The Hero of the Two Worlds

At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.

Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.

Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.

Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.

The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

The Spanish Noble Who Became an Honorary U.S. Citizen

Only eight people have ever been granted honorary U.S. citizenship, which is reserved only for those of exceptional merit; this statue in Washington, D.C. that I stumbled upon is dedicated to one of those privileged few: Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military leader and colonial governor who provided decisive aid to the American Revolution.

A career soldier since age 16, Gálvez was a veteran of several wars across Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. While governor of Spanish Louisiana—a vast territory spanning much of the Midwest—he supported the Patriots and their French allies by facilitating crucial supply lines and interfering with British operations in the Gulf Coast. Gálvez achieved half-a-dozen victories on the battlefield, most notably retaking West Florida from the British. His efforts eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf and prevented American rebels in the south from being encircled; subsequently, Galvez had a hand in drafting the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and granted American independence.

Gálvez’s actions aided the American war effort and made him a hero to both Spain and the newly independent United States. Congress immediately planned to hang his portrait in the Capitol, albeit only doing so in 2014; that year, he was conferred honorary citizenship for being a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.”

While largely forgotten in the United States, Gálvez remains in high esteem among many Americans, particularly in southern and western states; several places bear his name, including Galveston, Texas and Galvez, Louisiana, and Galvez Day is a holiday in parts of Pensacola (formerly West Florida).

The (French) Hero of Yorktown

A (poor) selfie with my bro, Rochambeau (sorry).

It might seem odd that the capital of the world’s first modern republic would have a prominent statue to a French nobleman facing the White House. But we probably owe the very existence of the United States to Frenchmen like Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.

In fact, the statue is located on Lafayette Square, named after another French hero of the American Revolution (whom I’ll get to later)!

To understand Rochambeau’s significance, you need only go down the street to the U.S. Capitol. Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the Rotunda is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, while the other side depicts French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy. These troops were commanded by Washington and Rochambeau, respectively, and are portrayed with equal prominence and dignity.

Trumbull’s decision to depict French and U.S. forces as equal combatants reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic owes its existence to one of history’s oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than that of Great Britain!)

Having cut his teeth in several battles in Europe, Rochambeau was selected to lead the French Expeditionary Forces sent to aid the Americans in the revolution—the only time an allied military force served on U.S. soil for an extended period of time. Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans, and one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French.

Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace.

Little wonder why you see so many French names in D.C. (more on that later).

The Geneva Convention I.D. Card

There are many subtle and often-unseen ways that international law is integrated in our domestic systems and institutions. Case in point: I have worked on some cases involving U.S. servicemembers, and noticed they are each issued a “Geneva Convention I.D. Card”.

In compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the U.S. requires all employees of the Department of Defense, from combat troops to civilian staff, to carry a card such as those pictured below (an older and newer sample); the card must include the bearer’s name, ranks, affiliation, and other biographical details.

The idea is to facilitate the fair and ethical treatment of prisoners of war by allowing whoever has captured them to determine whether they’re part of the regular armed forces subject to protection, are civilians rather troops, etc.; it also helps provide a clear record of who has been killed, imprisoned, or missing.

The idea of treating captured enemies fairly sounds quaint and absurd; but the drafters of the Geneva Conventions, in a display of calculated pragmatism, recognized that ending war was going to be a longer and more difficult goal than trying to restraint its worst impulses.

If nothing else, a Geneva Convention I.D. Card serves a practical purpose, and like most areas of international law we have chosen to abide by, it is the practical benefits that often motivate us; see similar treaties that sent universal standards for mail, shipping, airlines, passports, etc.

A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

The Center of Our Galaxy

You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.

The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.

The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.

Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.

To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles.
So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.

Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)

Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.

This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.

Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.

Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

The Mexican-American War

This week in 1846 saw the outbreak of one of the most obscure, consequential, and unjust wars in U.S. history: The Mexican American War, which in two years resulted in the U.S. becoming a continental power, at the expense of its weaker southern neighbor—something even American heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant regarded as a grave injustice.

