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Monday, 1 September 2014

Postmodernism faces its first great challenge

Postmodernism seems to have become the dominant contemporary paradigm governing Western thought. I use the events in the Ukraine to show that postmodernism is facing its first real challenge - on the political front. I ask: What will come of this?

Over the last century postmodernism has slowly but steadily grown to become what is probably the most important paradigm governing Western thought. At first it was only an idea, a philosophical idea. But with time postmodernism has seemingly become the dominant paradigm in Western thinking which pervaded not only the arts and literature, but most areas of academic research and life: psychology, politics, theology and even the some of the sciences. There are some scientists in the natural sciences who still cling to the modernist paradigm, but even in the philosophy of those sciences the boat has departed to different shores (although not postmodernism).

In the public and political space postmodernism seems to govern the thinking of the world's most important leaders and a very large part of the main media outlets. The EU, where postmodernism governs the thinking of the elite, is a paradigmatic example. The same is true of Barack Obama's administration. The new manner of thinking says that all narratives are fine, all have a valid point, no standpoint is to be excluded, peace should reign, all are even (why stand outside?). This paradigm thinks of itself as representing an all-inclusive package, where all views in its otherness find acceptance in an open space of reconciliation and accommodation (except maybe those which degrade our humanity in a substantial way).

Often challenges for such paradigms arrive in the political arena. This is where the practical implications of ideas and paradigms become visible. As such, the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine presents a direct and substantial challenge to postmodernism. It is not merely that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, rejects the postmodern paradigm and tries to present an alternative (a nationalist-traditionalist perspective). It is rather that he presents a part of reality which is not included in the postmodern paradigm. And this poses the first real challenge to postmodernism. The question is: How will these events impact on postmodern thinking?

Postmodernism and reality

As with all powerful paradigms, postmodernism became part and parcel of Western thinking over a long period of time. As its name suggests, the idea behind it originally developed in reaction against the modernist paradigm which ruled the Western world from the Enlightenment into the early twentieth century. The thinker who can in my view be regarded as the father of postmodernism, is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He was the first philosopher who radically challenged modernism, and with it, the long rationalist tradition going back to Socrates. To some extent, however, his philosophy should rather be viewed merely as anti-modernist.

Although various great names, like Sigmund Freud, took a lot from Nietzsche's thinking, it was especially the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who formulated the ideas which took the name postmodernism and which became the paradigm of thinking all over the West (and even wider). Some philosophers, like Richard Rorty (1931-2007) with his easy style of writing, was influential in getting the ideas out to the American public and others around the world. 

Postmodern thinkers staged an effective reaction against modernism in leveling severe criticism against it. The greatest reason for modernism's eventual fall, however, was that it showed serious discrepancy with practical reality. In the era when the sciences were established, it seemed so natural and logical to think that one would always be able to obtain a final objective view on things. Is not science exactly the pursuit of such final truths? Final truths which show for once and for all what reality is like?

Already in Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) philosophy, who is often viewed as the paradigmatic modernist thinker (that distinction rather belongs to René Descartes (1596-1650)), it is clear that although we can obtain "objectivity" to the extent that we as humans share the same type (forms) of understanding as well as the same world, both our reason as well as our access to the world are restricted. This means that we do not have a God's eye view from which we can make final judgments - all our judgments are made from our restricted human standpoint (this is captured in the famous "Copernican turn" in his philosophy). Even in the natural sciences, for example, in quantum mechanics, we cannot do better than allowing for various interpretations.

This disconnect between paradigms arising from great ideas, and reality, can generally be attested in the history of such paradigms. Take Marxism, for example. For many it seemed like the final social answer to the class-divided world. Many great Western thinkers were Marxists. But when it was implemented in practice in Communist countries all over the world, it failed miserably. With the collapse of the Soviet-Union, Marxism effectively also ceased to be a viable paradigm.

The events in the Ukraine brings postmodernism at the same cross-roads. Again, as with so many older paradigms, it does not seem to fit reality. The reason is simple: Putin represents a view which sets itself apart from the postmodern paradigm. This demonstrates that at least some views are not only not-included in postmodernism; these views are in conflict with the basic perspectives guiding postmodernism. On the surface postmodernism seems to be exceptionally accommodating, but in practice it cannot include views which assert their own correctness against postmodernism.

Putin thinks in geopolitical terms - and the expansion of the EU, with its postmodernist paradigm, presents a do-or-die moment for him. The expansion of the EU strangles the Russian sphere of influence. It says: join us or join us. There is not any allowance for Russian geopolitical concerns, which view the EU-expansion (and its ideas) as "life" threatening. Putin represents that part of reality which stands outside the postmodern paradigm and its political goals; that part of reality which is not included in the postmodernist paradigm.

Postmodernist thinkers would not see it in these terms. They view Putin's stance as out of line with contemporary thought. They believe that Putin holds fast to outdated ideas. They believe that Russia - and the world - will eventually come around and see that postmodernism is in fact correct. If the present conflict escalates into a full-blown (cold)war, they would view the Western perspective as one worth fighting for. And if the West prevails, they would believe that such a victory demonstrates the triumph of postmodernism on the political front. It will be taken as evidence for the success of postmodernism itself.

Postmodernism as ideology

One of the typical problems with the implementation of ideas and the establishment of paradigms, is that it reveals underlying problems that would otherwise remain hidden. It shows what are the defects of such generally accepted paradigms. And as I argued above, the general defect of paradigms is that they in general exclude some aspect of reality. Since we only have a human perspective, it is impossible to obtain final proof to demonstrate that some paradigm is the only valid one (that was the main idea behind modernism!).

Often those situated in some paradigm are blind to such defects and try to enforce their paradigm as the only correct and acceptable one. Then the problem is not merely that the adherents of the paradigm regard it as the only valid view (many competing paradigms can hold to that), but that they do not allow for any discontent. At this point the paradigm becomes an ideology. In the case of Marxism the ideological implementation lead to dictatorship and total control over peoples lives. It lead to the suppression of all freedom. And this is generally true of all paradigms who become ideologies and which come in control of the resources and means to enforce implementation.

Postmodernism represents a very large house in which many and diverse alternative viewpoints have been accommodated. It presents a unity in diversity, but not an unity which includes all diversity. Since it represents mainly "alternative" viewpoints which have traditionally been excluded from mainstream thinking, it also presents an alternative to traditional viewpoints. But the alternative which is presented, does not have space for those traditional views. This is the part of reality which it can never incorporate. Although postmodernism professes to accept all narratives as having validity, the peace which it preaches can only be realized when their viewpoint becomes the final one - undisputed and taken as the only correct one.

To achieve this goal, postmodernist advocates are in a total war against its opposition: to discredit, undermine and exclude it as far as possible. Its sense of reconciliation has very definite limits: there is no place for alternative paradigms, like that of traditional Christianity, who rejects "alternative" world-views and lifestyles as undermining the basic foundations of healthy family life. In fact, it preys on broken and dismembered family members who are (largely because of the modernist paradigm) disillusioned with traditional thinking. These advocates are involved in an all-out war of ideas. Since they are in alliance with the contemporary political elite, they are in near-control of the mind-forming media. One can expect that at some point in future they will also start to reinforce their paradigm as the only acceptable one.

The partnership between postmodernism and the political elite in the EU and (partially) the US can eventually lead to exactly this outcome. We already see that postmodernism has become an ideology which is enforced through "political correctness". Journalists who are not careful to stay in line with politically correct thinking will soon find themselves out of work. Books which do not toe the line, will not be published in the mainstream press. One can think that the EU, where postmodernism is in every respect the unofficially accepted paradigm, would eventually as it grows in power also start to enforce this ideology not only in the media, but even beyond that. When it becomes the enforced norm, freedom of thinking will be sacrificed. The question is maybe not whether, but when, the EU will eventually proceed along this road?

What is the alternative?

