What lies behind the armed conflicts that are currently devastating Syria and Ukraine? To what degree should foreign powers intervene? Is war inevitable? In the following panel discussion, Rob Riemen, Director of the Nexus Institute, moderates well-known politicians and intellectuals on the topic of war and its myriad dilemmas. This talk took place within the context of the recent Nexus Conference titled War and Peace. (The original transcript of this event has been edited for length).
Jean-Marie Guéhenno: The fundamental issue is actually this word “freedom”, which has so many definitions, ancient and modern. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe that freedom to survive, to endure must have content; it must be freedom for something you can define in books. And what we have seen since 1989 is a great vacuum in that respect–including in countries that have been liberated, so to speak, from dictatorships.
There was this idea that the invisible hand of the market would save all of us, as free individuals; that it would give us an answer to all of our issues–including the moral ones. And that has not been the case. What we have seen is a kind of death of politics, in that respect, because politics has been discredited by the “isms” that destroyed the 20th century. And now, in a way, politics is coming back under different guises. When we see these horrible extremists of the Islamic state, they’re occupying the vacuum of values, as are many movements around the world. And that is what is dangerous. I think if we want to get out of the Dark Ages, we need to have a more positive and clear view of ourselves. If we are not able to define who we are, then others will do it against us. And then we will be in trouble, as we are now.
William Fallon: We all have to get engaged, particularly those of us who share these ideals of humanism and freedom. These things that we hold quite dear, they’re not going to continue, in my opinion, if we just take them for granted and assume that things will continue, that people will take an enlightened view and somehow, it will all work out. It will only work out if we take active steps to do just that. I think that right now, at this stage–and I’ll speak for my own country–we have a lot of work to do. We have a huge responsibility, in my opinion, to use the leadership that we have been granted by many in the world, that we have assumed. We have a responsibility to use it wisely, actively, and correctly. And if we’re going to do that, then we in the U.S. need to have credibility. We have lost a lot of our credibility for many reasons in the last decade or two. We need to regain it.
Dan Diner: Where is Germany going? Will Germany stay, if the conflict with Russia of Western Europe and the United States heats up? Because I have the feeling that Germany today is very uncertain and very uneasy about present developments. If you will allow me a micro-perspective on German affairs: suddenly, a new party popped up, the Alternative for Germany [Alternative für Deutschland], and immediately gained 10%, or even more, of the vote in regional elections in Saxony, Thüringen, and Brandenburg. And that party is very reluctant concerning European integration, especially the Euro. They are, interestingly enough, pro-Russian, and they combine this with being critical of European degradation, especially the Euro–which brought about German domination in Europe!
Rob Riemen: If you were President Obama, what would you do?
Lilia Shevtsova: I would try to address the American nation and the world. I would try to play Pope Francis, urbi et orbi. First of all, I would try to create the impression that I’m not leading from behind. Secondly, I would try to say to ordinary Americans, in very simple words: “Folks, you know what? We have the reached the tipping point.” I would say, “We are in a disaster already, because the international order is unraveling.” And I’m very glad that Jean-Marie will try to reenergize it, but you know, shit is coming. And we cannot rely upon the global government, because it doesn’t exist. The Security Council is blocked by the right to veto. And the whole structure, the whole architecture is a leftover of the Second World War. That was a long time ago, and all the principles have been undermined recently. There was the Westphalian state, the Yalta Agreement, the Helsinki Agreement, and so on. Now none of that exists.
And my second thought would be to reintroduce the dimension of values into foreign policy. Everybody, especially after Iraq, I’m sorry to say, forgot about values. As if it were a kind of leprosy, or whatever. But I would try to persuade the world to listen to this issue of values. When the American President says “values”, it sounds something like regime change. Because everyone understands that America is like a duck in a very small room with glass windows, and every time it wakes, the tail breaks the windows. So I would talk about humility.
