The West Must Not Lose Greece the Way It Lost Russia

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and European Parliament president Martin Schulz deliver a news conference in Brussels, February 4
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and European Parliament president Martin Schulz deliver a news conference in Brussels, February 4 (European Parliament)

Belying the official line of Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras that a “no” vote in Sunday’s referendum about the latest bailout offer from the nation’s creditors was not a vote on whether or not to stay in the euro, political and economic realities now point inexorably toward a “Grexit”.

Although a conciliatory tone was struck by the eurozone’s laggards Italy and Spain, the main anchors of the currency bloc are losing patience.

In Germany, the rhetoric of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat grassroots has hardened substantially. One leading member of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria openly stated that Athens “chose a path of isolation” by rejecting what Merkel effectively presented as the final offer on the table. Even her Social Democratic partners admit they cannot see a path forward from here and that Greece must show greater flexibility than it has up to this point.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte echoed the language of Berlin’s hardliners after the referendum results were announced, saying if Tsipras arrived at an emergency summit with proposals not closely resembling those its creditors put forward a week ago, the eurozone would be at an impasse. “There is no other choice,” he maintained. Greece “must be ready to accept deep reforms.”

Finally, French president François Hollande, terrified of strengthening Marine Le Pen’s Euroskeptic forces but simultaneously concerned about giving a resurgent Nicolas Sarkozy too much political ammunition, abandoned his media-constructed role as a sympathetic go-between and issued a joint statement with Merkel demanding that Greece put out its own proposals to stay in the euro within two days.

Greek defiance

Putting aside the political realities of the multilevel shadow boxing match between Greece and its creditors, Sunday’s “no” vote represented a triumph of democracy over technocratic bullying.

The temperature prior to the poll, on both sides, reached a level that some would mistake for war fever.

European Parliament chief Martin Schulz, a German socialist and European federalist, warned Greece of Armageddon if it did not accept the terms presented by the so-called “troika” of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund. Underscoring the misery of strict capital controls and an impending cash shortage, Schulz warned Greeks that “salaries won’t be paid, the health system will stop functioning, the power network and public transport will break down.”

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was even more colorful. “You shouldn’t commit suicide out of fear of death,” he implored the Greeks.

For his part, the combative Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, called the actions and long-term demands of Greece’s creditors terrorism and an attempt at national humiliation.

It is difficult to discern how many of those who voted really understood the political realities of the various players or Greece’s dwindling economic options.

Many, particularly young workers and students, wanted to send a signal of defiance to a Brussels bureaucracy that has consistently tried to ignore Greek democracy.

When Prime Minister George Papandreou decided to call his own referendum on Greece’s bailout terms in 2011, he was politically thwarted by the creditors and forced out of office. His elected successor, New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras, was subsequently crushed by Alexis Tspiras’ far-left coalition in an election earlier this year.

Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany deliver a news conference in Berlin, September 27, 2011
Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany deliver a news conference in Berlin, September 27, 2011 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

There was speculation that the troika sought to do to Tsipras what was done to Papandreou, particularly given the eagerness of many in the Greek political establishment to be rid of him and his party. Schulz openly wished for Tsipras to be replaced by a technocrat and one European finance minister went so far as to denounce national referendums as leaving complicated questions in the hands of “common people.”

This echoed what former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said in the wake of a similar technocratic “coup” in Italy — where Silvio Berlusoni was replaced by technocrat Mario Monti — about the country needing “reforms, not elections.”

The campaign of Greece’s creditors and European leaders in the run-up to Sunday’s referendum highlighted the extent to which democratic choice, as unpopular or controversial as it tends to be, poses a problem for those who seek deeper economic and political integration.

Bluff and counterbluff

With a fiscal union out of the question in the eurozone’s present configuration, it was hypothesized that functionally the same result could be achieved by tying stringent fiscal reform to continued access to European credit markets via bond-buying by individual European Union states and the ECB. The result of the Greek referendum put that hypothesis to rest and the rhetoric emanating from Berlin and Paris reinforces the point.

In essence, the poker game between Athens and its creditors has shifted from one of bluff and counterbluff to one of “finger the aggressor.”

Merkel hoped that standing her ground last week would force Tsipras’ hand and take further debt relief off the table. Tsipras responded by calling and then following through with the referendum, while falsely proclaiming that the outcome would strengthen his government’s negotiating position rather than force Greece out of the euro. Now Merkel, while leaving the door to emergency discussions ajar on the one hand and making clear on the other that no better terms for Greece can be expected, is essentially baiting Tsipras to force Grexit on himself and suffer the consequences.

Unless one falls into the admittedly small, but credible, group of European powerbrokers who believe Greece might be able to return to the eurozone after a temporary exit, the road ahead looks long, bleak and very painful for Greece’s middle class, what is left of its manufacturing base and its consumer economy.

