Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Client states

As you probably know, France has been at war for two weeks now. This does not change everything to our daily life and I don’t plan to raid the nearby supermarket for supply (well, maybe for cat food but that’s a vital necessity) and I am more likely to be stricken by a stray meteor than blown up by an islamist bomb. The bulk of the political class supports the war and while the anti-imperialist crowd can still be heard, it is far less loud and numerous than usually and while there are a few questions to ask our president about the procedure – he didn’t notify the National Assembly, for instance – the principle of the intervention is contested only by marginals and outsiders.

What is most interesting in this affair, however, is not the war, or whether it is just or not it is justified, but the fate of client states in the time of decline.

It is not the first time a bunch of religious fanatics ride out of the desert to take over a country. Students of Spanish history will remember the Almohads and the Almoravids, who nearly stopped the reconquista. More recently we had the Mahdist state in Sudan and the Wahabi of Arabia, who threatened the Ottoman Empire and sacked the Shia holy city of Karbala in 1801.

This has never been a muslim speciality, by the way. Driven out of Acre, the Teutonic Knights set up a monastic state along the southern coast of the Baltic coast during the early XIXth century. They "converted by the sword" the Baltic tribes and found themselves at war with nearly all their (Christian) neighbours. As for the Roman Empire, it had to fight Jewish apocalyptic sects, often on the battlefield.

It is not the first time France intervenes in the area either. Mali was conquered by France at the end of the XIXth century after the defeat of the last native state, Samory Toure’s Ouassoulou Empire. It was then integrated within the French colonial empire.

Moreover, unlike in Indochina or Algeria, France was not driven out. It decided to leave.

After the take over of the French government by De Gaulle in a quasi coup in 1958 and the drafting of a new constitution, the African French colonies were stuffed into an ad hoc structure, the French Community, headed by the French president. In practice that meant that the colonies were now free to run their internal affairs as they saw fit while France kept the control of military and foreign affairs and of the economy. There was an attempt at creating a federal structure uniting west-african colonies into a coherent whole, the Federation du Mali. It failed, because the richest colony, Ivory Coast did not want to subsidy the other ones, and only Senégal and Mali joined.

The French Community was dissolved de facto in 1960 as France granted independence to everybody. The Fedération du Mali disappeared quickly, following a slight disagreement about the name of the president, and what remained was a string of weak, artificial states with often unstable governments, subject to regular coups.

Of course France did not really left. Only its civil servants did. They were replaced by large corporations such as Elf-Aquitaine or, more recently Areva, and by a network of “advisors” nicknamed the “Foccard Network”, from the name of the French (not so) official in charge of France's African policy.

The goal of this policy, nicknamed “Françafrique” was to make sure that France continues to enjoy a privileged access to African resources and that African wealth continues to flow toward Paris. African rulers were also supposed to support France internationally... and to send wallets full of banknotes to whatever party held power in Paris at the moment.

France also kept military bases it used to support dictators (such as Mbaa in Gabon) or to remove those who had become, let's say, annoying – for instance His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, Emperor of Central Africa. Of course, more shadowy, if not really subtle, methods were used. Just ask mercenary Bob Denard – or rather don't ask him, he has conveniently caught Alzheimer's disease before dying a near beggar.

Former French colonies have, in essence, become French client states. This situation has advantages, mind you. Paris guarantees the independence of its vassals and has proved perfectly able and willing to back its words with boots and guns. When, in 1983, Lybia launched 11.000 troops across the Chadian desert, France drew a line in the sand and sent 3.000 elite soldiers (mostly marines and legionaries) and several squadrons of Jaguars.

It did it again in 1986, and while Chadian technicals ousted Gaddafi during the 1987 Toyota war, it would have been far more difficult if the French air force had not grounded its Lybian counterpart, turning the Lybian army into a collection of isolated garrisons which could be defeated in details.

This protection had, however, the same consequence as for all client states in history : military impotence.

The armies of former French colonies, with the recent and possible exception of Chad, are walking farces. The 7.000 strong Malian Army has collapsed last year before a rebel force half as numerous and in 1977 the whole Comorian Republic was conquered by 43 mercenaries led by Bob Denard.

It is not a bug, it is a feature. When your independence is guaranteed by a foreign overlord, you have no incentive to build an even moderately efficient army – and said overlord may not be so happy at your doing it, as it makes regime change more costly. You may even have an incentive not to build an efficient army. This army might, after all, use its new force to topple you. If the armed force of Gabon hadn't be a pushover in 1964, President Mbaa would have had to find himself a new home and a new job, and, by the way, there is a reason why a third of the 5.000 strong Gabonese army belongs to the presidential guard.