And thirdly, I would try to formulate the idea of returning America to Europe and reviving transatlantic partnership. Maybe without words–and by the way, I like the words “consent of democracy,” but maybe not everybody would accept this term. And I would return to the tradition of the Marshal Plan. In order to persuade the Americans and the world–which is suspicious of Americans, the world does not like Americans for many reasons–I would try to do something practical. I would present the idea of giving Ukraine the status of “American ally” without waiting for NATO membership. I would find, and I can find, persuasive arguments so that President Putin will agree to the peace-keeping forces along the border of Ukraine and Russia that are consistent with non-allied nations.
James Rubin: Essentially, the idea is that difficult things won’t happen without America’s playing a leadership role. Easy things can happen. We can solve certain trade rules, certain problems. But when something difficult comes along, American leadership is indispensable. This doesn’t mean that America can do it all by itself. It doesn’t mean that America is the policeman. But I think we’ve gone through a pendulum swing over the last, say, fifteen years, and we’ve reached this point where America thought–with all due respect, Paul–that it could reach across the world 10,000 miles and overthrow a regime. Whether you agree that it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do, we did it badly. We lost respect both for the decision to do it, but also for the fact that we did it badly. It took years and years of slogging on the ground to end up with the Islamic State, and we have to go back and figure out what to do. And that’s ten years after the invasion. So whatever you think of the decision to go in, whatever you think of Saddam Hussein, this was not a highly competent operation.
Afghanistan, Kosovo, World War II, the Korean War –America’s military power was highly respected. Deterrence was working: before we invaded Iraq, Iran was rushing to make a deal with us. We lost all that. And that’s the terrible tragedy that has made our indispensable nation more difficult to operate. And that’s the real tragedy of Iraq: right or wrong, it has ruined America’s self-confidence and other countries’ confidence in America.
There was a time when America was able to gather together a group of democracies, and deal with mass murder in Kosovo, overthrow Milošević. And we prevented genocide, we had a post-war plan, and we had legitimacy. That’s what “indispensable nation” means. It doesn’t mean reaching out 10,000 miles and overthrowing a regime. On the other hand–and this is where the pendulum problem is–it also doesn’t mean pulling out of Iraq without thinking through the consequences. Putting troops into Afghanistan and pulling them out before you even finish getting them in. Trying to lead from behind in Libya. I think Paul Wolfowitz was right–we didn’t need to lead from behind in Libya. We didn’t need to create a new theory so that America, the leader of NATO, would allow Britain and France to take the lead. They did a really good job in using military power to overthrow Qaddafi. But then: Nothing.
You needed to make a deal with the rebels that if we give you some air power, you have to be prepared to put your weapons down when we succeed. We need to have a peacekeeping force; we need to have a post-war plan. Then America could be the indispensable nation, could guide NATO, and Libya wouldn’t have been a disaster because the rationale was there. We prevented a terrible atrocity from happening. But we had no plan, because we were leading from behind. Britain and France were well intentioned, but they didn’t have the wherewithal. So Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and then Syria are the great abdication of American responsibility.
Whatever you think of America as the indispensable nation, all those millions of refugees think we could have made a big difference in those first six months by changing the calculus of the Syrian military, letting them know that the United States was going to engage–either through arm-and-train, or selected airstrikes, or whatever. We had a mass murder of 200,000 people, and the last time they took notes and wrote down how they tortured these people was on this continent, and it was Germany that did it. It’s a horrible thing that’s going on under a fascist regime–and Damascus and the world has done nothing but come up with all these reasons: “Well, Assad, you know we might need him in our fight against ISIS. It could be worse; there could be chaos.” It’s really hard to imagine anything worse than a leader torturing, murdering, taking notes, and photographing hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. And the United States did nothing.
So that’s the other side of the pendulum. And I would like to think there’s something in between. And that something in between, however you want to define it, is the indispensable nation.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno: What we see in the Middle East, the hardening of the position of Saudi Arabia, the hardening of Israel, all that points to a fundamental fact: there is no more reassurance. I believe it is Richard Haas who once coined the phrase “the reluctant sheriff”. When there is no sheriff, then every country in the world begins to feel it is on its own.
