It is a long-established truth that everyone in the West is born into guilt while everyone else is born into innocence. But it seems that our penchant for self-blame is now informing what passes for our foreign policy.
In April David Cameron appeared in Pakistan alongside Baroness Warsi. During a press conference he refused to answer a question about Kashmir. His reason: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.” In Heidelberg I recently took part in a discussion at the university where every other culture was talked about but any reference to “European culture” was scorned. The very idea that such a culture even existed was derided, as was the idea of the West.
It is inconceivable that a group of academics in Germany would deny any developing country its culture. Laugh at the very idea of European or Western culture by all means, but laugh at the idea that such a thing as “African”, “Black” or “Aboriginal” culture exists and you would be thought not merely ignorant but racist. It is only we who do not have a past, only we who do not have an identity, and only we who as a result cannot be trusted to act. Had the Prime Minister taken a different tack in Pakistan it could have gone differently. When asked about the possible solutions to the Kashmir problem he might have said that if his Pakistani hosts had any decency they wouldn’t speak about the problem. Given their country’s historical crimes and its current disastrous influence on the world, it would be best if Pakistani politicians shut up on the subject.
But that is impossible: it would lead to accusations of bad diplomacy, racism and probably imperialism. Didn’t Mr Cameron get the memo? Only the West can botch anything up. And when the rest of the world botches things up, it’s not their fault but the fault of the West for making them botch it up. If nothing recent can be seized upon, then something from an empire many decades ago surely can be. Which is a great deal if you’re a Pakistani government seeking financial support. Or a Libyan dictator trying to cling to power. But what a lesson. It doesn’t only keep democrats down, but keeps tyrants in place.When Colonel Gaddafi’s position finally looked precarious, it was in the best possible way: his own countrymen rose up. But in this unexpectedly sunny position what did the Western nations feel they could do to help Gaddafi over the precipice? After weeks of diplomacy and UN discussions, they managed to come up with a war in which the only obvious point of the action was declared offside.
As someone who made a career of funding anti-British terror groups, Colonel Gaddafi should have been a target of this country’s retribution long before he decided to order the blowing-up of a plane over a small Scottish town. But no, the UN wouldn’t allow anything like such a meaningful mission objective. So for weeks British, French and American planes have been flying over Libya searching for a mission and occasionally blowing up a convoy. At the root of this campaign is an example of the havoc our weak-headed idea of ourselves and the world can wreak. The logic appears to go something like this. If we kill Gaddafi and Libya descends into bloody civil war then we will be responsible for Libya. Around 2003, people referred to this as the “Pottery Barn rule”: if you break it you own it. The idea that we have the right to go in, smash some stuff up and kill an enemy is so old-fashioned. Not the way it’s done any more, old boy. And besides, we don’t want to “own” Libya. After all, if we did kill Gaddafi and the Libyan people ended up in a period of inter-tribal bloodshed we know who would be to blame, and it wouldn’t be the people doing the killing. It’s a lesson post-2003 Iraq reinforced. If we kill someone we’re responsible and if someone else kills someone then we’re still responsible. Only the West has agency. This fatal mixture of narcissism, bad history and racism is not just terrible in itself: it constitutes a great strategic blunder at a crucial moment in history. For just as the Arabs finally seem willing to take responsibility upon themselves, the West reminds them of their old get-out.
Cameron & Co should ask themselves a question: is this really the moment to perpetuate the idea in the Arab and Muslim worlds that their self-pity can be endless? Or is it the moment to explain the fact that, like everyone else, the Arab and Muslim peoples can either screw up or succeed entirely on their own? An end to the self-flagellation of the West is long overdue. The question now is not whether the West can afford to keep pretending it is responsible for all the ills of the world, but whether the rest of the world can.