Some philosophers seem to be stuck in the modernist-postmodernist dichotomy. They think in either-or terms. But are these real opposites or are they merely opposing paradigms. Are there any other road - even if it is the one less traveled? There are in fact such alternatives. An important alternative is the one presented by Kant, namely the "transcendental idea" (as I will call his basic philosophical idea). One cannot really call it a paradigm because it has never developed into a generally accepted paradigm, in spite of the enormous impact that Kant's thought had on Western philosophy. The main reason for this is that for most of the past two hundred years Kantian studies was dominated by the two-object view which supposedly finds all sorts of inconsistencies in Kant's philosophy. Over the last half-century there has, however, been a dramatic repositioning in Kantian thought with the general acceptance of the two-aspect view.

According to the transcendental idea, there are ideas (say, scientific theories) which fit our observation of reality, but only within certain constraints. We can obtain a good fit between our conceptual structure and the external world around us given in perception. We can, however, never achieve a fit between our ideas and the world as it really is outside those constrains. The fit between ideas or paradigms and reality can, therefore, never be final. One often finds opposing paradigms which are dogmatically asserted by their proponents, but which do not capture reality as it really is - and which effectively "says to much" about the world. It affirms things that cannot be proven.

Modernism and postmodernism can be viewed as such opposing paradigms. Although postmodernism has brought a very effective criticism against modernism, the same can be done regarding postmodernism. In both cases the paradigm says more than it should: Modernism believed we can obtain one final and objective truth, postmodernism believes that all possible truths are included in its truth. In fact, both these extremes are too restricted to capture the whole truth - or the world as it really is.

Kant showed that we can bring such opposites into conflict and in that way discover solutions which, although they cannot be proven to be true, may in fact be true. In this way we create space for various valid possibilities. In fact, one of the most important outcomes of the conflicting positions discussed by Kant, is the possibility of saving "freedom". We can in general take this as the free space in which paradigms can compete. This would allow all possible paradigms to freely compete in the open space of the market place of ideas. Viable ideas would present themselves as worthy competitors. Restricting this space is a typical sign that the adherents of that paradigm who do this do not have confidence that their own view would be able to survive open competition.

On the market space of ideas rational discussion and practical demonstration should freely compete. And those ideas which are better, would carry the day - if this space is not loaded to favor one over the other. Although absolute freedom is obviously not obtainable (there are always certain paradigmatic structures imbedded in society which developed over many years), this space should involve freedom to promote one's views without being persecuted (there are obviously certain limits to this, for example, child pornography etc.). Although we can respect all views (maybe rather the persons holding those views), this does not mean they are all worthy of our consideration. We can at the same time argue that some are better and even that one is correct - even though we, from a human perspective, would never be in a position to prove that in a final sense.

The problem with the present situation is that this space is severely restricted by the affiliation between postmodernism and the political elite. Only those ideas which are in line with postmodern thought are accepted and allowed in the public media. Only certain viewpoints are heard on TV, on radio and in the main papers. When the traditional viewpoint is presented, it is often not by sufficiently accomplished persons and it is always attacked vehemently by the proponents of postmodernism. Often a caricature is made out of it. What we see is not a free space for ideas (although the main papers would often say that it is!), it is rather a war zone where the postmodern ideologists try to gain as much field as possible.

In my opinion the present conflict in the Ukraine demonstrates that postmodernism is not all-inclusive and can never be. The fact that this conflict between the West and Russia is also cast in ideological terms in the mainstream media (especially in the EU) could eventually lead to a perceived victory for postmodernism if the West win in any future escalation of the conflict. This can strengthen the ideological impulse in postmodernism circles leading to even stronger enforcement of its view.

At some point along the way freedom can give way to effective dictatorship, although under a different name. Then their enemies would be cast in the role of enemies of reconciliation and accommodation. Since the postmodernist house is so large, it could easily lay claim to the whole space, and try to eliminate all who reject this paradigm. Since traditional Christians would surely find themselves on the outside, their breathing space could become extremely small. Although this would exhibit the failure of postmodernism in its ideological dictatorship, there would probably be nobody to to appreciate this.


In this essay I discuss the present challenge that postmodernism faces on the political front in the confrontation between the EU and Russia over the Ukraine. I am not a supporter of Putin; I merely show that his stance demonstrates the shortfall of postmodernism. Postmodernism have been victorious over modernism, but this victory can easily lead to the dogmatic assertion that this is the only valid and acceptable paradigm. In fact, this is already thought to be the only "politically correct" view for the media to promote. When this paradigm is eventually enforced as an ideology, it can easily, as has so often happened in the past - think of Marxism - lead to loss of freedom for alternative paradigms and even dictatorship.

I obviously do not know what will eventually happen. As such this essay is like a time capsule, like a letter in a bottle. It refers to things in the distant future. It refers to the time when the EU project has transformed itself into a powerful force on the world stage - maybe even a great and powerful empire [1]. Only then will the ideological impulse behind postmodernism become visible for all to see. But then there will maybe not be anybody to appreciate this final failure of postmodernism - except those who will face the full force of its might. As such, this essay will be forgotten long before it becomes relevant. And who will then read it?

[1] Click on  The European Union: forever rising
I discuss the transcendental idea in the framework of hermeneutics in the following essay:
Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible: a hermeneutical perspective

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The European Union: forever rising

The election of Jean-Claude Junker on 15 July 2014 as president of the European Commission represents a very important moment in the long rise of an unified Europe. With this event the EU has effectively become a parliamentary democracy, not too dissimilar from Germany. It signals the beginning of a new phase of unification and integration. With Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi,  we can expect that this integration will eventually lead to the formation of the United States of Europe. I discuss the implications of Junker's election as well as the long-term prospects for the EU. I also discuss the eschatological implications.

It is said that the best way to hide something is to place it where nobody can miss it. So often something important happens and most people do not even take notice. Something like that has just happened - some major news channels did not even report on it! A new parliamentary democracy has arrived on the world scene. A new giant has been born. The EU has just elected its first leader. Although there are still a lot of denial, and most commentators have not yet understood or at least spelled out the full implications of this event, a new day has arrived in the long march towards a truly unified union in Europe.

The election of Jean-Claude Junker as president of the European Commission may seem to be just another day in the EU where so many things happen all the time. In fact, it is not. It signals a dramatic shift in power in the framework of the EU away from the European states to the European Parliament. After a long process which took decades to accomplish, the EU has eventually become a parliamentary democracy - not too different from Germany, for example. And this is not the end of the road; it signals the beginning of a new phase in the unification and integration of the European Union.

The resilience of the European project

Doomsayers have often forecasted the decline or end of the European project. I remember the time when the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union as well as the Euro, was signed in 1992. In the period before that treaty was agreed, the Anglo-American media often said that the European project would not succeed and that it was just a matter of time before it becomes derailed. After the treaty was signed they went ballistic. It was a step too far, too soon, they said. For months they moaned and groaned.

When the economic crisis of 2008-12 stroke, there were again many voices - especially in the Anglo-American media - who predicted that the EU or Eurozone would break up or at least that it would become a declining power. And again, these academics and commentators have been shown wrong. Instead, the crisis provided the impulse for further integration and both the Fiscal Compact (2012) and the Banking Union, which was recently agreed, was the direct outcome of that crisis. Although the British leader strongly resisted both the Fiscal Compact and Junker's election, the rest of the union (with the exception of the Czech Republic) proceeded in the face of this fierce opposition with these steps towards an "ever-closer" union.

Although the EU has reached a certain limit on the road to the stated goal of "an ever closer union" with the Treaty of Lisbon (signed in 2007), it has at the same time started with a new phase towards further integration. That treaty, which increased the power of the European Parliament and created the posts of President of the European Council as well as High Representative for the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also signaled the end of the road for Britain. The long process which started with the signing of the Treaty of Rome 1958 had come to its climax. It would not be possible to take all the EU countries further on the road to more integration. But that treaty also contained the seed for a new phase in the unification of Europe.

