On occasation of the publication of her latest book, the German financial journalist Lars Schall talked with the Austrian energy-analyst Dr. Karin Kneissl. Welcome to a long walk through the global village and its challenges as well as its opportunities.
By Lars Schall
An excerpt of the following interview was published at ASIA TIMES ONLINE, Energy key to our civilization.
Dr. Karin Kneissl works as an independent energy-analyst, university teacher and writer. She authored several books and articles on energy and Middle East related topics. From 1990 to 1998 she served in the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. She studied law and Arabic at Vienna University, did several postgraduate studies in the USA, Israel, Jordan and Italy. Recently, she taught several seminars in Turkmenistan and Lebanon, where she works as guest-lecturer in Beirut. She teaches in Vienna (Diplomatic Academy, Military Academy) and at the European Business School (Frankfurt). Her publications range from books on the Middle East (The Cycle of Violence, 2007) to diplomacy. In 2008 a second and revised edition of the book The Energy Poker was launched in Munich, wherein the repercussions of the current financial market crisis on the price of oil and natural gas are tackled. Her articles on the energy market have been published in peer-reviewed journals, notably in India, Poland and France.
The following interview was conducted on occasation of the publication of her latest book, “Die zersplitterte Welt: Was von der Globalisierung bleibt” (“The Splintered World: The Remains of Globalization”), published at Braumüller in Vienna, Austria. You can find her own web site here.
Lars Schall: Dr. Kneissl, very recently you have been in Egypt and in Lebanon. What were your experiences there?
Karin Kneissl: I spent a while in Egypt in mid-May and the atmosphere was already very tense; one could really feel that the collapse of the state is imminent. And this is something that is fairly frightening for a country like Egypt, which – in my mind – given its long standing pre-Islamic history – is one of the few countries in the Arab world that is not the outcome of colonization chess board mapping; it has its genuine territorial history for 5.000 years. And that such a country with such a long standing history of institutions is at the brink of collapse, that’s, I think, the most frightening element of the current state of Egypt.
In Lebanon – I just came back from Lebanon two weeks ago – the atmosphere on the spot, continues to be – how should I say? – the traditional optimism of the Lebanese who have gone through terrible times but who have learnt to manage with protracted conflicts. Most of my Lebanese interview partners I met are more or less optimistic about the option to avoid the outbreak of an overall conflict. However, most people expect the one or the other booby trap bomb to explode, as we have seen just a few days ago. So the violence in the streets will continue – whether it is in the north or the south of the country. But given the manifold interests at stake in the country, be it from Iran, be it from the Gulf countries, be it some Western vested interests, they might avoid the outbreak of another big conflict inside the country.
LS: Well, Lebanon gets sucked up into the conflict in Syria more and more, is this right?
KK: We have the same confessional pattern on both sides of the border and the old word of Lebanization – you might remember that in the 1970s some political scientists referred to the Balkanization of Lebanon, meaning the down break of the country in small-sized cantons as we have seen at the beginning of the 20th century – balkanize a country, balkanize a centralized state – and when Yugoslavia started to fall apart in the early 1990s, some political scientists referred to the Lebanization of Yugoslavia. And today we have some additional terms like the Iraqization, the Somalization and the many spill-overs that we have seen from Iraq, from Afghanistan, but particularly from Iraq, into Syria and now from Syria back into Lebanon inter alia, this Shiite-Sunni conflict, this inter-Muslim conflict, this is something that very, very closely affects Lebanon as well.
LS: In your new book ‚The Splintered World‘ you have the thesis that World War I is actually in this region still going on. How do you come to this conclusion?
KK: Well, the borders that we see in the Middle East are the immediate outcome of the treaties after World War I, the treaties that were concluded in the suburbs of Paris, in that case in Sèvres and later on in Lausanne. And these borders actually have their reference in pipeline agreements of 1920. So the whole region was mapped along the ceasefires, the armistices of … as the situation in the field was after World War I and what happened to the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, namely the reshuffling of the maps of the Middle East by the victorious powers Great Britain and France alongside resource interests, in that case the oil of Mesopotamia, this is the map of today’s Middle East.
Now, since I mentioned Egypt just beforehand as one of the few countries, if not the only Arab country that really has a long-standing pre-Islamic, pre-20th century state history … countries like Syria and Iraq on the other hand even so also their origins as cultures go back to pre-historic times but the nation, the territorial figure of the state is fairly recent and that has a lot to do with the outcome of World War I. And in my eyes that war is still going on because the conflict levels of those days, like, I would say, the fight for Damascus. In my eyes, this city has a much stronger role in Arab history than for instance Jerusalem. Jerusalem is often referred to by Muslims as the third important city and of fairly relevant importance to Arab history. But I would say that Damascus is even more important and we can see the way Turkey, Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and others, are participating in the war in Syria, it is as if World War I was still going on.
LS: Now, when you say that Damascus is so important, does the road to Tehran lead through Damascus?
KK: It is important for Tehran to have a foot in the eastern Mediterranean. However, this is nothing that only the Islamic Republic of Iran had been fighting for but it is a very old constant also in Persian history. Iran, Persia, whatever you call it, is the country of the Gulf, of course. But they always wanted to keep a foothold also in the eastern Mediterranean. At various times in history the different Shah dynasties sent Shiite clerics to take care of Shiite communities in the eastern Mediterranean, such as in Lebanon. And these many constants are also still valid today because for Iran, which sees itself not only now as a power of the Gulf but which also strives for leadership in the Muslim world.
