Like a thief in the night

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Lucio Caracciolo

1. The westernisation of the globe has failed. The thirty-year arc from America’s victory over the Soviet Union to Russia’s invasion of the de-facto Atlantist Ukraine traces the sunset of that stars-and-stripes dawn that had mesmerised the world in the post-Berlin-Wall era. Yet that logical and geopolitical oxymoron conceived by feverish American neo-cons was common sense until the day before yesterday. Today that truth is neither believed nor wanted by most Americans themselves. Not even by the sharpest of the living neo-cons, Francis Fukuyama, who applied the definitive label to the Americanisation of the world in 1992: The End of History. But already in 2006 he perjured himself: ‘We do not want to live in a world in which we have the same universal values based on some kind of globalized Americanism.’ The end of history is us Europeans bamboozled in contemplation of our ‘gentle’ civilisation while outside the forest burns. The villa in the jungle congratulates itself while the jungle rampages through the villa.

In the absence of alternative hegemons, the succession to the utopia of the global West – the foundation on which the American empire rests – will be slow, painful, precarious. Big War is an expression of this phenomenon in its war-like dimension, capable of igniting World War III. But historians would not have the time to classify it as such as it would probably coincide with the end of humanity – the exact opposite of the end of history. The stars-and-stripes primacy is under attack, from outside but above all from within, and shaken by the existential doubt: “Who are we?” Challenging this primacy are Chinese resurgence, Russian revanchism, and the bewilderment of Washington’s Old Europe satellites, among which shines Italy – three vectors that backfire on America’s yearnings for planetary hegemony.

When, in an unknowable future, the stars-and-stripes Alpha will fade into Omega, we will discover that along with Number One’s imperial fatigue, the decisive factor will not have been Chinese arrogance or Russian despair, but the collapse of the European front. A fair-weather friend, Europe gets bewildered when it clouds over, and runs away when the storm begins. But without the Old Continent, the stars-and-stripes empire becomes meaningless.

This is, in essence, the classic analysis. It’s useful because it’s synthetic. Then again, it is entrenched in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century paradigms dear to the last believers in the possibility that the planet can be put in order. Like Late Antiquity polytheists veering towards Christianity, they imagine they are “stuffing the world into breeches” (to borrow the metaphor employed by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci) as they did in Vienna or at Yalta. Henry Kissinger, the equivalent of Julian the Apostate, is the now-hundred-years-old counter-current prophet who insists, as an idealist masquerading as a sinister Realpolitiker, on the possibility of World Order for the very good reason that it is necessary. This is noble utopianism, but it’s out of season. In the histories, to which Kissinger deservedly exhorts us, there is the season of order, when balances are sanctioned by settled conflicts, and there is the season of disorder, in which one fights for another order. The novelty is that unlike the double World War (1914-45), the collision of the three empires is unlikely to produce a universal Grundgesetz, a geopolitical constitution agreed between the powers. The reason is that the powers are turning out to be extraordinarily powerless, no longer able to reduce the complexity of the system, not even of the fraction of the system, that they claim to govern.

2. It is moving to reread the opening of Diplomacy, the summa of Kissinger’s thought: in 1994 he intuited, for those willing to read beyond the text, the path to Big War. Did Castlereagh’s emulator realise the consequences implicit in his thesis that America can no longer dominate the world nor alienate itself from it? The opening lines of that masterpiece punctuated the cadences of the cyclical partition of history, a phenomenon that was unfolding before our eyes like the finishing line of a relay race: ‘Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values. In the seventeenth century, France under Cardinal Richelieu introduced the modern approach to international relations, based on the nation-state and motivated by national interests as the ultimate purpose. In the eighteenth century, Great Britain elaborated the concept of the balance of power, which dominated European diplomacy for the next 200 years. In the nineteenth century, Metternich’s Austria reconstructed the Concert of Europe and Bismarck’s Germany dismantled it, reshaping European diplomacy as a cold-blooded game of power politics’. The list culminates with the rise of America in the twentieth century, an ambiguous superpower swinging between the ambition to stand as a beacon of humanity and the temptation to impose its values on the unwilling. By dint of swinging between benign moralism and warrior spirit, this America identifies with neither. No other power can take its place. If you have no one to whom to yield the baton, then two hypotheses follow: you either hold it as long as you can or you let it fall to the ground. This is what Big War is all about.