Although he comes into the emergency Brussels summit with a statement of support from all major Greek parties and moved the deck chairs by dismissing the reviled Varoufakis, Tsipras continues to publicly pretend that a Greek exit can somehow be staved off with an eleventh-hour deal that would (ideally) include some writeoffs of existing debt.

As mentioned, it is politically improbable for Merkel to give anything less than a few meaningless concessions (not materially altering the pre-referendum package) and a good word from Spain will not get Greece’s team very far.

Worse, the markets have reacted more calmly than expected to the referendum result and fears in some financial quarters that a Greek exit from the euro is now a 70-80 percent certainty. Yields on Spanish and Portuguese ten-year bonds rose to 3.2 and 2.4 percent, respectively, versus approximately 13 and 7 percent at the height of the 2011 eurozone crisis.

Putting aside the accuracy of bank stress tests and market assumptions regarding the extent of other eurozone members’ structural economic problems, the market consensus appears to be that either Greece will somehow be saved (reinforcing Tsipras’ calculus) or that the ECB will stop any Grexit contagion in its tracks before the specter of systemic risk appears again (more likely).

As such, far from being Wellington at Waterloo anticipating a Prussian rescue from certain defeat, Tsipras finds himself in the position of Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers in its famous confrontation with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1984. Ten years prior, Scargill’s union had effectively brought down the British government after a national strike caused sporadic power blackouts and electricity rationing. Ted Heath, the prime minister at the time, did not anticipate the severity of the strike and made no contingency plans. Thatcher, recognizing that a second confrontation with the miners was inevitable, ordered significant amounts of coal to be held in emergency reserve and brought the matter to a head before Scargill could get a national ballot to strike.

Similarly, whereas the high risk of contagion and lack of preparedness of European institutions to handle the consequences of a Greek exit arguably strengthening the country’s position to call Brussels’ bluff in 2011, the same cannot be certain now. What is keeping European elites tethered to Greece today is less a fear of immediate structural collapse but the political precedent of fracturing a European Union meant to be permanent and indivisible.

Avoiding the worst

While the rest of the eurozone may avoid immediate breakdown should Greece exit the currency, what happens to Greece in isolation should not be discounted. The focus on avoiding contagion risks making the fate of Greece, its people, its governance and its civil society an afterthought. Between the grumblings of German taxpayers that Greece should sleep in the bed that it has made to petty press statements from the White House that the crisis “will be the responsibility of the Europeans to resolve,” those who see Grexit as an opportunity to be embraced rather than a necessity to be belatedly accepted are isolated.

Greek Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Hamburg, Germany, September 29, 2012
Greek Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Hamburg, Germany, September 29, 2012 (Die Linke)

Yet the people who wish for Grexit and want Tsipras to reinvent himself as the leader who gave Greece its independence back genuinely care about Greece’s long-term economic future, its democratic institutions and the welfare of its people. They also feel strongly about the notion that Greece is an integral part of the West and should not be condemned to insignificance and economic stagnation. Thus rhetoric along the lines of “Greece’s economy is the size of Connecticut and won’t harm us” or New York University professor Nicholas Economides’ assertion that Greece outside the eurozone would be “a small country of the Middle East, subject to the whims of the bigger powers of the Middle East, such as Turkey,” does the Greeks and the wider Western world few favors.

Greece could leave the eurozone, default on its debt, devalue its currency in a competitive process and attempt to grow its way back to prosperity.

The task would be immense. Greece’s exports are poorly diversified, its debt-to-GDP ratio stands at over 177 percent, its private sector is plagued by cartelization, overregulation and excessive restrictions on labor mobility and 16 percent of its total economic output is spent on pension payments — with many public sector workers retiring early at 80 percent of working salary.

Beyond these inherent problems, a major challenge would be to incentivize the Greek government to choose the path of default and structural reform rather than further monetization of public debt or, worse, outright “repayment” of debt through direct inflation.

Once Greece reclaims the drachma and defaults, consumer prices will skyrocket, hundreds of thousands may lose their personal savings and pensions will be worthless. The temptation to “inflate away the debt,” nationalize banks and core industries and intervene further in the economy to prop up a collapsing public sector in this environment may be overpowering.

To avoid such a disastrous outcome, international financial institutions and the West’s largest economies (likely through the mechanism of the G-7) should simultaneously present Greece with a stick and a carrot. The former would be an unambiguous message that Greece would be blocked from international credit markets for a much longer period of time if it defaults and tries to print its obligations away rather than implement painful structural reforms. The latter would be a massive currency stabilization fund to arrest the drachma’s depreciation and halt rising consumer prices as quickly as possible.

