Conflicts: A Look at Fundamentals
Our successful societies are under attack. In itself that finding provokes a yawn and not a commentary. However, the challenge has increasingly perturbing features. An embedded peril is that our civilization finds it difficult to admit the threat and to mobilize its means to fend it off. A cause of this paralysis is that the clash’ peripherals are ignored by elites who wear pink glasses. This writing’s purpose is to put into perspective a hazard that the political class likes to ignore; to overcome a menace, its basics must be examined.
The instruments available to an entity that contests the world order, are only one component of the gravity of challenge posed. Equally important is to identify the pursued goal. Some potential clashes are limited in nature. A Bolivian access to the Pacific through Chile is illustrative: Neither party intends to “erase” the other. The wars of the 19th century were such limited conflicts by their purpose, and the assumption, that the present’s foe might be a future ally, as the contest is between limited interests and not between good and evil.
WW1, officially the war to end all wars, ended the era of limited conflicts. The implication is that such confrontations could be concluded by a treaty that brought genuine peace. The age of ideology-driven struggles, seemingly overcome in 1648 (Peace of Westphalia), returned in 1919. In part due to the will of the victors, four empires (the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian, the German and the Ottoman) disappeared. The conflict ushered in revolutionary regimes that intended to break with the past. The most benign of these had been Ataturk’s that reformed Turkey. In Russia, the Bolsheviks took power, and a “Council/Soviet Republic” emerged in Hungary, while Germany’s drift produced Hitler’s National Socialism to match the originally “victorious” Italy’s Fascism under Mussolini.
In part, as a reaction of earlier war-time propaganda, unleashed to make the masses bear unimaginable suffering, politics became ideology based. This has decisive implications. Ideology means a 360° view of the world. It impugns that it reveals the general law that determines mankind’s development and — this is crucial — its predestined future. Notice that referring to mankind here implies universal validity and ambition. Ergo, the one who understands the principle is, therefore, infallible. Baby Kim and “the Party is always right” are examples. The unerring interpreter of ideology’s truth is — a generally secular — “Ayatollah” and he will, by that logic, rule dictatorially. Note that tyrannical power, as Putin’s approval ratings tell, can be popular. Hitler would have won the free elections he did not deign to hold.
A system to save mankind, guided by a Redeemer-Leader will — as have Stalin and Hitler — pursue unlimited goals. We admit this when we call them “totalitarian” to express the claim to total power pursued for the ultimate purpose of world domination.
This shapes the conflicts such structures will provoke. A result is a disposition to assert interests through war. Totalitarians regard clashes — between classes, races, believers-unbelievers — to express an irrepressible conflict that determines humanity’s development. Such a view makes war inevitable and positive because it lets man achieve his destiny in a perfect society. This makes war into a force of moral evolution, which contrasts with its traditional perception; interests are preferably secured by low cost diplomacy which makes war a “last resort” that signals the break-down of politics.
By this logic, given war’s assumed role, negotiations with totalitarians are of limited use. These will see the result to be a pause between rounds and not as a durable deal. A theory that regards conflict as the motor of history must hold that, negotiated compromises postpone the final struggle and ultimate victory. Accordingly, those parlaying with totalitarians discover that not a mutually advantageous matter is being settled, but that one negotiated about ones’ survival and demise. Alas, knowingly, existence is not a legitimate subject of negotiation.
Lastly, discussing the new war of our time, the dimension of the acceptable struggle is to be considered. Where politics — domestic and foreign — are considered to be a war of annihilation, feuds become crusades. As morality equals triumphing, the struggle waged will know no ethical limit. Furthermore, since the totalitarian goal is total victory and subjugation, the fundamental conflict cannot be avoided by negotiation. Additionally, a global cause means a global war which ends in a pitiless Armageddon. By design, it brings the smashing of the vanquished party’s way of life and its population’s selective extermination.
Presently, the conflict to be managed is one between militant Islam and modern — by-and-large “westernized” — societies. Due to our historical experience and a logic that reflects our culture, we expect our differences to be localizable and limited. If the forces that make world politics would be subject to rational limits and thus be influenced by logic, that assumption would fly. However, assessing cultures whose credo rejects actions based on reason as an immoral and alien corruption, an approach guided by reason produces skewed insights.
In a rational world radical Islam would not exist. If pure reason would govern, that culture would bring reformists forward that strive to overcome a developmental gap created by lost centuries of immobility. Furthermore, states committed to a pre-modern order, lack the means to contest the systems from which they import weapons, food, and know-how. By the standard of reason, Jihadist would be marginal and the world of Islam would not contest militarily the rest of the globe. (Admittedly, if logic is a standard, then there is no explanation why the developed world supplies its foes with the material instruments of power, and why the liberties created by free society are allowed to be exploited to abolish it.)
There is a good reason why, what logic excludes, takes place in fact. The apocalyptic nature of ideologies makes their holders impervious to essentials while it deprives the infected from the ability to make common sense calculations, such as in “can we win?” Also, to risk a conflict by threatening it, can yield results. That encourages, as Korea’s temper-tantrum loaded case tells, continued resorts to threats that can lead to an unwinnable war.
Those that face ideologically blinded leaders should remember that, when frustrated, such elites are not necessarily dissuaded by overwhelming force that makes victory uncertain, and its price prohibitive. Such factors of rational decision-making are beyond the true believers of otherworldly ideologies. (Accordingly, at least until Gorbachev, the USSR’s leaders — not to mention Mao — were convinced that an inevitable nuclear war was winnable.)
As we face Jihadists in power, our political culture makes much of our public’s inclination to assume that “they would not” provoke a full-scale conflict once they are “ready” to wage it. Additionally, we are conditioned to assume that our displayed will to compromise means that “they do not have to” go to war to get what they “really” must have. This is completed by a resolute commitment to demonstrate that we are unreservedly “nice” and not enemies.
As argued, such assumptions might be logical although they ignore the prejudices of the “other side’s” culture. The result: Military conflicts that do not flow from an accident but that are wanted -especially at the expense of those unmasked as “weak.” While their risks are underrated, such clashes are seen as unavoidable to fulfill “history’s logic,” and are provoked in the pursuit of unlimited — therefore non-negotiable — goals. Given that characteristic, and by being “moral” struggles, such wars are unmitigated by traditional concepts that had humanized earlier clashes. Furthermore, such collisions can have no diplomatic conclusion once reason reveals that the war has become unwinnable. That is so because totalitarians pursue an ideologically mandated total war waged for the complete liquidation of the enemy — or of themselves if martyrdom requires it.
To conclude: A rational intellect can assess an irrational mind’s working. However, the mad is incapable of the reverse, which is to grasp the normal mind-set and to interpret correctly the signals sent in that coding. Count on it that the times ahead will bring not only more serious challenges but also responses that might prove to be undersized. We can be assured that the provocations, as well as our vulnerability will continue, enhanced by responses that aim at the wrong target and which fire with unfitting ammunition.