American reluctance to fulfil its previous international role is leaving the global stage open to dark forces, says PAUL KNOTT.
Sometimes an incident defines an era. The brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul is one such case. This brazen crime epitomises the accelerating collapse in world order; a rupture caused by the Trump administration’s ripping up of America’s role in maintaining it. As the title of an excellent recent book by the American political analyst Robert Kagan puts it, we are now entering a situation where the jungle grows back.
Monsters such as Hitler and Stalin are not the unrepeatable products of a unique period in history. Modern day autocrats like Vladimir Putin share many of the same characteristics as those earlier dictators. They are equally unconstrained by morality and have the same megalomaniac thirst for power. Such malevolent individuals are always lurking in society. It is the prevailing circumstances in the world that determine whether they are able to emerge fully from under their rocks.
In the 1930s, the world was preoccupied by a disastrous economic crash. This distraction was compounded by America being in one of its periodic insular, self-absorbed phases. Meanwhile, free Europe was poorly prepared to defend its democracy. Had a firmer order been in place, the predators of the day may have been prevented from wreaking the carnage they did in the Second World War.
Since the end of that horrific conflict, a different set of circumstances has been enforced by the United States and its allies around the world. This has not always been done perfectly or entirely justly. Decisions were often distorted by the proxy conflicts of the vicious Cold War struggle.
But the muscular maintenance of this global order ensured that malicious rulers knew that there were limits to their conduct, based on what the US-led alliance was willing to tolerate. As well as placing a protective umbrella around the free world, successful attempts were made to support the spread of liberal democracy – the political system that offers the best circumstances under which to live yet devised by humankind.
Some slippage in the system began under the previous two US administrations, distracted as they were by another financial crash in 2008 and the fallout from the disastrous Iraq war. Donald Trump is now rapidly accelerating the unravelling. Partly this is due to his ignorance about the world and his country’s role in it. But it is also deliberate. Trump and his destructive acolytes repeatedly denigrate the US’s long-standing democratic allies and give explicit encouragement to the worst dictators.
The results of this are increasingly clear to see in almost every corner of the world. An innocent British citizen has been killed by the banned chemical weapon the Russian regime deployed on our streets. Putin continues to bring carnage to neighbouring Ukraine.
He feels unconstrained in bombing schools, hospitals and fleeing civilians to prop-up the homicidal Assad regime in Syria. Emboldened by the green light he sees shining from the White House, Putin is likely to increase his cyber-attacks, election interference and violent assaults on neighbouring countries.
In Asia, China’s pursuit of dominance is proceeding apace and increasingly unhindered. Trump’s failure to engage properly with the region or even turn up to crucial summits is coupled with his regular undermining of US alliances there. The message that the US cannot be relied upon to counter China is heard loud and clear in Beijing.
It is heard equally clearly by the countries of the region, who are reluctantly working out ways to cosy up to China in the absence of support from Washington. In October, the Chinese even felt bold enough to abduct Meng Hongwei, the Chinese citizen who was president of Interpol, the international police cooperation agency, while barely batting an eyelid about any potential consequences.
Most dangerously of all, North Korea is exploiting Trump’s ego and ignorance to proceed with its nuclear weapons programme and escape the shackles of some of the international sanctions that were previously handicapping it.
Elsewhere, liberal democracy is imperilled by would-be demagogues across a range of once staunch Western allies from Turkey and Brazil to the Philippines via European nations such as Poland, Italy and Hungary.
But it is the alleged actions of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in ordering the Khashoggi murder that most emphatically illustrates the return to the law of the jungle. Rather than an opponent, this is a supposed Western ally with close personal relationships with the US president and his family. It is a country that relies enormously upon Western support. And yet it feels confident that there will be no consequences of acting in such an appalling manner.
Not only has Trump failed to deter this barbaric behaviour, he continues to condone it and connive in the Saudis contemptible attempts to cover it up. His actions will add rocket fuel to the already soaring belief of the world’s dictators and ill-intentioned rulers that anything now goes in pursuit of their own self-interest.