Geopolitics, Ideology, Europe and America


[I wrote this a year ago as part of a discussion on Europe V. America.  It still remains important.]


Or…why Americans aren’t from Mars and Europeans aren’t from Venus.


Nations, Lord Palmerston said, have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies - only permanent interests.  He was, of course, quite correct.  Whatever feelings of friendship or gratitude one nation may have for another, they are often far less important than cold geopolitical imperatives.  It is those imperatives that determine, more often than not, how a nation will react in any given situation. 


Ideology, on the other hand, is how a nation will justify its actions.  Fascism, Communism, Nazism, Religion and even Democracy are ideologies.  To use a blunt example, the US invaded Iraq for perfectly sound geopolitical reasons, but came up with several ideological justifications for its actions.  Generally speaking, the more morally repulsive a regime is, the better it is at justifying itself.  Consider, for example, just how good Soviet Russia was at painting itself whiter than white.   Geopolitics are rarely stated outright – or, for that matter, always understood clearly by those in power.


Geopolitics – or rather the issues that affect geopolitics – are hard to define.  They consist of the sum total of a given area’s statistics; nationality, military power, demographics, technology, economics…in short, everything that might have an affect on the area.  Put simply, France is always going to border Germany; that’s geopolitics.  In 1940, the French Army had a fair claim to being the second-best army in the world.  Unluckily for the French, they had to fight the best army in the world – the German Army.  In contrast, both the United Kingdom and the United States were protected from the German Army by impassable bodies of water and superior naval power.  Soviet Russia, while inferior to Germany tactically and technologically (and lacking any natural barrier) was simply too large for the Germans to crush quickly.


If we consider Austria-Hungry or Yugoslavia (both vanished from the map), it becomes apparent that less-obvious factors also play a role in influencing events.  Both states were multi-ethnic entities that had very little holding them together.  The demographics ensured that they were always on the verge of disunion, all the more so because their leaders had ensured (intentionally or otherwise) that the different ethnic groups remained at loggerheads. 


A country, therefore, will have geopolitical priorities.  When those priorities are met, the country will remain independent and thrive.  When those priorities fail – or when they clash with another country’s geopolitics – the country will lose.  Very few countries maintain their geopolitical priorities permanently.  Example; both France and Germany need to be the pre-eminent military, political and economic power in Europe, but only one of them can be supreme.


It doesn’t require much information to understand that, when it comes to geopolitics, the United States of America is the most blessed nation in the world.  Take a look at a map and consider; to the north, Canada is friendly and – military-speaking – far inferior to the United States.  To the south, Mexico remains in a constant state of political ferment and, again, it is far inferior to the United States.  In the long term, the influx of Hispanics into the US may pose a demographic challenge to the integrity of America, but there are few other immediate challenges.


If we pull back a little, we see that the United States is bordered east and west by vast oceans.  If we assume that a hostile power intended invasion of the American mainland (as in Eric L. Harry’s Invasion) that power would have to surmount formidable logistics problems.  Transporting an army from anywhere outside the American continent to America would be extremely difficult.  The United States Navy, the single most powerful naval force in history by a very long way, would be blocking the waters.  Even if the USN was somehow sunk by an advanced super-weapon and the army arrived on American soil untouched, it would still require a massive logistical effort to support the invasion – and, of course, that army would have to be larger and more powerful than the United States Army.  It is simply impossible for any present-day hostile power to land on the America mainland and occupy the United States.


What this means, effectively speaking, is that the United States can lose wars, but it can never be actually defeated.  Consider; the US, to all intents and purposes, lost the Vietnam War, a defeat largely self-inflicted.  What did this actually mean for American security?  Nothing.  The US was still utterly impregnable.  The building blocks of American power remained untouched. 


There is one possible exception to this rule; nuclear weapons.  It is true that several powers, some of them past and probably future foes of the United States, have the ability to launch nuclear strikes against the American continent.  This is not as grim a problem as it seems at first glance.  Even absent the presence of a workable ABM system, the number of missiles that can reach the US is not high and the US – a massive continent – can absorb the damage.  And, of course, the attacker would be utterly crushed.  Nuclear weapons tend to impose their own limits on wars, which will be explored below.


This geopolitical safety net explains a great deal about the American psyche.  Speaking as an outside observer, the United States, which has interests everywhere, is very poor at maintaining its focus on any given problem.  While the US is materially the greatest power in the world, its friends and enemies doubt that it has the political will to confront any given problem, let alone press on to victory.  Its enemies are emboldened by American failure; its friends start to edge away.


In summery, the American geopolitical priorities are:


-Maintain the strongest military force in the North American Continent.

-Maintain effective control of the seas, preventing any naval challenger from arising.

