In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again

england

Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.

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Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

Visegrad Redux

This is old news, but worth pointing out anyways. Back in April, the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) signed a tripartite defense agreement that, among other things, will allow for greater interoperability and joint training between the Belgian and Dutch navies and various paratroop/air mobility units of the two. Luxembourg is, well, involved somehow.

So for those of you keeping score, that makes at least three fairly comprehensive subregional defense compacts within the EU: the Benelux compact, the Anglo-French Entente, and the Visegrad group. The Baltics also have some jointness going on, including a collective military unit. Here’s a little map of the regional groupings:

Subregional Defense Agreements in Europe

But, uh…who’s Germany partnering with? And I’m assuming I’ve missed some other subregional partnerships/alliances – what’s Scandinavia doing? And whether this is a supplement to EU/NATO membership or something more, well, if it weren’t already clear how politically fragmented Europe is, this just reinforces that.

(Via Scott Hielen)

Visegrád

The four constituent nations of the "Visergrád Four."

Apparently, this alliance exists, and as of May, now includes a military component. I like it. As a bloc in the EU and NATO of otherwise somewhat ignored countries, it allows for a little more interdependence without relying on the “big boys.” The history behind the group, which dates back to 1335(!) is just awesome, and I believe was designed for the sole purpose of fascinating me.

Originally a meeting between the King of Bohemia, the King of Poland, and the King of Hungary and Croatia, the “Visegrád Three” (so-named for the Hungarian castle town in which the meeting was held) was intended to create new routes of commerce, bypassing what was then the center of European commerce, Vienna. Replace “Vienna” with “Berlin and Paris” – and possible even “Moscow” – and one gets a decent idea of what the Visegrád revival is all about. Of course, as post-Communist countries, the Visegrád Four (with the split of Slovakia and the Czech Republic) were concerned with maintaining their own sphere of influence without Russian interference.

As for the Visegrád Battlegroup, it is expected to become fully operational by 2016. It is intended to be a separate force from NATO, though elements will begin exercising with the NATO Ready Response Force. Poland is taking the lead militarily, as befits its size and spending relative to the other members.

Aside from the practical nature of the undertaking, the symbolism of this alliance is not to be underestimated. The four countries involved are all European Union members, but not in the Euro-zone (they are the westernmost non-former Yugoslav countries to not adopt the Euro). They represent a strange hybrid between EU membership and existing outside it, and with the Euro looking shakier every day, actual entrance into the common currency may be an increasingly remote possibility. This would solidify the status of the Visegrád Four as, if not second-class member-states, then at least as junior members in an IGO whose legitimacy is derived from the equal status of its constituent nations.

On its own, the Visegrad Group is not particularly powerful or a threat to European unity, but when seen as part of the larger pattern of sub-regionalization it becomes indicative of a larger trend. Even where formal ties do not exist, developments like the emerging German leadership of the EU or the newly-signed Anglo-French defense treaty point to a Europe losing coherence. And in Eastern Europe these new subregions are gaining prominence and a sort of global autonomy. The customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia that came into being in 2010 harkens back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when a similar union (with the addition of Ukraine) was seen as a means to preserve much of the structure of the USSR while maintaining the multinational state. That customs union has abolished border controls as of this month, creating another subnational and even subregional entity.

There seems to be growing disenchantment not just with the universal United Nations, but even with the regional variants: the European Union, UNASUR, African Union, SCO, ASEAN, etc. In a world where nations themselves are tending towards autonomy and fragmentation, it should not come as a surprise that some countries would turn to a more specific alternative than the grand regional frameworks that attempt to address an incredible array of problems and cooperative issues.

Also, the conflation of military and economic drivers of an alliance like Visegrád should not be overlooked as a key development. While the two are often treated as completely separate realms – NAFTA certainly does not include a military component, NATO’s economic requirement is that members adhere to capitalism, more or less, and the EU’s EDC unified European military force has been discussed for sixty years without ever coming to fruition. Military power and the economy, however, are inextricable, and it is perhaps for this reason that these microalliances are coming into being. For a group of four, maybe it’s just more manageable that way.

In general, though, keep an eye out for these subregional and some day soon even subnational alliances. The New England Six? The League of Extraordinary PIGS? Flanders? Coming soon to a world map near you.