And that’s a very dangerous situation because, you see, whether you want to have a successful negotiation with Iraq or de-escalation in the whole region of the Middle East, you need countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to come to some accommodation. But it’s much harder if they don’t sense that behind them there is an enforcer who will stabilize things. And that, I think, is something that we see all around the world. A sense that the U.S. is there, but you’re not sure it’s there.
Masafumi Ishii: What separates me from the rest of the panel is, I’m the only guy from the East. And I’m the only active governmental official. So I have to be careful, otherwise [throat-slicing gesture]. But I’m just tempted to follow up on James’ point about “somewhere in between”. First, I do hope somebody will be able to find that somewhere in between, because we are still relying on you and you are, in our mind, still the only superpower in the world. From the perspective of military strength, the only superpower. From the perspective of curiosity–getting involved in difficult conflicts; being ready to make difficult concessions and criticisms and follow through to find the solution. So I do still believe that the U.S. is indispensable when it comes to the solution of difficult issues. But it is no longer sufficient. You need cooperation from other countries. That’s it. It is not the “lone sheriff”. We need a group of sheriffs–led by the United States. We are talking about 1.3 billion in China, 1.2 billion in India–both of which are rising. This inevitably comes with a transition in the balance of power.
Lilia Shevtsova: It seems to me that the war in Ukraine–and this is war, this is not simply an incursion of the bear into Ukrainian territory. This is the annexation of the territory of a European state with 45 million people. The war has already affected many lives, and not only in Ukraine. Regretfully and sadly, it has affected the lives of the people of the Netherlands as well. We have not only the expansionist desire of some mediocre guy in the Kremlin, we have–I don’t like this “clash of civilizations” term, and I thought that Huntington was wrong, wrong, wrong–but now I’m going back to this term, “clash of civilizations”. In Ukraine we have the Russian system, the system of war, and unfortunately, we cannot survive any other way. We are a war civilization and we, the liberal minority, have failed to change that system.
And, you know, the West pretends that nothing is happening. The West never produces the word “aggression” or “war”. Pretending–you know–that life is as usual, business as usual. And so the blurring of the border between war and peace in our time triggers many wars. Because, well, if there is peace and at the same time, there is war, and nobody acknowledges that there is war, and there is no punishment for crimes, you can go forever. So this is the difference, and our time is much more dangerous than the previous era.
Rob Riemen: This country was deeply shocked by what happened on July 17th, but I can assure you that just by reading the newspapers, Ukraine is not part of our public discussion. Of course, there are troubles everywhere. But your troubles are not our troubles. So as for your idea that it is a war against the West, well, it is not being experienced as a war against the West.
Lilia Shevtsova: Do you think that the West needs more evidence in favor of my argument?
Rob Riemen: It is an eternal discussion, as old as the Greeks, about geopolitics and international affairs: realism versus idealism. Should international affairs politics ideally be based on defending your own interests, and nothing more than that? Which probably is now the case. Or idealism, which suggests that basic values at stake and that there is a kind of moral obligation to take action?
Jean-Marie Guéhenno: Idealism is realism, because ideas are fundamental. Ideas can kill and ideas can do a lot of good. And to ignore the power of ideas is extremely dangerous. I think it is up to the idealists to integrate their ideas in the game of global politics. But the notion that there are interests that are distinct from ideas, I think every country constructs its own idea of itself. It is an imagined community, to quote a famous author.
If you don’t realize that, if you don’t realize the power of ideas, you are not a real realist, because you are just looking at a very small set of factors that influence the behavior of countries. So I don’t oppose idealism and realism.
Rob Riemen: Paul, I would like to ask you: The Iraq War, was it an act of idealism or realism?
