The killing of the infidels who rule over the Islamic lands has become a sacred duty, whether it be secretly or openly, as the great Koran declares in its word “Take them and kill them whenever you come across them”.
Contemporaries of Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Boko Haram may feel all too accustomed to declarations such as these. However, these words were not composed by modern-day jihadists, but by German imperial civil servants more than a century ago. In November 1914, Berlin sought to use its sway over the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph to unleash a global Jihad ‘Für Kaiser und Allah’ against the British global hegemon.
The paradox of a member of the ‘European Club of Civilised Nations’, choosing ‘to fire the entire Mohammedan world in wild insurgency’ – in Wilhelm II’s words – against British power, raises fundamental questions. Not only about how and why German Islampolitik changed from Bismarckian indifference, over Wilhelmian imperialism, to an anti-Western Jihad. But also, about the transformation of the late nineteenth century international order, which – under Britain’s liberal hegemony – was characterised by a ‘Standard of Civilisation’ defined not least in opposition to the ‘Oriental other’.
Today as the West’s ability to maintain the rules-based order hinges once again partly on its relationship with the Islamic world, a closer look at how changes in the geopolitical basis of Britain’s liberal hegemony at the turn of the nineteenth century informed the balance between ideological and geopolitical concerns in other European capitals and their attitudes towards Islam might bear some valuable insight.
Germany moves under British hegemony
In the late 1880s British hegemony seemed at its apex. Based on its control of the seas and its dominance in world trade, it had erected a global system of power and patronage. To ‘lock in’ this favourable balance of power London had also sought to infuse the new order with a sense of values and a common ‘Standard of Civilisation’ that stratified the international order: ‘civilised’, global and liberal Britain was on the top of the echelon; continental and autocratic powers like Germany were sovereign but expected to exercise imperial restraint; ‘semi-civilised’ Islamic countries were merely granted vassal state status, and ‘uncivilised’ non-sedentary peoples had no rights at all.
In this implicit pecking order, German policy makers set out in 1888 to reach in the words of Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, ‘a treaty (of alliance) between Germany and England’. The aim was to abandon the nerve-racking diplomatic ‘juggling game’ of Bismarck’s old alliance system in favour of a more sustainable alliance with London. To achieve this objective, the new Kaiser initially pushed for a ‘Mitteleuropa’ strategy that gave priority to Germany’s continental position over imperial possessions and that in particular sought to – in the words of Marschall von Bieberstein, the then State Secretary of the German Foreign Office (since 1890) – bolster Britain’s position in the Orient to ‘counterbalance […] a French-Russian fraternisation […] precisely because the Reich is not directly interested in the Mediterranean’.
Yet, when German policy makers approached Whitehall, their advances fell on deaf ears. The flaw in the plan was that although peripheral restraint may have been the best way to forge a closer bond with London for most of the century, changes throughout the 1890s had altered the British global hegemon’s view of its potential allies. With France contesting British control over Suez and Gibraltar; Russia seemingly winning the ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia, and the United States (US) and Japan undermining Britain’s naval supremacy in the Atlantic and Pacific, ‘imperial overstretch’ had caused Whitehall to look for a burden-sharing, rather than a bandwagoning, ally. Though Germany was initially still seen in the United Kingdom (UK) as a ‘natural ally’, ‘the best means of checking tsarist expansionism (in the Middle East)’, and a partner ‘to prevent France from becoming the Mistress of Africa’, the Kaiser’s new policy of ‘great reticence’, as Paul von Hatzfeldt, the then German Ambassador in London, put it, now appeared as a refusal to engage in such burden-sharing.
Berlin did not fail to notice this shift from liberal international norms to hard power in the international system and the Kaiser concluded that the key to an alliance with the UK was now ‘Weltgeltung’ and a mighty fleet: ‘Germany suffers the lack of a strong fleet, as it cannot make herself convincingly felt in the concert’; ‘only when we can hold out our mailed fist against his face will the British lion draw back as he did recently before America’s threats.’ In 1897, Germany’s new Weltpolitik was announced, and Berlin began to build up its navy and strive more energetically for colonial possessions. The real point of this global posturing remained ‘to frighten London into an alliance against Paris and St Petersburg.’ This underlying rationale was most apparent in the Orient, where – reassured by earlier British calls for German engagement – Berlin now saw imperial penetration, for example, through the ‘Baghdad railway’ as an opportunity to secure, as Bernhard von Bülow, the then German Chancellor, put it Germany’s ‘place in the sun’ whilst ‘not … putting anyone in our shadow’.
