Tag Archives: Middle East

Global order and the Middle East


After the end of cold war and the bipolar system the world experienced 25 years of mutation toward a new world order, that cannot be defined yet. The American hegemony, called unipolar world at the beginning, has not been balanced by any other great power in this time (the famous balance of power, the main assumption of realism has not been realized yet). The international system has been moving towards something new that has been difficult to define. Sometimes scholars (like Ian Bremmer1) defined it “zero-polar” world, others (like Richard Haas2) “no-polar world”, others (like Fareed Zakaria3) multipolar world. We don’t know what will be the future world order but what we know is that in the new era of globalization will have to be more inclusive and less ethnocentric if it wants to reach stability and security for all. The interdependence, transnationalism and globalization that we are living today don’t seem to go toward the “clash of civilizations”, as per Huntington definition(4), even if neither toward the “convergence of civilizations” (5) as per Mahbubani definition(6). The ‘unrevealing’ of the post-Cold War order is nevertheless happening under our eyes, and the US influence is much reduced in this process, as Haas masterly explains in his recent article on Foreign Affairs (7). And the Middle East is the place where this disorder is stronger and the US is weaker today.

Is it possible to contemplate order for the region that is considered the less adapt to it, being an area where mistrust always developed among religious cleavages, unresolved interstate and intrastate conflicts and Western interventions? It could seem a dream but also in Europe we didn’t think that we would have enjoyed the longest time of peace of our history at the beginning of last century. The Middle East have not had the total wars that Europe experienced (and we hope that it will never have them) but in the long run common threats (like today ISIS) could maybe represent the cement for such now unthinkable regional order to happen? The Arab Spring has been compared to the start of a Middle Eastern “Thirty years’ war”(8), remembering the war that gave space to the start of the nation states in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia, or to the 1848 European revolutions with the so called “Spring of the Nations” (9) (from which the name Arab Spring) for more democracy and justice. Neither one of the comparison is very encouraging for the future of the Middle East, as the Thirty years’ war was the bloodiest war of Europe until then and the 1848 revolutions were repressed by reactionary forces, and new orders needed long time to take place. With the end of Cold War also the new architecture of the Middle East seems similar to that of Europe in the 19th century, with mid-sized powers trying to expand their spheres of influence (from Iran to Saudi Arabia, from Turkey to Egypt). In the Middle East today the shifting alliances and the covert or overt struggle for sphere of influences are interrelated with the forces of new definition of borders and ethnic, religious or cultural identities. Therefore the process of transition to a new Middle East order, after the end of the post-Ottoman one, will not be short and without conflicts and chaos. And will be more important (and doable) to manage it than to solve it. No more regime change interventions but soft power and external leading role. The US has to start a new path.

1Ian Bremmer. Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World. Portfolio Trade, 2013
2Richard Haas. The age of nonpolarity. Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008.
3Fareed Zakaria. The Post American world. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
4Samuel Huntington. The clash among civilizations?, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, N. 3, Summer 1993.
5An interesting UN initiative called “UN Alliance of Civilizations” seems to aim to a similar direction.
6Kishore Mahbubani. The great convergence: Asia, the West and the logic of one world. PublicAffairs, 2013.
7Richard Haas. The Unraveling, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2014.
8Richard Haas. The New Thirty Years’ War, Project Syndicate July 21, 2014.
9Jonathan Steinberg. 1848 and 2011. Bringing down the old order is easy; Building a new one is tough. Foreign Affairs, September 28, 2011.

“Democratic ideals and reality”, Halford J. Mackinder, 1919. Is this text still actual?

Map of the "Heartland Theory", as published by Mackinder in 1904.

Map of the “Geographical Pivot of History”, in the article of Mackinder published by Royal Geographical Society in 1904 (15 years before his book “Democratic ideals and reality”)