-Maintain a network of bases and security agreements to use as a base for global power.


The third, it should be noted, is really more of a wish than a necessity.


When considering the different approaches that Europe and America took to the Cold War, it is necessary to comprehend one vital fact.  The United States, as I noted above, had a massive body of water between it and the Soviet Union.  Europe…was right next door.  America could always retreat behind an impassable barrier; Europe could be occupied, or destroyed, by the Soviet Union.  Even a ‘victorious’ war would be utterly disastrous.  Europe’s main priority became preventing that war from ever taking place, without compromising Europe’s integrity.


It is difficult to exaggerate just how wretched Europe was in 1945.  The Germans were occupied and sundered, a sundering that would become official until the end of the Cold War.  The French had been crushed, occupied and broken.  The British had survived without being invaded, but Britain was bankrupt and exhausted.  Disease and deprivation swept the continent.  The Russians looked all-powerful.  The Europeans couldn’t muster the military force to stop them if they came west, for both practical and political reasons.  (There was, for example, absolutely zero interest in rearming the Germans.)  There was a possibility – maybe vague, maybe very real – of a communist uprising, or communist governments being voted into power.  (Labour had been elected in the UK just prior to the end of WW2, for example, while the French Left seethed with bitter rage.)  And then there were the issues of those empires…


As we know, eventually, NATO was formed and a powerful American force was stationed in Western Europe to help counter the threat of a possible Russian invasion and – less overtly – a possible German resurgence. Underlying the surface, however, the collective European geopolitical priorities were changing:


-Build up and maintain a small independent nuclear force (British and French) in order to deter the Russians from invading.

-Keep the Americans, the only realistic hope of a conventional defence, engaged in Europe.

-Restrain the Americans from starting a fight with the Russians - either inside or outside Europe - that might ignite World War Three.

-Create an economic power block that would bind Europe together and prevent a third general European war.

-Create a welfare state that would neutralise communist subversion and prevent a far-left government from being voted into power.


The core issue behind the first three priorities lay in the different American and European geopolitical priorities.  If the Russians nuked Paris, Europeans asked, would it be reasonable to expect the United States to accept the loss of New York in exchange for retaliating for the destruction of Paris?  If the war went badly, the US could always withdraw, leaving the Europeans to face Russian occupation.  Europe therefore needed the ability to inflict damage on the USSR independently of the US.  Worse, because the US had freedom of action and Europe did not, it was always possible that a war on the other side of the world would spread to Europe.


Consider the following possibility.  In…say, 1970, the North Korean Government decides that it is time to reclaim the South.  Perhaps the Russians are encouraging him, perhaps not – it doesn’t matter.  NK goes south.  At first, the North seems likely to win, but the South and the US rally and take the fight back to the North.  The attack on the South is broken and allied troops head north, intent on disposing the communist government.  This creates a dilemma for the Russians.  Do nothing – and accept that they will lose an allied state – or up the ante.  The Russians might threaten Berlin, or they might just come over the border into Europe.


Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter if the US was in the right or wrong – not if a nuclear war was fought.  Europe would still lose.


As history moved on, the United States and Europe remained bound together, but dozens of different issues were bubbling under the surface.  The US became exasperated by what the US chose to think of as cowardliness.  The Europeans became worried by what they saw as American arrogance and pusillanimity.  These problems would not have existed if both were fixated on the European Region, but outside Europe both sides had geopolitical interests that came into conflict.  At base, the Europeans needed the US, but resented American interference in their affairs.  These matters only became worse during and after President Carter.  After America was thoroughly humiliated by Iran, and Carter failed to rise to the situation, Europe became gripped by the fear that the US was a paper tiger, without the political will to win. 


This produced a whole host of neuroses in the European body politic.  The very reasonable fear of nuclear war billowed out of control, partly through Soviet subversion – funding the CND and other anti-nuke groups – and started to shade into anti-Americanism.  The far less logical fear that the US would start WW3 also grew into existence, fuelled by the relentless pressure of the Reagan years.  It was feared, perhaps reasonably, that the US would keep pressing to the point where the Russians would start the war, or that a war might start by accident.  Few of these fears had any basis in truth, but they existed – warping the world.  As newer generations grew up, they forgot the horrors of war – horrors kept away from them by forces they distrusted or hated.  A new transatlantic aversion to casualties began.


And then the Cold War ended.


Before I go on, I should note one important fact about the Cold War.  We won.  It is easy to condemn both the American and European approach to the Cold War, but in the end we won.  No European Government went over to the other side.  No Russian tanks crossed the border.  No nuclear weapons were used.  It seemed as if the end of history was at hand.


Unfortunately, life isn’t like that.