LS: There is also a possible road going from Tehran to Damascus via a pipeline, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. Do you consider this as an important feature of the conflict in Syria?
KK: I would say in the case of Syria the oil interests are secondary. They were primary in the case of the Iraq War. What might emerge as a larger legacy of the whole conflict is maybe not so much the physical access to certain resources or to pipeline tracing, I think it will be more, as I just mentioned, a fight for Damascus, which has its role in ancient Arab history and it is also about the changing of the maps, the creation maybe of a Kurdish state that is interlinked, I think, in the whole pattern. It has to do with the fight of regional power dominance, both by Turkey and by a number of Arab states and the pipeline tracing according to my assessment is secondary.
LS: The main war theater in the war on terror is Afghanistan and this has become the longest war in U.S. history. How does the balance look like as far as you are concerned? I mean it is now going on for more than twelve years …
KK: Well, the old coining of the phrase Afghanistan being the graveyard of Empires of course it is once again very valid and in my book I also refer to a certain analogy. Of course one should never push analogies into the extreme but when the declining Soviet empire decided in 1988 to start withdrawing – and we have here some very interesting details from the Kremlin protocols that were published a few years ago, how Gorbachev and his cabinet desperately were looking for some sort of honorable exit. I think it would be worthwhile studying those protocols of the Kremlin once again because the analogies here are rising.
The kind of mission-accomplished-exit-scenario that the United States and her allies had been building up over the past two years is crumbling. And it will most probably – a lot of indications amount to a scenario where we will have less of an honorable exit but an accelerated exit in a hurry. As we see now certain deadlines are pushed closer; the most important outcome in perception from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was: look here, rest of the world, a number of shepherds form the Hindu Kush mountain were able to kick out the Red Army! And this kind of perception in my eyes applies also to the current state of affairs because we can see to which point this enormous technological superiority, all the material, financial and political investment that was taken under Obama in the so-called „resurge“ a few years ago, all that has resulted in nothing.
On the contrary, what we see right now with the U.S. Army’s withdrawal is the biggest destruction of military hardware that has ever happened in history and that might also amount to a change in warfare in the sense that all that war material that was taken into Afghanistan actually has proven to be quite useless. And with that perception in the Islamic world by and large with the current disastrous economic state of affairs of most NATO countries, I would not exclude that … well, certain analogies might apply also for the Western powers in Afghanistan as was the case for the Soviet withdrawal in January 1989. And as we know, the withdrawal in January 1989 was the beginning of the so-called annus mirabilis that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
LS: Isn’t it interesting that the U.S. and the regime of Hamid Karzai are now again negotiating with the Taliban about TAPI, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline?
LS: What is this? Is this a historical joke?
KK: It is. You can call it a kind of Treppenwitz der Geschichte, there is no real English translation to that. (1) But I remember fairly well that the first duty trip outside by Karzai when he was elected in 2002 was exactly to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, because of that pipeline. And some people claim that Mr. Karzai, who worked in the oil business before, being brought into Afghanistan, was a man of the oil world. Now, I am not so familiar with the details of his CV…
LS: I believe he was a consultant of Unocal (Union Oil Company of California)…
KK: …but I have always given a certain future to that pipeline because it is something that those countries, those receiving countries, especially Pakistan and India, have a vested interest in. And it is something that we can observe on an overall level: pipelines are turning east and are turning south but they are not turning west. And what enforces that picture is also the fairly successful detente between Pakistan and India that we have seen in the past three, four years despite all the other difficult circumstances but a detente between Pakistan and India is going on. And this, I think, was a major step, and if a number of warlords in Afghanistan can agree on the sharing of the profits then I think that pipeline has a certain chance.
LS: When you say that those pipelines go to the east and not to the west, it reminds me of one theme in your book and this is the rise of the East, in particular China. And that we might go into an Asian age. Can you elaborate on this one, please?
KK: Well, the Asian age, I think, has to be taken with a certain prudence. But a lot of indicators nevertheless would for the time being be in favor of let’s say a multi-polar world where a number of countries in the south and in the east will have a stronger weight than the north-western hemisphere. And for me one of the main elements to argue for such an option is the the way those powers organize their strategies in the resource field; the way people are ready to sacrifice something in order to obtain something; the much higher level of curiosity that we will find among younger generations than we have it in our societies. And here of course it would be difficult to put all the countries into one baske and I personally am not such a partisan of the BRICS acronym because these countries are simply so different. But it is nevertheless interesting. Also I would say against the backdrop of the Edward Snowden case, to see how countries like China and Russia behave in that case in contrast to the western countries.
LS: Now that you mentioned it, how do you evaluate the behaviour of continental Europe related to these NSA & Co. revelations?
KK: It is shameful. It is really shameful because I mean the basic concepts – I would not even go into norms – but to me simply the concept of asylum and the concept of freedom of speech, the concept of privacy, secret of postal, telephone et cetera … our rights … is simply fundamentally violated. And there is no real rising up, there is a kind of funny duty trip by the German Minister of Interior but there is no real outbreak or revolt of anger by the governments in power.
LS: And they also say, well, there is no economic espionage going on. Do you buy this?
