Kaplan / REVENGE GEOGRAPHY
FROM BOSNIA TO BAGHDAD
To recover our sense of geography, we first must fix the moment in recent history when we most profoundly lost it, explain why we lost it, and elucidate how that affected our assumptions about the world. Of course, such a loss is gradual. But the moment I have isolated, when that loss seemed most acute, was immediately after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Though an artificial border whose crumbling should have enhanced our respect for geography and the relief map—and what that map might have foreshadowed in the adjacent Balkans and the Middle East—the Berlin Wall’s erasure made us blind to the real geographical impediments that still divided us, and still awaited us.
For suddenly we were in a world in which the dismantling of a man-made boundary in Germany had led to the assumption that all human divisions were surmountable; that democracy would conquer Africa and the Middle East as easily as it had Eastern Europe; that globalization—soon to become a buzzword—was nothing less than a moral direction of history and a system of international security, rather than what it actually was, merely an economic and cultural stage of development. Consider: a totalitarian ideology had just been vanquished, even as domestic security in the United States and Western Europe was being taken for granted. The semblance of peace reigned generally. Presciently capturing the zeitgeist, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, Francis Fukuyama, published an article a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “The End of History,” proclaiming that while wars and rebellions would continue, history in a Hegelian sense was over now, since the success of capitalist liberal democracies had ended the argument over which system of government was best for humankind.1 Thus, it was just a matter of shaping the world more in our own image, sometimes through the deployment of American troops; deployments that in the 1990s would exact relatively little penalty. This, the first intellectual cycle of the Post Cold War, was an era of illusions. It was a time when the words “realist” and “pragmatist” were considered pejoratives, signifying an aversion to humanitarian intervention in places where the national interest, as conventionally and narrowly defined, seemed elusive. Better in those days to be a neoconservative or liberal internationalist, who were thought of as good, smart people who simply wanted to stop genocide in the Balkans.
Such a burst of idealism in the United States was not unprecedented. Victory in World War I had unfurled the banner of “Wilsonianism,” a notion associated with President Woodrow Wilson that, as it would turn out, took little account of the real goals of America’s European allies and even less account of the realities of the Balkans and the Near East, where, as events in the 1920s would show, democracy and freedom from the imperial overlordship of the Ottoman Turks meant mainly heightened ethnic awareness of a narrow sort in the individual parts of the old sultanate. It was a similar phenomenon that followed the West’s victory in the Cold War, which many believed would simply bring freedom and prosperity under the banners of “democracy” and “free markets.” Many suggested that even Africa, the poorest and least stable continent, further burdened with the world’s most artificial and illogical borders, might also be on the brink of a democratic revolution; as if the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the heart of Europe held supreme meaning for the world’s least developed nations, separated by sea and desert thousands of miles away, but connected by television.2 Yet, just as after World War I and World War II, our victory in the Cold War would usher in less democracy and global peace than the next struggle for survival, in which evil would wear new masks.
Democracy and better government would, in fact, begin to emerge in Africa of all places. But it would be a long and difficult struggle, with anarchy (in the cases of several West African countries), insurrection, and outright wickedness (in the case of Rwanda) rearing their heads for considerable periods in between. Africa would go a long way toward defining the long decade between November 9, 1989, and September 11, 2001—between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the al Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center: a twelve-year period that saw mass murder and belated humanitarian interventions frustrate idealist intellectuals, even as the ultimate success of those interventions raised idealist triumphalism to heights that were to prove catastrophic in the decade that began after 9/11.
In that new decade following 9/11, geography, a factor certainly in the Balkans and Africa in the 1990s, would go on to wreak unmitigated havoc on America’s good intentions in the Near East. The journey from Bosnia to Baghdad, from a limited air and land campaign in the western, most developed part of the former Turkish Empire in the Balkans to a mass infantry invasion in the eastern, least developed part in Mesopotamia, would expose the limits of liberal universalism, and in the process concede new respect to the relief map.
