The Shadow of Anarchy

The following is an extract from an article published on 5 November 2016, about the return of international anarchy following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, inter alia:

The walls came down in 1989. Anarchy – the absence of global governance – came down with them, with the strengthening of the United Nations and the European Union. A period of peace in Europe followed. But new walls are forming. How worried should we be about the new superpower clashes in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and how should our governments respond? Looming over the global cooperation of recent decades is anarchy’s long shadow.

The town hall of Münster, where delegates to the Peace of Westphalia agreed on the political and religious independence of states in 1648. Since 1989, things have been a little different.

In March 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea put the US into the spotlight. In a swift, bloodless move, Putin secured the warm water port at Sevastopol and strengthened his country’s security position. In the coming months, Russia was to give extensive support to separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. But Putin did not stop there.

By late 2015, EU trade sanctions on Russia were in full swing. But Putin was as stubborn as the low oil prices and decided to bomb ‘terrorist’ (translating as anyone who disagrees with President Assad) positions in Syria at a rate of 60 airstrikes per day. Assad’s chemical weapon-wielding dictatorship could not have been more pleased. Mission accomplished?

Until the Syrian Army’s decisive victory on 22 December 2016, Russian bombers continued to pound rebel positions in Aleppo. Yet in Syria, unlike Ukraine, Putin has not been alone. The formation of a Russo-Turkish partnership became clear on 9 August 2016. Frustrated by America’s lack of support for Turkey’s detention of 26,000 coup ‘plotters’, Erdogan had a symbolic meeting with his Russian counterpart. 

A pattern is emerging from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean that reflects Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s talk of a “new cold war”. Brexit’s demoralising of the EU may be a part of that pattern, in which international organisations are losing the clout that they gained since 1989. Whilst Saddam Hussein was punished severely for his illegal actions in the 1990s, the 2010s have seen a return to international anarchy. For instance, China recently called a UN-mandated tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines’ right to its own territory a “scrap of paper”. Sound familiar? Far-right elements in Germany used similar language to refer to the Treaty of Versailles. In an effort to counteract the EU and NATO, Russia has formed the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Sound familiar? The Soviet Union once formed COMECON and the Warsaw Pact to counteract the American-led Marshall Plan and NATO. 

Cold War II is a fact of life. The US is “the great Satan” to Iran, a “heinous violator of human rights” to North Korea, and an “external threat” to Russia, suggesting that the US and its allies need to make efforts to put trust back into international institutions, in order to avoid the current cold war turning hot. The policy of appeasement advocated by Jeremy Corbyn also risks turning the current cold war hot: his apparent refusal to defend the Baltic states in the event of Russian attack could lead to trust in NATO collapsing. Consequently, Putin would see our Atlantic Alliance as weak. And President Trump now might have the power to self-destruct NATO, which is concerning given that he shares Corbyn’s isolationist foreign policy.

Before the United Nations and the era of collective security, war was worryingly frequent. Without surrendering a degree of sovereignty, states are particularly conflict-prone. Before the EU, the UN and 1989, there was anarchy. Now that anarchy is showing signs of returning, Brexit negotiations should pressure the closest possible union to counteract the forces pulling the EU, and indeed NATO, apart.

After World War I the formation of the League of Nations allowed peace to be kept for twenty years. The League’s fracturing precipitated the breakdown of this peace, largely due to the Anglo-French Hoare-Lavel Pact, which favoured secret negotiations over League-mandated diplomacy. A Brexit of sorts allowed war to happen in the 1930s, and it could do so again. History has, in recent years, showed signs of repeating itself, but it need not repeat itself ever again. 

Let us keep on this side of history. Let us reject international anarchy. Let us uphold the world after 1989.

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