KK: No. I mean, it is all about money, it is all about access to certain economic or corporate interests. I have never been in the top corporate world but I remember very well that having served in diplomacy the ways governments used to be careful not to share too much knowledge in many fields in order to preserve their economic interests. And that was only a few years ago that one would not share too much simply in order to have a certain information edge, momentum of speed, in order to conquer a market or to obtain a contract. So, honestly, I cannot buy that argument.
LS: Does this NSA & Co. revelation also cast a light on the tension between a republic and an empire?
KK: Yes, it is. I think we are just right now at the brink once again of moving out very quickly of some sort of republican age that we could experience since the 1950s, 60s, 70s; maybe those were the top years with the kind of fight for transparency, fight for civil rights and over the last 20 years we have seen how authoritarian structures are on the rise and whether it was in the name of preserving the security of the citizens, so fighting terrorism, we have to renounce on certain well-obtained civil rights of 18th, 19th century. We have given up those and we are ready to give up other important norms, rights, concepts that are in my eyes the basis, but really the basis, of a civil society.
LS: Coming back to the East and coming back to the issue of money: China is getting increasingly out of U.S. Dollars, U.S. treasury bills by buying, amongst other things, big amounts of gold. How do you view Beijing’s ambition to promote the globalization of the Yuan as a competitor of the U.S. Dollar and the Euro?
KK: Well, I think it was the Governor of the Central Bank of China who wrote in spring 2009, if I recall it correctly, a very interesting essay in which he criticized the role of a reserve currency and he criticized indirectly the fiscal and monetary policy of a certain country. He never mentioned the United States but everybody who had read that article knew that it was about the Dollar, the United States. However, the main criticism was: do we need one single country running a single reserve currency? And from that article I would say that was a kind of balloon that was launched in a sense the Yuan should have a certain weight in a currency basket for the foreseeable future. And what the Chinese had been pursuing for quite some years now is to create something like drawing rights as we have in the IMF instead of those highly politicized currencies. I am not a currency expert but I think there are many voices and they come not only from the Chinese Central Bank; they come from the British liberal economists to get out of this US dominated reserve currency business and move into a currency basket that reflects political and economical realities of this world today.
LS: And you think that buying gold is a good way to do this?
KK: Well, it’s a very delicate debate these days given what has happened over the past three, four months. There are much better voices than mine to explain that or to get more insight on why it has happened, to what extent we have seen here a very strong manipulation of a market. Personally, I have always seen gold not as a commodity but as THE reserve currency, the one global reserve currency for those times when trust and confidence in paper money are in full decline. And trust these days after now six years of a permanent crisis, trust is bought at a very high price; it is bought via quantitative easing, it is bought via risky stepy; it is simply bought but I think that in the ultimate moment paper money will again be linked to some sort of metal standard and the most probable option could be gold.
LS: Yes. We are coming back to gold in a second, but what is the buzz with regard to the Asian pivot all about that we hear coming from policy circuits in Washington D.C.?
KK: I think that the risks for a fully-fledged US-Asian conflict are already here. And it would most probably be of course a confrontation between China and the United States, be it on a currency level, be it on a territorial level as we have seen over the past eight years already with the various conflicts around the islands in the South Chinese Sea where it is actually a proxy war between Japan, Vietnam and China but in the ultimate we always have the United States behind Vietnam, Philippines, Japan. So there is that level of conflict and it is of course in the field of technology. The various penalty tariffs that we have seen – and here not only China but also the Europeans play a strange role – a lot of indicators amount to a rise in protectionism and mistrust, there is a lot of mistrust.
LS: Coming back to your new book, what do you actually mean with the concept that we have a splintered world?
KK: I think that after a certain age of growing entities and larger entities the pendulum might fall back towards smaller fragmented entities. Whether this is good or bad I don’t want to claim. I think there is a certain movement in history and it is not that first time that this happens – one of my favorite references here now for the German audience might be: We should remember that before the unification done under Bismarck, for the creation of the German Empire in 1871, we saw dozens if not hundreds of different sovereignties with even different time zones. We had different time zones between Leipzig and Düsseldorf. And if it had not been for military reasons, this space might be still fragmented.
So this is something that is not happening for the first time in history and I am working here also a little bit along the line of what the sociologist Leopold Kohr already described in the 1950s; he foresaw the breaking apart of some sort of European supranational state in its historic regions. So in Europe we might see in the medium run also the return of historic regions. And against the backdrop of the economic crisis this is already in full swing in countries like Spain, in Belgium and it might also be the case in Italy. Italy, which only united 153 years ago and which is in a dire shape today and where from an Austrian perspective – for instance voices in Vienna are watching carefully the different new slogans in Südtirol, in South Tyrol, for getting away from too much influence of Rome. So the situation I would say in a number of well established European nation states is also at the brink of further fragmentation. And Yugoslavia to a certain extent, the breakdown, the collapse of the Federation of Yugoslavia, might have been a kind of overture for what awaits Europe. Because the discourse that we heard in Slovenia and Croatia at the end of the 1980s, namely, why should we, the hard working people in the north, pay for those rather lazy guys in the south, this is something that we hear today in Spain, we hear it in Belgium, but we hear it on a larger level within the European Union.
LS: In your book you are asking yourself if globalization is coming to an end. Now, would this actually be woeful or lamentable if it was indeed the case?
