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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