The world has changed

By Lorenzo

A strain of thought I have noticed over the years with reference to international relations is “the world has changed” line: that circumstances have become so different that past fears or concerns are no longer germane to present realities. So much so, that such fears and concerns themselves have become the “real” problem.

Two cases where I have particularly come across it are the founding/continuation of Israel and concerns of neighbouring states about Russia. On this line of thought, the founding of the Jewish state was an unfortunate mistake and its continuation as a specifically Jewish state is an error. Similarly, the wish of Russian neighbours to draw closer to the West, either via joining NATO or the EU, is mistaken in that it just raises Russian fears and so perpetuates patterns that would die if said neighbours were more reasonable. Just as Arab responses are held to be “inflamed” by the existence of Israel.


The first thing to note is that it treats Arabs and Russians like children; squalling adolescents who have to be mollified and who are not really responsible if sufficiently “provoked”. So, any continuation of past behaviour does not tell us anything about them or their societies, it’s the fault of their neighbours for failing to “manage” them properly.

Strangely, this sort of logic does not get applied to, say, the United States.

Another effect of this reasoning, is that there is nothing that happens that will be permitted to justify the concerns of Jews or of Russia’s neighbours. If Arabs or Russians misbehave, it is not because said concerns were justified, it is due to provocation, to failure to “manage” them.

Which is remarkable scapegoating, really. But it also has the effect of shielding the believer in “but the world has changed” line from any danger of being, well, wrong.

One sees, for example, the notion that Palestinian targeting of Jewish civilians is classic “asymmetric” warfare. The problem with that argument is that attacks on Jewish civilians predate the creation of Israel. What was “asymmetric” about any conflict then? Surely an alternative way of looking at the question is why persist with a strategy that has never worked for you, that has only driven your cause backwards? But that is a question you ask of adults (or potential adults), not permanent adolescents.


NATO enlargement

The original principle of Zionism was that Jews were not safe in Europe. Well, that turned out to be spectacularly true. Israel was founded a mere 3 years after the end of the Holocaust. Were Jews really meant to “come to their senses” in that time, to see that “the world had changed”?

Which was not the view of Jews in the Arab world, who fled to Israel and the West in large numbers. An experience which is either written out of history, or blamed on Zionism (the Arabs would not have misbehaved if it were not for …). Even though the mistreatment of Jews predated the creation of Israel. Nor is it merely a matter of specifically anti-Jewish massacres such as the Farhud in Iraq in 1941; the Hamidian massacres and Assyrian and Armenian genocides were hardly reassuring for any minority.

Since then, the experience of Lebanon, still less of Sudan, has also hardly been reassuring for the notion of mixed states in the Arab world. Nor has the experience of, say, the Copts in Egypt.

Now, we are seeing a Christian exodus from the Middle East. Predictably, also blamed on the existence of Israel. But that is what “the world has changed” line allows one to do: draw a line where not only does past history not count but neither does present behaviour; at least not for the folk for whom convenient scapegoats have been lined up.

It may also lead believers in “the world has changed” to mock concerns which turn out to be somewhat prescient. Sarah Palin in 2008 was mocked for suggesting a Russian invasion of the Ukraine was a possibility; while Romney seems to have read Russian policy rather better than President Obama. A Crimean crisis later, perhaps a little less scoffing would have been in order.

So, perhaps the world has not changed in the ways suggested. Perhaps Russian behaviour in past centuries does gives us an insight into the contemporary behaviour of the Russian state. Perhaps the never-goes-away Arab self-image as God’s master race does continue to operate. Perhaps the inevitably fraught interaction between that latent (and not so latent) view, and the frustrations and temptations of modernity, were always going to be problematic for vulnerable minorities, unless they have something like the IDF to defend them. (A role that Arab Christians seem to be appreciating.) The Arab world has 5% of the world’s population but generates 53% of its refugees, according to a recent UN report on Arab integration.

Two Bedouin Arab IDF soldiers

Two Bedouin Arab IDF soldiers

In which case, it is reasonable for otherwise vulnerable people and states to seek ways of becoming less vulnerable and better protected. After all, both the Sunni Arabs in Iraq and the Alawites in Syria concluded that the only safe strategy to being a minority was to seize the state themselves. Whatever the long-run outcomes, it was not a foolish belief; as subsequent events have demonstrated.

In both Syria and Iraq, minority-protection-through-state-domination was pursued through “secular” Ba’ath ideology. But in the Arab Middle East, “secular” can be just a way to obscure minority rule; or rule by military rather than mosque; or both. It is also why Arab nationalism has been a cause often taken up by Arab Christians, to elevate a common identity with Arab Muslims. Usually, however, by agreeing in the alienness of Jews. Not a path that has worked all that well; the Christians just became the next target in line.

Regarding the case of Israel, which is at least a Jewish majority state, and a democratic one at that, given that Palestinian politics only offers the corruption of Fatah or the fanaticism of Hamas, why would any Jew want to share a state with such? (Indeed, quite a few Israeli Arabs aren’t keen either.) Just as all the Russian state offers is authoritarian corruption. (And sprucing national identity is a tried and true misdirection from other issues.) But expecting better behaviour is also an expectation for moral adults.

