The Many Scenarios of a Republican Civil War

Members of the Texas delegation listen to a speech at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, September 2, 2008
Members of the Texas delegation listen to a speech at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota, September 2, 2008 (PBS/Tom LeGro)

In August 2016, I was penning an article titled “The Coming Republican Civil War”. The premise was simple: after a self-inflicted Trumpian defeat in November, the party of Lincoln would tear itself asunder assigning blame and shedding factions.

But Hillary lost. For a few brief months, the Grand Old Party looked triumphant.

Not so much anymore.

The long-term trajectory of the Republican Party isn’t great; factional infighting has already sunk several attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act and by the end of the month we’ll know just how deep the divides go should tax reform and the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill fail. Read more “The Many Scenarios of a Republican Civil War”

The Octopus in Political Cartoons

Octopuses are a popular trope in political art. They came in vogue in the 1870s, when Frederick W. Rose depicted Russia as a giant octopus lording over Eastern Europe. The sea monster was quickly given to Germany when it posed a bigger threat to peace in Europe. During the early Cold War, it was Russia’s turn again. The octopus was the perfect metaphor for spreading communism.

Here is a selection of the best and worst tentacled sea creatures. Read more “The Octopus in Political Cartoons”

The United Republics: A Peace Plan for America

Clare Trainor's proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions
Clare Trainor’s proposal for high-speed rail connections between seven American megaregions

The 2016 election was a turning point in American history. Cultural, political and regional differences have become so vast that the American political system is becoming unsustainable. There are two fundamentally different visions of what this country should be and the current federal system does not allow these differences to be reconciled.

For these reasons, I am proposing a new political system that would transform the United States of America into the United Republics of America.

This new government would still allow nationwide coordination of domestic and foreign policy, but it would devolve power to newly created republics. Read more “The United Republics: A Peace Plan for America”

Lines on a Map: Five Examples Worse Than Sykes-Picot

The centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement has flooded the better-informed parts of the Internet with everything from the depressingly familiar (blaming the treaty for all the Middle East’s problems) to the refreshingly critical. There seems to be more and more of the latter, which is heartening.

Sykes-Picot was after all not the only plan to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest. And blaming it, or any Western design, for imposing “artificial borders” on the region is a dangerous proposition, as the Atlantic Sentinel has argued. Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that only borders that perfectly encompass certain ethnic groups are legitimate invites more conflict, not less.

The Middle East is not the only part of the world that can attest to that. Here are five examples where drawing lines on the map caused even bigger problems. Read more “Lines on a Map: Five Examples Worse Than Sykes-Picot”

Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society

1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland
1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland (Time/Robert M. Chapin Jr.)

Poland’s historical changeability on the map of Europe has had a profound impact on its political and social composition. A century after it regained its independence, differences still exists between those parts of Poland that were annexed by Germans and those that were once part of Austria and Russia.

In the last few parliamentary and presidential elections, the political map of Poland could be drawn almost perfectly along the former borders of its occupiers. The liberal Civic Platform party won pluralities in almost all counties that were part of the German Empire until 1914. The conservative Law and Justice, by contrast, won most counties in the east. Read more “Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society”

Geography Renders Poland Vulnerable to Foreign Plots

Topographical map of Poland and Europe
Topographical map of Poland and Europe (Wikimedia Commons)

Situated on the North European Plain between Germany and Russia, Poland has often played a pivotal role in European history. It dominated Central Europe in the seventeenth century, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to near the Black Sea in the south as part of a commonwealth with Lithuania. Two centuries later, it had disappeared off the map, partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Like Germany in the west and Russia to the east, Poland largely lacks clear natural borders. The Baltic Sea coast and central plain are flat and have historically served as an invasion route, from Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Russia in 1812 and Adolf Hitler’s more successful attempt in 1941-42 to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany the other way around three years later.

The country’s two main rivers, the Oder and Vistula, facilitate east-west movement. Most large cities, including Gdańsk, Poznań, Wrocław and Warsaw — the capital — straddle it.

Poland’s only natural defenses are in the south. The Carpathian and Sudeten ranges offer some barrier but are not forbidding enough to altogether deter an invading force, such as when the Austrians moved across the mountains in 1809 in a futile attempt to take Warsaw from what was then a French puppet state. Nor are they so rugged as to frustrate economic development. Major cultural and industrial centers like Katowice and Kraków can be found in the Carpathians.

Given its geographical position in Europe, Poland’s fate is inextricably tied up with the intentions of its neighbors. When they are weak, such as Germany and Russia were in the seventeenth century, Poland can defend its independence and prosper. When its rivals are not only powerful but act together, Poland is doomed.