It is a basic fact that nation-states exist in a state of anarchy.  While many well-meaning people believe in a transnational set of international laws that prevent misbehaviour, the blunt truth is that such laws have to be effective in order to work – and, in order to work, they have to be enforced.  No entity exists with the demonstrated power and will to enforce those laws.  Without enforcement, the laws become meaningless.  The Cold War had frozen many regional conflicts and limited others, in order to prevent a general war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  The end of the Cold War allowed dozens of minor conflicts to flare up and, worse, for the intrinsic geopolitical fault lines within Europe (and within Europe’s relationship with America) to start to come apart.  On the surface, it was the dawn of a new age; under the surface, the ice was breaking.


Although I have been referring to Europe as a collective entity, the truth is that Europe is nothing of the sort.  The United States of America is one nation.  The European Union is a collection of nations that each have a national identity far stronger than any American state.  The end of the Cold War changed Europe dramatically.  In particular;


-It allowed the Germans to reunite their state, becoming the most powerful state within the EU.

-It removed the threat that had bound Europe and America together.  They no longer needed each other.

-It allowed states from Eastern Europe to join both NATO and the EU.

-It wrecked Russia as a global and regional power, seemingly permanently.


To understand what happened next, it is necessary to understand the true nature of the European Union.  The Europeans who shaped what grew into the EU had just lived through World War Two.  Their principle reason for creating the EU was not to create a counter-balance to the US, but to restrain the Germans from attempting to dominate Europe for a third time.  The theory was simple enough; the Germans would be enmeshed within Europe and part of NATO, a force dominated by the US, by the time the Germans reunited, got over their guilt for WW2 and started playing an active role on the world stage.  As such entities tend to do, the EU grew in size and scope, yet it was always limited.  Europe could agree on some issues, but not on others, mainly defence.  The disunion over Iraq might have brought that into the light, yet it existed prior to 9/11 and the War on Terror.  The different states of Europe had different interests.  In particular, France and Germany (although for different reasons) wanted to chart an independent course (i.e. not an American course) while Eastern Europe wanted to remain closely allied to the US.  They remembered how they were betrayed by Western Europe in 1938-39.


The United States had its own problems in the post-Cold War world.  Like most victorious nations, the US had won and wanted to enjoy the fruits of victory.  Military spending was cut (although many warned of a possible future threat from China) and – terrified by the spectre of Vietnam – the US became very casualty-averse.  The network of alliances and defence agreements the US had created was allowed to fray in some regions and expand recklessly in others (Eastern Europe, for example).  Worst of all, the US was gaining a reputation as an unreliable ally; when the going got tough, it was whispered, the US got going.


History seemed to bear that out.  The US had restored the status quo in the Middle East after a stunning multinational victory against Iraq, but Saddam remained in power and, when his own people tried to rise up against him, the US allowed them to be slaughtered – after encouraging them to rise up in the first place.  The Battle of Mogadishu convinced the US to withdraw, after suffering a pitiful number of causalities.  (Saddam, who had sent thousands of his own people to die in the war against Iran, was hardly impressed.)  The United States, the greatest force for democracy and freedom on Earth, seemed timorous.  Genocides went unpunished.  Tyrannical states were allowed to flourish.  It seemed that the United States could only produce plans that involved someone else being willing to commit suicide on America’s behalf.


Consider the following scenario.  You are the leader of a small country that happens to border a state that the US regards as a Rogue State.  You don’t like this state; you hate it, you distrust its leader and you fear what they might do in the future.  Logically, you should seek an alliance with the US and get American protection, right?  Or maybe not – what happens if the US pulls out?  Now that tyrant has another reason to be mad at you...


This problem kept reoccurring over Iraq.  Arab states such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait wanted – desperately – to get rid of Saddam and would have backed, if not overtly, an American invasion of the country.  The endless containment, however, was not something they could support enthusiastically, because one day the US might pull out and Saddam would seek revenge.


It has become common to blame the growing dysfunction of the international system on George W. Bush.  The truth, however, was that the international system was dangerously dysfunctional a long time before Bush took office.  Without strong and considerate American leadership, NATO drifted, the UN became even more impotent and the world grew darker.  Hundreds of problems were bubbling under the surface and finally one exploded.  9/11.


9/11 shocked Europe, largely because it had grown used to thinking of the US as not only invincible, but untouchable.  (Internal problems like Oklahoma City didn’t count.)  This was not, of course, a valid belief.  No European government raised serious objections to the US invading Afghanistan and many were prepared to send troops to assist in the hunt for OBL.  Unfortunately, as geopolitics reasserted themselves, the enthusiasm for assisting the US started to wane.  The problem only got worse as the months drifted on without another serious terrorist attack.


