Strategic Inflection Points: Myth, History and Russian Foreign Policy

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Theoretically, an inflection point is an intersection on a curve, where the curve changes its direction. Two characteristics of an inflection point are that the change is caused by an outside agent (hence my use of the word ‘intersection’), and that the change of direction is dramatic, if not opposite, to the previous course. The second characteristic is what makes an inflection point, a ‘strategic’ inflection point. If the change were not dramatic but a mere fluctuation, it would lose the magnitude of its impact, and would therefore not be strategic. Like Grove, I believe a strategic inflection point is not exactly a point but a dynamic transition caused by the collision of an outside agent with a system, and resulting in a markedly different (sometimes opposite) re-arrangements of the constituents of the system.

I believe that the bigger the impact of a strategic inflection point, the harder, and often impossible, it is to predict. The recognition of a strategic inflection point is a hindsight process from an analytical perspective and a 50-50 wild gamble if we are more prone to intuition. The 9/11 attacks were in hindsight certainly an example of a strategic inflection point: a move from state vs. state warfare to asymmetric warfare, where a variety of non-state actors are involved. Attacks from non-state actors are not new phenomena, and cannot be qualified as strategic inflection points as such. What added the “strategic” part to the 9/11 inflection point, was the magnitude of its impact. Seven years after this event, there has been enough speculation and analysis on this subject that I believe I have few original thoughts to add to the discussion. As to Hurricane Katrina, like any natural disaster, I do not consider it a strategic inflection point. Perhaps one way a natural disaster could qualify as a strategic inflection point would be to examine it under a climate change/environmental degradation category, but this will remain outside the scope of this discussion.

What I would like to do in the pages below is look at strategic inflection points first from the perspective of a myth (the myth of Theuth as narrated by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus), then a historical event (the collapse of the Soviet Union), and finally offer a theoretical summary of the dynamics of power. The choice for my first example is based on past extensive academic research on the transition between an oral to a written culture in ancient Greece, and the role of memory in this transition. My second example pertains to my current research on Russian foreign policy, which I intend to use for the final project of this course.

Our Western tradition of philosophy and metaphysics is one based upon a system of opposites.  Many of the early Greek thinkers conceived the universe as a unity, but a unity formed by a harmonious combination of polarities, bound together by necessity:  mind vs. body, good vs. evil, speech vs. writing, memory vs. forgetting, etc.  These opposites cannot stand alone as independent entities, but can only exist and function in pairs.  The second term in each pair is thought of as the negative of the first.  Language is also rich of terms that contain their opposites in one “form”, such as the word pharmakon, which in Greek can mean both remedy and poison.  Socrates’ own death by drinking the hemlock becomes ambiguous given the dual nature of this word.  A pharmakon is then something like a catalyst for change in the power dynamics of opposites. In our strategic inflection point, it plays the role of the outside agent causing a dramatic re-arrangement of the system.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates narrates the following myth:

Socrates:  Very well.  I heard, then, at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth.  It was he who first invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing (grammata).  Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon.  Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians.  And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one: and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or the bad points of the explanation.  Now Thamus is said to have had a good deal to remark on both sides of the question about every single art (it would take too long to repeat it here); but when it came to writing, Theuth said, “This discipline (ta mathēma), my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories (sophōterous kai mnēmonikōterous):  my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom.” (Phaedrus, 274 c-e)

The art of writing is presented to the king of Egypt as a pharmakon which will improve memory and bring wisdom.  But in itself, writing has no value unless the king Thamus (another name for Ammon) accepts it.  The pharmakon comes to the king not only from the outside, but also from below.  The king’s ignorance only affirms his sovereign independence.  He does not need to write.  He speaks or he dictates his word to scribes. The god of writing, according to this myth, is a subordinate character, a kind of an ingenious servant. His gift is not only useless to the hegemonic power but it is also a menace in that it threatens its very foundation, its raison d’etre. This ambivalent figure, the god of writing, or simply writing, or pharmakon is thus both a remedy and a poison.  Writing, according to Plato, has a double dimension:  no more a remedy than a poison.  Hence, the logical objection of the king to the pharmakon as an aid to both memory (mnēme) and wisdom (sophia); under the pretext of supplementing memory, it makes one more forgetful; instead of increasing wisdom, it diminishes it. 