The war began under the equally obscure but history-making presidency of James K. Polk, a one-term president with the rare distinction of having fulfilled all his campaign promises—one of which was expanding U.S. territory to the Pacific.

The problem was that Mexican (and to a lesser extent British) territory was in the way. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which more than doubled the size of the fledging republic, there were several overtures to purchase what was then Spanish territory; in 1825, Andrew Jackson made a sustained effort to buy the northern lands of what was now newly independent Mexico, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mexico was well aware of its precarious position: Not only was it wracked by political instability and social strife, but it lacked full authority over the rugged, sparsely inhabited lands of the now-American Southwest—especially against the various fiercely independent native tribes that were effectively sovereign. So, in the 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle and “civilize’ the vast, largely empty plains of present-day Texas; among them were men like Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas“, who brought hundreds of “Anglo” families with him.

The rapid influx of Americans led to them outnumbering Mexicans in their own distant territory, which was already thousands of miles from Mexico’s political base in Mexico City. Aside from cultural and linguistic barriers, a major sticking point—surprise—was slavery: Mexico’s constitution had outlawed the practice decades before the U.S., but the vast majority of American settlers were slaveowners.

In a macabre foreshadowing of what was to come, disputes over slavery—along with the Mexican government’s effort to impose property taxes on the fiercely independent American immigrants—led Mexico to close the border with the U.S.—only for American slave owners to continue illegally crossing into Mexico (no need to harp on the irony here).

Escalating matters further, Mexico’s strongman president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, sought to roll back the country’s federal system in favor of centralized power; this upset the quasi-independent “Texans”, and when Santa Anna led an army to reign them in, the Texas Revolution broke out, and the Texans, with U.S. support, achieved de facto independence in 1836.

Mexico never recognized this claim—though the U.S. and other foreign powers did—and the border of this new “Republic of Texas” were subsequently unclear and disputed. So, when America made the controversial move of annexing Texas as a state in 1845—hotly debated in Congress and by the public—this brought the dispute to what was now our border.

After yet another failed attempt to buy Mexican territory and finding significant opposition to starting a war with its only independent neighbor, Polk essentially egged on Mexico to start hostilities first—by sending a military expedition deep into Mexican territory. Even Grant, who served in the war despite his opposition to it, claims in his Personal Memoirs (1885) that the main goal was to provoke the outbreak of war without attacking first, thereby hindering domestic opposition to the war.

“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were, but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. … Mexico showing no willingness to come to the Nueces to drive the invaders from her soil, it became necessary for the “invaders” to approach to within a convenient distance to be struck. Accordingly, preparations were begun for moving the army to the Rio Grande, to a point near Matamoras. It was desirable to occupy a position near the largest centre of population possible to reach, without absolutely invading territory to which we set up no claim whatever.”

After Mexican forces engaged what it saw as American invaders, killing or capturing dozens, Polk made his case for war. Many pro-slavery Democrats supported a declaration of war, while many northern “Whigs” remained staunchly opposed—including a freshman Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who challenged Polk’s assertion that American blood had been shed on American soil as “a bold falsification of history.” Within hours, Congress voted to formally declare war against Mexico—one of the few times in history that the U.S. as officially been at war with another country.

Notwithstanding some success on the battlefield, Mexico simply lacked the resources, military experience, and political unity to defend itself against superior American forces. Once its capital was occupied—along with most other major cities—it was clear that the U.S. was victorious and could dictate terms—which unsurprisingly included annexing the northern territories the U.S. had long sought.

U.S. forces occupying Mexico City

(There was actually an “All of Mexico Movement” that sought to take the entirety of Mexico, but it fell apart due in large part to concerns about incorporating millions of inferior Indian and mixed races that comprised the majority of the country’s population.)

In the peace treaty that followed, Mexico ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In return, Mexico received $15 million—$470 million today—which was less than half the amount the U.S. offered before the war; the U.S. further agreed to assume $3.25 million in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens ($102 million today).

