The population in North America, the EU and a couple of other high-income countries lives in what the EU foreign affairs representative Jose Borrell calls ‘the garden’: well-functioning prosperous countries, governed by democracy and rule of law. Outside the walls of this garden we find, according to him, ‘the jungle’: a zone of turmoil, war, conflict, poverty, anarchy and tyranny. The population in the garden constitutes only a fraction of the world population – around 16% - but they are supposed to represent the world civilisation.
What to do with the savages living in the jungle? According to Borrell, the people in the garden can’t just ignore the jungle, because that will, sooner or later, lead to the jungle invading the garden. The garden therefore has to engage with the jungle to try to civilise it. But there are other motives for the engagement. Firstly, the jungle has many of the natural resources that the garden needs. Secondly, the garden has a problem with a shrinking working age population, so it thinks it needs people, particularly for the low paid service jobs, and there are plenty of them in the jungle. And finally, there are in the garden many good people, who have a warm heart beating for the poor and down-trodden in the jungle. So all this calls for the need for the garden to interact with the jungle.
But there is a catch. Even if many countries in the jungle are poor, and hence not very powerful, some jungle countries are developing fast and have increasing economic and military power – take China, India, Russia, Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and so on, but unfortunately without becoming civilized in the process. So they stay in the jungle. They are not actually threatening the garden, but they are becoming powerful in the jungle, and are in some cases even displacing the garden countries in Asia, Africa and – sorry Monroe – Latin America. So they are now considered a threat – not to the garden as such, but their malign influence is threatening the civilising mission that the garden is carrying out in the jungle.
In the garden, there is a minority view, shared by some conservatives, advocating ‘realism’. They think it is impossible, or too costly, to try to turn the jungle into a garden. So they suggest letting them stew in their own juice and propose just interacting with them to get the most out of it – raw materials, markets, and so on, but discard the idea of civilising the jungle. However, the majority view is that the garden should be activist, a view shared by most of the political right and left. It advocates requiring civilised behaviour as a condition for commercial and financial interaction, supporting the civilised opposition and ‘civil society’ in the jungle countries, punishing the worst offenders with sanctions, cutting them off from interaction with the garden, and so on. And, if necessary, intervening militarily to protect the people in the jungle from malign governments and bring the criminals to an international court to be judged and punished – this even has its own name: the responsibility to protect (or R2P).
The activists, also called idealists, liberal internationalists or liberal hawks, have prevailed in the US after first world war, and the US is setting the tone for the rest of the countries in the garden. The advantage is that it permits to combine the useful with the pleasant (or ‘omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci’, as Horace formulated it): they are do-gooders, and at the same time it is profitable, as they get access to natural resources and markets.
Two idealistic civilisers: Democrat liberal hawk Hilary Clinton and Republican neo-conservative hawk, late Dick Cheney. Both former US vice-presidents and advocates for military interventions around the globe to spread democracy and human rights. Photo source: wikimedia commons (CIA and Government of West Bengal).
The challenge is that it is becoming less and less profitable to be civilisers. The cost of foreign interventions for the garden is increasing steadily, so the profitability is endangered. The jungle countries are beginning to put up more resistance and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the well-behaved jungle countries to join the garden in their civilising wars against the malign jungle countries. It cost the US a lot of arm-bending to put together the ‘coalition of the willing’ to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and even so, most of the bigger jungle countries refused to participate (and in honesty, also some garden countries as Germany and France). In the present conflict between the garden and Russia, very few jungle countries have joined the sanctions against Russia, so threats of ‘secondary sanctions’ have been necessary to get some minimal cooperation from at least part of the jungle. The secondary sanctions are based the principle that ‘He that is not with me is against me’ (Matthew). Until now, they have had limited success, forcing some East Asian countries such as South Korea to join the US sanctions against China. So the activist or, as it is often called, ‘value-based’ foreign policy is an up-hill task, and the hill is becoming steeper.
There is another catch. Unsurprisingly, the ‘value-based’ sanctions against selected malign countries, and not least the threat of secondary sanctions, have aroused suspicion among the jungle countries, even the well-behaved ones. What if I am the next on the list? To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: First they came for the Russians, and I said nothing because I am not Russian. Then they came for the Chinese, and I said nothing, because I am not Chinese. Then they came for me……. This sentiment is increasing, and many countries in the jungle are looking for ways to diminish their vulnerability, just in case. Of course, seen from the garden, this is rubbish: ‘We are do-gooders. We only go after the bad guys, so behave, and you will be perfectly safe.’ But, strangely enough, these arguments don’t really convince the jungle.
As the garden struggles to keep control of the jungle, with humiliating defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and the disaster still evolving in Libya, it considers the Ukraine conflict as existential. It simply has to prevail there. However, the garden and Ukraine are unlikely to win the war, even if the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive should turn out to be successful. The likelihood that it will is diminishing day by day, as the much hyped NATO wunderwaffen are burning on the battlefield. Even so, the garden doesn’t seem to get the lesson: conflicts should be prevented by dialogue and diplomacy, based on a realistic analysis of the causes and the forces involved. Bombastic rhetoric about ‘value-based’ policy is the road to hell.
NATO wunderwaffen in Ukraine.
Before the whole world gets engulfed in an all-out war, it is time for the garden to lower the ambitions for its ‘value-based’ civilising mission. To admit that, even if it wants to, it simply doesn’t have the economic and military power to enforce its values on recalcitrant, malign jungle countries, independently of how universal these values are considered to be. The garden has to find a way to live with the jungle as it is, however outrageous this may seem to it, and it can’t force the smaller jungle countries to choose between the garden and the malign forces. This does not mean that it can’t express its opinion and try to convince the jungle to adopt its values. It can, just as religious missionaries can try to convert people. They can do it by showing a good example of how democracy and respect for human rights and minority rights is conducive to a prosperous and not too unequal society. But it can’t do it by force any more. Those days have passed.
Taliban patrolling Kabul in captured US Humvee, 2021. NATO considers that one more defeat like this is unacceptable.
The message is that in this new, multi-polar world, it is necessary for the garden to sit down with its adversaries from the jungle and try to find a new form for international relations. This implies restoring old-fashioned diplomacy (from before everything became ‘value-based’, so it means talking even to people that the garden considers monsters), reaching new arms control agreements with the participation of all nuclear powers, restoring confidence, creating mechanisms to decrease tensions, and so on. It also means reorganising the international institutions established after World War II, so they take into account the new distribution of power in the world, first of all the Security Council, but also other UN agencies, the IMF and so on.
There is also an important message to the political left and the human rights warriors. Foreign governments that are persecuting political opponents, suppressing organised labour, disrespecting human rights and so on, should be condemned, and it is legitimate to ask your government to refuse to receive this or that foreign leader that is considered directly responsible for odious crimes. It is a duty to show solidarity with the popular organisations in countries where they are persecuted. But think twice before asking your government to sanction this and that country, or worse, asking it to intervene militarily. This is imperial overreach. The empire simply isn’t there any more to act on your behalf. If it ever was.
The Spanish empire on a civilising mission in Mexico.
It is difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry when seeing European leftwing parties ditching their traditional anti-war stand and celebrating NATO as a force for the good. As a commentator in ‘The American Conservative’ states it: The new left has ‘recast non-Western powers like Russia and China as reactionary forces to be stamped out by US and Western power’. ‘The world “out there” is bestrode by avatars of patriarchy and repression, who impose modesty on women, restrict reproductive freedom, and limit LGBTQ representation’. And the main defence against all these obscure forces are now the US military and NATO. Go figure.