Chaos and Governance in 2015
The year draws rapidly to a close, time for a quick glance back at the past at the wreckage before the winds of progress blow us onward to 2016. Many of the disasters of 2014 continued to rumble on, but the year saw two major diplomatic successes in the Vienna and the Paris deals – impressive victories for the Obama administration strategy of taking the long view and sticking with multilateralism even when it didn’t produce immediate payoffs.
The Syrian conflict metastasised into Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, France and Lebanon (with secondary symptoms all over the world), Russia went all in on propping up the Baathist state and Britain and France chose to leap into the vortex. Along with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the war demonstrates that internationalised civil wars (a category that comprises almost all civil wars) are the most important form of large-scale organised violence in the contemporary world.
Russian involvement in two regional conflicts simultaneously proves beyond any doubt that the Russian elite are willing to pay high costs to try to maintain a role as a major power. The militarisation of the South China Sea shows that China is willing to risk diplomatic frictions and potential security dilemmas on matters it has identified as a core national interest – although perhaps the ‘one belt, one road’ strategy will move its focus West and away from areas in which there could be frictions with the US. For its part, the world’s only superpower has shifted from messianism to a relatively restrained posture under Obama – but the success of Trump demonstrates that belligerent nationalism may be no hindrance in seeking the presidency. Even under Obama the US remains entangled by its alliances to regimes in the Middle East pursuing their own goals and vendettas – as does Britain of course.
European populations continued to respond to terrorist atrocities with stoicism. Despite the vein of genuinely ugly racism and xenophobia in some quarters, the continued sympathy for refugees across large parts of Europe and the US was heartening, even if the situation was mishandled by Merkel. Her actions were poorly thought through and shockingly unilateral, just like the bullying mercantalist policies that Germany has adopted towards Greece during her Chancellorship. More generally, European neo-liberal politicians (including the Conservatives in the UK) have shown that they’re increasingly out of touch with the people that they claim to represent and lack the leadership to address the challenges that the continent faces.
Meanwhile, the campus ‘regressive left’ jumped the shark in Yale in the US and Goldsmiths in the UK. Hopefully, the censorious, relativist current among students comprises a tiny minority that is just howling over the rest – certainly the overwhelming majority of students I encounter are happy to debate controversial issues in a mutually respectful spirit of inquiry.
I disagreed with increased UK involvement in strikes within Syria, for strategic not moral reasons. There was an amazing amount of rubbish spoken in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, so much so that it caused me to change my evaluations of several commentators and politicians. But the decision was exposed to an impressive level of scrutiny, publicly and in parliament. It is important that such decisions are never taken lightly and that the threshold for war is set very high.
So plenty of chaos, less and worse governance than we might hope for. But some reasons for chastened optimism. The most important outcome of 2016 is likely to be whether there is a viable peace deal in Syria – as well as the small matter of the US election.