Published on 20 Feb 2014

How the west slipped into powerlessness

Anti-government protesters reel barbed wire around a barricade during clashes with riot police in the Independence Square in Kiev

We’re beginning to find out what the world looks like without superpowers. Or rather with one declining superpower that no longer wants to act like one, and a global elite that’s lost its narrative.

The Ukrainian revolution spiralled into lethal violence this week. In Syria, the noose once again tightened around Homs – a city that Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned could become another Srebrenica.

In Egypt meanwhile, journalists for a global TV channel were paraded in white outfits, in iron cages, charged with aiding terror.

The through-line in each situation is what one cynic on my timeline described as “the special Obamacare of non-intervention”.

When the USA decided, last summer, it could not sell military intervention in Syria – either to its parliaments, its people or its military – it sent a signal to every dictator, torturer and autocrat in the world that only diplomats, at the time, truly understood. The British diplomat in charge of Syria, Reza Afshar, tweeted a one-word summary of the UK parliamentary vote on Syria: “Disaster!”

Only now are we beginning to understand how widely that judgement applied.

In Ukraine, as the Economist’s Edward Lucas has argued, the basic issue is Russian influence. Russia the Ukraine’s attempt at economic co-operation with the EU, and has reportedly filled Ukraine’s ministries and police stations with advisers during this struggle to impose control.

With Syria, the Chinese president Xi Jin Ping helpfully spelled it out as he arrived in Sochi, for a winter games largely boycotted by western democratic leaders.

“I think China-Russia relations have the most solid foundation, the highest level of mutual trust and the greatest regional and global influence ever.”

That regional and global influence has succeeded in preventing any effective action against the mass slaughter in Syria.

In Egypt, the crackdown on foreign media is part of a wider suppression of free speech – among the very bloggers, film-makers and political activists who were at the forefront of the January 2011 revolution.

Here again Russian diplomatic influence has bolstered the position of General Sisi, giving the Egyptian military room for manouevre against a State department that seems perpetually wrongfooted, cautious and disengaged.

In his first presidential election campaign Barack Obama promised: “We’ll be the country that credibly tells the dissidents in the prison camps around the world that America is your voice, America is your dream, America is your light of justice.”

But the world since then has changed. I don’t think it’s just a question of America’s $17 trillion federal debt, nor even the hollowing out of certainty once its neoliberal economic doctrine was in ruins. America’s paralysis is ultimately rooted in its internal divisions and the sudden parochialism of its political life.

Large parts of the plebeian right in the USA distrust everything the Federal state does: I’ve met sensible people who believe the entire state is run for the benefit of a global financial elite, and who habitually withhold consent for everything.

To say that this political minority exerts a disproportional influence on public life is an understatement. Meanwhile the liberal left is weary of interventionist wars, and becomes more weary with every drone strike on a family wedding in Pakistan, and with every press report out of the festering scandal that is Guantanamo.

In 2010 Obama outlined a national security strategy that disavowed the use of pre-emptive wars. But during the combined crisis over Syria and Iran’s nuclear capabilities last year, the State Department seemed to be acting on impulse, threatening Russia over Syria, then offering a get-out-of-jail card – in the form of chemical weapons decommissioning – which itself then defused the stand-off with Iran.

You can’t say the USA is being inconsistent: it is backing down, pragmatically, wherever its soft power is trumped by the hard power of a China-Russia diplomatic alliance. What’s hard to justify is the word strategy.

Political elites across the west know they have lost a lot of deference and consent. The combined impact of economic crisis and the rise of social media have left them looking distant, out of touch and with no narrative to sell to their people.

Increasingly, in democratic countries, that vacuum is being filled by a kind of default disengagement: “onshoring” has become an economic buzzword; so has energy self-sufficiency – while security capabilities are now being re-shaped around the ability to hit enemies with drones and viruses rather than Kevlar-clad soldiers.

By contrast, at the periphery, there’s a revival of visceral, nationalist politics that makes mainstream liberalism and conservatism begin to look anaemic.

In many European countries, hard right nationalist anti-globalisers are getting between 15 and 20 per cent; scenes from Ukraine, where far right activists were among the most dedicated and tooled up barricade fighters, sent shivers through democrats in countries like Greece and Hungary, where the self-same political forces continually threaten democracy.

Sitting in a newsroom, where the images from Ukraine roll 24 hours a day alongside continual carnage in Syria and the sorry sights outside the Tora prison in Cairo, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the west’s diplomacy has become a series of “can’t-dos”: can’t get Western journalists out of a Cairo jail, can’t protect Syrians from mass murder, can’t even get a secure meeting with Ukraine’s beleaguered president.