Junker's election

After the implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon the center of power in the EU was still firmly in the hands of the European Council, comprised of all the leaders of the states in the EU. This means that the countries which belong to the EU were to a large extent in control of the processes involving the EU. Although they had to involve the European Parliament in discussions about most issues, they could make the important decisions. Especially, they could decide who the leader of the European Commission would be. The commission introduces most of the initiatives in the union as well as drafts for laws to the European Parliament. Now, this has changed.

In the run-up to the last European election, some leaders in the European Parliament introduced the idea of "lead candidates" ("Spitzenkandidaten"). Each party nominated a "lead candidate" to lead them in the election campaign, with a general agreement that the candidate of the party who won the election would become president of the commission. This is also how the German parliamentary system operates. Although the EU treaties do not say anything in this regard, there is also no reason why it could not be done - as long as most countries went along with it. Junker was nominated as the candidate for the European People's Party (EPP) to which the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (the Christian Democratic Union) also belongs. When that party got the most votes in the election, Junker effectively became the first choice for President of the European Commission (if he could win the necessary majorities in the European Council and the European Parliament).

Although the European Council was at first reluctant to accept the outcome of the Spitzenkandidaten process, pressure from all over Europe (and especially from within Germany) swayed them to nominate Junker on 27 June as candidate (for the first time a vote was necessary in this regard; Britain was outvoted) - which effectively means that they had given up on their right to nominate that leader. In future the choice of the people of Europe, who elect not only the various parties to the European Parliament, but also the candidates for the post of President of the European Commission, will decide this. The EU will therefore in future have an elected President of the European Commission who is elected in exactly the same manner than the German Chancellor. The only other requirement would be that such a candidate must have a ruling majority in parliament. Junker managed that also: on 15 July he was elected by a large majority in the European Parliament to become the next president of the commission.

An important shift in power has happened in the EU. The leaders of the countries which comprise the European Council have lost their powerful hold over the European Commission. In future the president of the commission would not serve their interests per se, but rather that of parliament. Although Junker presented his program for the next few years to the council, he also held meetings with all the parties in the European Parliament to convince them that he would take their interests into consideration. He is therefore especially responsible to parliament. If he looses his majority in parliament, he would also loose his job.

Although the European Council suggests candidates for the various posts on the commission, the final decision must be negotiated with the president-elect of the commission. These candidates must also appear at hearings of parliament who decides if they are suitable candidates. Since the commission is henceforth responsible to the European Parliament (via their president) and the laws which the commission proposes are negotiated in close consultation with parliament, the MEC's (Members of the European Parliament) would probably gain the upper hand in this process. Although the parliament does not initiate laws on their own as in other parliamentary systems, they have gained effective control over this process.

We can therefore say that the EU has become a parliamentary democracy where parliament elects the president of the commission and is directly involved in the whole process of law-making. In future, the President of the European Commission will effectively be a "prime minister", the commission will operate as the executive arm (i.e. like a cabinet), the European Council will operate very much like an Upper House or Senate whereas the European Parliament is effectively the Lower House of Parliament.

As elected president of the commission Junker would have more power than the various leaders of the EU, even the German Councillor, since he is duly elected to that post! Whereas they are elected merely in their respective countries, the president has been elected by all the peoples of the EU. Junker himself is a very experienced politician, who was the prime minister of Luxembourg from 1995-2013 and headed the Euro-group from 2005-2013. He has both the authority (being elected) and the experience to stand up to the leaders of the EU countries. With him the EU would become a coherent and powerful force on the world stage.

The future of Europe

When the leaders of the EU agreed to nominate Junker as president of the commission, they also accepted that some countries, like Great Britain, would not participate in any further integration. They agreed that the expression "ever closer union" in the EU treaties allows for different paths of integration for different countries. Countries like Britain who do not want deeper integration, therefore do not have to participate in any further integration, but can also not stop other EU countries from pursuing such a path. This means that the future EU would incorporate various levels of integration, with Britain (if she stays in the union) at the lowest level.

In his acceptance speech in parliament, Junker spelled out what he has in mind for his term at the helm. He accentuated that further integration would take place in the framework of the Eurozone. He said that the countries which share the euro must have their own budget and be "represented by one single chair, one single office". We can therefore expect that a single post for Eurozone affairs would be established - maybe even in the next few years. He praised those European leaders who in the past played an important role over a dynamic period of EU integration, namely Jacques Delors, Francois Mitterand, and Helmut Kohl - the commission president, and the French and German leaders, respectively. On the other hand, Junker has previously mentioned that he is willing to renegotiate Britain's position in the EU. So, while the Eurozone would begin another process of integration, some countries in the EU, like Britain, would become even less integrated. This will eventually lead to different zones of integration in the EU.

In my opinion this new phase, which has started with the election of Junker, will eventually lead to the United States of Europe. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who is one of the leading lights in the EU after his good performance in the last EU elections and who just took over the rotating presidency of the EU, presented his vision for Europe in his State of the Nation speech in May 2014. He called courageous leaders to work towards an United States of Europe: "For my children’s future I dream, think and work for the United States of Europe". He appealed to EU leaders to show "not in the cold language of technocracy, that a stronger and more cohesive Europe is the only solution to solve the problems of our time.”

The formation of a true United States of Europe would take many years to construct. The period from the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1958 to the implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon took more than 50 years. We can expect this new phase, which effectively started with Junker's election (since the European Parliament will now start playing a more dominant role), to also take many years to complete. But eventually some countries in the Eurozone will also, just like Britain now, reach the limit of their willingness to surrender more power to Brussels.

I foresee that eventually there would be a third phase in European unification and integration. This is the phase when the United States of Europe would become an empire. In this regard Europe would proceed in the same manner than Britain and the US (and many others before them) who first became unified entities (Scotland joining England in the union of Great Britain; the northern and southern states joining after the Civil War) and then became empires (who would dispute that the US is effectively an empire although they do not always show the same enthusiasm to project power?). Until now the EU only projected soft power. I believe that the new phase that has just began would require the EU to also develop a hard component in its power projection. Countries like Germany would slowly but steadily leave behind their reluctance to engage military. In the empire phase, this projection of hard power - in an ever more unstable world - would become dominant.

One can expect that the empire phase would start in the same way than the current phase, namely with a change in the leadership structure of the united states in Europe. Although Junker's election provides the EU effectively with a prime minister, this role falls far short of the power that the presidents of France or the USA, for example, has. They do not only have control over the day to day affairs of their countries (this role is often assigned to a prime minister who stands under the authority of the president); they also have effective control over foreign and military affairs. In my opinion the United States of Europe would also eventually appoints (or elects) such a leader, be it an executive president, king or even emperor. We should not forget that Europe has an unique history in this regard going back to the Roman Empire. It is possible that future generations would see themselves as the heirs to that empire.

Which countries would proceed along this road? These would be the countries that are the most willing to relinquish sovereignty. These countries would be those who are willing to join their economies and eventually join forces politically. In this regard we can take the countries who are willing to introduce a financial transaction tax (FTT) as barometer. They want to introduce a tax which is supra-national and would create a European tax-base. This is one of the most important characteristics of sovereign states: they can tax their citizens. On 6 May 2014, ten out of the initial eleven participating member states (all except Slovenia) agreed to seek a "progressive" tax on equities and "some derivatives" by 1 January 2016. They aim for a final agreement later in 2014.

Eschatological implications

Christians have been expecting for many centuries that the Roman Empire would be reborn at the end of days. They interpret the prophecies in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation in this manner (see [1] for the different views). Although we are definitely not even close to that happening, it seems that the developments in the EU are slowly but steadily moving in that direction. There can be no doubt that Junker's election is a very important step along that path. If my interpretation is correct, we have just entered a totally new phase in the unification and integration of the EU which can lead to the formation of the United States of Europe in accordance with many pronunciations in this regard (Renzi is not the only EU leader talking like that) and eventually to an European empire.