The Post Cold War actually began in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, with the revival of the term “Central Europe,” later defined by the journalist and Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash as “a political-cultural distinction against the Soviet ‘East.’ ”3 Central Europe, Mitteleuropa, was more of an idea than a fact of geography. It constituted a declaration of memory: that of an intense, deliciously cluttered, and romantic European civilization, suggestive of cobblestone streets and gabled roofs, of rich wine, Viennese cafés, and classical music, of a gentle, humanist tradition infused with edgy and disturbing modernist art and thought. It conjured up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and such names as Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, and Sigmund Freud, leavened with a deep appreciation of the likes of Immanuel Kant and the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Indeed, “Central Europe,” among so many other things, meant the endangered intellectual world of Jewry before the ravages of Nazism and communism; it meant economic development, with a sturdy recall of Bohemia, prior to World War II, as having enjoyed a higher level of industrialization than Belgium. It meant, with all of its decadence and moral imperfections, a zone of relative multiethnic tolerance under the umbrella of a benign if increasingly dysfunctional Habsburg Empire. In the last phase of the Cold War, Central Europe was succinctly captured by Princeton professor Carl E. Schorske in his troubling, icy-eyed classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, and by the Italian writer Claudio Magris in his sumptuous travelogue Danube. For Magris, Mitteleuropa is a sensibility that “means the defence of the particular against any totalitarian programme.” For the Hungarian writer György Konrád and the Czech writer Milan Kundera, Mitteleuropa is something “noble,” a “master-key” for liberalizing political aspirations.4
To speak of “Central Europe” in the 1980s and 1990s was to say that a culture in and of itself comprised a geography every bit as much as a mountain range did, or every bit as much as Soviet tanks did. For the idea of Central Europe was a rebuke to the geography of the Cold War, which had thrown up the term “Eastern Europe” to denote the half of Europe that was communist and controlled from Moscow. East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary had all been part of Central Europe, it was rightly argued, and therefore should not have been consigned to the prison of nations that was communism and the Warsaw Pact. A few years later, ironically, when ethnic war broke out in Yugoslavia, “Central Europe,” rather than a term of unification, would also become one of division; with “the Balkans” dismembered in people’s minds from Central Europe, and becoming, in effect, part of the new/old Near East.
The Balkans were synonymous with the old Turkish and Byzantine empires, with unruly mountain ranges that had hindered development, and with a generally lower standard of living going back decades and centuries compared to the lands of the former Habsburg and Prussian empires in the heart of Europe. During the monochrome decades of communist domination, Balkan countries such as Romania and Bulgaria did, in fact, suffer a degree of poverty and repression unknown to the northern, “Central European” half of the Soviet Empire. The situation was complicated, of course. East Germany was the most truly occupied of the satellite states, and consequently its communist system was among the most rigid, even as Yugoslavia—not formally a member of the Warsaw Pact—allowed a degree of freedom, particularly in its cities, that was unknown in Czechoslovakia, for example. And yet, overall, the nations of former Turkish and Byzantine southeastern Europe suffered in their communist regimes nothing less than a version of oriental despotism, as though a second Mongol invasion, whereas those nations of former Catholic Habsburg Europe mainly suffered something less malignant: a dreary mix in varying degrees of radical socialist populism. In this regard traveling from relatively liberal, albeit communist, Hungary under János Kádár to Romania under the totalitarianism of Nicolae Ceau˛sescu was typical in this regard. I made the trip often in the 1980s: as my train passed into Romania from Hungary, the quality of the building materials suddenly worsened; officials ravaged my luggage and made me pay a bribe for my typewriter; the toilet paper in the lavatory disappeared and lights went dim. True, the Balkans were deeply influenced by Central Europe, but they were just as influenced by the equally proximate Middle East. The dusty steppe with its bleak public spaces—imports both from Anatolia—were a feature of life in Kosovo and Macedonia, where the cultured conviviality of Prague and Budapest was harder to find. Thus, it was not altogether an accident, or completely the work of evil individuals, that violence broke out in the ethnic mélange of Yugoslavia rather than, say, in the uniethnic Central European states of Hungary and Poland. History and geography also had something to do with it.
