Memories, large and small

The term “The West” obscures periodic and sharp changes in the myths and content of Western demands on Balkan, Middle Eastern, and other actors.

By David B. Kanin

“…the history of the Serbian state and diplomacy testifies that we have always been on the right side of history, the side that in the end turned out to be not only more fair, but also the winning side.”

Vuk Jeremic  (“Battle of will Against Destiny,” Vecernje Novosti Online, 24th December 2011)

Two years from now, we likely will go through an appropriate, if fulsome, deluge of essays, conferences, and images marking the centennial anniversary of the opening phases of the Great War. The Serbian Foreign Minister’s paean does not focus directly on World War I, but represents one variant of what we will read.  He links himself to such stalwarts of Serbian nationalism as Garasanin, Pasic and King Alexander Karadjordjevic, along with Woodrow Wilson and “Holy Russian Emperor” Nicholas II.

Whatever one thinks of Eric Hobsbawm’s use of 1914 to delineate a “short” twentieth century, it is not unreasonable to argue that Word War I closed a modern past and opened a still-unsettled era of transition and horror that – no matter the teleological triumphalism celebrated by the champions of Democracy since 1989 – seems to be leading us toward a confrontation between residual secular materialism and a resurgent challenge from those propagating various iron faiths.

The Western tendency for sharp, categorical demarcation of history into periods does not translate well in the Balkans.  There, the experience of serial conquerors and other outside masters has created a more fluid sense of time – both sacred and secular, to note concepts analyzed brilliantly by Charles Taylor.  Part of the problem in the region is that too many intellectuals and ideological entrepreneurs (“ethnic” and otherwise) attempt artificially to sharpen the blurry relationship between outside influence, “authentic” local memories and alternative versions of events formulated by spokespeople for rival communities with whom they sullenly share the Balkan space.

Jeremic did not write too early.  As has often been pointed out, Balkan states (to include the fading Ottoman Empire) already were at war by 1912, following a series of conflicts that had roiled the region since a relatively manageable Ottoman decline began a century earlier to cascade into something more.  Imperial decay (Habsburg as well as Ottoman), the Enlightenment, and the long nineteenth century had introduced the region to what became known as “the West,” the inevitable, irresistible group of powers whose guns, industry and philosophies created norms of coercion to go along with ideologies of modernity and power.

“The West” has presented itself as an undeniable source of universal values and behaviors, but the term in fact obscures periodic and sharp changes in the myths and content of Western demands on Balkan, Middle Eastern, and other actors.  Since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 – about the time “the West” came into general usage as term and trope – there have been different, if sometimes overlapping Wests, each with its own coercive utopia. (I am indebted for this latter concept to two authors on African politics, whose names and published reference I neglected to write down when I came across their thought and so have forgotten – I would be grateful if anyone familiar with their work would mention their names and book title so I can properly credit them from now on.)

  • Napoleon himself.  The modernity of French arms and inability of residual Ottoman power to hold onto Egypt (and to the legitimacy of the guardianship of Mecca and Medina that had permitted Ottoman sultans to claim Caliphal authority since 1517) created a market for French administrators and advisors in the empire’s Balkan and Middle Eastern peripheries that spread to other Europeans and to the Ottoman center as the nineteenth century wore on.
  • The “Byronic” philhellene West.  Support for Greek independence led to a renaissance-type approach to classical philosophy that  spurred various flavors of idealistic political theory.  This fed conflicts among nationalizing, neo-Byzantine, and Phanariot Greeks.  More important, it engendered a notion among more than a few Germans that the divided, overly-cultured Germany of the time was the direct descendant of ancient Greece.  This informed the thought of everyone from Holderlin and Hegel to Marx, Nietzsche, and Hitler.  (The German Schliemann discovered Troy and Olympia – take a look at the opening scenes of the film Leni Riefenstal shot to accompany the 1936 Berlin Olympics.)
  • The West that married nationalism with monarchy. After 1848, what had been antithetical concepts during the Metternich era were combined by Bismarck and others to create the notion that modernity and development required a Herderian-style national package of reconstructed languages, re-imagined histories, and, often, a sovereign prince from some German house (Serbia, of course, preferred its own feuding dynasties).
  • Jeremic’s friend Woodrow Wilson – America without force. This overrated American President made a lot of noise and then left Europeans to themselves.  The contradictions inherent in his demand that international politics simultaneously embody Democracy and national self-determination remain with us to this day.  To his credit, he did at least prevent Serbia from absorbing Albania.  (Lost in the historical shuffle have been the contemporaneous contributions of Herbert Hoover.  Hoover now is remembered as the President who ineffectually supervised the opening of the Great Depression, but between 1918 and 1923 he led relief efforts that fed a fair proportion of the world.  Hoover’s humanitarian incarnation would be a better model than the posturing Wilson if in the future the United States adopts a more thoughtful and humane approach to international affairs.)
  • Fascism (see the Philhellenes). We know what that coercive utopia looked like.
  • Communism (see the Philhellenes again). We also know what that coercive utopia looked like.  Conceptually, this is a “West” despite its coming to power in Russia.