Applied to our argument on strategic inflection points, the outside agent has the inherent dual capacity of creating growth and decline, opportunities and threats, winners and losers. And this duality translates into something more: ambiguity, uncertainty, slipperiness, and outright deception, which make possible outcomes obscured and extremely difficult to predict. Faced with a transition point situation, a leader who needs to make urgent decisions is like the Egyptian king: he can choose to assert his hegemonic authority by disregarding the intruder or accept the challenge and try to transform it to his advantage. The choice will ultimately depend on whether the leader is the suicidal, proud hero type of the Ajax variety or the “cowardly” but sly Odysseus crop, who despite all challenges thrown at him by the Gods, eventually manages to get back to his Ithaca.

Fast-forward to 1989.

Could anyone have predicted, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet system, which ended the Cold War? Despite hindsight arguments that the collapse was predictable due to the discernible economic and political decay of the Soviet Union by the late 80s, no one actually predicted that on an early November day in 1989 people will take down the Wall with hammers in Berlin while millions of others in the satellite countries would take to massive demonstrations on the streets, in what I can describe from personal memory as mass euphoric hysteria or hysteric mass euphoria, or both. The end of the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union is certainly one of the most dramatic strategic inflection points of the 20th century. It is true that the internal decay of the system was predictable and even predicted though various channels, not least of which theoretical. Already in 1947, George F. Kennan, ironically echoing Hegelian-Marxist dialectic principles, wrote:

…the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the end of the Cold War was the re-distribution of power in the system of international relations from bipolar superpowers to…? I leave this sentence unfinished because despite the temptation to say unilateral power, with the U.S. as the dominant superpower, I believe the post-Soviet power dynamics are changing so rapidly that we should be careful not to rush to conclusions. The U.S. might still be enjoying a certain privileged position in the pantheon of international relations, but the emergence of regional powers, regional power politics, reliance on interconnectedness and interdependency as opposed to traditional allies, is quickly shifting toward a multipolar system, whose center of gravity might ironically end up being the periphery.

In this light, the end of the Cold War might be seen both as a triumph of peace over conflict or as the return to a more dangerous system, in which each newly emerged power will be willing to fight tooth and nail for a larger chunk in the power distribution system. Regardless of whether one adopts an optimistic or a pessimistic view, one thing is sure: we are in the middle of a new political strategic inflection point – a rapidly developing process of regional powers coming to parity with the established superpowers. This, according to power transition theory, signals a red alert. Power transition theory is an international relations theory developed in the late 1950s, which postulates that war is imminent when the distribution of power between the dominant state and “the challenger” reaches approximate parity. It is not a purely realist theory like other systemic IR theories in that it focuses not only on power, but also on “satisfaction” (an interesting divergent discussion outside the scope of this paper would be on the trend of happiness theories and happiness economics. One of the main arguments is that conflict will only occur if the following two conditions are present: first, “the challenger” achieves parity with the dominant power; second, “the challenger” must necessarily be dissatisfied with the existing power status quo set up by the dominant power, so that it would wish to re-write the rules of the game, so to speak. Therefore, a weak dissatisfied challenger or a strong satisfied challenger are not to be feared. The power transition theory is practically opposite to the Cold War balance of power theory according to which equality of balance keeps the peace.

Now, how can theories of power and analysis of strategic inflection points provide practical guidance to political leaders or business executives? What conclusions from the above theoretical discussion and historical and mythical analogies can we draw when looking at Russian foreign policy today and Russian leadership?

One essential component of Russian foreign policy is Russia’s view of itself, i.e. self-identity. What is Russia and who is ultimately Russian? I would like to argue that Russian identity (at least post 1917) is based on negation. Russia’s view of itself has historically been a reaction to the West, i.e. Russia has seen herself as the counterbalancing reaction to what she has labelled Western capitalism and imperialism, a sort of a global “saviour” from the evils of the West, or in the words of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz:

…a collective body, a human society, cannot be the Saviour…Guilt is individual, it is my guilt. Sin is universal – not I am guilty but society, and I can be saved not through my own effort (Grace given to me) but by the collective of which I am a particle. That’s why they [Russians] are always in search of the kingdom of God, but I placed in time, substituting for it Communism, or perhaps, in the future, another type of eschatology. (Milosz and Merton, The Letters, 28)

