As narrow self-interest trumps attempts to solve the world’s problems, truly we are living in the worst of times

Thursday, 13 November 2014
Richard Dowden

A few years ago I would have celebrated the end of US global hegemony but it is hard to be optimistic about the future of democratic values, human rights and a free market global economy – the formula which America proclaimed as the future when the Cold War ended in 1989. It seemed for a few years to be working as dictators were toppled and democracy proclaimed. But far from liberating nation states, the US and Britain’s attack on Afghanistan and second invasions of Iraq as well as clumsy interventions in Somalia and Libya and its uncritical support for Israel have fired up an uncompromising religious fanaticism that will take decades to pass. 30 years predicts Leon Panetta, President Obama’s former head of the CIA and Secretary for Defence. Washington has decided to try to contain these uprisings through the use of drones but cannot afford to hold ground by putting troops in harm’s way. This marks the end of US-led western dominance of the world.

At one time the US could not have afforded to withdraw from the world because of its dependence on Middle East oil. That is no longer the case. New oil discoveries, on and offshore in just about every African country, the advent of fracking and other new techniques for extracting oil from rock and sand, have reduced America’s need for imports. Freed from the need to placate royal Arab families and oil rich dictators, the US has unleashed, not – as they hoped – democratic and human values but an interpretation of Islam which looks like a Muslim version of the “Christian” Conquistadors.

Europe too is also withdrawing into itself. Led economically and increasingly politically by Germany it has never had a proper defence policy or a clear vision of its role in the world. The slyly-delivered but deadly decision to end the Italian naval patrols in the Mediterranean is a crime of omission. It will result in the deaths of many more refugees from wars or neglect in the Middle East and in particular Eritrea. Ignored for more than 14 years since the war with Ethiopia, its military-minded president, Issias Afwerke, has turned it into an armed prison.

After the 1998 – 2000 war an independent inquiry into the border dispute ruled in favour of Eritrea. But the world ignored this and Eritrea, once one of the most developed and dynamic parts of Africa, was shut down by Issias. It has been neglected ever since. Thousands of young Eritreans try to leave and, exploited by human traffickers, die in the Sinai desert or drown in the Mediterranean. Shamefully, Britain, which claims a global leadership role, not only failed to challenge the Italian decision but refuses to support an alternative. Perhaps the bodies of young dead Eritreans washing up on the fashionable beaches of Italy, Greece and France will come to haunt that decision.

Then there is the panic over Ebola. Very infectious and very nasty and can lead to a disgusting death, but we know how to treat it. It is simply a question of cost, organisation and speed. There is no reason for anyone to die if modern medical help is available. But once again black people travelling from Africa will be subjected to humiliation and fear. Even within Africa countries without Ebola are shunning citizens from countries that have experienced it. The Royal African Society website will soon have a page saying how each country is responding to the outbreak.

Britain has agreed to take responsibility for Sierra Leone, its former colony. France has done likewise for Guinea and the US for its former colony, Liberia. That at least is a step forward for America. When Liberia tore itself apart in the 1990s Washington ignored it. Today’s panicky reaction in America itself shows how ignorance is as prevalent there as it is in Liberia itself.

The response from China has been far more rational, well-informed and generous. Beijing has promised more than £22.2 Million and sent 200 medical workers to the affected counties. But the UN agencies have been slow and sufficient funding has not been forthcoming. The next couple of weeks will be crucial. If it takes off again in West Africa and kills millions I wonder how the rest of the world, in its fearful mood, will react.

Elsewhere, global capitalism which has been allowed to flourish unfettered for the past 25 years, has opened up the gaps between rich and poor and created apparent wealth. I say apparent because since the 2008 crash the markets have been jittery and irrational, capable of wiping out billions of dollars’ worth of “value” in the blink of an eye. Reason is giving way to emotion.

Two banks, Bank of Thailand and Standard Chartered, have even changed their “Business Confidence Index” to a “Business Sentiment Index”.  Confidence is based on reason and fact. Sentiment equals sensation, feeling, emotion not rationality. Of course wealth is only wealth because thinking it makes it so, but it has to be thought so by all, backed with rational, explicable facts not algebraic formulas that acquire mystical properties – or sentiment. We need a wise market not a whim market.   

The lack of common global feeling emerged on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, surely a moment when European countries could put aside their tribal loyalties and together commemorate that catastrophe. But no, it was commemorated separately. We – or at least our leaders – are still in our trenches. Even Christian leaders who surely should be standing up for common humanity, took part in these nationalist ceremonies – even led them. Nowhere did I hear in the UK’s ceremonies any mention of Austria’s dead, Germany’s dead, Russia’s dead, even France’s dead as well as the estimated 100,000 Africans who died. It is as if only Britain had suffered. More than 700,000 Britons died. Terrible, but a small proportion of the appalling total, 37 million.

After so-called tribal wars in Africa end Europeans urge them to reconcile and hold joint commemorations but when the tribes of Europe commemorate they do so on their own, still as tribes.

Who are the big players who can lead the world? Nelson Mandela’s generous and visionary leadership is still revered but never imitated these days. Neither Russia nor China seems able to produce a leader that is popular at home and big enough to lead on the world stage. Russia has become paranoid and aggressive under Putin. China’s economic success is giving it an enhanced global role but, being undemocratic and controlled by a tiny elite, it is unable to become a global role model or leader. Its aging – disproportionately male –population will also hobble its economic dynamic and create instability.

Britain can never be anything but an influencer and the provider of token military forces but its government is looking more and more insular and fearful, mimicking UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and terrified of the right-wing press which loves to spread fear of the foreign with panicky headlines. Britain can only flourish if it is part of Europe and acts as a global player, open to people, trade and ideas with the rest of the world.

In the US Obama is now hobbled by Congress. A journalist friend of mine who interviewed him recently said it was like interviewing a brilliant professor rather than a world leader. He was on top of every issue and gave well-informed intelligent analyses. But when asked what exactly he was going to do, Obama’s answers became vague and unfocussed. He saw the problems, knew what needed doing but could do nothing beyond protecting narrow US interests.

A frightened America – largely ignorant of the positive role it could play in the rest of the world – is feeding its fears on myths and fantasies peddled by a cynical sensationalist media. Just look at its primitive, ignorant reactions to Ebola and its ridiculous treatment of people coming from Africa. Yes the world is complicated these days but America must not feed on crass simplifications or turn in on itself. Americans should recall the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter@DowdenAfrica