Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Danger of the Middle Ground

Europe in 1700

It has been 23 years since Richard White published his The Middle Ground, in which he painted brilliant picture of Native Americans and Europeans constructing a world together through creative misunderstandings. The Middle Ground which Dr. White discussed was the Pays d'en Haut, the upper country in colonial north America. Today, we will be discussing a different middle ground, that of central Europe.

The "European middle ground" dates from roughly 1700, when a comprehensive, powerful, Russian state coalesced under the direction of Peter I of Russia, although the argument can be made that it has been around much longer than this, going back to the Ottoman Empire's expansion into Europe, and even before that, with the Byzantine Empire. Many European Kabinettskriege era states found themselves in this middle ground, including Sweden, Austrian, Prussia, and Poland Lithuania. This middle ground encompasses an area which we tend to call central or eastern Europe.

States in this middle ground were (and in some ways still are) cursed with a number of fundamental problems facing their security and survival. First of all, these states have the unenviable position of being forced to fight two-front wars, against opponents to their east and west. We can see this with Sweden during the Great Northern War, Prussia in the Seven Years War, Austria in the 18th and 19th centuries, France in the Napoleonic Wars, and most recently, Germany in the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Spain, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark,and Norway, all coastal powers in western Europe, have not had to worry about the possibility of two front land war. They had the sea at their backs, not a border which an enemy could easily cross.

While all of these wars have unique political factors, social, economic, and religious causes, they have one thing in common- the need for states in the middle ground to fight a two-front war. At the end of the 2nd World War, in many ways, we see the middle ground abolished: the demarcation between western powers and eastern powers became clear- it was a line through Germany. There was no more middle ground. Sweden, an exception to the rule, tried to stay in a nominal middle ground throughout the Cold War, but both during and after the Cold War, has been western in all but name.

However, with the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, the middle ground has reappeared. States in the middle ground now include Ukraine, facing economic and social pressure from the west, and military and political pressure from the east. Is this middle ground here to stay? How should national leaders attempt to mitigate or solve this problem?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to take the long (historical) view - I hadn't thought of the Ukraine issue in quite this way before. It looks, if the partition becomes permanent, that we are seeing a return to the single front split in Europe. Like in the days of the Cold War, only with the border further east.
    I guess the Baltic states are potentially also in this Middle Ground.