It is almost twenty years since the publication of the book The Breaking of Nations. It is an expose on the European security order in the 21st Century and the conduct of modern diplomacy. In this interview, Zebulon Carlander, program manager for Security Policy at Society & Defence, interviews Robert Cooper about The Breaking of Nations and its relevance in 2022. Robert Cooper is a British diplomat who served as Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as Special Adviser at the European Commission. He is currently a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
It is almost twenty years since your book The Breaking of Nations was published. Can you describe what motivated you to write it?
I became the head of the planning staff at the Foreign Office in January 1989. I was hesitant to accept the post, because I didn’t know anything about East-West relations or big strategic issues. But that didn’t matter: in 1989, everything changed. I remember at one point we were worried about what was happening in Yugoslavia. I organised a meeting and everyone in the Foreign Office who had served in in Yugoslavia were invited. I was asking them whether the tensions might become violent. Pretty well everybody said no, nothing like that will happen. Because looking at these people, you don’t know who is a Serb or a Croat, but turned out they did. This was a period of enormous change in the world.
One of the small tasks we had to do every six months or so, was to send a short paper to Downing Street with a schedule of international events taking place in the next few months, for example it might be a summit between France and Germany or a big debate in the UN. For the last of the year, my deputy, Jonathan Powell, included a joke, writing: “December: Overthrow of Rumanian Government”. And then it actually happened!
This was a period where a great deal was happening. It was not just the end of Communism, we also had events, such as the 2-4 talks on the Future of Germany. In theory the “2” were the two Germanies, who were responsible for the internal dimension of unification; the “4” were the former occupying powers, who had responsibility to ensure that unification would not have external repercussions. In practice it was really 2 plus 1: the 2 were the USA and the USSR, and the 1 was the FRG. But this was a good way of keeping the UK and France quiet. Both Thatcher and Mitterrand seemed at the time, to have reservations about a United Germany. In fact the US Policy Planners – and the German government – had seen immediately that the key was that Germany should remain in NATO, as a guarantee less against the Soviet Union, than a return to the pre-World War I situation.
Then came Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, in the early 1990s, and the First Gulf War. We also had the break up of Yugoslavia. These were some of the big things taking place, such, for example, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, though we were hardly aware of that.
How did all this turn into a book? I was thinking about the two wars – Yugoslavia and Iraq. The First Gulf War was one of the few that was mandated by a UN resolution. Then there were the Balkan wars where we didn’t do well because military strategy for the last however many years had been centred around the idea of a massive air/land battle somewhere in Central Europe. We were not prepared to deal with vicious civil wars that created a humanitarian and a moral crisis in Europe.
The breakup of Yugoslavia was a war of the weakness of the state, whereas the classical way you think about war is a strong state attacking a weaker one. That is what we had with Iraq and Kuwait. It was followed by a rare international coalition to deal with it. Then there were the Balkan wars for which no one had a plan. Ten years later, another weak state – Afghanistan – provided a base for Al Qaeda’s attack on America.
The world is much more varied than what international relations textbooks tell you. One of my conclusions was that everybody, if you want to talk about international relations theory, goes back to Thucydides. He was a brilliant writer but he lived in a particular world at a particular time. The world today is very different and the nature of state is also different, two thousand years later. Some things remain; but much has changed.
Some wars, of which Yugoslavia was one, are about the weaknesses of states. Then there are wars like the First Gulf War which is about the imbalance of power between states. The way in which you handle them needs to be very different. At the time around 1989, there were two things that particularly impressed me. First, was the signature of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. That was remarkable: maybe the best arms control treaty which we have ever seen. This was a treaty intended to avoid any kind of military surprise. So the parties to the Treaty list their holdings of tanks, artillery, etcetera, and their locations too and allow other states to inspect them. That astonished me because it was contrary to all strategic logic. Strategic logic says you should hide your weapons and not tell anybody where they are or how much you have got unless you are trying to frighten them. That made me think that the world was changing and states do not always act as the textbooks tell you.
In your book, you write about different years that have had a major impact on European security. You mention 1789, 1815, 1919 and then 1989. Would you add 2022 to that list of important dates that basically realign European security affairs?
It is much easier to know the answers years later! But I think, yes, that 2022 at least has a claim to be on that list. We have to see how it is finished. This is the first major interstate war we have seen in Europe since World War Two. So this is certainly a new kind of event. We are allies of Ukraine now; but we are not fighting; and we are not encouraging Ukraine to attack Russia. Normally you win wars by attacking the homeland of the aggressor. How do we expect to win this? There has been some wars of intervention by European countries outside of Europe. Then there have been things that have been a bit like civil wars, such as the conflict on Cyprus. But nevertheless, that is not a classical state-A-attacks-state-B war. This is potentially a break in history.
You write about Europe being a postmodern area, while being surrounded by modern and pre-modern actors and regions. Firstly, can you explain what you mean by these divisions, and secondly, do you think Europe has succeeded in maintaining its post-modernity while managing relations with its neighbouring countries and regions that are in other security paradigms?