This strategy seemed initially successful: shortly after Germany declared its change in strategy, Joseph Chamberlain, the then British Foreign Secretary, approached Paul von Hatzfeldt, the then German Ambassador in London, with the ‘wish for a binding agreement between England and the Dreibund’. In the following years London and Berlin came close to a ‘Verständigung’ in West Africa, China, and in particular the Far East, seemingly confirming Niall Ferguson’s claim that ‘there is no obvious reason why an “over-stretched” power (as Britain perceived herself to be) and an “under-stretched power” (as Germany perceived herself to be) should not have co-operated diplomatically.’ Weltpolitik’s failure to quickly produce an alliance at this juncture seemed primarily the result of contingent factors such as poor German negotiation skills, as Berlin refused to settle for an alliance limited to the periphery and wanted to hold out until a more comprehensive continental agreement was finalised. Yet, Whitehall soon felt it could wait no longer. And so, by 1902 it abandoned plans to confront the peripheral challenges and opted instead for a comprehensive strategy of appeasement there. The priority was now given to those powers who posed the most imminent geopolitical threats, seeking agreements with Japan (1902), the US (1903), France (1904) and Russia (1907).
Although the new system of alliances excluded Germany it was not intended as ‘anti-German’. In a sense, Berlin was excluded not because it was too strong in Europe and needed to be balanced, but because it was too weak in the periphery and would not have brought any additional value to an alliance. Nonetheless, in Berlin the impression was now forthcoming that – as Johann von Bernstorff, the German consul in Cairo, put it in 1907 – ‘the other powers have founded a syndicate’ against Germany; and that ‘dislike for Germany provided the patchwork for the entente cordiale’. Spurred by the Kaiser’s disappointment over Britain’s betrayal, German anxiety gave way to paranoia and its grand strategy quickly radicalised. Soon, Berlin no longer aimed to achieve an equal position in the international order, but aimed to overthrow it altogether.
Dissatisfied Germany: the beginning of German Jihad
This revolutionary turn led to a strategic reassessment of the Orient: the ‘furor Islamicus’ suddenly became the last trump against encirclement and more weight was given to individuals such as Max von Oppenheim, a rather romantic orientalist turned want-to-be spy, who was admitted to the German diplomatic mission in Cairo and who now sent memoranda to the Kaiser claiming that ‘in a great European war […] one may certainly expect an overall revolt of the Muslims in the British colonies’.
Such a jihadi utopia had little to do with realities on the ground, as was vividly illustrated by the Young Turk revolution in 1908. Initially interpreted by the Kaiser as the ‘Furor Islamicus [uncoilling] the Prophet’s green flag, in response to which “Allah” will ring out in all corners of Asia and Africa’, Marschall von Bieberstein, Germany’s new Ambassador in Constantinople, soon reported back that the revolution was in fact driven by ‘a strong sympathy for England’. After a counter- and a counter-counter-revolution, a group of young pro-German secular Turkish military men ended up at the head of the Ottoman state. Though not very pious either, the new leadership continued Pan-Islamist politics in practice and in rhetoric, primarily so as to not disappoint Berlin. The bizarre result was a secular Turkish leadership initiating ‘Holy Wars’ in Libya and the Balkans in order to satisfy a Christian power in Europe.
In London, where – with Britain’s geopolitical position secured – ideological considerations had become important once more, Germany’s bid for pan-Islam triggered distrust and paranoia. Even though British policymakers admitted that there was no solid ground for a German-Turkish-Pan Islamic scare, they now considered Berlin as ‘the only aggressive power in Europe’, and ‘a professional blackmailer’ with ‘vague and undefined schemes of Teutonic expansion’ – as Eyre Crowe, the British diplomat, put it in his famous 1907 memorandum. This perception of Germany as an illiberal ‘rogue state’ and its isolation in Europe did not make war between Germany and the UK inevitable. It did, however, increase mutual distrust, and primed Britain to relinquish its traditional role as the protectrice of the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan crisis of 1914, thus facilitating the outbreak of war.
Germany’s Jihad, following Sultan-Caliph Mehmet’s declaration in November 1914 was spectacular enough to inspire novels like John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Yet, the British approach in the Middle East, led by Thomas E. Lawrence, to employ nationalistic sentiment proved much more effective in rousing the region to war. This outcome not only illustrates the extent to which imperial Germany’s seemingly contradictory and incoherent policy towards Islam was less a product of engagement with Islam itself, than a function of changes in Germany’s relationship with the British global hegemon.
Lessons for the twenty-first century
Here, there are two takeaways for the twenty-first century. Firstly, that the sway of liberal norms and institutions over hard power are largely dependent on the existence and strength of the liberal hegemon, as Germany quickly found out. Britain promoted and enforced the former when in a position of dominance, but reverted back to the latter when its prowess was threatened. And, secondly, that the ‘geopolitics of religion’ is often less a result of religious zeal, than of geopolitical conditions and policymakers’ fantasies about how to (ab)use religion in their favour. Thus, the German fantasies of pan-Islam and British paranoia about it, proved significantly less geopolitically potent than the surging nationalistic sentiment in the region that Britain sought tap into in its war effort. To bear these considerations in mind may prove constructive in times when the UK and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies face new challenges as the American hegemon is perceived to be retreating from the global arena, when Islam faces radicalisation, and when both the West and the Islamic world increasingly face one another.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.
