Did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fly to Saudi Arabia with a plan to help create plausible deniability around Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman regarding the horrifying execution of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?
As gruesome as the killing is, the battle of ideologies that are now swirling around this event is as important. That’s not to belittle a death that was apparently cruel and unusual and involved torture of the most savage kind. Technology and media and the way politicians around the globe are using media – from social media to government-controlled media – has meant that the reported details of this killing became widely available through leaks by Erdogan’s regime in Turkey and now through more discrete leaks from the CIA itself in response to President Trump’s equivocation over the issue of MBS’s possible involvement.
But what exactly are the battle lines between competing ideas on America’s foreign policy and its role in the world and competing ideas on what sort of international order should govern the world’s states over the coming decades?
It’s not merely Trump’s America First Bad; the UN and EU good. The options seem to be divided between the already overused term “tribalism” and a liberal global order. Still, maybe there is another way forward that needs less distractions over what any nation or politician feels about Trump in order to be seen clearly.
Sumantra Maitra – a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham in the UK – has written a piece in The Federalist that is a plea for conservative nationalism as way past or through the liberal-global-order/tribal-nationalism struggle so prominent today. He traces the history of the European and Ottoman Empires’ collapse after WW I and the attempt after WW II to contain and reduce the nation-state within a rules-based system. But empire vs. tribe has come back to haunt us, and the problem is that a liberal world order invokes no true feelings of belonging or patriotism and leaves us vulnerable to atomized factions. As Maitra states:
Liberals fail to understand and anticipate the desire of normal people to feel passionately about the flag their forefathers fought for. That leads to a vacuum that is filled by ethnocentric tribalism. If conservatives don’t reclaim healthy civic nationalism, the choice ahead is almost always either ideological internationalism and rules through institutions and bureaucrats or atomized ethnic nationalism, tribalism, and racism. The elite abhorrence of anything that relates to flags, land, and borders shows how much the window has moved in the last couple of decades.
The only unifying force is a healthy, civic, conservative nationalism. This type stops distinguishing between tribes, races, and ethnicities and unites in a love for the land beneath one’s feet. In a world where the choice is increasingly between Antifa and Abolish ICE mobs on the one hand and transnational open border Davos Men on the other, conservative nationalism might be the only centrist option.
My problem with Maitra’s erudite plea is that it was precisely the love of land beneath one’s feet that drove the millions of young men to follow their general’s orders in WW I and to leave Europe a scarred shell that was ripe for fascism in it’s central and southern regions and communism in its eastern regions. I will assume, however, that when he talks about a healthy, civic, and conservative nationalism, he’s talking about a patriotism that is both local and embodied in an idea.
Unfortunately, Europe has often been the preserve of competing empires from Rome to Charlemagne to Madrid, Paris, and London and then to Berlin and Moscow. And finally, to Brussels and Strasbourg. As he states, European politicians are calling for a European army, and the French Finance Minister seems to be suggesting Europe turn to some form of empire to compete with both America and China. It is hardly surprising coming from a French bureaucrat but rather less subtle than what one expects from Brussels and Strasbourg.
But maybe a conservative nationalism rooted in tradition but moderated by the caution of reasoned civics is what Europe needs. Europe will have nothing of it, one fears, however. Perhaps England is returning to a conservative and reasonably cautious nationalism with Brexit. Still, the way it is being covered in the media suggests that Cabinet ministers' heads are being displayed on pikes outside Westminster. A touch exaggerated and very hostile to any form of reasonable nationalism, in other words.
So, did Trump display a reasonable and conservative nationalism with regard to his statement on Saudi Arabia and MBS’s possible involvement in the Khashoggi assassination? He’s being attacked from several sides for not condemning the Saudis and for unashamedly lauding the defence industry jobs that the promised Saudi spending will produce. But how do we follow Washington’s warnings on the dangers of foreign entanglements when Saudi Arabia itself is sustained by American military support and training?
There is no optimal or easy solution in the Middle East, and values such as those that Macron proclaimed might help domestically but are of little use on the ground in feudal aristocracies like the Saudi Kingdom. Because if America withdraws support and allows the House of Saud to collapse, what next? A cautious conservatism would have to take into account that uncertainty even as it laid tough sanctions on the Saudis.
And remember that Iran’s belligerence and involvement in places like Syria and Lebanon have helped create the conditions where hundreds of thousands of civilians have died. Does that mean that Europe – upholding its values – has refused to do business with Iran and has applied tough sanctions? Uhhhh, non! As the French would say.
What the liberal global order wants is a dramatic but symbolic gesture against the Saudis so that a period of hypocritical condemnation can take place. Then, they can continue doing business throughout the Middle East. They just don’t like Trump’s brazen and crass bluntness. Or his honesty in all its equivocating, word-salad, ingenuousness.