KK: We tend to be proud of the globalization, we think we had invented it over the past 20, 30 years, but globalization existed in many forms beforehand. The colonial empires served as a kind of globalization market as well. And I would go even as far claiming that … my favorite example is the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. 100 years ago, just before the outbreak of World War I, it was possible, nearly, the last 80 kilometers were missing, but theoretically one could have embarked a train in Berlin and travelled until Baghdad. This is no more possible today. Today we have actually these many white patches on the map, as the map of Africa looked at the end of the 19th century; the so-called no-go areas, nobody knew what was really happening there. And I think that our globalization is a fairly artificial one in the sense that it is a para-structure because below a uniformized internet and cell phone market we have enormous frictions, welfare rifts, billions of people who have no access to energy, to drinking water, et cetera, so I think the global village picture is only a limited one for a limited contingent of people on this planet. And if globalization is on the withdrawal that has to do with the economic prices, that has to do with the rise not only of ethno-nationalism in certain parts of the world, but rise of protectionism, stalling of talks in multilateral fora(unclear), such as the WTO, where talks have been in limbo for the past ten years, and it has to do with … well with more and more fear by elected governments not anymore being able to run the show as they want.
LS: We already mentioned a little bit the geopolitics of energy … now turning an eye to Europe, what do you think about the energy policy that is going on on this continent?
KK: There is no such thing as a European Union-led energy policy; the real big contracts are always happening on a bilateral level and the most recent disaster that the Austrians, for instance, had been running into, and it was in my eyes foreseeable that the Nabucco Project would never materialize, is a very good illustration of the absence of something like a coordinated European project. Vienna always pointed out, that, the European Commission is supporting Nabucco and we have a European Union coordinator – so what? In the end the project that got the best bilateral support, the best credits, won. And here we can see that the Swiss will do their own soup, the Bulgarians will do their own soup and something like a coordinated larger project is on the losing end. But for many reasons, that had not only to do with the absence of an EU strategy. The European Union countries being most independent on imports do their foreign policy on a bilateral level and every capital has a different relation to Moscow, has a different relation to a number of Gulf countries, and everybody does his own bilateral import projects.
LS: Is this lack of a common energy policy here in Europe an example of the irresponsibility of the political class?
KK I would even say beforehand, before being irresponsible, most of the politicians, according to my experience by having interviewed or observed some of them, is, they simply do not get it. They do not grasp what is energy, what is energy policy and what is the larger geopolitical picture. They do not grasp it. And here I think is the crux because they don’t even realize what is responsible and what is irresponsible. They simply do not get it.
LS: Now combining gold, geopolitics and energy, I would like to ask you, related to the German gold reserves: wouldn’t it be good to have all of Germany’s gold on German soil to strike deals in the future with energy and natural resource exporters of whom I think that they will be interested to trade rather in gold than in fiat money?
KK: I think that having gold – whether you are now an individual or whether you are a country – it is all about physical control of the gold, of whatever reserve in which you want to store your wealth. And this is a very old, if not to say archaic, behavior, knowledge, in the human being. Physical control over something. It is not sufficient to have the title, the concession; because property is just a title. We know it from many examples in history that at certain moments you need physical control over something. So, I think gold reserves belong to the country which have the title and to be physically there.
Personally I am not convinced by the argument that because gold is traded in London and in New York it should be there so that it can be sold physically and bought physically. We are not anymore in such a trader’s world. On the contrary, we are going back to times where it would be very important to have physical control over something. And this is also the momentum of all commodity policy; it is always about having physical access to something. And that’s what counts and now when we look into the future – some observers have been claiming for years that sooner or later oil might be traded again in gold, this is an idea that has been around in the oil market for at least, I would say, ten, 15 years, – yes, it could happen again. I do not know how and where and when but the knowledge about inflation is still very well remembered in a number of oil producing countries. In 1973, when we had the oil price shock and the oil price rose by four times within a few weeks, actually the oil producing countries did not profit so much from a rise then because that was accompanied by an enormous inflation of 14, 15 per cent in the 1970s. And there is a slogan from the 70s that I would say is still valid to a certain extent for OPEC countries today. Namely, the best way to protect oil or whatever commodity you produce against inflation is to keep it under the surface.
LS: One indication of the decreasing confidence in the U.S. Dollar is the discussion of the 30 year plus debasement of the Dollar in OPEC circles. They are not really satisfied with it. Do you think we are entering a final phase of the petro dollar?
KK: That is a question I have been asking OPEC people over the past seven years. (laughs) And they never wanted to answer it. Maybe the answer to that, not wishing to answer is, many of those countries have stocked a lot of their wealth in U.S. Dollar assets. That might be the answer to it. And for a certain period of time we saw people wishing to diversify into Euro, we have seen what has happened to the Euro; so the Dollar is back also for the reason that the Euro is so weak or simply not existing anymore most probably. But I think that the enormous inflation that is happening with the quantative easing and now again with these very strange announcements and withdrawing of announcements over the past two, three weeks – I mean can one still take serious what is happening there? I personally have a problem with that, so I think that the strength is also based a lot on manipulated perception.
LS: In your book you also talk about the fracking hype in the U.S. and you are very sceptical. Why so?
KK: I am sceptical and I now neglect completely the ecological dimension because unfortunately many people who are in that business are not interested what happens to drinking water. My scepticism is grounded first and foremost on the exploration costs. Exploration costs for unconventional drilling, whether it is shale oil, shale gas, tight oil, whatever you call it, are very high and when the average oil, gas price drops, and it will drop for a number of reasons, one is recession, another one is geopolitics and I mean – this just as a footnote – I expect a detente between Washington and Tehran to happen still this year – and on that very day we will see the oil price go down by at least 15, 20 U.S. Dollars. So with a drop in the oil price, unconventional explorations are not anymore commercially sensible. And this is my favorite argument about the doubtful future of shale oil and shale gas.
