As the crisis in the Ukraine drags itself on, it’s become quite clear that the Russian strategy from the start has not been conquest or even necessarily annexation, but a destabilisation campaign.
As I wrote earlier this year, Russia’s style of warfare is intended to displace populations and destroy civilian centres. Alongside this, Russia has claimed and supported the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, almost definitely to create a buffer region between Ukraine and Russia. Regardless, when I wrote that the next refugee crisis was brewing in the Ukraine, I actually underestimated the figures: I suggested that, of the roughly 30 million people in Ukraine who hate Putin, perhaps 1% (300,000) might leave; in reality, the figure is as much as ten times that.
Refugee crises are challenges, and almost always met badly. But, this was what Russia was counting on: by displacing so many people (intentionally – again, due to their style of warfare), forced to move into relatively benign nations, such as Poland, Hungary and (much less likely) Belarus, Russia has laid the foundations for a refugee crisis in Central and Western Europe. It is not necessarily the policies of the receiving countries that will make this a crisis, but the simple numbers – already over four million people have left Ukraine, most of them women and children.
Europe struggled to accommodate one million of the six and a half million Syrian refugees, but even the majority of these numbers arrived in Europe across a period of years, not weeks. This is the worst refugee crisis in Europe in living memory; and unfortunately, the vast majority of refugees are not going to be returning to the country they knew. If the pictures coming out of Ukraine are anything to go by, the level of urban destruction is consistent with both the style of warfare Russia executes, and that of the Second World War. As horrible as it may sound, there is every possibility the refugees will not have a home to return to.
And this goes deeper than a physical home; there may not be a recognisable ‘Ukraine’ at the end of this. It is absurd to think, despite the general consensus amongst the Western media, that Ukraine was without its problems before this war began, and many of them were over far-right groups active in the Azov region, such as the Azov Battalion. The prevalence of ultra-nationalist, and even active Nazis in some cases, in the Ukraine is something the West has sought to paper-over, and Putin has sought to exacerbate, but the honest truth is that this is a real and enduring problem for Ukrainian politicians. Some even compared the defensive war that Ukraine is fighting to the final days of the Third Reich and the Allied bombing campaign.
This has been going on for longer than we might want to admit. In 2018, the Kievan “National Militia” attacked local government meetings in order to strong-arm them into policies they favoured; in 2019, the Azov Battalion and other far-right groups (Dnipro-1 Battallion as well) carried out pogroms on minorities; and the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda – which has 15,000 members and has a parliamentary presence in the Verkohvna Rada – is regularly accused of neo-Nazi sympathies, not to mention the fact that Belitsky, leader of the Azovs, is a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament.
Russia’s campaign has made these internal divisions public knowledge; it is spurious to pretend that Russia’s ‘de-Nazification’ claims are accurate to the situation, but it cannot be ignored that there is a major presence of National Socialists in the Ukraine.
Why will Russia’s ‘special military campaign’ make this situation worse? Put simply, the immediate (and, it must be said, necessary) arming of civilians in order to fight the Russian invasion will have long, long term consequences. Whenever this war ends – which may be longer than we want to imagine – Ukraine will be facing the problem of what to do with a well-armed, combat-experienced, pissed off population. When the United States armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was seen as a necessary use of paramilitary forces to resist (again) Russian aggression. Now, Afghanistan is a mess of guerilla groups, Islamist fundamentalists and radical separatists. This whole situation was made worse by the
This problem extends to normal politics as well; Volodymyr Zelensky has dismantled the free press, claimed a conspiracy exists to oust him, and has outlawed the existence of eleven pro-Russian political parties, one of which had 10% of the Ukrainian parliament.
So, when the dust settles, Ukraine will have to contend with the reality of neo-Nazis with modern arms such as NLAWS, displaced and angry civilians with access to combat weaponry, and a gutting of as much as 10% of its population that is abroad with no home to return to.
Putin does not need to take Ukraine, or even necessarily enforce the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk. Instead, in many ways, he has done what he really needed to do; destabilise the West’s big player on its border, and likely the rest of Europe for a long time.
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By Jake Scott — 11 months ago
In 1957, Ernst Kantorowicz published The King’s Two Bodies (KTB), a deep and penetrating analysis of the relationship between monarchy and the public realm. In this magisterial work, Kantorowicz explained with unmatched clarity the language of the medieval theologians and jurists, from dignitas to fisc to corpus mysticum, all of which have passed out of the bounds of our quite technocratic political language, but have, in many ways, shaped and laid the foundations for its articulation. The corpus mysticum, for instance, made the very notion of ‘popular sovereignty’ even thinkable, not merely conceivable. This article is an attempt to distill my research into Kantorowicz’s theory of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’, of the corporeal function that kingship played, in both the continuity of a people and in the question of the acting body, to show what the nature of monarchy actually is, beyond a simple constitutional component.