In the parallel universe of TV historical documentaries we are re-living the spring and summer of 1914, when everything seemed all right and global war came out of the clear August skies. If bad things are about to happen – and it seems they are – then at least you can’t say people will be surprised. What’s surprising is how quickly the west has slipped into powerlessness and how easily populations have accepted it.

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20 reader comments

  1. Nigel Wilson says:

    More deep stuff, Paul.
    The word is exhaustion and perhaps fear. A touch of the Thirties all over again along with some appeasement. The certainties have disappeared and all is in flux.
    The moral compass spins on its fluid as the West refocusses on the latest electronic gadgets that can be easily purchased with debt. But then money doesn’t have any value any more so what price a loaf of bread?
    As times pass and events arise things will change. There will then be a new dispensation, new gods and new load of ontological nonsense. As the good lady said `In the end all will be well’.

  2. Philip says:

    It is surely that our experience of intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan & Libya have made things worse not better….or at least that’s what the media has been telling us. While the Russian & Chinese leadership have no qualms about spilling the blood of civilians in other countries, if it furthers their interests, we have rightly become more squeamish. The present political impasse between the Republican House of representatives & Obama means that the US is effectively paralysed, because the Republicans will try to prevent anything Obama tries to do. And many of our interventions have been carried out with little thought “what happens next?” And how would we exert the influence of the West in the Ukraine in any military sense? The Russians have loads of money & the ability to turn off power supplies in the Ukraine or bankrupt the country. Other than the EU offering loads of cash to the Ukraine Government, what do you think we could do? Is this a pre- first or second world war situation? Who can tell? It may be we have to live through a period when there is no-one standing up for democracy, liberty and freedom of expression, as the price we have to pay for ill-considered intervention, acting as “the world’s policeman” in the past. The diminution of our influence in the world is inevitable and probably both necessary & desirable. In many ways, we aren’t a beacon of democracy, community, economic success or social inclusion. Perhaps before we start to intervene without due care in the affairs of other nations, we should get out own house in order.

    1. Active Learning says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more.

      Why would anybody want to enter in to Europe’s austerity measures voluntarily.

  3. Keith says:

    “If bad things are about to happen – and it seems they are – then at least you can’t say people will be surprised.” Care to share more on what bad things you see happening, Paul?

  4. charles shoebridge says:

    Paul, your article suggests that a British pro Syria (and incidentally, also Libya) intervention diplomat was right in describing the failure of the US and UK to intervene is Syria as a disaster. You list various unpleasant current international scenarios, from the war in Syria to journalists detained in Egypt and the current bloodshed in Ukraine, implying these occurrences are related to the decision not to attack Syria, but at no stage do you make clear in what way you think these situations would have been prevented had the Syria intervention occurred.

    To take Syria itself, it’s far from clear that any “limited strike” intervention as was proposed would have had any impact on the ground in Syria beyond killing yet more Syrians and giving a temporary military advantage to a rebel opposition that, in the main, isn’t in any case supportive of inclusive secular democracy, and is for example allied with al Nusra, al Qaeda’s arm in Syria. Even were the dictator Assad to have been deposed, in reality it’s far from clear that the resulting alternative Islamist rebel government would be any great improvement, or that Assad’s fall would end the war – particularly given that a now largely unreported war involving large numbers of civilian casualties is also taking place between different rebel factions.

    In respect of Egypt journalism, the US and UK have never demonstrated any interest in defending press freedom, even less intervening militarily to do so. For example, the US was interventionist up to and including the intervention in Libya in 2011. Yet there was no intervention in Egypt to defend journalists imprisoned by Mubarak, just as there never would be to defend journalists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. In short, a US interventionist policy in Syria would have had no impact whatsoever on imprisoned journos in Egypt, or anywhere else.

    To Ukraine, where some 100,000 protesters, some of whom are well armed violent activists from the extreme right, are demanding the resignation of an elected president of a country of around 45 million. Are you suggesting that, had the West attacked Syria, the Ukraine government (with its undeniable problems and faults) would have simply capitulated to Western demands, rejected Russia and dutifully made an agreement with the EU? Again, in short and regardless of any US intervention in Syria, there would have been no possibility of US intervention in Ukraine – and for what purpose anyway, to depose an elected president and force Ukraine to team up with the EU?

    In reality, to discover the value of intervention one only has to look at the countries where it’s been applied – such as the geopolitical, human rights, and security disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. If anything, it isn’t the unwillingness of the US to intervene militarily that has diminished its international leverage and prestige, but that having repeatedly done so over the last decade the limitations of US power, and the futile and counter productive results of such a policy, have been so vividly exposed.