When you speak to geologists, they will bring in the argument of the oversized assessment of and the mixing up of reserves and resources, because estimates have simply been too optimistic and they materialize to be less solid. I mean, another Treppenwitz der Geschichte in that case – I don’t know whether you ever came across that incident – is, there was a Soviet geological survey done in Poland in the 1980s, because Poland is also very hot to get into unconventional drilling; it would give them some more independence from being squeezed up once again between the Germans and the Russians; and what happened when that geological survey done by the Soviets was transcribed from Cyrillic into Latin was that the comma was shifted by sheer mistake in some cases for one decimal to the right. So the true resources in that case are just a tenth of what was projected, because of that transcription mistake. So I think there is a tremendous hire-and-fire story going on right now and this incident, this horrible incident that happened in Canada a week ago with the burning of a whole town, some people say that will give now more move to building a pipeline. But from what I have heard and I am now not so familiar with the production taking place there in Canada, but a lot of shale oil and shale gas production in the United States, such as in North Dakota, companies involved in that business are not eager to build pipelines because they themselves apparently claim it will not be commercially sensible to build pipelines because in four, five years the whole thing might be over. So another ghost city.
LS: You have already touched the topic of the tensions between the U.S., Israel and Iran, Russia, China. Now how would you solve the problem?
KK: That was the most interesting outcome of my journey to Iran a few months ago. I was there in December last year, half a year ago. I spoke to some consultants and they told me their biggest clients right now are U.S. companies who wish to have feasibility studies how to re-conquer the Iranian market. They are all eager to get into that market, they need it. There is a strange hate-love relationship between Iran and the United States. Publically they hate each other but on an interior level there is a lot of admiration for each other, especially from the Iranian side. And you have millions with a dual citizenship, US/Iranian citizenship. And there are lots of signs and I am now not so much surprised by the outcome of the Iranian elections. They are pragmatic enough to know that something has to change. And this something has to change will definitely be some sort of honorable exit strategy of the stalemate in the nuclear negotiations. So something will happen in there and the Iranians would love to work together again with the United States and they would prefer to have U.S. investments in civil nuclear energy projects than to have Russians or Chinese doing it. And I think the Iranian, Indian, Tajikistan, Afghanistan area, which is culturally fairly close intertwined by language, by ethnic ascent, could serve as some sort of counterweight to too much Chinese dominance for instance.
LS: Would it also be useful if the U.S. would become clean related to its, let’s say, bad influence in Iranian history?
KK: Yes, but I think there really is a very strange love-hate relationship between the two of them. And the … I cannot imagine anybody in public opinion in the United States being really clear cut and honest about the dreadful role they have played at various instances; inter alia by kicking out an elected government, Mossadegh, in 1953. But what counts for them right now, I think, is have access to a good market. That’s what they are eager for.
LS: Okay. In your book you also compare patterns of the rise and the decline of cultures and civilizations. What is the common theme?
KK: I think that the crux of today’s civilization, in particular in our part of the world but not only there, is energy as we have just talked in detail about. Pipelines, geopolitics and all that. So when we have less energy at our disposal or we have to pay more for that, there might be revolts as we have seen in Bulgaria. A government stumbled and there is a strong public protest continuing in a country like Bulgaria because inter alia for electricity bills. So it is not only about having access to energy but it is also about having access to affordable energy and this is something that will become more and more essential in our part of the world. And if we look back to earlier stages of human history, we used to spend a lot of time of the day to find the food and the energy to warm it up. And I think we are right now back on that way. We will spend in the immediate future more time, more money, more labor for food and for energy.
LS: You also point out in your book that revolutions usually start with too much debt.
KK: Well, I am not the only one to point out that. That is also something Cicero – I am a fan of good old Cicero and I always liked my Latin classes – in 65 B.C I believe, . he points to dilemmas of the Asian crisis, of the debts of the Roman markets et cetera – it has happened again and again. Bankruptcies of states whether it were French kingdoms, the Austrian Empire went bankrupt at several instances – life continues. I mean it is not like Mrs. Merkel says if the Euro breaks down Europe breaks down, because life continues after bankruptcy, life continues after a state collapse but I think the dilemma that we are facing right now and that gives me the biggest concern, is the convergence, this coinciding of different crises at the same time. It is not only the debt crisis, it is an ecological crisis, it is an energy deficit crisis and above all it is really, where will all the food come from? And certain countries are giving a lot of thought to it, that’s why they are doing all that land grabbing in East Asia or on the African continent. But I have always said over the past years, sooner or later we will not be so much worrying about the oil price but about the food price.
LS: You also point out that there is a certain problem that empires face and this is hubris.
KK: Yes, the arrogance. We are the masters of the world, the euro-centrism that I would say I have been brought up with and that we are still somehow reflected in our looking at the world. I mean one just has to listen to a European council, to a European summit, to understand that this hubris is still there, it is very much there. They simply do not realize that shaking hands with a Dalai Lama annoys other people and that it might have an impact. Now I am not saying, do not shake hands with the Dalai Lama but what I wanted to find out is this we-don’t-care-attitude of a number of European empires and powers. And they still behave in a kind of empire way, we see it recently with France by intervening in Libya, by intervening in Mali; it is a very imperialistic behavior. We see it by the British; the way they want to support the Syrian opposition. It is a kind of pre-1956 behavior, before the Suez Crisis, which was somehow the historic deadline for imperialism by the British and by the French. And some of those former European powers still have this very strong arrogance.
