Tuesday, 5 August 2014

My demand for inaction from the world's leaders

The Gaza conflict is the latest area on which the world's spotlight has fallen and the latest conflict concerning which people across the world have demanded action. Quite right too: the impact of the last few weeks' carnage on the Palestinian population, already suffering overpopulation, crippling sanctions and an utter lack of basic freedoms, is unimaginable. What is happening to them is not just unforgivable but incomprehensible. So how can we in our safe, secure neighbourhoods look on as the situation spirals downwards?

The same spotlight fell earlier on the Ukraine and Syria, before that on Libya and Egypt, and before that on Afghanistan and Iraq (it is difficult to remember now, but before the US invasion there was real and pressing concern over the treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Kurds and Marsh Arabs by Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The impulse to act to prevent injustice and suffering is a noble one, and surely if the world's leaders cared about anything beyond their own shores then these are the situations in which they should intervene, aren't they?

In fact this is a relatively recent perception. Not so long ago the only circumstances in which national leaders would intervene in a conflict, let alone seek to use force to influence the behaviour of another regime, was if their own geopolitical interests were directly threatened. No one expected anything else and I am not aware of anyone counselling intervention even when the Khmer Rouge were engaging in their bloody reign of terror. More recently there seemed very little international pressure for intervention in the appalling and genocidal civil war in Rwanda. But we are all internationalists now, it seems. Social media and citizen journalism have brought the world's conflicts into our living rooms and onto our handheld devices and we can no longer stand idly by.

 This is a truly excellent thing and I applaud it heartily. I am firmly of the belief that the trajectory of humanity's development is upwards and this is an excellent example. When the world's people will no longer stand idly by as injustice and brutality is being inflicted on our neighbours we know that we have taken a great step forwards.

However that is not the same as saying that what such situations need is intervention and action from the world's leaders. As I have said, we haven't got much of a history to go on to gauge the efficacy of such interventions, but it doesn't look good so far. Just list the countries in which world leaders took direct action, not primarily because they were under threat themselves but in the name of wider geopolitical interests and/or the welfare of that country's citizens: Bosnia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Ignore for a moment the indisputable fact that this is hardly a comprehensive list of countries that have suffered from internal conflict and/or brutal regimes in the last 20 years. Simply look at the success rate for such intervention. Hmm. See my point?

Or look at more recent times. Four days ago the closest thing yet to action by world leaders in the Gaza conflict was announced with great fanfare. The US and the UN (specifically John Kerry and Ban Ki Moon), making the most of their undisputed status as world leaders, declared that they had delivered a 72 hour ceasefire that would lead to a lasting peace. A few hours later the killing started up again. I shall probably be proved wrong by the time this post is finished, but my personal belief is that today's much lower-key ceasefire brokered by Egypt has a better chance of sticking. To use my daughter's wonderful analogy  the first was like a pompous and overbearing police officer intervening in a dispute between rival groups of youths; the second like a neighbour saying, "Listen lads. I've had enough of this, right. Keep it down or I'm going to tell your mums. And you KNOW that'll mean big trouble."

The thing is that world leaders, having typically reached their positions of power through an unassailable belief in their own wisdom and forcefulness, tend to overestimate massively their ability to resolve situations through intervention. In fact they are often crap at it, frequently because they simply do not take the time to understand the situations in which they intervene. Leave aside the iniquities of the US/UK invasion of Iraq: it was notable also for its incompetence. Through its policy of De-Baathification of Iraq the Coalition Provisional Authority sowed the seeds of religious conflict in that country and the recent Isis insurgency.

The EU has often been viciously attacked for its sclerotic inability or unwillingness to act decisively and quickly when the situation demands it. On economic issues it has been repeatedly derided for "kicking the can down the road" rather than taking action and on foreign policy issues many have bemoaned the absence of a strong and unifying voice.

The implied comparison is with the US of course. Now there is a world superpower that acts decisively and speaks with one voice. And just look at the results. Unencumbered freedom to act led first to the extraordinary and unsustainable financial bubble started by Reagan (and Thatcher) in the 90s. And although that almost led to the downfall of the world's financial system the response has been not less but more extreme action. Quantitative easing has been and is an incomprehensibly vast gamble, pumping literally trillions of dollars into precisely the financial institutions that almost gambled away the world's prosperity once before.

In foreign affairs terms, the Us' freedom to act decisively and speak with one voice has led to a huge and virtually unquestioned campaign of extra-judicial killings in Pakistan and the Yemen, countries with which the US is not even at war. It has also led to the US wresting control of vast quantities of data away from the citizenry in its huge surveillance programme.

Perhaps EU leaders would have done all these things too, had they had the power and the unified voice behind them, but thankfully they havent. The EU is characterised by compromise, negotiation and fudge, and what that leads to typically is inaction rather than action. And all power to the bureaucrats' elbows, I say, if it prevents EU leaders from acting as decisively (and disastrously) as US leaders have.

Of course I recognise that this argument tends perilously close to the laissez-faire insularity that actually hands control of the world to the world's despots and multinational corporations. We need governments and we need international bodies to help deliver on our growing awareness that the world is interconnected and that no man, and no country, is an island (in the metaphorical sense, anyway). However we kid ourselves if we believe that it will be decisive action by these governments or these international bodies that will resolve the world's conflicts.

So what will? Well, there is no easy answer to that, and each conflict is different. But the key, I firmly believe, is increasing awareness of and political engagement in such situations across the world amongst ordinary people. It is one thing for regimes such as Netanyahu's to "stand firm" against pressure from world leaders; it is another for the Israeli people to ignore the constant and unrelenting flood of Facebook and twitter posts that must be slowly making them realise just how isolated they are becoming in the world over this issue.

So share those FB posts and RT those tweets (the constructive and helpful ones anyway). Recognise the limitations in the power of leaders to change anything much for the better outside their own sphere of influence and understanding but recognise too the immense power of the world's citizenry- you- to influence the beliefs and actions of your neighbours, wherever in the world they live. What world leaders need to do is to use their influence (through sanctions, UN resolutions, expressions of international disapproval) to support that of their populace. What they do not need to do is think they alone can march in and resolve an intractable situation overnight.

And to return to my daughter's analogy, I have seen at first hand which approach is more effective at calming and then resolving a potentially volatile situation between rival youths. The pompous and overbearing policeman will pretty soon have a full-on gang battle on his hands. The canny neighbour may just have a chance of getting the lads to calm it, and even perhaps to begin talking again.

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