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Unaccomplished mission of Alexander Benckendorff and its lessons
11 January marked 100 years since the death of the last Ambassador of the Russian Empire to the UK count Alexander Benckendorff, who was buried in the catholic Westminster Cathedral in London. This anniversary was a timely reminder of his unaccomplished mission in London, where he arrived in 1903. What was it and why is it still relevant now?When the threat of a pan-European war was hanging over the continent and all major European capitals were busy shaping opposing military and political alliances, one critical issue was increasingly occupying the minds of the participants of this race. It was about the position of Britain in this new geopolitical set-up.
As is known, Germany wanted war and was ready for it. Although Anglo-German contradictions were at the forefront of European politics, there wasn’t enough clarity as to what it meant in case of a Franco-German military conflict. Berlin was aware of the Franco-Russian military alliance and planned a war on two fronts, defeating France first and then focusing on Russia. The German government still thought that Britain, not a continental power and with a small land army, would stay aloof, even in the face of violation of the Belgian border, guaranteed by London.
This German calculations proved to be an illusion with disastrous consequences. But the strength of that thinking was demonstrated by the fact that Berlin was shocked by the news of Britain entering the war on 4 August 1914. And it took Edward Grey quite an effort to convince the Asquith Government to declare war on Germany, citing an "obligation of honour” to France and Belgium.
But was it plainly stupid on the part of the German elite? It has to be borne in mind that quite an unprecedented situation was taking shape in Europe. The unification of Germany as a Prussian empire "by iron and blood” was one huge factor. By the way, Fedor Tyutchev, who knew Germany well, wrote in mid-XIXth century that there was no room in Europe for a German empire. There was also an acute problem of transformation of European societies as a result of the Industrial revolution. Many historians, including Max Hastings (in his "Catastrophe”), point to the prospect of loss of control as one of the reasons for European governments blundering into war. The latter applied equally to Britain and Germany. Against the background of a radical de facto realignment in European politics the strategic analysis was, obviously, lagging behind. And the British elite was a clear case in point.
There was the Entente Cordiale, but it didn’t provide for any obligations in case France declares war on Germany as a function of its alliance with Russia. The long-standing differences between Britain and Russia in Central Asia, the so called Great Game, were settled in the secret agreement of 1907. So, there was sort of strategic ambiguity/ambivalence on the British part, which fed the German illusion. Ambassador Benckendorff’s mission was precisely to push the British towards clarity, which could have disabused Berlin and prevented WWI.
It turned out to be a mission impossible. The British couldn’t overcome the strategic mentality of staying out of European entanglements. It is worth noting, however, that when they broke with that doctrine, it had far-reaching consequences. Many historians now consider the Crimean War, masterminded by Napoleon III as "unnecessary”. It is a gross understatement, for it created conditions for the wrong unification of Germany through the Franco-Prussian war. Only Russia could have prevented that, but humiliated by the terms of the Peace of Paris, and in the midst of domestic reforms, she had no incentive or political will for that. As Orlando Figes points it out in his "Crimean War”, it was the Palmerston government which, unlike the French, insisted on the humiliating provisions of the Treaty, imposing restrictions on Russia’s military presence in the Black Sea.
Now, in the run-up to WWI the British couldn’t make up their mind and come to the understanding that the German domination of continental Europe was not in their vital interest. Like many others, they preferred to believe that a big war in Europe was impossible. It seems, that the memory of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade had faded out by that time. This strategic ambivalence would lead to the Phoney War in 1939-1940 and the tragedy of Dunkirk. That is not to mention the Versailles system that shunned both Germany and the Soviet Union and guaranteed only the borders of Germany’s western neighbors.
In both cases it was the German aggression that introduced clarity into the British strategic thinking, i.e. the understanding of a fundamental convergence of interest between Britain/France and Russia as regards maintenance of peace in Europe. It appears that twice in history is too many for such a blunder, whatever the circumstances, including class prejudice and ideological considerations. History provides ample proof that geopolitics beats almost everything else. It’s no wonder that even now, given the Brexit and the "global revolution” of Donald Trump, Western historians and observers (like British historian Niall Ferguson) see this geopolitical imprint working its way into contemporary European affairs.