Lessons from 1992

If the West only offered Greece the stick of credit market isolation without the commitment of a stabilization fund, it would risk seeing the country go the way of Russia in 1992 where liberal reformers under President Boris Yeltsin were abandoned.

As documented by, among others, economists Jeffrey Sachs and Anders Åslund, Russia’s reformers, led by Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar, asked the G-7 for a $25 billion aid package ($6 billion to go to a stabilization fund for the ruble after price liberalization). Gaidar and his colleagues confronted imminent bankruptcy, depleted grain reserves and entrenched opposition to their market reform program. The response they received from the George H.W. Bush Administration was to apply for emergency aid from the IMF and continue making payments toward Soviet debt.

By the time the G-7 came up with anything like a serious proposal, domestic support for Yeltsin had plummeted, Gaidar’s position in the government had weakened and the public turned its back on continued reforms. Without any cushion, Yeltsin had no choice but to let price liberalization and currency devaluation run their natural course with all the associated pain.

This incredible mistake by the United States contributed to the delegitimation not only of Russia’s liberal economic reformers but of democratic institutions and liberal politics as a whole. This subsequently helped create the conditions, particularly after Russia’s default in August 1998, for the emergence of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarianism.

Modern Greece’s volatile political history and relatively brief experience with national democracy underscore the huge risk of leaving it to confront the consequences of default alone. Given that current socioeconomic conditions led to more than half of Greeks supporting extreme left or ultranationalist parties, there is a real danger of a “brown-red” authoritarian regime or some sort of junta emerging (democratically or as a result of a violent coup) if hyperinflation and a sustained credit crisis obliterate Greece’s middle class and leave the working poor utterly destitute. Such an outcome would be a tragedy for Greece, the rest of Europe and the Western world as a whole.

Putting aside machinations which Moscow or some other patron may have to take advantage of Greece’s falling out with Europe, it is in the narrow interest of Greece’s natural partners (including the United States) to see that Greece survives and ultimately thrives as a democratic and independent state outside the bureaucratic grip of Brussels.

American-Israeli Relations Need Historical Context

And where is the great artist who will paint Ben Gurion’s face as he gave the order, and the face of Yitzchak Sadeh and the face of Galili and the face of the man who fired the artillery and the faces of the Palmach men and women who danced and sang in the cars returning from the slaughter, as they drove down to Ben Yehuda and Allenby streets in Tel Aviv.

These words, written by Dr Israel Eldad in The First Tithe (2008), reflect on a particularly dark episode in the history of the State of Israel — one about which many Jews are ignorant and others have tried hard to forget. It happened on June 22, 1948 off the coast of Tel Aviv. Fighters of the Irgun, the Jewish underground in Mandate Palestine then led by future premier Menachem Begin, had beached a cargo ship, the Altalena, on a sandbar. The Atlalena had left France with desperately needed weapons and equipment for use in Israel’s month-old War of Independence — some 5,000 rifles, 300 light machine guns and millions of rounds of ammunition.

As chronicled by Thomas G. Mitchell in Likud Leaders: the Lives and Careers of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon (2015), as Begin and his aides reached the beach and sought to help volunteers unload the cargo, he was ordered to surrender and turn all weapons over to the authority of the Palmach under the ultimate control of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. After a brief standoff and with its surrender demand rebuffed, a Palmach detachment under the command of future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin opened fire and killed sixteen Irgun members.

Many decades later, and a few years before his assassination, Rabin called a fellow member of the Israeli parliament a fascist. That member, and others, would stoically respond that, names aside, at least they never killed Jews. Although not conclusively proven, circumstantial evidence exists to link Ben-Gurion’s cabinet decision to sink the Altalena with a desire to eliminate Begin himself were he on board.

Israelis watch the ship Altalena on fire after it was shelled near Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948
Israelis watch the ship Altalena on fire after it was shelled near Tel Aviv, June 22, 1948 (GPO)

Far from the idyllic image of a united people fighting for survival that has come down through the generations, the history of modern Israel has more often than not been one of betrayal and division.

The Altalena episode capped off a years-long quasi-civil war between factions loyal to Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionist vision of an agrarian, socialist Jewish state and the market, middle-class nationalist Zionism of Begin and the Revisionists. As Israel was fighting against the Palestinian Arabs and surrounding Arab states for its existence, it was also fighting ideological rearguard actions akin to the Irish Civil War in the aftermath of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The Labor-Revisionist rivalry extended to almost the start of the Zionist movement, culminating with Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s expulsion from the Zionist Congress and de facto blacklisting by Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and the Labor Zionist leadership.

During the British Mandate, leading lights of the Palmach, Ben-Gurion’s socialist, kibbutznik paramilitary force, hunted down members of the Irgun and its sister organizations on behalf of the British, knowing that the price of membership was death by hanging. During the so-called “Season” in the early 1940s, dozens of Revisionist underground fighters were captured by Palmach volunteers and turned over for execution. Some of these volunteers included future leaders in the Israeli arts, politics and sciences.