In Kantorowicz’s analysis, there are three consistent themes: first, the synecdochical relationship assumed between the physical body of the king and the unphysical ‘body’ of the people over whom he ruled; second, the important function of continuity that the office performed; and third, the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. However, before turning to these three themes, it is important to note that Kantorowicz’s analysis revolves around two significant observations: first, that there was an awareness of the difference between ‘the King’, meaning of the office of monarch, and ‘the king’, meaning the actual person who occupied that office. This is the origin of Kantorowicz’s chosen title: ‘that by the Common Law no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage. For the King has in him two bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic’, a juridical fiction which, logically, ‘conveys “immortality” to the individual king as King, that is, with regard to his superbody’ in such a way that, in one court case, loyalty to King Henry VIII could be demanded as if he were ‘still “alive” though Henry Tudor had been dead for ten years’ (KTB:: 7, 13-14).
The second significant observation is that of the role played by Christian theology in the creation of a language of organic unity between ruler and ruled. It was St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12, verses 12 and 27) that affirmed the image of the Church as a single body, with Christ as the head, with whom the laity enjoyed unity, but the systematic expression of such a unity was St. Augustine’s to make. He referred only ever to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’, or in his native Latin, Corpus Christi – though interestingly, the phrase the ‘mystical body of Christ’ was not St. Augustine’s but was coined much later. Regardless, Corpus Christi refers to the idea that Christ ‘is to be taken no longer as an individual, but in His fullness, that is, with the whole Church, with all of the members, of whom He is the Head, as constituting one unit, one whole, one person’ (Grabowski, 1946: 73-75). It is important, however, to bear in mind how one individual person might join the body of the Church: through confirmation, and communion; in other words, through express desire, and continual affirmation of membership. Such an act ‘constitutes a spiritual entity which is [Christ’s] Body here on earth’ that results in ‘the incorporation into the Body of Christ’ (Grabowski, 1946: 84-85). As Kantorowicz shows, such doctrine was used as the basis for the relationship between people and k/King. Though Pope Boniface VIII intended to reassert the Papacy above secular powers, and remind them of their ‘purely functional character within the world community of the corpus mysticum Christi’ [the spiritual body of Christ], it was the implication of ‘the Lord’s two bodies’ that would inform the emergent doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, to such an extent that Kantorowicz considered it to mold ‘most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’ (KTB, 194-206):
To summarize, the notion of corpus mysticum, designating originally the Sacrament of the Altar, served after the twelfth century to describe the body politic, or corpus iuridicum, of the Church, which does not exclude the lingering on of some of the earlier connotations. Moreover, the classical christological distinction of the Two Natures in Christ… has been replaced by the corporational, non-christological concept of the Two Bodies of Christ.
It was in the wake of this theoretical shift that the secular powers, competing with the Church for supremacy, were able to adopt the language of the state as a body, with such phrases as corpus Reipublicae mysticum, which allowed the jurists to arrive ‘like the theologians, at a distinction between corpus verum – the tangible body of an individual person – and corpus fictum, the corporate collective which was intangible and existed only as a fiction of jurisprudence (KTB: 207-209). It is important to note here that the unique transformation brought about by the turn to the Christological terminology is specifically the idea of the body politic as a mystical body, not merely a body coterminous with the physical individuals that composed a political community. With this theoretical and theological background informing both the emergence of the doctrine of the k/King’s two bodies, and the internal relationship between them, this creates much of the intellectual condition for the emergence of ‘the people’ as a mystical body abstracted from its component parts.
Focusing, however, on the k/King’s two bodies, the synecdochical relationship between the King and the people was a fiction well-theorised in medieval theology. In the mid-fifteenth century, it was generally acknowledged that ‘an attack against the king’s natural [physical] person was, at the same time, an attack against the body corporate of the realm’, with a qualifying difference of ‘“one [body] descending from nature, the other from the polity”’ (KTB: 15, 46). Drawing on Anthony Black’s comments that legality relied on a certain conception of a people as both a trans-temporal entity that those laws applied to, as well as the source of the authority of laws, the relevance of a people’s corporality makes sense when we observe that ‘“Laws, and not the person, make the king”… a statement well known to Canonists; and according to the lex Digna itself the emperors confess: “On authority of the Law our authority depends”’ (KTB: 150).
If the King is a part committed to the whole of ‘the people’ as a single entity, then it must be remembered the authority of the King is derived from – whilst also being somewhat concurrent with – that entity’s will. After all, as one French jurist claimed, ‘the French king, like the Roman emperor, “had all the rights, especially the right pertaining to his kingdom, shut in his breast”’ (KTB: 153). Of course, this manifested differently across peoples: famously, in England, ‘the people’ was present in specifically in the King in Parliament; just as ‘the comitatus or county took visible form in the comitatus or county court, so the realm took visible form in a parliament’ (Maitland, 1901: 133). This held, however, for the English jurist Henry de Bracton (1210-1268) a paradox: ‘either the king is sovereign or no; if he be sovereign then he is not legally below the law, his obligation to obey the law is at most a moral obligation; on the other hand if he is below the law, then he is not sovereign, he is below some man or some body of men’ (cited in Maitland, 2015: 101). Although this was mostly resolved by the juridical separation between king-as-person and King-as-office, as noted above, it did eventually lead to the question of where sovereignty lay.
Of course, all of this relies on the recognition that there is an entity of ‘the people’ that is physically separate from the king, but ‘the king’s body politic could be the realm as a body politic – with the king as the head and the subjects as the members – or it could be the office of kingship – the dignity’ (Fortin, 2021: 5), . Joseph Canning has also noted the rise in medieval political thought of the distinction between the king and the people over whom he ruled: ‘notions according the kingdom an existence distinct from that of its king, organological views of society organised into a corporate body, and views of rulership as public office’ created the capacity to think that ‘the concept of a royal office, whose purpose was to serve the common good, involved the notion that the regnum or populus had a separate existence from that of its monarch’ (Canning, 2009: 64-65). This especially became emphasised in the later Middle Ages when (KTB: 193):
the centre of gravity shifted, as it were, from the ruling personages to the ruled collectivities, the new national monarchies, and the other political aggregates of human society. In other words, the exchanges between Church and State continued; but in the field of mutual influence, expanding from individual dignitaries to compact communities, henceforth was determined by legal and constitutional problems concerning the structure and interpretation of the bodies politic.
This is a significant development, as it coincided ‘with that moment in the history of Western thought when the doctrines of corporational and organic structure of society began to pervade anew the political theories of the West and to mold most significantly and decisively the political thinking in the high and late Middle Ages’, a change capitalised on by Baldus de Ubaldis in his definition of a ‘populus, the people, as a mystical body. He held that a populus was not simply the sum of individuals of a community, but “men assembled into one mystical body” … a body or corporation to be grasped only intellectually, since it was not a real or material body’ (KTB: 199-210). Despite the emergence, however, of the body politic as an ‘intellectual body’, the k/King remained the physical representation of that body politic in the world, as ‘the polity itself, or the mystical body of the realm, could not exist without its head’ (KTB: 227); hence, whilst the trend developing was to admit that ‘a people’ was a real entity separate from the physical body of the king, it was not thought to be capable of existing or, importantly, acting without something or someone through which it can be embodied.
Interestingly, Marie-France Fortin has recently shown that Kantorowicz’s analysis reveals that, whilst the power of dignity, dignitas, conferred upon the prince by an ‘immortal polity’ (KTB: 397), was concurrent with the office of kingship, it was ‘the Crown, on the other hand, [that] connoted a more general, public and communal sphere’ and was ‘incomplete without the other members of society’ (Fortin, 2021: 2). We can turn here to the second theme of Kantorowicz’s analysis, that of continuity and the problem that the physicality of ‘the king’s two bodies’ created; as Kantorowicz noted, ‘the concept of the “king’s two bodies” camouflaged a problem of continuity’ and it would be a ‘mistake to assume that the new philosophic tenet produced, caused or created a new belief in the perpetual continuity of political bodies’ (KTB: 273) – this was a perennial issue in political thought, and the continuity of the king’s two bodies is more of a product, than a cause, of such an issue.
Indeed, ‘the practical needs of kingdoms and communities led to the fiction of a quasi-infinite continuity of public institutions’ and that ‘practical needs produced institutional changes presupposing, as it were, the fiction of an endless continuity of the bodies politic’ (KTB: 284, 291). This is not to say the k/King was the only source of continuity: as with above, the law was seen a particularly reliable mechanism by which ‘every plurality of men collected in one body’ could be treated as a ‘juristic person, of distinguishing that juristic person clearly from every natural person endowed with body and soul, and yet of treating a plurality of individuals juristically as one person’ (KTB: 306).
On the topic of the relationship between law and custom as methods of continuity for a body politic, St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings are particularly revealing. He claims, for instance, that ‘when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgement of reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of law, abolishes the law, and is the interpreter of law’ (1988: 80). As conservatives, I think we ought to be particularly sensitive to St. Thomas’ writings on this topic, especially as our modern world often forces us to see the law and tradition in conflict. Nonetheless, in the medieval era, the law increasingly became the source of legitimacy for public actions, be they of the King or any other public office.