Kids’ Table No More

President Obama dropped a bombshell and a “guaranteed applause line” on his passage to India: he will back an Indian seat on the UN Security Council.  And quite frankly, it’s about time. The only two countries opposing it were China and the US, so while this doesn’t completely clear the path for Indian accession, it does smooth it.

The other question is how this will remake the Security Council as a whole. Tom Ricks has his own solution:

It also probably is time to kick out France and Britain and instead give the EU one seat, which would make the permanent members:

  • United States
  • Russia
  • China
  • India
  • Japan
  • EU

Japan makes sense, but adding/subtracting members is going to irritate virtually everyone no matter how it’s done (which explains why none of it has been done before).

I think we can agree right off the bat that losing members is a non-starter. No one will voluntarily give up a seat, and thanks to veto power, it’s hard to see France or Britain ruling themselves into irrelevance, no matter how much that might make sense. If they both stay then, why would Germany not deserve a seat? As the largest economy and most populous country in Europe, there’s little reasonable objection to their membership.

Then we get into regional representation. If Russia, India, and China all have a seat, why doesn’t Brazil get one? Or if we go the route of an EU seat, why not UNASUR? And/or the African Union? Will the Middle East get its own seat? Would Pakistan demand one?

It is an excruciating set of compromises that would have to be made in order to change the membership of the Security Council at all. Perhaps the largest barrier, though, is the scale of enlargement. The G8 didn’t evolve into a G10, and then a G12, and so forth – it went straight from G8 to G20. And if the Security Council is to add any of the up-and-coming powers, it will probably have to add them all.

Goodbye to All That

Quintessential London: Big Ben, a Georgian-style building, and CCTV.

As what has been a wild nine months draws to a close, I’ve been saying goodbyes and revisiting all my favorite haunts (looking at you, Princess Louise). Disappointing as some aspects of the year have been (the academics, for one), there has been so much good to come out of it. As at other schools, LSE has introduced me to some of the smartest people I’ve worked, studied, and grown close with in my life. I want to thank them and point some out in particular.

  • [NAME REDACTED] writes as the Hybrid Diplomat at Hybrid Diplomacy. He’s easily the closest friend I made this year, us being in the same program and sharing two of three courses. He is a true iconoclast, “not giving a fuck” about telling it exactly like it is. His candor is refreshing. And I will miss him.
  • Shannon runs The Traveling Scholar, a running diary and travelogue of her adventures while based in London. On the one hand, her travels inspire some regrets that I didn’t get outside of the city more. But on the other hand, her writing makes it easy to live vicariously through her.
  • One of the more fascinating blogs I’ve read recently belongs to my friend Jonas F. Gjersø, The Civilizing Mission. He takes a very empirical approach to the history of empire, and the charts he has produced reveal some surprising, but always fascinating, results. He too is embarked on a PhD journey; I wish him the best as well.
  • The Occidental Oriental is another anonymous blog by [NAME REDACTED]. As an Afghan-Texan-Persian-American, he has some rare insights into the Middle East and the rest of the world. Definitely check out his current series of posts from Syria.

And to all the others without blogs – Ross, Jasmine, Mark, Erica, Peter, Michael, Amy, Rebecca, Kita, Jimmy (and yes, even Wen) – you are just as dear. Thanks for brightening my year when the clouds invariably set in.

One more special thanks is also due to those luminaries who have helped and guided me in the wide world of milblogging. Starbuck from Wings Over Iraq, Shlok Vaidya, Mike Slagh at Secure Nation, and Japan Security Watch’s Kyle Mizokami have all been as friendly and welcoming as can be. I owe them too a debt of gratitude.

This year has been eye-opening and a learning experience, one way or another. Thank you all so much for everything. And see you soon, I hope.

An Unpronounceable Volcano as Black Swan?

Taken 10 km east of Hvolsvollur Iceland on April 18th, 2010. Lightning flashes and glowing lava illuminate parts of Eyjafjallajokull's massive ash plume in this 30-second exposure.

Way back in 2004, John Robb wrote a piece on scale-free networks:

Scale-free networks are everywhere. The can be seen in airline traffic routes, connections between actors in Hollywood, weblog links, sexual relationships, and terrorist networks. So what exactly is a scale-free network? A scale-free network is one that obeys a power law distribution in the number of connections between nodes on the network [emphasis mine].