The EU had had a terrorist problem for a long time, from the IRA in the UK to the Red Army in Germany.  (An Islamic group in France actually planned to ram the Eiffel Tower with an aircraft.)  While Europe knew that terrorists were a serious problem, they didn’t actually see them as a life or death problem – but then, most of the EU-based terrorists were a domestic problem.  The US hadn’t helped; factions in the EU had long memories of US-based financiers supporting terrorists (mainly Irish) and they weren't so inclined to cooperate with what they saw as US hypocrisy.  As 2001 became 2002, the stresses within NATO grew worse.


In Afghanistan, the geopolitical situation ensured that the US could not guarantee a victory.  Afghanistan itself was a fragmented state.  Pakistan was needed to transport supplies into Afghanistan, hence the need to keep Pakistan sweet, but at the same time the Taliban was relocating itself to Pakistan, with the tacit backing of elements in Pakistan.  The US needed to pressure the Pakistanis, yet it faced the issue that if it pushed too hard and the Pakistani Government fell, it might be replaced by a hardline Islamic Government that would refuse to cooperate, dooming the mission in Afghanistan.  If that wasn't enough, the Indians had to be kept on side – and they were worried about Pakistani nukes, as was the US.  Who had control over Pakistan?  The US faced an impossible task. 


The core issue was one I have alluded to before.  The US was simply not feared.  The US could not police the Middle East and round up terrorists – it simply lacked the local knowledge.  The local governments had little love for the terrorists, but moving against them was risky and there seemed no reason to fear the US.  Saudi Arabia, a prime source of funding for terrorist groups, couldn’t be threatened, because invading Saudi Arabia would cause economic shockwaves.  The US was – it had to be – restrained.  The terrorists had no such weakness.


America’s solution to this problem was simple in concept, if not in execution.  The US would invade Iraq and liberate the Iraqis from Saddam’s nightmarish rule.  This would, it was hoped, have a number of useful effects:


-Iraqi oil would flow into the global market, reducing Saudi Arabia’s clout.

-Iraqi democracy would encourage democrats across the Middle East to demand more democracy, rather than Islamic rule.

-The lingering sore of Saddam (and his WMD) would be permanently removed.

-Other dictators would realise that the US could and would remove them too, if they failed to cooperate.


Having come up with a cold-blooded plan, the US started trying to drum up support for the war.  The justification chosen (explaining openly that invading Iraq was part of a long-term plan would not have gone down well) was two-fold; WMD and human rights.  This didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Saddam’s WMD programs were known to exist and Saddam himself had a long history of attempting to conceal his WMD.  Worse, Saddam had actually used WMD on the Kurds (and attempted to use them on the Shia in 1991, although it failed and this wasn't actually discovered until after the invasion.)  And then there was the shocking state of Iraq’s citizens. 


The plan was simple enough.  The US would demand that Saddam prove that he had no WMD or be removed, something that was politically possible in the post-9/11 era.  Saddam’s denials would not be believed – he had a long history of lying – and the US could go to war with the support of the UN, as in 1991.  Saddam was certainly in defiance of many UN resolutions.  It seemed perfect.


Unluckily, the US miscalculated.


To understand what happened next, at least in Europe, it is necessary to understand the political geography of the EU.  On the face of it, there were no political groupings within the EU.  In practice, three separate consensuses – schools of thought – had emerged within the EU.  I will call them – there are no official names – the West, the Middle and the East.


The West (mainly Britain) believed that the best course was a permanent strategic alliance with the US.  In effect, the West felt that the US could be used as a counter-balance to the EU (Middle and East), preventing them from becoming submerged within a European super-state.  Working with the US was the best way to gain influence over the US.  The West had been losing influence in Europe for a long time, however, as it seemed the US was uninterested in rewarding them for their efforts.


The Middle (mainly France and Germany) wanted to maintain the status quo – indeed, they believed that the world had changed and that they were permanently safe.  They saw the terrorists as less of a threat than the US, which might not intend to invade them, but though its uncontrolled actions in other parts of the world might cause problems that would rebound on them.  (In effect, the old fear that the US would cause WW3.)  The Middle believed that the best course of action was to steer an independent course – in order to avoid becoming submerged within the US, without influence over the US – and to attempt to restrain the US where possible.  Their enthusiastic support for transnational organisations like the ICC represented another attempt to restrain the US – after all, they were not likely to be threatened by the ICC.


The East (mainly former Warsaw Pact nations) wanted protection from Russia.  While states like Poland wanted economic ties with the rest of Europe, they had bad memories of being abandoned by the Western Powers in the run up to WW2.  The slow, but steady Russian resurgence had convinced them that they needed military ties to the power that hadn’t betrayed them – the US.  The fact that the Middle had extensive economic ties with Russia didn’t reassure them.  The East suspected that if push came to shove, the Middle would abandon them to Russia’s tender mercies.  It didn’t help that the Middle seemed unaware of the arrogance and consenion they were showing to states that might have been backward, but had also been under the thumb of Soviet Russia until the end of the cold war.


