Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Reflections on a Ravaged Century

In 1999, noted historian Robert Conquest published a timely book entitled Reflections on a Ravaged Century. It consisted of two parts. The first dealt with the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, outlining the ideas and ideologies that lay behind the greatest mistakes of a most violent age. The second part dealt with the present and the future, and how those hideous ideas still had the power to work their magic even after the fall of communism.

In the final chapter Conquest speaks of future alliances, and he makes no bones about his preferences. The challenges the world will face in the twenty-first century, especially those of a global nature, will be far beyond the competence of existing international organizations and alliances. Not NATO or the UN, neither the EU nor any other regional groupings will suffice. Only one alliance will be able to guard peace and freedom in the future – an alliance of the English-speaking democracies.

Why is this the case? Well, the primary reason is that nations such as France, Germany, Russia, however democratic they may be today, simply do not have the moral and political traditions that will allow them to deal effectively with global threats to liberal democracy. This isn’t to say they won’t play a part. Rather it is simply to recognize that the most stable forms of liberal democracy the world has known are to be found in countries such as the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand. Moreover, no other group of nations has a truly global interest. Russia is concerned with its immediate neighbors, Germany with its status in Europe and France with its former colonies in Africa which are now the source of the majority of its immigrants. By contrast, the US and the British Commonwealth together have immediate interests in most of the world.

As a result, and contrary to our most cherished illusions, alliances such as NATO and organizations such as the UN are simply not equipped to deal with global issues. More often than not, these organizations will hinder global action in the name of more local or regional concerns. Even today the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia stood shoulder to shoulder in a common front opposing any further resolutions on Iraq. But as Conquest points out, this should neither surprise us nor be cause for reproach. The fact is that these nations have different, more localized interests than a general English-speaking alliance would. In these circumstances, organs such as the UN Security Council are ridiculous because they force countries responsible for global issues, such as the US and Britain, to adapt themselves to countries with regional concerns, such as France, Russia or China. As Conquest clearly sees, this is a ludicrous situation.

The solution, it seems, is to admit where we are and make the necessary adjustments. This will mean that some nations, such as France or Russia will have to accept that they are not world powers. However, by accepting this, they can take on their rightful role as regional powers. In many respects this is what is happening today. The political reality on the ground is forcing us to see that the organizations we’ve created no longer suit the situation (and in the case of the UN, it’s probably doubtful that this particular organization ever did conform to reality). George Bush has said the current crisis is a test for the UN, but it’s a test the UN necessarily cannot pass. In the end, everyone should probably be grateful for the actions of France, Germany and Russia. They are only demonstrating that neither their regional interests, nor the more global interests of the English-speaking democracies can be accommodated in organizations designed to ignore these differences. In fact, if we were to recognize this truth we could probably all save ourselves a lot of anger and frustration. During the Cold War, the global reality was rather simple, but today things are more complex. Threats to the world remain however, and replying to these, especially in regional terms, will require a far more subtle approach than can be found within the monolithic walls of the UN Security Council. Reality has consigned the old solutions of the post-World War II era to history. It will be interesting to see if our ideas about that reality can catch up with the facts on the ground.

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