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The Islamic Wars of Religion

On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.

On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.

So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.

This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?

The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.

The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.

From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.

The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.

The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.

More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.

Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.

And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.

Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad

The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.

The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.

It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)

The Global Economy: A Perfect Storm?

You know how it is with buses? You wait ages for one, far longer than seems reasonable – and then three arrive all at once. Financial crises are a bit like that too.

The financial crisis everybody in the business has really been waiting for is a “hard landing” of the Chinese economy, now one of the two motors of the global economy. (The other is still the United States.) Everybody thought it was bound to come eventually – well, everybody who was not too heavily invested in the Chinese market – and it now appears to be here, although the Chinese government is still denying it.

The second crisis, less widely anticipated, is a credit crunch that is sabotaging economic growth in almost all the developing countries except India. In many cases their currencies have fallen to historic lows against the dollar, making it harder for them to repay the dollars they borrowed. Moreover, it’s getting harder for them to earn dollars from their exports because commodity prices have collapsed.

And a third crisis is looming in the developed economies of Europe, North America and Japan, which can see another recession looming on the horizon before they have even fully recovered from the effects of the banking crash of 2007-08. And it’s hard to pull out of a new recession when your interest rates are still down near zero because of the last one.

These crises are all arriving at once because they are all connected. When the huge misdeeds and mistakes of American and European banks caused the Great Recession of 2008, China avoided the low growth and high unemployment that hurt Western countries by flooding its economy with cheap credit. But that only postponed the pain, and between 2007 and 2014 total debt in China increased fourfold.

The Chinese government is more terrified of mass unemployment than anything else. It believes, probably correctly, that the Communist regime’s survival depends on delivering continuously rising living standards. So the Chinese economy went on booming for another six years, but the “solution” was fraudulent and now it’s over.

The huge amount of cheap credit sloshing around the Chinese economy mostly went into building unnecessary infrastructure, and above all into housing. That did preserve employment, but property values soared and and a huge “housing bubble” was created. There was nobody to buy all those houses and apartments, and there are now brand-new “ghost towns” all over China, so property values are falling fast.

Since the crash on the Chinese stock markets began last month, the government has done everything it could to stop it. It has dropped interest rates repeatedly, it has devalued the currency, it has ordered state institutions to invest more – and nothing has worked.

Chinese exports have fallen 8 percent in the past year, and even the regime admits that the economy is growing at the lowest rate in three decades. Nobody outside the regime knows for certain, but it may scarcely be growing at all. The “hard landing” is now close to inevitable.

Now for the second crisis. While China’s artificial boom was rolling along, its appetite for commodities of every sort, from iron to soya beans, was insatiable, so commodity prices went up. The other “emerging market economies” grew fast by selling China the commodities it needed, they attracted large amounts of Western investment because of their rapid growth, and they borrowed freely because Western interest rates were at rock-bottom.

The collapse of Chinese demand ends this party too. From Brazil to Turkey to South Africa to Indonesia, exports are falling, the value of the local currencies is tumbling, and foreign investors are fleeing. Capital flight from the 19 largest emerging market economies has reached almost one trillion dollars in the past 13 months, and the outflow is still accelerating.

And the third crisis, in the West? The problems that caused the crash of 2007-08 have not really been addressed, just papered over. What limited growth there has been in Western economies is due almost entirely to absurdly low interest rates and“quantitative easing” (governments printing money).

The average time between recessions in the West is seven to ten years, so one is due around now anyway. The likeliest trigger for that is a collapse of demand in China and in the other emerging economies, which is now practically certain. And when it hits the West, neither of the traditional tools for pulling out of a recession will be available. Interest rates are already near zero, and the money supply has already been expanded massively.

It would be rash to talk about a long-lasting global depression in the style of the 1930s, because a lot has changed since then. But it is certainly safe to say that the global economy is heading into a perfect storm.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The huge…fast”)

Waterloo: The Fall of a Superpower

Thursday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history.” It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again. But did the events of 18 June 1815 “change history”? Probably not.

The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.

Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.

But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.

He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide. But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.

“God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.

Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.

So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.

Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower – and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.

First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.

Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the US economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.

And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role – or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.

Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past fifty years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)

Putin on D-Day

4 June 2014

By Gwynne Dyer

The presence of President Vladimir Putin on the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was planned long before the current conflict over Ukraine, but it is a useful reminder of the fact that Russia is not some Asiatic tyranny on Europe’s eastern borders. It is a European country that has played a major role in the continent’s affairs for centuries.

Not only were the Russians on the same side as the “Western” allies in the Second World War. They did most of the heavy lifting in the war against Nazi Germany, and they paid by far the highest price.

While 850,000 American, British and Canadian troops were landing on the French coast in June of 1944, 6 million soldiers of the Soviet army were fighting massive battles with the German army in eastern Europe. The land war on the Eastern Front was already three years old, and by June of 1944 the Russians had won: the Germans had already begun the long retreat that ended above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin eleven months later.

The price the Russians paid for their victory over Nazi Germany was huge: at least 11 million military dead (compared to fewer than 1 million dead for the Western allies). No other country in history has lost so many soldiers, but in the end it was the Red Army that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht: 80 percent of Germany’s 6 million military dead were killed on the Eastern Front.

The main strategic significance of the Normandy landings, therefore, was not the defeat of Germany, which was already assured. It was the fact that Moscow had to accept that Europe would be divided between the victors down the middle of Germany, rather than along some line further west that ran down the Franco-German border, or even down the English Channel.

President Putin, who began his career as a KGB agent working in Soviet-dominated East Germany, will certainly be aware of the irony that he is commemorating a military operation whose main result was to contain Soviet power. And his presence will remind all the other participants that the Second World War was not really fought to defend democracy from tyranny.

Hitler never intended to conquer Britain, and was surprised when his armed forces conquered France in 1940. He was certainly not out to “conquer the world”, a preposterous ambition for a country of only 80 million people. His real target was Russia: the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union. And he couldn’t even conquer that.

Unlike previous great-power wars, the two world wars had to be represented as moral crusades against evil because new wealth and technology turned them into total wars that required mass participation. If people are going to be asked to sacrifice vast numbers of their children in a war, they must be told that it has some higher purpose than the traditional one of settling disputes among the great powers.

The people who lived through the First World War were fed that lie, but we no longer believe it now. To a remarkable extent, the Western countries that fought in the Second World War still believe that it was a moral crusade, because Hitler was a very evil man.

So he was, but almost nobody in the countries that were fighting him knew about the death camps until the war was over. Moreover, the country that was carrying the heaviest burden in the war against Nazi Germany was a monstrous tyranny led by Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly rivalled Hitler in terms of how many millions of people he murdered.

It seems churlish to insist that the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering to honour, probably for the last time, those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important that they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope that we could stop them just by changing the way that the international system works.

That was the real conclusion of the governments on the winning side in both world wars. It’s why they created the League of Nations after the first one, and the United Nations after the second. Both organisations were designed to break the cycle of great-power wars by criminalising those who start wars and taking the profit out of victory (because nobody will recognise your conquests even if you win).

The League of Nations failed, as first attempts often do, but the United Nations did not. There has been no Third World War, and no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. Putin’s presence in Normandy is an embarrassment precisely because he broke the UN rules by forcibly annexing Crimea, but the enterprise is still, on the whole, a success. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Unlike…murdered”)