Empire, interrupted

If it is not China, it is Russia or Iran or Turkey: dangerous states with ambitions far beyond their borders and memories far beyond our histories.

We expect certain behaviour of great nations. We expect them to respect their borders and others’, to grant equal respect to all settled nations, big or small. We expect them to respect their own people too of whatever tribe or tongue. We are outraged when China does not respect these norms, nor Russia, nor Persia, nor (increasingly) Turkey.

This is a moment in time. The West has had relative peace for three-quarters of a century after millennia of continuous bloodshed . Peace has brought prosperity beyond imagining. This period of time has been a new world such that the old is itself inexplicable to the upcoming generation. We have settled the world as it should be and demand that it remain. Others disagree.

The west has declared the norms for the whole world. For China though, with a civilisation stretching back millennia, the states of the west are mere children, and they see that the children have imposed their ideas on others for their own convenience.

The borders of the world were defined by the Empires of the West. All nations of ambition have in the past ages expanded as they could, swallowed neighbours, reformed failing cultures around them, found sparsely inhabited lands and colonised them. The great, enduring Asiatic empires were China, the Ottomans, Persia and Russia, each with its own age of expansion, consolidation and corruption. Persia and China were great civilisations when the English were a scatter of hut-dwelling tribes in the damp fens of north Germany. They faltered, and in the case of China it drew inward, disgusted at the state of the world it could see at its fringes.

The Western expansion is natural to us. We swept the oceans and settled the farthermost shores. We drew the borders of the whole world and defined what is acceptable, the universal concept of international law, the jus gentium taken from our history, religion and philosophy and our Westphalian conception of the autonomy of states. Then we stopped. We insisted on respect forever for borders we drew. We, the West, called an end to empire and the End of History itself.

China awakes. She finds that while she slept, the children of the world made rules. Had China not paused for a while in her natural expansion, China might have trodden where the western states do.

You might imagine an ambitious statesman looking out from the old Imperial capital of Peking, heir to the Emperors, seeing the almost empty land of Australia, say, and thinking that if the Yuan dynasty had not looked inwardly, it might have been their junks finding the Great South Land. Now white people live there but sparsely. Then he might wonder why history must stop where white people say it should, conveniently at our maximum expansion. The British and the Russians took advantage of China’s weakness to hem her in, and now, with those forces withdrawn, expect the Chinese to remain where they are. Should two centuries of weakness in four millennia of civilisation define them forever? Then they may wonder why this particular moment of time should be their eternity. It is not by their rules.

Iran, or Persia, is an empire older even than China’s, humbled repeatedly by outsiders but always counting herself the elder. To be scolded by the Americans, people of a state with less than two and a half centuries behind it, is insulting.

Closer west is Turkey, founded as an empire in the age of the Crusades, swallowing and adapting the Byzantine Roman civilisation it supplanted. For centuries the Ottomans ruled all north Africa and Arabia and south-western Europe, to be overtaken and cut down only in the Industrial Age. Thus they may be wondering what would have been had Turkey had the tools of industrialisation first. It is a hundred years this year since the empire was liquidated at Sèvres. Resentment is not lost in what is a brief time for such an old empire. When we read that the new Turkish government is sending guns and men to Syria we assume that they are concerned for their borders, but they are making the war longer, not securing peaceful bounds. When they send guns to Libya, then we may see that Libya was Ottoman territory until just over a hundred years ago, as was Syria. They may see it as theirs still in that same sense that we would resent any foreign country gaining political or cultural hegemony in India.

We live in a moment of time. In this time we have seen that by peace and the standards developed in the West there has been unprecedented prosperity and welfare. We cannot however assume that all other nations, the older nations with their own cultures and histories, see it the same way nor see any reason to stop their history.

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The Russia Report: was that it then?

I read it. It is short. It says nothing we did not know already: Putin’s Russia has a persecution complex and is trying to subvert western powers largely out of habit, but does so incompetently.

Speculation over what might be in the report could fill volumes, for a report of 55 pages, where the live content could be fitted on about two of them. Conspiracy theorists are furious.

The idea that the Brexit referendum was influenced by Russian operatives was exploded long ago: the only noticeable activity by Russian bot factories was after the result, and very few people saw whatever inanities appeared on Twitter anyway. The Scottish Referendum could have been meaty, but again the only thing the Report could identify was some clumsy disinformation after the event trying to suggest irregularities, and that explicitly came from Russia so nae bother, eh?

