Spain 1936, Syria 2014: This is What Multipolarity Looks Like

Postings will remain very infrequent until I’ve got this whole PhD thing wrapped up, but I was motivated to write a short piece given the recent stories of Canadian volunteers going to fight in Syria and Iraq.

On the basis of helpful comments from colleagues Bryan Peeler and Nathan Allen,  the conclusion to this piece has been amended and expanded from the original version, hopefully for the better.

Foreigners are traveling to the Levant to fight. That, in itself is not really news in 2014. (Heck, it wasn’t even news in 1014, or 214 BCE.) Until now almost all the attention has been on would-be or actual jihadis travelling from near abroad and western nations alike to join the rebels in Syria and engaging in violence in Iraq as well. The Washington Post has a nifty graphic summarizing where such fighters come from. Many, though not all end up fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to the accompanying article, the the rate of influx exceeds that seen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

What is new, however, is that in recent weeks a very different kind of behaviour has emerged: Western military veterans volunteering to fight against ISIL, primarily with the peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. The CBC profiled anonymously several Canadian veterans who were enlisting to fight with the Kurds against ISIL forces. The BBC ran a similar piece profiling one of a “tiny handful” of US ex-servicemen doing the same thing in October. Beyond veterans, there are reports of ethnic Kurds from Western countries also making the trip, along with three members of Dutch biker club No Surrender.

The implications are manifold.

The legal thickets are deep, vary by country, and are best left to others. The CBC article linked above, for instance, includes several salient points from UBC Professor of political science Michael Byers. Suffice to say Canadian citizens retain obligation under both Canadian and international law, and that they are heading to a conflict zone in which there have been accusations of human rights violations, particularly on the side of the IS, but some on the side of the KRG as well. Volunteers will be in legal jeopardy should they find themselves party to such activities; conversely, questions remain regarding Western governments’ obligations to extract their citizens should they get into trouble while engaged in fighting, as for example in the recent case of Gill Rosenberg, the Israeli-Canadian allegedly fighting alongside KRG forces, who may or may not have been kidnapped by ISIL in recent days.

A second set of issues concern the potential impact on the conflict itself. The absolute number of would-be fighters making the trip seems quite low so far. An extremely unscientific survey of news reports on the subject suggest  phrases like “handful” are consistently used to characterize the numbers. The CBC report identified about a half-dozen making the trip; should the numbers remain so low, the direct impact on the battlefield will be negligible. Some groups—may focus on training rather than direct participation; if successful such efforts might have a multiplier effect, though it’s impossible to say just how much without more information (if then). For instance, the emergency air medical transport service Castle International claims to be raising funds to do just that.

A third line of inquiry however, and the one I want to focus on here, concerns the implications for the international system and global governance. The image of Western volunteers enlisting to fight in someone else’s war is something we haven’t seen in a long time. Indeed, the last major case like this (that occurs to me, at any rate) took place in 1936, in the Spanish Civil War (before that, one might have to look to the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century for another example of similar scope.)

It’s important to be clear what we’re talking about. These are not mercenaries. They are not motivated, like the private security forces of the 1990s—or 1790s, for that matter—by the prospect of a payday. Rather, they are going to fight in the service of what they view as a just cause. The quotes that the volunteers give consistently indicate this. For instance, A Canadian veteran interviewed anonymously by As it Happens said he was going because “Humanity is under attack as a whole from this evil group known as ISIS.” It suggests that the volunteers are enlisting to fill a need, to address a lack that their respective states are unwilling to.

International Relations scholars like to distinguish themselves from comparativists. This, with a moment’s reflection, is an utterly strange point of difference. Students of IR—particularly at the level of the international system—use comparison as much as any good comparativist; it’s just that comparison tends to move across time, rather than across space. Indeed, we’re constantly looking for times to compare the present era to. During the Cold War, we looked back to France and England in the 18th century, and even ancient Athens and Sparta. During the unipolar moment of the 1990s, we looked back to the Pax Britannica of the 19th century and the Pax Romana centuries before.

Now we are at the dawn of a multipolar moment, a period of reshuffling of the global power structure, and we need new points of comparison. Taken in this light, the mid-1930s in general, and the Spanish civil war in particular, make for a vivid comparison with contemporary Syria.

We live in a world, much like that of 1936, in which no one state would appear to have either the resource or the will to act as a hegemonic guarantor of stability. In both periods, the incumbent hegemon (then the UK, and today the US) is in a period of relative general decline and experiencing a specific form of war fatigue, one that taxed both nations financial system significantly (though certainly the losses suffered by the UK in WWI were orders of magnitude greater than what the US has undergone in the last decade).   The most likely challenger—then the US, now China—lacks both the international legitimacy, the domestic political will, and the institutional capacity to pick up the slack.

Rather, we have a series of regional powers, overseen by an increasing tired and increasingly limited hegemon. Some of the regional powers are rising, others falling. Some are revisionist, while others support the status quo. Some are friendly with their neighbours, others decidedly are not. In areas where interest overlaps, friction occurs. In areas that no great power considers to be part of its neighbourhood, conflicts will play out with ugly and unpredictable results, with ambitious local actors able to exercise significant latitude.

