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Thursday, January 14 2016
Geopolitics/ Old Empires Never Die
And their strategies go on forever. Russia is a convincing case in this respect.
By the end of the 19th century, it was commonly held that four European powers possessed great foreign services : the Habsburg Monarchy (known after 1867 as Austria-Hungary or the Double Monarchy), the Ottoman Empire, the Holy See and Russia. Retrospectively, it appears that there was much truth about that opinion.
Agreed, the Habsburg service, arguably the most prestigious of all four in 1914, collapsed along with the dynasty in 1918 : it had failed, in pre-WW1 years, to prevent the satellization of the Double Monarchy by Hohenzollern Germany ; it failed again to disentangle it from the Serbian crisis in 1914, to negotiate a separate peace in 1916-1917, and to mitigate its final dislocation in the wake of the 1918 military defeat. But the record of the three others services is quite different. They helped their respective countries to survive WW1 and to strive throughout the 20th century. And they still are important instruments in world politics today
Ottoman diplomats were initially as powerless as their Austrian colleagues in front of defeat in 1919 : they had to condone the Sèvres Treaty, that almost finished their own Empire. However, once Mustafa Kemal got rid a Greek invasion of Anatolia and reshaped Turkey as a nation-State and a Republic, they fully resumed their skills : they portrayed the new Turkey as stronger than it actually was, and yet showed willingness to make compromise in spite of its presumed strength. Their tricks worked out beautifully, and enabled them to negotiate in 1923 the vastly more favorable Lausanne Treaty. Post-Ottoman Turkish diplomats were even more effective in the ensueing decades : they alternatively managed to keep their country out of World War Two and to bring it into Nato during the Cold War ; to engage in the European unification process (as a Council of Europe member and an EU associate) without relinquishing a single bit of national sovereignty ; to insist both on the democratic and secular character of modern Turkey and its Islamic identity.
Even the current Erdogan administration – arguably the most wayward Turkish administration since the founding of the Republic – has refrained thanks to its diplomats from some major blunders, like severing its ties with Israel altogether after the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010. Today, a somehow weakened Turkey is thus able to turn again to the Jewish State for economic cooperation (bilateral trade reached 5,6 billion dollars last year) and strategic depth.
As for the Holy See, it is largely through the agency of its nuncios and lesser diplomats that it has survived to this day against all odds or against all logic, not just as a sovereign entity – the Vatican City enclave in Rome - but even as a world power of sorts. One may even say, to paraphrase Mirabeau’s famous statement on Prussia (« Other States own armies. Prussia is an army that conquered a State ») that while other States have diplomatic services, the Holy See is a diplomatic service that has a State. Indeed, it counts more diplomats than inhabitants (the permanent population of Vatican City is less than 500) and the aggregated surface area of its diplomatic representations abroad is much biger than its 44 hectares territory. The Holy See enjoys in the 21st century permanent observer status at the UN, and entertains diplomatic relations with almost all countries in the world, including countries like France or the United States that insist on a strict separation between Church and State. The only country that still professes to ignore it, China, is holding discreet talks with it time and again.
The Holy See does not just pursue quietist or irenic international policy goals, as it is frequently assumed. It works very hard, in a straight Realpolitik manner, to protect Catholicism’s interests wherever this is feasible, including the Church’s material interests (think of its formal recognition of a « State of Palestine » that does not yet exist, in order to buttress future claims to holy places and properties in Jerusalem and the Holy Land). It exerts as much leverage as it can on Catholic communities or countries with substantial Catholic communities or majorities, either in political matters or on family and marriage issues (think of the 2014 large demonstrations in France against same sex marriage).
Russia is however the most convincing case regarding the old diplomatic services’ resilience and excellence. Founded in 1549 by Ivan IV the Terrible as the Ambassadors College (Possolski Prikaz) and reorganized in 1720 by Peter I the Great as a Western-style Foreign Affairs College, the Russian service contributed as effectively as the military to the country’s steady aggrandizement. It did not vanish in 1917, but switched allegiance to the Soviet regime, much as the Ottoman service rallied to Kemal’s Republic, and helped it recover most of the tsars’ lands in just a few years. It did not wither either in 1991, when the USSR unraveled, but embarked almost immediately, as the Russian Federation’s service, on restoring again Russia as a Great Power.
What makes the Russian foreign service so efficient ? First, clarity of purpose. The document known as The Will of Peter the Great , that tersely lists Russia’s goals and tactics in foreign affairs, may be a Polish or French forgery ; but it is a fact that Russia, out of its very character – a very wide country at the junction of Europe and Asia - developed quite early an understanding for geopolitics and long term strategies ; and that the views quoted or alluded to in the Will – national supremacy, claims to the Byzantine imperial heritage, multilateral ambitions in all parts of the world, a cold perception of power relations – reflect its actual policies.
Second, professional quality : Russian diplomats, either under the tsars, or Stalin, or Putin, have been well educated, well mannered, fluent in foreign languages ; and they have been experts in history and international law. Nothing is more revealing, in this respect, than the History of Diplomacy, a three volumes summa written and published by a pannel of Soviet historians in the 1940’s, at the height of Stalinist terror and ideological glaciation : such a rich and no-nonsense essay that it has been as popular in the Western countries as in the USSR for many years (The French translation I own was issued in 1953 by Librairie de Medicis, then a rather conservative publishing house specializing in politics and economics.)
Third, the Russian foreign service has always been interlinked with the secret services. In the 17th century, it was supplemented by a Secret Affairs College that was answerable to the tsar only. Similar arrangements were repeated in later eras, down to Soviet NKVD and KGB and to present day agencies.
The job of the secret services has been to monitor the diplomats’ activities but also to do everything the diplomats could not do openly : to bribe officials in foreign countries, to recruit spies and informants, to build up contacts among dissenters, and – most important - to manipulate the public opinion. Ironically, the Russians, while autocratic among themselves, have been acutely aware of the power of public opinion abroad, and ready to devote time and ressources to win it over. Russian diplomats and secret agents started in the 18th century to bribe, influence or even launch newspapers in Holland, England and France : a practice that was later extended to more countries and more media, including, over the past fifteen years or so, the Internet. Catherine II paraded as an enlightened despot, in order to enlist Western intellectuals, and largely succeeded : so did Stalin in the 20th century, or does Putin today.
Another joint mission of diplomats and secret service agents has been to gather economic and technological intelligence, and to use economic issues as a leverage for political interests, be it the export of Russian raw materials or foreign investment in Russia. 18th century Russia was eager to sell England the wood it needed for its navy in order to turn it into a dependent country ; 21st century Russia does about the same by selling gas to Western Europe, Turkey and former Soviet Republics. Conversely, just like late 19th century Russia coupled a French-Russian strategic alliance against Germany with alluring loans that syphoned the French middle class savings, the late 20th century Soviet Union coupled a French-Russian entente against America with a wide range of contracts for the French industry.
The fourth and final asset of Russian diplomacy is the long term perspective. Far-reaching retreats may be condoned for a while – 1812, 1941, 1989-1991 – but stand to be reversed. Schemes may be put aside for years, then resumed. Patronage or friendships, once established, may be left dormant for years, but are never relinquished. It was sheer incompetence or sheer folly on the part of the Americans and Europeans to assume that Russia would gently agree in 1991 to withdraw to its original 17th century core, to countenance the redrawing of the Balkans by the West only in 1995-1999, or to forsake forever its networks and alliances in the Orient, from the Eastern Christian communities to Khomeinist Iran to the rivaling twin Baathist brothers of Syria and Iraq. Russia is now calling bluff, and may pocket a lot – at least as long as a weak or maybe Russian-influenced president sits in the White House.
© Michel Gurfinkiel & PJMedia, 2016
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-thank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
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