In order to grasp its meaning and possible drifts, we cannot limit ourselves to reading it within the Cartesian axes of international relations studies and in the academic versions of the distribution of power purged of all historical traces. These are models that arose in the late-nineteenth-century Age of Standards, when positivist winds and faith in progress were blowing strong. This was the time of the triumph of conventional weights and measures, from International Law, inaugurated with the first Geneva Convention (1864), to the Sèvres metre (1872), from time zones (1884) to the Greenwich meridian (1885). These were rules perfected in the second half of the twentieth century, enveloped in typically Western universalism, a mild continuation of the ‘civilising mission’ inscribed in European colonialism, especially in the secularist French version, and certified by the hierarchy of, first, European and, then, American powers. Washington deserves credit for having merged the dissonant geopolitical hermeneutics and divergent value anthologies that inspired Europeans and Americans into the American-led Atlantist system: “the West”. But the “rules-based international order” – English for Pax Americana – is inedible for the Rest, the vast majority of humans. So it seems less attractive even to us privileged people of the European West, unwilling to impose it by force of arms. Pavlovian reflexes of that paradigm remain, whereby conflicting geopolitical actors industriously legitimise wars and other horrors with daring references to the UN Charter or other folding material dressed up as humanitarian cosmopolitanism. It’s but mere embellishment of power relations.

The relative powerlessness of the powerful complicates the analysis. It implies including the factors that hinder the reduction of complexity that such disputes aim at, thus exciting the entropy of the ‘system’. (The inverted commas denote its decadence.) These factors are, above all, demography, environment, and widespread epidemics (the pandemics).

One does not manage a planet of eight billion humans, with more than two hundred states and several thousand relevant informal or non-state actors, the same way one did in 1914, when a handful of European empires shared out with the nascent American colossus a world populated by less than two billion souls. Of which more than half were treated as sub-humans, in accordance with the racist hierarchies of the time. The demographic asymmetries and gaps in the median age between contiguous actors and continents – the most obvious case being the Euro-African fault that divides Chaosland from Orderland close to Italy’s border with the Libyas – will decide in the medium term what happens in terms of actual or latent conflicts. And they will force a retouching of the borders between the two hemispheres. 

Nor can the drastic alterations to the environment brought about by man and climate change, or the ensemble of the relationships between them, be described using nineteenth- and twentieth-century paradigms, when such urgencies were not even contemplated. Geopolitics advises against falling prey to the simplistic call for ‘global solutions to global problems’. The opposite is true: the asymmetric impact of climate change can only produce specific contrastive reactions. Consider the case of the Arctic route, a covert but central issue in Big War, where melting ice exalts Russian enthusiasm for future control of the cheapest oceanic connection between Asia, Europe, and America, while triggering opposing concerns in Beijing and Washington.

As for the ‘pandemic’, that’s to say the Covid-19 massacre, the geopolitical and economic repercussions are all too evident, starting with the closure of external and internal borders and the building of walls in polite, highly civilised ‘united’ Europe and elsewhere. Less visible, but perhaps more important and lasting, are the psychological and cultural effects of the ‘other virus’, a mass mental contagion that alters the choices of decision-makers, who are turning out to be less decisive than in the past.

Finally, Big War is also hot. And hot war threatens to escape human calculation thanks to the application of artificial intelligence in command and control technologies. We are about to cross the threshold of autonomous weapons – weapons that are incompatible with strategy. What will the point be of deterrence in cyber warfare governed by the principles of artificial intelligence if warfare is removed from human control? Is there still time to arrest the drift? On the answer depends whether humanity will have a future.

All the more reason to probe the Ukrainian war front, a theatre tragically suspended between old and new styles of warfare where the human factor, the salt of geopolitics, is saturated with history. Or, rather, with irreconcilable histories that cannot be shared, to boot. It’s too close to the Europeans, too directed towards the Russian-American head-on clash, and too unpredictable not to force us to dig out its roots. 

3. One day the war in Ukraine will be suspended, but it won’t be over. The clash of civilisations between the West and Russia; the conflict of a developing nation’s emancipation from an empire in decay but unwilling to abdicate its status; the bloody match between Russian and Ukrainian mafias and oligarchies in an unstable regional context: these are the main dimensions of the war in Ukraine, with roots going back to 1914 if not much further back, to exclude peace from the near horizon. The lovers of classifications will want to include it in the category of karst wars, which appear on the surface and then disappear from view but continue to follow their course underground, like disappearing rivers. From Kashmir to the Koreas, from Cyprus to the Balkans, there are many examples, none of which, however, is comparable to the destructive potential of the Russian-Ukrainian karst. For those who put archival science before amateur analytics, we propose alternative considerations on how the conflict could possibly cease.

