(openDemocracy, 30 November 2015)
Want to avoid the cannibalisation of British and European politics from below and a state of exception from above? First, ponder the global power-shift from NATO-lands to China and Russia.
The British parliament is debating whether to start bombing Syria or not, and the Labour party is openly split. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is opposing air-strikes whereas his parliamentary party and the majority of his shadow cabinet are not. Corbyn is resorting to the rank and file and wider left-liberal forces in Britain to amass support, yet the British establishment is overwhelmingly in favour of Britain’s participation in the bombing campaign against Syria. The pretext? The extermination of ISIS and of the jihadists in Syria and standing on the side of France and other western countries of the NATO-land after the Paris attacks. This Cameron-led argument that some Labour MPs too have embraced is ‘ foolish and must be stopped’, as Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian (27 November 2015).
Bombing Syria cannot exterminate terrorism abroad: it will only proliferate terrorism at home. When the British cabinet under Edward Heath in October 1973 was contemplating the involvement of Britain in support of Israel against the combined Arab attack, most cabinet members opposed intervention against the Arabs because it would have imported Islamic terrorism to London. Nowadays this rationale seems to be completely absent from the minds and acts of the British elites. The last twenty years are clear evidence that the more the west is getting involved in the Middle East, the more ghastly acts of terrorism become prominent in western capitals. Those familiar with European and Middle Eastern historical evidence and those who have delved into archives will be in a position to recognise the validity of this argument.
And the vicious cycle continues. Yet these are just agential epiphenomena of a profound structural shift in loyalties and geopolitical alliances in the Middle East and beyond. Take the downing of the Russian plane by Turkish fighter jets over Syria-Turkey borderlands. All the evidence we possess points to the fact that this was a premeditated act having the full approval of the US and NATO and not just a decision taken on the spot as the Russian plane crossed the Turkish airspace for 17 seconds. In other words, it was a joint political decision contemplated at the higher echelons of western power, to which specific Turkish interests had been accommodated – among others, the preservation of the AK party in power, US guarantees against the political aspirations of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq and other deals, including regional networks of oil and gas transportation routes.
For her part, the US used Turkey as a strong buffer against Russian ambition in the Middle East, hence sabotaging French plans for close collaboration with Russia against ISIS in Syria (which has become a realistic and practical option after the Paris attacks). Turkey is ideally positioned to play that role for the US, not least because of its robust economic and cultural penetration in the entire former Ottoman space, from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Balkans and the MENA region, a process that began in earnest from the late 1990s onwards. In Russia’s eastern flank, a similar role is being played out by Ukraine, who immediately after the downing of the Russian plane rushed to impose sanctions on Russia and even bar Russian transit flights over its territory.
The emperor has no clothes
But why is the US using proxies to do the job ? This is reminiscent of the British Empire using the Greeks to destroy the Kemalist nationalist movement in Asia Minor in 1919-22. The reason is relatively simple: because, as was Britain in 1919, the US is a superpower in decline and what has been happening in the Middle East and elsewhere since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 indicates how weak the US becomes by the day, rather than the opposite.
Throughout the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the US offered nothing. The Middle East is the region where the limit of American power is most visibly exposed. In Iraq, despite relatively easy regime change involving a quick capture and summary execution of Saddam Hussein, the US lost the war and was almost humiliated. In Libya, it contributed to heavy bombing but the lead was taken up by France, its useful proxy who loves to see herself as a “returning imperialist” – a term used by Zbigniew Brzezinski to refer to all European states. In chaotic Afghanistan, the US is more interested in the opium poppy economy and the surveillance of China, than keeping the peace. In Syria, the Obama administration is completely lost and is so also in Ukraine, an economically bankrupt and de-facto divided state. Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy shifted the terrain of antagonisms to the South China Sea to challenge China’s maritime claims, transforming this area into a dangerous flash point while trying to manipulate ASEAN. However, in NATO’s ‘near abroad’, ie the Middle East and North Africa, the US is far more vulnerable, because the conflicts there have got out of hand.