Now, more than ever before, it is obvious, that the geo-strategic legacy of the Cold War, including such institutions as NATO and EU, constitutes increasingly a major stumbling block on the way to establishment of a clear-cut collective security system in Europe, based on the principle of indivisibility of security and equal security for all. Britain’s exit from the EU while retaining membership in the NATO, is reminiscent of the past strategic ambiguity of the British foreign policy. Unfortunately, the logic of this approach leads some, including Niall Ferguson (in the Foreign Policy magazine), to construct an artificial "Russian Question” to replace the German Question presumably resolved once and for all. In fact, this is the way to keep Cold War politics afloat. It is sad, that the German elites are all too willing to rise to the bait.
What is missing in this analysis is the fact, that the failure of Eurozone/EU is fraught with another problem of Germany’s incompatibility with the rest of Europe, this time in terms of trade and economy. Nobody believes that Germany could again become a major military power. That is why irrelevance of NATO as a means of keeping Germany down. At issue is how to keep Germany, with its current account proficit of 9% GDP, engaged economically when it is left to her own devices. If, of course, as some believe, due to the politicised "expansion on the cheap” of the EU over the past 15 years, the momentum has been lost to achieve a sustainable stronger supranational Europe. British historian Dominic Lieven in his latest book on Russia "Towards the Flame” wrote that planning war that became WWI, Berlin was thinking of Russia in terms of Thucydides trap. Indeed, Russia was fast developing at the time (comparable to China over the last 30 years) – just remember Pyotr Stolypin’s "20 years without war”. It was thought that in 15 years’ time Russia would be a dominant economic power in Europe. But German business was a leading investor in Russia and there was an option of being part of the Russian success story.
Why not now, given our huge potential to absorb foreign investment, especially if Germany and Europe have to carry the double burden of a managed globalization/deglobalization, i.e. vis-à-vis both the US and China. It is worth remembering that 12 years ago the American National Intelligence Council envisaged, in one of its scenarios, that the US might have to withdraw from globalization if it worked against American interest.
At least, thus, a bigger problem could be partially resolved, that of Germany finding itself in a geopolitical wilderness after the end of the Cold War. As a matter of fact, in terms of its world view Germany was a product and a victim of the West’s crusade against cultural differences and history. As the Greek crisis shows, cultural differences have not vanished. History is still there to be made by all nations. That is why a cooperative relationship between Germany and the flanking powers to the west (US, Britain, France) and to the east (Russia, Poland) might make sense as a material guarantee of lasting peace in the Euro-Atlantic.
It is the only way to build a coherent Europe genuinely whole and free, a Greater Europe, not a Small Europe, while learning from history rather than getting stuck in it. Moscow has been a consistent advocate of that ever since we embarked upon the road of radical change 30 years ago. Donald Trump’s support for Britain post-Brexit and his willingness to engage with Berlin and Moscow beyond the existing patchwork European architecture will help arrive at such an outcome. The alternative is continued muddling through strategically and the dead end, where we find ourselves post-Cold War.
All the more so, that issues of economic development and prosperity are a top priority for all, including in our region. Its not only a matter the Euro-Atlantic facing a radically new competitive global environment. It is in the first place a matter of standards of living and prospects for the future in each country within national borders. The artificial trade and economic dividing lines won’t do any longer. They are a material force generating a logic of their own. For example, geopoliticization of the EU "Eastern Partnership” has led to the Ukrainian crisis. It also proves that policies that contradict business sense, lead nowhere. That is why a political unity of the Euro-Atlantic region is not doable unless we have a single regionwide economic space, based on the WTO principles and norms.
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Unaccomplished mission of Alexander Benckendorff and its lessons