There’s Disaster, then there’s DISASTER
The last week has seen dramatic shifts in the U.S. position on Syria, the Middle East region and perhaps the world. A couple weeks back I predicted imminent TLAM strikes on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure “barring some strange turn of events.”
And what a strange turn of events we’ve witnessed. Having realized that the American people have little interest in another war of choice in the Middle East, President Obama referred the matter to Congress and, when that began to go wobbly – predictably, given the mess that is the U.S. Congress, and not improved by the apparently total lack of prep work done by the White House on The Hill regarding Syria – the Administration in effect outsourced the matter to Vladimir Putin.
Jumping on an ill-timed statement by Secretary of State John Kerry, on Monday Moscow saw its moment and leapt, both hands extended. Now, five days later, we have word of a US-Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of its impressive stockpile of chemical weapons. This, obviously, would be a most positive development, and I will be suitably happy and impressed, when and if it happens.
For the moment, I remain a skeptic, given the Assad regime’s habitual dishonesty, plus Russia’s encouragement of the same (when not actively collaborating in it), as well as the immense challenges of safely removing tons of chemicals weapons in the middle of a very nasty ethnic and sectarian civil war. I expect we’re in for many rounds of UN-brokered and Moscow-manipulated negotiations about all this that will leave Assad in power and the West deceived. No matter what, civilians will keep dying, and the already very ugly Syrian conflict will grow more savage still.
The international consequences of this are complex but detectable. For the first time, Putin has successfully made Russia a plausible alternate power center in the Middle East – and by implication, well beyond. By backing his client to the wall in Syria, Moscow has shown that it can be trusted, that its word is its bond. Unlike Washington, DC’s word, the malleable nature of which has been demonstrated multiple times during Obama’s presidency. If you get in bed with Moscow, Putin will take your panicked phone call, at all hours, and not let you be arrested like Mubarak, nor will it let you be manhandled into a sewer pipe to be shot in the head like Gadhafi. This is a powerful, indeed indelible message in much of the world.
Putin’s Russia is hardly the Soviet Union, it’s much less mighty and lacks any expansionist ideology. But it’s safe to say this week now coming to a close marks the end of America’s unipolar moment, of unchallenged hegemony that began in 1991 or so with the fall of the Soviet empire. The multipolar world that everyone keeps heralding is finally here. This will be seen as a positive development by some, less so by others; as always, it’s too soon to tell. What can be said, however, is that this new multipolar world will surprise in ways that few can yet imagine.
In short, this week has been a disaster if you’re someone who thinks American hegemony is, on balance, more good than bad for the world. It took two years of policy and strategy missteps for the Obama administration to get here, but now that Putin’s in the driver’s seat on Syria, there’s no going back. Combined with the rapid decline of U.S. military spending – this week has also seen the U.S. Navy’s top uniformed and civilian officials explain that, if sequestration continues, America’s maritime power will decline precipitously by 2020 – means that America has set a course for gradual decline in military, and therefore political, power globally.
The fact of decline seems certainly true, it’s the pace I wonder about. In political science telling, decline is a natural thing, but it can be managed and has a definable pace. Except actual study of history, my own discipline, shows this to be so much happy-talk (there’s another post in the future about the deceptive uselessness of “International Relations” theory in the real world; wait for it). Decline can happen suddenly once the drop-off starts because people and countries are unpredictable. Events happen that few anticipate.
My favorite case here is Austria-Hungary in the run-up to the First World War, which would be the last the Habsburgs ever fought. It’s a complex tale with many nuances but the essential story can be explained easily. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866, a short, bloody affair that determined united Germany would be under Prussian, not Habsburg, rule, created the Dual Monarchy and set the empire on a southeastward trajectory. Unfortunately, increased diplomatic involvement in the Balkans put Austria-Hungary on a collision course with Tsarist Russia, which saw itself as the protector of the Orthodox Slavs of the region, who had lived under Ottoman rule for centuries.