China’s emergence as the world’s nearly largest economy cuts across US ambitions and interests – this is the real driving force behind Washington’s engagements in ‘the grand chess board’, Eurasia. China, which holds more than 1 trillion dollars in US Treasury Bills, has a far more sophisticated and long-term strategy than the US ‘pivot to Asia’, which in fact exposes the superpower in the eastern part of Eurasia (western/eastern Europe, north Africa and the Greater Middle East).
China’s efforts are concentrating in integrating the Eurasian continent via a strong partnership and economic and political cooperation with Russia, based on a programme of nearly 1,5 trillion dollars to build an extended infrastructural network: air and sea connections, oil and gas pipelines, high-speed railways, large motorways, electricity and transmission grids connecting Europe and Asia. This new programme, “the Silk Road Economic Belt”, was announced in 2013, and already an important section of this project has been built. There is no competition here: a US-sponsored vague “reconstruction” agenda has remained for most part simply hot air.
The US has no economic wherewithal to re-build what she and other western powers destroyed in Central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East after two decades of bombing poor and deprived populations. In the Balkans, the US and Germany, having contributed decisively to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, are now unable to carry out any major infrastructural project: the train from Belgrade takes more than 20 hours to arrive in Salonica covering a distance that is slightly longer than that from London to Edinburgh. The rest of eastern Europe is a desert land, following two decades of neo-liberal ‘shock therapy’ programmes and over-indebtedness to the IMF and the World Bank.
Germany, the leading force in the EU, has entirely adopted neo-liberal financialisation and austerity as a programme that should be implemented not just across the EU but also in the countries that are aspiring to become members, and the western Balkans belong to that category.
Neo-liberal financialisation, the US’s major vulnerability as a global power, is a process and a political programme that indicates a shifting away from real production, adopting instead the means of profiteering in the shallow, fictitious and precarious kingdom of banking, shadow banking and financial services of all sorts, increasing sovereign indebtedness and dependency on others.
It is this vulnerability that drives the US and other NATO powers to proxy wars, although in the end they get directly involved, such as France (and possibly Britain). With global economic and political power shifting, slowly but constantly, towards the ‘global East’ (China, Brazil, India and Russia), the US seems completely impotent to tame the radical theocratic agencies that their own and mostly miscalculated interventions, hidden or ostensible, have cultivated by acts of commission or omission.
The massive population movements on the ground generated by the west’s intervention in Central Asia and the Middle East are all heading towards western Europe, whereas other large waves of refugees, usually the poorer, are blocked in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and elsewhere. Syrian middle classes can pay the traffickers and hope for crossing to the Austrian border. The poor’s destiny is different: they either die en masse in Syria and other conflict zones or get packed up in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. It is unethical, to say the least, to debate or oppose the entry of a few thousands refugees into Britain at the moment in which a country as unstable and poor as Lebanon for many years now, tries to accommodate nearly 2 million refugees from Syria and elsewhere (Lebanon’s population is just 4,5 million).
The US may still claim to be the dominant power in the world in terms of controlling lands, airspace and the high seas. Yet, neither the US nor the west as a whole can control population movements on the ground. The way in which this millennia-old phenomenon is happening today, coupled with the economic and social crisis in Greece, the Balkans and the Euro-zone, cannibalises European politics and sponsors right-wing extremism and “imports” jihad and terrorism as a means of “revenge” against the “infidel” considered to have destroyed their own societies.
The Schengen visa regime in Europe is in tatters and France has imposed a state of emergency, at least for three months. Turkey and elsewhere in Europe is not any better. White supremacists, a phenomenon very prominent in the US, can now be found in the streets of Berlin and Paris. The cannibalisation of American politics is transplanted into Europe.
As in the US, Europe’s cannibalisation from below is proceeding hand in glove with a process of authoritarianism and exception from above. Corbyn’s Labour party has a unique opportunity now: to show to the peoples of Britain and Europe a different road on the basis of history and sober analysis and contemplation. The alternative will be a state of exception across Britain and Europe accompanied by cannibalisation and acts of terrorism from below.