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It's All About Them.
But the Western Security Complex thinks it's all about Us.
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Discussing the faint mumblings in western capitals about “negotiations” over Ukraine last week, I pointed out how insecure and fragile the collective western strategic ego is, and how little opposition or criticism it can actually tolerate. It struck me that it might be worth expanding on that a bit, since it helps us to understand why the West has gets itself into such shambolic situations, Ukraine of course being the current one. I’ll also try to explain how both fervent admirers of western policy and its bitterest critics are actually part of the same incoherent strategic discourse. It all starts with ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism is a term for the universal tendency to see the outside world through the prism of our own history and culture. The influence of ethnocentrism on strategy—especially western strategy—is not a new subject, and books were written about it decades ago, although they apparently didn't influence either thought or behaviour.
Ethnocentrism comforts us that we basically understand the world, and that we can reasonably comprehend and even anticipate how and why others will behave. In the most extreme cases, ethnocentrism incorporates a vulgar racialism and assumptions of cultural superiority: other nations or cultures are believed to be weak and inferior. This was most notoriously the case with German assumptions about the ease with which the Soviet Union would fall apart in 1941, but it was also true of Japanese assumptions abut the United States in the same year: one good thrashing would be all that was needed. In both cases, this went beyond simple prejudice, into pseudo-scientific theories of radical superiority. In the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by contrast, this ethnocentrism extended to a complete ideological theory of the world and how it worked, such that any event anywhere could in principle, be analysed and dealt with according to a coherent vision.
Ethnocentrism is often more of a weakness and a nuisance than a danger, but it can be very dangerous indeed when—as above— it is combined with the power to do harm. The type of ethnocentrism which characterises the western strategic mind at the moment is not new or unique, but it is linked with more power and dominance than any political and economic bloc has ever managed to achieve before. Moreover, followers of this ideology—for that is what it effectively has become—occupy most of the conceptual space in the world today, and see this hegemony as entirely deserved, because of the correctness of their beliefs, and the purity of their hearts. They find threats to it destabilising and even frightening. If anything, this ideology has become progressively more rigid and more all-embracing since the end of the Cold War, as globalisation has reduced and concentrated news sources, and as a new transnational global political elite has emerged, sharing ideas, education and job experiences, and serviced by a Political and Managerial Caste (PMC) which itself becomes more and more homogeneous, and even ant-like, as the years pass.
So we now have a set of ethnocentric assumptions which are as developed as any in history, and also very dangerous because of the rigidity with which they are held, the power of the nations involved and—until recently anyway—the ability of these same nations to impose their judgements on others. So what assumptions are we talking about? I would suggest three, and, as is usually the case with such ideologies assembled bit by bit over time by different actors, the sum total is not perhaps as coherent as it could be. Nevertheless, we can say that the Western Strategic Complex (and I’ll come back to that concept) would probably articulate its assumptions thus, if challenged to do so.
First, most people in the world are Like Us, or reasonably so. If they do not behave like Us, or if their countries do not behave like Ours, it is because they are misled or the victims of dictatorial governments and malign power-structures. If those structures can be overthrown, then very rapidly people in the countries concerned will prove to be Like Us.
Second, where people are not Like Us, or states do not resemble Ours, we understand and can explain why this is so, and we know what needs to be done to correct it. Thus, we may be disappointed by individual or collective behaviours, but we always find them easy enough to explain. There is little in the world that we are really incapable of understanding.
Finally, all international crises and conflicts are fundamentally about Us. If as individuals we support the policies and actions of western governments, movements and international organisations, then we think that crises elsewhere in the world are caused by resistance to democratic developments and the spread of Our ideas, or by the machinations of political entrepreneurs stirring up anti-western populist mobs. If Our ideas seem to be in trouble it is because they have not been pushed hard enough, or are being deliberately sabotaged. But paradoxically, if we oppose western governments and international organisations, then we see all the crises and conflicts of the world as results of their aggression and efforts at destabilisation. In either case, therefore, what goes on in the world is All About Us.
