My guest today is Hasan Aygun. He is a Turkish national, who has had an extensive career in international relations, global security and conflict management both as a diplomat and later as a political adviser. Hasan joined the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983, and since then, he has served abroad in various functions, including Vice-Consul, First Secretary, Head of Mission and Counsel General in several different countries including Iraq, Italy, Serbia (at that time still Yugoslavia), Austria, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.
He later became a senior political adviser for NATO where over the years he provided advice to six different four-star generals. During this time, he supported NATO humanitarian operations in places like Pakistan during the Kashmir earthquake and in the US during Hurricane Katrina. He also actively participated in Operations in Sudan and Somalia as well as in counter-piracy operations and support to the African Union.
Hasan is currently an Associate Director at Strategia Worldwide, where he advises multinational businesses, governments and NGO’s on complex risk management in conflict-affected regions with a geographical focus on the former Soviet states, the Middle East, Africa, the broader Islamic World as well as maritime and energy transportation.
We covered many different points, some of which are:
- The life of a diplomat
- The nuance of balancing national vs. local priorities in a war zone
- Reflections on Hasan’s lunches and tea ceremonies with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi
- The importance of ‘interests’ in determining whether a conflict becomes local or international
- Secondary interests as reasons why the West invaded Iraq
- Helping Bosnian refugees as a Turkish diplomat in Serbia during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- The importance of narratives propagated by ‘people you want to believe’ and ‘pack identity’ in starting and sustaining war
- Why otherwise good people do horrible things
- Post-conflict recovery as an industry
- Difficulty and lack of incentives in finding a win-win solution in war zones
- How national interests shape NATO interventions or lack thereof
- 50% of success in an intervention rests on understanding the culture of stakeholders in a conflict
- Are all societies ready for democracy?
- Why a war between the US and China is not likely
Finally, as you’ll be reminded in the introduction to the episode, here is the link for a short survey on the podcast. Thank you for taking two minutes to complete it. https://forms.gle/HzBzMeDnGuSGUJi89
I hope you enjoy the episode.
Listen to the podcast here
Hasan Aygun – The Pragmatic Diplomat
Before we get to the next episode with Hasan Aygun, I want to remind you about the survey I have put out to get your thoughts on the show so far. Thank you for helping shape the future of the Voices of War.
My guest is Hasan Aygun. He’s a Turkish national who has had an extensive career in international relations, global security issues, and conflict management, both as a diplomat and later as a political advisor. Hasan joined the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983, and since then, he has served abroad in various functions, including Vice-Consul, First Secretary, Head of Mission, and Counsel General in several different countries including Iraq, Italy, Serbia but at that time still Yugoslavia, Austria, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia.
He later became a senior political adviser for NATO where over the years he provided advice to 6 different 4-star generals. During this time, he supported NATO humanitarian operations in places like Pakistan during the Kashmir earthquake and in the US during Hurricane Katrina. Hasan also gives participated in Operations in Sudan and Somalia as well as in counter-piracy operations and support to the African Union.
Hasan also gives lectures and conferences at the African Union and United Nations of events at NATO’s education facilities and various other academic institutions. He has authored many classified papers within NATO on global security culture, religion, ethnicity awareness, conflict resolution, and country case studies.
Hasan is an Associate Director at Strategia Worldwide, where he advises multinational businesses, governments, and NGOs on complex risk management in conflict-affected regions with a geographical focus on the former Soviet states, the Middle East, Africa, the broader Islamic World, as well as maritime, and energy transportation. As a final point during my preparation for this interview, I noticed on Hasan’s LinkedIn profile that he also speaks six languages, which I find astounding. Hasan, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you very much for joining me.
Thank you. That was impressive. Hearing it from someone else. It was not easy. Let me put it forward first.
It’s an amazing profile that you have. I was blown away when I was putting together your background. I’m very humbled to have you on the show. You bring a particularly unique perspective across so many different dimensions of war and conflict. Before we delve into that extensive background, maybe we can open with a question about how it all began, what drew you into the world of foreign service and international relations all the way back in ‘83?
First, let me thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk openly, frankly, about my past experiences and how I came to the point where I am now. I loved travelling. In middle school, I decided that I should become a diplomat so I can travel and get paid. That was the idea. I started learning languages and travelling. At one point, I found myself at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I was very enthusiastic about it. My first foreign posting was in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and that opened my eyes. It’s not only cocktails with a nice glass of champagne in your hand and free travelling but there’s a price to pay. Yet I loved to pay that price because it was unique. It was an incredible opportunity to see the human interaction.
I had to go through several wars, firstly, Iran-Iraq War, and then I was Head of Mission in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. A very difficult period. At the OSCE, I was dealing with the conflicts from the breakup of the Warsaw Pact with the Soviet Union. As if these were not enough, I moved to the Caucasus and saw the effects of the Azerbaijan-Armenia War. It went on like that. I don’t know whether it was me that was expandable. If he dies, it’s okay. If he succeeds, it’s okay. I don’t know. I found myself in very unique domains, and that brought me to NATO.
For every conflict that would come up, I had some ammunition for a few minutes to give an outline of what was happening. That was the most difficult precious experience I had. It went on. It was very difficult for the family. It was difficult on my two daughters who hated my job and said they would never become a diplomat.
Here I am with this unique lifestyle and experience. I don’t regret it much because such a job gave me lots of opportunities to understand and help people. In fact, help my country as well to explain what was happening. Everything depends on a good understanding of who’s your friend and enemy, what are their priorities, and whether you can come to a win-win situation. That’s about it.
Learning languages, it is so important to understand the ordinary people. The government officials all speak the language, but they’re not telling you what they think about and believe. They are talking about government policies, and they have to stay in line. Understanding local, ordinary people on the street would give me an incredible dimension in understanding the fears, expectations, hatred, the love of people. That’s why I try to learn as many languages as I can to be able to communicate with ordinary people on the street.
Thank you so much for that broad overarching view of your extensive experience. Going back to that first war that you’ve been to, which was the Iran-Iraq War. As a young man at that point in time, eager to pursue a foreign policy on behalf of the Turkish government. You were there as a representative of the Turkish government. There are multiple competing priorities. Not only are you witnessing a conflict between two neighbouring nations, but you are now trying to also inject the strategic operational objectives of Turkey into this mix. What was that experience like?
Iran-Iraq War was a very exceptional case in which Turkey tried to be as neutral as possible. I’m not saying impartial. Neutral. Both countries were neighbours. We had a long history, sometimes checkered history, but the decision was to stay outside the war. In fact, a large portion of Iraqi oil exports were going through Turkey at that time, and it was like a lifeline for Iraqis. At the same time, the borders were open to Iran. In fact, before going to Iraq, I was part of an operation for exchange prisoners of war.
They would be transported to Turkey by Turkish Airlines, and we would provide them with some basic support for a few hours, a couple of days of food, for example. A prisoner of war enjoying his first full meal. That was an incredible experience. Someone who has not eaten properly for months or even years, first time enjoying a full dinner. That’s an experience everybody should experience once in their lives, to appreciate normal life.Everybody should experience once in their lives to appreciate normal life. Click To Tweet
At least reflect on it.