Paul Wolfowitz: I think you can’t underestimate the extent to which it was seen as a real danger confronting the United States after September 11th. Al-Qaeda is a different issue–but Iraq was clearly a state sponsor of terrorism in a rather vicious and dangerous way. And in fact, the group that now calls itself ISIS grew out of the terrorist al-Zarqawi, who was operating in Iraq even before we went in there. I happen to agree with Jamie that an awful lot of mistakes were made. And the fact is, I think, we finally got around to having an effective counter-insurgency strategy, and therefore we got to a point where things are reasonably stable. I think it was a real mistake, and an unnecessary mistake, to leave. And that has created chaos in its wake. But I would say it was much more about a sense of U.S. national interest.
The question of idealism, if you like, comes in with Afghanistan. If you’ve actually gone in and removed a regime, what do you replace it with? And I think the notion that we could have re-installed some Sunni dictatorship in the wake of what we had done was not a realistic alternative. So I say, even in that respect, I think what Jean-Marie said is absolutely right. Ideals are part of the real world, and how people think and how they choose to govern themselves is part of the real world. Whether Iraqis could have risen to that challenge… in some sense the Kurds, who were almost as badly abused as everyone else, rose to that challenge back in 1991. In Syria, I think we’ve repeated to some extent the mistake of 1991. I don’t mean that in 1991 that we should have gone to Baghdad, I don’t think that was ever a good idea to consider.
But we allowed some hundred thousand, maybe two hundred thousand, Shia to be slaughtered by Saddam’s army when we controlled everything that moved on the ground and could have stopped it. I think you might have had a sort of southern Iraq that would have been as successful as northern Iraq.
One other thing: It’s been mentioned a lot here how countries deal with their past, and when their past is as ugly and brutal as it’s been in Iraq or as it now is going to be in Syria, that’s an enormous challenge. South Africa is, among other things, remarkable for Mandela’s wisdom in finding a way to bring all the oppressors back into the tent, if you like, but with a form of justice that was called Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, where if they confessed their crimes, people were more or less forgiven. South Africa is unique; each country is unique. But I think, as I said in my remarks, it is impossible to exaggerate the damage that has been done by these regimes of fear and terror.
And perhaps, to some extent, that’s an aftermath in Ukraine as well–I don’t know Ukraine. But Jean-Marie is right that Ukraine, a healthy Ukraine, has to be part of any solution here. But frankly, a healthy Ukraine is what Putin is afraid of. He didn’t go into Crimea because Ukraine was failing; he went to Crimea because Ukraine had thrown out a man very much like him whom he had helped to install. And I have to disagree with you on one point: You said we have seen the limits of military power. Unfortunately, Putin is now demonstrating the effectiveness of military power, and I think that’s what makes him so dangerous.
Dan Diner: I think–and I might err, because I’m not very close to the policy makers–that it was the European Union that brought about the conflict in Ukraine. This kind of association and integration: the Europeans are marching as if nothing happened. In the 90’s, suddenly the European Union started to rise again. I just want to remind you that in the 80’s, it was a different world; one of debt and concern over European integration. People spoke about rural sclerosis, there was no horizon of expectation anymore until suddenly: 1989, 1990, 1991, and there was a European project to integrate and modernize the former Eastern European countries.
And the European Union continued that policy concerning Ukraine, making it suddenly evident that there is a problem concerning the architecture of the European Union. You are modernizing, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful perspective. A wonderful task. But what about policy? What about security policy? What about the consequences and your responsibility concerning Ukraine? So suddenly, Ukraine became (at least I would put it like that) the question of Europe. It’s a question for Russia to define itself, and it is a question for Europe to define itself. And so far, it’s not a problem of pragmatic policy. It’s not a question of this or that conflict moment. It goes much, much deeper. It’s a question of definition, of self-definition.
And so far, it has opened horizons of expectations and fear: what is going to happen? It is not a conflict that will pass by. It is something that goes very, very deep. And, well, Ukraine might be reluctant toward European integration. Which brings me back to my first intervention, regarding the question of Germany and its relation to Russia.