  5. Paul says:

    Oh get over yourself.

    Maybe if you’d spent a little bit less time whining about the Iraq war it wouldn’t be like this. And perhaps if the west wasn’t backing nazis in Ukraine and jihadis in Syria we’d be on firmer moral ground.

  6. Philip Edwards says:

    Paul,

    Most of us Joe Citizens are well used by now to mainstream media lies, wilful ignorance and stupidity. But even by those measures this blog sinks to a new low.

    It seems you want the USA and Europe to “intervene” (translation: invade and mass murder) in yet another nation which refuses to go along with Western neo-fascism. If so, you are as up to your armpits in innocent blood as the guilty politicians.

    So here’s an incomplete list of those nations where the guilty politicians DID “intervene,” plus a gross underestimate of the casualties they caused:

    Korea War 1950-53 – Over 4 million.
    Vietnam War 1955-75 – Over 3 million.
    Invasion of Dominican Republic 1965-66 – 2,000.
    Chile Civil War 1973 – 30,000.
    Nicaragua Civil War 1981-90 – 60,000.
    Indonesia Civil War 1965-66 and 1976-2005 – 270,000.
    Colombia Civil War 1966 to date – 31,000.
    Guatemala Civil War 1960-1996 – 200,000.
    Laos Civil War 1975-87 – 184,000.
    Iraq Iran War 1980-88 – 435,000.
    Afghan Civil War 1988-2001 – 400,000.
    Yugoslavia Civil Wars 1992-96 – 260,000.
    Serbia War 1999 – 2,000.
    Afghanistan War 2001 to date – 40,000.
    Iraq War 2003-11 – 160,000.
    Invasion of Iraq 1991 – 250,000.
    El Salvador Civil War 1980-92 – 75,000.

    This doesn’t even include various mass murders of dissenters carried out during the European scuttle from its various empires. The USA is doing the same as it exits from its own short lived empire.

    If you are going to “contribute” to this “debate” here’s a tip: Engage brain before blogging. At the very least you might try to debrief history.

    1. J welsh says:

      Without intervention
      Rwanda 1,000,000
      Darfur 400,000
      Balkans 100,000
      Congo 5 million
      Syria 140,000 and climbing

    2. Aaron says:

      Just listing a bunch of conflicts doesn’t make your point. The UN authoized military action in Korea and the Gulf War. By opposing these wars your exposing a shocking naïvety. It’s easy being a peace activist when your not in government.

  7. SAL the GAL says:

    Thanks for this. It has been hard to find a commentary that made any sense.

  8. Andy Dicker says:

    It’s a very complex situation, but I think one clear thing is that the public has lost any appetite for intervention, and that applies to those both on the right and the left. Syria, rightly or wrongly is seen as a bad situation, but one which wouldn’t be solved by the West getting into the thick of it.

    The worrying thing is the growing influence of both China and Russia. Whilst many may rejoice at the US lessening of influence, what it’s being replaced with can in no terms be seen as preferable.

    There’s a point where less intervention in world affairs becomes isolationism, and onshoring is an example. There’s also a point where isolationism and nationalism are influences…

  9. Gerald Payne says:

    Surely Paul Mason has got it wrong UK elites were gagging for more intervention but it was the “wont get fooled again” attitude of the public which brought pressure to bare on MPs to prevent yet more ” humanitarian” bombing. Why can’t you see this as a victory for people power or would that set the wrong precedent? The current situation in Ukraine shows that western meddling is still ongoing.

  10. Anthony says:

    Maybe the answer is that it is not our war, none of these are, and we need to stay out. And that getting involved, or seen to be getting involved, only acts to strengthen these regimes.

    Also, we seem to ignore that in each of these countries, the regime, though odious, has deep support (and in Venezuela and Ukraine, probably a plurality). We focus on the nice, westernized, English speaking middle class protesters ignoring the poor regime supporters. Or the somewhat scary uber nationalists in the Ukraine opposition or Islamists in the Syrian opposition

  11. Jon McAlroy says:

    I agree with all of this and I told you so. Peace isn’t the absence of war, but the presence of Justice and you won’t have Peace if you don’t have Justice. For those that thought it was a victory not the kill Assad for the chemical attacks, here’s your payback.

    The part Paul Mason leaves out is the harm done to US foreign policy by Wikileaks. It’s hamstrung them diplomatically and left them even more impotent at a crucial juncture in world history. It shouldn’t be down to the US, we need a UN of Democracies whose aim isn’t the avoidance of war but the promotion of peace.

