Archive for February, 2015

Empires and Caliphates – anything new here?

February 27, 2015
It is a struggle to sort out who dislikes whom in the Middle East what with Al Quada, ISIS/ISIL, Sunni and Shia Muslims and warring factions within each group. It appears to be both a series of civil wars going on within the Muslim community and a wider conflict which at times carries to the outside world, to other religions and to other places. Its aim is to spread the faith, or a version of it, globally, and thereby change people’s way of life, and destroy the faith of others.
An informative article by Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS Is Not a terrorist Group,” appears in Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. A principal argument is,
But ISIS is not al Qaeda. It is not an outgrowth or a part of the older radical Islamist organization, nor does it represent the next phase in its evolution. Although al Qaeda remains dangerous—especially its affiliates in North Africa and Yemen—ISIS is its successor. ISIS represents the post–al Qaeda jihadist threat.
While Al Qada is described as a terrorist organization, ISIS is a pseudo state. It has an estimated 30,000 fighters (of varying quality), currently controls territory in Iraq and Syria, has military capabilities which allows it to engage in sophisticated military operations, funds itself through sale of oil, hostage taking, black market dealings, revenues from supporters abroad and other means. It aims to establish a caliphate with its own version of the Muslim faith.
What is a Caliphate?
There is much more to learn from Cronin’s article. Here, I explore the idea of a caliphate and how it relates to the region’s history. According to Wikipedia, a caliphate is a type of Islamic government which can have a Sunni and Shia version.
”… led by a caliph or leader as a successor to the prophet Muhammad The  Sunni branch of Islam stipulates that, as a head of state, a Caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives. Followers of Shia islam, however, believe a Caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the “Family of the House”, Muhammad’s direct descendants). In 2014, the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself a Caliphate; …its authority remains unrecognised by any country.”
A caliphate is a form of empire with religious overtones. ISIS/ISIL operates in a region which was once part of the Ottoman Empire. It covered a geographical area of today’s Middle East, extending westwards into parts of Europe, including some of Northern Africa and eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. An illustration of this is contained in from 1300AD to 2001Ad (type in Ottoman Empire in the search box).
This website shows over time the geographical spread and shrinkage of the Ottoman Empire until its demise at the end of WW1 leaving Turkey as a separate country. At its height it covered not only a large land area but a population of different religions which often engaged in civil wars as well as fighting against each other. The crusades pitted Muslims against Christians; protestant and catholic Christians often opposed each other as did Shia and Sunni Muslims. The present is a continuation of the past over much of the same territory.
Today’s narrative tends to take its starting point as the postcolonial borders of countries which emerged from arrangements drawn up after 1918 by mainly the French and British under the eye of the League of Nations. They delineated countries like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and later on Israel and Jordan emerged as separate countries. But the story and conflicts did not start then. They are mainly a continuation of what happened in previous centuries including the crusades from the eleventh century which involved Christians, Jews and Muslims fighting themselves and each other. Religion is often a bloody sport. The latest proposal for a new Muslim Caliphate provides a footnote (at present) to this historical record.
What’s different today?
Each generation, encouraged by academics, thinks that what they are experiencing is new, but this is seldom the case, or only new in particular dimensions. Geographically, land and sea areas remain the same over centuries. One difference is that demographically there are far more people in the world and Middle East today than there were in the past. Up to 1900, the world population had remained for centuries at around one billion. It is now seven plus billion and expected to climb to over nine billion. That is change worth noting especially when you consider its location, religion, economic and social wellbeing. For example, in 1900, a world population of 1.6 bn was located 60% in Asia in contrast to 2000 with a world population of 6bn and 54% in Asia, that is almost twice the world population 100 years earlier.
Today over half the world’s population is in a smallish area of the world including China, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia the countries of south-east Asia. A map of the globe shows how geographically concentrated half of the world population is, and how spread out is the remainder. Today, China and India each has a total population only slightly smaller than the global population in 1900.
The other area to recognize as being new is technological change. Summed up in terms like globalization, this change includes the impact of transportation and communications both of which have experienced declining costs of moving people, goods and services. The use of social media, foreign outsourcing of production, employment of temporary foreign workers, and the “uber” sharing method of producing goods and services have all changed the location of production domestically and globally, and made more efficient use of existing resources. At the same time it has changed the demand for different types of skills and altered the career patterns for individuals.
What has this got to do with the Middle East cauldron of violence? At the moment (Feb 2015) the violence is conducted as guerilla warfare or terrorism. This is a far cry from WW1 trench warfare, WW2 trench, air and naval warfare with recognizable troops who wore uniforms, and when captured received some protection from the Geneva Convention rules of warfare. These conflicts saw guerilla tactics used, but generally opponents would give prisoners reasonable care. There were exceptions. Japanese treatment of prisoners was often similar to those meted out today by ISIS/ISIL.
Today ISIS/ISIL engage in unconventional warfare using whatever weapons they can buy or capture from their opponents. They execute their prisoners in a brutal fashion, unless they can sell them back to their native countries or trade them on a black market. ISIS/ISIL fighters can be called guerillas, terrorists, criminals, the label does not matter. It’s what they do that matters as are their actions reported daily in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and now parts of Africa including Egypt, Libya and Nigeria.
The violence taking place in the Middle East and in countries with connections to the Middle East, for example in Europe, North America and Australia is not new in general terms. Religious conflicts fill the pages of history books. What has some newer aspects are the means by which the conflict is conducted, and that is because of technological developments. Some people remain as evil as their predecessors, but they are now able to perform their acts in different ways. Whether they are called terrorists or criminals is immaterial. Their actions are horrific including to most of those who profess the same religion. This too has happened before, for example, when Germans of the Christian faith supported the murderous actions of Hitler. At the moment, prospects for the success of a new Caliphate may seem remote but this does not mean there will no more violence in and outside the Middle East……and responsibility cannot just be assigned to post-colonialism.



