|WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
ARTICLE EXTRACTS: Volume XVII, No 4, WINTER 2000/01
The Rusty Tools of Peace
For the moment, the threat of nuclear war has mercifully abated, the jousting of superpowers has receded, and the world has more international machinery for keeping the peace than ever before. Yet ironically, not since the Second World War has violence been more widespread, and international institutions and regional coalitions less able to control it. Wars between sovereign states no longer account for most of the global crop of violence. Ethnic, religious, or other conflicts within national borders are now the typical scourges. The global arms trade, of which more than 80 percent emanates from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, feeds much of the mayhem.
We need to recall that existing global and regional organizations were not set up to deal with such situations. They were intended to prevent aggression between states, and to promote international harmony and prosperity. To deal with violence within national borders, multinational organizations have had to improvise, and for a variety of reasons sovereign states have been reluctant to systematize such activities.
The concept of national sovereignty remains far stronger in the political sphere than in any other area of international activity: financial, cultural, communications, environmental, or scientific. The idea of collective intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is, in the abstract at least, repellent to many governments. There is a good deal of confused thinking, indeed humbug, about this question. To cite only one example: the failure to act during the Rwanda genocide in 1994 is now universally deplored, but who would have supported the U.N. secretary general had he proposed strong action when the first warnings of the planned massacres were received, some four months before the genocide actually started? Such a proposal would almost certainly have been generally opposed as a violation of the sovereignty of a U.N. member (Rwanda was actually a member of the Security Council at the time), and therefore as a dangerous precedent. The strong opposition to Secretary General Kofi Annan’s ideas about intervention in cases of gross violations of human rights makes one wonder, in spite of the after-the-fact criticism of the U.N. failure in Rwanda, what the world really learned from that catastrophe.
Tony Blair, the most enthusiastically European of British prime ministers since the Conservative premier Edward Heath who took Britain into the European Economic Community almost 30 years ago, has devised the new vogue phrase that captures Europe’s somewhat ambivalent ambition. Speaking to the Warsaw Stock Exchange in October, a venue which itself illuminates the transformations that old continent has undergone since the end of the Cold War, Blair said that he saw Europe as “a superpower, not a superstate.” The phrase has since been widely echoed across Europe, notably by the former Italian premier Romano Prodi, who currently presides over the European Commission in Brussels, the institution that sees itself as the custodian of the European project.
The European Union (EU), in terms of the combined wealth of its constituent member states, has been an economic superpower for decades. Its current total population of 376 million slightly out-produces the 275 million Americans in total GDP. But it has long chosen to be a military pygmy and a political dwarf, content to leave its security to NATO and American leadership. That curious combination of wealth without power is now being reconsidered, and a European superpower is beginning to take uneasy and so far ungainly shape.
The process is sporadic, and far from guaranteed of success. But its implications are compelling for Europeans, for the current lone superpower of the United States, and for Europe’s neighbors in Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the course of the twentieth century, the world gained two new great powers and lost several more. The former nation-state powers of Europe declined with defeat and the shedding of their colonial empires. The old power of Russia assumed monstrous shape under Soviet rule and has sunk into what will be a long, if temporary, eclipse. Japan could not long sustain its great-power status and now emulates what Europe used to be, a lopsided (and currently stumbling) economic giant with atrophied limbs where its military prowess and strategic pretensions once flourished. The two new regional powers of China and India are already forces to be reckoned with in the global equation.
But the prospect of a European superpower is fundamentally and qualitatively different. Europe’s combination of wealth and high technology, and its prominent role in global trade and finance, puts it at least potentially into the category now occupied by the United States alone.
Italian politics can seem like a never-ending opera buffa in which governments rise dramatically and fall ignominiously. The show is diverting to the international audience, but nobody takes it seriously, and the governments leave little of substance behind.
Dismissing Italian politics as mere melodrama has never exactly been sensible. Throughout the postwar years, Italy was a crucial ideological battleground for the democratic world. When the 50-year rule of the Christian Democrats came to an end at the beginning of the 1990s, the country nearly went belly-up economically. The wildly fluctuating lira and the gigantic Italian national debt posed major problems for the economies of Italy’s European partners.
A decade of austerity by technocratic and center-left governments has bludgeoned Italy’s public finances into somewhat better order. But financial rigor is rarely popular with the voters. This spring, it seems probable that Italy will choose a right-wing coalition headed by the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi to be its new government. The coalition, in addition to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, contains the “post-fascist” National Alliance and the xenophobic and virulently anti-American Northern League. Its main platform planks are hostility to immigration and tax cuts.
