Nicolas Maslowski: A Dangerous Time of Chaos

The financial crisis showed the weakness of America. Undermining the world order in this situation is much easier and successive actors are starting to do that—says Nicolas Maslowski in an interview with Tomasz Maćkowiak.

After the immigration crisis, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, after populism started raising its head in successive countries in Europe, first there were voices that the atmosphere reminded that of the 1930s. And then, logically, that we were headed towards another great war. Will there be a war? Or perhaps it is already underway?

I don’t know if there will be a war. I see that the directions in which contemporary world is going are much more alarming than anything that happened in the past decades, especially since the collapse of communism after 1989, and, as it seemed, a global victory of democracy.

When did the breakthrough occur?

I don’t know if there was any breakthrough. Perhaps it was the financial crisis of 2008. In fact, there is a number of factors which jointly start to create a very dangerous situation. Simplifying things a bit, you could say that the greatest dangers to peace are violent changes
in the balance of power between the most important players and also chaos. These two factors are sometimes intertwined with each other. For example, for several years—at least since the conflict with Georgia in 2008—Russia has been unleashing huge chaos around its borders. Even earlier, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow exploited chaos to further its interests. It was so in the early 1990s in Moldova, in Nagorno—Karabakh, it was so in Georgia, which resulted in the overthrow of Zviad Gamsachurdia and replacing him with Eduard Shevardnadze. At the same time, the conflict around Abkhazia was generated and immediately frozen. Such a frozen conflict is very useful for Russians, for it allows them to destabilize the situation in the long term and wait for an opportunity. Such actions have their source in the Russian concept of power, which says that international relations are a zero—sum game. If somebody is stronger, then we are weaker. If we weaken someone, it strengthens us. There is no situation where everybody wins. Therefore weakening an enemy is always good. Today this tactics can be seen in Syria. Never mind if Aleppo still exists or not. It is important that it no longer is in the hands of someone else. Most of the problems of the Western world result from disorder and chaos. On the one hand, the West may be afraid of conflicts with countries which declare their willingness to undermine the world order, such as Russia or China. On the other hand, equally dangerous are centers of chaos connected with global terrorism, often emerging in places where the state is not working too efficiently. A source of chaos in international relations is lack of domestic order in particular countries. Let us take the Middle East—conflicts erupt there all the time, but these are not conflicts between strong countries. There simply are no strong countries there. In the Middle East, we have three countries where the structure of the state resembles the Western world: it is of course Israel, but also Turkey and Iran. They are all examples of stability, at least on their own territory. The existence of these states or tensions between them are not the source of problems in the region. The source of problems is the lack of modern structures of the rule of law in other countries of the region: Palestine, now in Syria and Iraq, in Lebanon, or Yemen. This is where the sources of chaos lie.

Well, it is difficult to speak about stability in Turkey now.

But I am not speaking about democracy! There is no democracy in Iran. I am speaking about domestic order which rules there. Some time ago Zbigniew Brzeziński promoted the idea that Iran was not an enemy of the West, an enemy of the West was chaos in the Middle East. If this is true, then the West and Iran have a common enemy, namely the chaos. This means that the interests of Iran and the West are convergent! Unfortunately, at a certain point such thinking lost ground in the West. When America overthrew Saddam Hussein, it did it in the “realistic” style, one that is presented by Russia now. The assumption was that if you weaken the enemy, plunge him into chaos, then the world will be better. And if you destroy Hussein, there will be democracy in Iraq. You can see how it ended.

So chaos prevails?

Not necessarily. Let us take China. It also wants to weaken its competitors. It took a number of actions intended to decrease the influence of India and Japan—its greatest competitors in the region. But it does not try to unleash chaos in these countries. The truth is that China, more than other countries, is afraid of the lack of stability, for it knows very well that destabilization in their own country could very easily appear. The very existence of modern Chinese state is something new. It has existed for less than 70 years—it was built by Mao Zedong.