And so, when the US went looking for support in the invasion, it detonated a number of geopolitical landmines at once.


The West generally supported the invasion, although with some cavorts.  The Middle was adamantly opposed.  The reasoning was confused and to some extent contradictory, but went something like this.  If the US invaded…


-Saddam’s forces would give it a bloody nose and the US would withdraw after losing two-three soldiers, embarrassing the US and weakening the status quo.

-The US would win the war and declare victory, only to withdraw days later, leaving Iraq to chaos.

-Or, having won, the US would expect its allies to do the hard work of nation-building, while it congratulated itself on its great victory.

-Or, having won and built a successful Iraq, the US would invade another country.

-Money Iraq owed the world (including states within the Middle) would not be paid.

-The US would effectively dominate the Middle East.


The bottom line was that the Middle didn’t believe that the US had the will to invade and believed that allying themselves to the US in Iraq was a good way to lose influence, both with the US and also in the Middle East.  The US had a nasty habit of treating its allies as subordinate formations; whatever happened, the US would be in control.  The Middle regarded that as unacceptable.  Their independence would dwindle away.


Their conclusion was cunning, or so they thought.  If the US didn’t invade, they could claim to have preventing the invasion, boosting their status within the Middle East.  If the US did invade, without their support, they would be well-positioned to say ‘I told you so’ when/if the US withdrew after getting a bloody nose – and gain influence and contacts within Iraq.  And, if the US project succeeded, the Middle would get to harvest some of the benefits anyway.  It looked perfect.


Accordingly, they made it known that they would not only refuse to support the US, but that they would veto any further UN resolution. 


And, in doing so, the Middle overplayed its hand.


For the East, the Middle could not be trusted.  The Middle was cutting deals with Russia.  Who knew – one day, perhaps the Middle would sign away their freedom in exchange for a Natural Gas contact.  The East needed the military support of the US, something the Middle no longer believed it required.  And so the East allied with the West – itself boosted, because it could blame the failure of diplomacy on the Middle, specifically the French – in support of the United States.  More European countries supported the invasion than were against it.


No wonder Jacques Chirac exploded.  Months of careful diplomacy had just fallen into the crapper.  It was he, not the East, who had missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.


It is said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.  So it was that America’s grand plan for reshaping the physical and moral battlefield and tilting it against the terrorists simply didn’t work as well as the US had hoped.  In fact, through the early years, it seemed on the verge of outright failure.


One could write an entire book on the complexities of post-Saddam Iraq, but I am going to have to simplify and generalise.  This is an overall view. 


Iraq’s internal political geography consisted of three groups; the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds.  (The smaller groups were simply too small to matter.)  Saddam had been a Sunni and so the Sunnis benefited (insomuch as anyone did) from his rule.  He ensured that they remained in charge of Iraq, lording over the other two groups, and gave them preferential treatment.  The Shia, the largest group, were ground under, while Saddam had attempted to exterminate the Kurds.  The level of hatred between the three groups was difficult to exaggerate.  They also had very different aspirations. 


The Sunni basically wanted to remain in charge of Iraq.  Saddam might have been bad, but he had always been a Sunni.  And besides, the others would want revenge.


The Shia wanted to claim their democratic right; rule over Iraq.  They also wanted revenge on the Sunni, who had ground them under for Saddam.  Complicating matters was the fact that the Shia believed that they’d been badly betrayed by the United States and weren't so inclined to trust promises from the US, who had left them to suffer and die under Saddam’s rule.  To add to this, the Iranians had been forging links with Shia groups – and were regarded as more trustworthy than the US.


The Kurds, who had received a certain degree of US protection after 1991, were the most pro-US of the three groups.  They were also the smallest; they wanted to reclaim their territory (Saddam had been trying to drive them away from the oil for years) and secure a degree of autonomy from Saddam or any future central government.  Naturally, matters were not that simple; the Kurds, as an ethnic group, existed in several states – including Turkey – and an independent Iraqi Kurdistan risked bringing in the Turks.  And, if that wasn't enough, the Kurds didn’t entirely trust the US either.  What would happen, they wondered, if the US decided to sell them out?


And so the US drove headlong into a snake pit.


The US made a number of misjudgements in the run-up to the war.


-The US overestimated the willingness of Iraqi officials to remain in place and cooperate with the US.

-The US overestimated the willingness of the Shia to rise up in support of the invasion.

-The US grossly underestimated the number of troops that would be required to secure post-war Iraq, particularly in the first weeks of the occupation.

