The notion that other countries can implode without consequences for us has been exposed as a fantasyby Bronwen Maddox / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Read the rest of Prospect’s big ideas of 2016 here
The terrorist attacks in Paris on 13th November marked the end of what we might call the peace dividend: the 25 years that have followed the end of the Cold War, and the happy reckoning, sliding into complacency, that western governments could afford to spend less on defence and to think a little less about threats to their societies.
It wasn’t just Paris that’s smashed it, of course. The millions of refugees streaming towards the European Union’s borders (3m are expected to try to enter the EU in 2016), and the 700,000 who have made it through in 2015, have made clear that it is a fantasy to think that countries can implode, as Syria has done and Iraq threatens to do, without consequences for the countries north of the Mediterranean who are now deeply disconcerted about how to respond.
They didn’t see it coming partly because of wishful thinking—a desire not to get militarily involved in the Middle East after the lessons of Iraq, although diplomatic efforts, it should be said, have still been considerable. Those may yet secure a more-or-less stable federal structure of Libya, while John Kerry, US Secretary of State, made heroic efforts to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and failed no more than did many before him. Another factor in the blindness was a sense of confusion and doubt about what helps a nation develop or rebuild; development economics is in disarray about the extent to which you can create the conditions in which aid and other help works. Afghanistan, now threatening to unravel, offers an unwanted lesson that it takes far longer in aid and in governance building than donor nations generally recognise—or want to fund.
But the greatest reason for the blindness is not recognising that Russia was reemerging as a significant threat to European interests, with President Vladimir Putin determined to regain its sphere of influence in the Middle East as well as Ukraine. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sunni and Shia, is also a clash shaping the region.
Western countries now recognise they will have to spend more on security, even if they are tempted to see spies as the new soldiers—cheaper and more easily deployed to protecting the home front. Spying, and the demand for more surveillance powers, will be a battleground, in which those defending civil liberties are likely to lose a lot of ground in a new mood of alarm about terrorism. Unbreakable encryption will be a second; it helps keep people and companies safe from cyber attack, but protects terrorists and cyber attackers too.
In the UK, military officials have been quietly surprised for months at the realisation that the commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence—now that GDP is growing—means there will be more money around than they thought. Britain sprung the pledge on a reluctant 2014 Nato summit in Newport, Wales, and then wobbled in its own commitment, before confirming it. But even though the Treasury is counting some intelligence and aid spending within the total, it’s still a rise.
While the public view of military entanglement is still wary—an understatement—there is more support for security and a recognition that things have changed. “It’s our struggle” is the motto of “Generation Bataclan” (see Lucy Wadham, p38)—braced for security checks in every domain of life and for constant watchfulness. There is a new clash of instincts between those determined not to let terrorism distort society and its freedoms, and those who feel newly justified in objections to immigrants.