I sort of had two images. 1648 is a very important date. It is normally thought of as the beginning of the modern nation state with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia. But these were not very modern states in the normal sense of the word. The main forms of transportation was horses or rivers. So when I write about the modern states, I am really thinking about the 19th Century. 1815 is an important date because that settled a good deal of the maps in Europe. Maybe the most consequential war is the First World War because that was when Woodrow Wilson articulated the doctrine of self determination. But if you look to see where the first struggle for self determination or home rule takes places, it is in Ireland. The movement for Home Rule in Ireland began sometime in the late 19th Century. It was just around the time when Britain was seizing its last foreign colony.
So the other thing that struck me when I was trying to understand the international system was that the big thing that happened in the 20th Century, was not just the World Wars, fascism and communism; if you look at it structurally, the big thing in the 20th Century was the end of Empire. So, as I said, Britain got its last colony sometime in the 1860s, and roughly a hundred years later, they are all gone. That resulted in a large number of states which had rather weak internal structures. If you are the President of Indonesia, your main problems are not about foreign policy, but rather keeping your country together.
In some cases, a number of states were very weak. Not in foreign policy terms, but in an internal way, structurally: the state is new and institutions are new and they are susceptible to coup d’etats. There are quite a lot of states which are artificial creations by colonial powers which have got structural weaknesses in them. That is perhaps unfairly described as a pre-modern state. That is, a state which is internally challenged; a state which is not the classical state with a single centre of power where all decisions are taken.
Now the post-modern state is different. As a visual image, the pre-modern state is one where communications and maybe even borders are indistinct. The modern state is a state which emerged from the 19th century, where the state built the railways and all railways go to the capital. In the postmodern state, maybe the roads are more important than the railways. If you live in Europe, you can travel across borders without noticing it. The post-modern state is strong, but it is not necessarily centralised, and it does not think only in competitive terms.
Returning to the CFE treaty again, it was exceptional because it was allowing for complete (or almost complete) openness. It was seeking peace by transparency. It emerged out of the Helsinki Process and the OSCE. When it was signed I thought it was a miracle. It was a sort of strategic. The European Union was also a peace by a whole lot of transparency. To some extent, NATO has also provided peace by transparency. In NATO the allies meet each other all the time and there are a lot of discussions going on, which creates a degree of transparency as well. One can think of NATO as an organisation which has not only helped protect European peace from outside attack, but also preserve peace among European countries.
In your book you write about intellectual and conceptual errors in foreign policy and the dangers of misreading or misinterpreting certain issues and contexts. Can you elaborate on your thinking and perhaps apply this model to current issues?
There is a book I am reading at the moment called “To start a war” which is about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That war was a conceptual error. If you ask where this error came from, it is a very tangled story, but essentially it comes from 9/11. After the attacks, Washington DC is shaken up and they are continually worrying about where is the next terrorist attack going to come from. There is a strong school of thought in Washington, of which Cheney and Rumsfeld are the main proponents, that says Iraq has somehow been involved. The conclusion from the book is that first you ought to be careful when you start any war at all. Secondly, you ought to keep an open mind. A number of people in that American administration started from the premise that 9/11 attacks did so much damage that they must have had some big man behind them, it was difficult to imagine this was the actions of a tiny obscure bunch of terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan.
In my book, I quote the classical example of the Suez Crisis in 1956 as a classical foreign policy mistake. What was happening in Eden’s head was that he was comparing Nasser to Hitler. The Second World War had been the biggest event in Eden’s life and he had been an anti-appeaser. Everybody looks back for analogies in the past and Eden used the wrong one. Ivan Krastev makes the point that we are lucky that Kennedy was interested in the First World War – he took a course on its origins at college. The outbreak of the war still looks like the consequence of a series of bad decisions and accidents interacting. It was almost certainly influenced the way Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. If, instead, he had studied Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler, he might have handled it all differently. The best thing for people who have that kind of power to do, is to study a good range of cases so they can think about history when making decisions.
In Russia’s war against Ukraine, we’ve seen president Vladimir Putin repeatedly making references to Russia’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Simultaneously, we are seeing how all nuclear weapons states are modernising their nuclear arsenals. What do you think is the future of nuclear weapons in international security and the prospects for arms control as well as disarmament?
This used to be a central policy in most governments and it has somehow fallen off the agenda. The CFE treaty represented the high point of arms control. We never got back there. The interesting thing about the CFE treaty is that the objective was to prevent any war from starting on the grounds that any war on the East-West divide might lead to a nuclear war. I still regard it as the best arms control agreement we’ve ever seen and it should still be kept in mind as a model for where we want to go. A regime of transparency in which everyone can feel reassured. If nuclear weapons scare people, so they are afraid to start conventional wars, that is a good thing. We should remember we gave Ukraine guarantees when they gave up their nuclear weapons.
I find it hard to believe that anyone could be so stupid as to use nuclear weapons. But people do stupid things, like this war in itself. I think there is more reason to be concerned about nuclear weapons today than at any time since 1989. We must hope that the stupidity of the Russian government does not go as far as that, though it is not impossible. I don’t know what the Europeans or the Americans might do if that happens. If you believe that your own nuclear weapons are there for deterrence and someone else uses theirs, does that not end the validity of your deterrent?