Now trying to describe an incoherent ideology in coherent terms tends to produce a result that resembles travesty or satire, and I’m not sure that representatives of the Western Security Complex (WSC for short), would express themselves in quite this blunt a manner. But anyone who has frequented any part of it will immediately recognise the components of their ideology. The additional factor, which distinguishes today’s WSC from its predecessors, even a generation ago, is the childlike delicacy of its ego, and its inability to sustain criticism, let alone admit failure. This is a generational issue that I’ve discussed before.
So, then, a word about the Western Security Complex. The first thing to say is that anyone can join, or, if you prefer, anyone can claim to be a member. In many ways this is strange, because most expert communities require at least some demonstrated expertise, or a process of admission. A publication like The Lancet is unlikely to include articles by people with no medical training: the medical Complex, the legal Complex, the academic Complex generally, the Complex of wine experts or for that matter fans of the Grateful Dead … all of these groups, whilst they may have fuzzy edges, and people denied membership on controversial grounds, are nonetheless coherent groups, and are based in principle around demonstrated knowledge and experience. Even groups outside the mainstream—practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, or Reflexologists—have their own professional standards and membership requirements. But effectively anyone can write about security issues, and get themselves published, even in influential media.
This is strange when you think about it. If a journalist and pundit formerly known for writing about international traded finance issues publishes an article in a major western newspaper of record advocating, let us say, the supply of tactical nuclear weapons for use by Ukraine, then no-one will think it strange and, if it reflects the dominant discourse, it may enjoy considerable publicity, even though the author may have no idea what he or she is talking about. And a pundit of eminence who has never visited China, doesn’t speak Mandarin, has no particular knowledge of Asia or of foreign affairs in general, will not feel thereby inhibited from taking to the pages of a major publication, demanding war with China tomorrow, if not today.
Why is this? Why do pundits feel qualified to offer opinions on matters of war and peace, where they would hesitate to be as dogmatic on the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon or the guitar solos of Mr Jerry Garcia? And why, for that matter, do their opinions tend to fall into two very internally homogenous categories: the majority broadly arguing that everything the West is doing is right and should be continued, and a much smaller minority arguing that everything the West is doing is wrong and should be stopped? And most of all why do these pundits, whether supportive or negative, take it for granted that western actions in any crisis determine what will happen?
It’s not as if subjects like foreign policy, conflict and crisis management are intellectually simple to understand. People have made idiots of themselves recently, talking about the war in Ukraine, about the effects of sanctions, about the supply of western equipment, about the stability of the Russian political system … all of which require years of study and experience if you are to say something sensible. I think there are basically two reasons for this, beyond the obvious fact that being a member of the PMC means you never have to say you’re sorry, not least because you are writing for the most part for people as ignorant as you.
The first, I suggest, is the belief that there are fields of expertise called “strategy” or “geopolitics” which enable those who are members (or see themselves so) to hold forth on any issue. Now, of course “strategy” exists as a real and important subject. It involves studying the writings of theorists throughout the ages (Clausewitz, Mahan and all the rest). It is perfectly legitimate to apply the insights of Clausewitz to the current conflict in Ukraine (I plead guilty myself), but not to pose as an expert on that crisis, or any other, simply because strategy is a subject that interests you, or you read a book about it at university. On the other hand, it’s very doubtful if there is genuinely any such job title as “geostrategist,” or any such subject as “geopolitics.” There are, of course, complex interactions between geography, strategy, economics and politics in different regions of the world, but it’s quite misleading to suppose that you can simply transpose a way of thinking (often materialist and reductive) from one area of the world to another. If you see someone representing themselves as a “writer on strategic issues” or something, it generally means that they just have a superficial knowledge of a lot of different things. This is different from, let’s say, being an expert on the global oil industry, or global trade flows in electronics, where you do actually have to know something.
The second is what I call the Credentialism of Status. Now credentialism is understood to exist where attendance at a university or business school, or passage through some kind of professional training to a qualification, provides you with credentials, but not necessarily knowledge and skills. The prototype figure is the MBA who knows the net present value of everything and the worth of nothing, and is really of less value to an organisation than someone who left school at sixteen, but does actually know how things work. This occurs to some extent in the field of conflict and security also: the “former diplomat,” the “retired military officer,” the “former intelligence analyst” have no automatic right to be heard telling us what to think outside subjects in which they had direct professional experience. Plenty of such people have made idiots of themselves since the Ukraine conflict began. (I doubt, in fact, if there is anything as simple and general as a “military expert,” and many military officers I’ve spoken to feel the same.)
But there are other types of asserted credentials as well, which have nothing to do with conflict-related expertise. After all, if you are a human rights lawyer, your business model depends on the existence of human rights violations, and so you will react instantly on Twitter to any reports, rumours or even deliberate lies about such violations, and you will claim the right to tell governments what to do because your credentials say you speak for the oppressed. And so a group of you will write an op-ed for a distinguished news source entitled “Why Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Deserve a Fair Trial and Should be Stoned to Death” and nobody will think this strange. At the other end of the scale, an economist, chained to a materialist and rationalist explanation of human behaviour, will tie themselves in intellectual knots trying to reduce the Ukraine crisis, or tension with China, or the recent coups in Africa, to economic causes that they understand, in order to advance their own business model. And in turn this will encourage other interest groups to rush into print with claims that “its’s all about” factors X,Y and Z which are “being ignored.” In part, this is what psychologists call Cognitive Bias, which is where people see issues in terms of what they know, even if that isn’t really what the issue is primarily about. But in part, it’s also a feature of our bitterly competitive media, intellectual and NGO environment, whose actors trade on an asserted moral status to make pronouncements on subjects where they are profoundly ignorant.
Then, there are those who believe that their very individual status entitles them to be heard, even if they know nothing about the subject. Fame, or at least being tolerably well known, entitles you to be listened to. (You may recall the grotesque comedy of the actor George Clooney addressing the UN Security Council about Darfur.) It may also be possible to compel others to take notice of you because you claim some kind of personal moral authority even if, once more, you have no idea what you are talking about. And for some people, feeling strongly about an issue itself becomes a qualification, and in our inattention economy, unfortunately, those who shout loudest often get the biggest audiences.
Now conflicts and crises are not, to be fair, the only areas that attract self-selected experts: climate change and Covid are other recent examples. But the reason why the WSC is so large and so porous that almost anyone can elbow their way into it, is that crises, and especially conflicts, are complex in nature, have drama and excitement, and raise moral and political issues in a very stark fashion. A great deal of money is often involved, and there are so many possible entry points—legal, ethical, strategic, cultural, economic—that in the end there’s room for everyone.
You will have noticed, of course, that all of the actors I have listed are western, and much of the WSC discourse consists, as you would expect, of frequently brutal competition between interest-groups to impose their interpretation on a situation, in pursuit of their business model. After all, what has the civil war in Yemen actually been “about?” Depending on who you talk to, it’s a political crisis, a civil war, a humanitarian crisis, a human rights crisis, an environmental crisis, an internal north-south crisis, a result of Saudi-Iranian rivalry, somehow the fault of the West, and many other things. It’s probably all of these to some degree, but we need to remember, once more, that these are imposed interpretations from outside, the weapons in a fratricidal struggle within the WSC to control the discourse, to influence policy and, in the end, to access funding.
It’s obviously not possible or desirable to stop people giving their opinions to the world on important issues, even if these opinions are worthless. But, as in other areas, the bad drives out the good, and this is more of a serious problem when lives are involved than when for example, music is involved. You can’t limit commentary to deep experts (not that they would all agree anyway), but it’s probably fair to say that with the barriers to entry for commenting publicly on major world events lower than they have ever been, and the stock of genuine expertise no greater than it ever was, well, the quality is going to go down.
Even so, it does seem to me that if we are deciding whether or not to expend some of our remaining neurones in reading another article on, say, China, the G20, the BRICS or Taiwan, then it’s reasonable to ask that the writer has at least a limited acquaintance with what they are talking around. Reading to the end of a three-thousand word anti-western diatribe which covers all these points with great vehemence and intemperate language, it would be disappointing to discover that, for example, the author is “a musician and political activist based in Australia and vice-convener of the Wollongong Green Party” or something similar. I know we live in a post-truth, post-authority, non-hierarchical world where truth is whatever you want it to be, but there are limits: the wrong conception of “truth” can have horrifying consequences in the real world.
