By: Lucio Caracciolo
1. Yesterday ideology reigned, today identity does. It is this paradigm shift that marks the tempo of the grand masquerade ball we call history. It’s the history which triumphant America proclaimed the end of thirty years ago, when it proclaimed, with Hegelian certainty: the whole world is destined to become like us, sooner or later. Having stopped the stopwatch on the stars-and-stripes zero hour, all that was left to move was space, committed to catching up with time. No geopolitics, just dilating liberal-democratic ideology.
Alexandre Kojève, a genius manipulator of Hegel and probable agent of rival intelligence services as well as Francis Fukuyama’s posthumous inspiration, had anticipated this in 1962. Two years before rioting students in Berkeley, California, inebriated, as it were, with strawberries and blood, worked in vain to disprove him, Kojève stated: ‘the United States has already attained the stage of Marxist “communism,” seeing that, practically, all the members of a “classless society” can from now on appropriate for themselves everything that seems good to them (…) if the Americans give the appearance of rich Sino–Soviets, it is because the Russians and the Chinese are only Americans who are still poor (…) the “American way of life” [is] the type of life specific to the post–historical period, the actual presence of the United States in the world prefiguring the “eternal present” future of all of humanity.’
It was not history that ended, but rather its philosophy. Time and space are not separable. Least of all in geopolitics, a sport in which everyone runs on their own clock and wears a certain idea of themselves. The odds of the rest of the world catching up with America (or vice versa) are as good as Achilles racing with the tortoise. As George Smiley – a fictional British MI6 agent featured in the novels of a real spy who signed himself John Le Carré – put it in 1990: ‘The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in. So if my past were still around today, you could say I’d failed. But it’s not around. We won. Not that the victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. Or perhaps, without the bonds of ideological conflict to restrain us any more, our troubles are just beginning.’ The roundel is ours and expresses an emotional endorsement of the Smiley decree, in the certainty that Kojève will forgive us.
Le Carré later took Smiley’s decree to the next level with his own equally wise corollary: now that it is the only superpower, the United States will find out that altruistic wars will be part of its future. “Altruistic war” is the alternative name for wars fought on behalf of humanity, thus not in one’s own interest. It is normal when as the ‘only superpower’ – a resounding oxymoron – you self-identify with the world, but painful when the more you fight the more you discover that the world does not identify with you.
What better preventive definition than the 20-year-old “war on terror”, a monument to the lack of strategy that has been undermining America since 1991, when it became a monopoly power deprived of the suicidal Enemy? The “war on terror” is also a prologue of the Big War between the US, China, and Russia, with its endless ramifications, as well as a daughter of the transition from ideology to identity, the matrix and motive force of contemporary geopolitics. It remains to be established why the ideological era is over, and why it passed the baton to identity. A whole other world: ideology aggregates, identity disintegrates.
2. Whatever the air of the times, moved by the collision of ideological blocs or by fluid identity alignments, geopolitics does not cease to act. Sapienssapiens is a social species of individuals who are not always sociable, but organised in collectivities with a territorial vocation obsessed by the competition for control of material and immaterial spaces to be continually redelimited. Wherever they act, states and other human groupings endlessly draw and retrace the boundaries of what is theirs with what belongs to others. They change the ways, means, and masks of their respective ambitions.
Yet geopolitics was not discussed for about the almost half-century of peace known as Cold War, the supreme ideological era and ultimate form of world order founded on the compression of rivalries in the scheme approved by the two ordering powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, each with its constellation of satellites or inerts.
A state of exception that could not last, even though at the time many thought it was eternal. In fact, it imploded, because of a thousand reasons, of which only one was decisive: humanity is too vast and diverse to be reduced to the East-West scheme. After all, the East and the West together are a demographic minority. The world managed by two powers could work for the two billion humans who survived World War II but it could not work for the current eight (diagram).
