Monday, December 06, 2004

You will be assimilated! (Warning - long post)

Cabalamat Journal has an interesting post on the European Union and its influence in the world under the amusing title The European Union is the Borg. They've also started blogrolling us, so have a link! They refer to this article in the Washington Post by Robert "Paradise and Power" Kagan.

Some points - I think Kagan is right that the prospect of EU membership has been a powerful force for peace and democracy in the ex-communist bloc and that this will go on. Mind you, I'm not as clear about how this can be reconciled with the practicals of enlargement and the EU's institutional structure. Once you get past Turkey things get tough - is an EU much like the current one, with its capital in Brussels, really credible if the eastern border is the Pacific? Really, of course, this is just the old traditional question about where Europe ends to the east in a new form. And I think there's a danger, especially when folk like Robert Cooper (favourably quoted in the article) talk about the EU as a voluntary empire (in Geir Lundestan's words, an empire by invitation), that a degree of geographical and intellectual hubris sets in. Kagan:
"By accident of history and geography, the European paradise is surrounded on three sides by an unruly tangle of potentially catastrophic problems, from North Africa to Turkey and the Balkans to the increasingly contested borders of the former Soviet Union. This is an arc of crisis if ever there was one.."
Note that he seems to conceive of the whole perimeter around the EU (hell, forget the Arctic Ocean) as one entity. Which suggests that the lure of membership should be applied southwards, as well as eastwards and southeastwards. Now, you could make a case for this. After all, the countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean were once the subjects of Ottoman Turkey - which was a European power. Surely - say - the politics of Algeria might be progressively rendered less vicious and more democratic if they had the prospect of membership as a motivator. Look at Turkey itself! And there's natural gas in them thar sands!

Then, of course, you've got a problem, because the southern border is suddenly an ill-defined line pushing against some of the world's nastiest crisis zones. What you might call Vulgar Kaganism would suggest that we now open accession negotiations with the Central African Republic. And then Burkina Faso. Over on the eastern front, meanwhile, the shining lure of membership will surely be gradually snaring the states of the Caucasus, whether via the northern route (after the Ukraine and Russia) or the (perhaps less difficult) southern route (via Turkey). When the next border dispute, upburst of Islamist violence or nuclear accident erupts, of course, the answer will be to commence talks with Uzbekistan. Hell, why not Afghanistan and Iran? Finally, somewhere near the Dzungarian Gate, the Schengen area's ever expanding frontier collides with China and (hopefully) recoils. There's a name for this phenomenon, classically elaborated by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in Africa and the Victorians. It is called the Crumbling Frontier, and it is important because its crumbling can bring on cycles of intervention beyond it, often followed by bursts of retrenchment, as the great power within the frontier searches unavailingly for security. Gallagher and Robinson describe how, during the 1840s, the frontier of British South Africa was pushed out in an effort to keep the expansion of Boer settlement under control and (it was thought) prevent war with the Zulus. Every time British sovereignty was extended, not surprisingly, the Boers just moved on out of it. Not that the Zulus and Xhosas were too happy, either. As the length of the frontier grew, security became less and less likely. Then London intervened and ordered the governor at the Cape to wind his neck in and cut costs. Did he really have to administer all those miles of windswept veldt and lonely kopjes at taxpayers' expense? So they went into reverse and decolonised back to the last-but-one start line.

Then, of course, the trouble began all over again. (Note - if you're reading this, Professor Stockwell, I hope you're impressed that I remember all that crap about the annexation and dis-annexation of British Kaffraria, Sir Harry Provo and the Sand River Convention from your lectures. Taking the way I behaved in that first term into account, it's a wonder I remember which courses I took let alone British Kaff-Bleeding-Raria.) Now for the Ranter take-home message: When do you get a crumbling frontier? When you're an empire and you run into people who don't want to be part of it - or more importantly, don't really understand what all your crap about courts and lawbooks and policemen with funny hats and water mains and railways is about and don't care. And what's the problem with it? That once it gets going, you can't control it. All that stops it is usually when you run into somebody too big and nasty to deal with, or something natural. Like the sea.

And how do you think the Africans and Russians will look at us with our fantastic all-purpose peacemaker when we rock up and suggest they take a seat back in Brussels? Yep, just another bunch of honkies who know what's best for us. Bah. The whole thing about "soft power" is that it doesn't look like an empire.

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