LS: Is arrogance or hubris also in our time an expression of intellectual poverty?
KK: Definitely, yes. You bring it very well to the point. We have run out of innovation, we have run out of reflection on many levels. What was the secret of success of European advancement was this capacity to innovate, this capacity to reflect, to reflect oneself. Unfortunately, we have ended up in a fairly mediocre state of saturation where we simply miss creativity, fantasy, curiosity above all, because people are not anymore curious, they will not explore and they will not push the frontier further. So, I think this is definitely a very, very big dilemma for Europe as it stands today.
LS: As every smart person you point out that the crisis that we have is also a chance for example for a new beginning, for something like a renaissance, and that those who are now the critics and are not heard will be heard then.
KK: Yes, I mean when I think back of the time of 1989, 1990, when all of a sudden those who were sometimes imprisoned or who were the dissidents at the margins, they then were looked for, they were brought for a limited time at least into power because they were the ones who had not been tarnished by the system. And when I try to give some hope, some sort of confidence to students I teach, and I see it a lot with the young people I have been teaching over the past 15 years, the frustration they have by not having access anymore to contracts, to true working contracts. Nevertheless to stick to a certain level of excellence, to stick to a certain ethic – because my hope is that after all the turmoil and the turbulences, meritocracy will again count, namely the people who are qualified will be able to obtain a contract, will be able to be part of the decision making and we are definitely not in such a situation today. Having worked in the Arab world I am today shattered by the way corruption, connections, run many, many levels of society, of economics, in our part of the world. It is not anymore about what you can do, what you are ready to do, it is all about whom you know. And this … here we have really become … I would say in many European countries we have fallen below the levels that you will see today in numerous countries that we have looked down to by saying, oh, their legal system does not really work. In a number of so-called third world countries the legal system is fighting in a harsher way corruption than in many countries in our part of the world.
LS: For the book you consulted – once again, I guess – Oswald Spengler’s ‚Decline of the West‘. Would you recommend to read this book again, or for the first time for those who haven’t so far?
KK: Oswald Spengler’s knowledge is amazing and it amazes you again and again when you read him. He drew many of his inspirations from natural sciences, which I think is interesting because I have always been pleading for much more interlinkage between social sciences and natural sciences. And we need this interlinkage, we need people who know what they talk about by having observed the world. And here it is also about having observed the plants and the trees and the cycle of water, whatever. And I think this was really the amazing capacity of Oswald Spengler to be somehow at home in both worlds. The natural sciences, the biology, the morphology, et cetera plus history. His book is not easy to read but it is inspiring. What I think is interesting and relevant for our times, Oswald Spengler started working on his book when Europe was in a stage of unlimited growth, progress. Progress was the name of the game before World War I.
LS: And optimism.
KK: Yes, and optimism. An enormous amount of optimism. And I can very well imagine how lonely this man must have felt by sitting in his room and exploring the other dark side, what might still follow. And lucky enough for him as a person he had his book published in 1918 and in 1920 then – actually at the same publisher where I could publish my book, Braumüller. It was the first edition and then it moved to Munich, but the first edition of Oswald Spengler’s book was edited in Vienna, Braumüller, in 1920, I think. So his first readers could say, oh, Mr. Spengler was not just a crazy, lonely Schadenfreude-man but that there was some solid basis to his research. And I think that today still too many people in our part of the world are somehow sucked up by some sort of illusion, oh, it won’t get that bad. They cannot imagine certain things. And I think it is important to be honest as a decision taker, namely as a politician, to tell the truth to people and we should prepare ourselves for difficult times. And to be resilient, to not be shattered by a blackout of a week, electric blackout or whatever, that is something we should at least mentally be prepared for.
LS: And take action?
KK: And take action. You see, I mean, the different actions that people are taking might sound apocalyptic. Not everybody can buy a farm or move on the top of a mountain and protect his family and his food himself. I think that the action to be taken is create economic, social and political cycles that one can somehow – I do not like the word „control“ here – but that somehow overseeable, überschaubar, other word transparent and instant. I mean just as a small example: I have talked to some people in the manufacturing world – that is not true, industry – but when you take the textile industry that still exists in Europe, we have seen here a number of companies going back to stocking because they have seen the vulnerability of just-in-time delivery. When you talk to people in the steel industry they will tell you, well we cannot stock for more than four or five weeks because we are speaking here about tons of certain commodities that have to be stocked. But I think to create certain cycles that one can oversee, that is something that is fairly important.
LS: And become familiar with your neighbors for example on which you might depend?
KK: That’s a very good advice a friend gave me because he was asked actually the same question that you just asked me. His name is Toni Straka. He was asked how to get prepared for and he said, his advice – which I think is very well – is, get to know your neighbors and be friends with your neighbors. That’s the best advice.
LS: Maybe we can now take a look at the end into your chapter about the walk that you were taking through ‚The Global Village‘. We have one very interesting phenomenon and this is for example, when I take the bus, the public bus, there you have young people sitting there with their Smartphones and they surf the world wide Internet, but they do not seem to really care or even being really aware of the nearest surrounding in the bus.
