2003: Transatlantic Separation or Common Strategy

Transatlantic Separation or Common Strategy

Speech at Union Club, Philadelphia, PA, September 2003, by Ambassador Michael Breisky, Austrian Consul General in New York

Ladies and Gentlemen!
I consider it a great honour to address this distinguished audience in Philadelphia, a city breathing not only business but also history, a matter so close to the heart of Europeans; they are well aware that was here where our Transatlantic values were put on paper for the first time. I thank my friend and collegue Harry Schaub for introducing me so kindly to you.

As the theme of my address suggests, the question of Transatlantic separation has come up again. Let me come without further ado to the heart of the matter and answer this question once and for all by a quote from the 42nd US-President when he remarked – in a different context, I admit: “It’s the economy, darling”. And economy says simply: you cannot separate. Just think of it: All of Japan’s investment in the US is less than the EU’s investment in the state of Texas alone, and Texas is for the EU by no means a special target-state. US investment in Europe is equally pre-eminent by volume and importance. So the transatlantic community can be compared to Siamese twins with only one heart – the economy. It is true, even Siamese twins squabble between themselves sometimes and in some rare cases may even think of combining surgical separation with organ-transplant – Transatlantic twins should know, however, that in foreseeable future no other heart on earth will be big enough to keep them alive.

Paraphrasing a famous sentence coined here in Philadelphia: If we are condemned to stand together so we should not hang together, how are we to proceed? I think in order to answer this question we should be aware of the symbolism when we came to the year 2001: it meant not only a new century, but also a new millennium. And as time makes us change paradigms views and principles, 2001 changed at least two of them that were valid for at least half a century; and it changed an other one that was much older than 1000 years.

The more recent paradigm concerns the waging of war:

+ For over 100 years the US fought wars far away in foreign places, winning them all, unless the US decided to withdraw. Apart from a demographically tolerable number of “boys” who paid the ultimate price, the US was always able to out-source the real costs of war. War, therefore, never stopped to be a matter of political choice.

+ By contrast, Europe was obliged during the first half of the 20th century to suffer at home the most devastating wars of human history, with damages and human losses at least ten times as high (on a per capita basis) than the US-losses. Consequently, Europe developed during the second half of the 20th century the conviction that war was not only an impossible option, but that war was simply unthinkable.

As Nine Eleven proved so sadly two years ago, both convictions cannot be maintained any longer. I will soon out-line the reasons for this a little broader, but in any case I think this is a lesson the US is learning faster than Europe.

The change of the millennium-old paradigm is about the essence of political planning, i.e. the extent to which one can foresee the consequences of political decisions. In my opinion, we are now living at a turning point of history, where technological progress, globalisation and information society lead not only to unprecedented spreading of effects of decision-making, but also to an immense acceleration of political chain-reactions. Let me illustrate this observation:

+ It is possible to draw a direct line of causality between the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator’s decision in the early 15th century to introduce science to navigation at the one hand and the Turkish occupation of the Balkans at the other, leading to the first siege of Vienna in 1529. Prince Henry could neither foresee this effects of a slow chain-reaction going from Portugal via South-Africa to India and from there via Arabia and the Osman Empire to Austria. Nor would anybody establish a political link between cause and effect – the time-span of more than 100 years is simply beyond relevance for political planning, even under the strictest terms.

+ Things change if we look at the decision of the Carter- and Reagan-administration back in the1980-ies to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, by helping the fundamentalist Mujahedin. This decision contributed greatly to the implosion of the Soviet Union – no tears shed – and later on led to the terrible tragedy of Nine Eleven. Here again the full effects could never have been foreseen; but already in 1980 you could hear warnings against tinkering with Muslim fundamentalists; and the span between cause and effect of 20 years is not totally beyond a responsible political planning.

+ But six months ago it was already safe to bet that a unilateral war against Iraq would have serious effects on the internal stability of a wide range of distant states and societies, be it Morocco, Indonesia, the North of Nigeria, or the Muslim suburbs in France – not to mention the mess in Afghanistan and Chechnya. In most of these places, proof for a war-related increase of instability is today still questionable, but I am sure it will take much less than 20 years for the world to see equally dramatic consequences as the ones triggered in Afghanistan 20 years ago. Whether these unintended consequences will on balance be good or bad remains to be seen, in any case they are certainly unpredictable today.

To sum up: if we realise how dense the “global village” is inter-connected today and how our highly sophisticated hard- and software is becoming more and more vulnerable, one must consider as a strategic mistake today what would have been disregarded still yesterday as an unintended and neglgible consequence. Still 20 years ago, a few deranged people with box-cutters in their hands were just that, but 2 years ago they were already able to change the world. There are now too many players around and they interact at increasing speed.

So the millennial paradigm we have to bury concerns the planning of strategies. We should not idealise any longer the royal game of chess, where kings and other important players plan ten moves ahead, because they think they know how their opponents are going to move and react. Instead, the makers of political decisions should rather try to copy the managers of investment funds: when deciding on investments, they care more about the long-term capabilities and interests of a number of autonomous market-players and not so much about the next individual move every one of them is about to do. Coming to the point: today, there is no model-like “solution” to a major political problem you can plan ahead with reasonable certainty; “everything flows”, as the old Greeks used to remark. Strategies must shift, therefore, to an open “process”, where you try to achieve your goals by strengthening the co-players with identical long-term interests.

And what about war? Just think of the meaning of “Jihad”, the Arab word we wrongly translate by “holy war”. In reality it means something like “highest exaltation in front of an extraordinary challenge”. In the context of the predictability of decision-making, this illustrates quite well how war multiplies all elements of unpredictability, be it the number of players or the speed of chain-reactions. So I hope you share my conclusion that the outcome of war is even less calculable than non-violent politics; war is no political option therefore, and the classic definition by v.Clausewitz “war is the continuation of politics by other means” is no longer true.

Unfortunately, this does not make military war unthinkable. Of course, the right to military self-defense must not be relinquished and one can reasonably not exclude the eventuality where pre-emptive military action is required to avert the worst. In such an event, however, it becomes imperative to reduce the basis for unintended consequences by leaving no doubt that you are acting under full ethical and legal authority of the International Community.

If the new millennium obliges us to abandon solution-oriented planning for a policy of open process, what should be the essence of such policy? I think Winston Churchill showed the way: Confronted with the unpredictability of the effects when he was to make a decision, he thought that the most intelligent thing to do was to do the decent thing. And the decent thing to do today is to avoid the sources of “hard violence” – be it menacing “rogue states”, trans-national terrorists or the manifold implosions of “failed states” – by helping to eliminate “soft violence”, as there are poverty, illicit migration and drugs, organised crime and tax-evasion, and the absence of human rights and tolerance. With other words: If we address the “rogue issues”, we will first contain the “rogue states”; and once this is done, we have good chances to turn them around.

Thank you!