Civilizational Divides and Regional Confrontations – 1


To start this exchange, Gilbert Rozman wrote a meditative piece on the dangers of civilizational “pull” for Japan and France were they to respond with some complacency toward Russia and China’s respective challenges to their immediate neighborhoods. He is right on the need for a strategic “push”—one whereby both countries would clearly overcome their old, cultural inward-thinking and clearly act together with the United States beyond their own regional needs: in France or Europe’s case, to join the Asian concert that is decrying China’s maritime forays, and in Japan’s case, to be on board all necessary sanctions against Russia as it increasingly meddles in Ukraine. Rozman’s strategic conclusion is spot on: there is a need for viewing Eurasian security as a whole, but at least to this writer, he seems to build on the wrong premises. Right now, Europe’s predicament, like Japan’s, is strategic before it is civilizational. Here, I extend the exchange on this topic in anticipation of further exploration of this theme in the coming month, notably from the perspective of Japan.

Over the past decade, both France and Japan have been unfailingly on board their very different types of alliance with the United States. France moved with the United States on Libya, and then egged it on to move against the Assad regime in Syria (and now deplores this was not the case). France and the United Kingdom (separately, which speaks volumes about the lack of cohesion inside Europe) have forged new defense ties to several Asian countries, and most tellingly with Japan. In fact, the European Union as such, at the declarative level, has engaged the Asian conflicts in at least two high profile instances: a joint declaration between Catherine Ashton and Hillary Clinton in 2012, which advised Asians to “resolve territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful, diplomatic and cooperative solutions,” and an EU-Japan summit statement in 2013 where the EU “welcomes Japan’s diplomatic initiatives” to resolve issues. In 2014, France went further with Japan in expressing its concerns. One might add that over the Ukrainian crisis, France has now suspended the delivery of the two large command ships (the Mistral) ordered by Russia: this is potentially a USD 15 billion write-off, for a country beleaguered by its budget deficit and with ever rising defense commitments. And it is true, in general, that because the EU has a much larger share of Russian trade and investment than the United States, the burden of the sanctions will fall much more on it, which is not unjustified, of course, since what is in question is, indeed, Europe’s future security.

One can similarly argue that Japan, since 2006, has toed the line on sanctions against Iran, in spite of its strong interest in Iranian oil and gas fields. The Abe Shinzo government, although completely taken by surprise by the annexation of Crimea when Tokyo had just launched a diplomatic offensive towards Russia, has, however reluctantly, backed sanctions against Russia, leading to the recent cancellation by Vladimir Putin of his trip to Japan. This, and the current China-Japan enmity, is, in fact, creating the possibility that Japan’s worst fear, a return to a quasi-alliance between Russia and China, might be in the works.

The above remarks stick to the strategic—and also the declarative—level. The undercurrents are much more mixed, and much closer to Rozman’s views. Let’s start with a bit of strategy from the European point of view. Europe is now overwhelmed by at least three developing crises: that in Ukraine are fundamental. Annexation by force and war at Europe’s border—Vladimir Putin’s blatant contempt for past agreements—creates an unprecedented situation. It is no secret that Europe was initially divided on the response to events in Crimea: while the Baltic states and Poland felt most directly under threat, Germany tried to keep a “balanced” approach. Initially, Berlin, London, and Paris watched each other to make sure sanctions were shared (economic ties for Germany, financial sanctions for London, the non-delivery of combat ships for Paris). This, along with Barack Obama’s desire to state from the onset that the US response would be non-military, only convinced Putin that he could charge ahead, as he has been doing in recent weeks. In doing so, however, he has rendered quite obsolete the above-mentioned divisions on sanctions. In the short term, he has recreated a Western unity, including Japan at the margin, that produced at least a declaratory revival of NATO, with renewed pledges by Europeans to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. It is hard to believe that they will do so, but at least these intentions might prevent a further decline.

But this is only one of Europe’s external crises. The second crisis is in Syria and Iraq, close to Middle East oil on which Europe depends. Beyond the debate on whether the existing state structure in the Middle East can endure, or whether new sectarian and communitarian lines will prevail, there are two hard facts: mass murder, and the participation of many European nationals who pose a threat to homeland security. The third crisis is Libya, where the dream of a democratic transition is unravelling into factional partition. Again, Europe cannot but be involved: this is creating an avenue for illegal immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, 100,000 into Italy over the first six months of 2014, not counting those who drowned. We are not factoring in the security situation in the Sahel, from Nigeria to Sudan via Mali and Central Africa: yet both the Islamist threat and the effect from chaos in Libya are a major factor. Less than three hours away by plane from European capitals, you can pick your choice of bloody conflicts in Europe’s neighborhoods.

These problems are strategic before they are civilizational, but since both Europe and Japan are democracies, public discourse and debate also take on a civilizational turn (in China and Russia, this is much less evident, because the political leadership provides simplistic nationalist answers—the Chinese dream and the resurgence of Mother Russia). This is unavoidable, and that is where Rozman’s arguments deserve detailed scrutiny. One particular case should be mentioned first: that of Korea. Its strategic interests are torn between an evident stake in a stable and law-based international system, including for East Asia, and the need to have some control over the endgame in North Korea, a tragedy that has lasted 70 years so far. The former calls for a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. The latter is evidently what brings Korea closer to China, and creates a regional balancing role of a sort between China and Japan. Yet, much public discourse in Korea is dwelling on something else—a civilizational and historical grudge towards Japan. There is, indeed, much room for debate between Japanese and Korean society, and it includes unsolved issues: very localized and circumscribed territorial issues, while a main difference with Europe is that there is no complete understanding around historical issues. Yet, the importance of this pales when viewed in the perspective of strategic uncertainties: the future of the Korean Peninsula and the fate of people in the North, and overall regional security.

