My Enemy's Enemy is ... That Depends.
I'll get back to you on that.
The questions of what national interest is, how it is defined, how you decide who are “friends”, “allies” and “enemies,” and who gets to make these decisions, are central to any understanding of the reality of international politics, as opposed to just the theory. Having a firm grasp of these issues helps us better understand some of the things that are going on in the world at the moment, especially over Ukraine, and to see where some rather unfortunate blowback might be coming.
If you have the kind of job which involves writing, listening to or reading political speeches, you soon develop a series of mental bingo cards, with the kind of things you expect to hear on them. There are basically three cards. One is for purely formal and ritual speeches, devoid of any real content and intended only to tick boxes. The second is a statement of existing principles or policies, where nothing new is expected, and nothing new is said. And the third, logically enough, is where something new is going to be said, or perhaps something that was expected is left out, or heavily modified. It’s the last case that tends to attract the interest of analysts of all sorts.
But if you look back at your bingo cards over any reasonable length of time, you soon discover there are certain boxes that you keep ticking, because there are certain things that speechwriters feel they have to include. Perhaps the greatest cliché of international speechwriting is a reference to “the historic ties of friendship between our two nations.” This is one of those semantic nulls that fills empty space and gives everyone a good feeling: after all, nobody is going to respond by saying “actually our nation hates yours and you should know it.”
Not just this cliché, but also the assumptions behind it, have always puzzled me. How, after all, can “nations” have agency in this sense? You can talk of “traditional allies” when the countries have fought the same enemies, at least for a while: Britain and France might qualify, for example. But “nations” here implies the involvement of populations, since “nations”, to repeat, aren’t in an ontological category which enables them to do anything except exist (and there are nuances to even that.) So where, if anywhere, is the evidence that populations (here surrogate for nations) actually have friendly feelings towards each other? Or for that matter that they have unfriendly feelings towards each other?
I don’t think it’s possible to find it. Of course, you can always carry out opinion surveys to find out what people think of other nations. But these surveys generally reflect no more than what is in the popular media and what comes from elite opinion, and are often based on very superficial judgements. For a long time, polls in different countries revealed a positive image of the United States, largely based on the consumption of Hollywood films, which were assumed to faithfully reflect the reality of life in that country.
Of course, certain countries have favourable opinions of other countries because of particular historical events that are still remembered. Many older French people, for example, will spontaneously pay compliments to the Allied countries that took part in the Normandy Landings in 1944. But the reverse is also true, and indeed it’s much more common for negative events of the past to be preserved in popular feeling. Likewise, popular feeling in small countries is almost always equivocal or downright hostile to large neighbours.
The difference is that these sorts of feelings are observably held by ordinary people, and they are a real political issue, even if they don’t make it into elite discourse. One story among many: I was in a hotel in, I think, Amsterdam, many years ago, and there was a football match showing in the lounge, with Dutch people crowded all around. Being utterly uninterested in football, it was only after a while that I realised that the Dutch were not playing. It was the Germans versus another European team, although the Dutch (including a surprising number of women) were following with close attention. Curious, I asked a person standing next to me why there was so much interest. “Oh” came the reply “we always cheer for anyone who’s playing the Germans.” And there are parts of France and Belgium much visited by the Wehrmacht, where you would find roughly the same reactions. On the other hand, all over the world minority groups in one country tend to identify with and support other countries in which they are the majority, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, or Russian-speaking Ukrainians are among the most obvious examples.
Of course, such actual expressions of feelings between and about nations are heavily discouraged today, and hidden behind a screen of compulsory niceness, twinning of towns and educational exchanges, and the destruction of history itself, as I have discussed elsewhere. In practice, “national feelings” are what the elites say they are, and when elites change their minds about a country (let’s say Libya in 2004 and then again in 2011) “national feelings” change quite rapidly. Moreover, “nation” in this context refers to a purely legal and cartographic entity, not the actual mix of populations and cultures that most nations actually consist of. The reality of politics, I suppose, makes anything else impossible.
So it’s simpler and more honest to accept that this discourse is a discourse of elites, having its origin in a time when nations were not really nations, but possessions of royal houses, who often intermarried. In such a context, with foreign and military affairs essentially in the hands of aristocratic elites, it was possible to talk about “good relations” between nations, if you understood those relations to be just between people who mattered. But even by the end of the nineteenth century, increasing literacy, the rise of a popular press and the coming of democracy were starting to complicate things.