KK: We had such a debate today in the family where I am currently staying. It is just … it is exactly that problem. We made an excursion with a fairly big group of children and the twelve to 15 year olds are not talking to each other. They are not playing, they are with their Smartphone in spite of the lovely weather we have right now. This is the huge problem and I do not know what will happen to this generation, to what extent they will be able to face a world offline.
LS: And are they intentionally dumbed down? I mean it takes, for example, a very good informed citizen to make democracy work. But if you might have an intention to be more a totalitarian state, well, then just let them be stupid.
KK: Yes, and this has started … the best example at stake here is – in my eyes – an Italian audience because trash TV is something that was really created in Europe in Italy. And we have seen the outcome of the state of Italian democracy. So that is the example at stake and with trash TV we could not even yet imagine what would happen to a world that is conducted by different apps and where people have lost completely their inner compass to make their own human assessment of what is wrong, what is right and above all they have something like a basic empathy. When is the limit to hurt somebody, where is the limit? What is pain? I think here a lot got lost, basic instincts were lost.
I am fairly, fairly concerned about the impact on society as a whole with young people, as you said, were dumbed down by that; who are interested only in their little device and unable to share some sort of human empathy and to be able really to share with another human being and to … I mean it is … we see it also with adults, I am not speaking here about the 15-year-old ones; but we see it with adult people in decision making circles – I think it was the former Swedish Foreign Minister who also via SMS concluded one of his many relations and that went off by Twitter or whatever. I mean that people are unable to talk to each other in a discreet way but that we have this indiscretion, this absence of discretion, for intimacy, for what I should share with a larger audience or not. I am really very afraid that basic concepts of human behavior have been rotten.
LS: But is this really the fault of the young generation? I mean, for example, when I ride the bus I become aware that the old people are talking about the young people in an almost disgusted way. But I always ask myself, well, they are the product of your acts in the past and in the present, right?
KK: Personally, unfortunately, I must say, I do not have children of my own. But I have given lots of thought because I see it with so many friends of mine who have children who are now between 13 and 18 and what to do, how to deal with this device? I mean, even some of those parents have really done their utmost to be a good role model. But then peer group pressure or whatever can become more important. If the parents are most often probably unable to speak to each other at home – are conveying the message that speaking to each other is not of importance; it is in my eyes the most important thing to always be in dialogue. On a private level like on a global political level. There is one tiny thing I learnt in diplomacy is, be friendly, be on talking terms always, never cut bridges completely. And this we have lost on a private level definitely. It is the silence, this horrible silence of estrangement within families, within couples. This is definitely something that pushes children in front of the TV or into their Smartphones. Yes, what will come out of that? My big hope is a complete blackout for a few days that we learn to deal with priorities once again.
LS: And maybe face the inner emptiness that we always try to hide.
KK: Exactly. To be distracted. I mean, I have been now a freelancer for the past 15 years and there were very, very many difficult times. And in those difficult times I was often grateful for the fact that first of all I have somehow managed to sustain myself and that I am able to read a book a second time or to listen to a symphony on the radio for the fifth time and to be able to sustain myself. But people who lack all kind of humanistic culture – and I am not talking now about things that acquire … can acquire at school or university or not – but it is simply this taste, this desire for beauty that you can find in nature, that you can find with living with an animal, that you can find with reading a good novel three, four times. This taste and this capacity for capturing beauty is something that not many people have anymore.
LS: So, to end our conversation: You would not laugh at Dostoyevsky when he says in ‚The Idiot‘, that beauty will save the world?
KK: Not at all. It is a beautiful phrase. – You know, when I was in Cairo, quitting Cairo end of May I had the impression I am not going back to Egypt in the near future because it will not be possible in the near future. And Cairo, which is today the most horrible city that one can imagine, it is really apocalyptic with its smog, with its absence of infrastructure, with its poverty. Cairo got the Prix Universel of the most beautiful town of the world in 1923.
LS: Well, now that you mention Cairo, I would like to refer to another book of yours, ‚Testosterone Makes Politics‘. (2) Is this now the horror movie version of your thesis?
KK: I think the angry young men are waiting in many societies for their hour. And when I saw the first pictures of these young men in Cairo shaved, slim in their fitting jeans, the way they confronted the security forces, for me there was a lot also of sexual frustration among them. There is simply no possibility anymore to encounter woman in public space. Life was easier in Arab countries two, three generations ago. And they cannot channel this energy, what testosterone is, it is all about energy; it makes men focus on something, it makes them competitive, getting to a higher level. When they cannot channel it on an intimate level, on a professional level, because they do not have the economic possibilities to find work, then it can also be … the ultimate ventil can also be political violence.
We have seen that with the crusades in the middle ages, when the church channelled all these young men going into the orient, to fight the infidels because they did not want them anymore to have their infights in Europe; they have their infights here. They were the angry young men in the streets of those days as we have the angry young men today in the suburbs. And we had that problem in 1848 in Europe with academics, jobless, who were fighting for constitutional rights. Some people claim also that the level of violence in northern America, in particular in the United States, is a legacy of surplus of men that we have always had in the United States. The United States had a kind of gender balance only after World War II but beforehand there was always this surplus. There was this male white west. And this is the problem that expects today countries like India and China where we have this imbalance. And a French demographer, Jean-Christophe Guilmoto, said, in 2011 when the seven billionth baby was born, the imbalance between male and female will turn into a problem of international politics in 15 years as climate change is today. Because we have regions in some Asian countries were 100 young women confront 130 men. Gang rape is not something that is happening by sheer reasons of violence or sadism; I think it has to do also with this absence of women.