James Rubin: Lilia and I were in a conference about the Conference of Vienna in World War I, in 2014. There’s a big difference: it’s called nuclear weapons. And we don’t talk about it very much. But here in Europe, I suspect it drives a lot of the decision-making about how far they will go in confronting the Russians. Because they fear what will happen with the next step. What if they go into the Baltics, what if we respond militarily? What if they say, “If you respond militarily, we will use nuclear weapons?”
And we hear of these conversations from Vladimir Putin, dropped selectively to different people designed to scare the very politicians you’re talking about. Designed with the express purpose of generating fear on their part, so that when we consider how much pressure we will place on Putin, Angela Merkel decides that we can’t violate the 1996 agreement with Russia in which we agreed not to put bases in Poland or the Baltics. But that agreement has been thrown out of the water, jumped on, and ripped into seventeen pieces by the Russians by invading Ukraine. And we’re worried about our part of it.
At a minimum, it seems to me, we could signal our determination to defend the Baltics, and you may not be very happy, people, that we made this decision. Maybe it was one of the dumbest things that NATO ever did, but we did it. And our obligation now is to have clarity, and make sure that the other side is sure that they know what we’re going to do, because if we don’t have that level of clarity, we create the possibility of a terrible crisis. They have to know what we will do. They have to know we will defend the Baltics and by placing a base there, we will show them that we will defend them. And then Putin will know that’s a line too far.
If we don’t do that, if we worry about irritating the Russians, then he might misinterpret our willingness to defend the Baltics. He might do something and we might have to defend the Baltics anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to draw our line where we mean it? We’ve already signed a treaty that says we will go to war for the Baltics. And it seems to me if we won’t defend that line, we’ve got a much, much bigger problem.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno: What worries me a bit is the gap, not on this panel, but in the general discussion, between the rhetoric of universal commitments and the reality of rather limited commitments. And that is a very dangerous set of positions that really makes things more dangerous.
I saw it firsthand in Syria, when I was working with Kofi Annan. I could see those officers from the Free Syrian Army were convinced at the time that NATO was going to come and save them. And I was telling them that this was very unlikely to happen. And so there, with that kind of rhetoric, you raise expectations. You make any negotiation more difficult, because the parties believe that they’re going to be saved from the air. And when the disappointment comes, well, what happens is, as one of those officers was telling me, “If you’re right, Mr. Guéhenno, someday we’ll put on a suicide vest.” Well, that’s where we are now. So I would caution also for Ukraine. We have to know exactly what we are prepared to do and what we are not prepared to do. Because that rhetoric is dangerous.
I’m totally convinced that it’s essential to uphold the commitments of the NATO alliance; that we have to do our best to stabilize Ukraine; but Ukraine is not a member of NATO and we must not pretend it is in our rhetoric. Because if we do that, at the hour of truth, then things will not happen and that’s even more dangerous. So I think we have to tone things down a bit.
Lilia Shevtsova: One more question: Are we ready to modernize? Are we ready for the 21st century? A number from the polls: 37% of Russians would like to think that the interests of individuals are far more important than the interests of the State. So less than half, but still a lot of people–millions and millions of Russians –consider that they can live in a rule-of-law State.
The problem is, we lost the dream. We had a dream: by the end of the 80’s, that dream was to join Europe. Europe was a kind of paradise with freedoms, dignity, wellbeing, etcetera,–all nice things. But now, when we look at old, retired, Westerners… I am not sure about American politicians, but European politicians definitely, are standing in a queue, knocking at Gazprom’s door and offering their services. Not only Chancellor Schroeder or Finnish Prime Minister Lipponen, but so many others, you know? I have a list of 40 political leaders and personalities from Europe who are members of Russian companies with very fuzzy biographies. So, we lost our dream because we think Europe may be in decay, maybe not, but this is not the ideal that we should strive for. If you practice what you preach, then it would be a great source of support for us.