-The US grossly overestimated the willingness of its allies – and nearby powers – to cooperate.


There is no way to know for sure, but I believe that the origin of these misjudgements lay in the nature of American society.  The US, as a free country, does not – for example – have laws insisting that all working Americans must join the Republican Party.  Party membership is rarely a concern in the United States.  The state governments, police forces and the military are not governed by party membership.  An American does not have to be a member of a particular party to advance, at least outside the inner structure of said party.  (It is unlikely that a Democrat would seek or obtain power within the Republican Party.)  The levers of power in the United States cannot be concentrated into a single pair of hands.


This was not true of Saddam’s Iraq.  The government had worked hard to control every aspect of society.  Saddam’s will was absolute; the key to rising was to be a member of his party, perfectly loyal and willing to do whatever Saddam asked.  There were no other official power structures in Iraq; Saddam would have seen them as a threat.  It was Saddam’s structure that held Iraq together and, when the US invaded, that structure was destroyed – and the US put nothing in its place to replace it at once.


The result was chaos.


Again, an entire book could be written on what happened next, so I am forced to summarise.  The Sunni wanted to hang on to their power.  The remains of the Iraqi Army were jobless and eager for revenge on the US.  Everyone who was a member of Saddam’s party (and that was everyone in any position, including teachers and doctors) was suddenly unsure of their position.  The Shia wanted revenge on the Sunni.  The Kurds started trying to drive the Sunni out of historically Kurdish areas.  AQ arrived in Iraq and, because the Sunni were desperate for allies, they were able to make a devil’s bargain with the suddenly-disposed former rulers of Iraq. 


Returning to the topic of this essay, the US Government was slow to officially recognise that it had a problem.  Worse, the US was already talking about withdrawing and leaving Iraq to the Iraqis, apparently under the delusion that everything was rosy.  It was clear to any reasonably competent outside observer that Iraq, far from being safe and secure, was growing increasingly dangerous and civil war seemed to be just around the corner.  As the 2004 elections approached, it was impossible to say just what the US would do – if Kerry was elected, would the US simply cut its losses and walk away?


The problem returned to the fundamental geopolitical structure of the region.  The US was a transient power, while the other groups in and near Iraq were there permanently.  The US appeared to be irrelevant, which meant that the groups within the region saw no reason to listen to the US.  The US could not be trusted, they thought, so the US was not trusted, even to offer protection. 


In Europe, the growing chaos was having unfortunate effects.  The West was horrified by the failure – a failure that they were now associated with – and sought either signs of hope or an excuse to get the hell out of Iraq.  Spain, for example, changed its position completely after AQ targeted the nation, using the bombings as an excuse to pull out of Iraq.  Britain held on; ironically, the British leadership might have decided to pull out, had they been focused on the situation.  The Middle was more worried than it cared to let on; while some were quietly pleased at US failure others were worried about what it meant for the world. 


The East had a growing problem to the…well, east.  Russia was back on the world stage. 


Unlike the US, the Russian geopolitical priorities required near-constant attention from the Russian Government.  Russia needed to dominate all of the surrounding countries, particularly the ones to the west of Moscow.  The rational was fairly simple; those territories, in enemy hands, could be used to springboard an invasion force hundreds of miles closer to Moscow.  The Russian need to control those territories was followed, carefully, by the Tsars, the Communists and the Russian Federation.  When Russia was weak, following the Cold War, the European East had joined NATO and sought security from the Russian Bear.  That looked quite reasonable from the US/European POV; the Russians saw it as a deadly threat. 


The Russians, being politically, economically and militarily weak, started to play their cards very carefully, refusing to over-commit themselves.  They forged trade and economic links with the European Middle, attempting to weaken any countervailing European alliance.  They didn’t hesitate to show their teeth from time to time – like over the treatment of Russian minorities in the Baltic States – and hint at the carrot and stick.  The carrot was trade links with Russia; the stick was the possibility of renewed conflict.


Part of the reason the Russians got away with it lay in Iraq.  The US military was heavily committed to Iraq and very little could be spared to reinforce NATO, specifically the European East (which became reluctant to make significant contributions to Iraq), while the US needed Russian support in Central Asia and Iran.  The European East began to fear that another American betrayal was in the cards, calculating that if the US needed Russia more than it needed them, the US would abandon them to Russia.  This may or may not have been a realistic concern, but it was one they had to believe.  A Russian Army in Warsaw would mean game over, at least as far as Poland was concerned.


These stresses and strains buffeted the European Union quite badly.  The reason for this was the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the EU.