Already two poles are too few to grasp the planet’s complexity, let alone one. The impossibility of a single pole results in the dissipation of American power. In the absence of alternatives – China is not an alternative, much less Russia – galloping disorder ensues. Lacking ideologies the bulk of humanity finds sufficiently attractive, protagonists and extras on the geopolitical scene resort to introverted narratives revolving around identity. These are necessary myths, no matter how (un)founded they might be. They are the immaterial putty of societies tending to be asocial. Identities are made of maniacally specific stories. Tailor-made clothes, wearable only by those who feel they belong to them. They’re nothing but badges.
During one of the interminable videotelephone sessions of geopolitical psychotherapy inflicted by Macron on Putin – the privilege of monarchs – the King of the French Republic exploded: ‘You are lying to yourself!’ That’s right. The emperor of not all the Russias has sewn himself, with the help of service “historians”, into a Nessus shirt soaked in a deadly poison: resentment. Towards America, the power that does not recognise him the deserved rank of leader of the great power Russia. A case not dissimilar to that of Xi Jinping, committed to restoring China to the much presumed laurels of two centuries ago, telling himself he is supreme relayist of the “red dynasty” that Heaven wants to redeem from the humiliations suffered at the hands of Europe, Japan, and America. Everybody is in search of their lost identity. Americans included.
Whence does this eagerness for identity originate? From the pride that stirs man. The thymos of the Ancient Greeks, which Homer sung about – ‘the deadly wrath’ that moved Achilles to participate in the Trojan War – or which Plato described as passion, the third part of the soul, distinct from the intellect and bodily appetites. A term taken up in contemporary times by the hyperbolic German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who, polemicising with psychoanalysis, proposes a return to Hellenic psychophilosophy, ‘according to which the soul does not only rely on eros and its intentions with regard to the one and the many whereby the soul is not only manifested in eros and its intentions. Rather, the soul should open itself equally to the impulses of thymos… Thymotics discloses ways for human beings to redeem what they possess, to learn what they are able to do, and to see what they want.’
Paradoxically, the idea of identity pride as producer of the collective myths that move history – a geopolitical agent, we should add – was fleshed out by Francis Fukuyama, who had been mocked, condemned, and repeatedly castigated for proclaiming the end of history, a misunderstood ode to America as caput mundi. This was a superficial reading. The title of the sulphurous 1992 bestseller is The End of History and the Last Man. The Last Man is Nietzsche’s: empty of dignity, amputated of thymos, vegetative, satisfied with his own material condition, to which he remains a slave. The Last Man is a being without history. Fukuyama states: ‘The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been “all about” these past few millennia? (…) Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still unsatisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution?’ So much for the end of history which, in any case, is impossible for Americans, whose thymos tends towards megalothymia, a word coined by Fukuyama to express the unwillingness to recognise oneself as the equal of any other. The true home of the last man, concludes the inventive Japanese-American thinker, is the European Union. The end of history is the European dream, ‘most fully felt in Germany’: ‘to transcend national sovereignty, power politics, and the kinds of struggles that make military power necessary’. Never was the impossibility of the end of history better argued.
3. Let us climb down from the superhuman European dream – a mirage of elites intoxicated by megalothymia marked by contempt for the Europeans who are unable to grasp the nitty-gritty of their benevolent design – and reach the question of identity as it tends to take shape on the geopolitical scene. By identity we mean not a self-attributed character but a relational asset. I am what I am not because I think so but because those I care about think so about me. If they do not, then I feel frustration, resentment, and anger towards them. This applies to the individual as well as to the communities and states within which he or she competes for power. Needless to say, individuals can live with different identities; they even tend to flaunt them the more affluent and sophisticated they are (as a questionable self-portrait of homo occidentalis). The real difference, however, is one of scale, not substance. We are not yet the last men. The primary motive for power conflicts is not the acquisition of material goods. It is status. Identity recognised by those we recognise as being entitled to recognise us.
