So there I was, in 1983 or thereabouts, a modest Second Secretary fast asleep in my eccentric flat in the posher area of post-Tito Belgrade. I woke up in panic: a huge dog had jumped on the bed! I looked round. Phew. No dog. But instead, I had felt small tremors of an earthquake much further south. I felt queasy. Unsettled. Unbalanced.
On that occasion there was little if any harm done, in Belgrade at least. And I’ve never had a scarier earthquake experience than that puny one. But the point about earthquakes is that they crash our everyday assumptions. Most Diplomat readers go through life dealing with food-shopping, tax returns, next postings, annoying teenagers and the football scores. We don’t spend any time wondering whether the floor beneath our feet will collapse in a second and the neighbourhood reduced to rubble.
Earthquakes are a completely different category of things, and all the more drastic because typically there is next to no warning. Everything is normal. Then everything is different, and worse. All our psychological and practical reference-points have changed, maybe vanished.
So, why a Diplomat piece starting with earthquakes? Because in diplomacy as in geology, earthquakes happen. Existing safe assumptions and their associated institutions just crumble away, leaving people blinking in bewilderment at a brand-new uncertain situation when no-one knows what will happen next.
The fall of the Berlin Wall of course was one such earthquake. It’s safe to say that when in Berlin in June 1987 US President Ronald Reagan famously called on Soviet leader Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall,’ no diplomatic policy planner on either side of the wall expected that within a mere 156 weeks that wall would be demolished. Communist East Germany had been a malign feature of the European scene for four decades. Within months it evaporated. The aftershocks of this earthquake soon brought down the Soviet Union itself.
A no less momentous European diplomatic earthquake took place on 24 October 1795. After some 20 years of annoying small wars as a declining Poland struggled to defend itself, representatives of Russia, Prussia and the Hapsburg monarchy signed a treaty briskly removing Poland from the map and grabbing its territory for themselves. For centuries Poland had been a dominant power across Europe. Then it disappeared, until it re-emerged following World War I.
That War itself represented a slow ghastly earthquake that toppled the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and German empires and opened the way to the disintegration of the other European empires (other than the Tsarist empire, that still lumbers on in the shape of modern Russia). In turn, World War II brought the then major powers of the world to set up the completely new international legal framework headed by the new United Nations organisation that we have today.
The point about earthquakes is that they crash our everyday assumptions.
Erosion is slow to the point of being imperceptible. But decay happens even if you don’t notice it. The consequences of extended decay can be dramatic. Take post-Tito Yugoslavia again. There it was, ‘a pillar of stability in the Balkans’ as the then FCO briefing coyly put it. To the rest of the world it looked like an imposing and solid but badly maintained non-aligned house full of Slavic relatives squabbling over nothing that mattered. Alas away from international attention the termites of rival nationalisms were busy gnawing away Yugoslavia’s philosophical foundations. Boom. Gone.
Back in 2011 in another Diplomat piece I opined:
In October last year I gave a presentation to a TEDx event in Krakow, entitled The Physics of Diplomacy … I pointed out that Europe over the past 1000 years had seen empires and countries wax and wane. At some point the European Union in turn would crumble away. The only question was when this would happen.
My presentation concluded with a vivid and
(as it turned out) vaticinating slide:
Will EU Diplomacy Survive?
· EU in 50,000,000 years’ time? No
· EU in 5,000,000 years’ time? No
· EU in 50,000 years’ time? No
· EU in 5,000 years’ time? No
· EU in 500 years’ time? No
· EU in 50 years’ time? Maybe
· EU in 5 years’ time? Probably
This is an unsettling Planet of the Apes thought. The original 1968 film ends with the famous scene: lost human astronauts in a far distant future on the seashore, falling to their knees in despair when they see the remains of a long-lost civilisation jutting from the sand. The top of the Statue of Liberty. They’re back on Earth!
Whether we like it or not, one day our familiar cluster of UN family organisations and the European Union and NATO and OPEC and ASEAN will all be gone. All our current national borders and the foreign ministries and embassies that represent them will be gone. Perhaps far in the future some people excavating in the steamy jungles that grow where Brussels now is will find evidence that their ancestors engaged in ritualistic incantations of ‘comitology’, ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘the working-time directive’. What were these strange ancients doing with this elaborate mumbo-jumbo? Why did they not see that they were doomed?
Erosion eats away legitimacy. Yes, the UN system and the UN Security Council are the pillars of modern international law. But aren’t they all starting to look and feel weak and boring and irrelevant as events unfold apace? Examples:
- Russia commits monstrous aggression against Ukraine, but uses its privilege and influence as a UN Security Council permanent member to block the whole UN system from calling their aggression a ‘war’.
- India is now the most populous nation on Earth, yet not a UNSC permanent member. Weird! How to reform the UN to change that? Impossible: too many other claims and demands emerge. There’s no reason to think that the existing permanent members or many other UN member states will agree any time soon.
- Now the Israel/Palestine conflict (‘war’?) is entering a new dangerous phase, with risks of wider fighting as other Islamic states feel a need to weigh in. The UN and EU look on impotently.
Perhaps what we’re seeing is the growth of a deep, new disillusionment with international order in its current form. What if global popular feeling starts to coalesce around the idea that said international order is an outdated legacy of ‘Western colonialism’?
It suits Moscow and Beijing under their current authoritarian leaderships slyly to push that line of thinking on global social media channels: western values of democracy and transparency are the main threat to their continuing rule. Most fast-growing African populations need little persuading that they’re not fairly represented in global decision-making under the current rules. Likewise, the ‘Muslim world’ plus India and Latin America. That’s a lot of disgruntled people.
Most fast-growing African populations need little persuading that they’re not fairly represented in global decision-making under the current rules.
That said, it’s one thing being unhappy with the status quo. What to do to force changes in it? One way is to abuse any organisation’s consensus procedure to stall progress on budgetary issues and veto specific operations, so that the organisation gets becalmed and its credibility ebbs away. This is what Moscow has been doing to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Likewise, the venerable and vital International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is currently struggling, as over 40 per cent of its member states are behind on their payments. What if this sort of thing spreads?
Perhaps most disconcerting in all this is that whatever serious criticisms might be made of how the rules and institutions of international order now stand, replacing them with something obviously better is a formidably difficult task. So frustrations might start to spill over into a nihilistic ‘the worse the better’ instinct: Let earthquakes and erosion do their worst with our active help to bring down the decadent ‘Western’ rules-based world. We’ll worry about inventing new rules when we dance on the rubble!
Maybe some Diplomat readers recall this quotation from my piece here in 2016:
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos … Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!
More apposite than ever?