However, the law could not resolve the issue of action and decision in and of itself, especially as there were increasing attempts to incorporate the ‘ruler’s will’ in the legal system, to the extent that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tussled with this will when compared to the ‘rights of the community’, with the kingship as an office ‘established with the specific purpose of securing the preservation and well-being of the communities which the ruler served’ (Canning, 2009: 162-166). Whilst I turn to the normative relationship between ruler and ruled shortly, here we can focus on Kantorowicz’s important observation that, as a product of the belief in the continuity of the people ‘as an universitas “which never dies”’ (KTB: 314), there arose the significant question of whether the corporate realm existed between the death of one king and the coronation of another. Whilst the earlier Middle Ages imagined that, due to the intertwining between Church and State, ‘the continuity of a realm during an interregnum had been sometimes preserved by a fiction: Christ stepped into the gap as interrex and secured, through his own eternity, the continuity of kingship’, the increasing tendency of Popes to claim authority as interrex made the fiction politically dangerous. Instead, the fiction arose of the sempiternity of the Crown (KTB: 334-335, 341-342):
In the phrase “head and Crown” the word Crown served to add something to the purely physical body of the king and to emphasise that more than the king’s “body natural” was meant; and in the phrase “realm and Crown” the word Crown served to eliminate the purely geographic-territorial aspect of regnum and to emphasise unambiguously the political character of regnum… briefly, as opposed to pure physis of the king and the pure physis of the territory, the word “Crown,” when added, indicated the political metaphysis in which both rex and regnum shared, or the body politic (to which both belonged) in its sovereign rights.
As Fortin observes, the melding of the two symbols of King and Crown allowed elements of that perpetual community that the King ought to have embodied – the people – to pass into the Crown, such as the eternity of the office, and the corporate realm of the body politic (2021: 8). As a result, ‘in the later Middle Ages the idea was current that in the Crown the whole body politic was present… in this respect indeed the Crown and the “mystical body of the realm” were comparable entities. Neither one nor the other existed all by itself “in the abstract” and separate from the constituents’ (KTB: 363). We see here, then, a similarity to the Aristotelian notion of the polis as an embodied corporeal people, as well as a comparison to John Ma’s analogy of the polis as ‘social memory’; a reliance on a physical presence, be it king, king-in-parliament, or so on, meant the continuity of a people’s acting body had to be reflected in an equally continuous physical presence. In this respect, this was part of the conflation of Crown and King that Fortin analyses, in that each symbol acted complementary to the other: whilst the Crown was the eternal symbol, the King could be embodied in the king. This theoretical move was reflected most clearly in the emergence of the phrase ‘The king is dead! Long live the king!’ which, whilst deceptively simple, ‘powerfully demonstrated the perpetuity of kingship’ by suggesting an unbroken embodiment of the King that did not ‘end’ with one king’s death (or, ‘demise’) and another king’s accession (KTB: 412). Regardless, ‘the Crown… could hardly be severed from the king as King…. It remained possible, for example, to personify the Crown which, representing something that touched all, stood in many respects for the whole body politic’ (KTB: 372, 383).
This brings us to the third theme of Kantorowicz’s work, that of the normative relationship between ruler and ruled. We can see clearly the synecdochical relationship that arose out of the organological, ‘corporate realm’ thought, as well as the use of the office of kingship to reflect a theorisation of the ruled people as a continuous entity, but this has not really answered the question of why an embodiment of that people is necessary. Whereas Aristotle’s theory of the polis as necessary for the bios and therefore the highest expression of the common good, the concomitant principle to the theorisation of a continuous people was one in which ‘the idea of a state existing only for its own sake was foreign… the very belief in a divine Law of Nature as opposed to Positive Law, a belief then shared by every thinker, almost necessitated the ruler’s position both above and below the Law’ (Kantorowicz, 2016: 144). Though the concept of popular sovereignty was historically distant, the awareness of the separability between the ruler and the ruled, at least on a practical level, had to be balanced with the necessity of the people’s capability to act as a political body. The Divine Right of Kings was certainly one answer, as ‘the king acts for the people which has been committed to his care by God and which cannot act for itself’ (Canning, 2009: 21). Just as the idea of Christ as the interrex declined, so too did the religious foundation for kingship, but the organological concept still posited that the King was the head of the body of the people. To justify the capacity for the King to act, not on behalf of the people, but as the people, there arose a particular conception of the universitas, the body corporate, as a legal minor. Largely a product of rediscovered Roman law, the conflation of ‘madmen, children and cities’ under an edict meant that (KTB: 374):
when, in the course of the thirteenth century, the corporational doctrines were developed, the notion of “city”, civitas, was logically transferred to any universitas or any body corporate, and it became a stock-in-trade expression to say that the universitas was ever an infant and under age because it needed a curator.
Importantly, as this idea matured, it was transferred to the symbolic entity of the Crown, to the effect that ‘as a perpetual minor, the Crown itself had corporational character – with the king as its guardian, though again not with the king alone, but with that composite body of king and magnates’ (KTB: 381).
