The international system is a complex and convoluted thing, and sets the framework against which States are measured for their effectiveness, righteousness, or other measures that could serve as proxies for legitimacy: transparency, robustness, even happiness, or goodness. According to these indices, Ireland performs reasonably well – very well actually. It is the seventh most ‘unfragile’ country in the world; the eleventh most ‘good’; the 18th most transparent; and the 19th happiest. Most of these indices combine different metrics such as GDP, social metrics like unemployment, education rates, and so on, which tend to mean that Ireland – and other countries – won’t deviate too much from one ranking to the next. So Ireland performs well as a country. However, the combination of the EU Crisis, Brexit, and Trump’s America seem to represent a trifecta of bad things over which Ireland has little or no control, and could send the country hurtling down those indices. So if Ireland has so little control over these shaping factors, is Ireland in fact a legitimate country, a genuinely sovereign power?
Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times declares our time a crisis for liberalism, the left having ‘lost its way’, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It’s been a popular theme. In 1969, Ted Lowi declared the end of liberalism, in favour of interest group liberalism, in part a kind of elaboration on Eisenhower’s theme of the military-industrial complex. The liberalism of which we speak has long been defined in terms of economics and economic goods, how the distribution of resources and the freedom that comes with fair access to those resources, can allow mankind to flourish. Friedman’s classic Capitalism and Freedom from 1962 defined the concept, which was ultimately routed in eighteenth century enlightenment thinking, and in particular the French Revolution. Its progression through International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twentieth century brought at its end an essential global consensus: Liberal Democracy was it. This was the end of history.
As Francois Hollande transitions from the bureaucratic administrator of the Fifth French Republic to a wartime leader in the latest instalment of the rolling war on terror, decisions are being made about France. The latest pronouncements – from overbearing surveillance measures introduced in the Summer in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, to the most recent introduction of a three month state of emergency in order to deal with the Paris attacks – diminish democratic governance and accountability, in the short-sighted interests of expediency and national security. But this disaffected progression is not new; perhaps the January and November attacks were more overtly offensive than before, and appear more obvious inflection points, but we must go back ten years to the riots of 2005 to try and understand what is happening. Furthermore, the decisions being made today are not merely reflective of missteps taken in the past, but instructive as to the kind of France that is emerging for the future. And for France, we can read Europe, and Western Liberalism.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson‘s America decided upon an Isolationist Foreign Policy concentrating their efforts on the battles at home. It wasn’t a new strategy – since the days of George Washington, the country as it emerged tried to distance itself from foreign entanglements, notwithstanding repeated encroachment on its borders by regional competitors and the death throes of European Power. The German ascendancy in the Atlantic finally forced their hand, and in order to protect the interests of America the country was forced into the war, and away from its isolationism. America, it appeared, could only advance her domestic interests if actively engaged on the International Stage.
The Syrian Crisis continues to dominate international news this week, as poorly executed Washington diplomacy prolongs the affair, and Assad and Putin teach them a lesson in media management. The breathtaking hypocrisy in Putin’s defense of International Law (hopefully the New York Times doesn’t syndicate to Georgia) is matched only by Obama and Kerry in their grand pronouncements on human rights violations in the Middle East. If the weariness of the double standards in International Politics was insufficient to shake one’s faith in the State system, then perhaps we might take some time to think about the sustainability of institutions whose legitimacy is being persistently assaulted from within and without.
Six months ago, it appeared obvious that Bashar Al-Assad was on his way out of Syria. What was less clear, however, was who was likely to succeed him. And it is this particular point – the absence of a clear opposition – that has kept him in place. The various countries that have an interest are both local and global, and the rationale of each bears thinking about.
Let’s start with the neighbours. Immediately surrounding Syria are Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Hizbollah – and therefore Lebanon – is supporting Assad, primarily one suspects because they think he will win. Syria has long been a friend of the Palestinians. Assad himself put it thus in 2002: “As far as an occupier is concerned, there is no distinction between soldiers and civilians… There is a distinction between armed and unarmed, but in Israel everyone is armed. In any case, we adopted the following concept: resistance to occupation is a legitimate right.”
Outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao today added his voice (not for the first time) to those warning against rising inequality as a threat to China’s development. Imbalances in economic growth he warned were threatening the success of the economy. “We must make ensuring and improving people’s wellbeing the starting point and goal of all the government’s work, give entire priority to it and strive to strengthen social development,” he added. It is a common refrain, and one that goes to the root of modern statecraft.