On Geopolitical Chivalry

Should the strong protect the weak? The answer to this question says a great deal about the divergence between contemporary European and American attitudes on foreign policy.

Over the past few decades, Western European and American conceptions of foreign policy and international affairs have drifted apart, especially during Republican presidencies in the US. Those administrations have typically been more hawkish and clear-eyed about the dangers that the West faces; from Islamic terrorism, to Iranian nuclear proliferation, to the irredentist, expansionist dangers of Russia and China. In a 2012 debate between Mitt Romney and then-President Barack Obama, Western Europeans laughed along with American liberals at Obama’s sardonic criticism of Romney’s focus on Russia as a geopolitical foe. Just two years later, Romney would be proven right, as Russia invaded Ukraine. One would think that such a blatant assault on the international order – on the European continent, no less – would undermine this attitude of naïve optimism about potential foes. Unfortunately, it did not.

Western Europe continued its permissive and conciliatory posture towards the triumvirate of Iran, Russia, and China, despite the egregious human rights abuses and outwardly belligerent stances taken by those nations. Iran should be lauded for coming to the table to discuss its nuclear ambitions, while its constant support for international terrorism and regional instability can be conveniently swept under the rug. Russia is a trustworthy source of the energy that powers our civilization, even if they are chronic saber-rattlers and seek to reconstitute the imperium of old. China must be our friend because of commerce and climate; just ignore the genocide, economic coercion, and revanchist hegemonic aims. And, of course, European nations need to spend even less on defense and focus more on positive engagement and diplomacy. What sort of barbarian spends a whole two percent of its budget on its military?! Preposterous. History has ended, and we have won.

This has been how Europe – I’m using Europe here as a shorthand for the Western Europeans who largely run the EU and influence the continent’s broad foreign policy – has behaved internationally for the past decade. And now they’re faced with the consequences of their actions.

Russia has overrun eastern Ukraine with the largest invasion on the European continent since 1945. China is gearing up for a run on Taiwan in the coming years and is slowly expanding its malign influence across the world. Iran is back to nuclear brinksmanship and has continued funding terrorist proxies around the Middle East. The European reaction to these crises has been lackluster. Yes, weapons have been transferred to Ukraine – but they are often too few in number and are slow-walked by policy-makers. Yes, Europe has supported the general Ukrainian position – but it has also interfaced with Putin and pushed a peace plan which would effectively partition Ukraine. With respect to Iran and China, the response seems to be: “Crisis? What crisis? Nothing to see here.”

The more assertive policy of American defense hawks – and, it has to be said, the nations of Eastern Europe – is viewed as the fantasy of deluded Cold War cowboys, whereas the astute ‘balancing’ approach of the Eurocrats is sophisticated and civilized. You see, the geopolitical connoisseurs in Europe do not see their foes as foes, merely as good-faith actors in the international order who can be won over to the appropriate policies with time and unfettered engagement. This could not be further from the truth – Iran funds terror groups which undermine European security, Russia seeks imperial domination of Europe itself, and who do they think China is referring to when it lambasts its “century of humiliation?”

In its quixotic quest for ‘strategic autonomy’, Europe is effectively renouncing its commitment to the liberal world order which has allowed it to grow rich, satiated, and progressive. How, you might ask? By equivocating between an American-led bloc on one side and a China/Russia/Iran consortium on the other, Europe is abetting the latter’s deliberate undermining of the international system. This is not a competition for the top spot in the world order; it is an ideological rivalry about how geopolitics should be organized. The foes of the regnant world-system intend to replace it with a throwback to older days: an international domain where might makes right, free trade is swapped for mercantilism, and hard spheres of influence predominate – regardless of what the smaller nations within those spheres have to say.

That brings us to the above tweet. Sent by the influential Portuguese foreign policy thinker Bruno Maçães, it is ostensibly commentary on a deadly incident on a New York City subway car. But it actually has far more to say about our geopolitical divergence than it does anything else.