What matters here is the relationship given between ruler and ruled that allows for the concentration of political action in the king; the corporeal embodiment of a people in the political world in a single person in such a way that allowed the people to act was due to that people’s inability to act for itself, owing to its legal immaturity as a single corporate body, and not merely because of its physical disaggregation as a multitude of individuals. As a result, ‘the king appeared as the animate instrument of a fictitious, and therefore immortal, person called Dignity’, meaning ‘the dogma of a political Incarnation, a noetic incarnation of the Dignitas or of the Body politic’ (KTB: 445). To compare this to the polis, then, whereas the people could act as a political community through a deliberation with consideration for the common good, under kingship the people were incapable of doing so, under the prevailing legal fiction, resulting in a concentration of decisionist power in the office of King. This was developed into the sleeping sovereign thesis by early theorists of popular sovereignty, but prior to the emergence of popular sovereignty as a concept, the necessity of an acting person required the existence of the office of King and the concept of Crown.
The King, as the office, was the embodiment of the entire body politic; embodied, of course, in the physcal body of the king himself (or queen herself). This is why the political community of the people lived and died with the monarchy – not the specific monarch, because to do so would risk admitting that the people could die. This was the inspiration behind Thomas Hobbes’ famous Leviathan frontispiece, in which an enormous person was composed of the very individuals over whom he governed; Hobbes was not writing and imagining the grand body of the body politic in a vacuum, and did not create the idea from the abstract, but was speaking to a long and fruitful tradition of treating the people as a single entity with a will that would allow that people to actualise its desires.
This tradition is, as I hope to have shown, the legal fiction that the body of the king, as a temporary and temporally-bound entity, is merely the physical embodiment of the King, which is the eternal and spiritual office of the entire body politic over which a monarch reigns. Our modern ideas of popular sovereignty would never have arisen without this fiction, of the original meaning of the phrase, Rex Est Populus: The King is the People.
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By Richard Leader — 5 months ago
Nigel Farage was, somewhat predictably, booed when he was named News Presenter of the Year at the 2023 TRIC Awards in London. The manipulability of online polls in the age of loyally mischievous Twitter followings notwithstanding, the two GB News victories (its breakfast show scooped one too) arguably represent another milestone in the plucky challenger’s march to credibility and, its viewers will hope for its commercial success.
When GB News launched in July 2021, I was living in the US and working on my second or third startup, depending on whether you only count the successful ones. I watched the go-live and for me the highlight of those initial hours of sometimes painful broadcasting (notable by the curiously low lighting) was veteran newsman Andrew Neil, whose presence lent the nascent broadcaster some grown-up editorial clout.
Personally, I like Neil, and in common with many others was optimistic when in 2020 he was lured from the stagnant BBC to become GB News’ founding chairman. As such, I was sad when, a few months later, he appeared to have flounced off – particularly as it gave the station’s detractors something to gloat about (many of whom seemed to have made up their minds before a single second of TV was broadcast, not least The Guardian’s perennial sideline sniper Owen Jones).
Yet my main regret about Neil’s departure was its manner: specifically, that he didn’t do it with dignity and discretion. Founders split all the time and there are always sensible reasons why. During the early stage of any venture there’s a vast amount of work to do, and it’s in this mad scramble that working relationships are tested. Not all will survive.
Sometimes it’s nothing to do with the individuals, but more the chemistry of a group under pressure. Yet the thing to avoid, in almost any situation, is to make a fuss upon leaving. However great the temptation may be to ‘set the record straight’, it almost always comes across as whiney.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who, years later, will say: “absolutely the right thing was to share a bunch of private stuff in public and stick the knife into my former colleagues”. Candidly, I imagine that Neil now regrets how he handled the split.
Imagine the counterfactual: Neil still left, but instead of throwing his toys out of the pram he settled on a cheerier statement along the lines of: “What a ride! Successfully launching a news station has felt like my biggest achievement to-date. Now we’ve gone live, I’m hankering for a break and will be scaling back my commitments starting immediately. I’d like to thank the team for the immense amount of valiant work to-date, particularly in the hard months leading up to launch, and I’m confident that the Board and management team will successfully steer the station to greatness going forward! I wish everyone the best of luck and will be with you, in spirit, every step of the way. I look forward to reporting on the channel’s success!”
Had he done so, perhaps he’d now be fondly (and rightly) remembered as a co-founder of a bold enterprise – rather than simply a disgruntled former employee who left on bad terms and did a media round to share his grievances, including an opportunistic appearance on his former employer’s programme, Question Time.
Water passes quickly under any bridge, and I’m surprised that Neil, with all his experience, either didn’t know this or ignored his better judgement. The momentary satisfaction one gains from a bout of bridge-burning is almost always outweighed – many times over – by the future ability to gather with former colleagues, on good terms, and share in the celebration of success while laughing about the often funny (and, in hindsight, trivial) disagreements that occurred along the way.
I suspect the wise warhorse Neil’s advice to anyone else might be similar to my own: always keep the bridge intact, however tempting the alternative may be in the short run. I’ve no idea whether he has sent any of the GB News executives a congratulatory message over the last couple of years, but for his sake I hope he has.
