Sunday, March 2, 2014

Spheres of Influence

It is not the aspirations of nations  which create nationalism:  it is nationalism which creates nations.  … But the world is richer in cultural differentiations, and in systematic injustices, than it has room for ‘nations’.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 1974

In The Lonely Crowd, we sought to indicate that political bossism in America was not entirely evil, and certainly not as evil as are attempts to extirpate it totally.
-- David Riesman, 1969 preface to The Lonely Crowd, p. lxv.

And what -- the Ukrainian people -- Do they wish to live a life separate from Soviet Russia? -- No!

Headline from a moment ago:

Kerry to Visit Kiev to Show Support for Ukraine Government

A detailed local argument, which I shall not present, would point out the parallels between Yanukovych and Morsi -- both duly elected, both evicted by a kind of coup.  Not a palace coup, a popular coup;  but still.  Quite possibly both are scoundrels; but there is the larger point.

Overarching this, and of far more general significance, is a global argument, of quite wide applicability  since it applies as well (both empirically and provably) to the Internet.   Namely:  No-one can micromanage anarchy and chaos, which is the essence of World History, as of the World Wide Web;  but the existence of spheres of influence is  in both cases  a stabilizing factor.  I am speaking now, not politically nor morally, but virtually mathematically.  However unpleasant Mr Putin, however enchantingly coiffed Ms Timoshenko -- Stay the aitch out.  Entre l’arbre et l’écorce, il ne faut pas mettre le doigt.”
Such is the reality of Realpolitik.  Not saying it’s pretty;  that doesn’t make it less real.

Bringing it back down a notch:   Russia has ever let us play in our hemisphere (remember, we have invaded several nations -- can you even name them?  do you care? -- in our Monroe-doctrine/Platt-amendment private sandbox, with no protest from the Russians);  let them play in theirs.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am James Monroe, by jingo, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

In antiquity,

by and large it is the empires which require explanation, whilst their break-up, or the persistence of fragmentation, do not.
[But] the situation is now changed.  It is the large and effective units which seem natural, and it is their breakdown and fragmentation which is eccentric and requires special explanation.  Small units do indeed survive, but one may well suspect that they are parasitic on the larger ones.
-- Ernest Gellner, “Scale and Nation” (1973), repr. in Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 140


[Footnote]  A less-general observation, of more limited validity, since not a truth of graph-theory, but merely a rule-of-thumb of history:  using, this time, an economic metaphor.  Namely:   We have only so much diplomatic capital to spend.  And, as a philosopher once said (Pliny the Elder, perhaps):  Don’t let your mouth write a check  that your ass can’t cash. (Don't challenge Russia  unless you're willing to throw a punch.)

This brings up a further meta-consideration, owing nothing to the specificities of this crisis, and applicable to any political/military initiative whatsoever.  Namely, however carefully crafted your immediate response might be, it is not enough simply to advance your rook and then take the rest of the day off:  like a grandmaster, you have to look ahead several ply.  What if the bastard deploys his queen?  Dang -- Hadn’t thought of that!

Here we outlined such an exercise:

[quotable-quote: “You can’t vote just for the nose of the camel;  you’ll be embracing the whole beast.”]


 [Update 3 III 2014]  From an excellent op-ed in this morning’s New York Times:

This interpretive frame may be hard to understand, but some things are not wrong just because Russians happen to believe them. Russian news crews were covering a real story in Ukraine: the chaotic dismantling of a legally sanctioned government, the quick breakdown of an agreed framework for new elections, and the creeping transformation of political disputes into ethnic ones.

There are, thus, parallels worth pondering  with the cascade of recent political events in Egypt.   In such embroiled situations, it does little good to invoke violations of  “International Law” (an ill-defined and rumored entity, always invoked selectively), Roberts Rules of Order, or Principle P of the Binding Theory.   Pieces are in motion on the giant chess-board, reminding us that chess was originally conceived as a game of war.


Added factors skewing perceptions  specifically by Americans are these national traits:

(1)  A tropism for dividing any broiling situation  into two camps, Good Guys versus Bad Guys (often with absurd results);
(2)  Sentimentalism for ‘grass roots movements’.

Bear in mind that the Tea Party is ‘grass roots’;  the NSDAP began as ‘grass roots’;  virtually every cockamamie and eventually violent movement began as ‘grass roots’, including even some now-narcoterrorist organizations like the FARC.  "Grass roots" my boots.  A lot of it is crabgrass.

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[Update 26 March 2014]   Well-put in an op-ed:

By IAN BREMMER      MARCH 26, 2014

THE United States has once again twisted itself into a rhetorical pretzel. As when it threatened military action against Syria if a “red line” was crossed, the Obama administration’s rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine goes far beyond what it will be willing and able to enforce.

Earlier this month, President Obama warned that America would “isolate Russia” if it grabbed more land, and yesterday, he suggested that more sanctions were possible. Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Group of 7 nations were “prepared to go to the hilt” in order to isolate Russia.

But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them.

First, the United States needs to see the Ukraine crisis from Russia’s viewpoint. Threats from America and Europe will never be the determining factor in Mr. Putin’s decision making. Ukraine is Russia’s single biggest national security issue beyond its borders, and Mr. Putin’s policy, including whether to seize more of Ukraine, will be informed overwhelmingly by national security interests, not near-term economics.

Furthermore, Russia has provided Ukraine with some $200-$300 billion in natural gas subsidies since 1991. With an anti-Russian government in Ukraine, Moscow is likely to stop these subsidies, lifting a major economic burden just as the West tries to squeeze it financially.   ... The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice. Otherwise Washington’s credibility will erode further as it walks back its words.


A reflection on the break-up of the Soviet bloc, in longer historical perspective, by a European with no reason to be an apologist for Russia:

The strange, self-initiated dismantling of that system after 1985, culminating in the total un-shackling of Eastern Europe in 1989, has led to a situation similar to that which followed the dismantling of the Habsburg Empire. … It would seem that some solution along the lines proposed by Malinowski  is the only humane one, the only one with some prospect of implementation without major loss of life.  Colonise simply everybody -- i.e. deprive their political units of sovereignty -- whilst allowing them absolute cultural freedom of expression.
-- Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude (posthum. 1998), p. 143

[Update 14 September 2014]  In the Book Review of this morning’s New York Times,  John Micklethwaite has a punchy, perceptive review of Henry Kissenger’s new book, World Order.    Both reviewer and author  champion Realpolitik:

Might a little realism have been useful in Iraq, rather than the “stuff happens” amateurism of the Bush years? Would a statesman who read Winston Churchill on Afghanistan (“except at harvest time . . . the Pathan [Pashtun] tribes are always engaged in private or public war”) have committed America to establishing a “gender sensitive . . . and fully representative” government in Kabul?

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