As I noted above, the EU’s real purpose, at least originally, was to restrain the Germans and prevent them from attempting to dominate Europe.  The European machine would be funded by the Germans, who would not, because of their guilt over World War Two, dispute their place in the grand scheme of things.  The US would provide the military cover that would save the EU from either having to reshape itself to act as a military power, which all that that would imply, or fragment back into different nations.  By 2005, the contradiction was starting to bite.


The problem lay in the fact that the different nations were nations, not separate US-style states.  As history returned to Europe, so too did nationalism.  It was dangerously optimistic to believe, for example, that German voters would vote to continue to tamely fund the EU.  Or, for that matter, that voters from richer nations like France or Britain would accept an influx of poorer workers from Eastern Europe who – to use the common phase – took their jobs.  Why should one expect voters in any given country to take one for the team – particularly when they had no emotional attachment to that team and might not even think that they were on it?


In order to do its job – to prevent conflict within Europe – the EU had to be undemocratic.  When times were good, this passed unnoticed; when times got hard, this became a major problem.  Put bluntly, the EU started out with the expectation that all states would be equal within the EU…but that was simply unrealistic.  Why should Germany, the most powerful single state within the EU, consider Poland or Greece or Ireland its equal?  The logical answer was simple; it shouldn’t.


The EU was basically trapped between two points.  As an unelected elite, it had a baleful effect on Europe – though ill-conceived legislation – and bred resentment among those who suffered – or believed that they suffered – under its control.  On the other hand, if the EU tried to reform, the results might be disastrous.  They muddled on and hoped for the best.


Meanwhile, in Iraq, the US was slowly learning how to fight a whole new kind of war.  If the Shia chose to remain aloof from the US, the US would ally with its archenemies – the Sunni.  And, by a lucky coincidence, the Sunni were getting sick of their ‘allies,’ the nihilistic AQ.  AQ wanted to trigger off a civil war – depending on a person’s view, they succeeded – and the Sunni knew that they were in for the chop.  They stayed with AQ because there was nowhere else to go; now, the US did two things that its enemies believed impossible.  It reached out to the Sunni and surged additional forces into the country.


This had three very important effects on the war.  First, it worked to separate the local Sunni from the hardcore terrorists.  Second, it put the US back in the game and marked a new American commitment to the war.  Third, it raised the possibility that the Shia would find themselves marginalised instead – and that the Americans would back the Sunni in re-establishing their control over Iraq.  Shia elements who were loyal to Iraq itself (as opposed to having ties to Iran) came over and started to forge a new government.  It wasn’t obvious at the start, but Iraq was slowly turning the corner and returning to sanity.


The US’s grand plan hadn’t worked perfectly, not least because Iraq had been a far more expensive victory than the US had dared fear.  Saudi Arabia, after being hit by a wave of terrorist bombings, took strong action against terrorists within the Kingdom, the best the US could hope for.  States like Libya indicated their willingness to put aside WMD programs and try to return to the civilised world.  Even so, it was a fragile victory.  One misstep could doom it.


For both America and Europe, there were troubled times ahead.


It is a curious fact of geopolitics that events that don’t happen are sometimes as important as events that do happen. If Hitler had launched Operation Sealion and invaded Britain, he would either have succeeded or failed – and in either case would have had a major effect on the war. By not launching the invasion, however, he still had an effect on the war – Britain would remain a secure base for the liberation of Europe. So it was, through the 2007-2010 period, that one non-event became of considerable importance – the US failure to deal with Iran.


There were also three events that were of considerable importance, although for different reasons. There was a massive global financial crisis that cast a long shadow over the West. There was the Russian invasion of (and victory over) Georgia. And, of considerably lesser importance, was the election of President Obama to succeed President Bush. One could probably be forgiven for failing to realise the importance of the non-event concerning Iran.


The problem, at least as far as the US and EU were concerned, was that the three problems were intermingled, tangling local and global politics. Sorting them out and separating them is seemingly impossible, yet it must be tried. I will attempt to deal with the financial crisis and the Russian invasion first.


There is no time here to outline the cause and scope of the financial crisis. In the US, the banks basically became overextended, risking the collapse of Wall Street and the entire house of cards. The US Government was forced to step in to prevent a general collapse – the bailout – even though large parts of the American population were against it. In Europe, things were considerably worse, although for different reasons. Smaller EU nations started to default on their payments, risking the collapse of entire national economies. Payments and spending organised when times were good started to fall apart when the money ran out. In effect, nations like Greece had gained access to a credit card and spent irresponsibly. Now, like a teenager unable to understand why the bailiffs are repossessing their new car or mobile phone, the bills were coming due and the debts were being called in.


