Back to realpolitik: only the promise of prosperity will ensure the return of liberal diplomacy

Yet another ceasefire has been arranged in Syria’s civil war, although this morning it looks close to collapse. The difference with this one is that the US and the EU have not been involved in its negotiation. And, not coincidentally, it does not include the Kurdish forces. It is the result of a rapprochement between Russia, Iran and Turkey. It looks as if this is the shape of things to come: a world where there is only the faintest pretence that countries should look out for the needs of people outside their own borders.

It looks like the death of an idea: liberal diplomacy. For liberal diplomacy, and its cousin the ethical foreign policy, the object of diplomacy, and the use of military power, should be to create a better world. A world of peaceful relations and prosperous trade, where human suffering is the responsibility of all. In its place we are left with the idea that countries should pursue their interests, and seek whatever advantage they can. There is an old name for this approach: realpolitik. It was the way most countries ran their affairs before the First World War, with only a few prominent dissenters, such as the British Liberal leader William Gladstone.

How it resolved in that era was that countries were ordered into a small number of great powers, able to conduct independent foreign policy, and project their power over a sphere of influence. Then came minor powers, nominally independent, who did the best they could in the spaces left behind, and finally subject nations – colonies, protectorates and such, managed by great powers, and sometimes minor ones. It was a system established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after the fall of Napoleon. It was taken for granted that major powers would use force to pursue their interests – and that their only constraint was avoiding wars between themselves. This did not always work. From 1853 (the Crimean War) to 1870 (the Franco-Prussian War) there were a series of short wars between European powers. But, compared to previous periods of 99 years, the years from 1815 to 1914 were remarkably peaceful for Europe. But it had its dark side. The great powers exercised their might with little restraint within their spheres of influence. It was a century of colonial oppression. The weakness of the Chinese empire was cynically exploited: amongst other things the British used force to maintain the opium trade there; the death and destruction wrought in Belgian Congo is probably the biggest blot on a cynical century. And in the end the prevailing matter-of-factness about the use of warfare led to the European powers to drift into a catastrophic war in 1914.

After 30 years of war and an unstable interwar period, in 1945 the world moved into a different order: the Cold War. The Cold War resurrected the idea of realpolitik, but between just two great powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. And these powers projected their power within their respective spheres with an ideological slant: promising to promote peace and prosperity amongst their allies through their political philosophies. But the failure of the Soviet system to deliver its promises became so obvious that it collapsed from within in 1990. This ushered in the period of liberal diplomacy that now seems to be coming to an end. It was not without its success. Perhaps no period of 30 years in human history has seen so many people lifted from abject poverty – as the countries left behind in earlier phases of development took advantage of a peaceful, trade-friendly world (and ,some might say, the enlightenment of neoliberal economics).

What caused it to fail? I think there were two main problems. The first was that the United States, which emerged as a hegemonic power, became tempted to abuse its position. Many Americans felt that their country should use its massive military power impose its will in a manner more explicitly to favour its narrow interests. These were led by the Neo-Conservatives who gained influence in the presidency of George Bush from 2001 to 2008, and reached its apogee with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Neocon strategy was dressed up in the language of spreading peace and democracy – but this convinced nobody. The feeding frenzy of US businesses following the invasion of Iraq was shocking. Other countries, especially Russia and China, resented what they saw as an abuse of raw power, and drew the lesson that they too should advance their interests by building military power.

But the election as US president in 2008 of Barack Obama might have saved the day. No US leader has been as faithful to the idea of liberal diplomacy. But by then it was too late. The financial crash of 2007-2008 had fatally undermined the authority of liberalism. The winning idea of liberalism was that it was the surest route to prosperity. That was how the US won the Cold War, after all. But after the crash, people lost confidence in it. The economies of the developed world stagnated. Amongst those who lost confidence were many American people themselves: Donald Trump won the presidential election by promising to go back to realpolitik. But authoritarians from Vladimir Putin to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to say nothing of the Chinese Communist Party, saw that they had nothing to lose by pursuing an authoritarian path. And liberal diplomacy without the promise of economic prosperity simply looks like weakness.

So what happens next? The objective of the nascent Russian-led Syrian peace process looks to be first to persuade the Syrian Kurds to submit to the authority of the Syrian government. Russia no doubt also wants to wind down its presence. They also hope that the Sunni rebel groups will either submit or be crushed, except those allied to Turkey, who can expect some form of autonomy. That leaves the question of Islamic State, but the US will help with that. This way forward may bring an end to the civil war, but at a terrible cost. We had hoped for a less oppressive government – instead we will no doubt have to confer status onto one of the most vicious regimes in post-1945 history.

The main uncertainty in this new world of realpolitik is how the new US government will interpret its national interest. The main ideas that are emerging are: the identification of US interests with those of Israel, including a vigorous pursuit of Iran; renegotiation of trade deals to reduce access to US markets; the finishing off of Islamic State’s control of territory in Iraq and Syria; and some kind of engagement with Russia. This does not look particularly coherent, and neither does it look particularly rigorous in following the US national interest – so how it will play out in practice is anybody’s guess.

Meanwhile China will proceed to consolidate its influence in Asia as America reteats. Russia’s main aim for now is to weaken and lift the economic sanctions imposed on it. Russian leaders probably want to establish all the countries of the former Soviet Union in its sphere of influence – but just how far it will be prepared to go in that aim is moot.

But there is one key problem behind all this. The authoritarians taking over leadership of the world powers understand realpolitik and the consolidation of power. But they do not have an answer to economic prosperity. Each country, including Russia, Turkey and even China, is threatened by economic stagnation or worse. That fate also awaits the United States if Mr Trump prevails on protectionism and the Republican deficit hawks prevail on budget policy. That will undermine their authority in the long run, though no doubt the ruling elites will still prosper.

If liberalism, ethics and humanity is to return to world affairs, then its advocates need to show that it is the surest route to economic prosperity. Absent that, the world faces a grim prospect.

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