A recent UN report on Arab integration can’t help but talk about Israel/Palestine with the normal “it’s all Israel/Zionism’s fault” grievance rhetoric. That most Arab countries do not permit Palestinians to become citizens–an obvious barrier to Arab integration one would have thought–does not seem worth a mention. (It has long been far easier for a Palestinian to become a citizen of the US or Australia than most Arab countries.) But keeping Palestinians as permanent refugees, as permanent sticks to beat Israel with, is the point. Hence third and fourth-generation “refugees”.

Israel is also a very successful Middle Eastern state: perhaps worth learning a thing or two from? For example, how Israel was built, how Jewish refugees are integrated into Israeli society, why Israel is freer and more prosperous. But that would be an adult thing to do. Permanent adolescents don’t ever get beyond pointing and whining; even when doing so would far better suit their cause.

But, then, being God’s master race may get in the way of learning from lesser beings. Back in the C12th, ibn Jubayr noted that the Franj (i.e. crusader knights) treated their Muslim peasants better than the Muslim warriors did theirs. Rather than suggesting that his fellow Muslims learn from that, his response was “and that’s why they have to be smashed”. It is a real burden, being God’s master race.

Believing the world has changed can be a very comforting belief. Especially when your analysis is organised so you can never be wrong. But putting entire peoples in the role of permanent adolescents, forever shielded from the role of being moral adults, is not a place worth going to.

NOTE: Since Israel/Palestine always threatens to become a Thread of Doom, civility and relevance will be particularly stringently policed in comments.


  1. stuart
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    As many mistakes as the IDF and their political masters have made and continue to make they have my sympathies since they are facing an opponent that continues to state that their aim is to obliterate the state of Israel and its population.

    As for Russia why are they acting the way they are acting? Do they just want to secure/improve their access to the black sea? Are we looking at the beginning of new imperial ambitions?

  2. kvd
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    The trouble I have with Lorenzo’s analysis is that it treats all Russians, and all Jews, and (can I add for illustration) all Brits, all Australians, as speaking with one voice.

    “Who benefits?” is a loose translation of a very old consideration – not unknown to the lawyers who read, and used to contribute to, this blog. So, going backwards through my short list: who amongst our own population gained most benefit from the “threat” of boat loads of refugees? Who among the Brits gained most from the Argentinian threatening of the Falklands? Who has most to gain from the ‘asymmetrical’ threat posed by the constant Palestinian (and other) -based anti-Israeli units? and lastly who will gain the most from the Ukrainian ‘uprising’?

    My answers are 1) the politicians, 2) the politicians, especially Mrs Thatcher, 3) the Israeli politicians, 4) Putin and his backers – politicians and gangsters.

    I just think it is a mistake stretching back centuries now to treat as monolithic any opponent – and thereby disregarding the ‘interests’ of the specific ruling elite of the time.

  3. kvd
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “disregarding” is the wrong word. What is the word which means “a cynical but practical appreciation of the interests of those presently in power”?

    Example: President Obama’s angst over Crimea; which of course now takes precedence over his problems with health care, balanced budgets, Mexican gun running, illegal immigrants, IRS investigations, loss of an ambassador, various ‘lines in the sand’ and ‘red lines’ – or were they ‘bright’?

    Never mind; we’ve got an urgent external problem to deal with, and any carpers have now missed their diem.

  4. Posted March 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, my criticism of Israeli policy is somewhat muted by the over-the-top hatred they have to deal with.

    [email protected] I am not really suggesting they all speak with one voice, merely that certain recurring patterns of behaviour can be seen. And yes, the question of the interest of leadership groups is always relevant, but there is also the matter of why certain lines seem to resonate so well again and again.

    [email protected] A foreign crisis can, indeed, be useful. One that looks a little less like one has been somewhat mistaken in past appraisals would probably be more helpful, but one uses the foreign crises one gets. (Unless you are Putin, and simply create your own.)

  5. conrad
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    An alternative way to look at this is that, rather than the states you mention being the exceptions, it’s really the states that you don’t which are, and we’re just lucky enough to be living at a time when there really are many decent places you can live, unlike most of history when, once people worked out how to get past subsistence farming, fighting, corruption, etc. were the norm. To the extent which is true, we can just see the Arab states as being in a pretty common human state, and corrupt authoritarian governments like Russia those which are lucky enough to be the next step up (i.e., still relatively poor, but better than being in a constant warlike state).

  6. Posted March 8, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Well, I am open to the suggestion that, for example, a region inclined to the belief that the peak of human social order was reached in C7th Arabia might be a bit “frozen in time”. And the Russian tendency towards eschatological fantasies is plausibly a reaction to backwardness vis-a-vis Europe.

    It is, of course, still an open question how stable the large patches of felicity you refer to are.

  7. walter p komarnicki
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    and who can possibly go past this charming howler by Pres Obama:

    to the Russian pres:

    you are ‘on the wrong side of history’

    as if he were on the side of the angels.

  8. Bazz
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Errr, the writer does not seem to understand that the Jews were in that part of the Middle East thousand or so years before the Arabs and Moslems turned up on the scene.
    After the Romans drove out the most of the Jews a few hundred years later the Arab Moslems turned up and attacked the Jews and Christians. Did he not realise that the Crusades happened to try and recover the country ?

  9. stuart
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see that. Also how is it relevant? Yes the jews were there before the moslems but Lorenzo was talking about persecution prior to the re-formation of Isreal.

    Also the crusades didn’t really happen to recover the holy land because it was never under catholic control in the first place.

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