It is the lust for recognition that drives history. It can be demonstrated, albeit a contrario, like this: conflicts cease, or are at least quelled, when the contenders admit to each other that they are mutually entitled to live together in peace. There is peace when the victor recognises equal dignity to the loser, on condition that the latter accepts that he lost. There is no peace when the loser is humiliated. This is the difference between Vienna 1815 and Versailles 1919 – a difference for which we continue to foot the bill.
Like the wars of religion, identity wars are to the death. One fights not for more or less land but for the most sacred right to which one dares to aspire: recognition by others. Without which no one can truly believe they are what they want to be. Big War conflicts are in the first and and the final analysis conflicts about identity. Russia invades Ukraine because it wants Washington to certify its rank as great power which Number One had revoked once the Cold War peace ended. China intends to achieve by the People’s Republic’s first centenary the supremacy it says it lost with the Opium Wars, almost two centuries ago. The United States intends to confirm itself as Number One even though it feels the sceptre it has held since the end of World War II slipping from its grasp and is not sure it wants to defend it at all costs. Each one of them is an exceptionalist power, each in its own way. But each one is also a power uncertain of its own status. Above all, they are three powers that do not recognise each other as equals. Such recognition is a non-negotiable good.
The Russians, Chinese, and Americans seek a way to reconcile the recognition of their respective identities with the need to survive so much success. The art of waging war below the level of mutual destruction remains in a state of craftsmanship as the canons of deterrence fade into smoke.
Big War threatens to escalate and involute into World War III. To understand how and why, it is necessary to question certain received truths. To interpret a revolution with the categories of the past is to keep one’s head in the old world while one’s feet dance on a geopolitical crust in seismic turmoil, from which the new world will erupt.
4. We owe to the British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, an unrepentant Marxist, the thesis of the 20th century as a short century, an arc running from 1914 to 1991, from the outbreak of the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. With hindsight – which, by definition, is more well-founded than foresight – we should opt for the opposite thesis. The century opened by the Sarajevo shooting is not over yet. It is long. And there is no end in sight. Otherwise, we cannot understand why more than a hundred years later there is fighting again in the contested space, between Russia and Germany yesterday, and between Russia and America today. As Dominic Lieven, who is not the typical British historian and therefore not a Marxist, proclaimed in 2013: ‘As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine’. Extrapolating to the strategic degree, the Ukrainian game was yesterday about whether Russia or Germany was hegemon of Europe, hence of Eurasia; today it is about whether the hegemon is America or a combination of Germany, Russia, and China.
We consider the war in Ukraine as the epicentre and continuation of the clash between autochthonous empires and Anglo-Saxon thalassocracies fighting for hegemony in Eurasia, a dispute that has been ongoing for a couple of centuries. It makes little difference whether it was Little Tsarist Russia or Soviet Ukraine (which later gained independence): the incendiary spark of Big War as well as of the two world wars originated here.
The first stirrings of the Anglo-Russian, now Russian-American clash (proudly joined by the British) can be glimpsed as early as the crisis of the anti-Napoleonic coalitions that briefly linked Russia and England. But those were forms of empire that, unable to be reduced to each other, were therefore radically rival. Until the Crimean War (1853-1856) that pitted them against each other, in the same location where today the remnants of the Black Sea Fleet founded in 1783 by Prince Potëmkin are being abased to bomb targets offered to the Ukrainians by the Anglo-American-led “collective West”.
Geography helps to interpret the persistence of this challenge. Ukraine, with Crimea, sits at the foot of the Alpid Belt, an orogenic and geopolitical fault that latitudinally bipartitions Eurasia from the Alps to the Himalayas and beyond via the Caucasus. The current century was born in the contention that had matured since the latter half of the 19th century between the colonial circuit of British hegemony, extended south of the Belt, with London in control of the main oceanic routes linking the major continent to the British archipelago, and the Russian challenger, scattered across the inhospitable steppes north of the Alpid, in search of access to the wider Mediterranean. This has remained a frustrated but unwavering aspiration, as confirmed by the latest version of Russia’s Naval Doctrine, launched by Putin on July 31, which promises to transform Russia into a ‘great maritime power’.