LS: And how do you interpret the changing gender roles here in the West?
KK: I think her name is Ute Scheub, I quote her in my book, she wrote an interesting book in German three, four years ago, it is called ‚Heldendämmerung oder warum die Krise der Männer den Frauen auch noch auf den Kopf fallen wird‘. That is a very long subtitle. She writes mostly about the problem of young men growing up in our part of the world without any kind of useful male role model. You have female teachers, you have no more sports activities, every boys‘ fight in a school yard turns into a psychological and legal case, and boys cannot anymore turn into men in a somehow normal way in our parts of the world. And I think with the increasing fights that we will see on the labor market in our parts of the world, where as a young men, qualified, you have to compete with equally qualified women but who might be favored in many levels. And this will create sooner or later, I think, new problems in terms of relations between men and women in the labor market, within families, et cetera. I am not very optimistic that we will turn into a wonderful partnership, equality society.
LS: Is also an indication of this that there’s this tremendous fixation on sexuality while neglecting the value of love?
KK: Exactly. I mean it has all become a kind of … also here we see outsourcing actually. It is not anymore about keeping a kind of holistic picture between men and women. I mean take the human being as the entire human being … but it is a lot about competition, outsourcing and actually the total economization, capitalization of life. Personally, I am appalled by the notion of human capital, human resources. In my eyes it is one of the most horrible terms but it truly reflects the nature of our time. It is about not any more the individual, the human being that counts in a company, that counts in a society, but it is about a resource that has to be managed. And a resource that is taken out of the market when some sort of better resource enters. And this is horrible.
LS: And this tension between sexuality and love – is it also something that is logic when you reflect on it that we are in a culture of consumption. I mean, sexuality is rather something that you take, while in love you give.
KK: You are fully right and I think we see it … I mean, I am living with a tiny little farm and I have for instance chicken that in the normal world would already have been eliminated into biogas because normally after eight, nine months these chicken are turned into biogas because they do no more lay their daily egg. I love the animal for its sake and if it lays only one egg per week I don’t mind. And that is the way human beings and animals, the being as such, used to be part of the family, of the circle in older times. We lived with subsistence but old people died at home and were not outsourced. And animals were slaughtered at home or were kept alive and were not outsourced in animal breeding farms. And I think that here it is about simply capitalizing … it is a very totalitarian approach to life actually.
LS: Is it then something that surprises you that the concept of family is a rather an endangered phenomenon in western societies?
KK: No, it does not surprise me. When you speak about a fragmented world, eine zersplitterte Welt, it is also about the atomization of the individual. And I have a high degree of confidence in certain Oriental societies, African societies, where the linkage among large families is strong. While we as individuals today, how will we survive a longer blackout with not sharing a diesel generator among 15 family members as I know it from Lebanon or Iraq. People have survived there thanks to the family. I mean the family is there also the impediment to a kind of true citizen state because you are also linked to a somehow larger family, tribal thinking but on the other hand it keeps the society going and all those leftovers that we have of our societies to those sitting in the underground stations, being left out, I only feel sorry for them, because all what they need is some more empathy and not just a state hand out but somebody who tells them, I like you for simply that you are there.
LS: Okay, and would you say that we also neglect this lesson given by Jesus: you can give a man a fish but you can also teach him how to fish?
KK: Yes, but I mean this Jewish rabbi called Jesus, he said a number of good things but he also said a number of very frightening things and I am not so sure whether we got a wrong translation of all what he said. (laughs) I mean one of the persons who was part of the authoring of the New Testament, Apostle Paulus, I simply don’t like him.
LS: I would say that Paulus is even more important for Christianity than Jesus himself.
KK: Exactly, unfortunately. Yes, I would say unfortunately because Jesus was this kind of … some people call him hippie or whatever … but he was this rebel Jewish rabbi who was an Oriental above all. And knowing a little bit the Orient he was this man of the Orient, of the Galilee.
LS: Yes, and good ol’ Oswald Spengler would say, he is the man who came from the country and going into the big city.
KK: Yes, and Paulus unfortunately made this whole thing – a Greco-Latin-Hellenistic enterprise. And he brought it into the power structures in the Roman Empire. And that destroyed Christianity.
LS: And Paulus was even proud to be a Roman citizen even though they crucified Jesus.
KK: But this is … I mean we are still in this dilemma and this dichotomy Orient-Occident. Very strong so in many levels. And if Paulus hadn’t happened, maybe the world would be a different one because we would be a little bit more oriental.
LS: So would you also say that the people should take a look for example how Goethe had a relationship in the ‚West-Eastern Divan‘?
KK: Well, Goethe had most probably a kind of nostalgic and not very clear picture. Goethe was in the end also the well nourished upper-class Westerner who just for fun … I mean, Goethe never had to fight for daily survival like most of the people in his time and also in our time still have to. But the nice thing about the ‚West-Eastern Divan‘ is that it opens a picture of orient and occident completing each other and inspiring each other, which did not happen so often in literature and in politics.
LS: Thank you very much for taking your time, Dr. Kneissl!
(1) Treppenwitz der Geschichte = Irony / paradox of history.
(2) Compare Laura Blue: “Testosterone, the Power Hormone”, Time Magazine, July 27, 2012, here.