Yet by holding up Central Europe as a moral and political cynosure, rather than as a geographical one, liberal intellectuals like Garton Ash—one of the most eloquent voices of the decade—propounded a vision not only of Europe, but of the world that was inclusive rather than discriminatory. In this view, not only should the Balkans not be consigned to underdevelopment and barbarism, but neither should any place: Africa, for example. The fall of the Berlin Wall should affect not only Germany, but, rather, should unleash the dream of Central Europe writ large across the globe. This humanist approach was the essence of a cosmopolitanism that liberal internationalists and neoconservatives both subscribed to in the 1990s. Recall that before he became known for his support of the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was a proponent of military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, in effect, joining hands with liberals like Garton Ash at the left-leaning New York Review of Books. The road to Baghdad had roots in the Balkan interventions of the 1990s, which were opposed by realists and pragmatists, even as these military deployments in the former Yugoslavia were to prove undeniably successful.
The yearning to save the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo cannot be divorced from the yearning for the restoration of Central Europe, both as a real and poignantly imagined place, that would demonstrate how, ultimately, it is morality and humanism that sanctify beauty. (Though Garton Ash himself was skeptical of the effort to idealize Central Europe, he did see the positive moral use to which such an idealization might be applied.)
The humanist writings of Isaiah Berlin captured the intellectual spirit of the 1990s. “ ‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I used to say, meaning an Isaiah Berliner,” Garton Ash wrote in a haunting memoir of his time in East Germany.5 Now that communism had been routed and Marxist utopias exposed as false, Isaiah Berlin was the perfect antidote to the trendy monistic theories that had ravished academic life for the previous four decades. Berlin, who taught at Oxford and whose life was coeval with the twentieth century, had always defended bourgeois pragmatism and “temporizing compromises” over political experimentation.6 He loathed geographical, cultural, and all other forms of determinism, refusing to consign anyone and anybody to their fate. His views, articulated in articles and lectures over a lifetime, often as a lone academic voice in the wilderness, comprised the perfect synthesis of a measured idealism that was employed both against communism and the notion that freedom and security were only for some peoples and not for others. His philosophy and the ideal of Central Europe were perfect fits.
But though Central Europe writ large, as expounded by these wise and eloquent intellectuals, was indeed a noble cause, one which should perennially play a role in the foreign policies of all Western nations as I will demonstrate, it does face a hurdle with which I am also forced to deal.
For there remains a problem with this exalted vision, an ugly fact that throughout history has often turned the concept of Central Europe into something tragic. Central Europe simply has no reality on the relief map. (Garton Ash intuited this with the title of his own article, “Does Central Europe Exist?”)7 Enter the geographical determinists, so harsh and lowering compared to the gentle voice of Isaiah Berlin: particularly the Edwardian era voice of Sir Halford J. Mackinder and his disciple James Fairgrieve, for whom the idea of Central Europe has a “fatal geographical flaw.” Central Europe, Mackinder and Fairgrieve tell us, belongs to the “crush zone” that lays athwart Maritime Europe, with its “oceanic interests,” and the “Eurasian Heartland with its continental outlook.” In short, strategically speaking, there is “no space” for Central Europe in the view of Mackinder and Fairgrieve.8 The celebration of Central Europe, the justifiable indulgence of it by the liberal intellectuals, the writings of Mackinder and Fairgrieve suggest, indicates a respite from geopolitics—or at least the desire for one. Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall did not—could not—end geopolitics, but merely brought it into a new phase. You cannot simply wish away the struggle of states and empires across the map.
I will explore Mackinder’s work, particularly his “Heartland” thesis, later at great length. Suffice it to say now that, expounded well over a hundred years ago, it proved remarkably relevant to the dynamics of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Stripped down to their most austere logic, the two world wars were about whether or not Germany would dominate the Heartland of Eurasia that lay to its east, while the Cold War centered on the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe—the western edge of Mackinder’s Heartland. This Soviet Eastern Europe, by the way, included in its domain East Germany, historic Prussia that is, which had traditionally been territorially motivated with an eastward, Heartland orientation; while inside NATO’s oceanic alliance was West Germany, historically Catholic, and industrially and commercially minded, oriented toward the North Sea and the Atlantic. A renowned American geographer of the Cold War period, Saul B. Cohen, argues that “the boundary zone that divides the East from West Germany . . . is one of the oldest in history,” the one which separated Frankish and Slavonic tribes in the Middle Ages. In other words, there was little artificial about the frontier between West and East Germany. West Germany, according to Cohen, was a “remarkable reflection of Maritime Europe,” whereas East Germany belonged to the “Continental Landpower Realm.” Cohen supported a divided Germany as “geopolitically sound and strategically necessary,” because it stabilized the perennial battle between Maritime and Heartland Europe.9 Mackinder, too, wrote presciently in 1919 that “the line through Germany . . . is the very line which we have on other grounds taken as demarking the Heartland in a strategical sense from the Coastland.”10 So while the division of Berlin itself was artificial, the division of Germany was less so.