At this stage those who are skeptical about the eschatological dimension could argue that it is a mere coincidence that Europe is rising again. This can be the case. Over time the picture would become clearer. The prophecies referred to give particular details - and we can watch out for the time when those things start happening [1]. These details include the appearance of ten leaders/countries at the helm of a re-established Roman Empire (i.e. the ten "horns/toes" of the prophecy) as well as the Antichrist who will appear in the period directly before the second coming of Jesus Christ. Although many antichrists have appeared in the past, it seems that the prophecy speaks of a particular person who will appear right at the end of days. I do not think that the appointment or election of a president (or king or emperor) to lead a  future United States of Europe would be the Antichrist, but I do think that the growth of that empire could eventually lead to the point where such a leader appear.

The problem for our generation is that these things lay in the distant future and it is unlikely that we would live to see it happening. The type of evidence that could possibly sway the skeptic would therefore not be forthcoming in the near future. The success of the unification of the EU, in spite of great resistance and against all odds (i.e. contra many predictions in that regard by learned academics and commentators), are, however, a good reason to be open-minded and to not dismiss this possibility out of hand. The fact that so many other countries have followed exactly the same path to become empires (in the last few centuries: Britain, the US), with the difference that Europe has a great history in this regard, seems to suggest that the EU could very well also proceed along that path. If we take the Roman history of Europe into account, it seems quire possible that future generations could take inspiration from that. They could eventually view themselves as the descendents of that great and mighty leaders (Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar etc.). All of this seems to suggest that we have good reason to think that this interpretation of the prophecies is correct and that they will eventually be fulfilled in this manner [2].


The election of Jean-Claude Junker as President of the European Commission is a very important moment along the way towards an "ever closer union". Although it might seem to be just another event among many others happening in the EU, it is in fact a water-shed moment. Power has shifted from the leaders of the EU states to the European Parliament. The EU has effectively become an elected parliamentary state. This introduces a new phase in the integration and unification of the EU which will probably lead to an United States of Europe. Although many doomsayers have predicted the end of the union or the Eurozone as we know it, I have consistently said over the past three decades that we will see exactly the opposite, namely that the EU will become stronger and stronger (based on my interpretation of the prophecies). This is exactly what has happened until now.

I have divided the long road towards full unification into three phases. The first phase resulted in the formation of the EU with a powerful European Parliament, a President of the European Council as well as a High Representative for the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The second phase, which started with Junker's election, would lead to the formation of an United States of Europe. The last phase would lead to the rise of an European empire, which could view itself as heir to the Roman Empire. It is within this context that the Biblical prophecies regarding a re-established Roman Empire may go into fulfillment. Although this would clearly take many years to happen, it seems that we have good reason to think that it would eventually come to pass.

[1] The rise of the final world empire: the different views
[2] Bible prophecy: predicting the distant future?

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

An introduction to ancient Sumerian religious literature

Readers of this blog will know that I have posted various essays in which I made reference to the ancient Sumerians and their influence on the Biblical tradition. In this essay Johan Coetser discusses the ancient Sumerian religious thinking in more detail. He gives special attention to one of the first literary documents ever produced, namely the Kesh Temple Hymn. The oldest copies of this poem, which belongs to the genre of songs glorifying temples, date back more than four thousand years to 2600 BC. This gives us some insight into the ancient world where Abraham's family lived more than a thousand years before the time of Moses.
‘‘[T]he efforts to achieve and ensure divine presence took the form of building temples’’ - Thorkild Jacobsen
About 5500 years ago the Sumerians settled in southern Iraq on the alluvial plain between the two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris. There they established the world's first urban civilization centered around the great city of Uruk. The Sumerians are remembered, among other things, as the people who were the first to write. The first traces of writing appear in about 3500 BC and took the form of pictographs on clay tablets. Gradually these developed into the well-known cuneiform script that produced the first know literature by 2600 BC.
At first the script was mostly used for administration and business purposes. Soon afterwards, however, the earliest wisdom sayings, like The Instructions of Shurrupak, as well as religious literature, like The Kesh Temple Hymn, were produced. Unlike today, these documents were not meant to be read by the wider population since very few people could read and write. Instead, this was the privilege of a small literate elite who spoke the Sumerian language and used that script. As part of the curriculum for trainee scribes they studied and copied these early documents.
The documents that the Sumerians produced more than four thousand years ago provides us with an unique opportunity to peek into the minds of those ancient people. One of the genres produced by the scribes was temple hymns, of which the Kesh temple hymn is an example. Four fragments of the hymn were found at Tel Abū Salābīkh in Iraq dating to about 2600 BC [1]. Over the next 800 years this document was continuously copied and by the time of the Old Babylonian period (c.1800 BC) we have a hymn that shows little difference from the archaic copies.
The Kesh temple hymn describes the temple dedicated to a goddess called Ninḫursag or Nintu. Ninḫursag was one of the four great gods/goddesses worshiped in ancient Sumeria, together with Enlil, An and Enki. The name Nintu refers to her role as goddess of birth-giving. In the hymn her temple is described with various metaphors which capture its glory and glamor. It tells how the head of the Sumerian pantheon, Enlil, originally gave permission to build the temple. The hymn describes the various parts of the temple, the gods living there and the personnel who served them.
Ancient temples were more than a place of worship; they were part of the economy of the city where they were situated. Temples held vast tracts of land worked by slaves and freedmen, producing surplus grain. They gave loans in silver, employed women as weavers and sold the products. The kings gave offerings to the temples and many other worshipers gave dedications. The priests administered oaths between parties and kept business records for merchants. They themselves also participated in trade. Temples were central to the Sumerian civilization and had a variety of functions. The most important, however, was that temples served as places of human-god interaction.We will now discuss this in more detail.
The use of metaphor in the Kesh hymn
One of the important aspects of Sumerian poetry is the extensive use of metaphor. The Kesh hymn is no exception. Various metaphors and similes are used to describe both the temple and the goddess [2]. Naomi Miller said it well: "Metaphors were basic to Sumerian poetic expression" [3]. Hirchman, following in the Jungian tradition, suggests that metaphors were born from the deepest human psyche: "Humans were now able to think metaphorically: archetypes became cognitively available to us [4]. And Moser suggests "Analyzing metaphors thus not only gives us tactic knowledge and mental models which shape the individual understanding of the self, but also the cultural models provided by language to express individuality, self concept and the 'inner world'" [5].
Although the Sumerian metaphors includes a far wider domain than we can reconstruct, the language of the Kesh hymn gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of those ancient people. It allows us to see something of their world. We can explore one of these metaphors used in this hymn to depict the temple, namely that of the boat. We read that the temple is
"Like the princely Mag-ur boat floating in the sky
Like the pure Mag-ur boat provided with a ...gate
Like the boat of heaven, foundation of all the lands
Cabin of the banda-boat which shines from the beaches..." [6].

The image of a sickle-shaped boat floating in the sky brings the moon to mind. The reason is that the so-called Ma-gur boat belonged to the moongod Nanna (also called Suen/Sin). This boat was used to take the yearly produce from the city of Ur to the temple of Enlil, which was situated in Nippur [7]. The waxing and waning of the moon depicts fruitfulness. This corresponds with the temple as a place of fruitfulness and production, linked to the changing seasons.
The mythical theme of the voyages of the gods are depicted on many cylinder seals [8]. The image of the moongod’s boat would have meant a lot more to those ancient people than to us. The partial glimpse of the meaning of the metaphor allows us to see that the idea of fertility was important to the Sumerians; in fact it was crucial for their survival. Droughts and floods were a real threat that could lead to famine. They needed the goodwill of the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. As such, the image of the Mag-ur boat moving on the canals that crossed the land, spreading the bounty of the harvest in its wake, depicted the temple as a source of fertility.
These are some of the ideas behind the complex metaphor and similes of the Sumerians of which the full meaning is still inaccessible to us today. We can, however, see that the idea that the gods were the source of fertility, was crucial in the mind of these ancient people. The temple was the place where god and human could meet to negotiate the god's favor and blessing on society.
Music in the Kesh temple hymn
Music played a very important role in worship all over the ancient world. The Kesh temple hymn was therefore also meant to be sung [9]. We learned a lot about this aspect of their worship from the Cylinders of the priest Gudea, who lived in the city of Girsu in the south of Sumeria during the end of the third millennium BC. He even had a director of music. Needless to say, music features prominently in a temple hymn that he wrote for the temple of the god Ningirsu [10]. We read in the hymn
"With his divine duties,
namely to soothe the heart,
to soothe the spirits
To dry weeping eyes:
To banish mourning from the heart...
Gudea introduced his drum, Lugal-igi-uš,
to lord Ningirsu" [11].

