Why Do They Act That Way?

Amegy Bank, Houston

I have been invited to give you today a review of the world’s trouble spots. This is what the snooty foreign-policy types like to call a tour d’horizon. Such folk always like to sprinkle in a foreign word or phrase; it makes them sound so much more authoritative.

A word they like to use is Weltanschauung – which means “world outlook” in German. The trouble is they can spell it better than they can pronounce it. It usually comes out “velt-an-shong”, rhyming with “belt and thong”.

Today we will make that “tour of the horizon”. But instead of talking about current events, I want to give the story behind the news, seeking to explain why a selection of countries act as they do – not only in our day but for the past century or more.

Let’s start with the place that has aggravated the west pretty much that entire time: Russia.

If you think Russia has been an aggravation only since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, I remind you of “The Great Game”, in which the British Empire in the 19th century feared that Moscow, having expanded into Central Asia, would keep on going toward their prize possession, India. This is what took the British into various tragic misadventures in Afghanistan, which they thought would be the route of Russian penetration.

Then and today this makes no sense, given the high mountains, deserts, and warring tribes that characterize Afghanistan. And what size of army, with a logistical tail stretching a thousand miles, would have been required for czarist Russia to reach, let alone to conquer, the vast Indian subcontinent?

Yet the British expended great blood and treasure to prevent this nightmare from becoming reality. During one crisis, Queen Victoria gave her government some advice that still rings true in dealing with Russia: “We must be very careful and well prepared and have plenty of artillery.”

Regardless the regime, the Russians have always been an expansionist people. This is because, paradoxically, the Russians have always been an insecure people. This dates from the terrible experiences they suffered after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. We can never lose sight of the immense, deep, and abiding impact this invasion had on the Russian psyche. It created an attitude toward power that is merciless, pitiless, and aggressive – always pushing out borders to provide ever-greater protection against invaders over ever-greater distances through which to lure them to ultimate destruction, often in the brutal Russian winter.

And, lest we also forget, those enemies have come from the west as well as the east, specifically Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Thus did Josef Stalin after World War II gain back all the lands to the west that Lenin had yielded as the price for peace in World War I, and why his latter-day successor, Vladimir Putin, quite clearly wants to piece back together Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Seventy years ago this year, the American diplomat George F. Kennan sent his famous “long telegram” from Moscow explaining what he called “the sources of Soviet conduct”. In it he said several things about the old USSR that still are valid today in thinking about Putin’s Russia. In fact, every time you hear Kennan use the word “Soviet”, simply substitute “Russian”, which was always pretty much the same thing.

Wrote Kennan:

Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls.

The antagonism [with the west] remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin’s conduct of foreign policy: The secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the war suspiciousness, and the basic unfriendliness of purpose.

These precepts are fortified by the lessons of Russian history: Of centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast unfortified plain. Here caution, circumspection, flexibility, and deception are the valuable qualities. And their value finds natural appreciation in the Russian or the oriental mind.

These phenomena are here to stay, for the foreseeable future. This means that we are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.

End quote. And remember that Kennan wrote these words in 1947, which was so long ago I was already a toddler of one.

Let us now move on to what many people – I not among them – view as the 21st century successor to the old Soviet Union as America’s great existential rival: China.

Once again, history is our best guide. It is a history with which westerners are unfamiliar, but it is a fiery sore within the Chinese soul. They call it “the Century of Humiliations”. This speaks to the decades before and after the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. It was a time when foreign armies – most notoriously the British and French – invaded Chinese territory, ransacked great treasure houses like the Summer Palace, flooded the country with Indian opium, seized colonies, and imposed what were called “unequal treaties” that essentially passed Chinese sovereignty to foreigners. The ultimate outrage were the 14 years of Japanese invasion and occupation that ended only with the Second World War.

Meanwhile, China itself was rent with rebellions and civil wars, causing that great horror to any civilized nation but especially to China, disorder.