Malevolent insinuators suggest that Russia is the world’s largest state because it claims land that no one would want to inhabit – a reference to the Siberian Great North, which as a matter of fact is almost depopulated. There is truth in such malice. Let us observe the consequences of the unfortunate forma imperii. On the domestic front, it demands a hypercentralised regime leading to anomic drift, institutionalised corruption, and the endemic precariousness of the suburbs, that are rented out to elites constantly wheeling and dealing with Moscow. Popular wisdom distinguishes three Russias: the Kremlin (read: Putin and his praetorians), Moscow inside the ring road, and external leftovers. Power is distributed in inverse proportion to surface area.
The result is a phobia of enemy penetration into territories inhabited by refractory or rebellious populations, willing to turn against Moscow. Ukraine’s case is the topmost example. It dominated the two world wars and has been confirmed in the current conflict, triggered in 2014 by the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Kiev. This leads to a degree of heterophobic paranoia that we naïve Westerners attribute to Stalin’s or Putin’s psyche, whereas it is Russia’s soul and geopolitics in action. It is a temperament that induces Russia to close itself off from the system of clients on which empires capable of hegemony rest, while it invents a universal mission barely recognised by the Russians themselves. Moscow conceives security in dryly territorial terms. It fixes the border as far away from the Kremlin walls as possible. So every war becomes identity-based, existential. Including the “special military operation”, which unintentionally has been badly fought on account of the failed initial counter-insurgency (colour map 2). Today, some would like to proclaim it Great Patriotic War 2.0, an acrobatic correction-in-progress. Its declared objective: to keep NATO from pitching camp a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. But it’s too late. Ukraine has been Atlantic to the nth degree already for a few years now. It can only be “neutralised” by razing its vital infrastructure to the ground, thus starving its “brother” people into surrender, according to the principle “what cannot be mine will not be yours”.
This accumulation of perverse circumstances stoutly explains the anti-geopolitics of resentment to which Russia is condemned – or is condemning itself – in order to discharge externally the tensions that undermine its inner stamina, that go all the way back to the late-Soviet-era suicidal impulses we thought had been exhausted with Gorbachov. Instead, they persist in the Russian-Ukrainian civil war, to the point of threatening the integrity of the Russian Federation. There is a decisive difference, however. While the post-Soviet eruption involved the fifteen Soviet republics, Russia’s disintegration would certainly not be channelled through the eighty-five federal subjects carved out of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
Will Putin complete Gorbachov’s work? The British, Scandinavians, Poles, and Baltics hope he does; so do the neo-conservatives and other extroverted Americans, despite the stalwarts who prevail in Washington, where expelling Russia from the catalogue of great powers forever is considered within reach.
The line is thin between Russia’s defeat and its annihilation. Not even America can determine it with certainty. The risk of stopping too far from the line, allowing the Russians to get back on their feet within a few years, is however less dangerous than the pitfalls of total “victory”. The Russian Federation’s implosion could instigate atomic warfare or similar mass destruction via cybernetic, perhaps chemical, reckless mischief. Should they emerge victorious, the US and the Euro-Atlantic partners would have to manage a Russian and a Ukrainian wasteland cluttered with ruins, which they would want to subcontract to the Euro-Atlantic and other willing actors. This would be nothing short of a superhuman undertaking.
5. Yet another chapter in the Eurasian game will not produce a clear winner. The Russians and Ukrainians will emerge from this war much weaker if not broken, regardless of where the border is drawn that by separating them keeps them united. As for America – it all depends on what its objectives are. We can guess three, overlapping goals.
First. Russia’s degradation. On the battlefield, this has been apparent, and it is perhaps irreversible. The trouble is that victory could prove to be a harbinger of greater problems than America had before February 24. American strategists know that NATO works in peacetime but is a liability in time of war, as they learnt from the experience in Kosovo. Of the magnificent thirty that pay or evade NATO contributions, only four or five possess armies worthy of the name, apart from the United States. Of these four or five, at least two – Turkey and France – would not be expendable in an all-out conflagration against an atomic superpower, that is to say the hiding but looming Russia. Not to mention the time and the energy which need to be invested to fake Euro-Atlantic unity. Finally, if Russia disappeared and the Europeans all lived happily ever after, how could America legitimise its old-continent empire?