The old Chinese civilization has such an inferiority complex?

Of course, they keep saying that as a civilization they are 5,000 years old. But as an independent state they came to existence relatively recently, it is a new situation and they are not used to it. They also have the trauma of colonialism—a weak state that was unable to defend the nation either from the intruders from the West or from local magnates.

And the West is not worried about its own stability?

Stability in the West has for several decades been strongly connected with the mission of America. The Americans had a sense of responsibility for the fate of the world. We must of course remember that this role of America also has its dark side. Americans treated Europeans as equals, but the same could not be said about South Americans. We should not forget that voting rights for black US citizens are a relatively fresh thing. All this is a truth which demands further study and should be a warning for the future. But let’s not forget that it was America which provided a source of stability.

But not any longer.

After the downfall of communism in 1989, many conflicts accompanying the Cold War disappeared. People started to get rich, live increasingly longer, democracy and optimism ruled the day. Now all this is not so certain. Trends have turned around. The financial crisis not only affected the American standards of living, but above all showed America’s weakness. Undermining the world order in this situation is much easier and successive actors are starting to do that. A change of the world order in this situation can be an opportunity for war.

Some people say that the war is already going on, because people are fighting in Syria, in Ukraine…

The war in Ukraine is not a world war. But it is true that this war is directly connected with Russia and its world-power ambitions. It is also true that Russia may be a threat to the world, for it has a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying our planet. But no more than that! Besides that, Russia is not powerful enough to run a global policy, as in the times of the Soviet Union.

You must be joking! Russia tries to influence and does influence policy in Central and Eastern Europe. We also know for certain that the Kremlin is strongly involved in the domestic policy of Western countries. A CIA report has just been revealed saying
that Russia interfered in the election campaign in the US!

No, they wrote that Russia “attempted to influence…” It is a great difference. All is relative. If you ignore the atomic arsenal, the Russian army does not count. Of course it’s more powerful than the Polish army, but in comparison to the US Army? Until recently, the Russians had only one military base abroad (not counting the countries of the former Soviet Union)—in Syria. America has military bases roughly all over the world. Russia has one aircraft carrier, but it is an old machine, dysfunctional, the planes have trouble taking off and landing when they are loaded with ammunition. Who else has aircraft carriers? China has one, Thailand has one, Great Britain has one and a half, France has one. America has 15 aircraft carriers. A comparison of the military power of Russia and France is very telling. With its one aircraft carrier “De Gaulle,” France is strongly involved militarily in global conflicts, it runs military operations virtually all the time: in Mali, in Lebanon, in Syria. It conducts more wars than Russia and its actions are more effective, they have the intended results. They also do not generate such a great sense of threat. This is due to the fact that French policy is very constructive, as is the policy of European countries in general. They believe that if your neighbor is in a good shape, then we will all be in a good shape.

You said that America is now weaker. Where does it come from?

Things happened which probably had to happen. For 200 years we have observed the global process of modernization, which is a combination of several elements: industrialization, effective state, effective fiscal policy, demographic transition (a drop in the fertility rate with simultaneous decrease in child mortality and greater longevity), and so on. The world is changing—people live better, longer, they are richer. The first countries to enter that path were England, France, Germany, and Holland. Then America joined them. Japan chose an accelerated, non-traditional way of modernization. Now it can be seen that this process has been globalized, many countries are catching up with the
advanced world. And this process raises the question if such countries as Russia, China, and perhaps even Central and Eastern Europe will not stop halfway— if for political, economic, or historical reasons they are not doomed to eternal catching up and perpetual incompleteness.
I am unable to answer this question.

To what extent is the change in the balance of power between the strongest players dangerous for Central Europe? Or to put it differently: is the change of administration
in the US dangerous for us?