Mackinder, English geographer and one of the founding fathers of geopolitics and geostrategy, wrote his milestone book almost one century ago, between the two WWs, like Carr’s “Twenty years crisis”. “Democratic ideals and reality” is a product of the concepts of political geography and environmental determinism, and has played an important influence on American strategic and international studies until today. Two decades before Carr’s distinction between realist and utopian ideas, Mackinder’s realism is based on geopolitical analysis and on opposite concepts of ‘organizer’ (realist) and ‘idealist’ foreign policy.
The author argues that idealism is the ‘salt of the earth’, to move societies and civilizations, but in 1919 it had lost its social momentum, its hold on reality. The WWI had just ended and Wilson 14 points, as well as the Versailles treaty, were not convincing Mackinder. The British academic made an excursion since the end of the 18th century with the French principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, to the 19th century with the principle of nationality to the 20th century with the creation of the League of Nations and its democratic ideals (for a world community and a fair division of wealth). He argued that in reality productive power and social organization are more important in the modern civilization and that the great organizer is the great realist, because his imagination turns to ‘ways and means’ instead of ‘elusive ends’. Therefore he tried to define the geographical and economic ‘realities’ of modern world in order to help the organizer to balance the world, speaking about the ‘seaman’ and ‘landman’ points of views and considering the land power superior to the sea power.
The core geopolitical message of his book, passed through generations, is that “who rules East Europe commands the so called Heartland, who rules the Heartland commands the world-island (or great continent, that is the Euroasianafrican continent) and who rule the world-island commands the world”. Mackinder defines the Heartland as the internal part of the Euro-Asian continent, which goes from the Arctic coast to central deserts on the east, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas on the west. Mackinder believed that the power in the world was shifting from the sea-borne empires to countries that included the great land masses and who had both could have dominated the world. So if either Germany or Russia (that could have access to the sea) were able to conquer the heartland they would have conquer the world. Actually the rivalry of empires on this issue started already when Russia, as the Heartland, was the rival of England, the sea power, in the 19th century and also Germany took the lead to dominate East Europe in WWI for the same reason.
But Mackinder speaks also about other elements apart the geographical approach to international relations. In particular he dedicates two chapters to the freedom of the nations and the freedom of men, arguing that both need the same thing: a balanced and complete life. The first has to be based on equality of resources and so on external control of the economic growth with a balanced development of each nation (in order not to get out of hand and clash). The second should be based more on balanced life of provinces than on class organization. This is a very interesting point as the author remembers how the independent cities of Athens or Florence were foundational of our civilizations because they had complete and balanced microcosms, in which human beings could put in practice their ideals, remembering a sentence of Bernard Shaw: “he who can does, he who cannot teaches”. For Mackinder therefore we should go back to human scale provinces, and the national organization should be based on provincial communities. This is very actual also today with the trends of globalization counteracted with the localization, in a ‘glocalization’ process, in particular when he speaks about the demand for ‘home rule’ in Ireland or Scotland, to recuperate the values of local life against the nation-wide class organization. One hundred years after we had a referendum for autonomy in Scotland, exactly to recuperate this connection with locality, destroyed by modernization, international capitalism, and globalization.

The influence of this famous book is still discussed but has been said to have affected Hitler ideas (through the German geo-politician Karl Haushofer, who supported an alliance between Germany and the USSR in order to defeat the maritime powers). We don’t know for sure but the Hitler idea of Eastern expansion is similar to the idea of Mackinder. The book has influenced also the US, given that US grand strategy cannot allow domination of either end of Eurasia by a potentially hostile power (that today could be China ).
I would argue that Middle East, more than Eastern Europe, is the pivot region of the world today. May be the XX century saw the three world wars (the third being the Cold War) fought around Eastern Europe (and even today it is crucial as we can see on the “battle for Ukraine”) but at the time of Mackinder the energy resources of the Middle East were not discovered yet. And resources are more important than land in our modern world: who controlled them, more than who controlled Eastern Europe, won the WWI and II (UK and France, with the support of the US and URSS) and the Cold War becoming the world hegemon (the US). Also the superiority of the land countries respect to the sea-born countries is disputable today, one hundred years after Mackinder book, as again the US is a maritime power in the world. In the future actually, as George Friedman argues(1), US will retain its power thanks to this and Mexico will become an important force on the geopolitical stage. To be surrounded by oceans became the foundation of American security and wealth, economic and military power, and in the globalization era to control the sea seems more important than to control an “impregnable fortress” like the Heartland, as we can see from the naval presence of the US in East Asia and Southwest Asia (or Middle East) that allow the US to avoid the domination of either end of Eurasia by a potentially hostile power.

(1)George Friedman. The Next 100 Years. A Forecast for the 21st Century. Anchor, 2010

Robert Kagan recent article “America’s Dangerous Aversion to Conflict”: looking always to the past instead of to the future


Robert Kagan(1) is back. In his recent article on WSJ, with his classical realist pessimist self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitability of violent conflict because of “has always been like that”, he explains us that similarly to Europe after WWII, “who sought an escape from the tragic realities of power that had bloodied their 20th century”, the US, after Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “seems to be yearning for an escape from the burdens of power and a reprieve from the tragic realities of human existence”. And it goes without saying that for Kagan human existence is based on power, conflict and war.

