As narrow self-interest trumps attempts to solve the world’s problems, truly we are living in the worst of times – By Richard Dowden
A few years ago I would have celebrated the end of US global hegemony but it is hard to be optimistic about the future of democratic values, human rights and a free market global economy – the formula which America proclaimed as the future when the Cold War ended in 1989. It seemed for a few years to be working as dictators were toppled and democracy proclaimed. But far from liberating nation states, the US and Britain’s attack on Afghanistan and second invasions of Iraq as well as clumsy interventions in Somalia and Libya and its uncritical support for Israel have fired up an uncompromising religious fanaticism that will take decades to pass. 30 years predicts Leon Panetta, President Obama’s former head of the CIA and Secretary for Defence. Washington has decided to try to contain these uprisings through the use of drones but cannot afford to hold ground by putting troops in harm’s way. This marks the end of US-led western dominance of the world.
At one time the US could not have afforded to withdraw from the world because of its dependence on Middle East oil. That is no longer the case. New oil discoveries, on and offshore in just about every African country, the advent of fracking and other new techniques for extracting oil from rock and sand, have reduced America’s need for imports. Freed from the need to placate royal Arab families and oil rich dictators, the US has unleashed, not – as they hoped – democratic and human values but an interpretation of Islam which looks like a Muslim version of the “Christian” Conquistadors.
Europe too is also withdrawing into itself. Led economically and increasingly politically by Germany it has never had a proper defence policy or a clear vision of its role in the world. The slyly-delivered but deadly decision to end the Italian naval patrols in the Mediterranean is a crime of omission. It will result in the deaths of many more refugees from wars or neglect in the Middle East and in particular Eritrea. Ignored for more than 14 years since the war with Ethiopia, its military-minded president, Issias Afwerke, has turned it into an armed prison.
After the 1998 – 2000 war an independent inquiry into the border dispute ruled in favour of Eritrea. But the world ignored this and Eritrea, once one of the most developed and dynamic parts of Africa, was shut down by Issias. It has been neglected ever since. Thousands of young Eritreans try to leave and, exploited by human traffickers, die in the Sinai desert or drown in the Mediterranean. Shamefully, Britain, which claims a global leadership role, not only failed to challenge the Italian decision but refuses to support an alternative. Perhaps the bodies of young dead Eritreans washing up on the fashionable beaches of Italy, Greece and France will come to haunt that decision.
Then there is the panic over Ebola. Very infectious and very nasty and can lead to a disgusting death, but we know how to treat it. It is simply a question of cost, organisation and speed. There is no reason for anyone to die if modern medical help is available. But once again black people travelling from Africa will be subjected to humiliation and fear. Even within Africa countries without Ebola are shunning citizens from countries that have experienced it. The Royal African Society website will soon have a page saying how each country is responding to the outbreak.
Britain has agreed to take responsibility for Sierra Leone, its former colony. France has done likewise for Guinea and the US for its former colony, Liberia. That at least is a step forward for America. When Liberia tore itself apart in the 1990s Washington ignored it. Today’s panicky reaction in America itself shows how ignorance is as prevalent there as it is in Liberia itself.
The response from China has been far more rational, well-informed and generous. Beijing has promised more than £22.2 Million and sent 200 medical workers to the affected counties. But the UN agencies have been slow and sufficient funding has not been forthcoming. The next couple of weeks will be crucial. If it takes off again in West Africa and kills millions I wonder how the rest of the world, in its fearful mood, will react.
Elsewhere, global capitalism which has been allowed to flourish unfettered for the past 25 years, has opened up the gaps between rich and poor and created apparent wealth. I say apparent because since the 2008 crash the markets have been jittery and irrational, capable of wiping out billions of dollars’ worth of “value” in the blink of an eye. Reason is giving way to emotion.
Two banks, Bank of Thailand and Standard Chartered, have even changed their “Business Confidence Index” to a “Business Sentiment Index”. Confidence is based on reason and fact. Sentiment equals sensation, feeling, emotion not rationality. Of course wealth is only wealth because thinking it makes it so, but it has to be thought so by all, backed with rational, explicable facts not algebraic formulas that acquire mystical properties – or sentiment. We need a wise market not a whim market.
The lack of common global feeling emerged on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, surely a moment when European countries could put aside their tribal loyalties and together commemorate that catastrophe. But no, it was commemorated separately. We – or at least our leaders – are still in our trenches. Even Christian leaders who surely should be standing up for common humanity, took part in these nationalist ceremonies – even led them. Nowhere did I hear in the UK’s ceremonies any mention of Austria’s dead, Germany’s dead, Russia’s dead, even France’s dead as well as the estimated 100,000 Africans who died. It is as if only Britain had suffered. More than 700,000 Britons died. Terrible, but a small proportion of the appalling total, 37 million.
After so-called tribal wars in Africa end Europeans urge them to reconcile and hold joint commemorations but when the tribes of Europe commemorate they do so on their own, still as tribes.
Who are the big players who can lead the world? Nelson Mandela’s generous and visionary leadership is still revered but never imitated these days. Neither Russia nor China seems able to produce a leader that is popular at home and big enough to lead on the world stage. Russia has become paranoid and aggressive under Putin. China’s economic success is giving it an enhanced global role but, being undemocratic and controlled by a tiny elite, it is unable to become a global role model or leader. Its aging – disproportionately male –population will also hobble its economic dynamic and create instability.
