Rise up this mornin',
Smiled with the risin' sun,
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin', "This is my message to you-ou-ou”:
"Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin': "Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"
Those three little birds are named Ambrose, Evans, and Pritchard:
The world's political and economic order is stronger than it looks…
Readers have scolded me gently for too much optimism over the past year, wondering why I refuse to see that the world economy is in dire trouble and that the international order is coming apart at the seams.
Who you gonna believe, a little birdie or your lyin’ eyes? What does “international order” even mean when one nation leads its client states into invasions of numerous countries on false pretenses? What kind of “world economy” is there when it is kept afloat only via means of currency debasement and inflation?
Stefan Zweig tells us in The World of Yesterday what it feels like when the wheels really do come off the global system
And when was that?
So for Christmas reading I have retreated to the "World of Yesterday", the poignant account of Europe's civilisational suicide in the early 20th century by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig - the top-selling author of the inter-war years.
Suicide? Yes. And compared to what Europe faced in the Great War, he is correct; but this does not lead one to suggest that a terminal patient on life support is ready to run a marathon.
A handful of staff officers at the apex of the German high command under Helmuth von Moltke were already looking for their chance to crush France and Russia, waiting for a spark in the Balkans - it could only be the Balkans - that would lock the Austro-Hungarian empire into the fight as an ally.
No mention of the British wanting to ensure that Germany stayed in its place? No continental balance-of-power issues? But I don’t want to get sidetracked.
From there it is a natural progression to Zweig's equally poignant biography of Erasmus, who saw his own tolerant Latin civilization smothered by fanatics four centuries earlier.
Erasmus was…the best-selling author of his day…after lighting the fire of evangelical reform, he watched in horror as the ideologues took over and swept aside his plea that the New Testament message of love and forgiveness is the heart of Christianity.
Erasmus would certainly recognize many of today’s self-professed Christians as ideological descendants of this same breed.
They charged headlong into the Augustinian cul-de-sac of original sin and predestination, led by Martin Luther, a rough, volcanic force of nature, or the "Goth" as Erasmus called him.
Luther preferred to see the whole world burn and Christian Europe split into armed camps rather than yield an inch on abstruse points of doctrine. And burn they did. The killing did not end until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. By then the Thirty Years War had left a fifth of Germany dead.
I wouldn’t be so fast to blame it all on Luther; I recall reading that many of the various dukes and kings happily promoted Luther as a tool to help break the duel governance provided by the Catholic Church.
In any case, compared to the Thirty Years War things aren’t so bad; at least not for those of us who have not fallen victim to today’s one hundred years’ war.
The three little birds mention the Treaty of Westphalia, and in a rather favorable manner. Let’s revisit this treaty:
The Peace of Westphalia (German: Westfälischer Friede) was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the independence of the Dutch Republic.
Not just thirty years of war, but eighty.
The Peace of Westphalia involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities.
This is getting complicated. Let’s just call it most of Europe and adjourn to the bar; I’m buying.
The treaties did not restore peace throughout Europe, but they did create a basis for national self-determination.
The Peace of Westphalia established the precedent of peaces established by diplomatic congress, and a new system of political order in central Europe, later called Westphalian sovereignty, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state's domestic affairs. As European influence spread across the globe, these Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to international law and to the prevailing world order.
To summarize: stay out of my border and I will stay out of your border. Who, exactly, has been the gross violator of this concept lately?
Let’s ask the birds: the relationship between China and the US is being managed reasonably well, chirped one birdy in my ear. Yet…
This is not to deny that the Pacific Rim remains the world's most dangerous fault-line. The South China Sea is on a hair trigger. The US Navy faces the unenviable task of defending the global commons of open shipping lanes without crossing an invisible strategic line.
Some of us believe that the world would be better off if the US military minded its own business. Did the Westphalian peace allow for one government to hold sway over another? The South China Sea, after all, is directly adjacent to…CHINA. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell.)
…America is not in decline after all…
The economic bust hasn’t done its full work yet, birdie number two.
Russia's Vladimir Putin has gained little by overthrowing Europe's post-war order…
What post-war order? Post WWI? The Bolsheviks were consolidating power; thereafter half of Europe was under communism’s stranglehold. Putin destroyed communism? I don’t think this is what the birds are singing about.
Is it post the Cold War? The only way to describe events since 1991 as “order” is to believe that NATO has a manifest destiny.
[Putin] has kept Crimea…
Let’s check out the Westphalian purity of this little dot on the map. At the time of Westphalia:
The Crimean Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, succeeded the Golden Horde and lasted from 1449 to 1779. In 1571, the Crimean Tatars attacked and sacked Moscow, burning everything but the Kremlin.
Ottoman. Perhaps the three birds are chirping up the wrong tree? Erdogan is the rightful owner?
In 1774, the Khanate was proclaimed independent under the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, and was then annexed by Russia in 1783.
This lasted until the Russian Revolution. But who made the Russians King? What of this Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca?
The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca Turkish: Küçük Kaynarca Antlaşması (also spelled Kuchuk Kainarjæ) was a peace treaty signed on 21 July 1774, in Küçük Kaynarca (today Kaynardzha, Bulgaria) between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Russia returned Wallachia and Moldavia to the Ottoman Empire, but was given the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire and to intervene in Wallachia and Moldavia in case of Ottoman misrule. Bukovina was ceded to Austria in 1775. The Crimea was declared independent…
The Crimean Khanate, while nominally independent, was dependent on Russia and was formally annexed into the Russian Empire in 1783. Russia interpreted the treaty as giving them the right to protect Orthodox Christians in the Empire…
OK. So now Crimea is Russian. What’s next?
