The Shadow of Anarchy
‘A Brexit of sorts allowed war to happen in the 1930s, and it could do so again’
Edmund Wilson | 5 November 2016

The walls came down in 1989. Anarchy – the absence of global governance – came down with them, with the strengthening of the United Nations and the European Union. I am lucky enough to have lived through a period of international cooperation and peace in Europe. But new walls are forming. How worried should we be about the new superpower clashes in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and how should our governments respond? Looming over the global cooperation of recent decades is anarchy’s long shadow.    

In March 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea put the US into the spotlight. In a swift, bloodless move, Putin had secured Russia’s major warm water port at Sevastopol and strengthened his country’s security position. In the coming months, Russia was to give extensive support to separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. But Putin did not stop there.

By late 2015, EU trade sanctions on Russia were in full swing. But Putin was as stubborn as the low oil prices, and decided to bomb ‘terrorist’ (translating as anyone who disagrees with President Assad) positions in Syria at a rate of 60 airstrikes a day. Assad’s chemical weapon-wielding dictatorship could not have been more pleased. Mission accomplished?

Even now, Russian bombers continue to pound rebel positions in the city of Aleppo. But this time, Putin is not alone. The formation of a Russo-Turkish partnership became clear on 9 August 2016 when President Erdogan met his Russian counterpart in St Petersburg. Frustrated by America’s lack of support for Turkey’s detention of 26,000 coup plotters, Erdogan chose Moscow over Washington. Iran, in its opposition to American influence, started to allow Russia to launch airstrikes from the Hamadan airbase in Western Iran on 16 August 2016.

A pattern is emerging from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean that reflects the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s talk of a “new cold war” earlier this year. Brexit’s demoralising of the EU is only a part of that pattern, in which international organisations are rapidly losing the clout that they gained following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whilst Saddam was punished severely for his illegal actions in the 1990s, the 2010s have seen a return to international anarchy. For instance, China recently called a tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines’ right to its own territory a “scrap of paper”. Sound familiar? Hitler used almost exactly the same language to refer to the Treaty of Versailles. And, in an effort to counteract the EU and NATO, Russia has formed the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Sound familiar? The USSR did exactly the same in the post-World War II period by forming COMECON and the Warsaw Pact to counteract the American-led Marshall Plan and NATO.

Cold War II is now a fact of life. The US is “the great Satan” to Iran, a “heinous violator of human rights” to North Korea, and an “external threat” to Russia. If the US and its allies do not make efforts to put trust back into international institutions, there is no guarantee that the current cold war will not turn hot. The policy of appeasement advocated by Corbyn would help turn the cold war hot because, by his refusal to defend the Baltic states in the event of Russian attack, trust in NATO would collapse and Putin would see the UK as weak. Before the United Nations and the era of collective security, inter-state war was worryingly frequent. Without surrendering at least a degree of sovereignty, states are almost bound to behave in selfish ways, which tends to favour war. Before the European Union, there was anarchy. Before the United Nations, there was anarchy. Before 1989, there was anarchy. Now that anarchy is showing signs of returning, Brexit negotiations must pressure the closest possible union to counteract the forces pulling the EU, and indeed NATO, apart.

Because we have been here before. The formation of the League of Nations after World War I allowed peace to be kept for twenty years. The reason why peace could not continue was the League’s fracturing following the Hoare-Lavel Pact, which discarded the rules of the League in favour of secret negotiations between Britain and France. A Brexit of sorts allowed war to happen in the 1930s, and it could do so again. History repeated itself on 23 June, but it need not repeat itself ever again.

Let us keep on this side of history. Let us reject international anarchy. Let us uphold the world after 1989.


Image sourced under Creative Commons License.

James Routledge 2016