Most infamously, between 1772 and 1795, the Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires conspired to progressively remove Poland from the map. (Napoleon briefly resurrected it as the Duchy of Warsaw from 1807 to 1815.) Poland was restored after World War I but divided up between Germany and Russia again in 1939. It emerged from the Second World War that its invasion triggered smaller and further to the west. At the 1945 Yalta Conference, Western leaders acceded in demands from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that Poland’s Eastern Borderlands be incorporated into Russian-controlled Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. Some one million ethnic Poles were moved west by the Soviet authorities and forced to make a new life for themselves in lands that were once German. Millions of Germans, in turn, were expelled from areas like East Prussia, Farther Pomerania and Silesia. Many resettled in the newly-formed Federal Republic of Germany.

1990 Central Intelligence Agency map of the 1937 and present-day borders of Poland and Lithuania
1990 Central Intelligence Agency map of the 1937 and present-day borders of Poland and Lithuania (Library of Congress)

Fearful of another invasion from the west, Russia reneged on its promise to respect Polish independence and subjugated it as a communist-led client state. Nationalist sentiment nevertheless remained strong and Poland went on to lead the Eastern Bloc in revolt against Russian overlordship. Starting in 1980, the country’s Solidarity trade union, led by later president Lech Wałęsa, pressured the Soviet-backed leadership for political freedoms, culminating in semi-free elections in 1989 that paved the way for a transition away from one-party rule across Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland has since oriented itself westward, joining the American-led NATO alliance in 1999 and entering the European Union in 2004. This shift has largely solved Poland’s geopolitical problem. Germany is no longer a territorial threat. Like the United States, it should now come to Poland’s defense in the event of another threat from the east.

But Poland has also relied on faraway powers before who failed to protect it. As Russia flexes its military muscle in Eastern Europe, Poland — unlike some of its Western allies — will not let its guard down. The country knows it cannot take its freedom for granted.

Poland’s Election Shaped by History of Partition

The skyline of Warsaw, Poland
The skyline of Warsaw, Poland (Unsplash/Alexey Topolyanskiy)

Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party is likely to unseat the liberal Civic Platform in October’s election, polls show. Partly this is because voters are eager for a change after eight years of Civic Platform rule. But Poland’s election outcomes are also shaped by the country’s history. Read more “Poland’s Election Shaped by History of Partition”

Blaming Sykes-Picot: A Dangerous Deception

Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence
Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence

We have previously argued that blaming the colonial borders in the Middle East for today’s mayhem in Iraq and Syria overlooks the role played by the Arabs themselves. There’s another reason to be wary of the “artificial state” narrative. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to more, not less, sectarian conflict.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group has brought new attention to the supposed artificiality of Iraq’s and Syria’s borders. This self-declared caliphate is determined to erase a desert frontier that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

The Islamic State’s propaganda and much Western commentary traces the region’s ethnic and sectarian strife back to a secret 1916 agreement between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot that divided the Arab lands into respectively British and French spheres of influence.

This is rather unfair to Sykes and Picot. Their plan never really panned out (for one thing, Italy and Russia did not get the territory they envisaged) and Sykes himself, a War Office diplomat at the time, recognized it as a “reactionary measure” only a few years later when the region’s borders were still in flux. Neither Sykes nor Picot had the power to enforce borders on anyone and it took more planning, several conferences and consultations with the Arabs — who had after all supported the Allies in the war against the Turks — before the borders of today’s Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were finalized.

Sara Pursley, a Princeton University postdoctoral fellow, totally rebukes what she calls the “legend” of Sykes-Picot in contribution for Jadaliyya. She argues that Iraq’s borders in particular weren’t drawn on an “empty map” somewhere in London or Paris. Rather, they formed in much the same way as other states: “A lot of work and a lot of violence went into their construction and a lot of work and a lot of violence would go into their reconstruction.”

Blaming European imperialists for “drawing lines in the sand” and setting off decades of conflict in the Middle East is not just a gross exaggeration of what happened; Westerners who perpetuate this narrative deny the Arabs agency in their own history. The notion that a few decades of European involvement in the region are wholly to blame for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East today is frankly preposterous; as though nothing that happened before or since was of any significance.

Which is exactly why this is such an attractive narrative for some Arabs. It allows them to deny responsibility for their own backwardness.

Or worse. Pursley warns that following the artificial state narrative to its logical conclusion leads to one place — “and that place is not peace in the Middle East but rather the violence of ethnosectarian cleansing.”

This is what the Islamic State (IS) is doing. It seeks to construct a “pure” Arab and Sunni state in the heart of the Middle East and is literally eradicating everyone who doesn’t fit its definition of what it means to be a true Muslim.