The two existing Wests, an America now proud of its military muscle rather than – as it was before World War II – leery of even having a peacetime standing army, and the self-obsessed European Union, coexist and compete in the Balkans. These powers should not be mistaken as representing a unified “International Community.”  The United States promotes a coercive utopia that always circles back to the necessity of American global leadership.  It never has had the experience of being an equal partner with powers large or small – from developing on the margins of European power politics the US suddenly leaped to the top of the global heap in 1919 and again (with greater staying power) in 1945.  These unipolar moments now serve as nostalgic memories feeding a declining America’s pretension to remain the world’s undeniable superpower.

The Europeans also have retooled their self-image, but in the opposite direction.  Once convinced of the existence of martial virtues, the aristocrats that ran the old continent (bureaucratic neo-aristocrats still run it) deflected accountability for the destruction they caused by re-styling their well-deserved relegation to second-rate status as a sudden conversion as to the cause of human rights.  The staged creation of “Europe” has included a global sales pitch to convince people they once conquered, bullied, and otherwise exploited to buy the idea that Europeans have wisdom, experience, and the ability to help others avoid the mistakes they made.  Of course, these elites still want to retain their commercial stakes and – to the extent possible – political role as senior partner in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Aside, perhaps, from the ineffective Wilson, the various Wests have shared in common their practice of the Melian Dialogue.  In the future, Jeremic and other local notables should choose rhetoric that drops the effort to associate their countries’ records with a notional “right side” of history.  In his article he writes “we suffered every time we failed to understand the nature of the tectonic shifts in the world.  We were successful when we understood them and had the skill to ride the wave of change and put its power to our use.”   Jeremic follows the usual pattern whereby Balkan public figures relegate themselves and their communities to derivative actors who, at best, ride waves created by stronger powers.

It is not enough that his audience almost certainly laughs off his statement that Serbia always has associated itself with powers that both win and play “fair.”  They, like he, remain supplicants to the two current Wests.  This feeds those powers’ desire to deny their decline and enables local authorities to avoid the work of – and responsibility for – constructing programs and policies designed to promote material interests of communities and the region as a whole no matter outside preferences or instructions .

By reinforcing the pretensions of the Wests, such default rhetoric also helps keep in place the economic system of patronage networks that currently functions more effectively in the interest of limited constituencies than notional governments do regarding everyone else.  In the absence of an integrated Balkan commercial and trading system, criminals and corrupt politicians exploit the comparative advantage of being able to link into global economic activity more efficiently than aboveboard businesses tied down by law, regulation and the lack of informal connections to bureaucrats and political fixers.  Unless imaginative people willing to disgorge dependence on the Wests challenge this conceptual inertia, there will be no lessons learned when Balkan commentators turn their pens to the coming centennial consideration of the assassination in Sarajevo.

Arabs and other Muslims are not just overthrowing autocrats, they are shrugging off the dominance of a declining West.  Balkan peoples should do the same.  As Macedonian commentator Toni Naunovski put in Dnevnik (Skopje, 3rd January), it would be worthwhile for Balkan neighbors to “…quit our illusions about the alleged benefits of (European) integration and turn to one another for the sake of solving our mutual problems…”

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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