In 1930s Spain, the UK attempted to enforce a blockade. Meanwhile, Italy sent 100,000 troops and Germany sent in the Condor Legion to support Nationalist forces (both also took careful note of how the rest of the world responded). Conversely, the USSR and Mexico backed the Republican side, and volunteers from around the world flocked to its aid as well. The result is perhaps best expressed in terms of art:

origin_5410199284In Syria and Iraq, the EU attempted an arms embargo and various Western powers maintain a sanctions regime while Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Turkey, other countries, and numerous private actors funnel support to one side or the another. Now, as in Spain, Western volunteers with no direct stake in the outcome of the fight itself are venturing to fight on the ground in the service of a cause that their governments support in principle, but will not with more concrete action. The US, Canada, and their allies have engaged in an aerial bombardment of ISIL, but nothing more seems likely in the near term, and perhaps at all. Given the politics of the day they likely cannot; given the costly lessons of the last war in Iraq, perhaps they ought not.

There are numerous ways in which the parallels differ, of course. The links between countries—the flows of of capital, trade, people, and ideas—are far thicker and more complex than they were in the 1990s. Robust democracy has spread since then. The nuclear umbrella is firmly in place, radically limiting the scope for great power war. For all its challenges, some perennial and some novel, the Atlantic security community with NATO at its core remains in place as the most successful example of collective defence in history.  The maligned and much criticized UN system, alongside other institutions and organizations that collectively constitute the system of global governance remain far more robust than anything present in the first half of the last century.

Nonetheless, experience of Syria, like that of Spain 80 years before, signals that an age of multipolarity is upon us. If the world today is even a little bit like that of 1936, that ought to give us pause.   Then as now, regional wars in which no great power sees a vital interest—or where more than one does—may be messy and prolonged; then as now, the next crisis may be worse than the present one.

So, what then are the implications for policy?  First, it illustrates the limitations that any would-be intervenor faces in managing, let alone resolving such a conflict, while simultaneously underscoring the importance of making such an effort. Such ungoverned spaces are open to intervention from virtually anyone; with every new interested actor and each added layer of complexity, effective management of the conflict, let alone the finding a peaceful resolution, seems that much more impossible to achieve.  The longer the crisis continues however, the greater the opportunity for opportunistic external actors to find ways to leverage the situation to their advantage. The longer it continues, the weaker the international community looks, and the more emboldened other revisionist powers may become. The longer it continues, and the more likely another crisis will follow. In the case of Syria, opposing such a revisionist power as ISIL obviously remains a priority, but it cannot be the only goal. Defeat ISIL without stabilizing the region as a whole, and something else will simply take its place amidst the chaos.

Second, and more generally, it illustrates once again the need for the US and its allies to become more creative in their management of regional crises that continue to rage, and to try and get ahead of potential crises down the road. Such a project demands a delicate mixture of assertive humility. It requires assertiveness, insofar as the need to actively manage crises is greater now than at any time since the end of the Cold War, in order to forestall intrinsically unpredictable escalation into even greater problems. It requires humility, insofar as the American unipolar moment has effectively passed, and US and its allies are going to need to find willing partners wherever they might be, even where conflicting interests and ideology make such cooperation difficult. The US remains the preeminent power in the system, but it can can no longer rely on close allies and client states alone to maintain the global security order.

Accordingly, recent efforts to achieve what might be termed “uncoordinated cooperation” (or perhaps unilateral cooperation?) on Syria and ISIL with strategic opponents like Iran are a step in the right direction. At a global level, the preeminent challenge must be to  find ways to actively engage China and other rising powers in the maintenance of that global security order. Not because such countries themselves are security threats, though it’s possible to imagine a scenario where some become such; on the contrary, it is because without their active involvement, the present order—one under which rising powers such as China have by definition prospered greatly in recent decades—is becoming increasingly unmanageable.

China, for instance, already significantly influences regional security governance in its own neighbourhood. Its influence will only expand in the years to come, as the scope of its interests do as well. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for India, Brazil, and the other rising powers of the global south. One interpretation of the crisis of the 1930s is that it was only really resolved once the major powers started to carry responsibilities for the maintenance of global order commensurate with their respective abilities to do so. Then, it took a war to get to that place. That is by no means the only way to effect such a change, but it will require a that same mixture of assertive humility to achieve multipolar engagement and to rationalize the burden-sharing in the contemporary global security order.

In theoretical terms, the result might termed a combination of old-school Morgenthauian realism and decidedly modern constructivism. Realism, in the sense both that interest must triumph over ideology in the search for partners and solutions. Constructivism, insofar as that engagement might be expected to pay dividends in terms of socialization (and, dare we hope, democratization) down the road. Start early, and established powers can engage rising powers on security issues on terms preferable to the former. Wait until others force the issue, and it will will be they who call the shots.

It’s not a question of whether the US ought to continue to find ways to integrate China and the rest of the global nouveau riche into governance of global security and economic regimes, but rather on whose terms such integration will eventually occur. For occur it will. Power can be socialized, constrained, opposed, or yielded to; it cannot be denied.

Cover photo courtesy Voice of America via Wikimedia.

Guernica photo credit: magal (Manuel Galrinho) via photopin cc


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