An honest view of relations between different nations as they are conducted today, would begin from the awareness that they are, inevitably, largely based on perceived self-interest. It seems to be Lord Palmerston who first coined the saying that “nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” although it’s not exactly an original thought, and has also been attributed independently to others at different times, notably to Charles de Gaulle. It’s often disparaged as a piece of cynicism, though I can’t think why. As far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that foreign policy should be based on self-interest alone when other options are available: rather, it’s a recognition that in practice, that’s how it is, and a nation that relies too much on abstract promises of friendship from others is likely to be in for a rude shock at some point.
Yet in practice, these two modes of expression, popular and elite, touchy-feely and pragmatic, tend to be hopelessly confused. Why is this? I suggest there are two reasons. The first is yet another of the baleful by-products of that ideology trading under the name of “realism” or “neo-realism”, which sees the whole of international relations as the zero-sum collision of the unitary national interests of different states. Each state is assumed to have an easily-defined collective national interest, universally shared: this has to be so or the model won’t work. Yes, it is often argued, but this is a necessary simplification. Not really it isn’t, because in reality internal politics is a major determinant of foreign policy in many states and on many occasions. To that extent, there is often a very visible gap between the “national interest” as represented by elites, and “national feelings” as expressed by the population. A good example is the decision to base Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, which was enthusiastically supported by elites, but so unpopular with ordinary people that a number of governments fell or threatened to fall as a result.
The second goes back to the pernicious idea that war and conflict begins “in the hearts of men,” pushed, as I have pointed out, since the time of the UNESO founding document. If conflict is basically caused by ill-feeling between populations, as this theory would insist, then there is not, and cannot, be any distinction between national feelings in the population and the national interests pursued by elites. If there are close relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, but not the United States and Iran, that must result from different degrees of warmth or hostility among the American population at large. You can believe that if you like.
The difficulty arises, I think, from the need to somehow take account of democratic political systems, and to pretend that democratically expressed opinions necessarily influence, if not actually dictate, decisions about foreign and security policy. In states which don’t try to be democratic, as we understand the word, the problem is much simpler. For example, in the old Soviet Union, it was easy to say that the Soviet Working Class supported the struggles of workers and popular forces around the world, because this could simply be assumed: it was not necessary to consult the Soviet Working Class to see if they actually agreed. Yet even if we accept, as I think we have to, that you can’t conduct foreign and security policy by referendum, it has to be recognised that in reality it comes, as all policies do, out of a complex and often messy political process in which different interest groups have different objectives. Thus (to take a topical example) there isn’t and there never has been a single “German” attitude towards Russia, but rather a series of different positions held by actors with political influence. We can see this now over Ukraine, where German business is clearly unhappy with the fanatical anti-Russian policies of its government, and, like their Italian counterpart, is worried about the economic effects.
The reality is that when we talk about “historic friendships” or “close allies” or “mutual hostility” we are talking, inevitably, about how elites see other countries for the time being, with the qualifications that elites are not unitary, and also that relationships with other countries are invariably complex, and different forces tend in different directions. This latter point is often not well understood, so let’s go into it in a bit more detail.
Nations have a wide spectrum of relationships with each other. They will include some or all of (at least) the following: economic policies, trade and investment, buying and selling of natural resources, tourism, population flows and migration/immigration, cooperation or otherwise in regional and international organisations, frontier and border questions, military cooperation or rivalry, relations with third (and maybe fourth and fifth) parties, historical differences, police, customs and intelligence relations, views on social and ethical issues , and what each nation may want from the other in return for what it is prepared to give. That’s enough for now, but you get the point. The “policy” of one country towards the other will be, at best, a laborious and often uncomfortable compromise between all these different questions, which will probably end up not pleasing anyone entirely. This just has to be accepted: a national policy includes different priorities, with different dimensions, and somehow a compromise has to be reached. The have been attempts to deny this was so: one such was the enthusiasm of the Blair government in the 2000s for something called “joined-up government”, where the various Departments were criticised for having different policies towards the same countries. But of course this was entirely normal and unavoidable, because different issues were involved in each case, and the real test was how well you were able to reconcile them.
