Lincoln, Brexit and Geopolitics

April 7, 2016 Understanding a nation’s strategy requires an unbiased view of its objectives and constraints.

|April 7, 2016

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By Jacob L. Shapiro

The first principle of Geopolitical Futures is an unswerving devotion to objectivity. There are two elements of objectivity. The first is the honest admission that perfect objectivity is impossible. But the second is more important: though you may be unable to achieve complete objectivity, neither are you free to desist from the attempt. The lesson to learn from the punishment given to Sisyphus is not that ceaselessly pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain is torture. It is that there is a nobility in continuing to try. The endless cycle is not merely for the entertainment of the gods; it is a warning about and cure for the dangers of hubris. 
                                                                                         
Objectivity also does not mean apathy, or a willful ignorance about the moral quality of political action. One of the defining principles of Hans Morgenthau’s articulation of political realism – a methodological lens that is innately bound up in our own writing – is that the student of power should be aware of the questions of moral significance that are intrinsically involved in political decisions. One who studies politics and does not care about the outcome is a sociopath. But the more relevant point for us is that such a person is also a mediocre analyst.
 
Shelby Foote (an American historian of the Civil War) once said of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln that one of his eeriest qualities was his ability to think objectively about his position and the executive office. One of the most striking supports of this description is found in a written fragment preserved by one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, words that Lincoln wrote for himself and, in an age without technology constantly recording every mundane thought we have, could have reasonably expected to remain private. But these words did not, and Lincoln’s private musings prove more insightful than most people’s carefully reasoned public thoughts: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”
 
Lincoln prosecuted the Civil War ruthlessly. He suspended habeas corpus. He freed the slaves – even though his presidential campaign was centered around the promise that he would do no such thing. He decided secession was illegal – even though there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution prohibiting or allowing for secession. Lincoln no doubt spent a great deal of time thinking about his place in history and how the war would be judged by future generations. But Lincoln governed with the best interest of his nation at the front of his mind. The Union could not be divided because the two states that would emerge would be profoundly weaker and open to the influence of great foreign powers like Great Britain and France – at that time still far more powerful than the U.S. The Mississippi River was and is the great internal circulatory system of the United States – and forfeiting control of it to a hostile power was unacceptable.
 
Lincoln understood two separate but intricately related truths. First was that the national interest was the issue of overriding importance. Whatever had to be done to save the Union had to be done because that was the only way for the United States to thrive, if not survive. But he also knew, or at least represented, a second deeper truth: that a cool, detached understanding of national interest was not enough to encourage people to fight and die for something greater than themselves. There had to be a purpose, a way of tying the North’s power and interests with ideals that would motivate young men to charge high ground held by Confederate forces because their general ordered them to – and not to desert the next day. Lincoln was a brilliant leader because he understood both truths. He understood the national interest and he understood how to wield power at a time of crisis. And power, as Morgenthau wrote, “covers all social relationships that serve [a political] end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”
 
Contrast this with the behavior of Great Britain’s leaders, as we rapidly approach a referendum on whether the United Kingdom remains in another union – the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron penned a strongly worded editorial in the Telegraph on April 4, imploring the British people to vote to remain in the “single market that Britain practically invented,” in order not to restrict Britons’ freedom of movement on the Continent or to negatively affect British farmers, workers and small businesses. It comes just a few weeks after London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote his own strongly worded editorial arguing the opposite position.
 
The referendum will ultimately be about the degree to which Britons want Europe to shape life in Britain. And the compromise deal that Cameron negotiated with European leaders on Feb. 19 addressed most concerns about an overreaching EU. If Britain votes to remain in the EU, it will be doing so on its own terms, and on terms that will ensure future British governments – not bureaucrats in Brussels – will determine the direction Britain will take. If the EU passes directives on issues that Cameron did not have the foresight to negotiate, Britain will simply do what plenty of other European countries are already doing: it will ignore them.
 
The international political system is built of nation-states. It was not so long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, that national self-determination was the noblest of political ideologies. Indeed, national self-determination became one of the expressed goals of the Allies, as laid out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, and is enshrined in the very first article of the Charter of the United Nations.
 
The abstract idea of the European Union was an attack on that very concept. Europe had seen what unleashed nationalism had done to the Continent (and the world). The European Union was created with the hope that such violence would not happen again if the fates of the various European states, Germany and France in particular, were linked together more intimately. There may very well come a time when nation-states are no longer the atoms of geopolitics. But if and when that time comes, it will not be because a noble dream was imagined in a meeting room and the basic differences in culture and language were determined to be passé. It will be because geopolitical forces will create the imperatives that will lead to the establishment of different institutions.
 
There is no doubt that Cameron believes remaining in the EU is the best course of action for Britain. There is also no doubt that others like Johnson think the opposite. But despite the fundamental political disagreement, Britain is not preparing for real conflict over the EU deal. The Roundheads and the Cavaliers are not about to ride back into battle over the future of Britain’s relationship to the EU. The deeper question is whether Cameron would really let the future of Britain be determined by a referendum. It is political theater reminiscent of President Barack Obama seeking approval from Congress, which he did not get, to carry out strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons in Syria. Whether or not the U.S. bombed Assad was ultimately immaterial, and Obama knew it. He might have even preferred not to bomb Assad – realizing that his drawing of a red line was a tactical error – and, knowing Congress would vote that way, he decided he would gain more politically by putting it up for a vote. Contrast this with the fact that Obama has authorized over 2,800 strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq without any Congressional approval.
 
In Western democracies, politics is often restrained by moral considerations and constitutional safeguards. But that has never stopped any liberal democracy from disregarding its laws when the national interest is at stake. Cameron can afford to put Brexit up to a referendum precisely because, in practice, while it may have serious economic ramifications, the politics of it make it an irrelevant choice. Either way, not much will change for Britain in the grand scheme of things and not much will change for the EU – its decline into irrelevance will just become more noticeable.
 
Which brings us back to where we began – the quest for objectivity and the importance of understanding the relationship between impersonal geopolitical forces and the practical and moral consequences of political decisions. Analyzing an issue like Brexit or Obama’s use of force against IS means not just understanding the nuts and bolts of the issue but also the ways power is wielded in the service of national interests. Power comes in many forms – military, economic and cultural. To understand them all, one must be able to understand how each is used – and then, like Lincoln, to draw back and ascertain what is driving a leader’s decisions without being enchanted by any appeals to universal goodness.