Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 08/04/2019
History can be read through a cyclical view of time in which similar or equal events repeat themseveles periodically arising from the actions of different actors, moved by objectives equal or similar to their predecessors. Empires and great leaders of every era and civilization have faced substantially similar paths of rise, apogee and fall.
Geopolitics as well as history follows a cyclical scheme and the main events in international relations seem to confirm that the destinies of peoples and nations are condemned in a vortex that the ancient Greeks called “eternal return”. The theory was rediscovered and deepened by Friedrich Nietzsche according to whom in the universe operate some forces and energies which would make some events recurrent and self-perpetuating since the dawn of time.
The application of the eternal return theory to geopolitics leads to simplify history, for instance: a powerful Germany will always attract hostility of major powers because some inherent peculiarities make the country a natural born-to-be hegemony, Latin America will always be the US backyard, the Balkans will always be Europe’s powder keg, and so on.
At first sight it may seem a superficial description of the history of international relations, but according to the eternal return theory these events don’t happen by chance and the perpetual repetition takes place even against the actors’ will, for instance through the heterogony of ends. In order to understand whether it is a theory applicable to geopolitics or not it is therefore necessary to investigate some cases.
Germany is a case more unique than rare considering that European powers feared it even before the unification process started. After studying the efficiency-oriented mentality of homo germanicus, the richness of German lands in terms of natural resources, the long-standing warrior culture, and the capabilities of the productive system, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s strategist, persuaded the king to enter the Thirty Years War.
Richelieu’s forward-looking vision aimed at preventing both the Habsburg dynastic branches of Spain and Austria from encircling France and Austria from annexing the Holy Roman Empire’s German-speaking territories, otherwise Austria would have turned into an unbeatable superpower. Richelieu died before the Thirty Years War ended but instructed his successor, Cardinal Mazzarino, on how to design the post-war continent: to keep German lands fragmented into a hundred small states competing with each other.
Richelieu had understood that the unification of German lands would have given life to a great power much more dangerous than Austria, Spain and Great Britain, and that it would have been preferable to keep this territory highly fragmented so as to better exercise hegemony over Europe. However, Richelieu could not foresee the end of monarchic absolutism, the French revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the national-liberal uprisings which gradually led to the fall of the traditional European order by redrawing borders, creating new ones, and finally leading to German unification on 1871.
The rise of Germany as the first European power dissolved the Vienna-built balance of power system and forced the Great Britain to get out of the splendid isolation and replace France as the main rival of Berlin. At the outbreak of World War One Germany showed all the destructive power deriving from the Prussian-inherited barracks state model and it is no coincidence that the winners decided to inflict the harshest punishments precisely against the country. Germany was accused of having started the war because the United States, France and Great Britain sought to minimize the risk of further hegemonic attempts.
But in a few years a combination of military Keynesianism and aggressive diplomacy allowed Germany to rise again as a threatening war-minded power and start a new world-scale war.
Once again Germany had shown the world its destructive capabilities but, unlike the Great War, the Allies opted for a decision even much more drastic: it was reprised Richelieu’s idea to split up the country in several parts. Initially it was proposed a four-part division but eventually prevailed the two-state division reflecting the post-war rebalancing of power.
Despite the resizing West Germany recovered its great power status in a few years and became one of the fastest-growing and most flourishing economies within the European Economic Community. In the 1980s it was clear that Germany’s transformation into the ECC’s first economic power was only matter of time.
In the post-unification, Germany took advantage of the consolidation of the European Union to reconfirm and extend its economic, technological and diplomatic primacy, and since a few years a powerful axis with France has been established. Despite the disappearance of the military dangerousness and the to-date absence of an imperialistic agenda, the eternal return law keeps working against Germany which now is facing antagonism coming from within the EU and the United States.
Trump’s threatenings of targeting the EU with a trade war, the pressures over the German automotive industry, Dieselgate, the maxi-fines against Bayer, the support to Euroscepticism, and sabotage of relations with Iran, China and Russia, work in the same direction: to weaken the Germany-led EU and Berlin’s neo-mercantilist strategy, which together made possible the conversion of the country into the world’s third-largest exporter, the world’s fourth-largest economy by GDP and the first-largest in terms of trade surplus gained.
