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Combat-ready? British soldiers on a Nato military exercise in Estonia intended to deter Russian aggression (credit: Getty)
This summer looks set to be remembered as a low point in the vitality of global democracy: the shape of global politics has seen unprecedented change in six short months. It is hard to think of a time in the postwar world when the global footprint of freedom has been so comprehensively under threat and in so many different locations. The response by both America and Europe has been ostrich-like. A violent but probably ultimately suicidal Sunni insurgency in Iraq and the ongoing fighting in Syria are likely to give way to an unimaginably powerful Iran, whose fortunes have turned on President Obama's strategic incompetence and push towards American isolationism. A resurgent Iran has wasted no time expanding its sphere of influence. Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq and failure to provide the promised "diplomatic surge" have contributed to the violence of the sectarian fracture of the state. The irony of America helping Iran achieve her strategic objectives, while compromising the nuclear non-proliferation stance of the West, is astonishing and would have been inconceivable a year ago. In Asia, the cauldron of disputes is reaching new levels of tension between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. At the same time China is clamping down on the limited freedoms of Hong Kong. The British press has seemingly forgotten about the crisis in Ukraine while Russia has cut off gas supplies to her neighbour and some Russian companies are in the process of switching contracts to the Chinese renminbi, reducing Western sanctions to an annoyance.

Nato needs to take several important lessons from this mess. First, that despite the rhetoric, Obama is the least globally involved American president since the Second World War. The contours of American military response to global crises appear to be limited to fig-leaf troop deployments measured in the hundreds of men, and limited air strikes. Obama's foreign policy maxim "Don't do stupid shit" can be translated, in policy terms, as an effective move to isolationism. A seasoned strategist might suggest that the avoidance of "stupid shit" is not a policy but a state of mind that translates to inaction. Not doing anything has left America with only a selection of very bad geopolitical choices. America's defence of democracy may well be sacrificed in favour of a return to the 19th-century notion of effectively creating buffer states between great powers. Ukraine would be one such example and Iraq might ultimately be balkanised in a similar way between the respective Shia and Sunni powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Second, the building of relations between Russia, China, Syria, Iran and perhaps by proxy Iraq, is significant. The alliance of oil and gas producers and the huge Chinese market underscores Western economic as well as political miscalculation. The spread of democracy, which America and Western Europe have taken for granted, is under assault by countries who have now demonstrated that they are able to exploit the unwillingness of Nato to engage strategically.

As America remembered over Memorial Day weekend the human cost of its commitment to defending democracy, Europe awoke to a new political reality in the form of resurgent extremist and nationalist politics. For those still downplaying the significance of Russia's Ukrainian incursion, there was little respite. The European elections occurred simultaneously with the Ukrainian elections, in a week in which Vladimir Putin signed the Eurasian Union into existence, and an unapologetic President Obama restated his incoherent retrenchment of US foreign policy at West Point.

Putin's appearance on the beaches of Normandy for the D-Day commemoration was symbolic of the degree to which European and American responses to Russia's occupation of Crimea have had little effect. Attempts to isolate Russia economically have been put into perspective by the strategic Sino-Russian gas deal, which some estimates value at $400 billion over 30 years. The deal was accompanied by joint military manoeuvres and a declaration of concern about Ukraine, seemingly absolving Putin of Chinese condemnation and paving the way for future cooperation. Obama's strategic miscalculations in Europe and Asia have made concrete a Eurasian partnership that seemed improbable at the start of the year and is intended to counterbalance American power. Equally, the Russian stock market and rouble have both rebounded since the lows at the start of Western sanctions. Nonetheless, there is still violence in the east of Ukraine, despite an apparent reduction in the Russian troop build-up on the border.
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September 25th, 2017
10:09 PM
Less talk about democracy, exceptional liars, because NATO and democracy are incompatible.

July 14th, 2014
2:07 PM
This summer will be remembered for the flow of lies and stupid articles.

July 14th, 2014
8:07 AM
This man really believes in true democracy. When I read, I thought it was a woman over 50. Too naive and idealized.And what kind of aggression it? Crimea territory which for over 200 years is Russia. And more than 200 years, there are Russian troops. Most of the people there, all these 200 years were Russian. When it is in a part of Ukraine, all the past 23 years, they are perceived as a misunderstanding.Therefore, after the illegal political coup organized by U.S. taxpayers' money in order to bring to power a pro-American government, people are simply people in the Crimea did not recognize him and declared independence. Whether they supported Russia? Yes. As well as the United States in a similar situation would have supported.And funny to remember about the fact that the referendum is not unconstitutional government which came to power through unconstitutional. Constitution or valid or not. No middle ground. At the time of the referendum, the constitution has already been deposed.

July 14th, 2014
5:07 AM
The only aggressors in the modern world - NATO and USA.

July 13th, 2014
12:07 AM
Spot on, Mr. James.

Lawrence James
July 9th, 2014
10:07 AM
Alexander Woolfson’s strident bugle call for intervention in the Ukraine and the Crimea combines a misunderstanding of history with discordant echoes of music-hall Russophobia. His speculation about whether Nato could somehow have mobilised forces for dispatch to the Crimea invokes that jingo chorus of 1854: “Let’s raise a mighty cheer,/We’re going to the Crimea,/We’ll tame the Russian bear.’ Having abjectly failed to ‘tame’ the equivalent beasts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should know better. As for the context of recent events in the Ukraine, Woolfson disregards Russia’s historic experience and misunderstands Nato’s purpose. The alliance was the product of the Cold War created solely to resist Soviet encroachments on Western Europe and not to make land grabs across the borders of the former Russian empire. Wisely, it did not take advantage of the implosion of the Communist state in the 1990s and repeat the Allied intervention during the Russian civil war of 1918 to 1920. Yet, something along the lines of this catastrophic enterprise is now being contemplated as a solution to the Ukrainian crisis by overheated champions of Nato engagement in what has always been accepted as a Russian sphere of influence. Russia has made it plain that she regards the former Czarist and Soviet province of the Ukraine as a de facto province. There are valid historic reasons for this. The French invasions of 1812 and the German of 1918 and 1940 taught Russians that their land mass was the best means of defence. Since the eighteenth century the Ukraine has been a vital part of this vast glacis. Russia is also nervously aware that on the two latter occasions a substantial number of Ukrainians defected to the invaders. Likewise, Russia has a legitimate claim to the Crimea, as strong, say, as the United States has to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and its sundry Pacific island naval and air bases. If a section of the population of any one of these outposts chose to spurn their patrons and attach themselves to their rivals, gunboats or their modern counterparts would soon be in action. Their use would be justified by the same arguments as Russia has deployed over the Crimea. Post-Cold War geo-strategy has seen a reversion to traditional assumptions and methods. We live, as we did in 1914, in a world of official and unofficial empires and spheres of influence. This being so, there is an excellent historic case for the Ukraine staying within the orbit of Russia and the Crimea returning to Russian sovereignty. Acceptance of a status quo upheld by history is infinitely preferable to a policy of shifty intrigues with malcontent Ukrainians and sending absurdly tiny detachments of Nato soldiers to camp out in the forests and marshes of Lithuania.

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