It is heartbreaking to see the rest of the world fiddling while places like Aleppo and Yemen burn, says Joyce McMillan
In Britain, the news agenda is dominated by Tesco’s post-Brexit Marmite shortage, Will Young’s early departure from Strictly Come Dancing, and the idea of reinstating the Royal Yacht Britannia; in the United States, it’s all about Donald Trump’s moral character, as revealed in his obnoxious tendency to grope women without consent or encouragement. There are important political subtexts behind some of these topics, of course - from Brexit, to the vexed question of whether Trump is fit to be President and Commander in Chief.
Yet all the same, I find it difficult to think of a time when there has been such a glaring mismatch between the “real” news agenda, out in the wider world beyond our shores, and the short and relatively self-absorbed list of concerns that dominates our nightly bulletins. In Aleppo and in parts of Yemen, whole cities are being bombed out of existence, their children deliberately maimed, murdered or bereft of their families; in Haiti a week ago, Hurricane Matthew caused scenes of devastation that almost defy belief.
And what is truly heartbreaking is that if these tragedies really were at the top of the world’s political agenda, then the problems they present could be solved, if not overnight, then within a few months or years. Syria and Yemen, for example, need the powerful nations of the earth to put the welfare of the ordinary people of those countries before their own prestige, status, and power-games; and if all players were to do that, there could be a sustainable ceasefire within days, and a workable peace within months.
In British and US political discourse, though, it is not fashionable to consider just how swiftly these conflicts could end, given the political will. As in Bosnia in the 1990s, we prefer to talk about “ancient hatreds” and “intractable conflicts”, as if these nations had never been at peace; and to prevaricate for years before making the decisions that would actually end the horror within weeks. Increasingly, in our new Cold War mood, we like to portray the Russians as the villains of this new international order; Vladimir Putin’s shameless regime is, of course, glad to play up to the role.
And we prefer to draw a veil over our own national complicity in these conflicts, notably our economic addiction to the arms industry, and our willingness to continue to supply arms to regimes which clearly care nothing for the human devastation they cause in their current wars; earlier this week, a Saudi arms component was found in the rubble of a Yemeni town that may have been made at Raytheon in Glenrothes.
And above all, we like to blame the United Nations for its uselessness and inaction. On the BBC, arrogantly ill-informed interviewers harangue patient UN officials for their inability to stop wars, feed the hungry and protect civilian lives; a stance which makes as much sense as going round to your local bank headquarters and haranguing the office cleaner about the decisions just made by the board, since the UN - exactly as its name suggests - cannot act at all without the consent, support and political consensus of its member nations, whose governments consistently withhold all three.
There was a moment, of course, when all this seemed about to change; 25 years ago, when the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall was swept away, it seemed that we might at last be able to begin to live out the ideals which helped shaped the United Nations and the Council of Europe, in the aftermath of the Second World War.
For that optimistic vision to have been fulfilled, though, the world institutions we were beginning to develop would have had to have been supported, whether Theresa May likes it or not, by a world citizenry; people who, while proud to belong to one country or another, would have come to understand that global problems - from poverty and war to climate change and environmental destruction - require global action, supported by global political debate. And as it turns out, the forces of ignorance, ill-will, and self-interested manipulation of popular sentiment have simply proved too strong for all that. Many powerful tools for international awareness and community-building are now in our hands, from universal email to the social networks. Yet instead - as pressures increase, and barriers are thrown up against new waves of migrants - we are watching the return of forms of chauvinistic nationalism so vicious, and so deluded, that the relatively enlightened and outward-looking brand of nationalism on offer from the SNP in Glasgow this week looks both benign and vulnerable by comparison.
Some observers , of course, predicted the crumbling of our present architecture of international institutions as long ago as 2003, when they argued that the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq, without UN sanction, had done to the United Nations what Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia did to the old League Of Nations, back in 1935. And certainly those international structures have never looked weaker than they do this week, with the fair city of Aleppo in ruins, and even the economically powerful EU threatened on all sides by braying right-wing nationalisms.
Those who are foolish or malign enough to rejoice in the humiliation of those organisations, though, should note that their moment of triumph is likely to be brief. Every single circumstance of the people in the nations for whom they think they speak is partly determined by forces beyond their own shores. From trade, to climate change, to our very food supplies, our future depends on others, and we need political institutions to reflect that mutual dependence, and to enable us to reach workable solutions together. At the moment, in a spasm of denial, we seem to be being dragged back to an age of gunboat diplomacy, where a quick dose of military might and a visit from the Royal Yacht Britannia is enough to keep Marmite on the table, and all right with the world. That world, though, now only exists in our dreams; and if our international institutions fail now, then the time will come, within a very few years, when we have to wake from our dreaming, and start to rebuild them all over again, from scratch.