For almost all of human history there have been Empires. Even in the ancient world there was a distinction between “kings” and “great kings”, i.e. those who ran a mere country and those who had acquired an empire. Now, almost uniquely, the trend is in the opposite direction. Empires have been replaced as the ideal political model by “free associations of sovereign states”, and even referring to the lost empires of the past is considered a negative thing.
Consequently, new political units are being carved out at an alarming rate – such as the two Ukraines, the two Sudans, the soon-to-be-imposed-by-ISIL Kurdistan, Kosovo and the Pacific islands granted independence through decolonisation. Others, such as Daghestan and Chechnya, are actively seeking it.
But as soon as new countries come into existence, the first question is, “which alliance are you going to be part of?” Any attempt by any state to become independent is immediately quashed by loans, defence agreements and trade deals which push it firmly into either the NATO/EU or Shanghai Cooperation Organisation camp. So the idea that everyone should be part of an empire called an “alliance” is alive and well.
The question is, why is this happening when the alliances which exist are unravelling before our eyes? The far right is now gaining all over Europe as a protest against EU membership and transnationalism and the Eastern countries are desperate to find new models of relationship with Russia and China, being anxious to conclude trade and defence deals with them on the one hand and terrified of their consequences on the other. What is the point of inflicting these problems on new countries ostensibly created to free them from unhealthy foreign domination?
Playing neither side
Viktor Yanukovych has paid the price for trying to main his country’s independence, as his oath of office and constitution required him to do. It was the EU rather than Russia which demanded he choose one side or the other, then orchestrated a coup against him – not the first time he has suffered this fate – when he refused. Now those who don’t agree with the coup have declared “independent republics” in the east of the country. Their first action? To run to Russia asking for protection, or, even better, membership of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine has been down this road before. During Soviet times the same Russo-Ukrainians who are now running to Russia were very keen to point out their distinction from Russians, and blamed the Soviet Union, i.e. the foreign Russians, for all their problems.
Similarly, the more Western part of the country is a hangover from its days in the Lithuanian Empire, the last pagan state in Europe, and subsequently the Polish Empire when the two realms were united. The Polish Empire was so corrupt and inefficient that it was eventually partitioned out of existence in 1795, and the current Western/Russian division in Ukraine can still be said to be between those who went along with Polish domination and those who didn’t all those centuries ago, the wound having remained unhealed. Again, Ukrainians do not really want joining the West to do this to their country.
But these are the only options Ukraine, and every other country, are being given by the powers which are able to change things. If the deeds of these past empires had died with them this would be less of a problem. But events in both Europe and the East demonstrate that countries are being forced into alliances in a last-ditch attempt to maintain those crumbling alliances rather than because any good is supposed to come of it.
Something united with nothing
Recent events in the United Kingdom are reflective of much broader tendencies within the European Union. The UK joined the EU in 1973, under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. Though most British voters were instinctively distrustful of the EU, the UK’s membership was overwhelmingly endorsed in a 1975 referendum. Opposition to EU membership was the preserve of the left wing of the Labour Party, but even that party had no serious intention of pulling out and did not seek to do so when in government.
Now the situation is entirely reversed. Labour is pro-EU and the Conservatives increasingly anti. Even this has not stopped the rise of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, a right-wing protest movement which would leave the EU tomorrow if it could.
UKIP has now become the protest vehicle the very pro-EU Liberal Democrats once were, and has made consistent gains in both European and local elections at the expense of all the other parties. Two Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, defected to UKIP earlier this year and offered their constituents the opportunity to re-elect them, though not obliged to do so. Carswell retained his seat with a vastly increased majority and Reckless is predicted to comfortably retain his on November 7th.
This makes UKIP the most successful protest party, in parliamentary terms, since the brief Liberal revival and nationalist upsurge of the early 1970s. The other parties have no answer to it. They cannot explain the benefits of the open EU border, seen in the richer countries as being open only in one direction, putting them under siege while giving them nothing in return. They cannot explain why so much of their money subsidises other EU members while they have so many problems at home, which governments routinely claim they have no money to solve.
