Clean hands

FitzJamesHorse pithily describes the formality that Irish is the “first national language” as Ireland’s “first national hypocrisy”. But Ireland is not short of hypocrisies. Its second national hypocrisy has long been the pretence that Ireland is somehow free of the sin of abortion. And to this list we should add a third, the conceit that Ireland is a “neutral country”.

The second and third national hypocrisies are remarkably similar. In both cases Ireland has dodged a controversial issue by washing its hands, in the sure and certain knowledge that its old enemy next door will pick up the slack. Just as the NHS in Liverpool has allowed Ireland to keep pretending that pregnancies never go wrong, the RAF at Brize Norton and the Royal Navy in Portsmouth allow it to pretend that fish poaching is its gravest military threat. When Russian bombers skirt Irish air space, it is the RAF that intercepts. When destroyers cruise near its coast, it is the Royal Navy that follows alongside.

Ireland is a proudly independent state, but a passive spectator in its own air and sea defence. Ireland’s army is widely respected, and justifiably so. For an island country in no immediate danger of land invasion, its armed forces are highly effective at the roles they have chosen to take on. But for an island country bordering some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, its coast guard navy and propeller-powered air force might as well not exist.

Like it or not, military defence is still important. The world is still recovering from the Great Recession, economic imbalances have not been addressed, and populist nationalism is on the rise. A superpower conflict in Europe is thinkable again after nearly 30 years of comparative harmony. History teaches us three potentially relevant lessons. Economic collapse increases the chances of military conflict; the new conflict is never the same as the old one; and military neutrality is a strategy, not a principle.

Neutrality, like any military policy, only exists to the extent that it can be enforced. Declarations of neutrality in the face of open aggression are as ineffective as thoughts and prayers. Belgium declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the Second World War, as did the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. All were conquered without a second thought. What saved the likes of Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland from occupation was either military strength, political submission, or strategic irrelevance.

During the Cold War Ireland enjoyed a uniquely privileged position. Far behind the Iron Curtain, detached from the mainland and lacking heavy industry, it was unlikely to be the scene of a ground invasion. And with the superpowers facing each other across the Arctic, it was never going to be as useful to air defence as Canada, Iceland or Norway. But the unspoken truth was that Ireland was trying as hard as it could to pass unnoticed.

The voluntarily neutral countries on the front line of the Iron Curtain – Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and (after 1968) Albania – maintained significant armed forces to deter invasion, not because they were important in themselves but because, like Belgium in 1939, they were in the way. Finland and Austria had neutrality imposed upon them as the price of their independence. Every other European country larger than Malta joined one of the main military alliances – with the notable exception of Ireland.

Rolling up like a hedgehog is a good defensive strategy for a small neutral country, one that Switzerland has employed for centuries. But to be a hedgehog, one needs spikes – and Ireland has never invested in a meaningful national defence. The other option is to get somebody else to protect you – but this means either an explicit deal with equitable terms and conditions, or subservience to someone else’s interests. If you can’t defend (or buy a defence of) your territory on your own terms, someone else will defend it on theirs.

Or as Trotsky might have put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

When it comes to the old enemy, Ireland remembers everything yet learns nothing. It cherishes every remembered consequence of occupation, settlement, annexation and rebellion, but has never fully come to terms with the cause, or its implications. Ireland was not conquered for its oil or its gold. Ireland was conquered for its coastline. If England had not secured Ireland for itself, Spain or France would have done it instead. Both tried, and it is only a roll of the historical dice that they failed.

Ireland was conquered precisely because it was neutral and undefended, and the lesson that Ireland learned from the experience is that being neutral and undefended is akin to sainthood.

And so Ireland indulges itself in doublethink. It is fully committed to its deep economic ties with its European and American friends and partners, but refuses to openly acknowledge that military interests will inevitably align with economic ones. When challenged on this, Irish politicians trot out the same list of contradictory excuses. Irish diplomacy is dependent on neutrality, even though Norwegian diplomacy is not. Military spending diverts precious funds, even though the US built its post-war economy on it. And the best thing we can do to advance global security is to stand back and let the grown-up countries deal with it, because the most important thing is that we don’t get our own hands dirty.

Just like abortion.

(Originally published on Slugger)

Russia, secession and the long game

Europeans, huddled in their densely-populated terrain, look eastward across the bleak nothingness of forest and steppe, and dream of bears and wolves. Russians look westwards across that same land and see an indefensible frontier that invading armies can, and regularly do, walk across without breaking stride. The Russian military instinct to hide behind weak buffer states is well-founded, and has been a guiding principle of foreign policy since 1945. Their neighbours’ fear, and often memory, of being so used is perhaps sufficient to explain why they are so willing to cast their allegiances elsewhere.

It has been said that Britain gained an empire by accident, as each Indian princeling in turn asked for, and inevitably got, protection against his rivals from the Raj, which itself gained in power as a result. Such positive feedback effects can easily become unstoppable. The medium-term result of the Georgian incident, regardless of who started it, will be to similarly accelerate the process of NATO expansion, whether individual countries like it or not. France and Germany will fret about being provocative, but telling a friendly, democratically-elected president that his country is not deserving of their protection will be a step too far. The membership process may be slow, but it is now merely a matter of when, not if.

This inescapable process is unfortunately driving a wedge between Russia and the West. Russian popular opinion is firmly behind Putin, who isn’t going anywhere soon. It took a generation for Britain to come to terms with the loss of its empire, and Russia has not yet acclimatised itself to its shrunken borders. Perhaps then the best the West can hope for is to sit out the Putin era without getting into a hot war. History shows that a strategic equilibrium can be achieved so long as cooler heads prevail on both sides; unfortunately in times of mutual suspicion a spark is all that it takes.

Europe today looks more like that of 1914 than of 1945, except the Caucasus is more Balkanised than the Balkans themselves. The flashpoints are obvious: Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan. In each case, an unpredictable, usually pro-Russian, minority has declared unilateral independence from a post-Soviet state that they believe does not represent their interests, and now look to their own Raj for protection. Russia has helped maintain these statelets without officially endorsing their independence, lest it be taken as a precedent for Chechnya. They are not alone in walking a rhetorical tightrope on secessionism: Kosovo is (partially) recognised but Bosnia must remain whole. Great powers may no longer carve up the territory of Europe at will, but their unfinished business still litters the tablecloth.

At the core of all these problems lies the legal no-man’s-land of UDI. States may dissolve themselves by mutual agreement, like the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, while changing borders by invasion is these days beyond the pale. But between these limiting cases of black and white there are no rules. Disputes between secessionist movements and their central governments have no forum, no case law, no agreed points of principle. Such things are an internal matter for the state itself, i.e. the stronger party, unless someone gets the big powers involved. It is thus in the interests of small, marginalised groups to make as much trouble as possible. Consequently it is in the interests of the big powers, if cooler heads are prevailing, to remove the incentives for them to do so.

There must therefore be a legal, codified route to unilateral independence. The chances of China signing up to any such agreement are zero, so its scope must by necessity be limited to Europe. Even so, the chances of such a deal are slim. It would involve a delicate balancing act: if the process is too onerous there will be no incentive for separatists to go legit; but without sufficient hoops to jump through, independence movements will sprout like mushrooms. Whatever the details, the likely effect would probably be to legitimise some of the secessionist statelets in post-Soviet space, while preventing the independence of Chechnya; any other outcome would be rejected out of hand by Russia. In return for Western acquiescence in their independence and voluntary alignment with Moscow, Russia would have to drop its objections to any other countries’ voluntary alignment with NATO.

This would stick in the craw of many, but may be the only realistic way to stabilise the region. No European government, with the possible exception of Belarus, would willingly accept the status of buffer state. The alternative would be the ever-present danger of the big powers getting sucked in to minor local squabbles, either accidentally or as part of a cunning plan. The creation of more pro-Russian exclaves (besides Kaliningrad) in NATO and EU territory would not be anyone’s ideal choice, but could be lived with if the rules of the game were clear.

Ultimately, there can be no lasting peace in Europe until the concepts of buffer states and spheres of influence have disappeared from the lexicon. It is clear, however, that the memes are alive and well in Russia. Both sides must ask themselves two questions: do we want a hot war? And if not, what is the alternative? I suggest that it is in the interests of both sides to play the long game.