Posts Tagged ‘history’

Putting Russia in perspective

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

A second cold war? Russia regains its great power status? There’s a lot of SF fans who said my geopolitical ideas were crazy. But turn on the TV, and Russian tanks are steamrolling over Georgia. And now I’m getting emails from *other* SF fans who are asking me whether I’m going to use this to claim vindication.

Well, no, I’m not.

For one thing, gloating ain’t attractive. But more importantly, despite the media’s hysterical claims of a new cold war, this isn’t the one I had in mind. What’s presented in THE MIRRORED HEAVENS is a Russia capable of projecting force on a global basis. But the Russian Federation of today is a long way still from anything that approaches the all-encompassing global reach of the Soviet Union.

And that’s something the U.S. ought to bear in mind as it weighs its options in the aftermath of the Georgia fait accompli.  A lot of people who should know better are calling for Bush II to get tough on the Evil Russian Bear.  But what they’re forgetting (or ignoring) is that we already HAVE been getting tough.  We promised that NATO would never expand into the former Soviet Union, but then NATO did.  Not only that, but we withdrew unilaterally from the ABM pact and started building missile defense infrastructure in the Czech Republic and Poland.  And while we were at it we intervened in Ukrainian politics.

But although the Russia we’re dealing with now may not be anywhere near as powerful as the Soviets, it’s still a damn sight stronger than the broken reed we trampled over in the 1990s.  And although American domestic politics has reached such a lamentable state of affairs that both candidates feel they have to immediately jump on the anti-Russia bandwagon (any rhetoric besides the mindless assertion of American power being deemed unpatriotic these days), hopefully something at either the State Department or the Pentagon is weighing the facts:

Item #1:  the bulk of our military forces will be engulfed in the Mideast quagmire for some time to come
Item #2:  the question of whether America intervenes in the former Soviet Union means a lot more to the Russians than it does to the Americans
Item #3:  we need Russia’s help with Iran whether we like it or not.
Item #4:  Putin ain’t Hitler. (This doesn’t mean that Putin’s a saint.  It just means that he isn’t the leader of a state hell-bent on conquering all of Eurasia and killing entire ethnic groups while he does so.)
Item #5:  While Putin may not be Hitler, he really has the potential to fuck with the price of oil.

Bottom line, regardless of what Russia does next, we’re idiots if we go to the mat with them right now over territory inside what was once the Soviet Union. And we’d be unwise to forget that for-too-long discredited concept in international relations called spheres of influence.  And I’m more than a little concerned that over the next few years (regardless of who wins the election) we’re going to start to see just how flimsy some of the assumptions that guide American foreign policy have become.

The clash of civilizations

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Just got done reading a great book: Roger Crowley’s EMPIRES OF THE SEA, a fascinating account of the battle for control of the Mediterranean during the sixteenth century between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs of Spain/Austria. Crowley’s first book, 1453, came out in 2006: it was a well-executed account of the fall of Constantinople, but I’ve read a bunch of those before. EMPIRES OF THE SEA breaks new ground, however, documenting the relentless expansion of the Ottoman Turks westward after Constantinople’s fall.

Initially, the main thrust was on land—but after the Ottomans were turned back from Vienna (!) in 1529, the sea war took on new life. Everything came to a head at the siege of Malta in 1565; following the Ottoman failure there, the Holy League (an alliance of the Hapsburgs, the Papacy, Venice and Genoa) outfitted a gigantic fleet and defeated the Turks at Lepanto, an absolutely colossal contest of which Cervantes (who was wounded there) was to write, “The greatest event witnessed by ages past, present, and to come.”

And maybe he was right.  God knows history has seen plenty of epic stuff since then.  But Lepanto was the last serious challenge that Europe would face in its rise to global domination.  Prior to that point, Islam and Christiandom had been at each others’ throats for almost a thousand years—but with the decline of the Ottomans, Islamic expansion was effectively over.  But historical verdicts are always subject to appeal, and it’s worth bearing in mind that, as much as 9-11 seemed like the inauguration of a whole new era of history to so many of us, those who unleashed it saw it merely as the continuation of a much deeper, older struggle.