With local conflicts sinking into stalemate, it is some consolation that we are spared any wider bloodshed, writes Allan Massie
It’s turning into a beautiful summer, for the moment anyway, and the world is in a terrible state, full of troubles, for which we can see no end or solution. Inevitably, as we pause to commemorate the outbreak of war exactly a hundred years ago, we hear the echo of the guns. Europe then seems in retrospect to have been a tinder-box waiting to catch fire, as so many countries found what appeared to be good reasons to go to war. The Ottoman Empire, for so long “the sick man of Europe”, would, like the German, Austrian and Russian empires, be one of the casualties of the war. Its disintegration and the opportunities this seemed to offer Britain and France led by what now appears to be an inexorable process to the present terrible condition of the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement to carve up the Ottoman territories and the Balfour Declaration promising a National Home for the world’s Jews in Palestine created the Middle East where war has apparently become endemic, and where solutions are more easily recognized than realised.
In July 1914, it seemed that Britain need not be involved in a European war. That was the view of the Liberal Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, a couple of weeks after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Ireland was more combustible, with a Home Rule Bill on its way through Parliament and threats of armed resistance in Protestant Ulster. But of course we were caught up in the war when the German battle plan violated the neutrality of Belgium. We emerged from the terrible conflict as one of the victorious states, and indeed, as a result of the war and the Peace Settlement, the British Empire attained its greatest extent. It was fool’s gold, however. The seeds of our decline had already been sown.
The reality of that decline is undeniable. Look at the three immediate trouble-spots: Ukraine, Syria/Iraq and Palestine.
There is civil war in Ukraine, with the separatists being supported, and supplied with arms, by Russia. It seems probable that the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was shot down by the separatists with a Russian missile. That at least is what our intelligence services have concluded, and what David Cameron and President Obama are telling us. It may be unlikely that whoever launched the missile recognised the target as a civilian plane. Nevertheless we have decided that President Putin is in the dock, and, if he did indeed supply the Ukrainian rebels with the missile, he is there deservedly.
Yet what can we do about it? Happily there is no talk of war or military retaliation – though the West is of course supplying the Ukrainian government with money, technical advice and weapons. We are imposing sanctions on Russia, half-heartedly in the case of those European countries which depend on Russia for their energy requirements. And that’s about it. Putin can’t afford to see the separatist rebellion crushed. We can’t afford to see it succeed. Result: stalemate.
The war in Syria drags on. President Assad is not going to be dislodged. If there was once a reason for western intervention to get rid of him – and I don’t think there was – the moment for that passed long ago. The rebellion against him is now in the hands of Islamists proclaiming jihad – Isis, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. It’s not going to win in Syria: stalemate there too.
Isis has turned its attention to Iraq, and has been more successful there than in Syria. The Iraqi state which we created after 1918 by drawing lines, arbitrarily, on a map, is in danger of splintering. The democratically elected government in Baghdad, which came into being as a result of our invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is corrupt and has behaved foolishly, sidelining the Sunnis, many of whom are now ready to support Isis, for the time being anyway. The post-imperial century has been an unhappy one for Iraqis; the future looks even darker. But the present conflict will probably end in the victory of neither party. Stalemate there too.
And so to Palestine. We all know what is needed there: the two-state solution with the creation of a viable Palestinian state, some exchange of territory and the withdrawal of Israel from most of the settlements on Palestinian-Arab land. And we all know it’s not going to happen. Meanwhile we have yet another Israeli bombardment of Gaza City in response to the missiles fired from there into Israel. It’s the third such war in the last ten years and there is no reason to suppose it will be the last one, so stalemate there too. The sun shines, the missiles rain down.
Comparison with 1914 is natural. Yet it is also misleading. There has been one significant change. No national power now sees war as the solution to its difficulties as almost all did a hundred years ago. The military philosopher Clausewitz held that “war is the extension of politics by other means”. The idea is outmoded. The military-industrial complexes have created weapons so terrible we all now shrink from using them. This is as true of President Putin as of President Obama. In a comparable situation to the Ukraine, one cannot doubt that, a century back, a leader like Putin would have launched a full-scale invasion in pursuit of his political interest. Not so today. War has been limited and localised. The Powers may conduct proxy wars, but dare go no further. I suppose this is progress, of a sort anyway.
In 1914, the assassination in Sarajevo saw Austria-Hungary deliver an ultimatum to Serbia which opened the gates to war and slaughter. Nobody is going to issue a comparable ultimatum to Putin and the separatists in the Ukraine. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, conflicts continue with no sign of resolution because no power outside the region cares, or dares, to try to impose a settlement by force. It is only local and limited wars that are now being fought as the extension of politics. They are terrible but won’t lead to a general conflagration. So we may enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.