Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 23 October 2023


While our leaders indulge in puerile squabbles, tyrants seize the moment

The Sunday Times

‘Delight in smooh-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts ... genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation ... the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality ... though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries”.

So said Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm and it’s tragic that we are having to learn the same lessons less than a century later. We face a rising axis composed of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia that is more powerful than Nazi Germany, more strategically threatening than the Soviet Union. It commands much of the world’s population, has cornered the processing of critical minerals and possesses more than half the planet’s thermonuclear weapons. It is also militarising faster than the West and sowing discord (particularly online) while gaining ever more influence in the non-aligned world, not least Africa where Russian flags are flying in the Sahel.

It is time to wake up and smell the danger.

But before we get to the geopolitics of what Professor Niall Ferguson has called “the hinge of history”, let me make a simple and, I hope, clarifying point. This is a battle between good and evil; just as it was in 1939 and just as it was in the Cold War. Unless we see this and see it clearly, we will not be able to muster either the resolve or clarity to win. And win we must.

Just look at the adversaries we face. The fundamentalist mullahs in Iran take delight in battering women with clubs for daring to lift that symbol of female subjugation, the hijab, while its proxies in Gaza have unleashed an attack on innocents that evokes the horrors of the medieval age. Russia — ruled by a coalition of Federal Security Service (FSB) sadists and kleptocratic oligarchs — has brought conflict back to Europe and committed war crimes on a vast scale: massacring civilians in Ukraine, raping women, mutilating prisoners and abducting children.


North Korea — euphemistically labelled the Democratic People’s Republic — has a population of 26 million brainwashed people kept in poverty by a clique of gangsters. As for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has been responsible for more deaths than Stalin and Lenin combined. Today it continues to reveal its true nature through a policy of genocide in Xinjiang and the construction of a social credit system which, when linked to AI, may permit it not only to control the actions of their people but also their thoughts; a system that — I am convinced — it wishes to roll out beyond its borders.

For a long time, this autocratic axis seemed tenuous, incoherent, implausible. Today, like Frankenstein’s monster, it is beginning to shudder with life force and flex its muscles. You might have noticed Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shaking hands in Beijing on Wednesday as they discussed the quid pro quo in which China pays for discounted Russian oil, thus enabling Putin to finance his war machine. Just last week, dozens more innocents were killed in Ukraine. Judging by their smiles, these tyrants seem to think this is cause for celebration.

Then on Thursday, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, travelled to North Korea, another meeting that freezeframed a world in frantic geopolitical motion. Kim Jong-un, scion of a family that has murdered and “disappeared” thousands of its own people, is providing weapons to Russia while receiving nuclear secrets in return. Meanwhile, Iran provides millions of barrels of hydrocarbons to China while offering drones to Putin. It is not impossible that they will soon instruct Hezbollah to attack Israel from the north which, when combined with the possibility of an assault by China on Taiwan, would open up conflict in three theatres. The world would be at war.

How on earth did we get here? Looking back, one is struck — more than anything else — by our own hubris. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we declared the end of history (although Francis Fukuyama’s essay of that title was more sophisticated than some proponents realised). The world, we believed, was moving towards liberal democracy. The arc of history would culminate in a bonanza of freedom and prosperity. We saw ourselves as the heirs of the enlightenment, proselytisers for a new world order. How foolish, how criminally complacent, our political class became.

I am not just talking about allowing the CCP to join the rules-based system while it violated those same rules. I am not just talking of how we serially appeased Putin — a man western leaders said they could “work with”— for the sake of cheap gas. I am not even talking about the scandalous reluctance to invest in defence, particularly in Europe (although even America has allowed its military-industrial complex to decay). What I am talking about is a pervasive mindset that we’d “won”. And this caused the fatal mistake of anyone who cares about peace: the failure to deter.

What we missed above all else, I think, is that for all our progress, for all our technological splendour, for all the supposed harmony hymned by writers such as the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, human nature hadn’t changed. There were still evil people in the world, people who wanted to rule nations, who yearned for naked power and who didn’t wish to have the inconvenience of elections. They took their chances, forged their opportunities, and then — to their astonishment — found that the free world was a willing accomplice.

All western nations were at fault, perhaps Germany most of all, but let me focus on the UK since it so painfully symbolises the rot. Our politicians invited China to infiltrate our universities and institutions (often while taking jobs in China proxies after leaving office), celebrated as they bought up key infrastructure and averted their eyes as dirty Russian money corrupted the City. Hell, the Tories were still taking cash from Russian donors even after the annexation of Crimea, loftily claiming it wouldn’t influence foreign policy. Was this complacency or treason?

There are many guilty men and women, but let us face the consequences. The non-aligned world is prevaricating. Saudi Arabia is facing both ways. India is playing both sides. The absurdly named global south is caught like a rabbit in the headlights. You may wonder why they haven’t picked sides, but look around you. The West is all over the place, engaged in puerile squabbles about whether cooking jerk chicken amounts to cultural appropriation, wallowing in guilt for a history long gone, unable — even now — to act coherently. Donald Trump is the bookies’ favourite to win the next presidential election on a platform of turning America in an avowedly isolationist direction while Congress is in meltdown. Who would you throw your lot in with right now?


And that is why I talk of evil. It may seem a bit Manichean to characterise one’s adversaries in such terms, perhaps even simplistic. But it is the only word that adequately conveys my dread at the direction of the world and my fear that, even now, western electorates and politicians are lost in a dreamworld. I am convinced we have a superior system. I am convinced we can bring much of the non-aligned world with us, if they see us stepping up. But do we have the will — the will to increase defence spending; the will to future-proof the supply chains of critical raw materials and chips; the will, above all, to put aside trivial political differences and chronic short-termism to confront a common enemy.

“It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.” Churchill’s words have never felt more urgent.

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