As most EU and NATO watchers know, the next NATO summit will take place in Cardiff, UK, on the 4th and 5th of September. This event is described on the British government’s website as “the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain,” though this is somewhat doubtful given the people who turn up for royal weddings and funerals, and the number of Commonwealth leaders who have built their political careers on being “jailed by the British.”
Many commentators have said what they expect from this summit. Those same commentators are generally aware of the fact that public pronouncements are one thing and the reality of international affairs is another. But few seem to have noticed that the choice of venue for this summit is in itself significant.
Cardiff is a rather small provincial city in UK terms. But it is the capital of Wales, and holding the NATO summit there is another chapter in the long and convoluted history of Anglo-Welsh relations. The British government is saying, “We are so proud of how we have handled the minority question that we can promote Wales without harming the UK.” It is also saying, “The rest of you should follow the same example.” This has rather a hollow ring when it comes to NATO.
Separatism without conflict
The word “Welsh” means “foreigner” in Old English, and denotes the native inhabitants of the island, the Ancient Britons, who lived there before the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Having been shunted off to the West the Welsh governed themselves in a variety of different states, which had different relationships with the English crown.
The Welsh retained their own very different language and institutions, but within the context of English domination, most Welsh perfectly happy to be ethnically Welsh on the one hand and politically English on the other. However the deposition and murder of Richard II of England, who had advanced Welsh people loyal to him at the expense of English nobles, made many take sides and led the Welsh Revolt of 1400.
By 1415 the English had put down the revolt and introduced direct English rule. A hundred years later the Welsh lands were formally incorporated into England, ‘Wales’ being little more than a geographical term. However the separate identity remained, and successive Anglicisation policies, designed to force people to stop speaking Welsh, only strengthened it.
There are now active Welsh language movements; UK government documents concerning Wales have to be written in both English and Welsh and Wales now has its own Assembly, which has considerable powers to run Welsh affairs under the ultimate authority of Westminster. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, is a mainstream political force and much of the small scale terrorism from extreme nationalist groups in the 1970s has been consigned to history by minor concessions from England.
From an English point of view, the present situation in Wales is the ideal solution to having a conquered and assimilated indigenous minority in their midst. But there is a reason the English are showing it off which demonstrates the real reason the NATO summit is being held in the modern Welsh capital.
Most NATO members have indigenous minorities in their countries. They manage their relations with them without bloodshed. But increasingly the world is retreating from empires and moving towards autochthonous states. Therefore separatism is becoming an increasing concern, and NATO has adopted contradictory solutions to separatist conflicts within and outside its member states’ borders.
Belgium, for example, was once a unitary state ruled by the Walloons who called labourer’s huts “Flemish houses”. Now strict linguistic and political segregation are in place, and government services can only be offered in the designated local language within the set French, Flemish or German speaking self-governing areas.
Much of Belgium’s recent instability derives from the fact that once united political parties have split into separate French and Flemish speaking bodies, who seem to disagree with their former stablemates on principle to justify their own existence. However the two halves of the country peacefully co-exist, and despite some calls for Flemish independence or the dismantling of the state the differences between the two halves are not a significant issue on the ground.
Contrast this with events in Yugoslavia, where the Western military-political bloc became actively involved on the side of the separatists from Croatia and Bosnia. It saw no contradiction between sending peace missions on the one hand and bombing Serbia on the other, often attacking Serb positions from inside what it called “demilitarised zones”. All this was done in support of a multi-state solution, a blind support of ethnic separatism for its own sake, on principle.
The same is also true in Ukraine. Here the two sides are not even different people: the “Russians” in Eastern Ukraine are just as Ukrainian as those in the West but have a different way of looking at relations with Russia, which has manifested itself in politics for generations. NATO is not advocating military strikes against South Tyrol separatists in Italy, or even the Basque terrorists of ETA, but is actively pursuing a two-state solution in Ukraine in order to consolidate the control of its newly-installed government, whatever it may claim to the contrary.
However in other conflicts NATO sees things differently. The people of Abkhazia have a stronger claim to separate from Georgia, on cultural and political grounds, than those of Eastern Ukraine have of separating from Kiev, but are met with rhetoric about “Georgia’s internationally recognised borders” which was not applied in Yugoslavia. In Cyprus the Turkish Republic in the north is an unrecognised state whose very real borders are ignored by international politics, the Greek Cypriot government being held responsible for the whole island on the same basis.
