Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Irony of the Past - Turkey and Russia

The world’s history surrounding the World Wars is so fascinating because, through a form of dramatic irony, we get to see the unraveling of a complicated web of powerful alliances. We now know, or at least have a better idea, how the stories unfolded. Today a similarly complicated series of stories is being told through state, non-state, and quasi-state actors. Ironically, our situational irony distracts us from the dramatic irony a future generation will obviate in retrospect as, ironic.

Now that we framed confusion let me note that I believe Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict was not necessarily a game changer; it was an unsurprising adjustment to the bracket of participants. All the participants were playing the same game – some form of countering rebellion. Russia favored the league with the Syrian based on a long-standing set of mutual interests. Turkey favored a different league, as had the West. Consequently, the shooting down of a Russian jet, by Turkey, and subsequent killing of one or more of those pilots and rescue teams is a game changer. It changes entirely the game Russia plays in the region, from countering rebellion to demonstrating regional power. Russia’s reaction to Turkey also has the potential to change how the rest of the Syrian conflict participants react to Russia’s reaction to Turkey.

Since we cannot yet know for sure what that reaction really will be, and since we cannot yet know how the international community will react, collectively or individually (our situational iron), we rely on contextualizing the present with the past. Here is a nice historical synopsis, written in 1949, to put the Turkey-Russia relationship in context. Suffice it to say, they have tried to form a relationship, but they have struggled to make it a friendly one. If the game truly changes, who will join whose side, and who will watch for opportunities from the sideline? The other question I wonder, given our country's intense focus on countering terrorism coupled with the interests of international actors in the region, is are we playing the right game?

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Clashes of Civilizations - Mongols and ISIS

ISIS and the Mongols. Is there something we can learn from the Mongol exploits throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe that will inform the civilized world's response to ISIS? The confluence of societies today are writing a complicated history that will eventually unfold into something more clearly distinguishable. While the so-called clash of civilizations (Huntington) taking place today seems out of sorts in the grand scheme of international relations, there was a similarly complicated period in the 13th century in which Christendom (particularly Catholicism), Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other societies clashed during Mongol expansion.

A fascinating read from 1955 by historian Christopher Dawson reveals the interplay among them all and how overlapping alliances formed to confront each other’s adversaries. The introduction alone is enough to get a good sense of the complicated challenges facing each societies’ ways of life. Granted, there has been some debate over the years as to the accuracy and authenticity of the various letters exchanged between Mongol Khans and Papal envoys. Furthermore, Dawson was a scholar who focused on the history of the Catholic church, so you'll sense his influence.

Nevertheless, the broader historical point seems true - that Mongol expansion tested the "national interest" of several civilizations and threatened to upset each civilization's "way of life" - a truism that seems to be taking place in today's context. Consider Dawson's exposition in the context of the West, the U.S., Europe, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Middle East, Iran, Iraq, Syria and...ISIS. To what extent can the contest of alliance making during the Mongol expansion inform today's interactions between Western states and Russia as they confront extremist expansions out of the Middle East?

You can access Dawson's book here: