Thursday, 27 October 2016

War and order

For all of Russia’s bellicosity, its actions in Syria are worth assessing outside the media’s common outline. Because they may have bitter lessons for Europe’s migrant crisis as well.

In early October, Russia finished building an Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) in western Syria. Neither the Islamic State (IS) nor Syrian rebels possess combat aircraft, which means the air defence can only be directed towards the US and perhaps Turkey. Moscow intends to use this IADS to force the cost of continued US coalition involvement in Syria past the threshold of acceptable risk. In other words, it doesn’t want US aircraft flying while it organises events on the ground.

The components of Moscow’s IADS include the S-200, S-300, S-400 (Russia’s most advanced anti-air) and the Buk missile systems. One S-300 is based from a guided missile cruiser in the Mediterranean. Recall that last month, Dutch prosecutors confirmed it was a Russian Buk missile which shot down flight MH17, and Iran recently took possession of multiple S-400 batteries. So we know the weapons work.

Also this week, French authorities began bulldozing the so-called “Calais Jungle” migrant camp. Thousands of migrants will be resettled elsewhere in the country. Many towns in France experience almost constant riots and violence against police by migrants as Paris attempts to avoid splits in the wider French community due to the European Union’s controversial border entry policies.

Looking at this spread out, there aren’t many dots between Syria’s civil war, a refugee camp on the French coast and the Brexit decision (not to mention the discontent in the rest of Europe). Whatever terrible things are happening in the world today, the consequences of each little flashpoint have never been more immediate.

What connects all this is disorder and power, which brings with it status. I define power as personal influence over important events – I don't know of any other definition. One of the key reasons intellectuals are fascinated by disorder is that disorder is an extreme case of complexity.

Syria is a story of a structure of authority made more complex, more informal and fragmented by a civil war. The conflict is eliminating hierarchical structures under which one individual decides and is responsible for the result, and is replacing them with highly disjointed, highly consensual, and highly process-oriented structure in which ten, twenty or a hundred thousand people can truthfully claim to have contributed to the outcome.

This will increase the amount of power, status and patronage produced but will decrease the size of those fragments of power. It also makes the government less efficient and effective, and working in it a lot less fun for everyone. Given its actions, all this anarchy is clearly desired by Washington, probably because it means Syria is losing it authoritarianism – and US officials hate authoritarianism.

But Russia sees the Syria problem differently. Moscow wants to achieve peace by the most direct route available. It thinks the single-minded obliteration of anything outside of social democracy isn’t a recipe for order, in fact it only leads to more anarchy. In this thinking, Moscow is connecting to the ideas of Romanian military strategist Edward Luttwak.

In his 1999 essay “Give War a Chance,” Mr Luttwak argues the unpleasantness of war doesn’t cancel its utility in resolving political conflicts and creating peace. He says rather than outside powers conducting “humanitarian” interventions or organising ceasefires, both of which simply freeze a conflict in place to be started up again when the sides are rearmed, war must be allowed to work until all sides become exhausted or one wins decisively.

“Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics, wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement,” he says.

Most controversially, especially for US officials, Mr Luttwak says an intervention on the side of the strongest power in a conflict to destroy the others may actually be the more moral path by ending the conflict early and saving lives. The goal is to restore and maintain order, because unlike anarchy, order actually is peaceful.

Russian air defence ranges
If the UN had intervened in Europe’s wars, the continent would be filled with giant camps for millions of Vandals, Visigoths and defeated Burgundians. They would not have been encouraged to integrate into a new societal reality and Europe would be a mess. Russia’s IADS now keep the US at arm’s length while its support of Mr al Assad hopes to end the fighting decisively.

Thomas Hobbes understood the ethics of this approach. The problem with disorder and anarchy is they are disorderly and anarchic. They lead only to pain and death. Hobbes’ panacea is to increase the strength of the state. Yet in modern France and other Western countries, order and security are observed extremely suspiciously by the populace.

Citizens, not all of them die-hard liberals, react with horror to any proposal of allowing intelligence agencies to collect internet data or enforce legitimate border controls. They castigate any police attempt to restore order and will choose privacy over any proposal to increase security. A suspicion of government is laudable, but at what cost? Security and freedom are not in conflict, they are rights deserving of balance in a civilised nation.

Humanitarian dreams about mass migration can only succeed if the institutions and power of the state are coherent. Europe’s Schengen border policy is being dealt a harsh blow because Brussels is too weak to cope with migrants, and those migrants still feel marginalised because the host population assumes any effort to amalgamate them is a parochial and anti-liberal.

So Paris’ decision to bulldoze the Calais Jungle is a welcome imposition of order. But its constant refusal to crush violent dissent in its cities due to a misplaced progressive belief of plurality exposes the confliction and uncertainty of how the modern state considers its role. A competent state should know security must be prioritised in times of unrest. If mainstream parties cannot rise to the challenge, they leave the field open to the far right. Scared people do not make good democrats.

Freedom is not indivisible. Politics is the continuing choice among liberties of different faiths, cultures and traditions learning to co-exist. But a modern state and its multicultural ideals can work only so long as the state has the means and the will to enforce a common peace. Russia and the Europeans see the world very differently. Fragmenting power might feel righteous but if peace is desired, order and war are sometimes the best routes.

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