"We are all living with the consequences of the great American abdication of the last decade."
Malcolm Turnbull and Theresa May at the G20 summit in China (Tom Evans CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)
It is all too easy to want to raise the drawbridge against a dangerous world. In the 15 years since 9/11, the metastasis of jihad has defied the best efforts of the West. Syria’s self-immolation has now lasted longer than either the Spanish or American civil wars. Similarly interminable conflicts rage across much of Africa and the Middle East, from Nigeria and Libya to Yemen and Afghanistan. Others, such as Kashmir and Korea, are frozen but may flare up at any moment.
At the epicentre of evil is the so-called Islamic State, still spreading chaos and misery in all directions from its Iraqi strongholds. It is easy to assume that the emergence of IS was inevitable, but in fact Iraq was relatively calm after the “surge” led by General David Petraeus in 2007-8. Ignoring military advice to stay put, President Obama chose to cut and run instead. Equally culpable was his decision to threaten Bashar al-Assad with dire consequences for crossing a “red line” by using chemical weapons — and then, when Assad followed his father’s example and gassed his own civilians, to do nothing. We are all living with the consequences of the great American abdication of the last decade.
Isolation is always alluring, but it is never splendid. We may tell ourselves that we don’t have a dog in most of these fights, or that there is nothing to choose between equally savage antagonists. Disillusionment is widespread in the West among those who once supported intervention to prevent genocide or to build nations. Many no longer believe that by creating democracies, we can prevent terrorism. The commonest cause of failed states is our own fear of failure.
Yet underestimating the West’s ability to make a difference is just as grave an error as the overconfidence of the past. Pessimism of the intellect, to adopt Gramsci’s phrase, is perfectly proper when so many lives, not least our own, are at stake, and it was foolish to expect Iraqis and Afghans to behave like Germans and Japanese after 1945, but we were not wrong to believe that these Muslim states might one day join the free world. If we fail to bring order to the chaos on our periphery, we shall find disorder spreading to our own heartlands.
The great migrations of history are driven either by hope or fear. It is easier to absorb the former than the latter. We are rightly anxious about the motives of millions who are fleeing the Muslim world to Europe; we worry less about the millions of other Europeans who have moved to Britain to work. In a few years the UK took in more Poles than there are in Krakow. They have come because London is the metropolis of meritocracy.
Britain has always been a magnet for the ambitious. At last month’s Beijing summit Theresa May was greeted by the Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull as an old mate: in the 1970s they had met at Oxford. Such serendipity happens for a reason. British universities and schools educate the world’s elites: the combination of intellectual excellence, political stability and economic dynamism is hard to beat. Now, for the first time in a generation, Mrs May has been given an opportunity by Brexit to act independently on the global stage, to set an example that will make the world take notice. The last time that happened was when her office was held by another upwardly mobile grammar school girl: Margaret Thatcher.
It is true that for the years of Tony Blair’s premiership between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, British prestige, especially in the United States, stood very high; but that opportunity was wasted. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, Mr Blair did not make the most of his influence in Washington. Nor did David Cameron, who made the naive and fatal mistake of supposing that the British people could be told how to vote by an American president. His departure not only from Downing Street but also from the Commons will leave the field clear for Mrs May to build her own, more intelligent relationship with the new occupant of the White House.
That brings us to next month’s US election. The whole future of the West — and perhaps of the rest — will depend on it. Hillary Clinton’s fragile health and her even more fragile reputation make a vote for her almost as much of a leap of faith as one for Donald Trump. But here is the difference: America has had presidents rather like Mrs Clinton before. One of them was even married to her. She is a known unknown. It is perhaps an understatement to say that Mr Trump would be an unknown unknown of an unprecedented kind. The result may well turn on whether he can reassure voters that he can be trusted with their security. Would a Trump presidency mean the end of Nato? It would almost certainly make the Atlantic a wider ocean, culturally as well as politically.
This issue of Standpoint focuses on American politics. Yet the impact of what happens on November 8 will be felt far beyond the United States. We are already talking about populism as if we were back in the 1930s, but the greater threat is isolationism of Left and Right. If anyone doubts that the world still needs its policeman, let them study the “Massive Punishment and Retaliation” plan published last month by the South Korean Defence Ministry. It warns that Pyongyang, a city of 2.5 million, will be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map” as soon as a North Korean nuclear attack is deemed imminent. Even if such a pre-emptive strike were successful in crippling Kim Jong-un’s regime, would his ally China ignore it? Only one nation could prevent such a conflict escalating into a Second Korean War — or even a Third World War. God bless the United States of America.