November 20, 2014
A summit on the edge
For the Herald
The Hague hosts the first gathering in a disenchanted age of rebooted multilaterialism
THE HAGUE — When the leadership of a large part of the world turns up on your doorstep, the advice is simple: stay indoors. This is more or less the instruction that residents of this genteel Dutch city, including this writer, have received from local authorities, and few of us seem pressed to defy the burghers with a welcoming garland of seasonal tulips. Heads of 53 states, or their foreign ministers, are now arriving in The Hague to conduct great works on behalf of public safety. What could be more ennobling for us locals than to reward them with our silence?
Roads are blocked across the city for a gathering designed to clean the world of unwanted radioactive material. The usual paraphernalia of security lockdown is in place: two F-16s will fly overhead, while naval vessels will patrol the coast off the North Sea port of Scheveningen. These measures have assumed greater significance in recent days, as the cascade of events in the Crimea prompted an informal G7 meeting to be summoned on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit. Russian intransigence will be the main dish, truffled no doubt with a mish-mash of sanctions.
The crisis-led twist to the nuclear meeting marks a peculiar turn in events, and one with a deep resonance for the West. US President Obama embarked on a “reset” of relations with Russia in 2009, and consolidated his post-Bush approach to foreign policy, through a commitment to reach binding multilateral agreements on nuclear weapons and material. Far from reaching the desired goal of greater understanding with Russia, this process now reaches its third such summit with some notable technical successes in the field of enriched Plutonium, but with Vladimir Putin glaring iridescently from the bowels of the Kremlin.
Normal as they have become for all global summits, the legions of uniformed personnel and military hardware watching over southern Netherlands seem a fitting way to describe the intensely defensive state of the multilateral ideal. The west’s geopolitical pundits may be right that Putin has overstretched himself, or wishes no further aggravation, although no one is sure for now what message is guiding the Russian troops supposedly massing on Ukraine’s border. There is a lot less doubt over how Putin now sees the West. “Time and again they cheat us, make decisions behind our back, present us with an already established fact.”
“They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.”
The information coming from political sources in Moscow is that Putin himself wrote most of the speech he delivered last week after he annexed Crimea with his fountain pen. His tenor was simple: outstandingly defiant, profoundly suspicious of Western values, utterly determined to maintain Russian prerogative across its vast backyard. Hyperbole of this sort could be mildly upsetting from the leader of any state. From Putin, it represents what seems to be a final exit and swish of the stage curtain on a two-decade act of tense companionship with the West. A headache for diplomats working an array of dossiers; a major worry for post-Soviet states, notably Moldova and the Baltics; and a cause, if cause were needed, for deeper anguish in Syria, where thought of UN intervention is now delusional.
None of the above should excuse Europe and the United States of the mistakes they have made in treating the post-Soviet political cycle. Economists and bankers threw caution to the wind in liberalizing the communist economy in the 1990s: Putin is the hubris to their dogma. To judge from the words of Kremlin insiders, the revolution in Kiev, approvingly waved on by the West despite former President Yanukovich’s claim on the allegiances of a substantial Russian voting base, cemented the conviction that nothing could now be lost in severing the entente. “The feeling was that whatever we do, the West won’t support it, so things can’t get any worse,” said Yevgeny Minchenko, an adviser to the Kremlin, quoted by The Guardian.
As a result, The Hague hosts the first summit of a disenchanted age for multilaterialism rebooted. Whatever the meeting’s results are, they will not be watched over by Putin, who has cancelled his attendance. The media focus will not be on radioactive detritus, but Crimean fall-out. Sleek back cars will glide and zip over depeopled tarmac, but a sense of disorientation will remain.
Ruling the world through the judicious application of rules remains the goal, but it faces some tough questions. Putin was withering in his assault last week’s on the West’s selective use of international law. The West and its allies, for their part, find it extremely difficult to decide who amongst them should pay for the decisions taken in bloc, whether this involves the crisis of the euro, the risks to Germany’s roaring trade with Russia from sanctions, or the prospects that the tap be closed on Russian oil and gas to Europe – 30 percent of total consumption, but 100 percent of the gas used by the Czechs.
For all its achievements, the multilateral system so eagerly promoted by the European Union for decades, and now by President Obama, has been decidedly unskilled at distributing risks and costs — such as ground troops or cash — between its component nations. The EU is also experiencing some difficulty in maintaining popular adhesion. Once described by Diderot as the most beautiful village in the world, The Hague will awaken today redressed as a fortress. This is a minor annoyance for most of us; for the rebels against the global system, it is more like an augury.