The purpose with the recitation of the hymn was to invoke the presence of the gods. The great Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen writes: "Poetry was another means of invoking the presence of the powers, for word pictures, too, created the corresponding reality" [12].
The Kesh hymn mentions music made both by singing and the use of instruments
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub (verses)...
  • The pašeš beat on the (drum)skin...
  • The bull’s horn is made to growl;
  • The drumsticks are made to thud.
  • The singer cries out to the ‘ala’ drum;
  • The grand sweet ‘tigi’ drum is played for him.
  • The house is built; its nobility is good [13].
Singing hymns of praise comes naturally to us. This was also true in ancient times. Music was part of the pageantry of the rituals that involved offerings to the gods. One can say that the music in itself was an offering to the gods. It allowed humans to conduct ritual actions vital to the well-being of the country.
Various instruments were used, especially various kind of drum. Other instruments included the harp, lyre and various kinds of flute. Sir Leonard Woolley found a beautiful lyre decorated with a bull’s head in excavations at Ur in 1923. It is currently to be seen in the British Museum. Instruments were important enough to merit their own names as we can see from the quotation from the Cylinders of Gudea where the drum is called Lugal-igi-uš. All this was done with the worship of the gods in mind and to secure human prosperity. To have the gods on your side meant no famine or foreign invasions.
The temple was a place where the gods were invoked to help humans prosper. Daily offerings were made to keep the gods happy. The Kesh hymn also mentions this
"The temple consumes many oxen.
The temple consumes many sheep" [14].

The offerings were administrated by a plethora of priests. The Kesh hymn mentions a remarkable number of different types of priests working in the temple. Even the man playing the drum was considered to be a priest.
  • Whose nu-eš priest are the sacrifices to the E-anna (E = house; anna = of heaven)
  • The lugalbura priest...stepped up to the temple
  • The good en-priest..held the lead-rope suspended
  • The atu priest held the staff
  • The ...brought the gathered waters [name missing in text]
  • The... took his seat in the holy place [name missing in text]
  • The enkum bowed down in prayer.
  • The pašeš beat the (drum) skin.
  • They recited the e-šub and uru-šub verses [15].
After invoking the presence of the gods, it was time to placate them to do their duty toward humans. The reason why the gods created humans was that they can provide the gods with food and drink. Elaborate meals were offered at least twice a day before the cult statue of the god. This included drink-offerings. The god's image was enclosed by a curtain, allowing it to eat and drink without being observed by humans. When the god was finished eating, the meal was taken to the royal table for the king to eat [16]. This act of worship was not available to ordinary citizens.
Wealthy persons had small statues of themselves made, inscribed with a prayer, which they placed before the cult statue. This allowed them to offer continuous prayer before the god and ask for blessings. The offerings maintained the relationship between man and god and kept the blessings flowing. Failure to do this could be catastrophic, causing the god to abandon the city - with horrifying consequences. The offerings and rituals had to be maintained at all times in order to keep the gods happy.
One of the most important types of priests was the En priest/priestess. The most famous among these was the princess Enḫeduanna, who became the En-priestess of the moongod Nanna at Ur during the early years of the Akkadian period (c.2300 BC). This post was so important that it was held only by members of the royal family, who in this case was a daughter or sister of the reigning king.
The name Enḫeduanna means "lady gift of heaven". She is the first known poet in history and became famous for her poetry [17]. The En priestess lived in the so-called giparu (holy precinct) at Ur and was the human mate of the god [18]. Her primary duty was to pray and intercede for the life of the king. On a secular level, she also administrated the large estates of the giparu. Some of these priestesses, like Enannatumma and Enmegalanna, were later worshiped in their own right [19].
Ninḫursag of Kesh
We can now meet the lady (goddess) of the Kesh temple, Ninḫursag. Her name is usually interpreted as "lady head mountain". It has also been proposed that the name could be translated as "lady of the mountain of the gods" [20]. In the Kesh hymn she is also called Nintu. As such, she represents the goddess of birth. In the hymn she is depicted as sitting curled up in the cela, the most holy part of the temple
"Ninḫursag, like a great dragon, sits (in its) interior
Nintu, the great mother, has brought about its birth
Ninḫursag, its lady has taken a seat in its..." [21]

The goddess is here depicted as a snake or dragon. The Sumerian word for dragon is ušumgal and means literally "great snake". Much later, in Greek times, the word drakon was still used to describe a great snake [22]. The temples of goddesses were also sometimes described as great snakes, as we can see in the collection of Sumerian temple hymns by Enḫeduanna
"Keši, valient (city)...of heaven and earth,
Like a great poisonous serpent, installing fear,
house of Ninḫursanga, built on an awe inspiring place" [23].

The snake was associated with the underworld and the earth. Even in Greek times the snake remained a symbol of the underworld. It was especially goddesses who were linked with snakes [24]. The snake was a powerful symbol for regeneration, because it sheds its skin from time to time. As a symbol it was used as a metaphor for the fruitfulness of the earth and was especially apt for the goddess of birth-giving. The use of the snake as a symbol for regeneration goes back to the Neolithic age (the new stone age c.8000–4000 BC) and continued as a metaphor for regeneration until Greek and Roman times.
In our hymn, however, the goddess is not only described as a snake, but also as a lion. As Nintu, the ‘great mother’ she was responsible for the ‘birth’ of the temple
"Keš tempel borne by a lion,
whose interior the hero has embellished,
Nintu, the great mother has brought about its birth" [25].

Inside the temple, in the cela (most holy), was the cult statue made of wood and plated with gold and/or other precious metals.The idea of being born was also applied to the cult statue, which was given life through a ceremony called mis pi or "mouth washing". On this occasion the equipment of the artisan who made the statue was ceremonially thrown into the river - while he proclaimed that his hand did not make the statue [26].
After receiving the spirit of the god, the cult statue became the living embodiment of the god, who, at the same time, remained present in heaven. Great care was taken of the statue because of the fear that the god could leave it if it was damaged. The statue was dressed in costly robes. People visited it to present their petitions, in the same manner that they petitioned the living king. On certain occasions the statue would travel by barge or chariot to visit the cult centers of other gods.
The cult statue was the supreme focus of the temple and stood central in the worship of that god. It was hidden from profane sight in the cool depths of the cela, adored in secret, away from the bustle of the wider public. If the city lost a war, the cult statue was carried away in captivity to the victor’s land. When this happened, it was necessary to restore the cult statue to secure blessings for the city again.
The heavenly dimensions of the temple
The Sumerian temple had a cosmic function, bringing heaven and earth together.While the top of the temple was in heaven, the bottom was anchored in the abyss [27]. The Sumerians called the abyss ‘abzu’, envisioned as an underground sweet water lake. It was the realm over which the god Enki ruled. It has been suggested that the temple was pictured as a boat adrift on the water of the abzu [20]. The Sumerians also used the metaphor of a mountain to express the temple's cosmic dimensions: the temple was rooted deep in earth with its top reaching like a large mountain high up into heaven. We read (about the Kesh temple?)
"Growing up like a mountain, embracing the sky...
Temple, great shrine reaching the sky
Great, true temple, reaching the sky
Temple, great crown, reaching the sky
Temple, rainbow, reaching the sky
Temple, whose platform is suspended from heaven’s midst
Whose foundation fills the Abzu..." [28]