Second. Break up the Sino-Russian odd couple. If China’s “pressing threat” is strategic, while Russia’s “immediately considerable” threat is “unsystemic”, the latter’s defeat would weaken the former by depriving it of its only effective support. Beijing would be encircled by neighbours all adverse or otherwise unreliable. European nuisances will object, raising a little finger, that the odd couple is the child of stars-and-stripes artificial insemination, produced in Ukraine in 2014 by hurling Putin into Xi’s arms. Being practical people, American planners will retort that getting it wrong once does not imply keeping on doing it for consistency’s sake. In any case, the recent Sino-Russian chill, expressed in Xi’s disappointment with Putin’s performance in Ukraine, shows that the goal is achievable.
Third. Decisive and achieved: breaking the energy interdependence between Russia and Germany, or, more broadly, between Russians and Europeans, first among whom the Italians. No American intelligence specialist has forgetten who the Italian forerunners of the nefarious German Ostpolitik were back in the 1950s: Gronchi, Fanfani, Mattei, Pirelli, and Valletta. The holes drilled in the Baltic pipeline in September will remain the work of an unknown artist. Not unknown are those who rejoice in it, scattered between Washington and the Nordic Super-Nato. What matters is the interruption of the supply of Russian gas to Germany – Russian gas, however, does continue to flow into Ukraine (colour map 3). Such are the miracles wrought by the sanctions strategy, of which Washington is mother and teacher.
Let’s try to assess the situation from the American point of view.
It’s not at all bad. On the contrary, it’s quite good. In the European theatre, Russia is angrily wounding itself while Germany is stuttering and disoriented. In the Asian one, China is off course due to excessive arrogance, so much so that it is fixated on the impossible “recovery” of Taiwan, frightening all its neighbours, who are divided on everything but united by the fear of ending up under Beijing.
Common opinion has it that the main theatre (Asia) determines the secondary one (Europe). Beat China and it’s game set and match. In reality, it doesn’t work that way. The opposite is true: beat Germany and Russia together and China is in check. Checkmated, it would be forced to strike deals with us. Deals we’ll gladly make, as they are unequal. The Russians, Germans, and Chinese have together fallen into the trap of the “pivot to Asia”. The aim of which was not so much to shift the pressure directly on China as to break its privileged geo-economic relationship with Germany and the rest of Europe – remember the Silk Roads? – and to induce it to embrace Russia. Russia would then act like lead that eventually drowns China or it would force China to surrender. By provoking Moscow to retrieve Kiev, an operation just as impossible as any Chinese attempt to capture Taipei, we achieve the desired result: we break up the Sino-Germanic masked couple by striking the Russian-German couple and Sino-Russian couple at one and the same time.
The only hindrance at this point is made up of the sleeping powers that we had to reawaken because they are useful. Poland in Eastern Europe, Turkey between the Euro-Mediterranean, North Africa and Central Asia, and Japan (a dolphin ready to transform itself into a shark of the Indo-Pacific waters, the network of the ancient pan-Asian dream that Japan’s elites will never let go of). These are former empires that, exploiting the path we open, may one day do away with the adjective “former”, because they are unwilling to deny their own history. Remember Smiley: ‘Some people who, when their past is threatened, get frightened of losing everything they thought they had, and perhaps everything they thought they were as well.’
Having removed our imperial robes and put back on, in Italian fashion, our civilian garb, we conclude that a whole other world is in the making. It’s unlikely to be better than the current one, and we can hardly do anything about it anyway. As long as we don’t all end up in the next world.*
* This article is a part of the opening essay of «Tutto un altro mondo», Limes, Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, n. 10/2022.
(translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)