In Iraq, my job was to represent my country. Always think about win-win situations. That was the key. I had to look at the end state, what I do and how it affects the relations locally, regionally, or nationally because it’s so easy to cross the lines when everybody’s sensitive about their survival. For many Iraqis, it was a survival war, and they were much more sensitive than they would be when you talk about their leaders, decision-making, suffering, and everything.
It was very delicate to focus on the expectations of the local people and also of my own government. Balance was the key, to be trustworthy was the key. Sometimes the Turkish decision might not be appealing to the locals. The important thing was to explain to them honestly, what instructions I was getting, and why those instructions were coming in. They would say, “Why can’t you change it?” It’s not always possible for a bureaucrat to change them. Being trustworthy and honest was very important.
I managed to explain what Ankara was instructing me about and how I was putting it forward. Something unique about Iraq, I had two lunches with Saddam Hussein one-on-one. He would visit Mosul where I was posted once a year on the 8th of April. I don’t know why, but the tradition was he would have his lunch with the only diplomat existing in that city, in that area, and that was me for two years in a row. It was an incredibly unique experience to sit with Saddam Hussein around a small table, eating from the same plate, and drinking from the same glass as is the tradition in that country. Extremely unique. He was impressive.
Maybe you can explain that tradition because most people won’t necessarily understand the meaning behind that. That’s powerful.
It is a powerful tradition because they were living in tribal formations, especially since the men had to travel because they did not have any industry base. They would take their animals go to feeding areas, or they would go to different cities, different parts of the country for trade. Everybody had to go through their neighbours’ or sometimes enemies’ terrain. The tradition developed that if your enemy came to your tent, to your village, you had to treat him like a guest. Outside your territory, he was an enemy. Everybody needed this protection, and they had developed this protection of having anyone as a guest.
One important thing was that the guest should feel safe. How do you feel safe? How do you know that you’re not poisoned? They had to eat from the same plate and drink from the same glass. That was the way of showing the guest that you were treating him like one of your own family or tribe. It’s an incredible gesture, even valid these days. Believe me, the first tries were very difficult for me. “What’s going on? Why don’t I get my own glass and my own plate?” Developing that understanding that it’s a millennia-old tradition, I learned to survive it. The minute I moved to my next post, I ate from my own plate and drank it.
That’s an important insight into understanding the local cultures, the human terrain, and how the place functions, which is a principal area of my own interest. We’ll come back to that. I won’t let you get away too easily not speaking about Saddam Hussein’s meetings a little more. I’ve never met anyone who’s had one-on-one lunches with Saddam Hussein. That was during the early days or in the late ‘80s, during the Iran-Iraq War, or mid-80s.
’83 to ’85 to ’87.
He was still very much a favoured person by the West at that point in time.
He was still favoured. He was a ruthless, incredible man. What he achieved at that time was an internal piece at a very high cost for Shi’i Arabs especially, but not many were dying. Only a few were dying. If they opposed the government, the government was ruthless. The system was based on protecting the Sunni Arabs, which were a minority. Dividing and using Kurds against each other. They were supporters of the regime, paid by the regime, and those opposing the regime. Kurds had their way of getting something out of Saddam and making sure that the flow of money and goods will arrive in Kurdish areas.
Sometimes Sunni Arabs would not be able to find basic foodstuff. Kurdish areas always had them, because he had to appease them. At the end of the war, the first thing he did was attack Kurds, if you remember their history. Saddam was very powerful in defending the Sunnis, but he was not so good at making friends with Shi’i Arabs. Most of the Shi’i Arabs were under the influence of a tyrant. Ayatollah Sistani was their spiritual leader. On any occasion, they would rise against the regime, but Saddam was powerful enough to keep them under control.
West came into Iraq with some democratic ideas against an authoritarian leader, and they made a full mess out of that country. Over a million people died, a few million were displaced, and Iraq is never going to be what it was. Saddam was bad but Saddam was the lid on top of a bottle of coke, which was shaken all the time. I can say the same for Libya, for Gaddafi.
Who you also had some personal engagement.
I had a couple of occasions meeting him as part of a delegation. I had a late dinner on two occasions in his tent between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning and a tea ceremony until 5:00. An impressive, intelligent person, but both leaders never had a second man waiting in line. They were afraid of them. That’s why they took too much responsibility, and they were, in the end, killed by the weight of those mistakes they made. Sometimes it was not mistaken, in both cases, Gaddafi and Saddam, how they died was something planned outside the country.
I was hoping you’d bring that point up because that’s one of those things that perpetually confuses me. This is an important question about conflict in general, but particularly these types of conflicts over the past decades that we’ve had which many call local conflicts or civil wars. However, the more you peel back these conflicts, the more you realise that there are other players involved. It is fundamentally a geopolitical conflict played out in a very localised area because various stakeholders exist, all of whom have whether overt or covert or clandestine support from other nations. How do you unpack that? At which point does a local conflict become a global conflict?
Every conflict attracts interested parties from inside and outside. Every nation looks at what’s happening in a specific geography, whether there is a conflict, it’s going to hurt interests, or there can be some interest in being part of that conflict or crisis overtly or covertly, as you put it. It’s difficult to tell what is international or global and not. For example, the Sudan Darfur conflict. Chad, the UN, and African Union were involved, but it was never a global or international conflict because there was almost no spillover effect.
People were suffering on the ground. People were fighting and getting killed on the ground. Apart from some sympathy news about poor children and women, there was not much interest in getting involved. Globalisation or internationalisation, what a difficult word for a conflict, depends on mostly how interested other parties are.
If you have oil or other natural resources, or if you’re on a hub, let’s say of transportation of goods, then it might become easily more relevant like the case of Iraq. Iraq and Iran had oil, they could start a spillover effect for many other countries. Sometimes excuses are made to become part of it. Iraq, as I said before, was a country ruled by an authoritarian, almost crazy dictator. Yet the reason for attacking Iraq was not a valid reason. I lived in that country, and only about 4 or 5 kilometres away from my home, there was a military installation for building some weapons. Iraq was not capable of building weapons of mass destruction. The installation was built by the Polish, and the equipment came from Austria. Austrian companies and Polish companies were involved.
There was no way to rest not knowing what was happening there. I knew, and I would report to my capital. I was so close, and some of those Polish engineers and Austrians became friends. I had a very simple understanding of what was happening. When I was at the OSCE, we were getting reports from observers who were searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I met a Ukrainian journalist, and we had a frank discussion one-on-one. I said, “I lived in Iraq and I know what they’re capable of and what they’re not. What are you doing in Iraq? You’ve been there a year searching for weapons of mass destruction.” He said, “Are you crazy?” If I find something, I’m not going to tell. If I don’t find something, I’m not going to tell that either. In my country, my salary’s $300 a month. In Iraq, I’m getting $300 a day, so don’t expect me to find anything. That was a very frank opening from an ordinary person. At the capitals, the story was different. Do you believe in Washington or London? They were curious, too. Does Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not? It was a good excuse to pull in the public opinion.