To quote PG Wodehouse, “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine” – and endearingly curmudgeonly Neil appears to be no exception.
A rapprochement with his former startup would surely earn him renewed respect in the eyes of his many admirers. Perhaps he could appear as a guest on News Presenter of the Year Farage’s show? A display of convivial bonhomie on, say, Talking Pints would surely put to rest any accusations that a certain esteemed Scot is harboring a grievance.
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By Tom Sullivan — 2 weeks ago
“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
This quote is (dubiously) attributed to Lenin but I like it nonetheless as it appropriately captures the times we live in.
That’s not to say nothing’s happened for decades, far from it. The years following the last financial crisis have seen seismic changes across Western societies and the wider world. The Eurozone crisis, Middle East civil wars, tsunamis of illegal migration, Ukraine torn in two, Brexit, Trump, plummeting birth rates, economic stagnation, and the explosion in political corruption that resulted in the criminal psychological operation that was the pandemic and continues through war and ‘green’ policy. The weeks following Russia’s so-called ‘Special Military Operation’ felt like weeks when decades happened. Yet something about these last few weeks – with a war (even more senseless than the intra-Slavic trench slaughter) threatening to suck in the whole world – feels like we have moved into an accelerated phase of global change.
This is a familiar motif of history. Decades of failed rebellion against the Tsars eventually led to the February and October Revolutions. Newly educated generations in Africa and Asia quickly used their power and influence to kick out their colonial masters. The ticking time bomb of financialisation that started in the 1980s didn’t explode until decades later. Likewise, the absolute failure of decades of collective Western foreign policy, as dictated by the U.S. via NATO and other organisations, has now started to show some of its very worst consequences.
Never in living memory have we as a nation been more ignorant about international relations and had less perspective about our place in the world. The dumbing down of our foreign policy debate (and its incorporation into the ‘culture war’) is a far cry from even the Brexit era, when millions of Brits followed the machinations of our foreign entanglements with interest, engaging in relatively honest debates about what they should be and where our national interest lies.
In 2014, one of Nigel Farage’s major criticisms of Brussels was its ‘militant’, ‘expansionist’ and ‘absolutely stupid’ foreign policy. In a debate with then deputy PM Nick Clegg, he said the Lib Dems represented hatred and extremism by ‘constantly screaming out for us to go to war’, adding he was ‘sick to death of this country getting involved in foreign wars’. Farage said the EU had ‘blood on its hands’ for encouraging the Maidan coup in Ukraine, as well as ‘bombing Libya’ into becoming an ‘ungovernable breeding ground of terrorism’, and arming rebel militias in Syria ‘because they didn’t like Assad, despite being infiltrated by extremists’. How prescient.
Now, this type of critical discourse is almost entirely absent from our political spectrum and media. There has been a chilling uniformity of message on the blood-soaked meatgrinder that is Ukraine – more weapons, more money, Putin is Hitler, Slava Ukrainii. A feeling engineered by the unquestioned, key narrative of an independent democracy facing an unprovoked invasion (a narrative which is demonstrably untrue). With the latest conflict in the Middle East, the right has fallen behind Israel in complete lockstep, calling for deportations and arrests for speech expression, and taking a harder line than many Israelis. The left, barren of a moral compass and mentally ill, has resorted to second-hand asabiyyah and strange attempts to pinkwash Hamas, joined on the streets by the usually out-of-sight 3rd-gen Islamist yoof. It’s an ugly sight.
What is missing from all of this is Britain. What are Britain’s interests in this rapidly deteriorating international system? No one, it seems, has bothered to ask. This is a problem. The points I have made so far often provoke accusations of ‘isolationism’, and not realising that a stable globe is one of our most immediate needs. That is not in any doubt. What is highly questionable is the way we go about promoting that stability, as it clearly hasn’t been working.
In the West we still believe that we make alliances and enemies based on good and evil, or ‘shared values’, and we think this is the same as our interests. Whether ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘supporting democracy’, the arguments made against the abuses of certain countries must be applied equally or not applied at all, otherwise it is not a reason for action, but a pretext. The onus should be on those who argue for action, not on those who argue for not getting involved, to make their case. Especially with the mountain of evidence that outside intervention, militarily or otherwise, almost always makes countries worse.
A good case is made for this in A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship, a compilation of Ron Paul’s speeches to Congress over 30 years, each containing dozens of examples of foreign interventions and interference being counterproductive to U.S. interests. Yes, other countries are very often not nice places to live and have disagreeable cultures, but the best way to deal with them is engaging economically and not getting involved in their domestic politics. Our strategy has been to bomb countries and organise armed coups. Importing millions of people from these same countries has also turned out to be a bad idea.
