Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.
Robert Lowell, from “Waking Early Sunday Morning”
In 1967, at the height of the anti-Vietnam war protests, the poet Robert Lowell was part of a delegation that marched on the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Before a huge and sympathetic crowd, he read his great poem of public protest “Waking Early Sunday Morning”, in which he imagines the United States in its lonely role as the world’s policeman, doomed to fight one small war after another, a ghost orbiting forever lost.
At present, as unimaginable violence sweeps the Middle East and Russia continues to menace Ukraine, the American dilemma has become ever more acute. The world’s policeman has grown weary of its responsibilities and burdens in a world riven by religious conflicts and scarcity wars. If not exactly overwhelmed by imperial overreach, the US is retreating into isolationism as China, India and Russia re-emerge to challenge its dominance.
The best instincts of President Obama are restrained and sceptical. He attempts to address the world as it is, not as he would wish it to be. In many ways, he is a classic foreign-policy realist. He opposed from the beginning the US-led invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation and he entered the White House determined to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to build new alliances – even with Iran – if he perceived them to be in the American interest. He prefers to fight his small wars from afar using drones and “strategic” air strikes, rather than by having troops on the ground. He never speaks idealistically of imposing regime change. He haseven confessed that he has no strategy for dealing with the rise of Islamic State, whose militants continue to behead western hostages (most recently, the journalist Steven Sotloff).
In addition, the shale gas revolution is making the US increasingly energy-self-sufficient and thus less dependent on the oil- and gas-rich Gulf autocracies of the Middle East. This is encouraging its new isolationism.
The western powers have been chastened by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the financial crisis and the recession that followed it. The rush to intervene in Libya – with President Obama “leading from behind” – has been a failure. The desert state, once the fiefdom of the nefarious Gaddafi family, is being torn apart, with Islamist militants in control of much of the country, just as they are of swaths of Iraq and Syria. It is as if the western powers are locked into a dialectical struggle: under-intervention in the Balkan wars and Rwanda in the 1990s was followed by over-intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which in turn has led to under-intervention in Syria.
In his report from northern Afghanistan on page 18, John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, writes: “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria: in one way or another, they are all in danger of becoming black holes in which the nastiest and weirdest groups can thrive. The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again. But that takes long-term commitment from outside interests, especially (though not exclusively) the US and Europe. It certainly can’t be achieved by firing off a few rounds of missiles.”
Yet there is little stamina in the west for this kind of intervention and commitment to nation-building. The west’s enemies know this and are emboldened to act. Meanwhile, in a month in which the right-wing Netanyahu government annexed more land in the West Bank, a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as distant as ever.
These are dangerous and unstable times. Our lead book reviewer, John Gray, has written of how we are witnessing the return of classical geopolitics – “a struggle for resources between contending empires not unlike that in the late 19th century”. What is new is the ferocity of Islamist extremism and the threat it poses, in the form of returning jihadist fighters, to the security of the European democracies.
The US can no longer be relied on to operate as the world’s policeman. The threats that we face – from climate change to a new cold war – are far too complex. Nor are there simple solutions to the present crises. Our best chance is for the democratic nations to redouble their efforts to work together more effectively through multilateral organisations in an attempt to dampen the flames of the conflicts that have raged throughout this summer of bloodshed.