That’s interesting because, in fact, I’ve interviewed a major general from the Australian Army who was part of the observer team. To put it into context, which period are we talking about? Are we talking during the ‘80s or ‘90s?
The early ‘90s.
If I remember correctly, Saddam was one of the observers there going to destroy, and according to his recollection, they were destroying what he called weapons of mass destruction. Saddam didn’t have nuclear weapons. The way I understood the major general explain it is that they did destroy what was broadly covered as weapons of mass destruction. It’d be interesting to hear how that translates because it’s interesting to hear you say that they couldn’t have had them.
The point is, almost every nation with some simple chemistry understanding, comes up with some chemical weapons. Iraqis use it on Kurds once. How do we perceive those chemical weapons as an international threat? That’s the point. Iraq had no interest in using it against Iranians for nine years in a war. Iraq was not interested in attacking Washington or London with chemical weapons they were not fully capable of. They could send a couple of agents to cause very local damage, but they were not interested.
The West used it as an excuse to destroy the whole country. I don’t know how many but they were the reason for the disruption of a whole society. There is always the question mark. One can never say 100% it was innocent or not. My personal belief in that war was there were secondary interests which were brought up. I have to say, the US failed in achieving what they were hoping to achieve in Iraq.
You made the point about oil that it was potentially a war about oil, or are there other interests that you are referring to?
One interest was to pull the Shi’i Arabs into the Western interest influence zone, giving them a chance to rule the country against the Sunni dictator. My belief is that Shi’i Arabs had more interests than what the US can offer them. We are talking about almost 1,500 years of the feeling of belonging to a family, that’s Shi’i family. In the end, the US tried very hard. They made sacrifices. Many soldiers lost their lives in that war. Now Shi’i Arabs are not American friends.
Sunni Arabs hate the West. They hate the Americans. Kurds were hoping to become independent, and they have failed so far. They are de facto liberated, but never fully. They’re surrounded by several friends neighbours who are not very good friends. It’s a mess for Kurds, for Sunni Arabs, and for Shi’i Arabs. Is that a win-or-lose situation? The same thing can be said for Afghanistan.
When the first decision to discuss pulling out of Afghanistan, I heard from a very important American admiral who said, “You leave a war zone when you win or lose.” Can anybody in this world say that we won? Nobody said, ” we won.” What happened in Afghanistan? How many people died on both sides? How many lives were disrupted? Did we win? No. It’s very tough to say whether one is right or not. If we can go back to how conflicts can become international, as I said, interests are important. History is important. Links are important.Interests are important, history is important, and links are important. Click To Tweet
Armenia, for example, in the early ‘90s won a war against Azerbaijan, and they occupied 20% of Azerbaijani soil and pushed out about a million people as displaced people who suffered for many years. Russia was behind it. Religion was behind it. That war was romanticised for Orthodox Armenians fighting against Muslims. Azeris are very secular.
When it was time for the Russians pulled a bit back, Azerbaijan had the opportunity to move in. Who helped them? Turks, very understandable. Israelis provided the suicide UAVs and Russians just set aside and said, “Unless the war goes into Armenian territory, we are not going to intervene. We just want to be part of the solution and put our troops on other Azerbaijanis’ soil after years.” That’s what happened.
Is it an international crisis? Hardly, but third parties got involved easily. The same can be said for the Bosnian war. I was in the middle of it for 2 years in Belgrade, and then another 2 years at the OSCE. I was part of the Dayton Agreement Preparation team travelling to the area of Sarajevo to Zagreb. Was it international? Apart from refugees from the area like yourself, it was not fully international.
The international players helped extend the war beyond the short crisis. Parties got involved. They helped either side and the war went on. The solution is, does it make everybody happy? No. Does anybody die on the ground? No. That’s the consolations for us. It’s very difficult to judge what is global or international. What I can say is that the effect on the ground is usually much larger if the country doesn’t have the resources that attract attention from the outside.
To bring people in to try and resolve it. Your experience about Bosnia and being the Chief of Mission in Serbia during that war, or at that time still Yugoslavia, is immensely of interest to me. Maybe we can focus on that since you brought it up. That’s a particularly interesting conflict that did have a number of international players within it. Your situation would’ve been rather unique sitting in Serbia as a Turkish diplomat.
For anybody who knows anything about Bosnian history, and particularly even the post-war relationships with Turkey, Turkey’s viewed almost as the Muslim side of Bosnia, the Bosniak protectorate in many ways. Whereas Serbia and Russia are the protectorates of the Serb population in Bosnia and Croatia, moving on to Austria, and Germany as the pseudo protectorates for the Croatian population in Bosnia. How was that for you being a Turk in Belgrade during this war?
I was an enemy of the leadership, and they made me pay for my stay in Belgrade. I found a house in a diplomatic area. The first thing they did was to empty a villa next to mine and put Arkan’s men in that Villa, Željko Ražnatović Arkan. There were maybe 15 or 20 of them living in that house, singing their historical war songs, and occasionally shooting in the air or at my satellite dish. I had two young daughters they made sure not to do anything physical. They were under strict instructions, not to cause too much trouble, but enough to disturb me.
To make you know that they’re there.
I could not get a phone to my house for almost a year. We brought wireless systems from Turkey to be able to communicate with the embassy. I suffered the animosity of the leadership, but it was professional. They once hit my official car. The truck coming by purposefully hit our car. They made the same accident against my military attaché colonel. His car was totally destroyed. These are physical activities, but morally, I had to make a distinction between ordinary people and the authorities.
That made me survive the period in Belgrade without hating everybody because ordinary Serbs were also suffering. I had a chance to help Bosnians who were reaching Serbia. We had a system of transporting them to Turkey, and the Serbian authorities were happy about it. It was some ethnic cleansing. They were happy to get rid of Bosnians. For us, it was a difficult life choice and we provided help. During that period, we managed to take out about 30,000 people.
The most interesting case was when Muslims were expelled from Trebinje. There were cases of mixed families, how they suffered, or how they became overly nationalist. A Bosniak wife would be thrown out of the family, or a Serbian husband would suffer the same date, occasionally. I tried focusing on ordinary, innocent people. I also tried to focus on stories of different ethnicities helping each other in extreme cases. There are a few stories very interesting to hear.
I would love to hear them.
If you have the time. In the Trebinje case, when they expelled about 6,000 Bosniaks out of that town, some of them made it to Montenegro. We had very good cooperation with Montenegro authorities. They did not support the militia. They blocked the militia. We managed to get about 700 Bosniaks by flights to Montenegro. Some of them were reaching Belgrade, and we were providing them with shelter, food, and transportation to Turkey.
One day, I was told that there was an elderly man and woman who wanted to talk to me personally. I said, “Send them in.” They did not want a translator. We communicated in German-Serbian. The man was a professor in his early 70s and the lady was his sister. It took them about 8 to 9 days to reach Belgrade. If you remember, there was no transportation. They made it to Belgrade. They walked. They found some local support going through Sandžak area. They made it in the end.