As we know, today’s China is an entirely different place, a superpower with the world’s second-largest (and someday the largest) economy in the world and a military of ever-increasing global reach. It is ludicrous to imagine a return of British, French, and Japanese armies to Chinese soil. And yet the Chinese leadership at every level, right down to the classroom, never ceases to speak of “the Century of Humiliations” as if it were today. In particular, China regularly stokes anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic political purposes. There is no question that Imperial Japan committed unspeakable crimes in China, especially in the 1930s, for which it has not wholly admitted responsibility and apologized. But modern China need not fear modern Japan.

I mention this history because it informs so much of current Chinese foreign policy. China never again wants to (or will) be weak, fractious, and held up to foreign contempt. National unity is of highest importance, which explains why any outbreak of dissent in Tibet and Sinkiang is immediately crushed and why China has never forsworn the use of force against Taiwan.

For much of the long and storied history of China, Taiwan was a fairly inconsequential place. It was inhabited by indigenous tribes, the few local Chinese being fishermen and traders. The island came into imperial consciousness only at the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century. That means that a Chinese Taiwan is only about as old as Virginia. Nothing of the greatness of Chinese culture, honored throughout the world, is Taiwanese in origin. (When he fled to the island in 1949, Chiang Kai Shek brought the choicest objects of pottery and painting from the old Forbidden City with him, which you must see if you’re ever in Taipei. But none of these treasures was made in Taiwan.)

What Taiwan has given Chinese culture is proof that democracy can exist and thrive within a Confucian society. Power regularly passes between two competitive political parties, a peaceful transition unlike that found in eons of Chinese history.

Beijing insists that Taiwan one day will be reunited with the mainland. Perhaps it will; the only question is whether this will occur by force or by the will of the island’s residents. The key issue is that, while the People’s Republic suffers Taiwan to exist as a vibrant democracy beyond its control, the island remains a reminder that China is not yet truly whole.

The occupation and fortification of various spits of land in the South China Sea is another assertion of Chinese physical integrity. These isles lie within what the Chinese call the “nine-dash line” on their maps. This infuriates American allies elsewhere in the region, most notably the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. As the world’s greatest naval power, America’s concern is that the South China Sea remain open to the “innocent passage” of ships of every nation and not be the patrimony of one nation alone.

True, the Caribbean has been called an American “lake”, and we have held Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for over a century, but we have no claims on the entire sea. Our national government does not insist that mapmakers enclose it within dashes, whatever the number.

If both Russia and China are still obsessed with their imperial pasts, the same can be said in triplicate of Iran, heir to the Persian empire. Yet modern Iran is less concerned with territory than with prestige. Simply put, all Iranians – from a grand ayatollah in Isfahan to an expatriate in “Teherangeles” or Houston — are immensely proud of being Persian. The rest of humanity can only stand in admiration of their five thousand years as a state and as a center of some of the world’s most exquisite art, architecture, and literature.

On Mount Behistun in western Iran there is an inscription carved during the 5th century BC at the command of Darius the Great:

“I [am] Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king in Persia, the king of countries … in all, 23 countries.”

In the same century, Herodotus wrote of the Persians:

“They honor most of all those who dwell nearest them; then those who are next farthest removed, and … those who dwell farthest off they hold least honorable of all. For they deem themselves to be in all regards by far the best of all men [and] those who dwell farthest away have least merit of all.”

And so it can be understood, if not applauded, that today’s rulers of Iran see themselves as the natural and superior power in a region of lesser peoples – specifically, in their view, the Arabs. Many observers see this as an assertion of Shia over Sunni Islam, and there is no doubt Sunnis are concerned about a so-called “Shia crescent” that arises out of Iran, sweeps through southern Iraq, and extends to Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.

But the Persian attitude is not so much one of religious imperialism as one of a keen self-regard. They see themselves as simply the best – the best-looking, the best craftsmen, the best cooks, the best speakers and poets, and by far the best bargainers. Barack Obama and John Kerry never had a chance in any negotiation with the Iranians.
I contend – though of course cannot prove – that even if Iran were freed from its clerical overlords and were a fully democratic state, it would still expect to possess nuclear weapons in order to stand proudly and equally among the great nations of the world — simply and purely because it always has.