Israel’s victory against its Arab adversaries in the War of Independence and 1949 ceasefire did not just restore Jewish sovereignty to parts of the historic Land of Israel; it also brought into a being what was effectively a one-party socialist state. Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionist movement, which would morph into the Mapai party and the political “Alignment” of left and far-left factions in the Israeli parliament, proceeded to rule Israel for thirty years without serious political opposition.

The desire to destroy rightist adversaries and foment ideological cohesion was so extreme that Ben-Gurion refused repeated requests to have Jabotinsky, buried in New York after dying of a heart attack in 1940, reinterred in Israel. New immigrants, with the particularly notorious example of Yemenite Jews, were compelled to join the Labor Zionist-aligned Histadrut workers union as a condition to gain employment in certain professions. Children were taken from their parents who were considered culturally backward and sent to semi-official reeducation camps. The contributions of Revisionist-aligned fighting organizations in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, including those that fought ferociously during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, were discounted in academic and official government literature.

Despite the trappings of democratic processes and the existence of an official opposition (with Begin as its indefatigable face), Israel was never unified as to its basic identity and existed for many years as a patently anti-democratic (albeit anti-Soviet and pro-Western) state.

For decades after the Altalena massacre, Israel’s factions continued to be at each other’s throats. When Begin and his Likud — which now governs Israel under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu — first came to power in 1977 and ended Labor Zionism’s political monopoly, it was on a wave of resentment. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, expelled from Arab countries and resettled in Israel, felt themselves cut out by the leftist Ashkenazi Jewish establishment that dominated the Alignment.

When the First Intifada and economic stagnation saw Likud‘s Yitzhak Shamir replaced by Rabin’s Labor, the same factional divides persisted. Nationalists who balked at Rabin’s proposed concessions to the Palestinian Arabs were pelted with rocks, spat upon and called enemies of peace. Leftists from the cities and the kibbutzim who supported sweeping territorial giveaways were labeled Nazis and terror supporters.

Rethinking American-Israeli relations

Given how central Israel is in the foreign policy consciousness of many Americans and the significance placed on it by the country’s political class (rarely is a statement about the Middle East uttered without mentioning “our ally Israel”), it is amazing how little Americans actually know about Israel’s exceedingly complicated and politically incorrect history.

Whatever disagreements Americans have about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian Arabs, they recognize it as a legitimate entity because it has a functioning, pluralistic and representative democracy with equality under the law. It would surely behoove the American public, including its most fundamentally pro-Israel segments, to learn that Israel was a one-party quasi-authoritarian socialist state for almost thirty years with a Potemkin village approach to civil society.

Of course, Israel has progressed and evolved, in the face of economic crises (a currency collapse and the delegitimization of the agrarian-socialist model in the mid-1980s) and multiple wars against its aggressive neighbors, into a more modern and cosmopolitan state. But deep factionalism and profound resentments, including the wounds of yesteryear’s brotherly battles, still exist.

Most Americans, including many politicians, know next to nothing about the complexities and internal struggles of the real Israel. This is an unhealthy dynamic for both parties and leads to an occasional misalignment of interests. No relationship can really succeed if one side (save for a few aficionados) knows so little about the other and allows itself to be led by manufactured images.

American president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland, September 17, 1978
American president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland, September 17, 1978 (White House)

The partnership between Israel and the United States, far from being a reality from time immemorial, is actually a very recent phenomenon. Israel and the Soviet Union actively colluded in the aftermath of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 on the Partition of the Palestine Mandate when the Truman Administration had second thoughts. France was Israel’s chief military supplier through the 1960s and actively assisted Jerusalem with its nuclear program. Only after the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel’s Arab neighbors entered the Soviet camp, did America become the Jewish state’s primary Western patron. (Read my previous article on how the United States thwarted Israel’s 1956 Sinai campaign against Egypt.)

Taking Israel’s deep divisions and ideological schisms into account is essential to reshaping American-Israeli relations.

Until Israel definitively comes to terms with what it is and wants, there is no reason for Washington to elevate it to sanctified status. Israel faces profound challenges which it ought to confront alone, including most urgently whether it is prepared to reject the farcical land-for-peace two-state solution model of resolving its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs and proceed with the unilateral annexation of key areas under its security control.

Israel also has to formulate its long-term security posture vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors, create a stable balance between its parliament and judiciary and resolve cathartic intra-religious schisms. And this before getting to the Iranian regional threat which the Israeli consensus deems existential.

While Israel has no choice but to contend with the Middle East’s many minefields, America’s basic interest is to find a workable exit from the region. This means (or should mean) rapprochement with Iran, an independent Kurdistan, a partitioned Iraq and a coalition of Sunni Arab states no longer taking America’s security guarantees for granted.