I said, “We are going to help you.” They said, “That’s not the point. Thank you for your help. We’ll take it. The night before the attack, our Serbian neighbour came to us, and told us about the attack. We had some savings, and it was about 60,000 German marks. We gave our money to our neighbour. We will bring it to you so you can send it to us. My first reaction was, in that wartime when pensions were about 25 to 30 German marks, whether this man will make it or not, I don’t know. I said, “I make sure to know where you’re going to be.” We put them on a bus, provided them with documentation and everything, and sent them to the Turkish border where there were refugee camps.
A couple of days later, I was told that there was a Serbian man, a very nervous man sweating at the door, who wanted to meet the Chief of Mission. I said, “Send him in.” This man came in a terrible shape, smelling, not washed. I don’t know how he made it. He started taking his clothes off. From every part you can imagine, money was coming out. He put 59,920 German marks on the table. We counted it. He said he had to take 80 German marks, he didn’t have his own money for the trip. He started crying. I said, “Thank you. I’ll make sure that they get the full amount, 60,000. “We had funds.
I wanted to give him 500 German marks. He said, “I cannot take it, because the minute I walk out of your embassy, I could get arrested. I went to your embassy, and I did not have a passport to ask for a visa. I’m going to be questioned. If they find money on me, you know what’s going happen.” We gave him some dinars, something like 100 German marks worth of dinars, and he went out. I asked my people to keep an eye. A few hundred metres later, two men got into his arms, put him in a car, and I did not hear from him until 2013.
In 2013, I had his details. We sent the money to that man and his sister. They bought a small apartment in Bursa, and they lived there until 2005 and 2008. I followed their story. In 2013, I was in Dubrovnik for a NATO event. I went to Trebinje and I found the address. He was working in the garden and I had a suit and ties out of an ordinary person. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we stared at each other for some time. I was trying to figure out whether he was he. He said, “You were in Belgrade?” I said, “Yes, I was in Belgrade.” We had some coffee and a long discussion.
He went back to his departure from the embassy. He was beaten up for 3 to 4 days and kept in a cell for another week. In the end, they thought he was not worthy of anything, so he was thrown out. He made his way back and lived as a defeated but proud person. There are so many stories like that. Similar things happened the other way around as well.
The understanding is that ordinary people listened to the official rhetoric because they wanted to believe in something. In Belgrade, many people had no money to buy newspapers. They were renting it for an hour, and they wanted to believe the official rhetoric. We are defending ourselves. While defending ourselves, we entered this town, that town. In Banja Luka, we saved ourselves to freedom. We destroyed fifteen mosques in Banja Luka but that’s normal. This is a defence against aggressors.
Ordinary people wanted to believe the government. That brings us to how the narrative of the governments or war perpetrators affects the people. Lies can only last for some time. The same happened in Serbia. Milošević, the proud Serbian nationalist was easily handed over to international authorities. Few people cried after him. Few people made noise, but the majority had the moral understanding that what happened was bad. Serbia is still a defeated country of people who are shy to discuss history. Many of them are not part of it, the younger generation, but they still feel some remorse about what happened. It’s true for many wars. You can never come out morally 100% pure.In many wars, you can never come out morally a hundred percent pure. Click To Tweet
Especially in a war like that. That’s another question that I’d like to hear your opinion on. The first part of the question, is how does that happen? This is a positive example and we need to emphasise those, and thank you for that. They gave me goosebumps, by the way. That was a powerful example. What we see or hear more often about is the neighbour turning on neighbour, which is how these wars are sustained. Firstly, how does that happen? The next part of it is, how do the narratives that you mentioned and the rhetoric that goes around the war help keep that war alive?
Personalities play an important role, but patch understanding. If you’re part of a big group, then you can easily put aside your strong moral values for the sake of belonging to one party or the other. That was the feeling. Everybody was doing it so I joined them. Even in football games, the same thing happens. Sometimes, you’re part of a supporter of a team, and you go into a brawl and you do something which you would not do when you’re alone when you’re in your true senses. This pack identity has a certain effect. Interests, if it’s a survival issue, and if there is no punishment that is visible, that play a certain role. The person may feel guilty inside, but outside, he is innocent. People lose that balance.
If, for example, during the war, your neighbour left and the car is there, what prevents you from taking it? Many people get that. The example I gave was an extreme case, but it’s worth hearing that it is good in every nation, every tribe, every clan, and every neighbourhood. The opposite was very valid as well. Think of Srebrenica. I was awake all night, and I was getting minute-by-minute reports of what was happening.
Do you believe every person who killed an innocent Muslim was a normal bad guy? No, but some of them joined the crowd and said, “This is a matter of survival. We killed them.” I’m sure many of them still feel guilty inside if they’re still alive. Yet some of them said, “It was us against them, and there are no rules.” Machiavelli, we win at any cost, and then we will feel guilty about it later. That’s the feeling.
The narrative encourages people to do things out of the ordinary. You respect your neighbour when everything is normal. If there is encouragement from the people you want to believe, neighbours, friends, family around you, then you may go out of line. Maybe 80% or 90% of the Serbs did the same. Many wanted to believe.
A small example, in early March in Belgrade, just after the severe cold, I saw an old, very fragile lady selling some tiny flowers. She was shivering. I said, “How much it is for the whole bunch?” She asked for something like $2 in nowadays’ exchange. I gave her $10 or more, and I took everything. I said, “Go back home.” She said, “Where are you from?” I said, “I’m Turkish.”
She had tears in her eyes, and she said, “Why are you doing this to us?” I said, “What?” “The war. Why are you fighting us? Why are you bringing all this calamity on us?” She was sincere. She was made to believe, and she wanted to believe that Turks, Germans, Americans, and Bosniaks were bad, and everybody else on their side was good. This is how narratives bring ordinary people to do things out of the ordinary.
It’s incredibly powerful. I had another guest previously, a philosopher, Cian O’Driscoll, and it was funny you talked about the Iraq war, because he’s researched the power of narrative as one of the domains in how the Bush and Blair administrations motivated their population to go to war. It’s a very famous idea. It’s nothing new, but particularly George Bush with the whole “axis of evil.” You’re either with us or against us. It infuses within the sentence, the words, the language, moral righteousness, and a moral judgment that we are fighting evil. Therefore, we are good. It’s a hugely powerful motivating tool to drive, encourage, and unite people because of a sense of belonging, and group identity.
When an identity is under threat, it becomes stronger. It becomes more galvanised. Therefore, this existential threat, as you beautifully summed up, is about whether you live or you die. It’s my group that’s going to protect me, which I find a hugely powerful topic that we very rarely discuss and analyse on the broader conflict dynamics. We seem to focus on particular actions of bombs fell here, bombs fell there, and we try to dissect it on a day-to-day basis, but we very rarely peel back the multiple layers of a conflict that keep it alive. This is one of them.
