Jan 2001 Journal

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Earth Odyssey 2001

The world as always is in a state of change

It is an uncontested fact, brought back to mind by the recent TV series Conquistadors, that the discovery of America changed world history forever. As long ago as 1820 Canning talked of the New World redressing the balance of the Old. A century later the US affected the destinies of Europe – for good as well as ill.

In 1918 when the Germans, having knocked Russia out of the war, mounted their ‘final push’ in the West, their offensive was blunted by the arrival of a million US soldiers at the front. Then having helped win the war America aborted the peace by staying out of the League of Nations and compounded the offence by calling in its postwar loans precipitately. Washington’s lurch into self-centred isolationism helped push Europe into depression, Fascism and war. Thereafter it embarked on a steep learning curve. Besides contributing to the defeat of Nazism, it acted as midwife at the birth of the United Nations and helped resuscitate Europe by means of the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO.

Those shots in the arm for an enfeebled continent were instrumental in containing Soviet expansion and guaranteeing half a century of peace and unprecedented prosperity for the countries of Western Europe. By the end of the millennium the implosion of the Soviet Empire created an entirely new constellation of power from which the Americans are deducing a new set of priorities. When Milosevic’s serial Balkan wars elicited a slow response from neighbouring Western Europe, America’s dormant isolationism resurfaced. Congressional voices demanded that Europe got to grips with crises on its own doorstep instead of relying on American money and firepower.

At the same time America’s global perspective is changing. In the 21st century the gaze of Washington’s policymakers is likely to be fixed more on dangers lying below the Pacific than the Atlantic horizon. Ex oriente flux could well be the watchword of the new incumbent of the White House as he surveys the crisis-prone Asian shoreline from the China Sea to the Persian Gulf. Looking at the latter, strategically vital, chief source of the world’s oil supplies, the US may well conclude that it needs to co-operate with Russia in neutralising the threat the Afghan-based Islamic terrorist Bin Laden poses alike to the Gulf Emirates and to the chain of secular Muslim successor states – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan – to the USSR.

Within this general realignment of forces it is likely that the ongoing process of European integration will engender a more closely harmonised foreign and defence policy. Closer European integration is not only an explosive issue for the British electorate, it also poses new challenges for embattled Israel. A more unified Europe must be a positive development since (pace Austria) it cannot allow xenophobic racism to pit one member state against another. Conversely, though, a European entity uncoupled from the United States threatens to be biased against Israel irrespective of the merit of any given case. The chief Israelophobe among the Europeans is France, a country suffused with Gaullist self-regard, over half of whose ex-colonial subjects were either Arabs or Muslims. Other states with close ties to the Arabs are Spain and Greece. In advocating appeasement of the Arabs, France and her European confrères are guilty of a profound error of judgment. Accommodation can only be achieved by a process of give and take, but the notion of compromise is quite alien to the Arab mindset. In Hanan Ashrawi’s words “we are an all or nothing people.” This was no idle boast. The Palestinian leadership rejected both the 1936 Peel Partition Plan of 1936 and the UN Partition Plan of 1947. Today Arafat lays claim to Jerusalem as the third holiest site of Islam though he cannot adduce any archaeological or documentary proof of the Prophet Mohammed’s alleged links to the city.

The medieval Papacy was much given to rhetoric about the ecclesia militans turning into the ecclesia triumphans. A similar triumphalism characterises Islam in its own Middle Ages. Fuelled by oil money, imbued with fanatical faith and aided by terror, the fundamentalists are gaining ground in the one billion-strong Muslim world.

Even so the Crescent, like the Cross before it, can never triumph globally and for one simple reason: a closed system of thought is inimical to the quantum leaps of the mind that lie behind all scientific, technical and industrial – as well as military – advance. If that was true in the machine age it is doubly true in the age of information technology and Star Wars.

next article:After sixty glorious years