Let us clear the field of the conceivable apocalyptic outcomes: the end of Ukraine, the end of Russia, or both. In order of (im)probability, given the asymmetry of resources that favours the Russians and is so far offset by the massive military, financial, and propaganda aid that America and associates are offering Kiev – though this aid should not be considered constant at all. It does happen that a country supports the cause of others, but it will never take it as seriously as its own. Not forever, anyway. Russia does not have this problem. Putin quotes Alexander III: ‘We have only two allies: our army and our fleet’. We remain therefore in the realm of suspension, which will occur when both sides either want it to or have to consider it less unacceptable than endless confrontation.

Suspension will not restore the status quo ante. First of all, because Moscow and Kiev differ on what this is. Is it the situation prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea, as Zelenskyj and US diplomacy insist, in tune with the majority of states? Or is it the situation prior to the 24 February invasion, a thesis dear to Kissinger, other Western ‘realists’ and factions of the stars-and-stripes Deep State hinged on the Pentagon? Secondly, because the truce would stem from the conviction of both that bleeding each other dry in so many mini-Verduns makes no sense once it is established that no one can totally prevail. The provisional partition line – along which international observers will line up (a profession that promises to be rich in the future for young people seeking employment) – will not reproduce either version. The line will violate internationally-recognised borders, in favour of Russia and affiliated statelets. Paradoxically, those borders were invented by the Soviets, by the changing will of Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev. Independent Ukraine inherited the dependent space created and adapted in Soviet fashion, which was then formalised into a sovereign state by a 1991 referendum. The state preceded the nation. The ethno-cultural mosaic framed in the former administrative borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was from its birth the scene of clashes of power between irreducibly opposed oligarchs and regional potentates, concentrated mainly but not only in the Donbas. The motto of Bolshevik Ukraine was: “Workers of the world unite!” The informal one of the new Ukraine on its way to emancipation from Moscow is and will be: “Ukrainians of the whole country unite!”

Putin’s contribution to the Ukrainian national cause will one day be recognised. In the meantime, it is a question of what borders will be able to unite a sufficiently cohesive Ukrainian population that in the resistance against the Moscow invader and its domestic fifth columns will have earned the stripes of the truly independent and sovereign nation – being admitted into America’s European empire. The dispute over Ukraine’s entry into NATO is over because NATO has entered Ukraine, to stay. Were it not like this, a cessation of hostilities would be impossible or very short-lived, as the Russians would immediately turn on Kiev, a thorn in Putin’s side.

The ceasefire line will not reproduce the dreams of the neo-Russians, either. Without Odessa there is no New Russia. But if Putin were to take Odessa we would risk World War III. The US could not accept such humiliation. The increasingly limited support for Kiev would become unlimited or almost unlimited.

Today, one fifth of Ukrainian territory is in Russian hands. If this were to increase or decrease in the coming months, it would mean a step towards total war. It would then be sealed by a Carthaginian peace, with either Kiev sprinkled with Russian salt or Moscow destroyed by American nukes. Thus, the truce will freeze a front line not too different from the current one. Diplomacy cannot overturn the ruling made by weapons. At most, it can soften it in order to stabilise it.

In this scenario, Ukraine will lose part of the territory it inherited from the USSR. Since we are dealing with a truce and not peace, this excludes the renunciation by treaty of the 1991 borders, which would be tantamount to an admission of defeat. In this war of religion, no Ukrainian leader can afford to sign the renunciation of Crimea and the Donbas, much less his Russian counterpart, whether Putin or his fictitious liberal-democratic successor. In order to substantiate the truce and evolve towards a Cypriot- or Korean-style freezing of the conflict – a point of convergence between idealism and realism – a shift of emphasis is needed: from the land to those who inhabit it. The human factor determines the viability, understood in the diplomatic sense, of a state in the long run. What Ukraine would lose in space, it would gain in the return of refugees and displaced persons, hence in stability and national cohesion – both conditions for reconstruction on serious institutional foundations. This would be a prerequisite for liberation from endemic corruption and the arbitrariness of the oligarchs, without sliding towards the consolidation of authoritarian practices to which Ukraine is now obliged by the war. It would also be a pledge to Western-Europe integration. 

