Thursday, August 13, 2015

Foreign Policy Realism and the Prophetic Summons: Jeremiah, Syria, Ukraine and the West

Fools rush in to apply Biblical principles to the complexities of contemporary foreign policy - an exercise which often results in the espousing of bizarre and impractical opinions, and a lack of critical analysis, making the word of God look ridiculous.

It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I offer the following analysis of Jeremiah 27 and apply it retrospectively to the current situation in Ukraine and Syria. 

In the passage cited, the kingdom of Judah finds itself invaded by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who has defeated the army and entered the city of Jerusalem. Having deposed the king (Jehoichin) and replaced him with a puppet ruler (Zedekiah), the Babylonian tyrant then forcibly removes from Judah the economic and social elite of Judean society, taking them into exile, and leaving behind "only the poorest people of the land." (2 Kings 24:14). Nebuchadnezzar, who was personally present in Judah during this military campaign, also removes the royal treasures from Jerusalem, as well as the precious metal artifacts from the Temple. 

 The best-preserved image of King Nebuchadnezzar II, standing next to one of the ziggurats built during his reign. 

Against this backdrop, the prophet Jeremiah (born c. 642 BC) addresses the new vassal king of Judah as well as the envoys of the surrounding nations - Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. These foreign secretaries have gathered in Jerusalem to discuss a possible coalition against Babylon, the new dominant power in the region.

Jeremiah's message to this would-be coalition summit is unambiguous: he urges them to abandon their plans and to submit to the king of Babylon as vassals. The following is typical of the prophet's approach:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Tell this to your masters: With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.

The consequences of pursuing the planned rebellion are severe, according to the prophet:

“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish. But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.”

On the one hand, Jeremiah is preaching a message of God's sovereignty in the rise and fall of governments and nations. At the same time, he is urging what could be seen as a "realist" approach to international relations - a recognition that the practical consequences of rebellion will be far worse than the consequences of submission and vassal status. 

It is far too easy to engage in armchair politics and analyse contemporary and complex situations from a safe distance. Nonetheless, to the extent that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are directly impinging upon Britain - military intervention against IS, trade sanctions against Russia, and the vast numbers of displaced peoples resulting from the upheavals -  it is important to have a view on our nation's policy in these conflicts, not least of all in order to be equipped to respond to future scenarios.   

Initial support from some western countries for anti-Assad groups in Syria and for pro-western factions in Ukraine before and during the Euromaiden demonstrations are matters of record. In both cases, ideological motives combined with claims that such western support would reduce the numbers of civilian causalities affected by the two upheavals. An important question to ask therefore is whether, on balance, the civilian populations of both countries are better off or worse off as a result of these rebellions, and whether on humanitarian grounds alone, western support for them has been justified, quite apart from ideological considerations.  

In Syria, the statistics of the five-year war are staggering: 

  • a quarter of a million people have been killed 
  • 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced 
  • 4 million of these have fled the country - a number equal to about 20% of the pre-war population 

The conflict has also seen widespread human rights abuses on all sides, massacres of civilians and combatants, and the rise of Islamic State who have made brutality a defining hallmark of their rule.  

Although overall casualties in Ukraine have been far lower, the displacement of over one million civilians within Ukraine, and the involvement of Russian "irregular" forces in the east of the country and the Crimea make the Ukraine crisis the most serious military situation in Europe since the Balkan Wars.    

Jeremiah's position was that submission to the tyrant provided better outcomes for the subjugated nation as a whole than armed rebellion. This claim had several related strands:

  1. The "realistic" view that it was Babylon's time to be a world power - a reality wrapped in the mystery of God's sovereignty.
  2. The "realistic" view that the minor nations of the near-middle east were going to come under Babylonian domination by the will of God
  3. The claim that subjugation by Babylon was not the same as annihilation. It was in Babylon's interest to extract wealth from its subject kingdoms, not to massacre them or render them economically bankrupt
  4. The time-limited nature of Babylonian domination. This prediction was fulfilled by the defeat of Babylon by the ascending Persian Empire under its ruler Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.

Looking at the carnage in Syria, and the fragmentation of Ukraine along nationalistic lines, it is difficult to argue against the view that. on practical grounds alone, the outcomes for the citizens of these two different countries would have been better if armed rebellion against a tyrant (in the case of Syria) or the forcible removal of an elected President (in the case of Ukraine) had not taken place when they did. Furthermore, it is hard to argue that the west's support for these developments has turned out to be in the best interest of the populations most affected by them.

Aristotle taught the virtue of slow revolutions in political life. Not all fundamental political change has to be sudden. The al-Assad regime could not have lasted for ever. The strengthening of civic society within Syria and Ukraine may have been a less dramatic but potentially more sustainable and judicious approach to supporting the democratisation of these nations.

Hard-nosed, biblically-informed realism should not be ignored when formulating policy in these complex arenas. The well-being of the people, combined with a measured assessment of the risks and outcomes, must be central to western responses. Ideology alone will deliver more pain, not less. 

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