Despite dominating the 1980s – due to Argentina’s unprovoked invasion of the Falkland Islands – South America has been practically invisible to British strategists and policymakers over the past twenty years. Almost every other region – Europe, the Middle East, even the Indo-Pacific zone – has attracted greater British attention, not least because of the Islamist terror attacks on the United States (US) in 2001 and the resultant War on Terror. Insofar as the United Kingdom (UK) has been aware of South America, its interest was driven primarily by the drug trade in countries along the continent’s northern shore, which threatens its overseas territories in the Carribean, as well as the home islands across the North Atlantic.
To some extent, Britain’s lack of interest in South America was a consequence of the fact that the geopolitical situation on the continent was improving. During the 1980s and 1990s, democratisation swept over the continent, to the extent that there were no authoritarian regimes left by 2000. Despite a deep economic depression in Argentina at the turn of the century, economic growth was fuelling the rise of a new middle class of consumers in many South American countries. And while significant areas of chaos remained – approximately 40% of Colombia was under the control of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) revolutionaries at one point – the broader trajectory looked positive.
Capitalising on these gains, the coalition government which came to power in 2010 tried to refocus Britain’s attention on South America with the so-called ‘Canning Agenda’ – named after Canning House, a London-based institute whose aim has long been the enhancement of UK ties with South America. Speaking at Canning House, Lord Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, outlined the thrust of the new approach:
We will halt the decline in Britain’s diplomatic presence in Latin America. And I say to you very clearly as Foreign Secretary, Britain’s retreat from the region is over, and it is now time for an advance to begin.
The Canning Agenda’s focus was on boosting the economic linkages between the UK and South America – a focus that is only likely to grow in importance, irrespective of Britain’s possible withdrawal from the European Union (EU). However, back in 2010, the re-emergence of geopolitics in South America was largely unforeseen – indeed, Lord Hague even discounted it.
Strategic trends in South America
Over recent months, the violent protests in Chile have captured international attention, not least because the country was considered to be one of the most successful and best-governed in South America: since 1990, national income has risen by 524% and liberal democracy has consolidated nationally as the murky regime of Augusto Pinochet faded into history. Even in terms of inequality, Chile has made significant progress since 1990 and performs well in relation to most of its regional peers. The global media was also interested in Chile because it was due to host the Annual Summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Santiago in November 2019.
Yet, despite the global media’s attention on Chile, an array of broader, more pervasive, and more important strategic forces are starting to reshape the politics and economics of South America. These include:
- State failure, particularly in Venezuela under the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro;
- The resurgence of authoritarian strongmen, including, to different degrees, Andrés Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil;
- The onset of – in the words of the 2018 National Security Capability Review – ‘wider state competition’, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia challenge the established rules-based international system; and,
- Deforestation and desertification, especially in the context of the Amazon rainforest, which is likely to contribute to climate change, both regionally and globally.
If these strategic drivers grow in strength, what might South America look like by 2030? Based on contemporary trends, three futures look possible:
- Zones of chaos: The majority of countries in South America continue to deteriorate, environmentally, politically and economically. The vestiges of liberal democracy slide as authoritarian regimes take hold – perhaps even with a couple of 1970s-style military coups – while the outright collapse of a country (such as Venezuela) takes up regional bandwidth. Devoid of effective governance and regional cooperation, environmental degradation in the form of the accelerated clearance of the Amazon rainforest and resulting desertification intensifies, contributing to climate change globally and regionally, forcing further migration flows northwards as hundreds of thousands – even millions – of desperate people flee towards the Carribean and North America, in search of a better life.
- A predator’s paradise: South America not only becomes a zone of chaos, but a geopolitical playground – even a battleground – for the major powers to compete against one another. Indeed, the domestic chaos may create vacuums to suck such powers in, creating a vicious circle of destruction, not unlike in the past when Germany and the Soviet Union tried to pin the US down in its own hemisphere. In this future, as wider state competition intensifies, revisionist powers such as the PRC and Russia would seek to expand their influence. Similarly to its approach in Ukraine and Syria, Russia might try to deliberately destabilise South American countries to fan the fallout northwards towards the US (to generate domestic political discord and isolationist sentiment). Meanwhile, through economic incentives, the PRC seeks to ‘capture’ South American elites, in the hope that they might might realign their nations ideologically against democracy and geopolitically against the US, as well as European countries like the UK and France.