The United States does not have the structural prerequisites or geopolitical rationale to engage in the Middle East as intimately as it did during the length of the Cold War. Here Jerusalem and Washington part ways and to shrug this divergence off with a wink to Israel’s thriving democracy does no one any favors. If America is to remain as intimately connected to Israel as is presently the case, it is necessary for Americans to be told about Israel’s low points as well as its many achievements, how the two countries’ interests will not always overlap and how the benefits of regional exit for the United States may occasionally override diplomatic and security commitments to a close ally.

Between Switzerland and Salazar: Rethinking American Foreign Policy

Portugal's António de Oliveira Salazar greets American president Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lisbon, 1960
Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar greets American president Dwight D. Eisenhower in Lisbon, 1960 (Life)

If American foreign policy lacks anything, it is imagination. When 2016 presidential contenders speak about the rest of the world, their rhetoric is often superficial and predictable. It seems the country’s strategic thinking is succumbing to a creeping “Russification” — an obsession with neo-imperial greatness and jingoistic patriotism.

Irrespective of party label, America’s political elites and resident media experts have framed the country’s position in the world as a straightforward choice between strength and weakness: Unless America retains a permanent and dominating presence in every significant region of the world, a dystopian “war of all against all” will reign. Into this inevitable vacuum will leap “bad actors,” such as China, Iran and Russia. The delicate stability that supports the global economy will be upended and the American homeland will be under relentless threat. The assumption is that America’s role in the world is fateful and irreversible rather than a matter of choice or an accident of history — what America’s often globally unaware public thinks of this is beside the point.

America’s political values, and founding principles have become intertwined by consensus with its supposed role as the guardian of international peace and security. Those who pose the counterfactual, question the assumption of America’s inevitable internationalism or propose an alternative path for the nation’s foreign policy have been diagnosed as malicious, anti-American retrogrades whose weakness would see the country prostrate before vacuous evil forces that must be fought “there” to avoid having to confront them “here at home.”

In this way, American liberty has been exchanged for the authoritarian tribalism of, among others, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The Kremlin’s appeals to cheap nationalism should fall flat in places that feature more nuanced and thoughtful discussion on foreign policy. As should its subjugation of the dignity, happiness and prosperity of its citizens to the interests of the state. Nevertheless, the Russian president enjoys the budding respect and silent support of some on the American left and the right. They yearn for a leader as strong as Putin or one less hypocritical than those on offer in Washington DC.

Just as many Russians have come to glorify a supposed resurgence of the nation’s strength and revanchism on display in southeastern Ukraine, so too are there Americans blurring the humble values of their country with its self-imposed role in the world. The degradations of this thinking to America’s economic position, domestic life and long-term international standing have been legion — an overstretched economy kept afloat by artificially low interest rates and central bank bond buying programs, a hypermodern military infrastructure juxtaposed with a dilapidating domestic one, an erosion of individual privacy, rights of legal due process and property and thousands dead and wounded in foreign wars.

Whereas Russia’s expansionism is leading to international isolation and an economic dead end, America’s interventionism has made it the world’s ultimate practitioner of moral hazard. With no competing narrative given serious consideration and with its political elites fully beholden to the “America or chaos” dichotomy, countries around the world have grown accustomed to free riding on America’s security guarantees to pursue their separate interests.

Tactically driven warfare, in which every potential problem in a designated global “hotspot” is America’s problem, has become almost second nature. The British and French embraced this paradigm with zeal throughout the nineteenth century, as manifested during the Crimean War of 1854-56 fought for no other reason than to prevent Russia from possibly gaining more influence and prestige in the Mediterranean. To keep Russia out and safeguard Turkish control of the Mediterranean’s access routes, the British, French, Sardinians and Turks deployed almost one million troops on the Crimean Peninsula against an almost equally sized Russian force. By the end of the war, both sides had lost close to half a million men. Russia lost some of its finest naval commanders and explorers while the Anglo-French forces suffered tens of thousands of casualties to exposure, disease, frostbite and malnutrition. After it was over, the allies packed up and went home while Russia stayed out of the Mediterranean for a time and neutered its Black Sea Fleet. Within a decade, things effectively returned to the status quo ante bellum and people began to wonder what the point of it all was.

To rescue the United States from the nineteenth-century trap of recurring tactical wars and reinvigorate its constitutional, republican founding principles, it is imperative to introduce a new foreign policy vision that is realistic in the medium term and appealing over the long term. Recognizing that the status quo does not permit Washington to immediately adopt a narrower and more neutral foreign policy model, the option of rapid isolationism toward a fortress America does not exist. But neither can the United States afford to become more and more interventionist. The solution is a compromise third way: a foreign policy lying on a spectrum between the permanent neutrality of Switzerland and a calculated, narrow national interest approach of former Portuguese leader Antonio Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State).