NATO was created to act militarily when a member state is threatened. But what should it do when the threat arises within that member’s own borders? Or those of a non-member country? NATO doesn’t know, why is why it will not discuss this issue in public. This is why Cardiff, of all places, will be hosting the September summit.
Solutions real and imagined
Separatism isn’t going to go away. Whenever one group receives any concession from their government another group wants the same from theirs. When the Australian courts recognised the concept of “native title” to land in the historic Mabo judgment of 1992, so many aboriginal peoples tried to claim land that the government had to set up a special ministry. This did not go unnoticed by Native Americans, forced to live on reservations and welfare handouts in their country they used to own. They suffered genocide in the process and become some of the first victims of bio warefare.
In some cases separatist ambitions can be contained without conflict. Sometimes however people have no other way out. In an institutionally sound and prosperous state conflict is unlikely to break out – the Parti Quebecois is able to maintain its sovereigntist position without Canada descending into civil war as everyone has too much to lose. The same is not true in poor and discredited states nobody wants, as wars from Congo to Sudan have made clear. It is only about oil and natural resources and the locals are something that must be placated or eliminated, sooner or later.
The British government website says that the Cardiff summit will be “an opportunity to ensure that NATO continues to be at the forefront of building stability in an unpredictable world.” If it wants to do this, it must first decide how. NATO is an operational military body, not a political forum, though its actions are determined by politics. It can only operate by adopting precise regulations on when it can intervene, and for what purpose. Its very different attitudes to separatist conflicts provide no clue as to what these are, and its needs to know, with so many such conflicts happening or waiting to happen.
The British government will display Cardiff as an example of a capital of an assimilated foreign people, happily going about their business under rule from London. It will not talk about the centuries of neglect the Welsh experienced, with nothing being done to develop Wales until minerals were discovered. Cardiff only became a city due to the exploitation of coal and steel resources by the English. Now those industries have gone, Wales has been left with mass unemployment, as labouring for the English is all the Welsh are deemed fit for, despite all the employment schemes which lead nowhere.
The Welsh are very much aware that they live at a “bad address,” that there are few opportunities locally and there are even fewer for them elsewhere due to their stigmatisation as an unemployed labouring class. The UK government has established a number of offices in Wales to address this problem, but they have only made it worse, as it obvious charity. Once again, the Welsh are being used by the English and thrown away when useless, rather than being given the tools to resolve their own problems and control their own destinies.
Silence, by definition, tends to sound the same. The UK government will not talk about its real attitude to the Welsh any more than it would acknowledge during the Yugoslav conflict that the largest group of asylum seekers entering the UK, month after month, was Croats fleeing their own government, the solution NATO helped impose by force. In the same way it will not publicly acknowledge the neo-Nazi links of members of the new Ukrainian government, whose behaviour, such as daubing buildings with swastikas, would be illegal in the UK and a bar to entering government in the eyes of its public.
Is this the solution to separatism NATO is being presented with? Most Welsh put up with their lot. But even if it assumed this model works, would it automatically work anywhere else?
Politicians are very careful about where they do things. One reason several EU institutions are based in Luxembourg is to show that the EU supports this tiny state as an equal partner. They visit countries to show their support and promote parts of their own countries to “include” their populations: the US Olympic Committee supported Atlanta’s successful bid for the 1996 Games, so soon after Los Angeles 1984, because these would be the Games of “Black America”, though white people made the decision to allow this.
The UK could host a NATO summit in bigger cities than Cardiff. It is making a gesture to a national minority and its own treatment of that minority. With so many separatist conflicts going on around the world, this is not surprising.
But the reason this factor is not being highlighted is that NATO has no idea how to address separatist conflicts. It has found through experience that it is easy to get into places but much harder to get out. So it needs a common position on separatist conflicts, and quickly.
Cardiff may be the last chance to resolve this issue, behind the scenes, before any of the outstanding conflicts, not least in new target Iran, go completely over its head. It won’t expose its own weakness by saying so, but that is the real agenda nonetheless.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.