The situation is made more complicated because of the existence of special-interest groups and media lobbies, who push one particular agenda on the public and the media. Often, this is done simply to get publicity, with the proviso that, as always, some positions are more newsworthy than others. Thus “NGO X tells Government to reduce contacts with country Y because of human rights fears,”gets more mileage than “Trade Association Z tells Government to expand contacts with country Y to promote tourism,” although in neither case is a government likely to take much notice.
The danger arises when these levels are confused: when the enthusiasm (or tolerance, or even sullen acceptance) of elites is mistaken for genuine warmth at all levels. Much of the West is naive enough to believe that its image in the world is so positive and its opinions are so valued, that other countries and peoples will necessarily follow our guidance. We are, of course, incessantly disappointed by how actual events turn out, and professional opinion-formers even more so. Much western opinion seems to think that the West is so respected and even admired in other countries, that a raised eyebrow on, let us say, a human rights issue, will be sufficient to change the policy of the government concerned, and to encourage popular protests against that government. After all, we reason, our image in the world is so positive, everybody wants to be like us, therefore populations around the world will eagerly read what our leaders, media and NGOs have to say, and follow our advice. There do seem to be cases of western leaders happily jetting off to lecture the Chinese on human rights issues for example, only to be greeted with the freezing politeness that the Chinese and similar cultures reserve for barbarians with bad manners, and which conceals reactions such as Why don’t you crawl back to your own country and stop interfering, you uncouth foreign worm?
All this comes from two fundamental misunderstandings about how the world works; misunderstandings for which the collective ego and effective international media domination of the West are largely responsible. The first goes back to Machiavelli’s famous question about whether it is better to be feared than loved. Ideally, of course, he would advise both, but, given the facts of human nature, then if you had to choose, fear is a better basis than love, because love is fickle and can be abandoned easily, whereas fear endures.
But of course we don’t like to think that we rule through fear, even if we do. We are no longer in the world of Xerxes, of the Tang Dynasty or the Ottoman Empire, when no pretence was made of building political power on any other basis except fear. We like to think we are more civilised than that: we go around the world and see people dressed in western clothing and watching western media, we meet elites who speak our language and who give the impression of admiring our system and our culture. We mistake that for love, when it is often just a consequence of fear and intimidation, as well as self-interest, to which I return in a moment.
Of course, there are many things to admire in western civilisation: it’s important not to be silly about this. The spread of western ideas and practices has had all sorts of effects, in all sorts of places, both good and bad. But we’re not concerned here with the content, so much as the mechanisms by which this has happened.
A large part of the world worked out long ago that preserving independence and political power relied on having a powerful ally of some sort, or potentially playing two large states off against each other. Hypocrisy , as well as a kind of doublethink, are basic political survival skills in most countries. “Fear” and “love” are perhaps slightly strong terms here: let’s think in terms of incentives. So we’re a small country, and our large neighbour, or some international organisation, or the United States, is putting pressure on us to sign a document or agree to a recommendation, about which we are not enthusiastic. We agree, not out of love for the country or institution, not because we are persuaded by the argument, but rather because we don’t particularly want to have a stand-up fight in public with a country larger than ourselves. After all, we say, the statement itself is meaningless, and we’re not really committing ourselves to anything. Let’s save our efforts for something more important to us. We realise this, but quite often the large neighbour, the international organisation or the United States doesn’t. They interpret our agreement as a sign of support, esteem and even love.
Simply staying in power in many states requires organised hypocrisy in words and behaviour. I’ve heard from people present at African Union meetings, for example, about the exaggerated respect given to the late Col Gaddafi of Libya when he spoke. No matter how lunatic his propositions might have been (and indeed many of them were) he was greeted with applause and standing ovations, because of his use of oil and gas revenues to pay the AU subscriptions of many African countries, and to keep their rulers in power. The same applies at all levels of course. saying and doing what wealthy and powerful states want is a fundamental skill if you want to stay in power and, in some cases, if you want to stay alive.
In addition, formal obeisance can be very useful, and bring gains disproportionate to the sacrifices involved. Take Germany, for example. After World War II, its leaders recognised that the long, hard road back to international respectability would depend on being good and obedient members of international organisations. German rearmament would have been unthinkable outside the context of NATO, just as its European policy in its early years was rigidly conformist, and effectively subordinate to France.