In neighboring Austria a year ago, Jýrg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party won a quarter of the vote and a place in the national government. Diplomatic sanctions from mainstream governments elsewhere in Europe followed, but Austria’s government held its ground and the European Union (EU) was obliged to back down. How will Europe respond to the spectacle of the far-right in power in Rome? Italy is not Austria. It is a $1.4 trillion economy whose public finances are still shaky and whose position at the heart of the Mediterranean makes it central to NATO strategy. Germany, which was strenuously opposed to Italian participation in the euro for much of the 1990s, and whose government holds no brief for extremists of the Haider kind, is rumored to be aghast at the prospect of a swing to the right in Italy.
Are such fears justified? It appears that policymakers in other Western governments are right to worry about political developments in Rome. All of a sudden, Italian politics seems less divertente, and an awareness that the rest of Europe is not a spectator, but a participant in the Italian melodrama, is beginning to grow.
Central Asia today is a still-uncharted battleground for world powers competing for its vast oil, gas, and mineral resources. Their ambitions collide with those of Islamic fundamentalists who see the region as fertile territory for new holy wars, and with leaders of a hundred or more ethnic groups striving to carve out new fiefdoms. All competitors confront entrenched ruling elites, mostly holdovers from the Soviet era, now bent on clinging to power by crushing all dissent and opposition. The outcome of this contest is of immense importance to the future stability of the Asian heartland, as well as to neighboring Russia, China, Iran, and South Asia.
The recent successes of the extremist Taliban movement in Afghanistan have led to a wave of panic in Central Asia. Yet seen from afar, an understanding of the tangled geopolitics of this region, a replay of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Great Britain, still remains the province of experts rather than the general reader. Untangling Central Asia and providing a primer for the baffled is what this essay attempts to do.
Generalizations about this diverse region are difficult. But it can be credibly said that Central Asia’s problems are primarily internal. In all its states, the lack of genuine economic reform or real development, the persistent centralized controls of a Soviet-minded bureaucracy, and the growing cancer of corruption and public cynicism have made its governments increasingly fragile. None of the Central Asian states can claim even a modicum of democracy or a relatively open society. State controls over its people’s private lives remain almost as suffocating as they were under communism. Moreover, the ruling elites, with their jealousies and rivalries rooted in the Communist past, have been unable to unite to form a common Central Asian market that could jointly improve their economies and shared security.
No Central Asian state has had a change of leadership since the Communist era ended in 1991, and none are prepared to deal with the obvious issue of readying for a transition to a new generation of leaders. This is an increasingly pressing challenge, since more than 60 percent the region’s 50 million people are under the age of 20-a generation restlessly pressing for change that is unlikely to tolerate a continued decline in living standards and lack of rudimentary freedoms. A social and political explosion seems inescapable unless the demands of the young are addressed. Finally, religion remains an intensely combustible issue.
By refusing to accommodate traditional Islam, or to acknowledge the role of Sufism or the liberal Jadids and other traditionally moderate forms of Islam, or to help people rediscover or revive their Islamic heritage, the governments of the region are only fueling the fires of extremism. There is a palpable cultural vacuum at the heart of Central Asia, which cannot be filled with consumerism or imitations of Western culture. By ignoring a heritage that in the past has given much to the Islamic world, Central Asia’s rulers are unable to justify their acts of repression and omission, or to give their people the modern but rooted identity that they so badly need. While denigrating Islam, the postcommunist elites have been unable or too frightened to nurture a vibrant multiethnic nationalism.
Today, Islamic militants are recruiting dissidents from all Central Asian ethnic groups, and from among the Muslim Uighurs in China as well, and they are swiftly becoming a transnational group with support across the region. These insurgents fund their military operations through the narcotics and weapons trade from Afghanistan, with support from the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Taliban movement, and Pakistan’s Islamic parties. The rise of these guerrillas suggests all too compellingly how the authoritarian and antidemocratic nature of the Central Asian regimes is driving the opposition into extremist positions. If change does not come quickly from within Central Asia, explosive uprisings will overwhelm these states and plunge the region into chaos.