At the end of the hymn it is reaffirmed that the temple was the place where man and god interacted. Although ordinary citizens could not enter the temple, they benefited from its presence in their midst. The temple was the source of abundance and divine blessing, bringing heaven close to the realm of man:
"To the city, to the city, man, approach!
To the city Keš, man, approach.
Its hero Aššir, man, approach!
Its lady Nintu, man, approach!
(well) constructed Keš, Aššir, praise!
...Keš, Nintu, praise!" [29]

The duty of the priests was to ensure that the gods were happy; that the lines between heaven and earth were kept open. In this regard they functioned similar to the retainers at the king’s court. The cult statue was treated as a very real and important person. The god in the statue was the source of all blessings to the larger community. Although ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter the temple, and there was a huge distance between cult and citizen, they still benefited from the gods presence in their community. They worshiped from afar and only saw the god on special festivals and when it was brought forth to visit other gods.
The Sumerians, however, also worshiped their gods in a more personal manner, namely as the personal gods who were worshiped by particular families. These gods spoke for the individual in the council of the gods. They trusted in their personal gods for their daily spiritual needs. Being discarded by your personal god meant great suffering. You had to do everything in your power to live in peace with your god.
It is clear from this short journey through the Kesh Temple Hymn that those ancient people did not share our religious mindset. The gods were awesome personages who had to be carefully handled to prevent them from becoming angry and withholding their blessings on which the city depended.
Music and ritual were part of their lives; they kept the gods happy with offerings. Cult statues were revered like a king or queen and treated with great respect. The metaphors that were used to describe temples and gods had meanings for the ancient Sumerians which we can only partially access - as we can see from the metaphor of the boat. Since ancient times worship of the gods were very important for the well-being of the state. Disasters that befell the city were the consequences of botched relationships with the gods. A whole genre of lamentation was developed in response to this, namely to soothe the angry deity’s heart and to lure him/her back to his/her place in the temple.
The ancient Mesopotamians did a lot to maintain good relationships with their gods and feared the consequences if such relationships broke down. The fall of a city like Ur (the city of Abraham), which was sacked by the Elamites (c.2004 BC), was ascribed to the goddess abandoning the city. She did that because a decision was taken in the council of the gods to destroy the city.
The Kesh Hymn gives us some insight into ancient Sumerian religious thought and how different it was from modern conceptions [30]. This should serve as a warning that we should be careful not to read ancient texts like the Bible as if they were written from a modern perspective. Although this is the world that Abraham left behind when he moved to Canaan, the Biblical worldview still has more in common with the ancient world of the Sumerians than with our own.
[1] Alster, B.1976. On the earliest Sumerian literary tradition. Journal of Cuneiform studies 28 (2):112.
[2] Ehrlich, C.S. 2009. From an Antique land: An introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature. p22.
[3] Miller, N. 2013. Symbols of Fertility and Abundance in the Royal Cemetary at Ur. American Journal of Archaeology 117 (1):128.
[4] Hirchman, E.C. 2002. Metaphors, archetypes, and the biological origins of semiotics. Semiotica 142 (1):316, 317.
[5] Moser, K. 2000. Metaphor Analysis in Psychology - Method, theory and fields of application. Forum Qualitative Soziafforschung/ Forum Qualitative Social research 1(2).
[6] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A. L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p168.
[7] Ferarra, A. J. 1973. Nanna-Suen's journey to Nippur. p203-5.
[8] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p7.
[9] Galpin, F. 1937. The music of the Sumerians and their immediate successors the Babylonians and Assyrians. p51.
[10] Polin, C. 1954. Music of the Ancient Near East. p160.
[11] Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E., Robson, E., & Zólyomi, G. 1998. The building of Ningirsu’s temple (Gudea cylinders A and B). The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature ( lines 1048-1057.
The Cylinders of Gudea contains the longest Sumerian temple hymn. It tells about the building of the Eninnu temple for the god Ningirsu and is dated to c. 2100 BC.
[12] Jacobsen, T. 1976. The Treasure of Darkness: A history of Sumerian Religion. p15.
[13] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p239.
[14] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p171.
[15] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p174.
[16] Schneider, T.J. 2011. Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian religion. p104.
[17] De Shong Medeaor, B. 2009. The Sumerian Temple hymns of Enheduanna: Princess, Priestess, Poet. p19.
There is debate about the authorship of the works attributed to Enheduanna. I believe she wrote the poems herself.
[18] Black et al. 2006. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. p316.
[19] Weadcock, P.N.1975. The Giparu at Ur, in Iraq 37 (2):101-104.
[20] Personal conversation with Willie Mc Loud.
[21] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p173,175.
[22] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p2.
[23] Sjǿberg, W. 1969. The Collection of the Sumerian Temple Hymns, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed) Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p22.
[24] Ogden, D. 2013. Drakon: Dragon myth and Serpent cult in Greek and Roman worlds. p6.
[25] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p172.
[26] Walls, N.H. 2005. Cult image and divine representation in the Ancient Near East. p57,63.
There is some debate as to whether temple buildings should be understood in terms of birth giving or not.
[27] Edzard, D.O. 1987. Deep-rooted skyscrapers and Bricks: Ancient Mesopotamian Architecture and its Imagery in, M. Mindlin, Geller & Wansbrough (eds). Figurative language in the Ancient Near East. p13.
[28] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. p167,169.
[29] Gragg, G.B. 1969. The Kesh Temple Hymn, in A.L. Oppenheim (ed). Texts from Cuneiform Sources. P175.
[30] Readers who are interested in reading the full text of the Kesh Temple Hymn can google The Electronic Text Corpus of The Sumerian Language.

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For essays in which the Sumerian influence in the Bible is discussed, click on
Adam and Eve: were they the first humans?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Is A Third World War Brewing?

In this essay I discuss the possibility that the current situation in the Ukraine and Syria would escalate into a third world war. I take the model of war and peace cycles, the current international geopolitical game and the situation in Syria into consideration. I also discuss the when-question.

The year 2014 is both the 100th commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 as well as the 75th commemoration of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And suddenly talk of war is back in the air. Suddenly, after Russia's annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine on 21 March, Europeans and others around the world are suddenly considering the unthinkable: war can once more encompass Europe and even the world.

Western leaders have reacted in saying that Russia's actions are a breach of the post-Cold War security arrangements on the continent. The acting Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has accused Russia of wanting to start a third world war. He told his interim cabinet in remarks broadcast alive: "The world has not yet forgotten world war two, but Russia already wants to start world war three... Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe".

Although the world is certainly at this stage not even close to a third world war, it is surely in order to consider the possibility of such a war. We have become so used to peace that the possibility of war seems unreal and even farfetched. There is, however, good reason for informed readers to give it serious consideration. Long before the present escalation of conflict in Ukraine I wrote that we must seriously consider the possibility of another great war, comparable with the First and Second World Wars, breaking out in the next few years [1]. I based that on the work of one of the greatest minds in the history of political thinking, namely professor Nicholas John Spykman (1893–1943) of Yale University.

In this essay I consider strategic, geopolitical and historical reasons why another great war is a real possibility. In this regard we should not only focus on Russia; we should consider the bigger picture in the world. This picture includes the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the standoff with Iran as well as China. We should consider the likelihood of broad network of strategic alliances being formed between opposing factions without which such a war would not be possible (although regional wars would obviously be possible). Only when all these aspects are integrated into our considerations, are we in a position to evaluate the current threat to world peace.

War and peace cycles

In 1942 Prof. Spykman published a study entitled “America's Strategy in World Politics”, sponsored by the Yale Institute of International Studies. In this he made the astonishing claim that war and peace follow a cyclical pattern. Although there are many wars in the world, he arranged them (especially those in which the British participated) into a pattern, showing that for the past 150 years (at that stage) all major wars could be classified into three types, with one of these, the truly great wars, somehow adhering to a cyclical pattern. In my own study I have confirmed that this pattern persisted even after the Second World War and statistical analysis predicts that, if this is true, then the period around 2014 is the most likely date for another great war. This does not mean that such a war will break out this year; rather, it suggests that if there is indeed such cycles of war and peace, then another great war can be expected in the next few years. 