All About Eve – the sequel

February 24, 2015


Paul Wells, in an article entitled “In the small mind of a rare bird” notes dialogue from All About Eve, the 1950 film starring Bette Davis and George Sanders (Maclean’s, Feb 23, 2015, p.12):

“That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability. But that in itself is probably the reason: You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.”

The current I could be today’s Eve listening to her current friend or current political leader. The dialogue fits. But could it be a self-inflicted wound for both Eve and Dmitri? Does this make her a more attractive candidate, and does it improve his employment opportunities? Or is it a move to reinforce unfavourable views about her leader’s judgment? In which case, Eve and Dmitri may still be working for the Conservatives. It provides much fodder for the Ottawa “bubble” to discuss.

What does the future hold?

February 18, 2015

A flurry of recent writings addresses western political and economic decline. Culture may follow this downward path, but is often motivated by distress in other parts of society. Some of Picasso’s paintings dealt with the Spanish Civil War, and during WW1 war artists and poets flourished, including some of Canada’s Group of Seven painters. Jackson and Varley were official war artists


Francis Fukuyama is the author of Political Order and Political Decay dealing mainly with the West but also with other parts of the world. George Friedman in Flashpoints focuses on emerging problems in Europe and points east. China, Japan, Africa and Latin America have their troubles too which could upset world order, that is, if one exists.


Another frame of reference is to compare the present with previous periods of imperial influence. The most recent one, Pax Americana, which is now in decline, was preceded by others including Pax Romana (27BC to 180AD), and more recently Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1914. None of these encompass long periods of world history. After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Britain increased its global power until it weakened in the post WW1 era to be replaced by the rise of American influence.

The end of WW2 marked the beginning of Pax Americana when the US became the sole world power confronted by the Soviet Union in a nuclear stalemate until the latter fragmented after 1989. At that time the Washington Consensus of democracy and capitalism was proclaimed as the dominant organizing force for national economies. If some did not have it yet, they would progress in this direction. Unfortunately events have not turned out exactly as prescribed. Stress fractures have appeared in existing capitalist systems. Those which appeared to be progressing in the right direction have hit speed bumps or been diverted from their desired destination.


Indices now measure not only national economic growth but the democratic freedoms or the lack thereof. The economic prosperity of countries, especially in Asia, like China, India and Indonesia is on the rise but democratic freedoms are restricted in places like China, Hong Kong (now part of China), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. All hold elections but conditions place limits on freedoms regarded as necessary for full blown democracy.


I suspect that terms like democracy and capitalism need to be redefined or even replaced, as they have lost meaning when a country like North Korea labels itself The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Capitalism too comes in many forms with various mixtures of government and private enterprise and financing, with private enterprise often the beneficiary of government policies. Even the most right wing political parties in North America and Europe support measures which provide, subsidies, protection and tax breaks for their supporters. Kleptocracies are today’s nearest approximation of unbridled capitalism; one definition is  “… the term for systematic corruption and thievery by the state or state-sanctioned corruption…with ties or aid from organized crime syndicates.”.

Examples of decay and flashpoints

Today has some similarities to the 1930s, especially in Europe. Then many in Great Britain supported appeasement for Hitler, including about half the Conservative cabinet. Lord Halifax, a contender for Prime Minister at the time of Churchill’s appointment in May 1940, was a strong supporter of appeasement. He was sent as Ambassador to the US to remove him from daily politics in the UK. The Duke of Windsor, who had close ties with Nazi leaders, was also sent abroad as Governor of the Bahamas where he could do little harm in a world devoid of social media.