Part of the problem in the WSC is a kind of variant of the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who know a lot about one thing, and who develop a faithful audience, may start to believe that they can write about related issues, then less-related issues, then finally issues that aren’t related at all. But because their audience largely reads them to have its views confirmed by someone with apparent authority, this seems not to matter. Thus, someone who is quite good on (say) the mechanics of military organisation, or the workings of currency markets, suddenly appears punditing about, let’s say, the recent rash of military coups in francophone West Africa, having only just discovered, perhaps, that most of the region is francophone.
Now that’s a good example, actually, because it’s possible to establish some simple pragmatic qualifications for punditing responsibly on the subject. I don’t mean by that, leaving a contribution on a news or comment site, but actually grabbing people by the lapels and claiming that you understand the issue and they should listen to you. Let’s list a few.
First, you obviously have to be familiar with the history of francophone African states since independence, and how and why that happened in the way it did. You have to understand the origins of the CFA Franc and its devaluation in 1994, for example.You have to understand the seismic political changes that took place after the end of the Cold War, and Mitterrand’s speech at La Baule in 1990, with its encouragement of multi-party systems, and the consequent instability and conflict. You have to be familiar with the rapid disintegration of the French position in Africa, to the point where as early as, let’s see, 2005, Glaser and Smith’s book Comment la France a perdu l’Afrique could speak of it as an established fact, and Glaser’s subsequent book, which came out in 2014, AfricaFrance, argued persuasively that the boot was now on the other foot and that it was African leaders who now had the upper hand over tenants of the Elysée.
You’d have to be familiar of course, with the general literature on the patrimonial state in Africa, which is now well established, with writers like William Reno or Jeffrey Herbst, who originally showed how, with territories too large for weak states to control, African leaders establish patrimonial systems to access and distribute wealth from natural resources and foreign governments to keep themselves in power, while preventing economic development and growth and the rise of an urban middle class which might threaten their monopoly on access to mechanisms of enrichment and therefore power. So politics, whether democratic or through military coups, is a struggle to control the state and its rent-seeking capabilities, much as was the case in parts of Europe in the pre-modern era. (Thus the military coups of course.) Meanwhile, writers like Christopher Clapham have been explaining for decades how apparently weak states and rulers in Africa survive and prosper in a hostile international system. And of course, fluent French and recent experience on the ground and conversations with local politicians, scholars and journalists wouldn’t hurt either.
Can you recall, over the last month or so, reading anything on the recent rash of coups which remotely betrayed this level of expertise? I can’t. In general, “strategic expert” pundits who the week before had been opinionating on Ukraine, and a week before that on China and Taiwan, and who until then hadn’t realised that Nigeria and Niger were two different countries, rushed into print, grabbing in passing one of the various all-embracing conceptual frameworks sold at the WSC supermarket. For one side it was all a Russian-Chinese plot, probably led by the Wagner group, and for the other it was an anti-colonial and anti-western revolution. Nobody thought it worthwhile to actually go and find out what was happening. And virtually all of these pundits were western, and were convinced that there was nothing very complicated or difficult to understand going on. The different factions of the WSC, often bitterly divided ideologically, shared a common belief that they understood everything about the problem. It’s striking that the few African voices that managed to make themselves heard, like Ken Opalo and Chima Okezue offered a sharply different analysis.
The very amorphous and divided nature of the WSC makes it all the more difficult to really comprehend the scope of its influence. It’s not all a conspiracy: the Swedish Development Agency, working on gender-sensitive vehicle check-point procedures, would be extremely offended to be told that it was part of some gigantic conspiracy with the CIA. Indeed, even various parts of the US government will be working, as usual, at cross-purposes with each other. But the influence of the WSC is so pervasive (as of course is the influence of western-dominated economic and social institutions) that I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Africa today, for example, is under greater western influence in all areas than in colonial times. After all, in those days the number of colonial administrators was tiny, in most colonies power was exercised indirectly through local chiefs, and the average Zambian or Burkinabe (there were no such countries then of course) may never have seen a European in their entire lives. Today they are everywhere, often young, often motivated, often intending to do good (this is true of security assistance too) just as the increasing urbanisation of many African countries means that far more Africans have direct contact with westerners.