I first discussed these war and peace cycles and the possibility of another great war breaking out in the next few years in my book Die Arabiese Opstande (2011). In early 2012 I posted a more detailed analysis of war and peace cycles on this blog [1]. In that essay I considered the last 100 years in some detail, focussing on the characteristics of both the war and the peace phases of such cycles. In this period I found four war and peace cycles, commencing on average every 25 anew, which adhered to the same characteristics. The great wars during this period were the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the climax of the Cold War (which had some unique characteristics due to the fact that the opposing powers both had nuclear weapons). 

In all these wars there were worldwide networks of opposing military alliances which included all the major powers in the world. Britain's participation in such wars was subsequently replaced by that of the Anglo-American establishment, about whom another well-known historian, professor Carroll Quigley, wrote the very informative book The Anglo-American Establishment (1949). This alliance holds to this day and NATO became its military arm. The characteristics of the war and peace phases of these cycles which I discerned in my previous analysis are:

The war phase of the cycle typically commences with a financial crisis, followed by a recession/depression and a period of economic stagnation. Thereafter occurs a great war against one of the most important imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. Sometimes the initial crisis is followed by short period with some economic growth, but eventually it results in a recession, after which the war starts. During the war there is a concerted effort (not always successful) to restrict and reduce the power of their most important political and economic competitors and to promote the Anglo-American political-territorial interests. A new balance of power is also established with the purpose of keeping the most important role players in check.

The peace phase starts directly after the war. It is typically characterized by a post-war recession (a “reconversion crisis”), followed by a prolonged period of economic growth and boom. During this period some mild economic downturns may occur, but on the whole it is a long period of growth. Although it is called a peace phase, some of the other types of war (mentioned earlier) do occur during this period, through which the scene for the next great war is set up. During the peace phase the objective is to include as many countries as possible in the framework of world trade with the purpose of maximizing the gains of the Anglo-American financial magnates, who pursue a policy of free trade.

In that essay I came to the conclusion that Iran would be the primary opponent in such a war for the simple reason that it poses a major threat for Anglo-American interests in the Middle East which are closely interwoven with that of Israel. And the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon makes them a soft target. But this does not mean that Iran would be the only country involved in such a war. For it to be a major war, compared with the ones mentioned, other major powers will have to be involved also. In this regard Russia, with its close ties with Iran, would seem to be an obvious partner as part of the network of military alliances opposing NATO in such a war. Russia's possible involvement, as well as that of other countries such as China, must, however, be considered in geopolitical terms. 


Another important aspect of the war and peace phases, is the play between stability and instability during those phases. The peace phase is characterized by a stable balance of power between the world powers, with the winners of the previous great war dominating the scene. When the war ends without a clear winner among the great powers, such stability rests on the even balance between those powers (for example, after the Vietnam War when the West and the USSR were evenly balanced). Towards the end of this phase, however, some of the other powers become real imperialistic competitors of the Anglo-American establishment. 

During the war phase, which typically commences after a great financial and subsequent economic crisis (these economic crises were in 1907-8, 1929-33, 1957-58, 1980-82, 2008-9), the world suddenly becomes more unstable. The reason for this is that the stable balance of power in which one superpower dominates a mono-polar world (empirical Britain or the US) or two powers are evenly balanced in a bi-polar world (the US and USSR), makes way for a multi-polar world in which various players actively participate in the pursuit of power - when the great powers try to maneuver themselves into positions of power. This happened before all the great wars which I mentioned. It is now happening again with the other powers sensing that the Great Recession has damaged the financial power of the West and with it its ability to project power. And they are preparing strategies to assert themselves in ways unthinkable a few years ago.

One of the most important factors which determine such actions are geopolitical concerns. This is when countries take geography into consideration in their political ambitions to expand and project their power. Again, in this area Prof. Spykman is probably the most important thinker of the past century. His theory of "containment" to this day plays a central role in the thinking of all the war strategists of the major powers. I discussed his theory (as well as those of Mahan and Mackinder) in an essay that I wrote earlier this year (posted on 2 February) in which I focused on the present international pursuit of geopolitical power [2]. 

In my discussion of the major players in this game, namely China, the EU, the US and Russia, I mentioned that the eastern expansion of the EU has placed enormous geopolitical pressure on Russia and that the eastern partnership program of the EU, had it been signed with all the earmarked countries (the Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), would have contained Russia beyond the Ural mountains. I wrote that "such a Russia is effectively stripped of all geopolitical possibilities to expand its power". Since Russia is cornered, one should not be surprised by the "strong armed" tactics of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. No wonder that (shortly after my writing) Russia initiated its program to take control over the Crimea, where its Black Sea fleet is stationed in Sevastopol. This followed directly after the successful uprising against the Russian-favored Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

 I will not here repeat the things discussed in that essay (which is now even more relevant than before). In the same manner that Russia is strangled by the expansion of the EU, China is encircled by US allies or partners (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia). In the same manner that Russia has annexed the Crimea, China has also annexed certain reefs in the South China Sea in recent years. In November 2013 China even proclaimed a new air defense zone which includes the Senkaku islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) which belongs to Japan. In January 2014 it further announced that it would this year take over control of the Philippine-occupied Pagasa island (the second biggest island in the Spratlys). 

The main difference between Russia and China is that Russia is a declining power, struggling to keep its options for future power projection open, whereas China is a growing power who's strategic interests are coming more and more in direct conflict with that of the US. China's rise would result in it becoming a major sea power (see the mentioned essay) and its projection of power into the East and South China Seas will become more asserted. Both Russia and China are at a paradigmatic moment regarding their geopolitical interests and would use every possible opportunity to take control of surrounding areas which they consider of strategic interest. If they work in concert, and initiate sudden moves which do not endanger US core interests, thinking they can get away with it (testing the waters), the worldwide situation can easily escalate towards more confrontation. 

The recent 400 billion dollar agreement between these countries, according to which Russia would supply China with gas for 30 years, must be seen in this context. This can be the beginning of closer ties between these countries against the US and its allies. Russia is clearly preparing for war insofar as its military budget is concerned, which has just surpassed that of the US in GDP terms. For a large scale confrontation with the West, to try and secure its geopolitical interests, Russia would need China; China can gain a lot from such an alliance in its growing confrontation with Japan and other Western allies and partners in that region. 

 The theater of war

We should not see the events in the Ukraine in isolation. Russia is not only under pressure in its own backyard; it is also under enormous pressure in the only other important part of the world where it still has some influence after the fall of the USSR, namely the Middle East. There its partners Syria and Iran are under great pressure. Syria is involved in a civil war and Iran is strangled by sanctions. In a certain sense the conflict in Syria stands at the center of the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West. If the Syrian regime falls, Russia will not only loose its Mediterranean naval base at Tarsus, it will be effectively excluded from the Middle East (except for its relation with Iran). This is why Russia so fiercely defends its ally, both in the UN Security Council and on the ground where it provides the Syrian regime with weapons and even training. 

Already in December 2011 in an essay on this blog I predicted that Russia would stand by Syria and that it would not follow the path of the other Arab Spring countries where revolutions had been successful (that is before the counter-revolutions in some of those countries). I also mentioned that Iran would probably become involved and that the Syrian conflict can eventually escalate into a wider Middle Eastern war. Although other neighboring countries have not thus far become directly involved, Iran did and today the Iranians play a very important role in steering the Syrian war effort with its allies Hezbollah and other Shiites from Iraq. As in the case of Russia, Iran also has a lot to loose would the Syrian regime fall. Not only would the important Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Shiite axis, which allows Iran to project its power all over the Middle East, be broken and its ally Hezbollah be left isolated, it would also make it much easier for the Israelis to attack Iran on its home ground. 