At first glance, the Swiss option of permanent neutrality is a tempting long-term goal. The country, boasting a decentralized federalism of which America’s states’ rights and Tenth Amendment activists could only dream, has been de facto neutral with respect to all armed conflicts since the Treaty of Freiburg with France in 1516. Although Swiss auxiliary forces participated in several French campaigns in Italy, the country did not engage in anything like sustained conflict until Napoleon’s invasion and establishment of the Helvetic Republic. After Napoleon’s defeat, the European powers guaranteed Swiss neutrality at the Congress of Vienna and the Treaty of Paris, a status reaffirmed after the First World War. In return for its abstention, Switzerland has bound itself not to enter into alliances that may lead to military action and is expected to follow the rules of neutrality to the letter in the event of conflict among its neighbors.

Swiss soldiers patrol the border with Italy during World War I
Swiss soldiers patrol the border with Italy during World War I (BAR)

In exchange for this, Switzerland has enjoyed almost five centuries of peace while its people were allowed to forge a politically decentralized, culturally tolerant and economically buoyant state. The Swiss have among the highest levels of income per capita in the world, some of the most advanced and well-maintained transportation and high-end manufacturing infrastructure, exceedingly competitive (and largely localized) tax regimes and a rotating federal executive where the head of government is primus inter pares with colleagues from other political parties. While American policymakers debate the extent of intervention necessary to resolve tribal conflicts in Iraq and Syria or how to assuage the concerns of the Sunni Arab states against Iran, the Swiss quietly go about their domestic business.

Notwithstanding Switzerland’s economic and political achievements, it is unrealistic for America to sign the equivalent of a Treaty of Freiburg and resign itself to permanent peace today.

First, with whom would it sign such a peace? For America to embrace permanent neutrality, it would have to unilaterally withdraw from all active and potential military entanglements and interventions around the world. Such a withdrawal would also need to be guaranteed by the world’s major powers, including America’s rivals, which is plainly not going to happen.

Second, any step the United States make toward permanent neutrality would compel them to nullify or disassociate themselves from the security commitments they have. Some, like the ongoing, painful involvement in the faux Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are not as difficult to end as they appear. Others, particularly the NATO treaty and its many corollaries, would take considerable effort to unwind.

Finally, and in addition to the overwhelming practical difficulties, the centralization of America’s federal system has permitted the country’s interventionist elites to accrue immense power and shield themselves from serious, anti-interventionist scrutiny at the state, municipal and citizen levels.

With the Swiss example set aside as something akin to a long-term aspiration, another and more reasonable option for redirecting American foreign policy is the national interest neutrality practiced by Portugal during the reign of António Salazar. An economics professor, Salazar became finance minister in the late 1920s to quell the chronic economic instability that plagued Portugal through a succession of short-lived governments. Having reined in government spending, secured a modicum of economic certainty and installed technocrats in key state positions, Salazar and his allies created the authoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-communist, corporatist Estado Novo in 1933.

Although America’s constitutional and individualist core values were anathema to Salazar’s regime, its leader understood the perils of getting the country enmeshed in regional conflagrations. Salazar kept Portugal neutral during the Second World War in one of the shrewdest diplomatic balancing acts in modern European history. First, he issued a letter of neutrality sufficient to formally keep Portugal out of the war and simultaneously protect its centuries-old alliance with the United Kingdom. Salazar assured Britain that although he would stay neutral, it could call on him for help if necessary. No such call was made and this maneuver, along with Salazar’s intimate relations with Francisco Franco’s Spain, helped keep Germany out of the Iberian Peninsula and secure Portugal’s colonial possessions. By the time the war ended, Portugal had kept its economy intact, its gold merchants were making a fortune and its ports were buzzing with activity.

The epilogue of Salazar’s reign was more violent: colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, repression of political opponents, corporatist stagnation and, eventually, a revolution which ended the Estado Novo altogether.

Still, Salazar’s dedication to Portugal’s national interest and independence over ideology as well as his determination to keep its empire intact rather than risk everything by expanding its reach guided his nation through some of Europe’s most turbulent times. Politically, the country achieved a period of authoritarian stability after decades of chaos. Economically, it nearly converged with its West European neighbors near the end of Salazar’s reign.

As the United States search for a medium-term strategy that would distance them from foreign conflicts and allow for a reassessment of America’s position in the world, policymakers could learn from the Portuguese precedent. Dead-end ideologically ambiguous wars stand as much, if not a greater, chance of bringing a great power to ruin as tactically motivated ones. Washington should shift its attention to domestic concerns and make America a safer, richer and better place to live before committing the country to new adventures in permanently unstable foreign lands.