Turning towards Europe, there has not been much of a debate on whether Mr. Putin is right or wrong. Praising Putinism as a model is restricted to the far right, and only in countries far enough from Russia’s borders so as not to be exposed directly to its grasp, or to far left elements who essentially heap “a curse on your house” against their own society (France’s best known far right and far left contenders each harbor admiration respectively for Russia and China, which brings us back to the pre-WWII hatred of democracy from opposite ends). Although Russia’s wealth of natural resources and its market are, of course, important to Europeans, it does not stand out as a model for Europeans. China, far more successful economically, represents a level of social development that is so far away from welfare-minded Europe that it cannot be even remotely attractive as a model either. In both cases, we are left with two debates: one is about realism. Is realism about strategy, insisting on holding on to principles in order to avoid creating dangerous precedents, or is the market the ultimate realist? And the other is about how to deal with Russia, or China, however unpalatable their political leadership may be. One cannot generalize the answers in a single paragraph, but if one tries, it is along the following paradigm: those who are farthest away have had a debate about economic sanctions and their cost, with strong lobbies (in London, the City, in France, naval shipyards and consumer goods exporters or distributors, in Germany major equipment firms, Italy as a whole because it depends on natural gas imports from Russia more than others). Those who are closer to Russia have no doubts about the sanctions, although they clearly perceive these are a paltry substitute to a military guarantee: it is not Europe, but Mr. Obama, who indicated very early on that any response to Russia would remain non-military. That statement, of course, does not apply to states that are members of NATO’s Western alliance, just as the United States has reiterated security guarantees to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines in East Asia. It does leave open a huge “grey zone,” of course.

This very practical dilemma has obscured the more fundamental second question, which is asked now and then: how does one leave an exit for Russia, trying not to equate it with Putin’s present policies? This is where much of German foreign policy, and some quarters in France’s mainstream parties, remain invested, and it is the bit where the civilizational debate fully applies. Viewing Russia as an adversary will turn it into one, especially given the strength of defensive patriotism in a country that has experienced invasions. Europe’s spontaneous push towards enlargement, a knee-jerk policy rather than a strategy, has already hit snags, with economic or migratory consequences (Greece’s national Ponzi scheme, Romania’s export of its communitarian problems) it was not ready to take on. There is every indication that the EU was not in a hurry to welcome Ukraine as a member state, and certainly no NATO plan existed for that country, but it stirred hopes in Ukraine’s population. Putin claims to have spotted a plot against Russia; what he may have spotted instead is an irresoluteness that left him plenty of room for playing chess, which is what Sergey Lavrov, his minister of foreign affairs, does very well.

By comparison, of course, Europe’s choices regarding China appear to be non-important. Europe is not a hard power in Asia, does not have contiguous borders or even a neighborhood issue, and is neither a supplier nor a buyer of energy or raw materials from China. We may need the cash from Chinese investments (or from Chinese hot money, carried by individual investors and tourists), but no more than we need capital from say, Qatar, which currently proves a more thorny issue. Ergo, there is the very tempting possibility for Europe to turn a blind eye to Asia’s conflicts and to capitalize on “soft power” and “neutrality,” two code words for doing nothing. Furthermore, it is not as if the United States were pressing Europeans to do more in East Asia. Because the US involvement in preserving a stable status quo in East Asia is inseparable from its narrower economic interests, it has never been really keen on sharing that particular burden. Rather, the American emphasis has been on burden sharing within each region: with Japan and Korea in Asia, with NATO allies in Europe. But America has seen the benefit of being the pivot around which these alliances, that are in effect regional, revolve.

Events in the Middle East—from the first war against Saddam Hussein in 1991-1992 to the containment of Iran’s nuclear surge—had already challenged that assumption. Russia’s challenge in Ukraine and its backdoor reliance on China (however exaggerated in practice) now rip it apart. Japan, which in the past was vainly seeking European support on the Northern Territories, finds itself backing sanctions against Moscow—because it needs US support to contain China’s territorial irredentism. Europe has not completely caught on to this new game, and is perplexed by an impossible choice. It should reward Japan for joining in the sanctions, but risks moving China even closer to Russia in the process. It has not tried the opposite tack: the very same Eastern and Central European countries who lobby Western Europe and Washington for a more resolute stand have not reached out to Beijing, in spite of the fact that China has created with them a yearly summit (which angers the EU because it represents a split in external relations). Most likely, they still prioritize the chase for Chinese investments, just as a sizable sector of Japan’s firms, and the Korean economy as a whole, cling to their profitable Chinese operations.

One might call it schizophrenia—economic interests vs. the geopolitical divide. Chinese experts have perfectly identified the symptoms, and Putin has recently lashed out against Washington, which seeks to break European economic ties to Russia. To a European, there is nothing new in this: even during World War I, in the middle of the carnage, French and German steelworks operated unimpeded and unattacked from either side, even as they fed each country’s war machine. More optimistically, one might say that this is a sign that in spite of much agitation, neither Europe nor Japan thinks that their core interests are ultimately threatened (how striking, for example, that a recent opinion poll found 53 percent of the Chinese, but only 24 percent of Japanese, believing that a war will break out between the two countries). They may well be complacent, and time will tell, perhaps soon. But these are more strategic gambles than civilizational divides.


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