For the US and UK cases, it was easy for people to believe because they were not feeling the war in their surroundings. It was a distant war. Many people wanted to believe their leaders or that they were evil. The same applied to Vietnam. When the veterans and body bags started coming back, people started questioning whether the rhetoric was correct or not. In the end, the US, after losing 55,000 people, had to flee the country through the roof of the embassy. Vietnam is a normal country. Why did more than 1 million people die, gassed, and shot in the head? Public opinions react late unless they have to sacrifice themselves. The same applies to Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other wars that are far away from your home country.Public opinions react late, unless, of course, they have to sacrifice themselves. Click To Tweet
For the American or British public opinion, all they heard was Blair or Bush. They never heard what the ordinary Iraqis were going through. I had met so many people in Iraq, Shi’i, Sunni, Tucuman, or Kurds. How they suffered tells me another story. Perhaps I was too involved in the plight of ordinary people in those countries behind the front, what was happening to the ordinary people. I was very sceptical of the war on Iraq.
Saddam was not a good guy. He was ruthless, a dictator. Is Iraq better now? Is Libya better? We start solutions. We never finished them as West, in most cases. Afghanistan, we started something. In fact, in Afghanistan, the fight was against Osama bin Laden and maybe 800 followers of him. It turned into the Taliban, which was maybe 6 to 7 million. It turned into a fight against the Pashtun who are 45 million and living in three different countries.
To be aware of the culture, ethnicity, and history of where we are going is extremely important. That was one of the points you put in front of me. How do we succeed in solving a conflict? Your question was about war. Is war a relevant tool? It is. At the same time, wars have solved so few problems, or they created new ones.
We’ll come to that for the understanding of the local context. That’s hugely important. Before we move away too far from Iraq and your experiences there, I want to come back to a point that you brought up early on, because it’s relevant here. It speaks to another area of interest. You mentioned your Ukrainian friend who was earning $300 a month in Ukraine but was earning $300 a day in Iraq during the inspections. I went to Iraq as a civilian, as a contractor heading up a British development consultancy. We had interesting projects, decentralisation of governance, building civil society through social media, and even being involved in various security apparatus projects.
We often talk about the military-industrial complex, but I was amazed by the post-conflict industrial complex where that very point you made $300 a day. Nowadays that is $1,500 a day for contractors who are flying in from all around the world. I was setting up a very small company, but we were paying 1 million pounds a month for various projects. Maybe $50,000 to $100,000 of that might go towards the actual delivery of the project. The rest would be for our own security because we had to have our palmed vehicles. We had to stay in highly secure hotels and all of these hotels were charging exuberant fees. We would then fly in various consultants from far-flung places around the world who were experts in various dimensions.
Ninety percent of donors that I spoke with were largely cynical. They knew that they would be in Iraq for the next year, then they’ll go to Afghanistan, to Syria. They’ll fly across to another part of the world, and go to Venezuela or end up somewhere else because that is their life and their job. Most of them were cynical about the likely impact they would have on “fixing Iraq.” That opened my eyes in many ways because I realised this is a monstrous hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars industry that’s being poured into places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the people doing the work don’t necessarily believe that it’s going to fix anything. How is that viewed through your eyes?
In Iraq, I did not see the part of post-crisis rehab. In Somalia, I did. I was responsible for relations with the African Union during Operation Counter-Piracy. It started with Darfur. I became part of the so-called ambassador of NATO at the African Union. We had contact with the Somali leadership at that time. This is exactly what they told me. There are organisations, UN, for example, helping the Somalis from Kenya. They come to Kenya, nobody wants to come to Mogadishu.
It was not very easy, but they would stay in Kenya, earn $15,000 a month or more. They gave me similar figures. Nations talk about $100 million in aid, and maybe if you are lucky, $20 million comes here and $80 million goes back to contractors. There are conditions that the material needed should come from the aid-providing country, and the prices are fixed by the provider, not by the buyer.
That’s very unfortunate. It has become an industry for nations. Many nations ask the question, “What is in it for me?” Even countries like Norway, which is one of the biggest aid donors, ask the question. I’ve seen it in Ethiopia, for example. “We go in, but what do we get out of it? We go in, we help them, and then they’re ready to make business with the Chinese or the Americans that are more powerful nations.” It’s a dilemma. I don’t think there is an easy solution to it. Even if you provide aid to some local authorities, it’s a matter of ethics for those local authorities to make sure that people benefit.
In Africa, I am not exactly sure about the aid programs of the UN, but it must be over $800 billion in the history of the organisation, maybe more. This is a very old figure I remember. How much of it made to ordinary people? That’s the question mark. In fact, funny enough, that’s why the Chinese have been so effective in Africa. They give some money to the leaders, but they also build railroads, ports, and industrial sites. They use their own workers and materials, but in the end, something remains in the hands of those countries.
Whereas the West, when they go in, hardly make such an impact. In Ethiopia, the first paved road between two cities was built by the Japanese, and they may regret it because they didn’t get much out of that country. That’s the Chinese and the Turks. They’re very active in that country. The Dutch produce their tulips in Ethiopia. Most of the donors expect to get something out of it. They don’t mind whether the aid goes to the right people or not.
I have a personal experience in that case in Azerbaijan, when I was consul general there. Turkish foundations were offering aid to local people. My first reaction was that it shouldn’t be money because we need to give something to people that they cannot sell easily, foodstuff. We are not going to give it through the local authorities because the first month I got there, I sold Turkish foodstuff in the market with the stamp that it was aid coming from a certain foundation. We started distributing it directly to people. About 1,200 families were on our list, and we decided to deliver them directly. The local authorities were not very happy for an obvious reason.
First, the local people suspected us. They said, “Are you serious? Are you giving us 5 kilos of meat and 20 kilos of cereals or whatever? “Yes.” They said, “What is in it for you? Come on.” I would funnily put my salary into the picture occasionally because that was the understanding for people. When they would say, “What is in it?” The local bureaucrats were earning on average $50 at that time.
Now it’s a different story. I would say, “For $50 your bureaucrats can risk their jobs, but for my salary, I’m not going to risk my job for two kilos of meat or anything.” They would say, “That’s understandable. You get so much?” I say, “Yes, I get so much. I hope you’ll get the same in the future.” That’s what happened in that country. At that time, when the incentives were low for bureaucrats or local authorities, and foreign aid donors, the aid doesn’t reach the people who need it.
The Balkans are a prime example of that. From the war onwards, it was very much about individual survival. Also, those in power don’t know how long they’ll be in power. Therefore, they take what they can while they can secure their safety and security for the future. If you get a position of power, your principal goal is to get as much as you can while you are in power, because it’s a very short-lived point.
That also reminds me. There’s one I would be chastised by many of the Bosnians who tuned in to my show if I didn’t ask about, the Dayton Peace Accords. You mentioned you were part of the Dayton Peace Accords negotiations. What role did you play? You have another interesting story. What was your role in Dayton?
There’s always a major dilemma in bringing peace or stopping the fight versus a full solution to the problem. Coming to Bosnia, for example, let’s talk about Cyprus. In 1974, the UN moved in and no one got killed after that. The two parties became too lazy to find a real solution. Look at UNRWA, the Palestinian case. Can outside broad partial solutions stop the fighting as an incentive for a final solution or not? Dayton Agreement was a temporary solution. The idea was to stop killings, to stop the plight of ordinary people sufferings. It was never designed to become a permanent solution. That’s where everybody failed.
Once everybody was relaxed, “Nobody was dying. Do we need a solution?” The West did not impose anything further than Dayton Agreement on the parties. The three republics, the rotating presidential solutions, and decision-making, it’s a total failure on the part of the best to bring solutions to the crisis that is still on the ground.