The weakening of the West also results from the fact that some politicians, seeing the increasing chaos in the world, decided that it was better to withdraw from global politics and concentrate on the domestic scene. This is new isolationism. Before the war, it was very strong in the US, but after the war it vanished. And today it is again visible, president Trump is a representative of this new isolationism. But it is
more complicated than that. The chaos (or the sense of chaos) also has its cultural aspect. Once the world was neatly ordered:every country had its culture, language, symbols, religious life. Now, due to liberalism which calls for tolerance for otherness, respect for other cultures and religions, many people have a sense of threat to the existing symbolic order. This partly explains Brexit or Trump’s campaign. In Poland this fear is also increasingly felt. And it is expressed in the hostility towards the European Union. The union becomes an element of globalization, destroying the symbolic order of national cultures. Destruction or breakup of the European Union could fundamentally affect the security of Central Europe. Without the union Central Europe would be very weak. This is also dangerous for the entire Europe. Forces promoting the anti-union ideas are not aware of the dangers involved in it.

But there are ideas for regional alliances, the Intermarium…

If you arithmetically combined the Polish, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and other armies, it would still hardly be enough to counter the Russian army, not to speak about NATO. And this is a theoretical concept, for I very much doubt if you could combine these armies in any way!

And the economy?

The potential is very promising, but under the condition that these countries will stay on the modernizing course.

To what extent the scenario of EU’s breakup or the scenario where the union exists only on paper are real? This year we have elections in France, in Germany…

The political factor is very important here. The economies of this system are strongly interconnected and this will serve as a stabilizing element. But there may always be surprises. Brexit was a huge surprise.

Another huge surprise was the behavior of Central European countries in the context of the refugee crisis. It turned out that countries admitted to the EU for moral reasons—to help the neighbors—are unwilling to help anyone, even symbolically. How strong is the disappointment among Western elites?

Mutual misunderstanding is very deep. In the name of European solidarity Western people agreed to a huge transfer of funds to the East of the continent. Now, when it turned out that the countries of the East also have to give something, but they don’t want to, the behavior of their political elites was received in the West with great astonishment. The West simply does not understand it. On the other hand, in the West people also argue about everything, including refugees and ways of helping them. So the situation is not as dramatic as that. The fear of refugees has no rational basis. In 2016, about 500,000 people arrived in Europe. The European Union has more than 500 million inhabitants. So it turns out that there was an increase of about 0.1%. It can hardly be called an invasion. What people are really afraid of is undermining the symbolic order. I already spoke about it: they are afraid that their customs, lifestyle, way of experiencing their religion will be destroyed. And they are right, for globalization significantly and irreversibly undermines these values! People have the right to feel afraid! It is unfortunate that they connect this fear not with globalization, but with refugees, whom they blame for all their misfortunes.

Nicolas Maslowski

is a sociologist and political scientist, currently the director of the Center for French Civilization and Francophone Studies in Poland. This French-Polish Center specializing in Social and Human Sciences was created by Michel Foucault in 1958 in Warsaw. During his stay in Prague (1999–2016), Nicolas worked as a lecturer at the Department of Historical Sociology, Faculty of Humanities of Charles University, as well as at the Jan Masaryk Center for international Studies of the University of Economics in Prague. He was specializing in sociology of international relations, great powers relations from a historical perspective, as well as issues of collective memory. He is a former student of the Institute of Political Studies of Paris and he has defended his PhD at the University of Paris X-La Defense Nanterre. He works currently on Central Europe, communism and post-communism, protests, international relations and the historical sociology of recognition.

Tomasz Maćkowiak

Tomasz Maćkowiak is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, where he explores contemporary Czech Christian literature. Previously, he worked as a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, Newsweek Polska, Polityka, Forum weekly. He was a correspondent of Wyborcza in Bratislava and Prague.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2017

The Way We Will Work

The Future of Work is already here–in Central Europe. Driven by continuing globalization, accelerating digitalization and dreaded automation, the Work is changing. What role will the modern state play in this process? And how gender roles will change? A sweat free paradise is coming. We must adapt to the technological progress and learn for the future growth.
You can also download this issue (pdf).