The problem lay with Germany’s hardening attitude to the EU. The Germans had been Europe’s banker – and financier – for the generation following WW2. Now Germany found itself faced with demands that it bailed the Greeks out, in effect taking their debts on themselves. This might have made sense in an American context, but it made very little in a European context. German voters saw no reason why they should help save the Greeks from the consequences of their own stupidity. The financial crisis had become political. The EU – with a great deal of justice, for it had been the EU that had ignored the warning signs when Greece joined the EU – was seen as causing the crisis. It was part of the problem, not the solution. The EU itself seemed to be on the verge of coming apart.


What happened in the end was a compromise, of sorts. Greece would get the financial help it needed, but with heavy strings dictated by the Germans. The Greeks weren't happy about it – see the protests in Athens – and nor were many others in Europe. They saw it as the Germans moving towards a leadership role – no, worse than a leadership role; a hegemony over Europe – and feared the consequences.


The EU’s great contradiction had come home to roost. Being largely undemocratic and unaccountable, it could dictate measures to benefit all of Europe, but those measures angered voters in individual countries. Those voters would, in turn, demand newer and tougher policies towards the EU on the part of their government, which would undermine the EU. It only had power as long as the national governments were prepared to allow it. When Ireland, Portugal and Spain joined Greece in sliding towards complete collapse – perhaps even default – the crisis only grew worse…and the German position grew stronger.


In the meantime, the Russians had invaded Georgia.


I don’t have the space to go into the history between the two nations. The short unsentimental version of it is that Georgia was attempting to maintain an independent foreign policy and Russia, for its core geopolitical reasons, could not allow it to try – let alone succeed. The Russians had worked to fission Georgia and now, with their invasion, managed to split the country and crush any hopes it had of remaining independent. The Russians talked about regime change – they could certainly have occupied the entire country – but they didn’t need to do anything of the sort. They had made their point with the invasion.


The important point is that no one was able or willing to help the Georgians. The invasion was condemned throughout the world, but no effective – i.e. military – action was taken. The Russians had secured their return to the world stage and done so without serious repercussions. Although Georgia was not a member of NATO and no other state was obliged to come to its aid, it sent shivers through Eastern Europe. They remembered being occupied by the Red Army after WW2.


As I noted above, the US needed the Russians to help with Afghanistan and Iran. The Russian quid pro quo was no (or limited) American interference in their sphere of interest. As long as the US needed the Russians, the Russians could operate without fear of sharp American responses. Western Europe worried, but absently; after all, the Russians were a long way away. Middle Europe was too busy making money and trade deals with the Russians. And Eastern Europe was starting to feel like the sacrificial virgin.


President Obama was greeted with cries of adulation by Europe. The reasoning was simple. Obama promised a new, open and respectful foreign policy, which they took to mean that he would listen to Europe. No US President received that level of adoration when he took office in the past – Obama was even given the Nobel Peace Prize, for he was all things to all men. West Europe regarded him as being unlikely to start another war, Middle Europe thought that he would follow a more conventional foreign policy and Eastern Europe thought he would provide the assurances they so desperately needed of support against the Russians.


Unfortunately for them, they were wrong.


The American President isn’t all-powerful. All Presidents since Washington have been locked into their positions, with their freedom of action circumscribed, often by events outside their control. Obama might not have been Bush, but he faced the same problems and limitations as his predecessor. Bush had been…well, Bush because of geopolitical imperatives. Obama might have spoken against Bush-style operations while he had been struggling towards the White House, but once inside he was locked in as well. The war in Afghanistan had to be won, yet it seemed unwinnable…


Obama, at least as far as I can tell, seemed to believe that Bush’s real mistake was in simply not explaining himself properly to the Europeans and everyone else. The American position was redressed in Obama-approved colours and presented to the world. It didn’t work. Whatever justifications Bush and Obama used, what the US wanted was strongly against the geopolitical priorities of most of America’s allies. Obama’s team didn’t help either. When Hilary Clinton made noises about the Falkland Islands, she effectively stabbed the pro-US factions in the back. By not firing her, Obama seemed to confirm her position, yet another example of US domestic politics poisoning the US’s relationships with its allies.


This all tied in with the non-event. America effectively failed to prevent Iran from growing into a far greater menace than Iraq. All the problems – despite the American belief that they are separate – tied together. Russia needed Iran as a bargaining chip; America needed Russia to help, so the US couldn’t pressure Russia too hard; Iran was meddling in both Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to keep the US tied down…and on, and on. The US reluctance to challenge Iran directly makes it difficult for anyone to support the US openly. The US will either have to bite the bullet and take direct action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or accept that Iran is going to become the regional hegemonic power, or accept a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East. None of this options seemed acceptable, but neither is muddling on and hoping for the best.


As 2010 draws to a close, it remains clear that there are harder times to come…


(Predicting the future is a good way to look like a fool, unless someone predicts a future so far away that everyone is dead before the prophecy comes to pass, but I will try if someone asks.)