Besides, when you can count on a powerful ally to intervene and save the day when things get rough, you tend to become complacent... and not to fight to hard. That's why a few hundreds rag-tag rebels managed recently to conquer a great part of the Central African Republic, sweeping away a 4.500 strong national army, which most of the time did not even bother to fight. Only French, South-African and Angolan sabre-rattling saved President Bozizé's regime and convinced its opponents that negotiating was a better idea than storming a capital held by somebody who could actually shoot back.

The problem, of course is that overlords have a limited shelf life, and their client states rarely survive them. We know, for instance, what happened to Indian princely states when the British Raj left. Many of them were to small to be viable (the state of Darkoti, for instance had 632 inhabitants for 5 square miles), but some were larger than many European states. Yet, their combined military amounted only to 18.000 men in 1941 and those native rulers who played with the idea of independence saw their dreams quickly quashed. The Indian army took a mere five days to crush the forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1948. A mere threat was enough for the Kingdom of Travancore.

France is no longer a world power, but it still has an efficient and modern army. Man for man, the Legion or the Troupes de Marine can stand up to anything the United States can field. We can manufacture our own third generation tank (the Leclerc) and fourth generation fighter (Rafale) and are not dependent on any foreign power for small arms and ammunition. We even have our own modern combat suit (the FELIN program).

The problem is that our projection capability is limited, and more so with every passing year. During Operation Desert Storm France fielded 18.000 soldiers, less the Egypt, and only because we benefited of American logistics. Alone, and in a combat situation, we would be hard pressed to field more than 5.000 men, mostly the Legion and troupes de marines. That's more than enough to defeat a bunch of jihadists or the army of some African rogue state, but not enough to take on somebody serious. We played a major role in the Libyan Civil War, but only because Libya was in range of our air force, which enabled us to effectively support insurgents. We couldn't do the same thing in Syria, for instance, as our lone carrier is operational only 65% of the time. Even in Mali, our deployment would have been far slower, if the United States had not loaned us  three C-17ER Globemaster III transport planes.

And this won't get better with time. France is a medium-sized country, with few industries left and virtually no natural resources. We produce only a tiny fraction of our energy and even if some of our clients supply us with oil (mostly Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville) or uranium (mostly Niger), that's hardly sufficient.

As a privileged ally of the United States, we also benefit from the tribute economy they have set up, even if it is to a lesser degree. That means, however, that we will suffer from its decline – in fact we already do – as we depend upon them to continue to funnel a disproportional share of the World's resource our way. When the United States will cease to be a global power, we will no longer be able to keep the sea-lanes open and to guarantee our continued access to the many resources we need.

Besides, even though we manage our resources better than the US, we need a continued inflow of high quality resources to make our society work. If we don't get enough of it, our infrastructures will begin to decay and our society to unravel.

In fact it is what is happening right now. We are slowly dismantling our welfare state, either by selling it off to private interests, diminishing service quality, or by dumping whole services on local authorities. Of course, this also impacts our military. The project of second carrier has been cancelled and we can be sure that the Charles de Gaulle will never be replaced. The production of the Leclerc main battle tank has been stopped – even though we retain the capacity to produce them, should the need arise.

More insidious, but more important, budget cuts will negatively impact maintenance and training and trigger a slow but steady slide into unreadiness. The intervention troops will remain fully operational longer, but they too will be hit by the erosion of our logistic and the increasing unreadiness of the support arms.

It is only a matter of time before we can no longer wage war even in Africa. We may experience a military defeat, or be quietly told to please vacate the place, or just throw the towel, the result will be the same for our erstwhile vassals : they will have to provide for their own defence.

They may find another overlord or rely on local alliances, as the Democratic Republic of Congo did during the Second Congo War. This will be a temporary solution at best, however,. Without fossil fuels, and without the technological superiority European polities enjoyed during the modern era, global empires will become a thing of the past. As for African states... if the Second Congo War proved that a few African states (namely Zimbabwe and Angola) can project their force to prevent a regime change, they are unlikely to keep this capability for long.

On the long run, if those states do not develop a real, autonomous military tradition – which would mean getting rid of today’s predatory elite – they will be overrun by rebels and warlords, islamist or not. Ultimately the polities they will create will coalesce into stable and permanent states. It may be a relatively quick process, like in Northern Somalia, it may be a long chaotic one like in Dark Age Britain or France. In both case this will involve severe cultural losses. A few of those losses will be beneficial - Africa could and should do without colonial languages and neo-colonial predatory elite – most won't. The idea of democracy will likely be an early casualty (the practice is not so widespread in the area).