The Russian-backed anti-Ottoman war of 1877-78 created viable, if weak, states out of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, and Vienna and St. Petersburg vied for their attention for decades to come. Yet real war planning against Russia didn’t begin in Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany until the 1890s; before then, the three traditionalist monarchies, conservative to their core, seemed to have much more that united than divided them.
Then, in 1903, a brutal “regime change” in Belgrade installed a new, pro-Russian monarch and government that quickly became a tool of Tsarist policy in the Balkans. Vienna was furious, having seen the little peasant kingdom as its client. However, the dual debacle for Russia of defeat by Japan and a serious revolt at home in 1905-1906 convinced Austria-Hungary that it had little to fear from the distracted and inefficient Russians, so in 1908 it annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina, formerly Ottoman provinces that it had occupied in 1878 with Great Power assent, but had not legally made part of the Habsburg realm.
As Serbs were the biggest ethnic group in the provinces, Serbia was apoplectic and Russia took the Bosnian annexation as a diplomatic humiliation yet was powerless to do much, as it was still nursing wounds from 1905-1906; however, the crisis left a lingering deep desire to even the score, much as the 1999 Kosovo war would among the current Russian elite.
All seemed quite placid for the next four years, so stable that Austria-Hungary kept its military spending dangerously low, even as the rest of Europe, expecting war, armed to the teeth. Messy domestic politics and a lack of support for military expenditure, due in part to troubled state finances, meant that the Habsburg military was rapidly falling behind, particularly vis-a-vis Russia.
This mattered little until the whirlwind of 1912-1913 that saw two wars in the Balkans and utterly changed the map of Southeastern Europe. Much like the Arab Spring, realities that had lasted for a generation or more evaporated suddenly. The Ottoman Empire was nearly pushed out of Europe, while Serbia became much larger and more confident. Even Romania, long seen as dependable by Vienna if it came to a war with Russia, was wavering. Austria-Hungary’s whole southern flank had collapsed, and there was nothing that could be done about it in the short term.
At last, Habsburg military spending rose, but it would prove to be too little, too late. By the beginning of 1914, even General Franz Conrad, the fire-eating General Staff chief who had repeatedly counseled war against Serbia since 1906, to nip the menace in the bud – think Dick Cheney with a more interesting personal life – concluded, after examining the new lay of the land, that the time for war had passed. The odds of winning any struggle were fifty-fifty at best, he assessed.
And yet, that war soon came. As we all know, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir to the throne, along with his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 kicked off a chain of events that is known as the July Crisis by historians. Briefly, Vienna suspected, but could not prove, that Belgrade was behind the assassination (they were correct, the Serbian military intelligence service was indeed behind the plot), and the long-delayed confrontation with Serbia, and therefore with Russia, could no longer be averted.
Austria-Hungary brimmed with righteous indignation over the regicide at Sarajevo, not unlike the fury that gripped the United States after 9/11, and war was really the only course of action top generals and diplomats in Vienna seriously considered in July 1914. A European war was the inevitable outcome, and we all know the catastrophe that followed for the next four years.
Unfortunately for the Dual Monarchy, General Conrad had been right, its long-underfunded military was unready for a major war, particularly for the huge two-front war it got. Vienna’s intelligence picture was lamentably muddled, as a year before the war, in May 1913, its number-two intelligence officer, the infamous Colonel Alfred Redl, was unmasked as a Russian spy; in Snowdenesque fashion, he had given the Russians the store and effectively blinded Habsburg espionage in the process. Austria-Hungary had little chance in a fight against Russia without significant German help, which was not forthcoming, and the result ought to have been predicted, but was not by the High Command. Much like the U.S. military in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, there were generals who did object, noting that the forces assigned to the task were grossly inadequate to the mission, but they were brushed off as their message was unwanted.