History seems to show that Germany is a born-to-be hegemony-oriented country that will always face a harsh antagonism, even coming from supposed-to-be allies and partners, because endowed with the potential of becoming a superpower.
The Balkans are an important geopolitical battleground since the fall of Western Roman Empire due to their geostrategic position: a meeting point between West and East, between Christianity and Islam, and between Europe and Asia.
The interests and destinies of many great powers intertwin and clash in this region since the Middle Ages, a situation worsened by the highly heterogenous ethno-religious landscape, and it is precisely the combination of these elements that lies behind the historically pervasive chronic instability at the basis of the outbreak of Balkans Wars, Great War, Yugoslav Wars and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
In this context there is a country that always played and will play a leading role in the powder keg’s explosion: Serbia. This small country is one of the poorest in Europe, its national origins date back before the year 1000 and its destiny is inextricably tied with the one of the Third Rome.
It was in Russia that many Serbs found asylum after the Ottoman empire’s annexation of Serbia in 1459. It was Russia that defended Orthodox peoples’ rights in the Balkans during the Ottoman era. It was from Russia that the Pan-Slavism spreaded out over the Balkans, fueling the anti-Austro-Hungarian and anti-Ottoman independence movements during 1800.
The common Slavic-Orthodox identity played an important role in making Russia and Serbia two inseparable allies but an even more important factor was probably the sense of endless encirclement by foreign powers willing to destroy their cultural and religious heritage. Serbia has been historically encircled, occupied and subdued by Catholics and Muslim powers, while Russia has been facing Western antagonism since the pre-Great Game.
Russia’s focus on Serbia was also dictated by a long-standing geostrategic imperative: the search for a warm-water port, and the control over Serbia would have meant to have an outpost in the Mediterranean Sea. The gradual fall of the Ottoman Empire seemed to play in favour of Russia but instead it acted against, because all the major European powers entered in the Balkan Game to sabotage the plan even recurring to a global re-thinking about Ottomans which ceased to be considered as a centuries-old enemy to become a strategic partner alternatively for Germany, Great Britain and France.
The post-World War I geographical borders’ redrawing led to the fragmentation of the Central Powers and the birth of new ethnic-centered states such as the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – renamed Yugoslavia starting from 1929. The new situation, combined with the loss of power recorded by France and Great Britain, could have helped Russia achieve the historical ambition of a virtual intra-Balkan corridor but the eternal return law worked, once again, against the Serbian-Russian connection.
In fact, Russia had ceased to exist and had been replaced by the Soviet Union and the need to build the foundations of the newly formed nation caused a temporary self-exclusion from the world.
Not even the establishment of a Communist regime in the post-war Yugoslavia played in Moscow’s favor, because the Allies, led by Winston Churchill, cleverly exploited the misunderstandings between Stalin and Tito that led to the diplomatic break lasted until the country’s implosion.
At the outbreak of Yugoslav wars both Russia and the United States intervened but backing different sides. Russian supported Serbia but was unable to provide the necessary help because was engaged in the difficult post-Soviet transition. The West took advantage of Belgrade’s isolation to blame it for the instability, inter-ethnic violence and war crimes, and helped other belligerants gain new territories, leading to the strategic dismemberment of Serbia.
The resizing was the starting point of a wider strategy aimed at depriving Belgrade of an outlet to the sea that neither Russia nor Serbia did fully understand. In 2006 a referendum on the independence of Montenegro took place and won the pro-independence front.
Both countries committed two fatal errors: Serbia decided not to expose itself, probably due to the Yugoslav wars-trauma, by letting independentists monopolize public discourse, and Russia did not use its diplomatic power to demand an international investigation concerning the numerous complaints of irregularities that occurred during the vote that artificially would determine the victory of the “yes”.
The eternal return seems to play against Serbia-Russia axis but confirm also the sincere nature of this centuries-old alliance. In fact, despite the fact that Serbia is much smaller that in the past, it is completely encircled by a more-than-ever hostile neighborhood and the region is under EU-US control, its protection keeps being a Russia’s national interest.
Geopolitics is a matter of searching for vital spaces, energy security, economic interests, but also of elements that overcome a materialistic reading of history, entering into the dimension of geophilosophy.
Emanuel Pietrobon, Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, Russia