Today, appeasement is the approach of many countries to Russia, for example over the Ukraine. Invasion of the Crimea took place at the time the Winter Olympics were being held in Sochi. Russian troops entered the Crimea on Feb 26th, 2014 and the Paralympic Games were held March 7th-16th, 2014. They followed the regular Winter Olympics when Russian intentions were clear. Historians may ask why at least some countries did not withdraw from these games.

Russia was suspended, not expelled, from the G8 group of nations on March 24, 2014. Its actions since then, especially in the Ukraine, have been to confront the West, where countries have been unable to provide a unified response, leading to de facto appeasement. Weakness exists in the actions of NATO, the EU and the US, the sole western military and economic superpower.

Other global hotspots include: China in the South China Sea; Greece and its relation to EU countries; ISIS/ISIL unrest in the Middle East, North and other parts of Africa; criminal (terrorist) incidents, often religiously motivated, around the world including Canada, the US, Denmark, France and other countries.

Each of these areas, although geographically separated, have some common elements which require a coordinated approach by countries willing to recall the past century of two world wars and many regional conflicts. Future smaller conflicts may easily metastasize into larger ones – (it did in 1914 after the assassination in Sarajevo)  – with the shrinkage of the world due to advances in communications and transportation, and the growth of the international movement of people, goods and services especially money.

The End of Pax Americana; what will follow?

February 6, 2015

A review of Clyde Sanger, Malcolm MacDonald, Bringing an End to Empire, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1995.

A chance reading of Malay and Thai history brought me to this biography of Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981), son of British Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Malcolm’s career as MP, cabinet minister and diplomat covered not only the winding down of the British Empire but influenced many of the measures taken in SE Asia, the Middle East, especially Palestine (Israel and Jordan), parts of Africa, Canada and Ireland. This makes him one of the most knowledgeable participants in the end of empire. Clyde Sanger has done a remarkable and informative job of documenting MacDonald’s professional and personal life. The two are intertwined as is often the case.

This biography, as well as any other I have read (a few it must be admitted) allows the reader to appreciate how the empire ended, and whether it did or what replaced it. The book gives the reader a glimpse of the empire during this period, what caused the changes and what emerged in its place, which is what we live with today.

A  global tour shows developments in several colonies and dominions. The Middle East is one of the most interesting where MacDonald negotiated the conditions in Palestine which is now Israel, Palestine and the neighbouring countries.  As Colonial Secretary MacDonald wrote (from Constant Surprise, pp. 161,165, of Macdonald’s unpublished biography) :

“By the summer of 1938 the situation in Palestine was appalling. The quarrel between the Arabs and the Jews there had reached a vicious stage; and the problem was made more complex by the fact that the former were supported by all the nearby independent Arab nations and the latter were supported by the influential Jewish communities and their powerful friends in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere…”

Eighty years later, has anything changed? One thing is that there are many more people living in this area.

Malcolm MacDonald was British High Commissioner to Canada 1941-46, liaised closely with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, whom he had known since before the war, as well as with some of Canada’s distinguished diplomats and senior civil servants. At that time, domestic and foreign policy was conducted on a more personal basis, and MacDonald’s relationship with British politicians and officials from his earlier times allowed him to influence Canada’s domestic and foreign policy, and to alert British politicians to the likely reaction of Canada to measures flowing from London.

Malcolm MacDonald was a part of the ending of Pax Britannica which lasted from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to 1914. It was followed with a 31 year gap by the Pax Americana in 1945, which now appears to be weakening. In the former period, Britain was seen to be the dominant world power, while in the latter it has been the US. When the ending comes, it happens quickly. In earlier times, there was a Pax Romana which too ended.

Today, the signs are writings dealing with America in decline (a number of recent books have decline in the title). America in Retreat by Bret Stephens is a thorough discussion of weaknesses displayed by the current US administration, and argues that the US should be more assertive with regards to the Middle East, the Ukraine, China, Europe and Africa. Elsewhere, the retiring Economist editor (Jan.31, 2015) paints a depressing picture of the US, “…Washington remains synonomous with gridlock.”  And “The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels. Woefully unaccountable and ineffective……”

Jon Stewart in the Daily Show provides a comedic take on US issues which are of serious concern to domestic and world politics. It has become an important way of presenting and influencing political issues. A related sign of global change is the weakening of the Washington consensus which proclaimed that democracy and capitalism would liberate the world. Francis Fukuyama, a proponent of this after 1989 is revising his views in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, where a reviewer summarises Fukuyama’s views that “…. unless liberal democracies can somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay, history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper.”