Monday, 8 March 2021

Victor Davis Hanson, Thucydides, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey: what causes wars, what prevents wars?


‘A general who desires peace must be prepared for war, for the barbarians become very nervous when they face an adversary all set to fight.’ (Emperor Mavrikios, 582-602 AD, Strategikon)

The American classicist Victor Davis Hanson has written a piece for American Greatness asking the question: what causes wars? 

Hanson, whose approach to these matters derives from Thucydides, offers several reasons why violent conflicts break out. These include: ‘Innately aggressive cultures and governments, megalomania, the desire for power, resources, and empire prompt nations to bully or attack others. Less rational Thucydidean motives such as fear and honor and perceptions of self-interest are not to be discounted either.’

Hanson goes on by proposing that we shouldn’t just be asking what causes war, but perhaps more importantly, what prevents war? The answer to this, Hanson says, is a policy of deterrence, echoing the Roman adage ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ and Byzantine Emperor Mavrikios (582-602 AD), in his Strategikon: ‘A general who desires peace must be prepared for war, for the barbarians become very nervous when they face an adversary all set to fight.’

Hanson asks:  ‘What allows these preemptive or aggressive agendas to reify, to take shape, and to leave tens of thousands dead? The less culpable target (and wars are rarely a matter of 50/50 culpability) also has a say in what causes wars. The invaded and assaulted sometimes overlooked or contextualized serial and mounting aggression. They displayed real military weakness or simple political ineptness that eroded deterrence. They failed to make defensive alliances with stronger nations or slashed defense investments that made the use of deterrent force impossible.’

We’re now in a position to move beyond modern analyses of conflict, heavily influenced by Marxist approaches and other readings of how Western empires expanded from the 15th century, in which we have become used to seeing aggressive human endeavour explained by economic imperatives and not by more tragic, Homeric and Thucydidean values such as rank, prestige, honour, competitiveness, vengeance and shaming. 

Using this ancient Greek paradigm, we can interpret, for example, the Iraq war (2003), perhaps the most significant recent conflict, which overthrew the dictator Saddam Hussein and resulted in any number of dire national, regional and global side effects, not as a war about energy resources, as has become the dominant discourse, but about America’s attempt to reassert its prestige and honour, lost after the New York City terror attacks in 2001.

Now, let’s look at how this expanded understanding of the origins of wars can be applied to the recent history and current confrontations involving Greece and Cyprus and Turkey.

To begin with, we note that Turkey considered invading Cyprus twice in the 1960s – in 1964 and 1967. On both occasions, it was deterred not only by its lack of military capacity to carry out a successful assault on Cyprus, but also by its diplomatic isolation.

Cyprus since 1964 had successfully induced the USSR to take an interest in the course of the Cyprus question, prompting the Soviet Union to understand that the Western plan to partition Cyprus and turn Cyprus into a NATO protectorate was a direct threat to USSR interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Turkey’s threat of invasion also faced diplomatic opprobrium from the USA, concerned that a Turkish attack would provoke a war between Greece and Turkey and alienate whoever lost, potentially drawing that country into the Soviet orbit and seriously weakening NATO’s south-eastern flank. America’s preference was for a negotiated partition of Cyprus, a deal between Greece and Turkey as to how to share the Cypriot spoils, arrived at in a similar way to the London/Zurich agreements (1959) that established Cyprus’ ‘independence’, agreements done behind the back of the island’s communities and presented to them as a fait accompli.

Following its failure to invade Cyprus in 1967, Turkey set about boosting its military preparedness for a landing on Cyprus; improving relations with the USSR – which harboured deep antipathy to Greece and Greek anti-communism and then, as now, keen to detach Turkey from the Western sphere of influence – so that it would not object when Turkey attacked Cyprus, as it did not in 1974; and convincing the superpower it was most obliged to, the USA, that Turkey was more important to it than Greece and that its interests had to be taken more into account than Greece’s. 

Turkey’s calculation in this last instance was entirely correct. When Greece did indeed leave the military wing of NATO in August 1974 to protest Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, it returned six years later with its tail between its legs. And when the Pasok government of Andreas Papandreou, elected in 1981, attempted a foreign policy more independent of NATO, this proved superficial, mere rhetoric, and it wasn’t long before Greece decided to abandon any pretence that its long-term security interests could be served outside of Western security apparatuses.

But why did Turkey want a chunk of Cyprus in the first place, why were its ears pricked when the UK in the 1950s, aiming to frighten the Greek Cypriots into submitting to British colonial rule, encouraged it to revive interest in the future of Cyprus, in the prospect of the island uniting with Greece? 

Of course, Turkish strategists said it was to do with Cyprus pointing at Turkey’s underbelly, fear of Turkey being surrounded by Greek islands and that there was concern for the fate of the island’s Turkish minority; but the truth was that Turkey always regarded Cyprus as having been unjustly taken from it by the British in 1878 and that restoring Cyprus to it would be righting a historic wrong. In other words, Cyprus became a matter of repairing Turkish national prestige as well as an opportunity for the latest generation of Turks to prove their patriotic credentials in the ongoing war against a perennial ethnic and civilisational rival and nemesis.

Another question worth asking is what prevents Turkey from imposing its will on Cyprus in today’s conditions, i.e. in which Turkey’s ultra-nationalist Islamist regime sends research vessels and warships to Cyprus’ territorial waters not only to challenge Cypriot sovereignty but to assert Turkish claims on the island’s energy resources.

What deterrence does Cyprus have to prevent further Turkish aggression, to stop them finishing the job of 1974? The fact that we are even asking this question suggests that Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its subsequent occupation of the northern third of the island did not fulfil its long-term aim  – of abolishing the Republic of Cyprus and turning the whole of Cyprus into a Turkish satellite. The Republic of Cyprus survived Turkey’s attack, the free areas of the island flourished economically, retained international recognition as sole representative of the island, even joined the EU in 2004. Not one country – not even those closest to Turkey diplomatically, such as Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Somalia, have recognised the pseudo-state Turkey established in occupied Cyprus in 1983.

Certainly, Cyprus has no significant defence force to deter Turkey. It is not a member of any mutual defence pact – Turkey stands in the way of Cyprus joining NATO and even objects to Cyprus participating in the alliance's Partnership for Peace programme. 

Cyprus has a vague military agreement with Greece and Greece used to assert that any Turkish moves against Cyprus would be regarded as a casus belli; but, as Turkey’s manoeuvrings in Cyprus’ EEZ over the last few years have shown, Greece is not going to get involved militarily to protect Cyprus. Historically, Greece’s Cyprus policy, from Constantine Karamanlis, through George Papandreou, to both versions of the junta and back again to Constantine Karamanlis, was to prevent the island’s politics from dragging Greece into a war with Turkey, detaching Greece from the Atlanticist orbit and distracting the winners of the Greek civil war from their continuing fight against communism, which meant, after the military phase of the internecine conflict concluded in 1949, crushing anything that hinted at leftism or suggested accommodation with the Eastern bloc. President Makarios of Cyprus fell foul of successive governments in Athens for not showing sufficient hostility to the communist menace, which was why Cyprus in Greek politics was always a left-wing and not a right-wing – not a traditional nationalist – cause.

Cyprus has been, of course, since 2004, a member of the EU; but this is a free trade zone serving the economic interests of Germany and to a lesser extent France. If Turkey were to attack Cyprus, the EU, as a formality, might impose some sanctions on the aggressor, but the lessons of the last few years of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus’ EEZ , are that these sanctions would be limited and unlikely to deter a determined Turkey. 

Cyprus has made itself useful to Israel – and hence the USA – but there can be no illusions that if there were any chance of reconciliation with Turkey, the Israelis would drop Cyprus like a hot potato and gladly resume the relations it used to enjoy with Ankara. 

Turning to Greece and how it deters Turkey, for decades after the invasion of Cyprus Greece thought it was a core EU country and that this afforded it bulletproof diplomatic cover against Turkish aggression. 

This was exposed as a grotesque fallacy not only by the 2010 economic crisis – when Greece was served up as a sacrificial victim to preserve the integrity of French and German banks – but also by the 2015 refugee crisis, which Greece was left to deal with on its own; and, even more startlingly, by Turkey’s first manoeuvrings to implement its Blue Homeland policy, an explicit challenge not only to Greece’s sovereignty but to its very existence, which left the EU indifferent. 

Again, we would assert, following Hanson, that Turkey’s Blue Homeland policy is not about grabbing the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, the gas finds discovered off Cyprus and which potentially exist in the Aegean, but about prestige, honour, history, the longing to relive the conflicts of the past – whether it's Manzikert, the fall of Constantinople or the wars in Anatolia and Asia Minor that led to the creation of modern Turkish republic. All these factors crystallise in Turkish nationalist and Islamist fantasies of a revived Turkish-Islamic superpower to rival the pre-eminence of the unjustly maligned and betrayed Ottoman empire, the last 200 years of which saw it steadily and increasingly humiliated by aggressive Western powers and rebellious subjects, especially the Greeks.

Since the EU has proved woefully inadequate in deterring Turkish belligerence, Greece has responded to Turkey’s threats by a concerted effort not only to build its military capabilities, but to prove to others in the region  equally weary of Turkish expansionism – Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Syria – that Greece is a serious military power, willing to defend itself militarily against Turkey, which means willing to make the necessary economic, social, cultural and human sacrifices and hence a useful and reliable partner.

So, to conclude with Hanson: ‘Wars begin when aggressive powers believe that their targets are weaker, or give the false impression that they are weaker, or at least stay inert in the face of provocation… [and]… wars are deterred when all the potential players know the relative strengths of each and the relative willingness to use such power in defense of a nation’s interests. Lack of such knowledge leads to dangerous misjudgments. And war then becomes a grotesque foreordained laboratory experiment to confirm what should have been known in advance.’