And what of the people on the other side of what we call the Persian Gulf? The people of the Arab Middle East, no less so than the other nations we’ve discussed, live with a strong historical memory. In particular, they remember the Crusades. Now, most Americans have only a foggy notion of what and when the Crusades were. What we know may come entirely from having seen a movie – something about knights fighting in the Holy Land about a thousand years ago. We may have crammed some facts for a class in world history in high school – that was the class the coach taught – but then promptly forgotten them.

In case you’ve forgotten, there were four principal crusades mounted by various popes and kings of Medieval Europe to retake the Holy Land – the eastern shore of the Mediterranean – from the Muslims. The First Crusade succeeded, and there was created a Kingdom of Jerusalem that lasted roughly 100 years before the Muslims’ great warrior, Saladin, defeated the Crusaders.

The Arabs haven’t forgotten. To them, the Crusades took place last week. Despite Saladin’s victory, they still burn with fury about western invasion, occupation, and humiliation. When the British and French acquired part of the territory of the old Ottoman Empire after World War I, this was seen as nothing less than a return of the occupiers of old. And when Britain left Palestine in 1948, the newly-proclaimed State of Israel was viewed as “a crusader kingdom”, a new edition of the 12th-century Kingdom of Jerusalem. The fact that Israel was run by Jews from Poland was unimportant; it was the descendants of the crusaders who had given birth to it.

At various times during the American involvement in Iraq, our troops were denounced by certain Arab politicians and journalists as “crusaders”. This was because these Arabs saw the US as simply another western invader. In point of fact, our troops had no historical connection with the crusaders whatsoever. After all, who were the crusaders? They were British, French, and German aristocrats. Their 21st century heirs today stroll around ancestral estates in Kent, Normandy, and Swabia. The ancestors of the American GI’s and Marines fighting in Iraq had worked for people like these and decided long ago that life wasn’t ever going to get any better where they were, so they got on the next boat for the colonies.

A few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush warned the American public that “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” He meant the word “crusade” in the American sense of a fight for a worthy cause, like a crusade against cancer or drunk driving. But this one-time-only use of the word was seized by Osama bin Laden as proof of everything he had long said about America, namely that it wanted to wage war on Islam.

I could cite many other examples of how history shapes current events. We could talk about how North Korea arms itself with everything from thousands of artillery pieces to nuclear weapons, because within its historical memory is a Korean War in which United Nations forces under the leadership of the US occupied Pyongyang. We could talk about how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan wants to rewrite a provision of the Japanese constitution that forbids the use of armed force in any conflict abroad, because that provision was part of a document written not by Japanese but by the victorious Americans after World War II. And we could talk about how the European Union failed to quell the vicious fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s because the principal European armed force was German, and modern Germany – now an upstanding international citizen — was still highly sensitive to imperial and Nazi Germany’s past aggressions against its neighbors.

I’ve left out entire continents – Africa, South America, and Australia – and I have left out one other important place: The United States of America.

This is because we Americans have been blessed with a short historical memory. It is a blessing because our country has always focused more on the present and the future than on the past. A place like Northern Ireland – to pick just one of many tragic instances – is haunted to this day by the Battle of the Boyne, which took place between Protestants and Catholics in 1690.

We of course had a terrible civil war, and while not forgotten it doesn’t divide our countrymen as it did in the decades immediately after Appomattox. Until a certain point, the Civil War was something Grandpa grumbled about at the dinner table; statues and monuments were raised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; and bumper stickers declared “Forget – hell!” Then we moved on, to face common concerns like world wars, the Great Depression, and creating a prosperous and just society for ourselves and our families. This year’s flare-ups in various cities about memorials to Confederate figures stirred passions among some, but only some, of our people. It was nothing like the seething passions caused by bonfires and parades in Belfast every year on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

Our history – and I speak of the Revolution and the creation of a constitutional republic – serves to unify us, if we will let it. Those who founded our nation knew their history, from ancient to modern times. This inspired them to write a document, the Constitution, that stands for all time because it is based on what history teaches us about how human beings deal with power. By wisely constraining the powers of government, they liberated us from the past and sent us on our way, optimistically looking ahead and not behind.

Other lands are not so liberated, and because their history matters so mightily to them, we need to know it.

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