Alphen, Netherlands. 22 January. From Kiev to Damascus and beyond liberal ideas of international community are in retreat. In what is the last remnant of a once-ancient sea that separated Europe from Africa Lac Leman sits below a soaring Alp known as the Devil’s Teeth. This rocky statement provides the dramatic backdrop for the Syrian peace talks which start today in the Swiss lakeside resort of Montreux. The omens are not good. The Syrian opposition had its arm twisted to attend, those attending seem to have little real influence and a new report suggests the Syrian regime has murdered at least 11000 detainees. And yet what is at stake in Montreux and Geneva is not simply the alleviating of the suffering of a wretched people but the very future of global governance. Is the twenty-first century going to be some ghastly repeat of the nineteenth century balance of power or can some semblance of international community be properly created?
The idea of international community has been around a long-time. In the modern era it can be traced back to the origins of public international law, the Justinian legal tradition and Catholic canon law. However, the idea of international community really gained ground in the immediate aftermath of Europe’s twentieth century struggles.
The idea of a rules-based international order reached its zenith with the UN adoption of “Responsibility to Protect” in the wake of the tragedies in the western Balkans and Rwanda. This flagship of liberal humanitarianism and human security placed the duty of states to protect the rights of citizens above state sovereignty. As such ‘R2P’ chimed with a brief moment of optimism and determination when it seemed the American-led mighty West and its values would rule supreme. Today, in the wake of two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a self-generated economic disaster and the re-emergence of two illiberal great powers – China and Russia- the West, its strategy and values and are in open retreat. Worse, the world is steadily slipping back into a twenty-first century version of Machtpolitik where might and only might is right.
In Europe Ukraine’s President Yanukovich snubs overtures by the EU and this morning a pro-EU, anti-government protester was shot by police. In Minsk Soviet relic Lukashenko clings tenaciously onto power. Three years ago last month Mohammed Bouazizi consumed his Tunisian life in flame and by so doing started the turmoil that boils across the Middle East and North Africa. Today, much of the region teeters dangerously between autocracy and chaos as weak intolerant regimes cling to power whilst around them and under them people die in their tens of thousands in the face of oppression and sectarian hatred.
Syria’s suffering and Ukraine’s freedom is unlikely to be assured until the geopolitics of both the region and the wider world are resolved. Sadly, the suffering of millions and the deaths of even hundreds of thousands is in and of itself no longer sufficient motive for concerted action, precisely because such action could disturb the new, sensitive regional and global power balances.
Consequently, a geopolitical fault-line runs from Kiev to Damascus and beyond. On one side of the line Chinese, Russian, Iranian and the leaders of other illiberal, less-than-democratic and often corrupt states that see themselves as new power albeit suffused by a very traditional concept of power and influence. On the other side of the line they see hand-wringing, flabby, decadent European liberals who talk the talk of freedom and liberty but who have no intention of walking the walk overseen by an uncertain America retreating from the world with its tail between its legs.
If international community is to be restored and through it the entire edifice of United Nations re-energised the West must rediscover its strategic mojo. That means political leaders who look up and out from the trenches of austerity and together demonstrate the necessary vision, will and means vital to twenty-first century influence.
The new balance to be struck between Realpolitik and community is perhaps the last strategic choice the West as the West can make. In Kiev it is the Kremlin not Brussels that is dictating events. In Syria even the removal of Syrian chemical weapons is a Russian plan dictated by Russian interests. In East Asia China takes the view that the US is a has-been power lacking the will and soon the means to challenge Beijing’s nascent hegemony. Privately Japanese leaders share the same concerns.
Winston Churchill once said that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war” and the Geneva II talks in and of themselves must be welcomed. However, such suffering will not be ended if the West retreats into gesture politics. The paradox for Europe and indeed the wider West is that for ‘international community’ to exist Europeans must rediscover at least a modicum of Machtpolitik and Americans must rediscover the West.