In its very much debated and famous article written on the aftermath of 9/11, “Power and Weakness”, he explained to the world how the US and Europe were to be considered always on a different track in their approach to international politics, order and security. We had “to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world”(2). The bases of unipolarism were explained with this impacting analysis and the “New American Century” had to start, because Europe and the US had different identity and perceptions and could not go together towards a new world order after the end of the Cold War. Kagan believed that the European insignificance in solving major conflicts was based on its faith in the international law: European comes from Venus, with a vision of peace and rule of law while Americans comes from Mars, with a dream of “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness”.

Let’s analyze more in depth his old “Power and weakness” article, to see from where comes his idea that “raw force remains a key element in international politics”. The sharp distinction that Kagan did between the US and the EU didn’t give much space for mutual rapprochement, as the US will always be more prone to the use of military force while European will always look for diplomacy and less harder interventions (like economic sanctions). According to Kagan this depended not only on different military powers and ability to project them (when European powers were strong they were using strength and martial glory, now it was the turn of the US) but on their identity based on different values: America has a Hobbesian vision of the world while Europe a Kantian one. So the European project and the mere maintenance of peace in Europe has always depended on the American military protection with the NATO presence (a clear realist view that deny any role to economic interdependence or construction of common values) not on the idealist construction of integration and institution of supranational sovereignty. Today, Kagan says, also “a majority of Americans (and of the American political and intellectual classes) seem to have come close to concluding not only that war is horrible but also that it is ineffective in our modern, globalized world”. And instead of considering it an achievement he defines it a danger.

My criticism to Kagan (and all the realists as Mearsheimer) is that even if he is right on shaping the differences of identity between the US and Europe and on the fact that European invasion from Russia could have been avoided overall because of American presence, the European “Kantian paradise” is not a result only of the US protection. France and Germany didn’t attack each other anymore not because of the American presence but because of the will to build a ‘new identity’, based on the European integration. As constructivism teaches us ideas shape policies and social practices creates new ideas and new identities. Plus the US never had fortunately the experience Europeans had of national ideological folly and war tragedies since millennia and this make the American realist analysis unable to grasp European reasons behind its evolution.

As Cicero said “history is master of life” so if Kagan and his realist friends keep just looking back to history,  from Peloponnesian war to WWII, just as a cyclical repetition, they are not helping to envision the future, on the opposite: they are trapped in a self-fulfillment prophecy of repeating the past. True, the European legal order is something that is still in process, but an international order based on law cannot be created “from the day to the night” (as we say in Italy) in particular in a world that is constantly shifting and moving from one side to another as our modern globalized, complex and liquid world. Each institutional building that change the bases of an international system needs time as it must change minds and hearts of people and political wills of states. The fact that the ICC born after many years of discussion (even if with many countries outside its sphere of action, like the US indeed) is a demonstration of that.

Besides this we saw also how long the American unipolar moment lasted, with the disaster of Iraq war and the consequences we are living today, so we cannot take for granted that the diplomacy is not a valid approach to security as much as powerful interventions. Even if the US is now still a “primus inter pares” it has not anymore the global hegemony, and notwithstanding the fact that is the world’s longest democracy and wants to bring freedom and happiness with its Manifest Destiny, we can say with President Jimmy Carter that “America didn’t invent the human rights, human rights invented America”(3). So it is time for the US to stand up to its democratic principles (created in the European enlightenment) also on his actions in international arena. America has to listen to other perspectives of great or less great powers overcoming the thought of being the only entitled power that have the duty to bring order to the world(4).

At the end of the day the recent diplomatic efforts of the US and Europe in the Middle East (Iran, Syria and Palestine) demonstrate that the US is starting a new track respect to what Kagan keep saying about the ‘inevitability of Hobbesian intervention’ (since already the “New beginning” speech of Obama in Egypt in 2004). And I believe that Middle East has to be let to govern itself sooner or later, as Jeffrey Sachs argue(5) , as the regional powers of Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will have to decide by themselves if going on during this century with their cleavages and national interests or create a community of security and economic integration (as the EU did, even if after two world wars) for the stability of the region and as a seed of the future world order.


1) Robert Kagan is senior fellow at Brooking Institute, Council of Foreign Relations and co-founder of “Project for the New American Century”/PNAC (famous think tank that promoted American leadership and strongly influenced Bush administration). His recent article on WSJ: http://online.wsj.com/articles/robert-kagan-why-the-u-s-wants-to-avoid-conflict-1409942201

2) Robert Kagan, Power and weakness, Policy Review, June/July 2002.

3) Jimmy Carter, speech at FLACSO, Quito, Ecuador, 2009 http://www.cartercenter.org/news/editorials_speeches/FLACSO_042909.html

4) See on this “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy”, William Pfaff, 2010.

5) http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/jeffrey-d-sachs-wants-the-us-and-europe-to-allow-the-region-to-govern-itself