Obviously, considering the plight of the airlines right now in the midst of an apocalyptic (yet curiously invisible) ash cloud is particularly fascinating to do in the context of Robb’s networks. In characterizing the nature of scale-free ones, he comes up with a positive and a negative:

  • Scale-free networks are extremely tolerant of random failures. In a random network, a small number of random failures can collapse the network. A scale-free network can absorb random failures up to 80% of its nodes before it collapses. The reason for this is the inhomogeneity of the nodes on the network — failures are much more likely to occur on relatively small nodes.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to intentional attacks on their hubs. Attacks that simultaneously eliminate as few as 5-15% of a scale-free network’s hubs can collapse the network. Simultaneity of an attack on hubs is important. Scale-free networks can heal themselves rapidly if an insufficient number of hubs necessary for a systemic collapse are removed.

Examining the fallout from Eyjafjallajokullin in this light does present an interesting dichotomy. If we consider the entire globe as one big air traffic system, then it definitely is showing resilient capabilities. Flights are diverted around the affected nodes and redistributed to areas unaffected by the ash cloud. It’s as if Europe was a tumor that has been surgically removed from the rest of the airborne world.

Thus, of course most everyone can continue to fly whether or not Europe’s airports are open. The global network is continuing to function.

And in fact, it’s hard to conceptualize European airspace as an isolated network. At this point all air traffic to and from the continent is inextricably bound to the rest of world, and so it’s hard to imagine an inverse scenario in which the rest of the world ceases to fly while Europe muddles on.

However, this picture changes slightly if we consider the voluntary closure of most European airspace as an intentional attack. Robb gives the threshold as 5-15% of a system’s capability. Of the 30 busiest airports in the world in 2009, seven are in Europe, those seven with total passenger traffic of 268 million people a year. If 1.5 billion people travel by plane every year, that’s roughly 18% of world capacity (and that’s before taking into account all the other European airports that didn’t crack the top 30). For the rest of the world, it’s a relatively stable – if infuriating – situation. I suppose the real determining factor is that while the initial closures were shocks to the system, they didn’t begin on a Europe-wide scale, and by the time those in the east started closing, it was no longer a surprise.

Either way, the system is voluntarily taking at least a fifth of itself offline, which gives rise to an interesting third possibility that Robb doesn’t mention: how much of a system can turn itself off before collapse?

The Thirty Years’ War and Collective Memory

T. Greer at The Scholar’s Stage tell us World War II provides a convenient metaphorical framework for understanding the world today, but goes on to explain that today’s political situation is more akin to the 30 Years’ War than World War II.

You can summarize the history of the Second World War in two paragraphs. Squeezing the causes, campaigns, and countries of the war into these paragraphs would be a gross simplification, but it is possible. This does not hold true for the Thirty Years War. It is one conflict that simply cannot be related in a paragraph. The number of actors involved, the myriad of motivations and goals of each, and the shifting alliances and intrigues between them all are simply too complex to be stripped down to a single page. Piecing together the events of the Thirty Years War inevitably takes up much more time and effort than single page summaries allow.

Single page summaries or 5-minute interviews allow no room for nuance, deliberation, or even explanation. The goal of televised news seems to be for one side to “win” at the other’s expense, and victory means hammering home as simple an argument as possible. Sure, the Maginot Line is long-gone, we have airborne robots and laser weapons, and even Communism has been defeated, yet somehow the analogies of ‘the last good war’ resonate in our collective memories.

The great majority of policy makers are familiar with the Second World War. If asked to, I am sure that most folks in Washington concerned with foreign affairs and security policy could provide an accurate sketch of the countries and campaigns involved. Indeed, we conceptualize current challenges from the standpoint of World War II; allusions to it are the lifeblood of both popular and academic discourse on foreign affairs. Pearl Harbor, Munich, Stalingrad, Normandy, Yalta, and Hiroshima are gifts that keep on giving – they serve as an able metaphorical foundation for any point a pundit or analyst wishes to make.

Compounding the problem is that old familiar anti-intellectual strain in American public discourse. Just the thought of applying something other than a 20th-century analogy to a contemporary situation seems like high-falutin’ blasphemy, further evidence that the pansy college boys have no place deciding what’s what. But we need to start comparing other human conflicts (thought not so all-over-the-place as Edward Luttwak) to our own, and figuring out what really matters – and what really doesn’t.

