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Monday, 22 December 2008

All across the world, the sky grew dark in 2008

The Cold War was manageable. But containment today: where does one start?

Rarely if ever has the world seemed more unstable and more dangerous. Wherever one looks, the threats are manifold: the grounds for hope, elusive. A couple of years ago, it was put to Stephen Hawking that if there were intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, we would have heard from them. The Professor replied that this did not follow, because any civilisation capable of broadcasting its existence across the interstellar wastes would already have used its advanced technologies to destroy itself.

At the risk of writing history backwards, the Cold War was manageable. It did settle down into a regime of containment. Containment today: where would one start? Russia itself is difficult. A year ago, there were grounds for wary optimism. Yes, Russia was being tricky, but surely this was less a return to super-power confrontation and more the truculence of a testosterone-charged adolescent. The West had no dog in a fight with Russia. Since then, we have been foolish enough to offer a kennel to some wholly unreliable hounds. It was simply daft to tempt Georgia and the Ukraine with the hope of Nato membership. This emboldened the Georgians to behave as foolishly as the Western politicians who had encouraged them.

The Russian response was neither unpredictable nor unjustified. Indeed, it was almost Bismarckian. Clear objectives were achieved in a limited time by the ruthless use of overwhelming force. Yet there is a crucial difference between the Russians and the Iron Chancellor. He believed in ending his wars with a renewal of diplomatic order and an enduring peace. Russian diplomacy is almost an oxymoron.

Suppose there were a trivial incident in Latvia over the next few weeks, in which the local cops manhandle a Russian speaker and throw him in the cooler. The authorities say that he was drunk and abusive. He and his friends claim that they were merely enjoying a jolly night out, until the police picked on them for being Russians. The Russian minority in the local town stages a protest march. Rocks are thrown, windows are broken, truncheons flail. What is the risk of Russia deploying troops on the Latvian border, which is now part of the Russian border with Nato?

The Russians do seem keen to put the new President under pressure. Largely because they believe him - and the Democrats – to be European-style lefties, Mr Obama's admirers on this side of the Atlantic take it for granted that he would respond pacifically: that under him, US foreign policy will turn vegetarian. This may be an unwise assumption. Although their party does have an America-hating wing, US Democrats are not to be confused with cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. Even if this was partly due to the accidents of history, most of America's 20th-century wars occurred during Democrat presidencies.

There is one problem with an Obama foreign policy. We do not know what, if anything, he actually believes, and therefore what he will do. A year ago, it was easier to disregard Russian assertiveness because the fundamentals appeared to be sound. Commodity prices were enabling the Russian government to outdo all its predecessors and offer its people the prospect of steadily rising living standards. That would promote social stability, as well as the indefinite re-election of Mr Putin and his friends. Now, everything is much more uncertain.

The same applies to China. Here again, there had been a decisive break with a history of scarcity and famine. For the first time, the Chinese had enough to eat – and every hope of rapid and continuing material progress. But much of that growth depended on export markets which have now been crunched. In response, the Chinese are not without resources. Traditionally, developing economies import capital. It looks as if Beijing could now redeploy its cash at home. If so, there would be an enormous shortfall in Western capital needs. But it is even more important that China remains stable. With the – containable – exception of Taiwan, China has no strategic dispute with the West. But a Chinese government threatened by unrest would be unpredictable, at best.

Unlike China, India always wears its chaos on its sleeve. It is hard to see beyond that brilliant remark which is in danger of becoming a cliché. "Every generalisation about India is true. So is the opposite." Over the decades, and whatever the chaos, the Indian system has proved its durability, even when tested in extremis by Mrs Gandhi. But suppose, post-Mumbai, a bomb explodes in a crowded shopping centre (that is a tautology) in Delhi. Hundreds are killed. There appears to be a link with dissident elements in the Pakistani security services. What is the danger of a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan?

It could be argued that up until now, the balance of nuclear terror in the sub-continent has been a stabilising force. But there are a couple of problems. To judge by some of the official rhetoric, wild even by Indian standards, not everyone in Delhi accepts the glacial logic of mutually-assured destruction, while Pakistan is not a country to whom one would wish to entrust nuclear weapons.

Nor is Iran, yet we appear to be moving steadily in that direction. Eliot warned us that human kind cannot bear very much reality. If anyone felt it necessary to defend that self-evident truth, they could do worse than cite the West's sustained and abject failure to evolve a policy on Iran. There might be a case for threats. There could be a case for talking. There is no case at all for vacillating between those two tactics with equal lack of conviction. Our blustering has merely managed to annoy the Iranians without frightening them, while our intermittent diplomacy has only conveyed the message that we cannot think what else to do: that we are hinting at talks, not because we want concord, but because we are weak.

So the Iranians, emboldened, extend their influence by sponsoring terrorism while awaiting the day when they too can play in the deterrence game. Let us hope that mutually-assured destruction does translate into Farsi, and that it does not only mean 72 virgins.

It is a mess, like all the rest of the Muddle East. We seem to be as far away as ever from a Palestinian state. It must be almost time for the next Intifada. If the world economy is in a mess, what must it feel like in Jordan and Egypt. Apropos of economics, one of the more alarming features of the present degringolade is that there is no consensus among the experts. It is as if the entire wisdom of the discipline of economics could be expressed in four words: suck it and hope. Western economists seem to be in as much of an intellectual confusion ... as Western geopolitics. It may be that the modern world is just too hard for the human mind to understand.

On that subject, one task that should not have been beyond the wit of man, especially on an island, is to control our frontiers and devise an immigration policy based on the national interest. Yet we have chosen not to do so, at a time when the world is full of people who hate us, some of whom are happy to throw away their lives in order to take ours.

Whatever the weather may be, the world is in a very bleak midwinter. Peace on earth to all men of goodwill: as far away as ever. Merry Christmas.