Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Tory MPs, it is well known, are loath to be wheeled into the TV studios to defend the Government’s scribble on the back of the policy envelope. Their reluctance is almost entirely down to this administration’s propensity to execute u-turns under even the mildest public pressure. Nobody wants to look like a hapless Stalin-era apparatchik, explaining what a fine upstanding chap Trotsky is one day, while commending the export of ice-picks to Mexico the next.
What of it? Shouldn’t a loyal backbencher do his bit to defend his party’s policy, as decided by the duly elected leader? Perhaps there’s something to be said for his loyalty, but he also doesn’t want to appear a chump.
The biggest chump on the international stage has for some time been François Hollande, made to look ridiculous first by British MPs, then by the American President.
Here in the established democracies we have the luxury of being able to worry about principles, consistency and international law. Italians can be sure that Spain won’t use a dispute about fisheries or immigration controls to recover territory it once held in Naples. Chile and Peru settled an ancient dispute about their maritime border by going to court, not going to war.
But we’re deluding ourselves if we think this is likely to cut any ice in Beijing or Moscow. There they play by older rules. If those rules — when you can’t defend yourself, or your interests, pledge loyalty to someone who can protect you; when there’s no lord to pay homage to, start raising an army of your own, fast — look feudal, it’s because they are. Barack Obama has forgotten them.
Good feudal lords took care to protect their vassals. Those that failed would find their liveried retinues evaporate, and their private armies vanish. So Hamid Karzai, America’s less than reliable servant in Kabul, scrabbles to do deals with the Taliban. Whether they’ll save him from the consequences of his own inefficiency and corruption remains an open question, but the loss of American influence will be significant.
The worst, and entirely unforced, error took place over Syria. Considered on its own, and ignoring the moral stain the West has incurred in tolerating Assad’s campaign of extermination, it’s possible to understand why President Obama seized the chance to avoid a war with which his public was extremely unhappy and whose consequences would have been highly unpredictable. But America can’t box up its policies into compartments. Its interests are global, as is its audience. Obama’s weakness and indecision over the chemical weapons has marked his card elsewhere.
Would Russia have been willing to try and extort co-operation from Ukraine if it thought it would have to deal with a more strong-willed American administration? Possibly. More worrying, it may appear to Moscow as if the United States actually believes the standard diplomatic flannel, that it is seeking only to better relations with other powers, and that this allows Putin to play the grouchy dowager aunt, who must be placated at all costs.
Asia feels the worst effects of American weakness. A strong America stands a chance of convincing China to stick to what it calls “peaceful development,” because it reassures Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia that it will stand by them should Beijing bare its teeth. But as America’s will has weakened elsewhere, Asian leaders have been getting nervous. Tokyo and Seoul have already increased their defence spending. Worried their lord may prove unreliable, they have started to prepare retinues of their own.
America’s pivot to Asia was supposed to free its resources to concentrate on addressing China’s rise: by worrying less about the Middle East and Europe, its strength could be focused on Asia. Instead, its weakness and vacillation in Europe and the Middle East has emboldened Beijing and alarmed Asia’s democracies. Obama’s second term foreign policy is looking more like Jimmy Carter’s first.