The idea that “in a civilized society, the strong protect the weak,” is a bulwark of the Western worldview, going back to the very foundations of Christian culture. Chivalry was a key conceit of Western culture, whether exhibited by courageous medieval knights in battle or Victorian gentlemen courting demure ladies. Those who were strong, or powerful, or wealthy had a duty to protect those who fell beneath them in the sociocultural hierarchy. (We can debate as to whether that hierarchy was in itself moral, but the idea of protecting those weaker than oneself is undoubtedly a noble one, even if a bit paternalistic.) Europeans today clearly believe that this idea still holds true in many respects – its broad social welfare programs and State involvement in daily life are the epitome of the approach. Those programs were generated in the spirit of Christian charity, applied through government as the strongest moral actor on this earthly plane. But what of this idea as applied internationally and not domestically? Would that world order be a “civilized” one or an “uncivilized” one?

Clearly, there is, in reality, an international hierarchy; all nations are not equal at any given time, in terms of military strength, economic power, population size, or any other important metric. Some are stronger on those power factors than others. For example, despite their equal vote in the United Nations, I doubt anyone would consider Burundi to be on the same geopolitical level as, say, Japan. Given that a hierarchy of nations exists in practice, should those stronger nations feel an obligation to stand up for the weaker ones? This is an age-old question that cuts to the heart of the geopolitical divergence between American hawks – like yours truly – and Eurocrat doves, Maçães included. For us hawks, the answer must be a resounding yes. For the proponents of “strategic autonomy” and the EU as a balancer between two blocs, the answer is, for all intents and purposes, no.

In many ways, this nouveau Européen outlook is a repudiation of what their predecessors believed when the continent was at the height of its power. The basic building block of the post-1848 world order, largely crafted and honed by the British Empire, was national sovereignty. Wars of territorial aggrandizement against acknowledged states were discouraged, and direct interference in the internal affairs of others was frowned upon. These norms were not always followed to the letter, especially in the period before 1871, but they did solidify into general rules of the international road. Over time, those general rules became ironclad guarantees worth risking war over, even when the target of domination was a smaller, weaker nation. Lest we forget, both world wars began with a larger power seeking to bully a smaller power into major geopolitical concessions – Austria-Hungary against Serbia the first time out, and Nazi Germany against Poland in the redux. British entry into the Great War was directly premised on the violation of Belgian sovereignty and neutrality by Imperial Germany, while it joined the fray in 1939 after Poland was subject to blitzkrieg. These are perhaps the strongest examples of this geopolitical chivalry put into action, and cost Britain dearly in blood and treasure.

Today, those who clearly see the dangers posed to the world order by its inveterate foes are the true inheritors of that honorable tradition, while the European liberals of 2023 have tossed it in the bin. It is the height of civilization for those who are strong to take on a chosen obligation to aid the weak in defense of their rights and existence. It is one reason why it is morally just to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion meant to extinguish its sovereignty. For the same reason, seeking to defend Taiwan from Chinese militarism is righteous and good, as is opposing Iranian terrorism. Taking on these challenges, even when they do not directly impinge on our own territory, is the civilized thing to do. It conserves the international order, the greatest triumph of liberalism and the most powerful enemy of poverty the world has ever known. It shows other nations that, although we might compete hard for primacy and prosperity, we do not countenance moral atrocities like the invasion of Ukraine. And it demonstrates that we are guardians of the world order, not merely our own parochial interests.

Geopolitical chivalry may be dead among the Eurocrat class, but there are others who will gladly pick up the torch and hold it high. Their side must win out if the world order is to remain liberal, free, and secure. Civilization demands no less.

One thought on “On Geopolitical Chivalry

  1. There were many, complex reasons for the European colonization of the New World, I know…. but the mindset of these “disposable people” must surely be with us today; i.e., we cowboys know sweet-talking bullies when we hear them.

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