Many Bosnians have left their country with no intention to go back. Who remained mostly are those who could not go out. They did not have the skills, the language. The best and brightest, in most cases, left the country. That’s a big dilemma whether outsiders, by stopping a fight, have the will or power to bring a final solution. The final solution, I’m always trying to talk about a win-win situation when nobody feels totally defeated. The same goes for Bosnia, whether Serbs or Croats or Bosnians feel that they have been treated justly.
I travelled to Bosnia because the Bosnian NATO operation and Kosovo operations were under our headquarters. I had to travel once a month to Sarajevo to talk to people and to meet the NATO force leadership there. There was no strong incentive on the part of the local authorities for a serious solution. As you said, everybody was interested in defending the interests of their respective people and not interested in coming together and bringing, for example, Bosnia into European Union. It’s sad. If three leaders in that country have an IQ of 101, they would go for a united picture and bring the European Union. Is it a magical wand to cure all the problems? No. It will be better than what it is now.
The same goes for Cyprus, if the local leaders could unite, one party is part of the European Union, but they have no access to the rest of the country. It will remain divided until both parties are part of the same family. In Bosnia, it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina but it’s not one single family. Peaceful coexistence is what they should concentrate on. We are here. We don’t have to mingle. We can be in our separate parts, but we should have one goal, to have a better life. Unfortunately, that’s not happening in most of the cases.
When a solution like Dayton Agreement was imposed from outside without incentives, it should be persuading the people to go for the common good of the whole society. You are never further away than 50 kilometres from Serbs or Croats in Bosnia. The same applies to everybody. It is such a mosaic of different beliefs in one small area.
We happened to have been there during the 2014 riots where the presidential palace was burnt. At least we were naive enough to think something was happening. There’s an uprising by people. We were standing and watching the presidential palace being burnt. We were 20 metres or 30 metres away from these riots amongst the crowd of people who were onlookers. There’s the rioting crowd doing the rioting. You turned around, and 100 metres down the road, the cafes were still open, and people were still having their coffee. Life went on as normal. When we then spoke to some of those people who sat there and watched, it became obvious that people have almost lost hope in change.
The general rhetoric was, “It’s another riot. Within two days, it will be politicised. The different parties will start blaming each other, and the actual momentum of the people will die out because they will be politicised and turned into ethnic. The Serbs will say it’s the Bosniaks. The Bosniaks will say it was the Serbs. The Croats will say it was both of the other, etc.” Therefore, people are just almost indifferent about what happens. They use the term quite often in Bosnia. I’m sure you’ve heard it the octopus. The octopus is so big and wide with the tentacles are everywhere. It is just too difficult. You cut one tentacle off there are plenty of others.
That speaks to that very point. The narratives are still there. They’re powerful. The interests are still there. The system is so complex by design because it was trying to solve a problem. It is in no individual party’s interest to resolve Dayton. Everybody in Bosnia knows that Bosnia can’t go forward until Dayton is resolved, until we get rid of Dayton, whatever that means, because it is a stifling system.
Dayton can’t be resolved because none of the parties wants to resolve it. It’s in their interest to keep their power base by “keeping the war alive” or the narrative of the war alive. The point you’re making about most of these types of conflicts. What do we do? What does the international community do? Otherwise, this is going to go on forever.
The interest in the international community to solve such problems is rather low. The UN is an interesting structure. It can only intervene if everybody agrees, and everybody would agree on the minimum common standard. In most cases, the standard is not there. The interests are low. If you are a UN mission soldier coming from Fiji or Nigeria, your interests are not fully on behalf of the local people, but different interests. You have a limited time, and you’re looking forward.
The same goes for capitals and UN headquarters. The interest to find real honest solutions is very low, unfortunately. I saw that. The organisation’s structures, the manning is not always the best. In the African Union, I can say more than 50% of the staff were there because they knew the right people back home. There are many problems related to it. Magic is a generation that has not gone through the hardships of crisis. Bosnian, Serbs and Croats at least share the same language and culture. Once the leaders of the past and past their age of reading, maybe the younger generations will have hope. This is not true for many other societies.
If I go back to Cyprus, since 1974, the Greeks are not learning Turkish, and Turks are not learning Greek. The common language will be probably English between the two communities on the same island. This goes for the Caucasus. When I served in Georgia, the initial reaction of the Georgians was to stop teaching Russian at their schools. After a couple of years, they realised that they did not have a lingua franca with their neighbours, Turks, Azeris, Armenians, and Russians.
They reintroduced the Russian language to a number of schools to keep people who can understand their neighbours. In many cases, the last train has gone and the two communities that have to live together cannot find the common ground. I still have a hope for Bosnia that the younger people will question, “Why are we fighting?” The stories and the legends will continue, “They’re bad. We are good.” After some time, maybe the interests of younger generations will prevail. This is very wishful thinking. I’m playing Pollyanna. There is a slight open chance that society may find a common way to live on the same territory. Distinct but if they can find the common good, there is still hope.
I don’t trust international organisations to bring a solution. We had cases in NATO. When Georgia and Ukraine were attacked, the initial reaction was, “Do we do something about it?” These are partnerships for peaceful countries, and they’re under an obvious attack. In fact, this was the initial reaction of the military in NATO. In both cases, we prepared our scenarios. It’s called prudent thinking because we were not allowed to make plans. It was never called a plan. It was called prudent thinking.
In Georgia’s case, when we were going through that prudent thinking, how do we provide help non-kinetic, but show that you are there? The first reaction was for Barroso, Sarkozy, and Merkel to travel to Moscow and stop NATO. We have interests. The Germans need gas from Russia. We cannot even think about opposing, forget about fighting. That encouraged Putin to go into Ukraine. What happened? Some poultry sanctions, but gas pipelines are being built and business as usual goes on. Germans sell more Mercedes in Russia than in many other countries.
As I said international organisations, including NATO, are the point of minimum common values and standards. Don’t expect much from international organisations. I worked in two of them. I was involved with the UN and African Union, and I’m more than slightly pessimist about doing something. The only case an international organisation would be effective is real defence. During the Warsaw Pact, NATO times, any attack would’ve been responded to with force.
When it was Brits fighting the Argentinians over Falkland, you know what NATO did first? They put a geographical line for areas to be considered defensive member nations. They made sure that Falklands or Southern Rim was out of NATO’s defence geography. The same applied to NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we there to defend NATO values and NATO countries?
We’ll do something out of being part of the same organisation. Certain things were considered but never fully enthusiastic about fighting the problem and winning. Turks in Afghanistan did not want to be involved in genetic fighting. They were busy with some projects. They provided support for future intended post-crisis rehab projects, but then they never got involved in the fighting. A few nations carried the burden of fighting and they lost.
This is a real perspective on the geopolitical machinations that exist. I find it fascinating that most people say, “What? Do you think that we’re going to war to help?” Most people then start “swallowing” the official story, and we still end up going to no solution, which I find fascinating. What keeps you going then? I agree. I’m young in this game. I’m perhaps still naive. I’m still a little bit idealistic, but I’m a realist enough to agree with everything you’re saying. What keeps you going?
