Can you hear it? Can you hear the tectonic plates of geopolitics grinding against each other? Can you feel the entire balance of the world shifting beneath your feet? Because that is what is happening. What we do about it is going to be crucial.
I described this as an Archduke Ferdinand moment. That was a very similar situation. Nominally it looked like ‘a little local matter’, but in fact it was really a violent expression of a pressure that had been building and building beneath. The age of the Victorian empire was about to come to an abrupt end, for many reasons.
The closest thing I ever lived through was the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that was different. That was the pressure of two tectonic plates that had been pressing on each other resolving itself because one of the poles of that pressure collapsed internally. All that happened was one player was taken off the board.
This is different. Since the Second World War, the US has driven the shape of the world. Yes it was split because of the Soviet Union, but the economic and diplomatic system that enabled the world to revolve was shaped mostly by the Americans.
At first this seemed benign. We got the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, peace. But the Cold War derailed this within five years. It became a driver of conflict in which the US stopped behaving like a benign force. In the 1950s and 1960s its theatre of conflict was South East Asia, and boy did it do some damage there.
By the 1970s the scale of the mess that had been created in that region caused retrenchment. The theatre of conflict shifted to Latin America where the US’s interventions were, if anything, even more brutal. By the Iran Contra crisis (which was really more about Latin America than the Middle East), it had got bogged down there.
But then the Berlin Wall falls and the US emphasis shifts to Europe, and particular to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Russia itself pays a terrible, terrible price for this. For the next decade and beyond the US goes through a lengthy process of trying to corner and surround Russia to ensure it never rose again as a global force.
Of course the US is all about ‘multiple theatres of conflict’, so while it was devastating Latin America and overthrowing democratic governments there, it was still meddling in South East Asia and, throughout all of this, it never, ever stopped meddling in the Middle East. In particular it overthrew a democratic government in Iran and put a dictator in place, funded and promoted Iraq’s war with Iran (right up to gassing with chemical weapons) and flooded Afghanistan with weapons to fight the Russians.
This creates enormous instability in the Middle East, exacerbated by America’s use of Israel as a client state and its disregard for the issue of Palestine (yes it brokered talks, but it never delivered a settled outcome, because that wasn’t its primary goal). That tension inevitably broke.
Everyone who was invaded by the US is looking at the outrage when someone else does the invading and asking ‘so what’s different?’
So we get the attack on the World Trade Centre, the ‘War on Terrorism’ and two decades of utterly ruinous wars in the Middle East which have caused a massive death toll and ever-multiplying instability. Which the US basically pretends isn’t happening.
And throughout this, the US has repeatedly treated Africa as a resource for its corporations. To this day one of the most formative moments in my political life was my shock at the execution (read murder) of Nigerian poet Ken Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni people whose ancestral lands were being ruined by Shell Oil, which pressured the Nigerian dictatorship to deal with him. So they hung him.
One of my favourite films is Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. In it there is a scene where a (technically) dead British army officer has to face a celestial jury to decide if he can exploit a loophole and go back to earth. The joke is that the lawyer for the other side keeps picking juries and they all hate the British, because no-one can find someone who isn’t a former victims of British colonialism.
It seems to me that that is what is happening now. On the explicit level, many of the countries expected to be in America’s sphere of influence were there cynically when the US was the only big boy in town and are now hedging their bets. Regimes in both Africa and the Middle East are just about maintaining relations with the US but rapidly growing their relations with China and, in some cases, Russia.
The US isn’t the only game in town any more, and that is why it has started trying to stoke a new Cold War, a new global conflict. It is desperate to isolate China from the rest of the world. It will fail, because hard as it might be for you to swallow, China is treating them much, much better than the US is.
There are lots of measures of this – China woos African nations to get access to their minerals where the US threatens them, China is investing in the economy of developing countries where the US is extracting wealth from them.
But it is the military stance which stands out most. Put simply, the US has about 750 military bases outside its own territory, and these can be found in 85 different countries and territories. China has one overseas military base in one country. China is not and has never been a military threat to the world (other than Taiwan). The US threatens everyone. (China’s record of domestic repression is a different matter.)
