There was a time when having almost two hundred of your citizens blown out of the sky was a big deal for a western democracy. But when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last month, killing 193 Dutch citizens and a couple of dozen other Europeans, the response was conspicuous public mourning, some mild objections, a soupçon more sanctions, but otherwise nothing. Everyone knew which government might have handed powerful surface-to-air missiles to eastern Ukraine’s rebels. But nobody seemed willing or able to do anything much about it.
There was also a time when whole swaths of the map being overrun by Islamic groups who make al-Qa’eda look like Quakers would have caused concern to the civilised world. Wasn’t the intended post-9/11 mission (before it got lost in a swamp of largely futile ‘nation-building’) precisely aimed at preventing the emergence of ungoverned spaces around the world where international terrorists could train freely?
What bliss that 2001 map looks like now. Back then there were only a couple of ungoverned spaces. Today the map’s full of them. Having rampaged across Syria, crucifying and beheading as it went, Isis has managed to seize major towns, an air force and oil facilities in Iraq and declared the reconfiguration of the Caliphate. The Pakistani Taleban have managed to temporarily seize control of major airports in that country as well as tribal border regions. And neither there nor anywhere else does anybody seem to have any idea of what to do. Today the list of ungoverned spaces stretches from North Africa to South Asia.
In the United States there is a growing awareness that some of this might be a presidential problem. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize for not doing anything seems to have persuaded President Obama that not doing anything brings peace as well as prizes. Yet the results don’t support his instincts. And it’s not just ‘hawks’ on the right who are noticing this. Just last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, said, ‘The worldwide populist unrest and the decline in effective state control is historically unprecedented.’
So no, it certainly doesn’t help when the person in the post of what used to be leader of the free world spends much of his time golfing and shopping around for post-Presidential real estate. But despite the gibes of his domestic political opponents, the problem is not President Obama checking out of his job early. It is that most of the American political class — and a worryingly large proportion of the American public — don’t think that leading the free world is the President’s job any more. That and the fact that the ones who do think it’s America’s responsibility don’t seem full of ideas about what to do instead.
It’s not just about the big picture. It’s about details. Recently leaked cables suggest that even before the MH17 outrage, the Ukrainian authorities were asking America for technology to intercept BUK missiles like the one that brought down the airliner. Like so much else, the request fell on deaf ears. Don’t poke the bear, appears to have been the feeling in Washington as everywhere else — a paralysis that turns out to be self-reinforcing. Europe is looking to America for leadership and Obama’s America thinks — not without some justification — that when it comes to Russia in particular, the Europeans ought to lead the way. A more than usually insulting cartoon in the International New York Times last week portrayed the Europeans as sheep, baa-ing inconsequentially in the wake of the strongman Putin.
So yes, the problem is bigger than one man, even a man in the position which for almost a century could have shifted such global drift. There are also the problems which are, if not unique to our time, then certainly exacerbated by it. For instance there is undoubtedly the problem of the West’s attention span in an era driven by 24-hour news. Like a lighthouse, we seem able to fix our beam on everything at some point, but settle nowhere, and focus on nothing. For many people, the downing of MH17 was a sharp reminder that the Ukraine crisis is still going on.
It’s not just in Ukraine that this attention deficit disorder is manifesting itself. It is now three years since David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy led the international effort to topple Colonel Gaddafi. But after the toppling and the victory tour everybody lost interest in the country. The American ambassador was murdered in Benghazi in an act that the current administration still insists was something between a random act of violence and the more exuberant variety of movie criticism. But apart from that incident, the world’s attention just couldn’t stick around. This week British and other western diplomats were pulled from Libya and the Royal Navy evacuated hundreds of British and other EU nationals. And all this in a country which is one of the main launch points for illegal migrants seeking to enter Europe.
What is more, the cycle of avoidance is self-reinforcing. There’s no political focus because there’s no popular pressure for anything to be done. And there’s no popular pressure because — unlike in, say, Gaza — Libya, Syria, Iraq, parts of Ukraine and numerous other places are now too dangerous for reporters to work from. So the world’s attention only ever focuses on moderately dangerous situations.
Attention span is not our only problem. Not the least among our other problems is the fact that the interconnectedness of our globalised economies (about which we have heard so much for so long) turns out to make any stand against any country seemingly impossible to achieve. Anyone can maintain sanctions against North Korea. We don’t want their kimchi, and sanctions against them cost us almost nothing.
When it comes to a country like Russia the calculus is very different. In the wake of the MH17 atrocity, David Cameron said it would be ‘unthinkable’ for the French President, François Hollande, to go ahead with the billion-pound sale of two helicopter carriers to Russia. ‘We need to put the pressure on all our partners to say that we cannot go on doing business as usual with a country when it is behaving in this way.’ The French understandably took exception to this. ‘David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own back yard,’ said the head of President Hollande’s ruling Socialist party, keen to pay special attention to the number of oligarchs who keep London’s housing market and luxury goods sector in such rude demand.
As it happens, the UK derives just 2 per cent or so of Russian foreign direct investment. In 2012 the European country that received the largest share of such investment from Russia was Cyprus (37 per cent). But which country was next on the list? It was the Netherlands (16 per cent).
This isn’t the only reason the Dutch political class squandered an opportunity to show some genuine leadership, and contented themselves instead with public mourning and the (long-delayed) granting of a request to send inspectors to the site. But when your economy — and opinion polls — are likely to suffer as a result, it is easier to put the onus of leadership on another country or another leader and postpone any tough talk for another time and another day. Which is what the Dutch are doing. And the Americans. And the British. And almost everybody else.
The last time the world had this kind of leadership gap we got Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. There are those who will chalk that up to providence. But it was perhaps more circumstance. Terrific challenges can throw up terrific leaders. How we need them today. Look around the world in 2014 and you can see that the only countries and people actually aspiring to the burdens of global leadership are the countries and people we’d least like to have them. In the meantime, we should consider the job application to be open. ‘Wanted: at least one individual (of either sex) to lead the free world. Communication skills useful, but not a priority. Nobel Peace Prize winners need not apply.’