I gave up on solving the problems to the point that there would be no conflict, no problem. I gave up on that for a long time. Instead of a sense of community, I concentrate on what I can do personally. In the case of crisis areas, I try to put my perspective presented to interested parties and then hope that something will happen. If I’m asked, that’s what I do. With our company worldwide, we can make a small impact on certain cases.
If a company applies to us for help, they are going to invest in a specific nation where there are certain risks. The first issue is to identify the risks and mitigate them if agreed upon. The idea is always to bring in a win-win situation. The local people be happy, the local authority, the company should be happy, and this is true for everything else. I do geopolitical analysis for a group of companies, the same. What are the risks? I finished a sixteen-page narrative on Eastern Mediterranean. What are the problems? I’m talking about Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Cyprus, and Greece.
There are problems there?
No. Who said that?
What an easy area to analyse.
I wrote down sixteen pages of problems and possible solutions. On paper, it looks great. I can solve any problem on paper. When it comes to the realities, it is difficult, but at least our task is to put solutions if we can, down on paper. There will be a record of it in the future. For example, Turkish-Israeli relations. It was great. Turkey was one of the first Muslim countries to recognise Israel, and we had a history of the 15th and 16th century Jews being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, coming to Ottoman soil. They were called “millet-i sadıka” which means loyal people. In Israel, about 100,000 Jews have dual passports.
As two non-Arab nations in the area, do we have anything to fight over? No. Should we have moral values about the oppressed and oppressors? Yes. Can we help the oppressed through hard rhetoric or soft power? My belief is the second one, soft power. Try to persuade and help your friends to solve their problems. There are very optimistic solutions. It is just very difficult to put all the elements into the same basket. Netanyahu once fights. Now, the Turkish president is happy with certain crises.
That keeps the public attention away from other problems. The economy in Turkey, lack of human rights, and the rule of law. There are so many objections in Turkey, but if there is an outside threat, that’s great. That’s lovely. Everybody unites against the outside threat, and unfortunately, many leaders have used it so far, and they will continue to use it.
That’s my point. At least I have the power to put what is right for me on paper, 99% was unnoticed or we say, “It’s all right.” At NATO, I always had the feeling that I was giving the right advice. The commanders would agree with me face-to-face. I don’t know what was happening behind closed doors, because they had other incentives or orders from their capitals. The way I was paid, I said, “Why would they bother paying me if what I told them was not what they expected or what they enjoyed hearing?”
My first commander said something very important. It was his first phrase, “You have to be brutally honest with me. Even if you don’t agree with me, you have to tell me that you don’t agree with me. I don’t need someone agreeing with me all the time. That means I’m right. Who needs advice if you’re always right?” That was the motto, and I have to put forward what I believe is right. Whether it makes an impact or not, that’s the big question mark.Who needs advice if you're always right? Click To Tweet
The last area I’d like to focus on, as a chief political advisor to senior NATO commanders, if I understand correctly, one of your jobs was to analyse the social, political, and economic situation, or as we would potentially call it, the human terrain. I often refer to it as the ecosystem that exists within an area of conflict. This is certainly an area that’s very close to my heart. I’m involved in a couple of courses where we’re trying to teach or trying to peel back some of these layers to try and analyse the architecture that exists within a conflict.
You’ve made a couple of points throughout our conversation about the importance of understanding what happens, and the historical context. When you’re talking about the relationship between Israel and Turkey, you brought up a couple of interesting points that are so fundamental to understanding how the relationships now exist between those two nations. To what extent do you think we invest sufficient time and resources in understanding the “ecosystem of a conflict before we send troops in, send aid in, or put sanctions or whatever it might be?
It’s extremely important. It’s 50% of success in any conflict or in any tense situation to understand your rivals. That’s one of the most important points of the American case. They usually have difficulty understanding their opponents. This is true for many other nations. You have to understand the cultural aspect, historical background, and what makes two nations kick in as France. Social structures, ethnic and religious. You cannot change ethnic, religious, cultural, and historical backgrounds. They stay more or less the same. If you understand them, then you may have a chance to build a bridge, fill the gaps between the two societies.
Political, on the other hand, depends on many more aspects. Survival of the politician, survival of the party, keeping the public opinion under context, information management, and strategic communication all kick in. In most cases, the political dimension is the most difficult one. During my lectures at the status pinnacle and Pyramid, this is NATO high-level course for preparing commanders for the NATO structure. My discussion was always based on the military. You get an order, you get the means, and you have only one thing to do, win the war or not get defeated.
The politician is a belly dancer. They have to keep the public interest. They have to think about the economy. How is my party doing? What are the polls telling me? They may change their orders, not based on what’s happening on the ground kinetically, but on what’s happening in the background. Awareness, as I said, is 50%, and awareness of public opinion is more difficult to achieve because one of the first things that, for example, in Serbia in Belgrade, was to control the awareness. People should not know what’s happening. People should only hear what the leaders are telling them.
Social media environment these days, things are changing slightly, but it is so manipulative. It’s so difficult to stop lies or stop exaggerations. I still believe that at least on the professional side, leaders should listen to people who know the adversary and people who know their own people as well. It’s not a one-way street. Unless scorch or total annihilation is possible, resistance will always come. I love a phrase the Afghans used in fighting against the West. They said, “You have the weapons. We have the time.” They had the time because every soldier who went there was immediately thinking about when they are going to leave, their loved ones at home, and their normal lives.In today's social media environment, things are changing slightly, but it is so manipulative, it's so difficult to stop lies or stop exaggerations. Click To Tweet
Awareness is key. There are so many cases of why wars will get out of hand because you don’t know your adversary or counterpart. For example, gender issues. Now we had touched it briefly, gender is an extremely important issue to understand the dynamics of different genders in different societies. Afghanistan was an important case. Americans wanted to treat Afghans as fellow Americans, male-female interaction until a Swedish gender advisor joined the cadre of SACEUR, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to advise them, “Don’t do it.” They may understand it differently.
That’s part of a solution now, to understand how the adversary, the local people will see what you are doing and will react to what you are doing. If you pet a child on the head in Thailand, that’s an offence. If you do it in Turkey, that’s a compliment. “You like my child.” It’s a matter of totally understanding where you are and what you’re doing.
In Saudi Arabia, I was at Jeddah Airport VIP, and I saw this important person at the VIP eating food and also tweaking his nose in a way. I gave him a look, which was not the correct thing to do, a bit of frowning. He said, “What is wrong? I’m using my left hand. I’m using my right hand for the food.” That was wrong of me to judge him for what he did from my perspective, but that was normal for his perspective. Unless you understand them correctly, you are going to frown at what they’re doing. It was disgusting.
It’s a great example because it’s a small example of an everyday interaction. It has the ability to ultimately destroy potentially a relationship because it is something that we would consider just inappropriate. Therefore, we have the tendency to brush that person with a certain colour the moment we see it. You make a very good point, and there are so many elements like that. You bring up gender as an example. Many soldiers on the ground would not have been told certainly, in the initial days, what the rules and regulations might be or how something might be taken out of context. It could drive and contribute to people turning against Iran soldiers, for example.