The voice of frustration comes out in the Report: we cannot see what the Russkies did to our votes! Well, no – because they didn’t do anything except the things which were done so clumsily and so late they might as well have hung a banner saying ‘Vladimir was here’ on them. Twitter is not magic; it does not sway elections on its own.

The big splash story trailed beforehand was that during the election campaign Russian intelligence leaked to their pal Jeremy Corbyn parts of the trade negotiation with the United States. We knew that at the time though – Fay even posted about it at the time on this site (in cod-Russian: sorry).

The main lessons to be learned from this report concern influencers finding their way through high society, but that should be no surprise. It is the usual practice of intelligence agencies to search for influential men, easily flattered, to act as their ‘useful idiots’ – it is just the experience of Russia to find the word ‘useful’ is not the right one.

(Russia’s intelligence community has repeatedly proven itself to be maladroit, blundering, incapable of effective action. They can’t even assassinate a dissident without leaving clumsy great paw-prints over everything. That is a comfort at least.)

A positive was that the report acknowledged that our paper voting system is robust and largely impenetrable to would-be fraudsters. Electronic voting could be vulnerable if Russia took an interest (and yes, Estonia, we are looking at you.)

The Report wanted to find more. It was, it must be remembered, written by a committee of the Zombie Parliament chaired by a man of great intelligence but who was so determined to overturn Brexit that he repudiated the Conservative manifesto and was even willing to conspire with a hostile foreign power to defeat the interests of his own country. A worthy winner of the Casement Award indeed. The Report wanted to find that Brexit was tainted by Russian interference, and expresses frustration that it was not.

Move along: there’s nothing here to see.

Of course there are calls to change the law after a report that has generated so much publicity. Some want to censor the internet (now what true sociopath wouldn’t want that job?) Maybe they will try to deal with those useful idiots. This might though prompt a change in the law that Andrea Jenkys one proposed: locking up anyone who assists a foreign power to defeat the British government in its negotiations.

There is something missing as I read through these paper, and something that Mr Grieve did not ask to be investigated: when will we see a comprehensive report on European interference in British elections or the Brexit referendum?

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Putin it like that, no

I was due to write a long, possibly rambling, post on Vladimir Putin’s comments on liberalism, but the job has been done for me. I loathe the modern philosophies of nominal liberalism and the destructive effect they have had on state and society, but if President Putin thinks I must then fall into his camp, he has not understood the Britons.

As it happens, I need not provide an insightful analysis because Paul Goodman has written a flawless piece on Conservative Home this morning:

Putin asserts that liberalism has outlived its purpose and is obsolete. That choice of words follows the liberals’ own playbook, by asserting Putin’s philosophy to be ‘on the right side of history’, and he is also playing the old game of portraying the choice of philosophy as one-dimensional; Liberal v Authority.

In fact, there is no ‘right side of history’ and the field is not one-dimensional either. Also ‘liberalism’ is not one entity but a series of propositions, some right, many wrong, and a badge seized upon by anyone with a mad idea they wish to propagate. Therefore opposing the maddest new ideas, or ideas fifty years old, is not to throw yourself into the hands of dictatorship not to abandon liberalism itself (however it might be defined).

Then there is the basic point put by Paul Goodman: it is not just liberalism and authoritianism: there is the Conservative in the mould of the English-speaking world. That is built on the inheritance of freedom which is fundamental to Anglosphere culture: strip modern accretions away from the cultures of continental Europe and you are left with feudal tyranny as the basic norm of life, but strip modernity from the English-speaking peoples and you have the ancient rights of free Englishmen. This makes deep-conservatism so different in the Anglosphere: in Europe it looks back to ancient authority which was tyrannous, while for us it looks back at a time when the state barely interfered in life.

On the basis of opposing western liberalism, Putin is building alliances with European-style conservatives, in Turkey and the old lands of Austria-Hungary. As the only genuine freedom-loving conservative government anywhere in the Anglosphere at the moment is that of the United States, and that is under existential threat from authoritarian liberals, there seems no other alliance to oppose the idiocies of modernist ideologues without jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

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