South Africa and the Perils of Forced Union in the Middle East

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener meets with Boer commanders, including Louis Botha and Christiaan de Wet, at Vereeniging in Transvaal, 1902
Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener meets with Boer commanders, including Louis Botha and Christiaan de Wet, at Vereeniging in Transvaal, 1902

On May 31, 1902, Lord Kitchener, second-in-command of British forces operating in South Africa, met with Boer delegates to negotiate terms for an end to the Second Boer War. The Boers were represented by some of their most talented field commanders, including Koos de la Rey, the “Lion of West Transvaal,” and Christiaan de Wet, who fought at Majuba Hill — the 1881 battle that forced London to recognize Boer independence for a further twenty years.

De la Rey and De Wet passionately argued over the necessity of surrender. According to an interpretation by Joyce Kotze in her novel, The Runaway Horses, De Wet maintained that the religious honor and dignity of the Boers would be destroyed and Boer commandos should fight to the bitter end. De la Rey, emotional, retorted, “Fight to the bitter end? Is what you are saying? But has the bitter end not come?”

Whereas Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in order to avoid sending his shattered army off to fight as guerrillas, that was exactly what De la Rey had done so successfully for the better part of a year. His admission of the futility of continued resistance resonated; the alternative to surrender was, perhaps, to subject the Boers to the fate of the Jews after the Second Revolt: complete destruction and forced exile.

The Second Boer War completed Britain’s domination of Southern Africa. The Boers had tried to get away from British rule since the Great Trek of the early nineteenth century and staved off Her Majesty’s government for many a decade. In the end, having absorbed the defeat of 1881 and crushed the Zulu in Natal, the British deployed half a million men to finish off the heavily outnumbered and internationally ignored Boers. The Boer delegation, functionally led by Louis Botha, acceded to the end of their people’s independence and swore loyalty to the British crown in exchange for the preservation of Afrikaans, a promise of future self-government and the avoidance of punitive economic measures in connection with the War.

Perversely, Kitchener excluded from the de facto amnesty provisions of the Treaty of Vereeniging those Boers who engaged in “certain acts contrary to the usage of war.” This was the same Kitchener who supervised the wholesale destruction of Boer farming communities and herded thousands of women and children into concentration camps to die of starvation. Now, the Boers smashed, Britain wanted a quick settlement and to consolidate control of the gold and diamond assets which served as primary drivers of the conflict.

Viewing the terms of Vereeniging in context, one could almost believe Britain had an on-off switch to prosecuting its colonial wars. To achieve victory, it was prepared to do almost anything, no matter how mendacious. Once secured, priority was given to a rapid exit.

In exchange for laying down their arms and professing loyalty to the British, the Boers were promised no interference in their day-to-day affairs and an end to the military occupation of their former states, now reclassified as the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies.

Furthermore, as was the case in Ireland with the Irish Free State and India under the Raj, Britain was eager to elevate credible local leaders — in the case of the Boers, Jan Smuts and Louis Botha — to political prominence for ease of oversight. Although the British Parliament could legislate on behalf of the colonies and British industrialists expanded their access into formerly Boer-controlled territories, there is little to suggest (as intimated at Vereeniging) that the British were ever interested in a protracted presence in South Africa akin to what existed in Ireland prior to 1922.

The path toward devolution culminated in the South Africa Act of 1909, which merged the Cape, Natal, Orange River and Transvaal Colonies into the Union of South Africa — a British dominion. For administrative reasons, the British had foisted a country upon South Africans that none of them really wanted. The Boers and the Zulu, among others, had unsuccessfully fought to preserve their independence and were theretofore content with their political enclaves. Now they were politically joined, given a legislature and prime minister and basically told to manage their problems themselves with limited direct involvement from London. Although the king would be represented by a governor-general and Parliament retained supremacy over the South African legislature (this functionally ceased in the 1930s), most matters were left to the locals.

The forced Union of South Africa, meant to improve governance and bring uniformity to its peoples, engendered enmities and hatreds which plague the country to this day.

The Afrikaner minority was split between nationalists and British loyalists, with the Boer community yearning for a restoration of their independence (a hope dashed by a National Party fearing an erosion of its then political dominance).

The Bantu tribes effectively lost any ability to gain political recognition on their own terms — the British army began imposing curfews and racial restrictions during and in the years preceding the Second Boer War and the Afrikaner-dominated National Party adopted apartheid as official policy in the aftermath of the 1948 election.

The English-speaking community, concentrated in Cape Colony, became a minority within a minority and had their sectoral interests effectively supplanted by the larger and more organized Afrikaners.