- Islands of stability: Although zones of chaos continue to exist, a handful of countries remain sufficiently cohesive to act as ‘ordering sentinels’ across the continent. These countries constrain the chaos within their neighbours and keep malicious foreign actors out, with the anticipation of creating zones of prosperity surrounding their own national homelands. These sentinels might include Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – those countries with the greatest resources and government capacity to play a meaningful regional role in South America.
But, even if the existing strategic forces are known, it is unclear the extent to which they will come together in South America to generate any of the three futures – zones of chaos, intensified geopolitics, and/or islands of order. They may also interact with one another in unpredictable ways. For example, while the zones of chaos in Colombia has been closed down in recent years with the dismantling of the FARC, another has opened up in Venezuela.
Implications for the UK
Although the Atlantic Ocean will insulate the UK from the worst excesses of future chaos and disorder on the continent, this does not mean that British strategists and policymakers should continue to overlook South America in the way that they have in recent years – the Canning Agenda notwithstanding. For starters, South America is adjacent to an array of Britain’s overseas territories, both to the north in the Caribbean and to the east, stretching from Ascension Island to British Antarctic Territory. Ascension Island is home to a British air station, which acts as an entry point to the South Atlantic and Africa; Saint Helena is the location of a new international airport; Tristan de Cuhna is broadly equidistant between Africa and South America; and the Falkland Islands – home to the largest military base in the Southern Hemisphere, looming over the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn – alongside South Georgia and the South Sandwich archipelago, are the ‘strategic gateway’ to the Antarctic.
In this context, South America’s importance may increase as Africa rises over the next few decades, not least because the majority of Africa’s population growth is projected to occur in countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea – particularly in Nigeria. According to the United Nations Population Division, the population of West Africa is projected to increase by 103% over the next three decades – from 391.4 million today to 796.5 million in 2050, an increase comparable to the current population of the EU (minus the UK). Driven by rapid urbanisation in countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea and the extension of economic connections across the South Atlantic, the two sides of the South Atlantic – South America and Africa – are likely to be joined together like never before, with the UK central to both.
Equally, South America is of vital geostrategic significance to Britain’s closest and most powerful ally – the US – with whom it shares similar interests. Ever since President James Monroe signalled in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere would be closed off to European meddling, it was the UK that used its naval dominance to enforce the so-called ‘Monroe Doctrine’. In the twenty-first century, reducing the impact of hostile and malicious external forces in South America will grow in importance. Here, it is likely that Russia and the PRC will attempt to draw the US away from their own neighbourhoods – namely Eastern Europe and East Asia, respectively – by pinning it down in its own hemisphere. Likewise, they may try to weaken UK military activity in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and East of Suez by exploiting anti-British sentiment in South American countries like Argentina, forcing London to redirect military assets towards the South Atlantic.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the growth of authoritarian politics in South America may make it harder to protect and promote the liberal values and democratic principles that the UK holds dear. As countries fall under the control of strongmen, they are less likely to support the rules-based international system, particularly in relation to initiatives designed to mitigate against the acceleration of climate change. This problem is amplified given that South America is home to the Amazon rainforest, which pulls a significant amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, cooling the planet like a giant air conditioner. If deforestation and desertification are not brought under control in Brazil, Peru and Colombia, it will speed-up the pace at which the world hurtles towards the so-called ‘point of no return’ when catastrophic climate change cannot be averted.
How should Britain respond?
South America faces many problems, which are likely to grow in the coming years as wider state competition and climate change take their toll. But the continent is not without its successes. As a global power with interests in the South Atlantic and Carribean, Britain is well positioned to play a part in helping to ensure that South America neither descends further into chaos nor disintegrates under geopolitical intrigue. In an ideal world, as the UK seeks to build on the Canning Agenda and expand its global presence – commonly described as ‘Global Britain’ – it would extend its hand to all South American nations that seek to foster a more liberal, democratic and orderly continent. By working with such countries, the UK could help them – even in the event of significant opposition – to craft surrounding islands of stability.
Map 1: Towards a new British geostrategic focus in South America
However, due to the strategic forces reshaping South America, such countries are likely to become increasingly scarce. As Map 1 shows, UK would therefore do well to target its efforts geographically, by enhancing relations with those countries that stretch down the spine of the continent: Mexico in the north, anchored to the US; followed by Colombia and Brazil in the middle, with their large populations and resources; followed by well-governed and prosperous – but relatively small (in terms of population) – Chile to the south. With a bespoke package for each, emphasising the importance of liberal democracy and environmental protection, Britain could try to assist each partner to foster a surrounding neighbourhood of prosperity, to the extent that the four neighbourhoods begin to overlap. This geographically targeted approach makes sense also in terms of the – more limited – resources the UK is likely to want to invest in South America. By focusing its attention in this way, Britain could help reduce the effect of negative forces, thereby becoming one of the most trusted external stakeholders in South America.