1961. Berlin. The Soviet forces laid out barbed wire across the road in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Their chiefs later admitted that if the Americans, British or French had steamrollered the wire down, they wouldn’t have replaced it.
But the Allies did nothing. A green light for the construction of the Berlin Wall, the most visible, miserable symbol of the Cold War. One indecisive moment prompting almost three decades of the divided city.
1991. The world. We’d won. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union collapsed and all the money cut off from the communist states from Cuba to Africa. Russia entered a decade of mishandled misery under Yeltsin, George H Bush coordinated a global, united alliance to kick Saddam out of Kuwait.
Western liberal democracy had emerged as the prevailing power in the world. The UK and US felt confident enough to dispose of the strong-arm leaders Margaret Thatcher and the same George H Bush for moderate, next-generation leaders Clinton and Major.
Unfortunately they forgot the words of President Thomas Jefferson, abridged to “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.
A terrible level of complacency set in very quickly. The Russians were now our friends. All the threats came from the Middle East, but we could easily contain them, like we did with Saddam.
British Intelligence defunded the Russian monitoring office. Our agents were no longer required to learn Russian. NATO and the EU stepped up efforts to expand their membership across the former Soviet states, now that Russia was no longer a threat.
At the same time, western liberal democracies’ insatiable appetite for cheap goods and lower energy prices increased the traffic of trade and corporate partnerships with – or rather from – ever-more stirring China. Tiananmen Square had revolted us, but not enough to cancel the Christmas decorations.
As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, our complacency and arrogance was confronted in the most horrific fashion.
9/11 in New York was the first of many attacks across the west. London, Glasgow, Spain, France, Denmark, Germany followed. The response from George W Bush and Tony Blair were not-so skilfully coordinated responses.
They showed themselves to be very good at starting things, but very poor at finishing. Afghanistan (more of that in a moment), Iraq, Libya – the cheering on of the false Arab Spring. The removal of dictators and naïve belief that democracy would fill the void in tribal, feudal lands.
All the while, Russia had never stopped spying, never stopped planning and infiltrating. Developing its cyber capabilities and cleverly leveraging its armed forces. From a position of relative weakness, new leader and former KGB chief Vladimir Putin outfoxed every western leader as his stature and power base grew.
China’s deployment of capital and intelligence meant an equally ‘soft’ progress to inherit the crown of the world’s top dog. Cameron & Osborne’s ‘golden age’ initiative to feather the capitalists nests by doing deals with the faux-communist state must have provided hours of amusement in Beijing. Whilst the unregulated (forget de-regulated) British marketplace, offered not only the family silver of companies, but the controls of infrastructure, transport and energy. Roll up, roll up…
2021. The world. We’ve lost. Western liberal democracy has shown itself to be weak, divided and unwilling or unable to square up to the brutal rival ideologies.
The scenes from Afghanistan over the last week or so have painted a painful picture for everyone directly associated with the war conducted over the last 20 years. Armed Services from all allied nations are asking, ‘what was the point?’. Once again, the country has proved its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’.
Thousands of allied deaths, goodness knowns how many thousands Afghan fatalities, mass displacement of people fleeing the violence. False promises, false hope, no coherent strategy. And a fantasy that we could somehow train and equip a domestic force to police its own state under the guidelines of our ways and values.
The lamentable performance of President Biden and the desperate, embarrassing narrative from the Johnson government show how far we have fallen down and short of what we once cherished. There were of course no easy answers or exit strategy from all this. And President Trump’s Taliban deal didn’t help matters.
But the only conclusion looking at the world as it stands right now is – dictatorship is the winning strategy. With no domestic audience to placate and no elections of substance to face, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum.
The Soviet disaster of the 80s in Afghanistan has been brushed aside as Russia keeps its embassy open and Putin’s team reach out to the Taliban. Masters of realpolitik as ever. While China and Iran weigh up their options either side of the wreckage.
Twenty years of piling up the debt burdens and staying one step ahead in the cyber warfare and manipulation have enabled both Putin and Xi to plant metaphorical bombs under the foundations of our societies.
But real bombs and bullets remain available. And the willingness of the west to fight back has been absent. The chaotic withdrawal from Kabul currently in progress follows Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine that went unpunished. Sanctions? The Kremlin refuses to tremble. China’s cancellation of ‘One Nation Two Systems’ in Hong Kong 27 years early has brought no backlash beyond words.
There will be nervousness in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as American resolve appears wavering. Some will say this is no bad thing. Perhaps we should stop charging around the world, poking our noses in and insensitively imposing our will. Corporate pillaging is often as bad as the Nordic original.
Whatever happens, the west’s rhetoric needs to be matched by its deeds. The Cornwall summit earlier this year declared that ‘America is back’ and that liberal democracies must stand firm for their values and good influence in the world.
We are falling someway short on that. The coming months and years will show what our values truly are.
61 – dictatorship
91 – democracy
21 – dictatorship
51 – ?