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Every year scientists warn that the planet is reaching a dangerous ‘tipping point’ – described by US Climate Envoy John Kerry recently as “the point at which events can simply unfold of their own momentum”. Surveying the world today, Kerry might as well have been talking about global politics.
At the start of 2023, I felt more optimistic. It was not that serious problems in the world did not exist – far from it, of course – but for the first time in years, the West appeared to have rediscovered its mojo.
Ukraine was sustaining a plucky response to Russia’s aggression, backed by a surprisingly robust US-led international support effort. This usefully served to send a warning signal to predatory regimes elsewhere not to push their territorial ambitions too far.
NATO appeared to have found renewed purpose, with Finland and Sweden both applying to join it.
EU countries were coordinating sanctions on Russia, generously hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees, and weaning themselves off dependence on Russian oil and gas.
The divisive policies of Donald Trump, and the worst of COVID, seemed to be behind us.
The UK appeared to be returning to some form of sanity, having replaced the obnoxious Boris Johnson, and the disastrous Liz Truss, with the seemingly more pragmatic Rishi Sunak. UK-EU relations looked set to improve with constructive cooperation on Ukraine, and conclusion of the Windsor Framework resolving various issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
There seemed to be new awareness across the transatlantic alliance of the need to stand up for democratic values, to better protect our political institutions and our economies from hostile foreign actors, and to develop a more coordinated approach on China.
Even in the fractious Middle East, there appeared to be positive developments, with Israel improving relations with several Arab States, including Saudi Arabia.
At last, I thought, the West was emerging from its phase of uncertainty and hesitation, as reflected in its feeble response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea in 2014, its failure to enforce the famous ‘redline’ in Syria, and the chaotic departure from Afghanistan. Ukraine seemed to suggest that there was still some ‘juice’ and staying power in the Western Alliance, which might usefully be applied to other global challenges.
I particularly hoped that President Joe Biden’s leadership on Ukraine would remind Americans of the value of international engagement, and the danger in allowing an authoritarian, isolationist, individual like Trump back into the Oval Office. And if that didn’t do the trick, I at least hoped that the mounting number of legal cases against Trump would scupper his second presidential campaign.
How naïve this seems now.
America’s ‘Last Election’ Approaching?
The war in Ukraine has become bogged down. Russia has dug in for the long haul. Bipartisan support for Ukraine in America is fraying. The West appears set to continue giving Ukraine just enough weapons to allow it to keep fighting (and dying), but not enough to win.
There is even growing talk in some quarters of encouraging Ukrainian President Zelensky to sue for peace, even at the cost of leaving Russia in control of some parts of Ukrainian territory, and sending a message to the wider world that, after all, aggression does pay.
This seems to have been swiftly internalised by the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, which in late September seized Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia without suffering any serious consequences.
I don’t doubt that Hamas launched its deadly attacks on Israel on 7 October making a similar calculation, that despite, or perhaps because of Ukraine, the West would be too distracted to respond effectively. Indeed, the attack appears to have produced precisely the result that its sponsors in Iran and Russia probably wanted – a heavy-handed response by Israel which has divided international opinion and increased pressure on Western governments, especially the US, to justify its strong support for Israel.
It’s a sign of the diminishing clout of the US that its pleas for Israel to show restraint seem so far to have had only limited impact. Qatar and Egypt seem to have played the most impactful roles in hostage release negotiations so far. The savage Israeli attack on Gaza continues with no obvious end in sight.
As on Ukraine, the United Nations has been utterly unable to fulfil its mandate to uphold international peace and security, due to irreconcilable divisions between the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s NATO membership remains pending, blocked by Turkey and Hungary. Ambitious plans for further EU enlargement to take in Ukraine, Moldova and eight other applicant or aspirant countries by 2030, appear unrealistic, given concerns over whether the EU can agree on the political and economic changes required to incorporate so many new members, as well as outright opposition from some existing members, such as Hungary. The same hesitation is likely to afflict similar NATO enlargement decisions at its 75th anniversary summit in Washington next year.
Countries across the world are also struggling to manage the issue of mass migration, with incumbent governments facing a right-wing populist backlash if they fail to take strong action. The electoral success of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is a foretaste of what might be to come in elections across the EU, including for the European Parliament. It’s no longer just Britain threatening to water-down refugee protections, and turn away migrants, even at the risk of contravening the previously sacrosanct principle of non-refoulement.
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At the time of writing, COP28 seems unlikely to produce any meaningful breakthroughs, sufficient to put the world closer on track to reach the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C of pre-industrial levels.
Authoritarians everywhere seem emboldened. According to Freedom House, 80% of the world’s people live in countries or territories rated ‘not free’ or only ‘partly free’ in its annual Freedom in the World report.
There have been seven successful military coups in Africa alone since 2020. Conflicts continue to rage in other countries across the world, such as Syria, Yemen, Burma and Sudan.
It’s a very depressing global picture. But what strikes most chill into my heart is the unimaginably awful prospect that Donald Trump might actually succeed in becoming US President again, given the unpopularity of the aging Biden, and the lack of a viable alternative Republican candidate as it currently stands.
Former Congresswoman Liz Cheney recently warned Americans that Donald Trump would almost certainly refuse to leave office if he won a second term, and that a vote for him could therefore be “the last election that you ever get to vote in”. The Republican added that “America would be sleepwalking into dictatorship”.
Laura Thornton, senior vice president for democracy at the US-based think tank, the German Marshall Fund, recently described to me that “democracy is part of a wider geopolitical eco-system. Populists learn from each other. Once democracy starts to erode in one country, it risks unravelling in other countries. Election denialism [claims that elections were fraudulent or stolen] is the new black”.
There’s a famous incident in the US Civil War when Abraham Lincoln is asked by a soldier if he still had faith in a Union victory. Lincoln, quoting his Secretary of State, William Seward, said that he believed “there’s always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare, but enough to meet the emergency”. Would he sound so confident today?