This would matter less if in Africa, or for that matter in the Middle East, there were more independent sources of understanding and comment outside the WSC and its influence. But in both of those areas, genuinely independent and informed thinking on security issues is very rare, partly because the subjects are considered very delicate, and partly just because of lack of resources. Such institutions as do exist rely ultimately on one faction or another of the WSC for their funding. For example, a prestigious institution in Africa which I knew well in the day, advertises its principal funders as being “the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundation and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.” That foundation, in case you wondered, is a Stiftung, financed by the German government as a way of pursuing a foreign policy at arms’ length.
So in one form or another, the various competing lobbies within the WSC sit atop the very understanding of what security is. (As I used to tell students in Africa: So long as we can control your brains, we don’t need to control your countries.) And that is still the case, arguably more so now than it was then. Patterns of thinking and speaking about security —what Foucault famously called discourses—have been dominated since the nineteen-fifties by the competing political and intellectual forces that today make up the Western Security Complex, even among those who consider themselves bitterly anti-western.
The most characteristic form of this dominance is taking possession of an entire subject of history as though it only existed because the West had made it. The western strategic ego cannot tolerate the idea that there were developments in history that were not its doing. Take empires, for example. Empires are essentially the epitome of the idea that land and people belong to a ruler, or a family, rather than constituting a nation. This system was the norm in all parts of the world until very recently, and empires expanded and contracted as a result of wars and dynastic marriages and problems. The result was seldom very logical (look at a map of Europe in, say, 1500.) Sea transport enabled the Spanish, Portuguese and Arabs to dominate territories far away, and towards the end of the nineteenth century the technologies of the industrial revolution enabled the British and French to greatly expand their own empires and the Germans to begin to copy them. Indeed, empires, from at least Alexander to the Ottomans, have been the principal structuring force of world history. Yet for the WSC, “empire” means overwhelmingly the British and French Empires from about 1880 to 1960, largely in Africa: which is strange when you consider that probably no single factor explains the recent round of crises in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Maghreb and West Africa more than the consequences of the spread of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. But that story is not About Us, so it doesn’t get a mention.
It’s the same with slavery, where the WSC is fixated monomaniacally on the European involvement with the Atlantic Slave Trade, as though slavery had not been endemic in Africa (and elsewhere) for eons, and continued in Africa until the last of it was brought under colonial rule. Not to mention the massive Muslim slave trade to the East, or even the much smaller, but still respectable, trade of captured Europeans sold as slaves into the Ottoman Empire. No matter how disreputable the subject and disgusting the consequences, it seems, the western strategic ego cannot accept that there is any part of the story is not About Us. After Libya collapsed in 2011, a lot of westerners were astonished that slavery began again, following the same routes, and to some of the same destinations, as during the time of the Ottoman Empire. They had known nothing about it.
Nonetheless, it is the feuding doctrines of the WSC that have for decades now structured international institutions and more importantly ways of thinking about international issues. The fact there is still a UN Special Committee on Decolonialisation, for example, is a direct result of the dominance of western thinking on the development of the post-war world. Consider: until at least the 1920s, most people lived in territories, rather than countries, under shifting patterns of political control which often operated differently at different levels. At the highest level, the notional overlord could change—the Egyptians to the British in the Sudan for example— with little or no difference to daily life. (Franz Kafka was born a German-speaking Jewish subject of the Austrian Empire in a Czech-speaking region of what had once been the Kingdom of Bohemia.) The idea that ethnic and linguistic groupings should have control over sovereign political structures, for all that it seems normal now, only came to be widely practised a century or so ago. The “independence” leaders of what were then colonies absorbed this cutting-edge European political thinking, usually through education in Europe, or at missionary schools. They were the native colonial elites of their day (as there have always been since the Romans) speaking the colonial language and admiring and wanting to copy the colonial power. (As Franz Fanon aptly observed, every colonial subject secretly wanted to be White.)