For Austria-Hungary, the August war soon became an unprecedented and unmitigated catastrophe. Invasions to the south and the east commenced in mid-August and soon stalled. The vengeance-inspired move into Serbia was unexpectedly pushed back by the plucky Serbs, who at Cer mountain overlooking the Drina river defeated the Habsburg VIII Corps, causing a general Austro-Hungarian retreat back into Bosnia, thereby delivering the Allies their first victory of the Great War. For Vienna, the humiliation of defeat at the hands of Balkan peasants was an incalculable blow to prestige and pride.
Things initially looked better on the Eastern Front, where first moves into Russian territory met with impressive if costly success. This push into what is today eastern Poland showed that the Habsburg Army could fight well, but the victories at Kraśnik and Komarów were quickly forgotten as Russia’s vast numbers turned the tide. The Tsar’s armies were slow to mobilize but huge, and by the end of August Habsburg forces east of Lemberg, the capital of the province of Galicia and a major military hub, were steamrollered by Russian forces three times their size. A local defeat soon devolved into a rout, and Lemberg was in Tsarist hands by early September.
Within days Conrad had an unmanageable situation on his hands, his Napoleonic dreams of a quick, decisive victory having been shattered by reality, and he reluctantly ordered his forces that were still advancing into Poland to fall back to hold a line west of Lemberg. Yet even this could not save the situation and by mid-September half of Galicia was occupied by the Russians and the Habsburg Army was in ruins.
Wishful thinking in place of coherent strategy defeated the Austro-Hungarian military as much as the Russians did. In just three weeks of heavy fighting in the East, Habsburg forces lost nearly 450,000 men, including over 100,000 dead and an equal number in Russian POW camps. The losses equalled the size of the prewar standing army. Gone was a staggering percentage of trained officers and NCOs, who could not be replaced, thus never were. This was a defeat without precedent in military history.
Austria-Hungary stayed in the war that September because the Russians were almost as exhausted by the hellish fight for Galicia, and because Germany, stinging from defeat at the Marne, reluctantly saved its ailing ally by injecting troops to prevent a Russian advance over the Carpathian mountains. The cost of this Prussian assistance would be Vienna’s military – and soon economic and political – dependence on Berlin. Austria-Hungary effectively went to war in 1914 to save its status as a Great Power and only six weeks into that war it lost that status for good. The Dual Monarchy would struggle through four more years of costly fighting, losing millions more men in the process, but its dependence on Berlin eventually became total, as was the defeat Vienna endured in autumn 1918, which swept away the ancient Habsburg realm.
Although the Habsburg military performed well against the Italians, against the Russians it never really recovered from defeat in Galicia in the summer of 1914, and was regularly dependent on German assistance to prevent total collapse. In the end, the Austro-Hungarian military, and state, became less a German ally and more a satellite. There was little choice.
What is one to make of all this in September 2013, exactly ninety-nine years after the events I’ve described? The good news is that America remains, if not the global hegemon, by far the greatest of the world’s Great Powers. But that status may come into question in the years ahead as the United States, like Austria-Hungary a polity not always helped by its great ethnic and regional diversity, may find it impossible to keep its military funded at a level commensurate with its defense obligations.
Additionally, decline is not always linear and predictable. It can be gradual, then suddenly very rapid and terrifying. The world can change with alarming speed, tearing apart strategic certainties that have persisted, as if suspended in amber, for decades. As the cemeteries are filled with indispensable people, diplomatic graveyards are littered with permanent alliances and unshakable truths. If you’re not ready for rapid change, be prepared for ugly surprises.
No less, the Russians have a disturbing habit of acting irrationally when client states are in trouble. Consensus in St. Petersburg in July 1914 was firmly behind backing up Serbia, at any cost; the few opposing voices were barely heard even though, with any hindsight, this was a supremely stupid decision, given that the war ended the Tsar’s empire and him and his family too. And for God’s sake don’t expect Russia to be an honest broker when one of its dear clients is in danger.
This week has been a disaster for U.S. diplomacy and interests, but it is not yet anything like a DISASTER of the sort I’ve outlined here. Let’s not let it become one.