Modeled on its prototype in London’s Hyde Park, Singapore’s heavily publicized new Speakers Corner opened for business last September. More than 100 local and foreign journalists thronged to Hong Lim Park to watch the landmark event. In this tiny Southeast Asian island country, where public speeches to more than five persons had long been prohibited, and where opposition politician Chee Soon Juan was jailed for attempting such a speech a year before, the government was now permitting citizens to assemble to speak and be heard. It seemed a significant change.
Yet, so far Speakers Corner has hardly become a forum for spirited political dialogue. On an average day in the park, an elderly man clambered atop his soapbox and railed at length-about how loudly a neighbor played his music. The spectators chatted among themselves and paid the speakers little heed. When the human rights activist James Gomez challenged the audience to debate, to ask questions, there was scarcely a ripple; several young Singaporeans asked Gomez if, under the law, they were allowed to pose questions.
The Speakers Corner experience is instructive: despite predictions that the city-state’s prosperity would foster political consciousness, it appears unlikely that real change in this direction is in Singapore’s near future. The experiment does show that the government, dominated by the People’s Action Party (PAP), realizes that Singapore must become somewhat freer and more innovative if it is to continue its heady run of economic growth. Like most instances of political change in Singapore, Speakers Corner was initiated by senior leaders (in response to pressures brought to bear by nongovernmental groups) and directed by high-level policymakers. The restrictions placed on speakers by the regime are an example of the familiar tactic of allowing limited liberalization while retaining tight control.
The tepid popular response suggests that, for the time being, most of Singapore’s 4 million people are either satisfied with the authoritarian government’s performance or have been ensconced in the island’s self-censoring, conformist cocoon for so long that they are incapable of change. There are a few signs of growing political awareness. The Internet has given rise to political discussion groups and satirical online magazines that poke fun at the PAP, and some controls on free expression have been lifted.
But unlike Spain in the 1970s, where an elite-led democratic transition was embraced by the populace, Singapore seems locked in place: the ruling party will only budge so far, and most Singaporeans are not ready to push. Contrary to recent reports of a “new Singapore,” it may take years before the most important determinant of political dominance, control of Parliament, is either ceded by or taken from the PAP.
To many observers, the recent wave of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, and within Israel proper, was an abrupt and shocking occurrence that shattered the relative calm that had descended upon the region in recent years. Until the sudden outbreak of the “al-Asqa Intifada,” peace finally appeared to be coming to a region long torn asunder by conflict and hatred. Israel, it seemed, was at last finding security, its existence assured through its overwhelming military dominance in the Middle East, its close relationship with the world’s only superpower, and the growing (albeit reluctant) acceptance of it by the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states. Israelis themselves, reared for decades on a sense of existential dread, real or imagined, had started to relax and concentrate their energies on more mundane matters. With the national dream secure at last, Israelis could begin to tend to their personal dreams.
That this semblance of peace was fragile and insecure is now brutally apparent. That its fruits were not enjoyed by all-least of all by the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza-is also now obvious. What is far less obvious, however, is the claim that Israel’s existence was never secure, that the Jewish state remained imperiled. This is precisely the argument advanced by Yoram Hazony in The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul. Contrary to those who emphasize Israel’s material power and success, and hence view the Jewish state as indestructible, the central message of Hazony’s book is that the future of the Jewish state is in serious jeopardy. In fact, Hazony, director of the Shalem Center, a neoconservative think tank in Jerusalem, and former advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that not only is Israel still at risk, but it faces perhaps a greater danger than ever before.
But this is an argument with a twist. The reader would be forgiven in thinking that those who warn of the threat to the Jewish state have in mind the Palestinian and Arab masses whose hatred of Israel has been displayed nightly on our television screens as they burn Israeli flags and call for jihad, for a holy war. Or perhaps they refer to our familiar enemies Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi, or the ayatollahs in Iran who remain steadfastly opposed to Israel’s existence. In fact, the threat of which Hazony writes is of a different nature entirely. According to Hazony, the danger that Israel-or more precisely Israel as a Jewish statefaces today does not come in the form of genocidal Arab masses or despotic, villainous leaders. Instead, the danger is closer to home: in fashionable Tel Aviv coffee shops, theaters, art galleries, university lecture halls, and school classrooms. For Hazony, the enemy is within, and the weapons being used are not bullets, tanks, and missiles but newspaper editorials, novels, poems, plays, and school textbooks. These pose no less a threat to the existence of the Jewish state. As Hazony puts it, “the state need not be defeated militarily to be defeated utterly. The entire job may be done on the battleground of ideas.”