Yet rather than compelling the rest of the world to rethink the logic of the artificial state narrative — which is, I repeat, the logic of ethnosectarian cleansing — the violence of IS is being marshaled as yet more evidence of that narrative’s purported truth.

There are no “natural” borders in the Middle East that would give Shia and Sunni Muslims and Arabs and Kurds neatly-defined states of their own. Such borders don’t exist anywhere. The formation of nations and states usually goes hand-in-hand. Seldom does a nation clearly exist before the state.

The Kurds are one exception but even an independent Kurdistan would not be ethnically and religiously homogenous.

It doesn’t have to be. Peace doesn’t break out when every community gets a state of its own. It happens when different communities learn to live with each other in one state. This is what the people of the Middle East are struggling to do. Telling them they don’t need to try — and that the reason they’re fighting isn’t even their own fault — doesn’t help.

Keeping the Water and Neighbors at Bay

Topographical map of the Netherlands and Europe
Topographical map of the Netherlands and Europe (Wikimedia Commons)

The geography of the Netherlands is primarily defined by the confluence of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers, giving the small country an extended network of waterways for movement and trade — and strategic depth against invaders.

The Netherlands’ economic and political core of Holland developed around and to the north of this river delta. Today, more than half of the Dutch population lives in the area that includes the country’s four largest cities: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, a conurbation known as the Randstad.

Where natural waterways were lacking, the Dutch built canals to connect the major cities and their surrounding towns. This helped centrally located Amsterdam develop into an entrepôt for European finance and trade in the seventeenth century; a position that was partially taken over by Rotterdam in the twentieth. The latter remains one of the world’s busiest ports and a major transit point for the transport of bulk goods and liquified natural gas into Germany and Central Europe.

The Netherlands itself is Europe’s second largest producer of natural gas, after Norway, owing to a huge gasfield that was discovered in the northeastern province of Groningen in 1959.

The densely populated west of the Netherlands is largely situated below sea level, necessitating the construction of many levees and seawalls. The Frisian Islands in the north and the islands of Zeeland in the southwest offer some natural protection from the sea but the latter were flooded in 1953 — marking one of the worst natural disasters in Dutch history. The estuaries of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers were subsequently blocked by a system of dams and storm surge barriers known as the Delta Works. The Zuiderzee was closed off from the North Sea, creating the fresh water lake IJsselmeer and a new province, Flevoland.

Land had been reclaimed from the sea starting in the seventeenth century to protect the towns from flooding and create more arable land. The landscape of the whole northwest of the country is dominated by such polders today. The cooperation that was required between residents of the polder and various government agencies that were involved in their construction and maintenance gave its name to the Dutch version of Third Way politics: the polder model.

The need — and desire — for compromise is rooted in the Netherlands’ decentralized administration. Before their secession from Spain in 1581, the cities, nobles and provinces that then formed the Dutch Republic had enjoyed various liberties and privileges which King Philip II took away while centralizing his empire. Spanish attempts at Counter-Reformation in the Netherlands, which had largely taken up Protestantism, fueled popular support for an uprising that would last eighty years.

When Spain recognized Dutch independence as part of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the Low Countries were split along religious lines. The largely Protestant north, which was enjoying its Golden Age as a major trading power and the wealthiest nation in the world, became independent. The predominantly Catholic Southern Netherlands remained part of the Habsburg Empire. They were joined with the north after the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain desired a strong state in the northwest of Europe to block French expansionism.

Northern economic and political domination, its preference for free and maritime trade over industrial development in the south as well as discrimination against Catholics prompted Belgium to revolt and secede in 1830. The Netherlands’ first king, William I, a descent of William of Orange who had led the Dutch uprising against the Spanish, refused to recognize Belgian independence until 1839 when the other European powers did in the Treaty of London. The same treaty committed those powers to Belgian neutrality, Germany’s violation of which in 1914 triggered Britain’s entry into World War I.

Small and relatively defenseless, the Netherlands was a key player in European diplomacy and wars into the eighteenth century, culminating in its brief occupation by France between 1795 and 1813. When diplomacy failed, its only recourse was to withdraw north of the major rivers and flood the areas southeast of Amsterdam to protect the cities of Holland from invasion. This stopped the French in 1672 but not a century later when the “Water Line” froze in winter.

Airplanes and modern artillery rendered the Water Line obsolete, resulting in the Netherlands’ surrender just seven days after the Germans invaded in 1940. Up until then, the country had faced no crises on its borders for more than a century and pursued a foreign policy of neutrality. That radically changed after World War II. The Dutch anchored their diplomacy and security in the transatlantic relationship and safeguarded their access to markets as well as their sovereignty by joining their neighbors in establishing what became the European Union.