And so we reach the Hamas atrocity. Whisper it, but for years and years now world opinion has been turning against Israel, not least because Israel is becoming more and more extreme. But many, many nations see echos of their past in what is happening to Palestine. They can see, overwhelmingly, the hypocrisy of the West.
I know the liberal establishment believes that there is no parallel between the Iraq War and the Ukraine War. That is why the world is turning on us. There is no difference. In both occasions the war involved a military invasion of a sovereign country without there being any immediate justification of self defence and without the express authorisation of the United Nations.
The argument that one of them was a ‘bad’ country and one of them is a ‘good’ country is your opinion. It doesn’t change the law, any more than me murdering someone in the street is ‘less bad’ if the person I murder is not a nice person. You don’t get to choose who is bad enough that you can unilaterally go to their country and kill them.
So frankly the anti-Russian coalition around Ukraine does not include China or any of the developing world. Think of it in relation to Muhammad Ali’s quote about refusing to serve in the Vietnam war: “no Vietcong ever called me nigger”. Everyone who was invaded by the US is looking at the outrage when someone else does the invading and asking ‘so what’s different?’.
Does Europe want to pretend that we can stop the tide or do we want to move with it? The world to come may depend very deeply on how we answer that question.
After all the talk about the right to defend yourself, what rights do Palestinians have, they ask? The same rights as when you invaded us, they wonder? I.e. the right to die? After all your talk of your moral leadership, how can you support and finance a medieval siege on a vulnerable population? Where is the justice?
Plus they are looking at the global economy, structured by the US for the US – and it isn’t helping them one bit. When people talking about ‘indebted nations’, who do you think they are indebted to? The US continues to take more out of their economies than the US puts in.
And then they look at the US itself. Is a nation that elects Trump a reliable partner? They can’t even stop fighting among themselves long enough to make their own domestic democracy function. The situation in the House of Representatives is ‘failed state’ stuff.
Plus remember, most of the world isn’t white. Do you think they can’t see how white America treats not-white America? Do you really think they draw no conclusions from this?
So is this just an overwhelming anti-American rant? No, its not. This happens with any unchecked power. The US has been too powerful for too long and it is now high on its own supply. It not only believes this will never change, much of the nation genuinely believes that they, that this, is God’s manifest destiny for the planet.
But you can only abuse your position for a certain amount of time. There is much talk about the International Criminal Court these days, but how much do you know about it? You know that it basically only prosecutes people whose skin is dark? Literally, almost everyone who has ever come up for judgement so far is black African. The US doesn’t even recognise the Court.
It’s not that the US is uniquely evil or anything; it isn’t. That would be silly. It is uniquely powerful, and it has abused that power. That never holds forever. It seems that a final tipping point may be the quite appalling impunity it has granted Israel for decades. There is something of a global rebellion brewing. On Gaza, the US basically stands alone with Israel.
Oh and Britain, but we’re barely worth mentioning when talking about important things. Right now Brazil or India have much, much more global significance than we do. Hell, the actions of African nations will be more important than anything we do in the coming period.
The American Century is over. You can feel it in everything. On the one hand this gives a brief thrill of possibility – because the American century (it was really 70 years) was pretty awful for an awful lot of people. There has been a new war every two years and the US has been involved in the majority of them. They have invaded 50 separate countries in that time.
But on the other hand, the post-American world could be terrifying. We’re miles away from knowing what a new order could look like. And at the moment, the white world, the Nato world, is doing little to shape that new order, because we are fighting a futile rearguard action to protect the old one.
This is a disaster. Most of the world’s democracies are in white-majority countries. We need to play our part to influence a new world order for the better. We need to accept multipolarity and get over our sense of supremacy. If we don’t shape the world, it will be shaped without our input.
The US may be a lost cause in this. It still wants to ‘make itself great again’. But Europe isn’t. Do we want to pretend that we can stop the tide or do we want to move with it? The world to come may depend very deeply on how we answer that question.
And it begins with a united, forceful EU demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.