George Jonas

What to do with Bismarck's "sheep-stealers"?

by George Jonas
National Post

Lecturing in Britain, Bertrand Russell liked recounting the story of a lady who bicycles on a precipitous mountain road and discovers that her brakes are failing. Fighting panic, she calms herself by repeating: "Don't be afraid. Remember, you're Peruvian."

Whenever the audience laughed, Lord Russell would remark that no one would have laughed if the lady had said: "Remember, you're British!" This was likely, as people at Russell's lectures would take British valour for granted but consider the idea of Peruvian valour comical.

Major nations scorn minor nations reflexively, as a matter of course. "Sheep-stealers" was the disdainful expression German chancellor Otto von Bismarck used for the peoples of the Balkans in the 19th century. In our days, the Western media use "cave-dwellers," not only for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but all inhabitants of the region between the Amu Darya and the Hindu Kush.

The late Daniel Bernard, French ambassador to the United Kingdom, made headlines in 2001 when his casual reference to Israel as a "sh--ty little country" hit the fan. Bernard was accused of being anti-Semitic, though beyond a reflexive French disdain for anyone who isn't French he probably had nothing against Jews.

It's common for nationals of big countries to feel superior to nationals of little countries, often in contemptuous or hostile ways, but sometimes also benevolently. Sentiments of superiority include affectionate and protective impulses, creating big-power champions for "underdog" nations, ´ la Lawrence of Arabia. Hostility comes when "sheep-stealers" disturb the equilibrium of major powers as a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip did when he assassinated the heir to the Habsburg throne, sparking the First World War, much as Bismarck anticipated. A similar thing happened in 1999 when the late Slobodan Milosevic, another Serb, tried to use brutish measures to prevent the secession of the Serbian province Kosovo. Resentment ensues when remote and barely comprehensible tribal conflicts, whether between Pashtuns and Tajiks, or Israelis and Palestinians, spill over into what big powers regard as the civilized world.

Usually major powers exploit the fears or resentments of "sh--ty little countries" by inciting them against rival major powers, or utilizing them as buffer zones. This is what happened in many regions during the Cold War. The post-Cold War era, however, saw the reverse. Major power rivalries being at a relatively low ebb, the distemper of mammoths gave way to the ambition of gnats as the main threat to peace.

When Basques, Bosnians, Chechens, Hutus, Kosovars, Kurds, Kuwaitis, Macedonians, Serbs, Tamils, Tibetans, Tutsis, Uzbeks, Uighurs and similar minor groups jockey for position (or survival) around the edges of contemporary history, it becomes the appetites and grievances of sh--ty little tribes, never mind countries, that start upsetting the tranquility of the world. Add to this the nuclear mullahs of Iran, plus the ambitions of militant Sunni or Shiite fundamentalists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, along with a nasty residual dictatorship from Marxism's high tide in the Kimdom of North Korea, and there you have humanity's tail wagging humanity's dog.

These "tail" entities don't amount to a hill of beans economically, technologically, or culturally. A few may have mattered once; the Arabs had certainly put their mark on mankind's accomplishments in mathematics, medicine, architecture, literature, philosophy, and the military arts between the 8th and 15th centuries, but when was that? Ages ago. Oil doesn't provide sufficient leverage for failed cultures in a world of alternate technologies. Islam has the weight of numbers -- e.g., if militant fanatics succeed in "hijacking" it, they can array a billion Muslims against the rest of the world -- but taken one by one, even the largest, such as Pakistan, a nuclear power, would be no match for NATO, China, Russia, or the United States.

From where the significant powers are sitting, the world's minor and often dysfunctional tribes have nothing but nuisance value. Their constructive significance is nil; their destructive significance, limitless. Their aspirations or laments constitute a menace to the stability of regions in which the major powers have finally achieved a precarious balance. If permanent members of the U.N. Security Council agreed on nothing, they'd probably agree on this, and middle powers like India, Australia, South Korea, Canada, and Japan would echo them.

By now, some of Bismarck's sheep-stealers -- notably Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan -- have, or are in the process of developing, weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear bomb in the hands of a Kim Jong-un or a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents a grave threat to life on earth, and the major powers know it.

Grievances or "root-causes" scarcely come into play at this stage. It no longer matters if some marginal countries resent major powers for valid reasons, such as having been exploited, repressed or betrayed by them, or for unworthy reasons, such as feelings of inferiority, spite, and envy. What major powers feel for marginal groups is the hostility of urban commuters for obnoxious panhandlers wielding squeegees. The 21st century may witness the squashing of the squeegee nations.