It is in Africa that what Basil Davidson called the “curse of the nation-state” wrought the most havoc. Although the continent, with its poor communications and low population density, as well as lack of natural frontiers, thousands of languages and massive cultural variations, was an unpromising arena for the rapid construction of top-down nation-states, and although there were many alternatives proposed, from federations with the colonial powers, to political entities based on traditional political structures, the proponents of the Westphalian model of the nation-state won out, with consequences that are still unfolding. For their part, colonial nations, weary of the financial burden and increasingly doubting the worth of colonies anyway, could imagine no other structure than the nation-state, and warmly encouraged these plans.
But this was an elite discourse. When I was at university, we would receive posters from the International Federation of Students (sic) based in Prague (sic) calling on us to “support the Angolan people in their struggle for independence.” But of course for most Angolans, “people” and “independence” were nothing but words: Angola was not an occupied country, indeed it was not even a country. This was the early proto-version of the WSC at work (Marx was German, remember.) Much of the “independence” movement, indeed, is better understood as local elite rebellion to take control from the outside power. The FLN, for example, had decided to create an independent country to be called Algeria, according to the latest western models, but with a vaguely Marxist-nationalist ideology, under their control. (No nonsense about democracy here.) Of course Algeria had never been an independent country: it had been someone’s colony effectively forever: even the name came from Al-Jazira, “the islands.” That significant proportion of the population who tried to remain neutral or even supported the French did so not for love of the colonial power, but out of fear and dislike for the ruthless practices and the ambitions of the FLN.
So we are in the curious position that problems all around the world created by the adoption of Western political norms are now being analysed … according to these same norms. There may be a bitter and acrimonious debate about Ukraine, for example, but it is largely confined within the container of ideas that the WSC can understand, themselves broadly based, of course, on modern western Liberalism. One of the reasons why that is not as obvious as it should be is that the WSC is so deeply and noisily divided within itself, like the Ottoman Court or the Renaissance Papacy, although unlike them, it conducts its battles openly. Thus, we read today that the US wants to make future military aid to Ukraine contingent, among dozens of other disconnected objectives, on such eternal favourites as progress on “democratic civilian control of the military” and the “Women in Peace and Security agenda,”which the same interest groups have been pushing for decades all over the world. Like the factions in those past days, however, the factions in the WSC are all pursuing fundamentally the same objectives—power, status and money—and share the same overall intellectual framework. True, the military training team, the researcher from the Military University, the head of a foreign-funded human rights NGO, the visiting gender-sensitivity training team, all funded by the same government, may in the first instance be working at cross-purposes with each other, reflecting the competition between different factions in the home government to define and control the problems of the country concerned. But they share a common set of assumptions about the world: Ours. Even the investigative journalist who talks to the human rights advocate, who has been publicly critical of the security forces trained by the trainers, and researched by the researcher, and criticised for lack of gender sensitivity by the foreign NGO, goes home to write a story which describes the issue in ways that the WSC would understand it: not necessarily how locals would describe it.
The result has been the progressive triumph of the WSC discourse, in all its internally-incoherent complexity. Which is fine until the WSC encounters something it cannot understand, but can’t ignore either. Behind the confusion and silliness of much WSC commentary on Ukraine, even by “military experts” and “strategic commentators” is a stubborn refusal to accept that things happen in the world which are outside its frame of reference. From the beginning, the war has been interpreted in terms of what the WSC understands and can talk about: an amalgam of Afghanistan, Iraq and Apocalypse Now. In the end the WSC is unable to imagine a world which is not About Them. It is unthinkable that there should be wars, revolutions and changes of government around the world where the West is not the main actor, and where local and often deep-rooted causes which the WSC cannot understand are the main drivers. The collective ego of the WSC could not long withstand such knowledge: in the last analysis it is better that the recent political crisis in Pakistan or the coups in West Africa should be the result of evil machinations by the West than that they should be primarily events conducted by locals for their own reasons, exploiting the West along the way. Like a child who misbehaves to get attention, the WSC would rather be seen as the guilty party than simply being ignored, as is increasingly happening. Poor things: you almost feel sorry for them. Almost.