Instead of a shotgun marriage by British bayonets, everyone would have been better off with a restoration of the Second Boer War status quo ante bellum. The English speakers would have remained in the Cape with a stable plurality, including loyalist Afrikaners who sided with Britain against the Boers in the conflict; the Boers would regain their forfeit republics (the South African Republic and the Orange Free State) while the Bantu peoples would reign in Natal and northern tribal areas. Each community would, in other words, have a sphere of influence where it could preserve its culture and interact with its neighbors on its own terms.

The historical record strengthens this approach as, far from incessant hostility and forced segregation, early interactions between South Africa’s black and white peoples were anchored in negotiation. The Boer trekkers negotiated with the Zulu king for land access and settlement rights and Britain initially acquiesced to the existence of the Boer republics. This does not discount tension and occasional bloody conflict (see the Battle of Blood River) but the tone of relations was more begrudging respect than ignominious contempt.

Repeating the South African Mistake

Just as Britain imposed a bad union on people who did not seek it in South Africa and exited before the full consequences of that error became apparent, so Western powers are trying to impose false political realities across the wider Middle East. Especially American policy in the region is driven by a national unity fetish that does not correspond with the wishes of the region’s residents nor with the unstoppable forces of history. As in South Africa, the consequences can be seen in exacerbated tribal and religious hatreds, loss of life and systemic instability.

Of all the case studies that demonstrate how much the West continues to get wrong, none are as illustrative as Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, Western policy has shifted from the unwise to the near schizophrenic. Instead of using its leverage in Baghdad to put the Kurds on a path toward independence, a move which would simultaneously put pressure on Turkey, help check the Islamic State in Syria and weaken Iranian expansion toward the Gulf and the Levant, Washington has done everything in its power to compel the Kurds to seek redress with a hostile, weak and untrustworthy Shia government in the name of keeping Iraq together.

King Faisal I of Iraq speaks with his brother, Abdullah I of Jordan, in Baghdad, October 6, 1932
King Faisal I of Iraq speaks with his brother, Abdullah I of Jordan, in Baghdad, October 6, 1932 (Library of Congress)

What Iraq was — a creature of convenience handed to Emir Faisal by the British as a consolation prize for dashing his hopes of a Pan-Arab state with a capital in Damascus — hardly appears relevant. What Iraq is — a geographically united but politically splintered construct — is also unimportant. All that matters for American policymakers, it seems, is to keep up appearances that your grandfather’s Middle East is still there. Without an Iraq that only exists on paper, regional balance will be permanently disturbed.

There is no unified Iraq and perpetuating the fiction will only yield more chaos and bloodshed. Justice and conduct on the battlefield dictate that the Kurds should no longer outsource their political aspirations and economic security to Baghdad. Neither should the Sunnis — ousted from power and, as of quite recently, targeted for death by Shia militias loosely affiliated with Iraqi security forces — be compelled to accept sectoral democracy where tribal loyalties guarantee their permanent marginalization. The status quo should not continue and a tripartite partition of Iraq has been overdue for years. At a minimum, special administrative areas should be considered for the three dominant communities with arrangements for an equitable distribution of resource revenues.

In other words, let the actions of the Iraqi people, not the imaginations of Western analysts, determine Iraq’s future.

In Syria, the yearning for unity has led the West to alternate support between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its adversaries. Instead of working with the northern Kurds to secure a path toward their independence or autonomy, providing Assad loyalists with a rump state in much of the south and working with regional partners to destroy the Islamic State (with the understanding that a united Syria would not be on the table given existing political realities and the status of forces), Western policymakers have searched in vain for an all-or-nothing silver bullet (i.e., work to keep Assad in total control of Syria or find an acceptable rebel coalition to force his departure).

The son is not the father and what Hafez could get away with against the Muslim Brotherhood during the Cold War is not something Bashar can achieve now. The center of regional gravity has shifted so profoundly that Syria’s relevance in the Middle East has effectively devolved to that of North Korea with respect to East Asia (Syria is a stand-in for Iran and Russia as North Korea is for China). Surely this was not always the case but Syria’s moment in the Arab sun, reaching its zenith between World War I and the Yom Kippur War, has ended. No matter what the objective of a shrewd policymaker — thwarting Iran, balancing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs or restraining Turkey — a united Syria, with or without Assad, will not get him where he wants to go.

The British created South Africa out of convenience and a desire to maximize short-term returns. Less than ten years after crushing the Boers in one of the cruelest military campaigns in African history, they washed their hands of the matter and moved on to bigger things. The peoples of South Africa, defeated by the British and mistrustful of each other, had to figure out a way to get along within the false construct London imposed. The result was almost a century of racial hatred, violence and resentment.

The West now wishes to repeat the South African mistake in the Middle East. Having learned nothing from history, American and European policymakers are struggling to keep artificial states united and compel warring tribes to coexist against their will. Just as this model failed in Pretoria and Cape Town, so too will it surely fail in Baghdad and Damascus.