So, if we step back from ‘policing’ the world, how then would we be able to ensure a stable international environment? Like charity, order starts at home. We preach to the world about how to run their societies when we have so many problems of our own. We defend the sanctity of others’ borders and sovereignty while making a mockery of our own. We accuse our selected ‘enemies’ of criminality, propaganda, and deception when we do a pretty good job of all that ourselves. In other words, we don’t speak softly and carry a big stick, we bark and scream. ‘Be change you want to see in the world’ – another made up quote attributed to a world leader – is a motivational meme but it should be an axiom of a ‘moral’ foreign policy if that’s what we want.
The hegemony of the West is coming to an end and there are no two ways about it. According to comedian turned IR expert Konstantin Kisin, ‘Multipolarity requires a decade-long process of the unipolarity disintegrating. And will inevitably result in an eventual return to unipolarity with a different hegemon. This is why this process should be opposed with everything we have’. I hate to break it to him, but that disintegration has been happening for a long time already and is not something that we can now ‘oppose’ with centre-Right politicians. Their neoliberalism is why we are so exposed, having exported our manufacturing and imported the world’s poor, while crippling ourselves with manmade social and economic breakdown.
The second point made by Kisin is interesting to dissect. Is it inevitable that the West ceasing to be the dominating ‘pole’ of international power will result in another power taking its place? No, it’s not. Unipolarity is a freak of human history. The positions of the U.S. and USSR after the Second World War created the bipolar world, and their respective empires. When the Cold War ended, the U.S. subsumed communist remnants becoming the pole of global power by default. It was the end of history, and liberal democracy was the endpoint of all human social evolution and the final form of government. On this basis the position of hegemon was squandered and abused.
The reality is that most of history has been a multipolar world and as we return to that state, it will not be peaceful or pretty. The man who coined the ‘Big stick philosophy’, Teddy Roosevelt, described his style of foreign policy as ‘the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis’. To apply that to Britain today would mean gearing up to be a Switzerland-on-Sea; a discerning, independent, and sovereign nation.
When it comes to defence, Switzerland is (like the UK) blessed with fortunate geography and a long military tradition. Unlike the UK, it is not in NATO, it conscripts its young men, invests in its defence infrastructure, and does not take part in foreign wars. It is also a natural home for mediating and resolving international disputes, trusted by most countries around the world.
This strategic neutrality seems to work quite well for the Swiss and they do this while still aligning with the U.S. They even enjoy a boost in arms sales as other neutral countries prefer to buy Swiss weapons. Would Western civilisation collapse and the world be taken over by an Axis of Evil if the UK also left NATO, rebuilt its army, and took part in peacekeeping missions instead of wars? Probably not (If it collapses it will be for reasons of our own making). It is accepted as fact that we must dominate the world to protect ourselves from it, when in reality our attempts to do so have created the fragile state of affairs that exist today.
The fundamental mistake we make is being so certain that other countries will think and behave exactly like us. China is an ancient civilisation-state that has shown limited expansionist tendencies over many centuries. The last time Iran invaded a country was in the mid-18th century. Russia is psychologically bound by its size, geography, and history to be obsessed with feeling secure. These complicated civilisations have all been UK allies at various points during the 20th century and there is no reason why we can’t deal with them as unpleasant neighbours as opposed to mortal enemies. Unfortunately, our entire discourse ties us to the fate of the dying American empire. By taking on others’ enemies we expose ourselves to becoming targets.
Today in Britain, unchecked thousands of fighting-age purposeless men from the most turbulent, radical and traumatised parts of the world, are entering the country illegally via fleets of boats, the state seemingly powerless to stop it happening. Some would call that an invasion. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has become the new Kiev as Prime Ministers old and new rush to get involved helping another country. Despite our politicians saying otherwise, the claim is always that they are there to create an outcome and environment that is in the UK’s interests. Well at the very least that would entail calling for a ceasefire, and at most it would mean pushing for a comprehensive political settlement. Trying to avoid a new wave of refugees, an oil price crisis and global recession would also be in our interest. There is no sign of this on Sunak or Johnson’s agenda, but there is a lot of talk about ‘finishing the job’, sticking to the narrative and facing down Iran and its proxies – the stuff of wet dreams for many a lobbyist in Washington DC.
It may be comforting to buy into the expertly packaged narratives being put out about this latest conflict, but some of us have seen this film before, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it ends up in situations like Syria, where Hezbollah ends up defending the world’s most ancient Christian communities while Israel supports ISIS. It ends with the Jewish President of Ukraine overseeing neo-Nazi brigades fighting against Muslim and Buddhist soldiers over derelict villages. Clearly, the world is a complicated place. We used to know this. When will we give up our simple, black-and-white way of looking at it? When will we stop falling for the simplistic narratives fed to us?
Why should we have to listen to the arguments made about supporting a side in some conflicts, but not others? We are not asked to choose between supporting Azerbaijan or Armenia – because the media hasn’t told us to get angry about that. We are not asked to condemn Pakistan for expelling hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees – a humanitarian catastrophe in the making – because the media hasn’t told us to get angry about that. Have you even heard of the ongoing massacres in West Darfur? Why the hierarchy of atrocities? If the military-industrial complex does not have an interest in these places, you will not hear about them. You will hear about the corrupt oligarchies you are supposed to hate but not about special interests that run Washington DC. In this environment, the way we see the world and our place in it becomes highly distorted.