Cohen called Central Europe a “mere geographical expression that lacks geopolitical substance.”11 The reunification of Germany, according to this logic, rather than lead to the rebirth of Central Europe, would simply lead to a renewed battle for Europe and, by inference, for the Heartland of Eurasia: Which way, in other words, would Germany swing, to the east and toward Russia, with great consequences for Poland, Hungary, and the other former satellite countries; or to the west and toward the United Kingdom and the United States, providing a victory for the Maritime realm? We still do not know the answer to this because the Post Cold War is still in its early stages. Cohen and others could not have foreseen accurately the “debellicized” nature of today’s united Germany, with its “aversion to military solutions” existing at a deep cultural level, something which in the future may help stabilize or destabilize the continent, depending upon the circumstances.12 Precisely because they have occupied the center of Europe as a land power, Germans have always demonstrated a keen awareness of geography and strategy as a survival mechanism. This is something which Germans may yet recover, allowing them to move beyond the quasi-pacifism of the moment. Indeed, might a reunited and liberal Germany become a balancing power in its own right—between the Atlantic Ocean and the Eurasian Heartland—permitting a new and daring interpretation of Central European culture to take root, and thus providing the concept of Central Europe with geopolitical ballast? That would give those like Garton Ash credence over Mackinder and Cohen.
In sum, will Central Europe, as an ideal of tolerance and high civilization, survive the onslaught of new great power struggles? For such struggles in the heart of Europe there will be. The vibrant culture of late-nineteenth-century Central Europe that looked so inviting from the vantage point of the late twentieth century was itself the upshot of an unsentimental and specific imperial and geopolitical reality, namely Habsburg Austria. Liberalism ultimately rests on power: a benign power, perhaps, but power nevertheless.
But humanitarian interventionists in the 1990s were not blind to power struggles; nor in their eyes did Central Europe constitute a utopian vision. Rather, the restoration of Central Europe through the stoppage of mass killing in the Balkans was a quiet and erudite rallying cry for the proper employment of Western military force, in order to safeguard the meaning of victory in the Cold War. After all, what was the Cold War ultimately about, except to make the world safe for individual freedom? “For liberal internationalists Bosnia has become the Spanish Civil War of our era,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual historian and biographer of Isaiah Berlin, referring to the passion with which intellectuals like himself approached the Balkans.13
The call for human agency—and the defeat of determinism—was urgent in their minds. One recalls the passage from Joyce’s Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom laments the “generic conditions imposed by natural” law: the “decimating epidemics,” the “catastrophic cataclysms,” and “seismic upheavals.” To which Stephen Dedalus responds by simply, poignantly affirming “his significance as a conscious rational animal.”14 Yes, atrocities happen, it is the way of the world. But it doesn’t have to be accepted thus. Because man is rational, he ultimately has the ability to struggle against suffering and injustice.
And so, with Central Europe as the lodestar, the road led southeastward, first to Bosnia, then to Kosovo, and onward to Baghdad. Of course, many of the intellectuals who supported intervention in Bosnia would oppose it in Iraq—or at least be skeptical of it; but neoconservatives and others would not be deterred. For as we shall see, the Balkans showed us a vision of interventionism, delayed though it was, that cost little in soldiers’ lives, leaving many with the illusion that painless victory was now the future of war. The 1990s, with their belated interventions were, as Garton Ash wrote searingly, reminiscent of W. H. Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s.15 True, but in another sense they were much too easy.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert D. Kaplan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.