sounds so reasonable when put that way… as Putin does…But what about the wishes of the people of those countries that would make up that “buffer zone?” Are they unimportant and merely “tank fodder” who should be willing to die and be occupied by the enemies of Russia, should those enemies decide to try to invade Russia?

    • Call me cynical, but I have a hunch that strategic geopolitical considerations, whether entertained by Russia or the U.S. or any other power, do not turn on moral ideals or the druthers of any given country’s people.

  2. I have a dismal feeling that even relatively intelligent, news-watching Americans have no sense of this situation, and feel that it has nothing to do with them. Islamic extremism captures all the headlines, and Putin is the punchline of a joke to most people — an absurd little man with megalomanic flourishes. Which gives it sort of a 1938 feeling.

    • Yes, it is the 1930’s. Hundreds of foreign fighters flood a country ( Spain ) grabbing the attention of the world while the real danger grows in central Europe, as you say, because of an absurd little man with megalomanic flourishes. Meanwhile the Americans are watching the American news, rather than listening to the BBC or reading The Economist, and they are reliving their neutrality obsession that re-elected Woodrow Wilson. The parallels between the two Presidents couldn’t be more clear; erudite, relatively new to politics. A man of ideas rather than realpolitik. Gives me that 1913 feeling too.

    • You’re probably right, sledpress. And of course Islamic extremism is ALSO a huge problem. It’s interesting that at teh Munich Security Conference it was relegated to second in urgency behind Putin. That tells you not only that the Ukraine conflict feels closer and more threatening in Europe btu also that many of the world’s top brass consider it possibly more dangerous than the many other conflicts.

  3. Your last line is chilling, Andreas. But I wonder: what part or persons of Europe are in “incredible danger”? and why?
    And, thanks for posting. I miss you.

    • The “incredible danger” is that, as in 1914, this conflict slips out of control, which it now plausibly could. Then it could escalate in any number of directions and threaten all of Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, Poland etc. Since the Baltics and Poland are now in NATO that would require a response, and voila you have war. Putin has played the madman card in his metaphors (often referring to an experience in his youth in Leningrad, when he cornered a rat which then attacked him–with the implication that he is the rat), and now lets Russian warplanes fly up and down the Baltic in a threatening manner (the other day, one nearly collided with a Danish commercial jet). His “green men” (ie, Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms) are engaged in “hybrid warfare” in the Ukraine and could try the same elsewhere in the belt that Putin likes to make his sphere of influence. And so on. And he has nukes.

    • DIsclaimer: I have Ukrainian clients (an ex-pat who is now mostly senile, and her daughter, a decade and some younger than myself) and their sense, funnelled through their networks inside Ukraine, is exactly that Putin understands nothing but force. He will, they opine, go out of his way to defy sanctions with greater aggression. … Having said that, it is unimaginable that Western powers would actually rise to the point of stepping on the Putin government’s forces with the kind of extreme prejudice that would make him back off; the everyone-into-the-pool scenario seems the only result. It is going to be a long innings.

  4. The judge says we are careening out of control. We, here, have an ineffective president. 70% of the Democrats say he is doing a good job. America may, itself, be in incredible danger.

  5. I await your reply to all the great comments before me. I live in America. People here seem very out of touch. News are skewed. Reality TV dominates viewers’ attention. Courts are burdened with adjudicating, yet again, back and forth, whether homosexuals should have equal marriage right. GOP has very strange people running. Literacy (judging by what an average high school student is up to) is abysmal. As Cheri before me observed, America may itself be in danger. Not 1913. But 2016. I am not very educated about European history. What I know is very superificial. I read your post for a much needed education. Thank you for your great writing.

    • Thank you, Ashbird. Your sentiment is similar to sledpress’s. I lived in America until a few years ago, so I know what you’re talking about. And that willful American indifference to the world beyond its shores is itself frightening to many people here, for example those at the Munich Security Conference. It leads to powerful Americans talking to a home audience which they consider (perhaps correctly) unsophisticated and thereby stumbling into very unwise and unsubtly–dangerous–overreactions.

    • Ashbird, I would add that the Democrats have very strange people, as well. We all hunger for a leader, not seen in many years in the United States. We are incredibly naive and insulated from the borders of Ukraine and Russia, Syria and Israel. We have a president that seems disconnected and strangely in a cloud. We have an administration that doesn’t send anyone (really) to Paris after the horrific events took place. Would Churchill or Roosevelt have acted this way?

    • Cheri,

      Thank you for your reply. Yes. I agree. It is also too much to expect – another Churchill, another Roosevelt. You might as well say another Lincoln. Even if these characters exist right in our midst, who will elect them? America deserves what it gets. Half of the nation can’t read. More than half can’t think. Labels and soundbites dominate each election. Its politicians are hicks for the most part. Ones who are not have given up.

  6. A.K.,
    Thank you very very much indeed for doing this blog and hosting this site. Your work is very very fine indeed. You lead an informed, intelligent, and genteel forum.