Instead of harnessing Russia’s vast oil and gas supplies and integrating it into a pan-European powerhouse, we have made it into an enemy and pushed it towards China (our genuine rival). Yes, Russia is a deeply problematic country, scarred by a century of communism. Yet they are people who you can do business with if you respect their interests and treat them equally. Instead of trying to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together to heal and develop the Middle East (which China successfully started doing), we are now seizing on this opportunity to bang the drum for war with Iran while arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth. Yes, Iran is also a seriously problematic country, but we have meddled in their affairs and waged hybrid war against them for decades. We deposed their first democratic leader replacing him with a decadent monarch who sparked an Islamic revolution. Since then, our aggressive stance in the Middle East encouraged them to develop nuclear weapons. The P5+1 deal was a step in the right direction, and there is no reason we can’t go back to that kind of preventive diplomacy. Their resilience to our sanctions shows they are at least enterprising.We are not as powerful as we were, and the world isn’t as weak as it was – they want to make money and develop. Whereas we don’t even know what we want. So, we can either up our own game and grow together with emerging countries or die trying to maintain unipolar dominance.
The Monroe Doctrine, one of the founding foreign policy doctrines of the United States, holds interference into the affairs of South and Central America as hostile. In other words, it’s their turf. Yet we deny other major powers any legitimate sphere of influence. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ isn’t cutting the mustard anymore. Just for a moment think of the anger up and down the land over the weekend, as foreign conflicts played out on our streets, at the same time as one of the few remaining events of ancestor worship in Britain. Now imagine how larger this anger would be if China had military bases in the Republic of Ireland, or if Russia was funding a violent Republican overthrow of Stormont. We need a sense of perspective.
At a time of peak ignorance of the rest of the world, our domestic woes in the UK have never been more connected to global goings on. This is the sad paradox we find ourselves in. Our soft power erodes as we dilute our culture and destroy the fabric of traditional, family life. Our hard power is under-resourced and overstretched, leading to no strategic objective, and resulting in a lot of dead or traumatised soldiers and many more people who hate us with a vengeance. Our foreign policy – which is completely dictated by the U.S. – has radicalised parts of the immigrant populations we have brought in and left us exposed to unknown numbers of hostile actors. Sanctions warfare is paid for by the heating and shopping bills of the working class.
Brexit exposed the reality of how deeply controlled the UK is by international organisations. If you thought trying to decouple from the EU was an impossible task, detangling ourselves from NATO and the U.S. intelligence apparatus will be an entirely different ballgame. Brexit also revealed a genuine desire by the British public to be that global, independent, sovereign trading-nation making its own deals with countries across the world, not beholden to outdated policies and the groupthink of corporate-controlled politicians and the technocrats under them. Well, to actually do that we need to embrace a multipolar world and have a bit of confidence in ourselves.
Just as Remainers said we were too small and insignificant to survive outside the EU, so too will people say that we are too small and insignificant to survive outside the NATO/U.S. umbrella. It is doubtful there will be a NATO in a decade from now, so we might not have a choice. It is also likely the U.S. will suffer greatly (along with the whole world) from the eventual collapse of the dollar, finding it hard to avoid some form of civil conflict. Until then the music will still play on the titanic, but will the UK have the sense to get on the nearest lifeboat? As much as a military alliance provides protection from potential enemies, it also forces members to take on enemies that they might not ordinarily have, leaving them more exposed and then in need of protection.
Those imbued with the neoconservative zest for spreading liberal values by the bullet and bombing the world into democracy will no doubt be horrified by the suggestions made here, not being able to conceive of a Britain that doesn’t play the role of shit on the U.S. jackboot. I recall a different Britain, however. One that had the best diplomatic service in the world, staffed by the greatest linguists. A Britain that had state capacity and the ability to execute its will. A country that despite its allegiances was able to identify and pursue its own genuine national interest. To return to this state we ultimately must fix ourselves domestically and as a society. Until then, it would do no harm to pursue a more sophisticated approach to dealing with the rest of the world.By learning the difference between being allies with a country and being stuck in a political-military straitjacket with them, the West has an opportunity to revitalise itself and thrive in a multipolar world.
Deprived of global empire, the U.S. will be able to fight off its leviathan corporate oligarchy and develop to full potential. Europe will be able to pursue its own security and economic interests, not just American ones. Realpolitik will make its triumphant return. The UK, perhaps in the best position of all, will be able to take advantage of not being a subordinate and truly become ‘Global Britain’. I urge readers to reject those who want a war of civilisations and embrace this positive, sensible, and more human way to approach our future and the world.
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