I seems to me quite possible that the conflict in Syria (which includes Iran) could eventually become the theater where the next great war begins - if it comes to that. Although such a conflict would also play of in other areas of the world (near Russia or China), I think the epicenter would be in the Middle East. It seems very unlikely that such a conflict would ever be fought on Russian soil (because of its nuclear weapons); it is, however, very possible that it would, at least in part, be fought in Syria and Iran. Not only are Russia and Iran already supporting the Syrian regime, the West are slowly but steadily increasing its support for the rebels. Over the last few months funding, weapons and training of certain moderate rebel groups have strengthened their relative power in rebel circles.

In a major foreign policy speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama recently announced a five billion dollar “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to train local forces in the Middle East and Africa. Obama reversed his past opposition to large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels and said that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a counterweight to radical Islamist groups. The US, Saudi-Arabia and others are already training the rebels for some time in Jordan (at least since 2013) and the CIA played a major role in establishing Brig.Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an important leader of the Free Syrian Army, in the Golan town of Quneitra. They have also started providing the rebels with heavy weaponry.

The Syrian conflict and Russia's involvement in the Ukraine would probably with time become closely intertwined. The US would try to force Russia's hand in Ukraine with threats of providing the rebels with even better weapons. We can see Obama's speech in these terms. Furthermore, Russia and Iran are not only close friends which are involved in the same conflict in Syria, both are now also under Western sanctions. This would bring them even closer to each other and it is quite possible that Russia (and China) would in future break ranks with the West on Iranian sanctions if the nuclear negotiations do not succeed. Russia and Iran also recently announced a 20 billion dollar oil-for-food deal and they are in talks about another 10 billion dollar energy deal. One can easily see how Iran can become part of a Russia-China-Iran axis of powers opposed to NATO.

When can such a war be expected?

The important question is: If the war and peace cycles and geopolitical concerns suggest that we can expect a major war over the next few years, when will it commence? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, but I can mention some of the factors that would play an important role in this regard. I ranked them from the most to the least importance. 

1. The war phase. We can consider the details of the war phase of the cycle more closely to see what precedes the outbreak of such wars. These phases typically begin with a financial crisis, followed by a deep depression or recession and a prolonged period of stagnation thereafter. The present cycle clearly commenced with the financial crisis of 2007 which was followed by the Great Recession of 2008-9 and the period of stagnation (especially in the EU) ever since.

In two of the previous cycles this involved another recession just before the war starts. Since this did not occur in all the cycles we cannot in general take it as signalling the outbreak of war. The average period from the financial crisis to the outbreak of war is 7 years. In the period which preceded the Second World War, it, however, took 10 years (the longest period registered) from the financial crisis in 1929 to the outbreak of the war in 1939. This means, statistically speaking, that the chance for such a war is the greatest over the next three years (2014-17), but it is always possible that it can take even longer before it starts. 

2. Iranian nuclear negotiations. Although the present negotiations between Iran and the six world powers are not often described in those terms, they are probably the last effort to avoid direct confrontation between Iran and a US-led alliance (that includes Israel), which can easily escalate into another great war. Without a deal Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and the Anglo-American establishment will not tolerate that. A breakdown in negotiations can therefore lead to war with Iran, which in my opinion can easily lead to another great war in the cycle of such wars.

As long as the talks proceed it seems unlikely that the situation in Syria would escalate into direct Iran-US-Israel confrontation. One can furthermore expect all the parties to the talks to do everything in their power to come to an agreement. The problem is that such an agreement must not only satisfy Israel, it must also satisfy the Iranian security establishment. Although the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, he face growing criticism at home. A coup against him would change everything and can dramatically escalate the conflict between Israel and Iran. The Iranians have all reason to think that giving up their nuclear deterrent would leave them exposed to Western attack [3]. This makes an agreement very unlikely.

3. The Obama administration. I have previously discussed the strategic interests of the US, Israel, France, Iran and Russia regarding the situation in Syria [3]. Since the US is the leader of the Western nations, they will not go to war without her. The Obama administration, however, will do everything to avoid war. They are nonetheless under enormous pressure in the US because of the perception that the enemies of the US are taking advantage of Obama's reluctance and even aversion in war. It seems, however, that Obama will not easily take the US into another war. If they are not overtaken by events, it will probably fall to the next US president to decide on this. But remember President Woodrow Wilson, who promised peace and then took the US into World War I.

4. Oil and gas supplies. One can expect that a great war with its epicenter in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the oil price and can destabilize the world economy. This will count in Russia's favor, who is a major oil and gas exporter. Also, Russia is in a strong position because of the EU's dependence on it for its fuel. The EU imports about 39% of its gas and about 33% of its oil from Russia. Since the Ukraine crisis the EU has been actively exploring other options. They have access to other fuel resources but some of these are also under pressure, for example in Libya.

There is, however, a very important change in world fuel production in progress which would impact on the situation. Gas-fracking has changed the fuel market beyond recognition. The US is already self-sufficient and will probably start exporting in the near future. The EU leaders have even talked to President Obama about getting fuel from the US. He mentioned that this is subject to the successful conclusion of the free trade agreement between the US and the EU. One expects that the Western nations would try to solve this problem before deciding to go to war.

5. The US-EU free trade agreement. For some readers it would seem strange that I mention this point. I, however, think that this is a very important issue which will decide whether and when such a war breaks out. The reason is that such a great war would generate a common enemy for the EU on a scale not seen before. This will propel the EU into further integration in the same manner that the economic crisis did. Such a war, which includes Russia as aggressor on its eastern border, will bring the EU nations together and allow the Euro countries to proceed with further integration. Those right-wing groups who have done so well in the last EU election, and who view President Putin as hero, will come under enormous pressure to be "patriotic" and loyal to the EU. The reason why the US-EU trade agreement is important, is that the US would not like to see the EU become so powerful if it is not safely imbedded with them in one economic zone. The US would probably want to see at least substantial agreement on trade issues before going into a large-scale war.  

In my opinion the Vietnam War in important aspects provides our best precedent for the current situation. Both then and now we see a proxy war which escalated (or can escalate) into a war in which all the major world powers participated (or participates). In that case the conflict between the Viet Cong and the government of the anti-communist South began in 1955. The US sent the first support troops in 1961 and became directly involved only in 1965. The current Syrian conflict started early in 2011 and the US have only recently announced that they would become more actively (but not directly) involved. One can expect that particular incidents would serve as reason for deeper participation, but that is obviously impossible to predict. I do not think that we can take the timescales of the US involvement in the Vietnam War as basis for projections (one example cannot count as statistics), but I do think that the present situation can follow at least that pattern in the run-up to such a war.


There have recently been talk about a "third world war". Leaders often engage in such talk for reasons of their own. In this case, however, it seems that there is reason to think that the present situation in Syria and the Ukraine can easily escalate into a major war which involve the major powers around the globe (if not The Third World War). The most important reason why I think that such a war could very well be on hand, is that the present circumstances fits perfectly with my model of war and peace cycles. The events in Syria and the Ukraine are not isolated instances; they are closely connected in the geopolitical game currently underway in the world. An analysis of the geopolitical situation shows that more such conflicts can be expected and that it can easily escalate even more. Of central importance in this regard is that Russia, China and Iran are moving closer to each other. Their short term goals are closely linked and they all experience some form of Western containment which strangle them.

When would such a war break out if it comes to that? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. I have mentioned various factors which are important in this regard. On the whole it seems that the West is not yet ready for war. Although the situation can change fast, it seems that such a war will not easily start under the Obama administration (but remember President Wilson!). The most important factor which will determine what will happen and when, is the nuclear negotiations with Iran.We can take it as an important barometer regarding a possible future war which could include not only Israel and Iran, but also the other major powers. Obama will try to prolong the negotiations as far as possible, but things do not always go as one wants them to - even if you are the president of the US. The situations in Syria and the Ukraine can easily spoil those negotiations - and throw the world into war.

[1] Click on Predicting a war against Iran? - an inquiry into war and peace cycles
[2] Click on The pursuit of geopolitical power in an emerging multi-polar world
[3] Click on War-clouds darken over the Middle East

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.