December 7, 2013
The conscience of the weak
Many people in North America and Europe still take it for granted that the West, or whatever you choose to call it, should do something to prevent mass-murderers from running amok in the rest of the world. But, it would seem, many more are opposed to armed intervention in places like Syria, let alone Egypt, not because it would be unfashionably imperialistic but because it would be both costly and terribly difficult. As a result, Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande and company have taken to talking tough and wielding a tiny stick, drawing “red lines” in the sand and going on about “game-changers” in the hope that nothing really nasty, such as a gas attack on civilians, happens that could force them to change their minds.
Their reluctance to do much is understandable. They do not want to be reviled as reincarnations of Adolf Hitler, as was George W. Bush when he brought down the regime of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a bloodthirsty individual who treated his foes much as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is currently treating his and used chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers. They are also aware that, as Bush found out, reshaping dysfunctional non-Western societies in an effort to transform them into something resembling a democracy is a thankless endeavour that is almost certain to end in failure. To have any chance of success, the presumably benign representatives of the “international community” would have to dig in for the long haul, as did Great Britain and France when empires were, as they had been for thousands of years, perfectly normal and therefore respectable institutions.
The contemporary world order, such as it is, is based on the idea, vigorously pushed almost a century ago by the US president Woodrow Wilson, that it is better to have many single-nation states than a few multinational ones like the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Unfortunately, carving out single-nation states in Europe proved to be a messy business, with tragic consequences for minorities that found themselves forcibly removed or “liquidated”. In other parts of the world, ethnic cleansing or when, as in Turkey, a minority is too big to be eliminated, nationalist repression is still going on, and the situation is further complicated by the demands of religion.
Throughout the Middle East, many regard the nation state as an alien import. If they are loyal to anything, it is their own particular religious sect, their ethnic group or their tribe. What is more, if they feel powerful enough, they will have few qualms when it comes to expelling, or murdering, those whose presence they find disturbing; most of the once thriving Jewish communities in Islamic countries have been wiped out; the Christian ones, “the Sunday people”, like the Egyptian Copts, will soon share their fate.
The British and French lost interest in imperialism when it dawned on them that the economic benefits of ruling foreigners had dwindled to a vanishing point and the costs were getting higher and higher. As tends to be the case in such circumstances, they attributed the retreat from empire to their belated respect for the rights of others and proceeded to pour scorn on the pretentions of previous generations and deplore their villainy. For those who give priority to abstract notions, decolonization has been an unmitigated blessing; for countless millions of individuals, it has been an unspeakable tragedy. For them, national independence has meant humiliation followed by a miserable death.
This is not about to change. Western hand-wringing, accompanied on occasion by economic sanctions, is certainly not going to cow the dictators, war lords, religious fanatics and others who are slaughtering either their enemies or, as often happens, people on their own side in order to blacken the reputation of anyone who is trying to thwart them. Al-Assad and his Russian friends blame the “rebels” for the gas attack on a Damascus suburb; they are probably lying, but then, in the merciless world they live in, they could be right.
Syria, like most other Muslem countries and, not so long ago, many in Central and Eastern Europe, is a multiculturalist’s ideal in which a wide variety of different ethnic and religious groups coexist more or less peacefully when an outside power or an unusually ruthless dictator belonging to a minority rules the roost but, if left to themselves, are easily induced to throw themselves at one another’s throats. For many years, the evident military supremacy first of the Europeans and then of their North American “cousins” helped keep a lid on things, but the moment it became evident that the US had finally lost interest in playing the inevitably unpopular role of globocop, old hatreds came bubbling up to the surface. Insisting on the need to hold free elections in societies whose traditions do not include democracy or anything else that requires mutual respect has been worse than useless.
So, faced with the choice between assuming full responsibility for the well-being of invariably hostile populations, and standing aside and praying that the violence can somehow be “contained” so it does not spill over into Western lands, the former masters of the world have opted for the latter. Will they be safe on the moral high ground they have staked out for themselves? Probably not: in the interconnected, globalized world the West has created, it will take rather more than wishful thinking to keep at bay the terrifyingly anarchic forces that have been unleashed.