There are many cases in Afghanistan or in Iraq in different societies that misunderstanding or not understanding the local people. Even if we don’t appreciate it, we have to accept it as it is, which is tough. For Saudis, the left hand is doing the dirty work. They never shake your left hand, unless you don’t have a right hand. That’s their understanding, that’s something normal. For us can be offensive but then you have to either keep your ways to yourself and make sure that he doesn’t touch anything that belongs to his left hand. They’re careful about it. That’s the way things are. We cannot make everybody appreciates our values.
That’s one of the major problems with the West’s democratisation of societies. Are they ready for democracy? Will democracies solve their problems? Ultimately, yes. What if they’re not ready for it? Look at African countries. How many of them are democracies? Do you know how many African nations changed leadership peacefully through elections? Less than 10% of leaders are changed through fair elections by the will of the people.
If you are part of that society, will you believe in elections? Will you believe that democracy brought the right leaders? Why a 30-year-old sergeant may lead a country for 30 years? Millions of people, do they understand and believe that they have the right chemistry for that? Let’s look back to Bosnia and the three leaders that come from their societies. Are they the best or are they in there to appease certain groups? That’s a big question mark.
The last question. Many analysts are warning us now of the ever-greater risk of major state-on-state conflict because there are so many tensions around the world with a number of authoritarian leaders in various powerful countries who are all fighting for their power base and for their influence, whether globally or regionally. What’s your view? How worried are you about the future in a major state-on-state conflict?
My belief is that we have passed beyond the point of state-on-state wars, particularly the major ones, greater powers. In the US, in Washington, and in different environments I’m part of, I hear always about, China being the biggest threat, or the Russians touching our interests. We should keep on building 5th-generation and 6th-generation air fighters and this and that. At the same time, how much investment the Americans have in China? More than 1 trillion or 2 trillion? How many General Motors cars are produced in China and the US? China has a higher number. What are Chinese imports Americans are taking in?
During the pandemic, the minds of transportation communication were disrupted. Americans had a great shortage of parts. Of all components of electronics or computer science, 20% are manufactured in China. Get them out. Is it easy to replace them? No. My feeling is that interdependence is much greater than the politicians would agree upon, or the military are happy about. Interdependence has come to such a point that it’s so difficult for many nations to consider another country as a kinetic enemy.
Do you think the Germans would fight the Russians as part of NATO now? What are we talking about? Deutsche Bank has 65 billion in Russia in terms of Russian debt. Do you think Germans will fight the Russians and forget about their money? No. I don’t believe any major nation will fight a defensive or offensive war these days, and the weapons, it’s no more like NATO and Warsaw Pact were.
We had a circle. It was divided in the middle. You knew who your friends were and who your enemies were. It was easy. You knew the enemy targets. Is it possible now with cyber warfare, which is the other means of disrupting life in your country? There is no win-win situation. There is no absolute victory anywhere. American society, I’m living in it, and it is so fragile. Something happens, and the reaction is so big. 2009, economic crisis. In pandemics, about 30 million people lost their jobs because it’s so easy to send people away.
Do you think that society will go to war? The people’s individual interests are far beyond control in major countries. They can export wars to distant lands, the UK fighting the Argentinians in Poland, but the UK will never want to fight in Birmingham, Manchester, or London. My feeling is that the big state-to-state war is over. Small nations can fight. Look at the Armenian-Azeri case. In the fall war in 2020 in that area, the war never crossed the border because they were clever enough not to make it into an all-out war. They fought on the front. When one party decided that they could not keep it up, they gave up.
Leadership may change, but that’s fine. My belief is that I don’t expect China to US war. The military will push for it because there’s always some interest in being strong in purchasing weapons. The Turkish and Greek military will talk about occasionally of interests kinetic. I have followed the timelines of the Turkish-Greek conflicts. They would start late in the fall, and go through the winter months, but when it’s tourism time, the two nations would stop all those arguments. Who would want to scare tourists coming to the Aegean coasts or Greek islands? Simple, interests.
I love that. I’m slightly more optimistic now when you put it that way because what’s become perhaps clear in my mind for the first time is you’ve described, what I was talking about before, about the Bosnian war. The narratives are kept alive for the powerful to remain in power and pursue their interests. The people moved one way or another, but never to the point of open war. Yet sufficiently so to build enough momentum and power and threat or fear to motivate people into action.
That’s a good way for you to describe it, because in my mind, what I was seeing is Bosnia, but on a macro global scale between the nations like the US, China, and Russia, which is the same problem of narratives, power play dynamics. That’s a wonderful insight. I’m a little bit more optimistic now having spoken to you about that point because we are certainly in Australia, getting quite a lot of dust being raised about China-US relations. Where is Australia in there? Australia’s also had some growing tensions with China. That’s an optimistic view for the future, which I appreciate.
About 70% of the Chinese labour force is involved in export items. They think China can afford it. They have a couple of points that I found interesting. I was giving a conference in Macau and another one in Hong Kong. In the evening, there was a reception and a couple of politicians were there. Do you know the effects of Maotai, their alcoholic drink? After some bottles, one of the politicians looked at me and said, “You are from NATO, right?” “Yes, I’m from NATO.” “The US is your big boss, right?” “You can say that.” Can you tell me what the US ships are doing in the South China Sea?”
I stopped and he said, “How do we call that sea? It’s the South China Sea, right? China, right? American ships, right? What happens if we send Chinese ships to San Diego Bay? How would the Americans react?” He had a point. Again, I can ask the same question. What are the Chinese ships doing in Eastern Mediterranean, going through joint exercises with Russia about 10,000 kilometres away or more? There will be always some rattling of the sabres. It helps. When it comes to throwing that sabre, the sensible nations, and I believe those major nations are sensible, will not throw that sabre. That’s my hope, I should say.
That’s a very optimistic note to also end. Hasan, I’m speechless. We’ve been going for nearly two hours, but I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m just going to say now you will receive an invite for a second appearance on the show in the future because there is so much more to talk about with someone like you who’s lived a life of conflict in so many different dimensions. I truly thank you for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. As I said, the time has just flown by, but I do appreciate how much of it you’ve given me. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much for this opportunity. I enjoyed it and you helped me to collect my thoughts on these topics once more because sometimes, it gets too routine and I lose my focus on what I’m doing. Thanks for reminding me. One last phrase. One day I was talking in private, in a relaxed time with the commander, an American four-star admiral.
He said, “I’m tired of conflicts, wars, and tension.” I said, “Be careful about what you wish. If there was complete peace on earth, you come from San Diego, you would’ve been a fisherman. If you were a fisherman, you wouldn’t need a political advisor. I don’t know what I would be doing, maybe farming, or animal husbandry. A controlled tension, controlled crisis environment is good for people like us.” I believe almost all the military in the US, China, or Russia think the same way. This goes for the politicians. That’s my last word.
Controlled tension. I like that a lot. Again, you’ve opened up an entire list of questions in my head about where we could go from here. We’ll save that for the next time we speak. Thank you so much again.
My pleasure. Thank you.