The second misunderstanding goes back to my point about friends and interests, which everyone outside the West seems to understand quite easily. Because of the complex nature of relationships between two countries of any size, there will be no such thing as “an” interest. There will be different and sometimes conflicting ones. So you and your neighbour might support different sides in somebody’s civil war, but the same side in an insurgency elsewhere. You may be bitter rivals in oil exports, but also be each others’ main trading partners. You may have stark political or religious differences, and even support dissidents in each others’ countries, but cooperate against outside powers. And so on. Most political cultures accept that this is inevitable, and that relationships are frequently disconnected, and sometimes even schizoid. The West, on the other hand, tries to bring everything together into some mega strategy, and often goes mad in the process. So here’s a story from Current Affairs this week, titled, with endearing naivety,“If NATO Opposes Aggression, Why Does it Support Turkish Crimes Against the Kurds?” Well, we all know the answer to that, but what’s really interesting is the mentality which expects (or at least pretends to) that everything should line up neatly and coherently.
It’s this which encourages western politicians, diplomats and pundits to pack their binoculars, and go off in search of that fabled beast, the Pro-Western-Moderate, and to believe they have found one when he or she says or does something we want, or otherwise expresses support for western objectives. The reality, of course, is more complex and rather disheartening. If someone powerful comes to see me and asks me to support their position, I will do so if I think it’s in my interest. If subsequently I decide that it’s against my interests to do what I promised, I won’t do it. Only the West is surprised by that. This is a pattern all over the world, and has massively complicated attempts by outsiders to resolve conflicts. The Former Yugoslavia is perhaps the classic case. Anyone who had any involvement with that region during the war or the immediate aftermath will, very probably, have been sickened by it: less by the cruelty, than by the relentless and mercenary cynicism displayed by all sides, at all levels: killing each other in the morning, trading smuggled goods in the afternoon. People reacted in different ways to this: some by despair (“just nuke the bastards!”), some by denial of reality and cultivation of idealised images (“X or Y are the victims, we must defend them”) and some by just gritting their teeth and trying to salvage what could be salvaged which, frankly, wasn’t much.
Paradoxically, though, cynicism provides a solution.The war in Yugoslavia stopped when those in positions of power decided that, for the time being, they had more to gain from peace. It was not the war-weariness of their peoples, the timid western military involvement, or political pressure from abroad that decided them, but sheer self-interest and the possibility of lots of money in reconstruction funds. Of course the wiser politicians in the region suddenly became very pro-western: you always kiss the hand you cannot bite. Unfortunately, a lot of westerners assumed they meant it.
All this suggests two conclusions about the present confused political alignments since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. First, we should stop talking about nations “coming together” or “moving apart.” Saudi Arabia is not “moving closer” to Russia, let alone to Iran. Hungary is not becoming “pro-Russian,” Turkey is not “moving away from the US”, or whatever, there is no Russo-Chinese alliance in the offing. What is happening is that all of these nations are re-evaluating their national interests in specific cases. The Saudis are doing what they think is best for their national interests. Gosh. Since they no longer view the US as a wholly reliable ally, they are wisely placing parallel bets with the Chinese and the Russians as well. There is no special warmth in the high-level links between Iran and India. But both can see advantages in a world order where power is more evenly distributed, and they are encouraging this. I really don’t know why some people find this so hard to understand.
Secondly, we can rely on some of these states—India, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and many others—to pursue their national interests even if they conflict with those of the West. This may seem surprising, but it’s what nations actually do. The West in general and the US in particular, has been helpful and useful to the interests of a number of nations for specific reasons at specific times. But very frequently, this utility comes at a price, often in domestic politics: it’s instructive to watch the body-language of locals in places such as Japan and Korea where US soldiers are based, and to hear what they say if they think you don’t understand. The links these countries have with the US are not based on love and friendship, but on necessity and habit.
These links will not necessarily endure much longer, given the considerable political sacrifices they entail for many countries. I’ve already noted that the US is becoming less and less useful to Europe, as a mostly disarmed and militarily weak continent confronts a large, disgruntled, military power. But the same applies elsewhere , not just to the US but to the West more generally. When they turn their back on us, we will feel hurt and rejected. When the Chinese, the Russians, the Brazilians or whoever arrive somewhere, saying “let’s do a deal that benefits both of us, even if we differ on other things”, we will fail to understand, and accuse other nations of ingratitude. But that’s because, in our air-conditioned little penthouse, we in the West have no idea how the world really works, and how few friends we really have.