    Will say something when there is something half-way intelligent to say. I am reading with the appetite of a glutton.

  7. At the risk of sounding cliche, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
    “Russia wants Ukraine? What else is new?”
    What’s new is our response to it.
    Thanks for sharing – it appears you are the fly on the wall I wish I could be.

  8. The spectre of 1939 and appeasement looms large, more than the memories of 1913.

    As you so rightly imply, an equal danger is of an overreaction that clouds judgment.

    The principal questions we face at this time are:
    1. whether Putin has irrepressible territorial ambitions;
    2. if so, can they be contained without war, with all its dangers of nuclear escalation;
    3. is there a rising tide of anti-semitism in Europe;
    4. is the terrorist threat, sponsored by islamist forces, a greater threat than those in Europe.

    Whilst history must inform our consideration of these matters, it is slipshod to suppose that it is about to repeat itself and dangerous in that it fosters unnecessary fears and blinds us to the real dangers. It helps neither to rattle sabres nor to rattle people. Least of all does it help to bandy about personal insults and characterisations.

    Vigilance is necessary – preparation is also necessary, but not as a threat or a means of intimidation. To that extent, Obama is right to address Great Britain’s commitment to the funding of defence through NATO. Reassurance is key, not aggression, otherwise there will be polarisation and an acceleration of that which we seek to deter.

    The United States may feel itself distant from affairs in Europe. We in Europe also feel distant from affairs in the Pacific. We cannot afford such negligence.

    Most of all, rational minds are required: “…jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war war war …”

    Added to these issues we have the potential disintegration of the European economy and this cannot be dealt with in isolation. It is intimately connected. Again, if all the good that the EU has achieved under the leadership of France and Germany – as a sphere of influence, incidentally – is to be preserved, calls for fundamental revision of its precepts, structure and rules need to be accommodated urgently and not peremptorily dismissed. It is the same principle.

    Before wondering about the United States understanding our local issues, perhaps we in Europe need to give thought to the threats in the Pacific.

  9. In your reply to one of your readers, you said: “……..spheres-of-influence thinking, ie an atavism from the 19th and mid 20th centuries…….”

    I put it to you that spheres-of-influence thinking is still very much alive and kicking, and that this will always be.
    Is western Europe not within America’s sphere of influence? Is Japan not within America’s sphere-of- influence?

    Know what ah’m sayin’?

    You said elsewhere of Putin: “………He may paint his actions as………guarding against Western aggression. But that does not mean the West actually ever was aggressive………”

    Leaving aside Napoleon and Hitler, I put it to you that the expansion of NATO into the areas where the Warsaw Pact used to be, was an aggressive act against Russia.

    And not to speak of the current economic war against Russia that has severely dented its economy. War is war, you know, whether by shooting, or by punitive economic actions.

    I know you didn’t say the following, but one of your commenters (Cyberquill?) did, and he made a very good point: “…….Russia’s respect for the right of countries to choose freely and democratically with whom they wish to trade/ally would stop short of countenancing a NATO member at their Western border……..”

    I agree that this is so. And rightly so

    Think only of countries bordering America, like Mexico or Canada. Were they freely and democratically to form close military and economic ties to the likes of Russia or China, would not America would stop short of countenancing this?

    Just ask Castro.

    I’ll remind you also of the Monroe Doctrine.

    Know what ah’m sayin’?

    • I do know what you’re saying. But many of the things you cite (Monroe Doctrine, eg) are, well, old. As in: the past, the repetition of which would today be an atavism. Also: America might not be pleased if Mexico and Canada were to ally with Russia (that much I accept), but if Mexico and Canada were to choose freely and democratically to do so, would America send “green men” (unmarked American soldiers) into British Columbia and Sonora to destablize them? And if it did, would the rest of the world not have to oppose that?

    • “………if Mexico and Canada were to choose freely and democratically to do so, would America send “green men” (unmarked American soldiers) into British Columbia and Sonora to destablize them?……..”

      There are many ways to destabilise countries other than by sending in unmarked soldiers. Think only of the many CIA-fuelled coups in Latin America that have overthrown governments that America didn’t like.

      Mexico, as a “Latin American” country, would therefore likely suffer a CIA-fuelled military coup.

      As for Canada – culturally and ethnically similar to Australia – any Canadian prime minister getting too uppity for America’s comfort would likely have happen to him what happened to Australia’s Gough Whitlam *in 1975*.

      There’s more than one way to skin a cat, you know.

  10. I entirely approve of the way you bring us the feeling if not the feeling itself: narrow, throngs, goons, hordes, jostling, bumping. You should be a writer.
    Billions of people feel this every day, don’t they? This partially explains the popularity of narcotics, cat videos and meadows.

  11. The irony is that (at least in the British Commonwealth) 2014 spawned a lot of over the top museum exhibitions freighted with nostalgia about going to war to make the world free in 1914. We even have some TV shows about WWI nurses and everything. And interesting twist on bread and circuses.

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