Aside from its obvious enrichment of the U.S., the war had a huge impact on American domestic politics: A bloody expansion led to a bitter and polarizing debate about whether America was fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny” as an enlightened republic or was instead no different than the imperialist Europeans it claimed to have broken from. Once again, Grant captured the mood in his memoirs:

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The already-violent debate over slavery came to a head as both sides debated which of these vast territories should be “free” or “slave”; it was a cruel irony considering that the war had begun partly because illegal American immigrants insisted on having slaves in an “uncivilized” nation that had long since banned the despicable practice.

In some sense, America’s actions came to haunt it barely a generation later when these disputes over the fate of former Mexican territory furthered the boiling point to the American Civil War—which was led and fought by many veterans of the Mexican American War with tactics and strategies learned from that conflict.

Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times”.

An illustrative example of the war is in the Great Seal of the State of New Mexico, which was the center of population in northern Mexico. The peace treaty made assurances that the Mexican population would become U.S. citizens and treated accordingly. To drive home the point, the state’s seal shows the Mexican eagle — with serpent and cactus, as in the coat of arms of Mexico —literally under the wing of an American eagle, which reinforces the state’s historic, centuries-long roots in Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous civilization. 

What the Turkish Peace Talks Say About the New International System

As we speak, Turkey is hosting the latest round of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the first face-to-face meeting between the two countries’ delegates in almost a month.

The results of the talks are tenuous and at best “cautiously optimistic”, according to the parties involved; negotiations having repeatedly fallen through since the war began, and Ukranian cities remain under siege, to say nothing of the horrific revelations of civilian massacres in Bucha.

Whatever the results of Turkey’s diplomatic efforts, the country’s key role speaks to its rising influence—and reflects a changing international order.

[Of] all these countries sitting on the fence and trying to mediate, Turkey has a unique profile and position. It is a NATO member, an organization for which Russia and previously the Soviet Union served as raison d’être or the foundational threat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly castigating the Western-centric international system. But as a member of many Western institutions, Turkey is also a beneficiary, and in a sense, part of the geopolitical West.

Meanwhile, Turkey also has maritime borders with both Ukraine and Russia. Plus, Turkey is Russia’s largest trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa region. And it has competed and cooperated with Russia through conflict zones in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in recent years.

Compared to other contenders for mediation, Turkey has the highest stakes in this conflict. The war is fundamentally changing the geopolitics and balance of power in the Black Sea region, and Turkey is a major Black Sea power.

Turkey will probably play a humanitarian role soon, too, as the number of refugees — already in the millions — rises. French President Emanuel Macron’s announcement that France, Turkey and Greece will undertake a joint evacuation mission in Mariupol is a harbinger of a humanitarian role that might become more salient in Erdogan’s policy down the road.

In spite of its policy of not provoking Russia, Turkey is simultaneously not pursuing a policy of equidistance. It sells armed drones to Ukraine, which are exacting significant losses on Russian targets, and has closed the Turkish straits to warships.

In addition to Russia dominating the Black Sea, it has a sizable Mediterranean presence where it is deeply involved in conflicts spots in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s sea closure will put pressure on Russian policy in these conflict zones if the war is prolonged.

This is probably why Turkey is first (and hopefully last) in line to host peace talks, ahead of other neutral countries like India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Like many so-called “middle” and regional powers, it knows how to leverage its unique geographic, cultural, and political position.

Geography and history play a key role in Turkey’s outsized influence on the world stage. The same goes for many other rising powers.

We live in an increasingly multipolar world, where even the great powers of the world—while still devastatingly powerful—are not quite as dominant as they once were. Setting aside the wildcard of nukes, even the most powerful nations struggle to influence ostensibly weaker partners, as we saw throughout history and into the Cold War.

It’s likely that the new international order will be one where lots of smaller countries—perhaps working in tandem—have a lot more say in a lot more areas, as economic and cultural influence start to diffuse. There is quite a bit of chaos in such a system—historically, it precipitated a lot of competition and wars, most notably the First World War—but it has the potential to address many global problems too big for even powerful nations to handle.

As always, there is a lot more to say, but so little time.

What are your thoughts?