If this were the truce, what post-war scenario would it herald? British analyst Samir Puri predicts that the Ukrainian equivalent of the two Germanies would ensue. Of course, argues Puri, partition is a horrible prospect for Ukraine. But would ceding Crimea and the Donbas preclude the rest of central and western Ukraine from joining the European Union? Would cities like Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Kiev be able to become cosmopolitan hubs attracting European reconstruction funds, while Donesk, Luhansk, and Mariupol remain within Russia? Dominic Lieven, a British aristocrat from a family of Baltic-German princes and historian of the Russian Empire and Ukrainian affairs, is straightforward about it: ‘My ideal scenario – it’s not going to happen, of course – would be that Ukraine conquered every inch of its territory back to the 1991 frontier, staged referenda in Crimea and at least in the eastern Donbas, and then if, as would probably happen, those referenda went for Russia, get rid of these people [from Ukraine]’. More plainly: ‘If the Ukrainians did somehow get back Crimea, it would simply be a never-ending source of danger and conflict. It’s flatly against Ukraine’s interest to take back Crimea. (…) What you want inside your territory, to the extent possible, are citizens loyal to the state. The last thing you want is some constantly dissatisfied minority, with an inevitably, in the long run, more powerful neighbor on the other side of your eastern frontier who’s going to get excited on their behalf. (…) The eastern Donbas is Europe’s biggest rust belt, which has now been fought over for X years. I really don’t think Ukraine gains very much from recovering territories of that sort, in which nowadays in eastern Ukraine, most of the population, by definition, are likely to be pro-Russian, or they wouldn’t be there any longer.’

The same argument could apply to the Russians. If the Donbas is indeed a pile of rust, why should Moscow take it on? The fact is that Russian arithmetic is not the alphabet of us Western European followers of economicism. When the war drops its ferrous curtain on the Sarmatian steppes, there’s only vodka and mysticism to nourish the Russian spirit. Trenin notes that there is an upheaval in Russia’s cultural community, the first step of the move away from the culture of entertainment and consumption, towards the culture of service and understanding of what life is all about, of man’s destiny, a return to the tradition of the home of the Russians, which pays more attention to the intangible.

A ceasefire is certainly not in sight. Not in Russia, where Putin hopes to break through the front to impose on the West the conditions of a ceasefire that would sanction Russia’s renewed hegemony over its Ukrainian ‘brothers’. Less so in Poland and among the peoples of the anti-Russian vanguard extended between Scandinavia and the Black Sea. This is the extremist phalanx. It is well represented in the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, devoted to the ‘decolonisation’ of Putin’s Federation. In the words of the former Polish Foreign Minister, Anna Fotyga: ‘The dissolution of the Russian Federation is far less dangerous than leaving it ruled by criminals’. Such are not only Putin and his band of ‘terrorists’, but Russian regimes of all times and colours. So, first defeat Russia, and then break it up into ‘free and independent states’. And then what?

4. Unlike geophysics, geopolitics does not have a theory of seismic cycles that allows one to hazard a guess as to the duration and extent of earthquakes. But the flashes of war that cast a sinister light on the collision of geopolitical faults allow certain trends to be grasped.

The main trend is the progressive unification of the battlefields. For geologists, we are approaching the cosismic stage of earthquakes. The transition from Big War to Third World War advances in the remarkable recklessness or impotence of the powers that could avert it. So much so as to suspect that at the US, China, and Russia summits someone believes that all-out confrontation is inevitable because if their empire would not accept it, they would lose themselves. When one is convinced that war is inescapable one must delude oneself that one will emerge triumphant. And one must set up corresponding propaganda. Everything is black or white.  

