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Strategy: waging political warfare

Image credit: John D.

Image credit: John D.

Over the past few months, Vladimir Putin has been running rings around the major Western powers. David Cameron’s United Kingdom, Angela Merkel’s Germany and Barack Obama’s United States (US) seem completely astray when dealing with Moscow. As for the European Union, it looks positively lost in a world it can barely comprehend, let alone mould into its own image. That Russia, a country with a mono-economy similar in size to Brazil’s, can act almost with impunity within the European Neighbourhood against the West’s material strength – which is vastly superior – is not only shocking but also dispiriting for many. Yet, we should applaud Mr. Putin: in some ways, although not all, he is a master strategist. That he is managing to do so much with so little is precisely what political strategists ought to aim to do.

Many believe there is something inherently wrong with the way that Moscow is behaving. They believe there is some kind of ‘problem’ with the Russians or the Kremlin itself. However, the problem is not with Vladimir Putin or the Russians. They are normal. The problem is with ‘us’ – the West, and Europeans in particular. The problem is that we have forgotten about the character of politics – and to some extent, even the existence of politics. For many, especially in modern Europe, politics has become coterminous with administration, because many – if not most – Europeans are unable to contemplate the notion that other people neither wish to live by our standards nor accept our worldview.

Mr. Putin, though, understands the political. And he understands two things particularly well: firstly, that he has powerful enemies; secondly, that he needs to either repress – by division – or destroy them, by breaking them up and disaggregating their strength. Unlike Europeans, he also understands that he is always at war; an idea most Europeans would scoff at, or even shrivel away from – it is seen as unfashionable or unpalatable: certainly something not to be discussed during polite conversation. Nobody should forget that Russia’s leader has extensive experience within the Soviet and Russian intelligence systems. As such, Mr. Putin has developed a good understanding of the political all the way from the tactical through to the higher strategic levels.

In the 1940s, Nicholas Spykman, one of the intellectual and political architects of the geostrategy of containment, counselled his American compatriots about the necessity of a robust understanding of the character of the (geo)political. He realised that countries best-versed in selling refrigerators and cars, or in today’s context, selling financial derivatives or creating computer applications, are not well suited to a world order of aggressive totalitarian ideologies, which take the political to its nadir of depravity. He understood that the ability to behave politically could mean the difference between victory and defeat, between prosperity and servitude. In America’s Strategy in World Politics – from 1941 – Spykman put this is the starkest possible of terms:

The statesman who conducts foreign policy can concern himself with values of justice, fairness, and tolerance only to the extent that they contribute to or do not interfere with the power objective. They can be used instrumentally as moral justification for the power quest, but they must be discarded the moment their application brings weakness. The search for power is not made for the achievement of moral values; moral values are used to facilitate the attainment of power.

Likewise, Kennan was so concerned about US naivety that he drafted an entire paper on ‘The Inauguration of Organised Political Warfare’, which incensed his superiors at the Department of State to such an extent that it was greatly redacted and rendered ‘Top Secret’. Kennan even advocated the establishment of a Directorate of Political Warfare Operations to coordinate ‘the employment of all the means at the nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives, to further its influence and to weaken those of its adversaries.’ Both Spykman and Kennan articulated carefully why Americans had to be prepared to engage in (geo)politics, and with a degree of gusto, ruthlessness and determination not so dissimilar to that of their opponents.

Today, however, there are no Spykmans or Kennans, particularly among Europeans. In comparison to Russia’s gang of strongmen, European leaders are like little fairies: they prefer to extol their virtue instead of their power – nothing captures this better than the respective images of Herman van Rompuy’s delicate figure reciting poetry at a university podium and Mr. Putin hunting animals bare-chested in the forest. Yet this is not to say that a brutal thug is more valuable or better than an insightful poet: far from it. What it is to say is that creative and insightful societies must be ready to oppose the forces of aggression that seek their corruption and ultimate enslavement. They must be prepared to press their enemies down, to show them who is in command.

As nationalism and geopolitical competition gain traction in Eastern Europe and across Asia, and the progressively multipolar world becomes increasingly contested, it is imperative that European leaders and the broader Western community reconnect with some fundamental political principles:

Politics is not about administration; rather it is about constructing and/or maintaining a particular (geo)political system in the face of constant opposition from within as well as from without. It is about developing hegemony and literally crushing opposing visions, even within Western democracies. Tolerance can only go so far: Westerners already acknowledge that those who deviate from the accepted norms of the community can legitimately be arrested and imprisoned. That is why we do not tolerate rabble-rousers amongst us, namely Islamists like so-called ‘Islamic State’, communist revolutionaries or Neo-Nazis. All political forces are not equally legitimate: those who seek our destruction can themselves be legitimately terminated, using whatever means are necessary for the task.

We still have opponents and enemies who cannot simply be talked into being ‘reasonable’. ‘Islamic State’, for example, cannot be drawn into our political discourse because its worldview is antithetical to our own. Also, opponents have – like us – their own interests, derived from their respective worldviews, which, more often than not, will not be compatible with our own. Opponents are, by nature, dangerous, because they oppose our interests and our ideals. Therefore, we have both a right and a duty to carefully undermine and repress them using all our might.

During the closing weeks of the Second World War, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is said to have uttered: ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.’ It is unclear what he meant by this comment, though it has been widely interpreted as one of the first nods towards the ideological struggle taking shape between the Russians and the West, i.e. the Cold War. However, for an ‘empire of the mind’ to be realised, it must be delineated over geographical space. It cannot exist ‘out there’ in some kind of ideological cloud; ideologies that are not installed and protected on geographic space cannot last. This is why all politics is in one way or another geopolitics. It is thus necessary to reconnect ‘values’ or ‘ideas’ to ‘material interests’, and overcome the (equally widespread) perception that the former are noble and the latter are spurious.

Europeans must be more active, even pro-active in exercising their power. Our openness is our main source of strength. But it can also be a vulnerability. Our opponents know our societies present numerous entry points for them and they are working out how to corrupt us – to weaken us – from within: divide et impera (divide and rule). The best way to protect ourselves against the threat of external penetration is to know our enemies, foresee and preempt their attacks, and exploit their vulnerabilities. We need to be more pro-active in convincing ourselves that globalisation has not done away with history, politics or conflict. Rather, it has made all those things potentially far more subtle and dangerous.

The challenges to the Western-inspired international order seem to have multiplied throughout this last year. European foreign policy analysts and pundits are having a field day commenting on the latest challenge or threat, whether it is the advance of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria; the melting of state authority in Libya or Mali; Russia’s attempt to reforge its imagined sphere of influence in Eastern Europe; or China’s increasing confidence in the Indo-Pacific. All these challenges matter, each in their own context. But arguably, the greatest threat Europeans face today comes not from without but from within. We seem to have forgotten, or at least turned away from, the primacy of (geo)politics. Europeans must change – and soon – if we are to remain prosperous and resilient in the ever uncertain world of the twenty-first century.

Vol. 6, No. 87 (2014)


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