I was reminded of this type of “reactionism” when I read the following sentence in Grove’s book: “Intel equalled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?” (p.90) Well, how could Russia give up its identity as the “counterbalancing” force to the U.S. (and certain parts of Europe)? How can it transform itself from a reactionary to a pro-active player; one that sets the rules of the game, not merely plays by them? It would seem, Vladimir Putin might just have the “right” idea of how to do that. Whether, the West likes to admit this or not, he has managed to ride the wave of success through a transition period of the gloomiest and direst economic and political degeneration, which characterized Russia in the 1990s. By hook or crook, intelligence and agility, vision, and belief in his mission, he has managed to reposition his country in quite a favourable position in the international arena. The sustainability of his policies is irrelevant to this discussion. He has shown leadership and exceptional determination in a period of serious crisis for Russia. That he might not do as good a job in a situation less characterized by crisis, is possible. Grove remarks that “People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.” (p.92) I agree only partly. Passion is the underlying quality of a leader, and that which makes other people follow him. Hence, it might be good to have a dispassionate analyst or adviser, but when it comes to leadership, passion is key.

Grove goes on to describe his anxiety upon presenting to the people at Intel’s Oregon facility the new strategy of switching from memory chips to microprocessors, and his surprise that they took the news much better than he expected: “These people, like our customers, had known what was inevitable before we in senior management faced up to it. There was a measure of relief that they no longer had to work on something that the company wasn’t fully committed to. This group, in fact, threw itself into microprocessor development and they have done a bang-up job ever since.” (p.94) I can’t help but draw another parallel with Putin’s leadership. Again, despite Western criticism and internal opposition to his leadership methods, Putin has been an immensely popular leader. One could easily see the same type of “measure of relief” among the Russian people when he turned away from what the West considered “more democratic” policies of the Yeltsin period back to centralized, hierarchical authoritarianism thereby decreasing the level of uncertainty so uncomfortable to a people used to be ruled by the iron fist for decades, if not centuries. One Russian daily observed recently that there was communism and democracy, and then, there was a third way – the Putin way: extreme right wing nationalism (my addition). It is both surprising and understandable that the people of Russia should be so enamoured with their leader. Russia is, after all, the birth place of various reactionary, revolutionary and terrorist forces, coupled with an uncanny dose of affinity toward religious mysticism – a powerful cocktail indeed!

In summary, a study of strategic inflection points is comparable to a study on the dynamics of power. Viewed from an international relations perspective, balance of power theory seems more applicable to the Cold War era while the emergence of regional power challengers to the international status quo is better viewed through the prism of transition power theory. While on the losing side of the power coefficient less than ten years ago, Russia is rapidly regaining influence in the geopolitical sphere through strong but not necessarily sustainable leadership and foreign policies. National identity and energy security will be the two defining factors that decide if Russia is to coast through its current strategic inflection period as a winner or become a marginalized loser in the international power reshuffle.


Code word: Tom & Jerry

Further to my posts on the growing of the Hizb ut-Tahrir’s following in Southern Kyrgyzstan, here’s an article the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) just published on the spread of Islamist propaganda in the form of CDs and videotapes (alias Tom  & Jerry) by one Muhammad Amin – a passionate supporter of the Uzbek exiled Islamic radical Tahir Yoldash.

While the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement has always taken pains to disassociate itself from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), of which Yoldash is supposed to be the leader, on the grounds that the former does not support violence, it is nonetheless worth noting that in face of the “common enemy” the two Islamist groups face, i.e. the secular authoritarian regimes of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, such disassociation may not remain a permanent fixture.

For what’s worth, the Kyrgyz government has historically been a lot more tolerant to its opposition (both secular and Muslim) than its Uzbek counterpart. One thing, however, is clear, and that is support for more radical Islamist groups in the south of Kyrgyzstan is on the rise. This is sure to have increased pressure on Bakiyev’s domestic policies as well as bilateral relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Think tank on the Future of Books

Another great serendipitous find – The Institute for the Future of the Book. It’s a Brooklyn/London-based think tank dedicated to the evolution of reading and writing in the digital age.  Some of their projects include The Googlization of Everything – a book in progress that visitors to the site can contribute to, aiming at the following 3 questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google? How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge; and How has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions and states? Another book in progress project to which readers can contribute is the Without Gods project, or a history of atheism. Lewis Lapham of Harper’s Magazine has a page on the site, entitled Operation Iraqi Quagmire, which features Lewis’ comments on US foreign policy toward Iraq. Finally, a title that caught my eye because I spent the last year of my studies in Classics researching and writing on the topic of perceptions of memory and writing in the ancient world, The Gates Memory Project is a collaboration project between Flickr and The Institute for the Future of the Book. Unfortunately, this last one appears to be at a stall, with the last blog entry dating back to 2005. Nevertheless, there are some interesting posts in the archives.