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the military and political situation in Crimea was chaotic like that in much of Russia. During the ensuing Russian Civil War, Crimea changed hands numerous times and was for a time a stronghold of the anti-Bolshevik White Army. The White Army controlled Crimea before remnants were finally driven out by the Red Army in November 1920. It was in Crimea that the White Russians led by General Wrangel made their last stand against Nestor Makhno and the Red Army. When resistance was crushed, many of the anti-Communist fighters and civilians escaped by ship to Istanbul.
What will it be? White or Red? I don’t know; are you having fish or steak?
Crimea became part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1921 as the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which became part of the Soviet Union in 1922.
OK, Russian. Or Soviet. Or Russian…oh, I give up. For those of you who live west of St. Petersburg (or even Kaliningrad) and east of Kauaʻi don’t get stressed out; your political leaders can’t really tell the difference, so you shouldn’t worry about it either.
During World War II this little peninsula was treated like a shuttlecock: Germany, Russia, Germany, Russia. Russia won.
On 19 February 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree on the transfer of the Crimean region of the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR.
Decreed by Nikita Khrushchev. So let it be written, so let it be done. Is this what the triplets are defending? Nikita’s vision? The west must confront Putin because of Khrushchev?
Returning to the little birds:
Unless oil recovers, the Kremlin will have exhausted its reserve fund by 2016, and will face a fiscal crisis by mid-2017.
Assuming this is so, do the birdies three believe this will be a peaceful event? We shouldn’t worry?
It turns out the big reason for angst in the west is Donald Trump. He is apparently not the effect, but the cause. The common currency of Europe is another issue, at least for the birds:
…monetary union…has…ensnared the eurozone in a seven-year depression.
And it ain’t over yet.
The underlying deformities of the eurozone have not been corrected. There is still no fiscal union.
My bet is that there will never be a fiscal union. What does this mean for the eventual “correction”?
The tensions will return in the next global downturn.
The tensions haven’t left in order that they might return; to “return,” one must have “left.” The tensions will increase, eventually to the point of bye, bye birdie. None of this seems to be of concern to the birds.
The one great disorder we have in the world right now is the collapse of the century-old Sykes-Picot dispensation in the Middle East, made more combustible by the Sunni-Shia battle for regional mastery.
Why did it collapse? Not a mention of it from the birds. Perhaps because the lines never made sense in the first place? No western provocations in Iraq, Libya or Syria? No Saudi / Wahhabi fanaticism?
It is certainly a humanitarian tragedy, but in hard-headed geostrategic terms it is a regional problem, a particular struggle within Islam to come to terms with modernity. It is sui generis and of no universal relevance.
A NATO country shot down a Russian war plane; this is pretty “sui generis” that is also of “universal relevance.” One or two more of these and the atmospheric mushrooms will be pretty relevant to us non-birds (and even to at least two of the three birds).
Yes, the world is a mess, but it has always been a mess, forever climbing the proverbial wall of political worry even in its halcyon days. So let us drink a new year's toast with a glass at least half full.
I have written before, and fully agree with the three birds of far more talent (like Ringo, call me the fourth bird) the world is relatively more peaceful and relatively wealthier (count all the Chinese and Indians that have entered the middle class) than perhaps at any other time.
Yet, a half full glass is not very comforting in a time of central bank experiments and nuclear powers with daggers drawn to the point of existential threat for one of the participants. The world has never faced these threats before.
This is the source of angst for any thinking individual.
Back to the three birds: Ambrose, Evans, and Pritchard:
Here's a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy…unless you are a sentient being.
I will close with a section from the aforementioned biography of Erasmus, Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig; every word of this should be considered for its applicability to today’s world:
In general, those events which we are wont to deem of great historical importance hardly enter the sphere of popular consciousness. Even the huge waves of the earlier wares merely touched the outside margin of folk-life and were confined within the borders of those nations or those provinces which happened to be engaged in them. Moreover, the intellectual part of the nation could usually hold aloof from social or religious disturbances, and with undivided mind contemplate the welter of passion on the political stage. Goethe was such a figure. Undisturbed amid the tumult of the Napoleonic campaigns, he quietly continued his work.
Sometimes, however, at rare intervals through the centuries, antagonisms reach such a pitch of tension that something is bound to snap. Then a veritable hurricane stampedes over the earth, rending humanity as though it were a flimsy cloth the hands could tear apart. The mighty cleft runs across every country, every town, every house, every family, every heart. From every side the individual is attacked by the overwhelming force of the masses, and there is no means of protection, no means of salvation from the collective madness. A wave of such magnitude allows no one to stand up firmly against it. Such all-encompassing cleavages may be brought about by social, religious, or any other problem of a spiritual and theoretical nature. But so far as bigotry is concerned, it matters little what fans the flames. The only essential is that the fire should blaze, that it should be able to discharge its accumulated store of hate; and precisely in such apocalyptic hours of human folly is the demon of war let loose to gallop madly and joyously throughout the lands.
In such terrible moments of mass intoxication and sundering of the world of mankind, the individual is utterly helpless. It is useless for the wise to try and withdraw into the isolation of passive contemplation. The times drag him willy-nilly into the fray, to right or to left, into one clique or into another, into this party or into that.