Britain can never be anything but an influencer and the provider of token military forces but its government is looking more and more insular and fearful, mimicking UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and terrified of the right-wing press which loves to spread fear of the foreign with panicky headlines. Britain can only flourish if it is part of Europe and acts as a global player, open to people, trade and ideas with the rest of the world.
In the US Obama is now hobbled by Congress. A journalist friend of mine who interviewed him recently said it was like interviewing a brilliant professor rather than a world leader. He was on top of every issue and gave well-informed intelligent analyses. But when asked what exactly he was going to do, Obama’s answers became vague and unfocussed. He saw the problems, knew what needed doing but could do nothing beyond protecting narrow US interests.
A frightened America – largely ignorant of the positive role it could play in the rest of the world – is feeding its fears on myths and fantasies peddled by a cynical sensationalist media. Just look at its primitive, ignorant reactions to Ebola and its ridiculous treatment of people coming from Africa. Yes the world is complicated these days but America must not feed on crass simplifications or turn in on itself. Americans should recall the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself “” nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on [email protected]
Excellent snapshot, thank you.
A good article – written more as an editorial – and one that could easily be fleshed out into a thick, current-affairs tome, touching, as it does, on so many different subjects.
In the west, in the middle east – perhaps everywhere – our collective, imagined state does appear to be slipping slowly to the fearful, conservative right. I am not enough of a historian to know where this goes or where it might end, or to know when our collective, imagined state was in a similar situation. Or perhaps we have never been here before. The drivers of that collective, imagined state might suggest (as the dragon stirs, as the caliph sharpens his scimitar, and as virus-impregnated blood splatters the globe) that it is towards an abyss.
But why should it not be towards the light, towards a light, bright future? Sadly, I fear that it will not be so – but maybe I, too, am being swept along with the current with that collective, imagined state. The sense (or sentiment) that I get is that it does appear mighty grim – although the greatest irony of our age of information is that the truth seems as difficult to grasp as ever.
Your write-up made very interesting reading and addresses salient issues in a world now going on autopilot, not knowing where we are heading. I am one of those who have lost faith in the democratic process, especially in the developing world where it has become merely a competition by the super rich for leadership, whether they have got the where-with-all for leadership or not. Can democracy be re-written so that excess money is taken out of the equation? I like to demand that.
There is still a lot of disadvantages, particularly for African nations, in global trade and the actual issues are not being addressed, or are avoided, at the big trade get-togethers. How fair is it that price-setting for Africa’s produce and also what it imports, are set by players, in the developed nations?
I have touched on the above and a number of other issues in my new book, Thoughts for Developing World Leaders and People, published last week by Amazon.com/CreateSpace and available on Kindle; details have been sent to RAS and a copy will be deposited with the Society once I receive my order of proof copies.
On ebola, my theory is that it is linked to the protracted civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, particularly to the killings and shallow graves…, infecting the environment (water and food supplies) which the WHO and UNHCR needs to look into.
While I have enjoyed Richard’s writings and public addresses on African issues for many years, I am disappointed by the simplistic, often vacuous and factually inaccurate anti-American and self-flagellating anti-Western diatribe in this article.
From the very first paragraph, I was struck by Richard’s biased line of argument. His failure to understand that “uncompromising religious fanaticism” did not start with US and British “attacks” on Afghanistan and Iraq seemed shocking; hasn’t Wahabism been around for over 200 years. And why single out the US and UK? Why not mention the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where Bin Laden’s poisonous extremism formed into a life-long creed? Or perhaps Russia’s war against the Chechens which has sucked in Bin Ladin acolytes for more than a decade – and also spat them back out to fight around the world? Or how about the 1990s Serbian genocide against the Bosniaks which also proved a fertile extremist training ground? Did none of these events and many others preceding 9-11 play any role worth mentioning?
And why laude the Chinese about their Ebola response? Â£22 million promised? The US has already spent more than 4 times that amount, promised another $250 million which is allocated/in the pipeline and the Pentagon has nearly 4,000 medical professionals and support staff directly involved on the ground in the effort to combat this crisis – with a price tag of an additional $1 billion. Does that really sound like the Chinese are more “rational, well-informed and generous”? Really? And where have your beloved Chinese – or for that matter Russians, South Africans, Brazilians or wealthy Gulf states – been as the US and UK have used their voices and seats at the UN Security Council to demand others get into action and pony up?
There are some good points in Richard’s article – including Europe’s failing response to African immigration, and European “tribalism” re WWI commemorations (although he obviously didn’t watch the BBC coverage at the Cenotaph on 11 November which did reflect on the Commonwealth countries involved (yes, including the Africans), their lives that were lost and showing each of their diplomatic representatives laying wreaths).
But perhaps the last paragraph exposed more about Richard’s biases than any other: “A frightened America â€“ largely ignorant of the positive role it could play in the rest of the world â€“ is feeding its fears on myths and fantasies peddled by a cynical sensationalist media. Just look at its primitive, ignorant reactions to Ebola and its ridiculous treatment of people coming from Africa.” Am not sure where to start with this uninformed, simplistic, slurring tirade – suffice it to say that these words say more about Richard’s lack of insights into and true thoughts on America than it does about the reality of America and what has actually happened there over recent months.
Come on, Richard – drop the old leftie anti-American, anti-Western sloganeering and get back to what you do so well – helping us to understand the complexities of Africa and its role in the world.