“War on Terror” – Central Asia Style

A BBC video report on the rising growth of the Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan sees the tightening of religious policies and the banning of this Islamic movement as a way of the authoritarian governments of Bakiyev and Karimov to put a gag on opposition.

SFAR 1: Impacts on Kyrgyzstan Government Religious Policies in the Aftermath of the 16 December 2007 Elections

Executive Summary:
One of the most difficult challenges the newly elected government of President Bakiyev is facing is the rising Islamic radicalization and the threat it poses to secular institutions in Kyrgyzstan. It is highly likely that the government policy of tightening control over religious institutions and education will result in short-term stabilization of secular state institutions at the expense of long-term public discontent, heightened mistrust of state authorities, a strong likelihood of violence, and possible terrorist attacks.


Implications for Domestic Policy:
Toigonbek Kalmatov, head of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, has stated his intentions to adopt stricter rules on religion as a measure against the rising influence of radical Islamic groups, including re-registering and inspecting of religious associations and religious educational institutions. The newly elected government is facing three main challenges in building secular institutions in an Islamic context: (i) lack of clear legal framework for secularity, (ii) weak ideological basis for the co-existence of Islam and a secular state, and (iii) absence of democratic mechanisms for guaranteeing secularity.

The public tolerance of secularity enjoyed by a country with a large Muslim population is due to lack of extensive Islamic education.  With an increase in educational and religious propaganda activities of various Islamic groups, it is highly likely that such tolerance will quickly evaporate and become a major issue for the ruling elite’s perception of threat to state institutions and national security, which in the eyes of the government is one and the same. It is also highly likely that if Kyrgyz government authorities allow transparent democratic elections, pro-Islamic leaders and parties will win “unsavory” majority, thus undermining the secular principle of the state.

Implications for Foreign Policy:
Understanding of Islam by Kyrgyz government is similar to that in most countries with a secular orientation, including the U.S., Russia, and EU countries. The prevalent political rhetoric is a dichotomized view of Islam: the muftiate, or traditional Islam, and everything else as radical Islam. State authorities make no distinction between groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, IMU, the Salafis, and the Wahhabis. The muftiate is the largest organization in Kyrgyzstan, and it is mostly compatible with the state. Its popularity, however, is declining both as a result of its poor knowledge of Islam and its tolerant views of the secular state authorities. Instead, conservative Salafi Islam and the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which are largely incompatible with the state, are on the rise in public popularity.

As Kyrgyz government shares this dichotomized view of Islam with the U.S. and other Western governments, it is highly likely that it will continue to synchronize its foreign policy on the issue of religion with them. The renewed affirmation of Kyrgyz authorities to retain the U.S. air base outside Bishkek is a clear indication of a Bishkek-Washington rapprochement.  In the short term, this policy is likely to result in the stabilization and affirmation of secular state institutions, as well as ensure that those who are currently in power remain there. In the long term, it is likely that tightening control over religious institutions and education with the support of the U.S., Russia, and regional authoritarian-state actors, will result in aggravated public discontent, increased mistrust of the government, a strong likelihood of violence, and possible terrorist attacks.

It is likely that Islam is used by state authorities to justify its methods for disposing of its opposition. In August 2006 Imam Mohammadrafiq Kamalov was killed in a joint operation by Uzbek and Kyrgyz security services because of alleged associations with Hizb ut-Tahrir and IMU. In October 2007, independent journalist and ardent critic of the Uzbek’s government human rights abuses, Alisher Saipov, was killed in plain view, in front of his office in Osh. While both Uzbek and Kyrgyz authorities were quick to publish an official version of a connection between the two killings and the Hizb ut-Tahrir, such a connection is the least likely hypothesis.

Source Reliability: 7
Analytic Confidence: 7