    The last century was dictated by the conflict between capitalism and communism and it could have all been avoided by early intervention in the Russian civil war. This time it’s even more fundamental between those who will socially oppress and those who won’t accept it. As before every country has both camps within it’s borders and both have had and will have their relative victories. Everyone needs to decide what side they’re on. I have 4 sisters and 2 daughters, I know where I stand, do you?

  12. Andrew Dundas says:

    Being a younger guy you probably don’t remember the advice given to a “confidential” meeting in 1954 with senior members of Congress in which they were advised that “Jaw-jaw is much better than war-war”. Congress took that as a good summary advice from, guess who?
    Was former General Dwight Eisenhower timid to decline to rescue the Hungarian uprising in 1956? You’ll need to look it up, but the crushing by Soviet tanks was horrid.
    Was Lyndon Johnson “weak” in not sending in the Marines to rescue the Czech “Prague Spring” in 1968? Again, the crushing was bloody and unopposed by outsiders.
    Should Jack Kennedy have declined NOT to send the US Navy to attack approaching Soviet ships loaded with missiles? Instead he restrained the hot-heads, no lives were wasted and peace preserved. Moreover, a nuclear test-ban treaty was concluded.
    It’s as well we’re recalling the folly of the 1st World War this summer: that centenary might give us all pause to reflect.

  13. Ken Haylock says:

    In the same way that America used, abused & quickly burned the global goodwill it had abroad after 9-11, it also used, abused and burned up the patriotic ferver and determination that swept the country after that seminal event. The cynicism of ‘never waste a good crisis’ applied to a national emotional cataclysm like 9-11 results in a nation that doesn’t trust a word its leaders says and won’t buy any argument in favour of intervention anywhere under more or less any circumstance.

    They made their own bed…

  14. Richard Calhoun says:

    Good analysis Paul, a real portrayal of what is happening, what is puzzling to me is you seem to support the intervention the West is shrinking from?

    So we intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan, going back to VietNam and all the disputes in between, which have resulted in the main in massive failure and an understandable hatred of the West

    Surely its time to let people sort out their own problems within their own region?

    Time for the West to re=build their Economies and to take heed of their moral position?

  15. Jeff says:

    The commentary and some of the puerile comments that support it belie the usual oft-paraded myths that we in the west support human rights, freedom and democracy in our foreign policies. Only officially designated enemies commit crimes – we forever make ‘mistakes’ in pursuit of noble agendas, but any notion that we commit full-blooded crimes whilst pursuing selfish, unsavory agendas is off the state/corporate media radar. Its the Propaganda model of Herman and Chomsky illustrated in all its glory. The mainstream media, as well as this commentary, camouflage the real agendas – outright expansionism, the nullification of alternate, more humane economic models to western policies, and the subjugation of other countries capital and resources – under the banner of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

    The reality is that our governments are soaked in the blood of millions of victims of our foreign policies. In fact, there’s no evidence that a western country has been involved in any kind of humanitarian military intervention since the end of the second world war. Instead, invasions, wars and millions of lives have been lost at the behest of ensuring that capital and resource flows remain largely uni-directional (e.g. from the underdeveloped south to the over-consumptive north). There’s plenty of empirical evidence showing this to be the case. Its just unfortunate that our ‘free’ media continue to spew out the usual garbage about the wonders of empire. One pundit said it appropriately when he described US history as 200 plus years of ‘senseless butchery and democracy deterred’. You wouldn’t think that from reading Mason’s piece.

  16. michael says:

    Very disappointing analysis, one-sided and selective. Already adequately rebutted by other commenters. One question? Is the op aware of his own ignorance?

  17. Braqueish says:

    In my view there a lot of dangerous misconceptions in your piece. The current phase in geopolitics began with the German recognition of breakaway Slovenia which started a chain reaction leading to the illegal NATO intervention — AKA the “Blair Doctrine”. The Russians, as allies of the Serbs and well aware of the dangers of nationalistic populism vigorously opposed it. The notion that it’s ok to go to war because we don’t like the regime is very dangerous. We’ve done it again and again since. Each time it has caused catastrophe worse than the wrongs we were purporting to right.

    As for the arab spring uprisings which we have overtly and covertly supported, it’s easy to be sympathetic to the liberal westernised middle-class protestors. However, it’s sheer bad analysis not to realise that once the power vacuum has been created, there are much darker forces of reaction to be unleashed which overwhelm the westernised minority. Playing this game has turned Libya, Syria, and Tunisia into hell-hole basket cases. The Egyptian Army pushed back, and now the Russians. In each case we find ourselves (in the name of toppling despots) in bed with some of the most vicious reactionary forces due to a simple lack of foresight.

    You’re right about one thing. The world is a much more dangerous place now than it was 20 years ago.

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