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Master and Slave in foreign affairs

Frederick Lauritzen

12th August 2022


We are now living in a class conflict between countries. Small nations are defining the foreign policy of great powers. The tail is wagging the dog. Unfortunately, we do not sit down and think about the dialectic of master and slave. Karl Marx had developed and transformed this notion into the famous ‘class conflict’, the fight between the bourgeois ruling class and the proletariat, in his Communist Manifesto (1848). He proposed that workers should take over and become rulers. Such a solution was a simplified rendering of Hegel’s ‘master and slave dialectic’. Leaving philosophical considerations aside, Hegel indicated that the master had lost a sense of ambition, focus, and final aim for his life. The slave, however, had a more fulfilling life by wishing to improve himself. The slave, because he is subordinate to the master, aims to replace him and therefore has a clear goal in life. The slave sublates the master and sees him as a reflection of his better self. “The master, however, who has interposed the slave between it and himself, thereby relates himself merely to the dependence of the thing [the status quo] and enjoys it without qualification and without reserve. The aspect of its independence he leaves to the slave, who labours upon it.” (Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit, 1806)


Small nations are today aiming to include states into their local conflicts in order to tilt the balance in their favour. They are using their larger allies to achieve their local goals and win over their local foes. World War I and II were particularly terrible also for this reason. Large states found themselves embroiled and entangled in conflicts they could not and wished not to understand. One may think of peoples like the Chechens forming legions within the German army in World War two or of the Sorbian population in Germany, who being Slavic speaking, were considered fellow liberators by the Soviet Union.


Such local conflicts are today pushing and defining the policy of those who hold permanent security council seats at the United Nations. The vetoes are often established on a microscopic level. It is a form of proxy diplomacy, led by small nations.


Both Marx and Hegel before him were recalling the original passage on the Master and Slave which is found in Plato’s Parmenides. The question there is radically different: if the master is self-sufficient, how can the slave have any contact with him? Marx and Hegel referred knowingly and wittingly to this platonic notion. For Plato being important or even a philosopher means knowing what one is doing and holding the means to achieve it, and therefore being self-sufficient. Society exists only because individuals are not self-sufficient.


It appears that large states are delegating their general direction and policy making to local conflicts. They have abdicated their idea of how society could improve internally and internationally. They should not impose a foreign idea at a local level, but they should not be driven passively by conflicts and warzones, especially if their leaders cannot even place these local events on a map or explain their relevance.


The tail is wagging the dog. Foreign relations are not a game on who controls the outcome, but a form of collaboration negotiated to achieve the best results with the least effort and expense. Diplomacy needs to be defined by results not by egocentric localistic triumphs paraded on television or internet. Results can only come when there is a clearly defined goal.

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