It is in great part our fault. The native states we conquered during the scramble for Africa were hardly perfect but they were the emanation of coherent and healthy societies. We have replaced them by weak states dependent on us for their survival and for which the energy descent is likely to translate into utter chaos.

The only thing we can try and do now is eliminate the most barbaric threats while we still can do it – and that's why the present war is a relatively good thing – and help them develop the self-reliance they need.

By disengaging.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Political crisis and choices

Politics can be involuntarily funny. The 2000 presidential election certainly was, seen from this side of the Atlantic, and while the Dominique Strauss Kahn debacle was traumatic, the circumstances of our former president to be’s fall make the whole episode somewhat amusing, at least in retrospect. We just have had another of those Florida 2000 moments, but one which is very indicative of the situation of our political system and of why we shouldn't count on it to give a meaningful answer to our predicament.

After its defeat in may, Nicolas Sarkozy has retired from politics, but his party, the UMP, remained and, as could be expected his lieutenants fought over the succession. One, Jean-Louis Borloo, created a brand new party with the ambition to control the center of the French political spectrum. It is not an unprecedented strategy and it may succeed, or not. Two others, François Fillon and Jean-Louis Copé aimed for the party leadership. Those of you who can count will, I think, agree, that was one leader too many.

Once, the situation would have been resolved behind closed doors, with party officials scheming and backstabbing until a choice has been made – the winner would probably have been Copé, by the way, as he had the full control of the apparatus.

This way of proceeding has, however, somehow fallen out of fashion and those days we prefer to put such decisions into the hands of activists as it feels more democratic and make the elected leader's legitimacy less questionable. Unfortunately this method can also backfire spectacularly.

It certainly did in this case.

Officially Copé won the election with a lead of 98 voices, that is until one noticed that somebody had forgotten three overseas departments. Of course, and very conveniently, taking this couple of islands into account reversed the result, giving François Fillon a lead of some 126 voices. Predictably, the whole episode degenerated into opera-bouffe baboonery with both candidates accusing the other of having rigged the election, which they probably both did by the way. Copé, who had the loyalty of the party bureaucracy, clang to his presidency like a barnacle to its rock. Fillon send a bailiff to put the ballots under seals so they be not tampered with, then threatened to sue his own party. Finally he triggered a schism among UMP members of parliament, some 72 of which created a separate group in the French National Assembly : the rump (no, I didn't make that up, that's how it is called). Last I checked they have agreed to organize a revote in September.

This is not the first time such a misadventure happens to a French party. In 2008, the election of the first secretary of the Socialist Party had been a very close thing and both and Ségolène Royal (the loser) accused, for a short while, Martine Aubry (the winner) of having rigged the election. It has never before gone so far, however.

The irony is that there is no real ideological difference between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé. They are both pro-business and law-and-order conservatives, both dislike Muslims and both oppose any alliance with the far right National Front. Moreover, the schism has had no repercussion at the local level.

In fact, their ideological similarity is the very reason why thins got so heated.

Homo Sapiens is a savanna hunter ape with a dominance-based society, probably close, originally, to the baboons' – the primate genus occupying the ecological niche closest to our ancestors'. Baboon societies vary greatly and there is no need to think our ancestors' was as brutally patriarchal as the hamadryas'. They are, however, typically built around a core of competing dominant males which can cooperate to defend the band against predators but are otherwise rival.

Early humans were pack hunters, however, and successful pack hunting requires cooperation. So we evolved a number of social devices to limit the power of dominants and make sure even those at the bottom of the ladder get some part of the pie. Even a cursory look at human history will show that it is still pretty much a work in progress.

Ideology is one of those devices. Of course, when allowed free reins, it can generate social cancers such as Nazism, Bolshevism or our present obsession with growth. Within the framework of a sane democratic society, however, the existence of competing ideologies, what Max Weber called the polytheism of values, is a guarantee not only that the opinion of the common people will be heeded, since his support is needed for a cause to triumph, but also that the behavior of the dominants will be kept under control.

In most complex human societies, leaders are leaders because they are born that way (your average king or baron) or because they are exceptionally good at rallying supporters (Timur or the Hongwu Emperor). While they may have had an agenda - the Hongwu Emperor was originally a member of a millenarian sect – it was generally quickly forgotten once victory achieved.

Ideology changes the game because even though the personal qualities of the leader remain fundamental, he no longer owes his position to them, but to being the spokesperson of such or such cause, and once in power, he is definitely supposed to keep his word. Lukewarm as he might be, our president would quickly lose power if he suddenly morphed into a clone of Margaret Thatcher and when Chinese republican leader Yuan Shikai tried to restore the monarchy in 1915 he was quickly ousted.

Political ideology, or to put it more specifically the tying of legitimacy to the professing of a particular ideology, is the daughter of revealed religions, most notably Islam and Christianity. The main particularity of those religions is that they tie salvation not to what you do but to what you believe. This explains the ferocity of doctrinal quarrels in early Christianity. Being mistaken about the nature of Christ could literally land you into the lake of fire. Precisely defining the tenets of orthodox faith was therefore of foremost importance.

Another consequence was that since legitimacy ultimately came from God, it could be withdrawn should you believe something He or His terrestrial representatives disapproved of. The lands of an heretic or pagan king could be seized with impunity. This is what happened to the Slavic princes of what is today Eastern Germany, but also to the Irish kings after the bull Laudabiliter allowed England to invade the country to “root out the corruption within the local church”.

The centrality of doctrine in the Christian and Islamic religions made nearly sure that at some point that disputes, which in other contexts would have been safely contained within the walls of some university, would morph into heresies then civil wars. In Islam this happened as soon as 657 with the formation of the radical (and quite militant) Kharijite sect. The medieval Church was very good at stamping down opposition but it was bound to fail at some point. This nearly happened during the Albigensian Crusade, when the Church was forced to create an institution dedicated to the destruction of heresies : the infamous inquisition.

This was not enough, however, to prevent the temporary victory of the Hussites during the early fifteenth century and, most importantly the spread of the reformation after 1514 which started a cycle of wars and civil strifes which lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century. One of the consequences was the displacement of religion as the center of political life and its progressive replacement by secular ideologies, the foundations of which were laid by Hobbes, Locke and Voltaire but also, in a totally different way, Burke and Herder.

The rise of secular ideologies was helped by another factor : industrial revolution. The same way Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines were unlikely to leave the drawing board without fossil fuels to power them, the perfect societies designed by Plato, Tomasso Campanella or Thomas More were bound to remain fantasies without the huge surplus the industrial revolution and fossil fuels provided.

The huge surplus engendered by industrialization enabled us to try various social experiments, at least one of which, modern democracy, was a real success. More important, they enabled us to choose between different kind of policies, something which would have been impossible in a resource-poor world. These choices, of course, would have been unthinkable without the existence of competing political ideologies. This is, by the way, one of the reasons why non-european civilizations failed to industrialize.

Of course ideologies could, and did, run amok, but within the framework of democracy, they provided the intellectual basis without which no real choice was possible. The problem we face now is that the surplus, that enabled us to enact those choices are dwindling and will disappear in the near future.

The complexity of our society is such, that a very large part of our energy production is used up to maintain our infrastructures. This means that as we reach peak energy and begin the long descent, the resources available to actually get things done will diminish with every passing year, eroding the capacity of governments to do anything meaningful. Of course, this impotence is also due to the growth-oriented nature of our leading ideologies, but this is unfortunately unlikely to change before the first disasters shatter our world-view.

Without the resources to enact choices, political ideologies become hollow words, useful only at election time to mobilize what has essentially become a captive audience. The political game reverts then to the pure unadulterated baboonery it was before the emergence of ideologies. The goal of the game is no longer to get in power to enact such or such policy but to get in power to... well, enjoy it, very much like your average Roman Emperor or Chinese warlord.

It is also true, by the way, of those groups which have no realistic chance to get in power. Being a minor ally of the ruling party can bring real advantages and even outside of the circles of power, there is prestige and even money to be had in small political sects, such as the trotskyist groups or the Larouchist parties, or in anti-system movements such as the French National Front.

This is not so much hypocrisy as the result of a situation where real political change has become nearly impossible and where faction loyalty and cynicism are essential survival skill. While idealism is still present, even among veterans, it is progressively buried under "practicalities".

The most likely result will be a kind of quasi-oligarchy in which elections are decided by the capacity of both major parties to mobilize captive audiences and lobbies, and control smaller allies. Bitter personal feuds will replace in-party ideological quarrels and both the left and the right will focus on peripheral societal issues to mask the fact their actual policies are nearly indistinguishable. Frustration and apathy will rise and with them the probability some authoritarian boss takes over.

Those who are familiar with the French political life will recognize today's climate.

The only way out of this predicament -short of handing power to an uniformed thug, that is – is to accept that without a constant inflow of high-grade energy, growth-oriented ideologies are hollow and remove growth and material affluence from the equation. If we want democracy to continue, we must base our political choices upon something else than prosperity. It is easier said than done but if you look at the works of the founders of our democracies, whether they be on Locke's side or on Burke's, you'll find that they did not care so much about wealth. Values such as equality, liberty or tradition were far more important in their view.

Maybe we should return to them.