Friday, 12 September 2014


The essence of Greek comedies, like most good comedies, consisted of a straight man and a buffoon. The straight man, or ironist, understates his own abilities, eliciting a knowing chuckle from the audience in on the joke. The buffoon, or alazon, overstates his own talents to the point of absurdity. The alazon’s self-deceptive boastfulness, and his inability to see what is going on in front of his face, assures victory to the ironist. He does not even understand the ironist's sly jokes.

In the realm of geopolitics, the West of 2014 is the world's alazon. We have such a wide cast of characters in the role of the ironist that the odds seem rather unfairly stacked against us. Not only are the non-Western countries taking us for fools, but also the non-Westernized populations within our own countries, and sometimes, it seems, the chorus of the cosmic play itself.

As evidence for cosmic irony, I offer the fact that in August 2014, a group of ISIS jihadists attacked 300 Yazidis in Westphalia, Germany. This single headline contains within it the beginning, middle, and end of the tale of Western legalism: It began in Westphalia, the Islamic State arose as it peaked, and it will come to an end on the streets.

It was in Westphalia, in 1648, that the nations of continental Europe convened to forever renounce the ideal of imperium, and to delegate total sovereignty to governments over their internal affairs. This union of mutual respect for borders soon turned into an atmosphere that this was the way things were meant to be, which only grew as Europe began associating its cultures with large political entities. This culminated in the Helsinki Accords in 1975, when it was agreed that no "sovereign state" could infringe on another without the approval of the United Nations. The scare quotes are intentional, for what are we meant to imagine when we hear those words? Check Wikipedia, guys:
"A sovereign state is a nonphysical juridical entity of the international legal system..."
The "international legal system"... got it. There's a social structure, somewhere out there, that has somehow acquired the power to authorize these "entities" to use force in specific regions. This is scarcely even a plausible legal fiction, but in situations like Kosovo, Bosnia, and Libya, that's how NATO has pretended to have authority to act.

We live in an age where it is taken for granted that there is a justice system operating on all levels from local to international. If you reside in a country with a functioning police force and a seat at the table of "international law," and you usually stay in the "right part of town," then nothing unjust is ever supposed to happen to you without consequences. Even if you die in a freak terrorist attack originating in a foreign country, your Western government, be it America or Israel, will be obliged to respond to the heartless attackers with overwhelming force, in order to right this wrong. A right delegated to them, again, by this "international legal system."

All these levels of legal rights form a great wall against the reality of uncertainty and change in the world, and the absurd idea of "international law" is the most mystifying and fragile section of that wall – a rule, shaky even in its description, that violating Westphalian sovereignty has natural consequences; the illusion that bombing Gaza or Iraq is some sort of necessary development from the iron laws of territorial integrity and the "right to self-defense," rather than a bad strategic decision dictated by unquestioned assumptions about world order. These phrases are the blinders that we are wearing in the West, so much that we might come to think of territorial integrity as a natural law, rather than a hypothetical enforced by states and agencies with limited power.

2014 should be remembered as the year of cracks in the great wall. It was the year when Russia got away with violating territorial integrity, and a group of violent jihadists declared an anti-Westphalian Islamic "State" that rejected the concept of "sovereign states" and refused to recognize any such "state."

Neither of these events were particularly moral; the perpetrators were certainly not heroes. But they pierced the illusion of "international law." A group of bloodthirsty terrorists came to exercise governance over a large section of the Levant, because the idea of another intervention in Iraq made most Americans uncomfortable. The unilateral seizure of Ukrainian territory was punished with such light sanctions that Putin decided to invade the country directly, because Europe stood united in terror of losing Russia's oil money.

These situations were slightly abnormal for this year. One should not expect that 2015 will be a linear progression from 2014, and through much effort, 2014 may be reversed. But that's just because the actors involved were a little ahead of the times. Both are being a bit risky right now. The coming age of imperium must seem tantalizingly close to Putin, but it won't really begin until the great wall itself starts to look unstable. Is anyone really surprised that President Obama, a supposedly committed environmentalist, has been eagerly encouraging fracking? The earlier the U.S. loses access to cheap energy, the faster the entire illusion of "international law" will collapse.

Consider what John Kerry said about Russia when she annexed the Crimea:
"The United States condemns the Russian Federation's invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory, and its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in full contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act..."
He is right on all points, except for the one unstated point, underlying the entire conceit of his statement – that the violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity has natural negative consequences. It is now apparent, both in the Ukraine and in the Levant, that the real consequences are only what the Western nations can afford to dish out. As both Europe and America weaken, how much longer can such condemnations be taken seriously?

The way we were: the Westphalian system.

Let me lay out what is going to happen next. This year, America has proven hesitant to engage in foreign wars. (Honestly, that's great news.) When this hesitance becomes outright refusal, which will probably happen in our lifetimes, what seemed risky in 2014 will become simply good political sense. Borders will no longer carry such moral force. Will it turn out that the lines in the Middle East were mostly being held together by the threat of American weaponry? We won't know until we try breaking them! This will mean the dissolution of the United Nations, and the return of imperium – in the Third World at first, but eventually even in Europe.

The wall crumbles. In the depths we consigned him to, Dionysus reawakens.

Those ISIS fighters on the streets of Westphalia were restrained by police this year. But the world order that prevents them from becoming an organized force, the great bumbling buffoon of the West, is growing old and brittle. For now, the folks on the streets are ironists, floating from city to city while making understated little jibes about the powers that be. Soon they will have the last laugh. There will no longer be a right part of town.

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