Via zenpundit.

On Decapitation

Warsaw skyline, Saturday, April 3, 2010.

Sunday’s plane crash that wiped out much of the upper echelon of the Polish government was truly tragic, indeed. I hesitated to write this just because of the proximity of the accident, but I don’t think anyone will be too offended (and if you are, my apologies in advance).

The crash was a prime example of a decapitation strike. While those who perished are not exactly comparable to “Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Christopher Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, [and] the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it’s awfully close (and that probably understates the breadth of the victims).

A better example might be Barack and Michelle Obama, Rahm Emanuel, James Jones, Ben Bernanke, Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer, Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs, Tim Kaine, Jacob Lew, David Ferriero,  plus an incredible number of dignitaries, cultural icons, and legendary figures. I don’t think the United States has public citizens comparable to the epic Ryszard Kaczorowski or Anna Walentynowicz.

But the moral of the story is that essentially, the casualty list didn’t matter. The government continues to function; the Polish government’s continuity has continued unbroken. Luckily, that order is fairly simple. The Speaker of the lower House, Bronislow Konorowski, is acting president and must call elections, which will be held by the end of June. So far, everything is proceeding as it is supposed to.

This doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be such a smooth process if say, the Tu-154 had crashed due to Russian sabotage or terrorism. But with crazy accusations of Russian culpability being hurled around (thankfully, not by anyone in a position of power) and Poland still continuing to function like a normal country, it seems to point at a rational, calm transition of power even if a future accident was caused by something more sinister.

The continuity in the Polish government makes an article linked to from Abu Muqawama, Jenna Jordan’s “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” (pdf) even more relevant. Her conclusion?

Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.

I feel like the system most vulnerable to a decapitation strike is the particularly complex one of the United States, but perhaps the fact that it cannot really be planned for (or at least isn’t planned for) in any sort of detailed sense explains our current strategy: ensure the survival of the system.

So it probably wouldn’t work in the United States, either. It won’t work on sub-state actors.It won’t work on non-state actors. It won’t work on state actors. Isn’t it time to call decapitation strategy faulty and scrap it for something more productive?

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary.

Today I’m en route to Hungary to kick off a grand central/eastern European trip, accompanied by an especially lovely lady. If you’re curious, the itinerary is Budapest-Vienna-Salzburg-Munich-Berlin-Warsaw.

I’ll be over there for two weeks, and while I’d like to pretend I’ll make occasional posts with pretty pictures I’ve taken, it would only take a couple of days for you all to see through the charade.

There’s a slight chance I’ll post every once in a while, but don’t hold your breath. Later today I’ll have Part IV of “Operation Tannenbaum” up, which will be the last for some time (and hopefully provide some needed closure). I’ll be back in April for sure.

And again, thanks so much for reading. If you haven’t already, this would be an excellent time to explore the links page and discover some interesting new blogs.

Transatlanticism

Daniel Korski’s new article in Foreign Policy, “Partners in Decline,” calls for a renewed US-European relationship, as a way of staving off marginalization at least for a while. It’s kind of hard to discern his point – clearly at this point, Europe needs the US far more than the US needs Europe. True, NATO is a force of legitimacy right now, but if the demographic trends Korski points to as signs of decline continue, won’t it begin to lose that legitimacy as it becomes less and less representative of any significant proportion of global population?

Korski also misinterprets history. He asks us to

Imagine if the United States had in the past chosen its allies exclusively on whether they were willing to fight alongside the 82nd Airborne. That would have meant abandoning an alliance with Britain in 1966 after then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to the Vietnam War.

Is there some sort of treaty or piece of paper we would have torn up? Aside from the (predominantly cultural) Special Relationship – which certainly was damaged for most of the 70s until the Reagan-Thatcher revival – Britain’s refusal to commit troops to Vietnam was no more than a disagreement between longtime global partners. There was no real ‘alliance’ to end as a response but even that informal alliance was seriously damaged.

I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate an American withdrawal from NATO (as Andrew Bacevich does), but at the same time it is perhaps on an even steeper path to irrelevancy than Europe and the United States themselves. Korski’s argument is in itself contradictory, as his prescription for waning influence just reemphasizes the extent of Western decline. And like all other nation-states, it is an inevitable collapse.