Even in countries with seemingly more to gain from the EU the same tendencies are appearing. In the newer, effectively second-tier EU members governments are carefully positioning themselves as supporters of “European values” who are obliged to be desperate financial hostages of the EU in order to achieve them. Most Europeans want access to markets and visas to better themselves, but at the same time resent any dilution of the “national identity” they fought hard to preserve in years gone by and actually quantify now. More extreme groups such as Hungary’s Jobbik have become the common expression of this reaction to enforced alliance.
Nor is this an entirely new phenomonen. When the Austrian conservatives, the People’s Party, went into a coalition with the ultra-nationalist Freedom Party in 2000 the EU imposed sanctions on Austria. The conservative members of that government were tarred with the same “neo-fascist” brush, but still won the next Austrian elections, and are now a junior partner in a more traditional Social Democrat-People’s Party coalition with no one murmuring. Not only does being implicitly anti-EU have short term electoral advantages, it is no longer a radical position, as it was for the first forty years of the EU’s existence.
Nothing united with something
The situation in the East is little different. The rise of Russia and China as economic powers has been accompanied by greater attempts to counter US attempts to create a unipolar world. Every existing or emerging state east of the Urals is either a member or prospective member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a military-political union which is the nearest equivalent of what the EU has become.
The effect of this has been predictable. Unlike France and Germany, the two pillars of the EU’s foundation, Russia and China have not fought two recent devastating wars against each other. Regional countries are there for the taking, and bringing them all into alliance as ostensibly equal partners is simply a means of disguising this fact.
The smaller countries in between are caught in a cleft stick. They have longstanding institutional ties with either Russia or China which aren’t going to go away. At the same time, to show their independence they have to be open to overtures from the other big ally.
The outcome? An upsurge of Islamism and other religious militancy, an expression of the “traditional values” of the country and resistance to foreign “imperialism”. Central Asia’s Islamists are the SCO’s UKIP. With Afghanistan on the verge of joining the organisation this is unlikely to change in the near future.
Takjikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the other existing SCO members, are trapped in an alliance which is anything but. However they much they try and make it work, even if these countries form a common front the SCO will still be dominated by Russia and China and their mutual competition.
Avowedly Islamist governments would be little different to effective dictatorships, and much more consistent with a set of values people know and understand, not relics imposed on them by the past. But as in Europe, this form of protest strikes at the heart of the alliance bankrolling these countries, and Eastern Europeans have shown that they will ensure any level of privation as long as they can be independent.
Nowhere else to go
Given these pressures, it might be surprising that no country has ever actually left either the EU or SCO. But the reason for this is more than financial and diplomatic. The only place to go if they left is another alliance, and they all have the same problems.
The Non-Aligned Movement used to be the answer. In the late 1970s it developed into a serious force, providing a middle pathway between East and West. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the membership split down the middle. At that most sensitive point, Cuba took the Non-Aligned Movement presidency, despite its rather obvious “Eastern” orientation in the context of the time.
This fatally compromised the movement and, since then, several countries have left, claiming it is no longer relevant. Rather, it is too relevant. There is no longer any difference between the members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the members of the EU and SCO. The intrinsic problems of these alliances, and domestic reaction to them, have pushed all their members to plot the very same “middle pathway”. Whilst remaining members, they seek to distance themselves from their chosen alliance as much as they can practically do. Each is trying to do so without losing the economic and political benefits their alliance still brings, even though the threads may be unravelling by the day.
Every country, new or old, has to be part of one geopolitical alliance, and only one. That is a practical fact. This doesn’t have to be a fact, in theory. It remains one because the global powers are like the little Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dyke – they think that if more countries are included, and there is no alternative but to join, these alliances might somehow be made to work a lot better than they do now, even though so many voices will never be heard.
The same thinking lies behind the usual association of Islamist with “terrorist” and right-wing protest with “fascist”. Opposing alliances is an attack on the civilized order. Those who tell us what the civilized order is are not going to be able to take this lying down. Sooner or later they are going to have to react to it to preserve themselves in power, at any cost.
Welcome to a future United States of America and Europe consisting of a hundred states and a new Sino-Russian empire. It will have to be that way unless we want to be run by extremists few would support under other circumstances. But we should never have found ourselves in a position where only the most extreme groups represent independence, and if the new empire builders knew what they were doing, we wouldn’t be.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.