The second trend follows directly from the first. Who is willing to die for the fatherland? When we study the human factor, this is the key question. Pending the production of a cartography of the main collectives’ (un)willingness to fight – a vital clue to establish who is more or less likely to win –, we can make a crude assessment that produces five, inter-linked, answers. 1. Going by median age, widespread prosperity, being used to peace, and the shrinking of the classes from which hailed twentieth-century combatants (namely, peasants and workers), Western Europeans are indicted as less willing to duel. 2. Russians and Americans, whose war pedigree together with the spread of weapons and the habit of using them stands out from the others, seem to have an advantage over the Chinese, who are not renowned for their warrior spirit and have only too recently come to the pleasures of comfort to let go of them so soon. 3. Since the end of the peace known as the Cold War, only two real wars have been fought in Orderland, both in the “Bloodlands” compressed between the American and Russian empires, where the dominant stock is Slavic and where the fiercest fighting of the two World Wars had raged. 4 The hour of mercenaries and proxy wars has come: not willing/capable to fight, we arm those who can and want to. 5. The algebraic sum of the previous factors indicates that the anthropological-cultural asymmetry between the competing actors cripples the ‘collective West’ and exposes it to the risk of heterodirection by mercenaries and communities called upon to sacrifice themselves in its name. Starting with the Ukrainian community, that is as reluctant to place its fate in the hands of the American friend as it is reluctant to renounce its support. We do not know how sustainable this split can be.

The third trend is that there is no going back. The status quo ante is irretrievable. Europeans would do well to get this into their heads, as they struggle to live with the idea that the second belle époque has passed and will never return. It is legitimate to hope and obligatory to work so that it does not end as the first one did, when it abruptly slipped from enchanted peace to ‘useless slaughter’. The Russians know that the glamurnye nulevye, the magical early 2000s, are for the scrapbook. Ukrainians shed tears and blood, sustained by the force of despair or driven into dispersion away from their homeland because they no longer hope and do not know if and when they will again be entitled to hope. Our humanly understandable inability to tune in to reality exposes us to the prospect of caving in, as states and nations, if simply touched by hot war.

The fourth and strategic trend concerns the credibility crisis of the supposed ‘American umbrella’ that would protect Atlantic Europeans. It takes an act of faith to believe the US is willing to risk atomic holocaust to defend Atlantist partners everywhere. There is a hierarchy implicit in the American vision of Europe. Washington might engage in nuclear exchange if Moscow destroyed London or even Paris. But what if the target were Germany or Italy? Let’s not even mention the ‘minor’ countries, starting with the Baltic countries. As for Ukraine, the question mark is huge. In Kiev they know, having experienced it, that Western guarantees have limits. The result is that everyone arms themselves. Those who do not have atomic bombs but could afford them, think aloud about the need to equip themselves with them, starting with Germany. However, the accelerated pace of war clashes with the ambitions of the Germans, let alone the Italians, to equip themselves with armies and weapons that can be used in real war. Let us not talk about nuclear deterrence, since it is not given that the elegant equations of Soviet-American bipolarity still apply. 

Depressing but not surprising is the way the Italians deal with the emergency. Impressionistic communication prevails in the media that reduces the war to a sequence of horrors – it adds up only to crime news, bereft of historical perspective or a glance at the future. It’s the structural deficit of statehood that entails the inhibition of strategic thinking; the habit shared by three generations of considering peace a human right impervious to approaching storms; the ecumenical background of Italian society that is unwilling to admit the existence of enemies and is surprised if others consider Italy as such: everything conspires to inaction or manoeuvres reminiscent of the Bourbon monarchy.

While waiting to crack the Buddhist practice that turns poison into medicine – again, the cursed lack of time – Italy could rediscover the art of diplomacy, at which the Italians excel. Italy is not in a position to write the truce agenda. But contributing to a front of countries not only European, with a deep gaze towards the Mediterranean and Africa, capable of critical mass and therefore of influence over the Americans, Russians, and Chinese, should not seem impossible to the Italians. For some time the Italians have been drawing on the map of possible national strategic evolution a quadrilateral linking Rome to Berlin, Paris, and Madrid. The Italians are different, agreed, but less so than other Atlantist Europeans. They participate in Western Europe civilisation, some by birth, some when they joined, though later than others, but they do not claim exclusivity. In recent years Italy has woven and almost completed – the Italy-Germany segment is still missing, locked away in a drawer from which it would be advisable to take it out – a web of treaties and bilateral agreements, albeit less ambitious than the model established in 1963 at the Elysée Palace by de Gaulle and Adenauer. Is it too much to imagine Italy inviting the Quartet to set up a permanent forum for peace (read: truce) open to all and designed to suggest the minimum conditions for a long suspension of the war? Whereas it would not be the solution, it would still be a sign of the times. Some signs come when you least expect them. Like a thief in the night.

Lucio Caracciolo is editor-in-chief at Limes, Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica.

Part of this essay appeared on Limes n. 1/2023, «La guerra continua».

Translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi