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Coming full circle - Richard Galustian 

Sunday’s Paris series of meetings of key world leaders, including a probable Trump-Putin, secret or otherwise meeting, will inevitably take place, while marking the 100th anniversary on the 11th hour of the 11th month, of the end of the World War I, will be meetings heavy on irony. 

Starting with the fact that in the past 100 years the global system has come full circle: Communism, Fascism and the declining collectivism (more correctly called globalism) of the United Nations and European Union have come and are almost gone, which leaves the world right back where it was in 1918 with ‘Great Powers’ running the show.

​Discredited after blundering their way into the world’s first industrial war, the system of imperialist ‘Great Powers’ is back by default. Because everything else has failed. 

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron were all elected by voters furious with conventional politics, where politicians can be bought and ‘experts’ are lobbyists in disguise. Angela Merkel, for once symbol of a collectivist ideal, is battered, bruised and on her way out.

The return of imperialistic power politics is not the only irony staring these leaders in the face as they pour over the maps of the world’s many trouble spots. Those maps themselves are the product of 1918 and the cause of countless wars that followed, not least World War II.

World War I was truly the war that everyone lost: four empires ­­– the Austro Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman ­­– were obliterated and those of the supposed victors, Britain and France, were so exhausted that they began a long painful collapse.

​Into the void came dozens of new states. In Europe, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were created to fill the vacuum left by Austrian rule, each further splitting, mostly murderously, later in the century into yet more states.

In the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot maps ­  ­– and the troubles – created after 1918 remain the template. It is long forgotten  but the collapse of the Ottoman Empire triggered the very first Arab Spring, along with the very first genocide of the last century of the Armenian people. 

The peoples of the Middle East were fooled into thinking they were free to decide their own destiny. The result was violence and total chaos, partly dictated by Britain and France who drew up the flawed maps of a cluster of new states, bound to eventually fail.

Paris and London, with a mixture of self-interests, cynicism and good-natured blunder created Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine, with Italy weighing in with the creation of a state it named Libya. In the Gulf, the new ‘freedom’ set off a bitter fight for Arabia, essentially between the House of Saud and the Hashemite dynasty. The name of the resulting state is the clue as to who won. 

Pause to ponder on the awful fate recently of Jamal Khashoggi and think on the disgraceful reaction of the reborn imperialist powers of the 21st century to that heinous crime.

The historical mistake with hindsight was betting on Arabs instead of Persians, something we soon all learnt. The other was allowing Palestine to be stolen.

Former imperial colonial powers are to blame for these divisions a 100 years ago. For one, to think they could design a Palestine for both Arabs and Jews, but a century is long enough for the region’s leaders to have found a way of living together.

And then there is Russia. Crippling defeat in World War I saw the Tsar succumb to the communist revolution  and most of the century was spent watching the dream of an ideal state turn into a nightmare. Communism has gone and so has multi-party democracy with Russia back where it was then, with a tsar ­­– albeit one who needs to apply for re-election.

Back where it started is also the attitude of ordinary people to their rulers, so catastrophically shattered by world war.

The fact that Europe and Turkey’s leaders, so intelligent, yet so stupid, could blunder into the cataclysm of World War I has fascinated historians ever since. Austria kicked off the war by invading Serbia, fearing otherwise its Balkan possessions would demand independence. Russia attacked Austria to support Serbia, Germany attacked Russia to support Austria and France went to war with Germany and Austria to support Russia. The Ottomans, and Italy, joined the party hoping for land grabs and ended up with horrendous losses. Britain joined almost absent-mindedly after Germany, attacking France, invaded its ally Belgium.

Conventional leaders are corrupt and bought, so-called ‘experts’ are merely paid lobbyists. This is not cynicism; it is the truth

​In the long summer of 1914 the only serious attempt at what Churchill called “jaw jaw” was, absurdly, discussions of peace talks between the German Kaiser and his cousins, Britain’s King George V and the Russian Tsar. Nothing came of it and catastrophe followed.

Fast forward to today and ordinary people are in the same belligerent mood. Conventional leaders are corrupt and bought, so-called ‘experts’ are merely paid lobbyists. This is not cynicism; it is the truth. And the great post-Cold War project of globalisation is finally on the rocks.

Macron, Putin and Trump are beneficiaries of popular dismay but no better equipped to find solutions to the world’s problems than the World War I generation. Just as the Great Powers failed to understand, prior to going to war,  the terrible power of machine guns, poison gas, tanks and air power, so today’s leaders are paralysed in the face of war, inequality, migration, global warming and potential nuclear Armageddon.

Democracy is dying in South America and Africa and tyranny strengthened in China through President Xi Jinping’s decision to become, in effect, a monarch-president for life. 

World War I was described as thewar to end wars but the world hasmore refugees, 65 million, than at any time in history. 

An alphabet-soup of global terror groups continue spreading nihilism and death despite the failure of any of them, ever, to win any discernible victories.

From which it is tempting to conclude that those 100 years have made mankind no wiser. Certainly, war is not going out of fashion. The greatest imperial power, the US, positively relishes wars.

About the only good news about the forthcoming Sunday’s gathering, supposedly commemorating peace, is that it is happening. The leaders are talking. And not just in Paris. The UN, widely discredited, never came close to the hopes of its founding fathers.

I confess it is home to one powerful institution: the Security Council (UNSC). It is dominated by the original five most powerful nuclear states on the planet ­– China, Britain, France, Russia and the US. But now we have to add Israel, India and Pakistan. The UNSC was, in effect, a permanent peace conference. Dozens of wars went on regardless, but dozens more were nipped in the bud through the jaw-jaw so conspicuously missing from events a century ago. 

However, the realities of the 21st century no longer make the UNSC relevant as more states will soon acquire the wherewithal to go nuclear.

Although it won’t happen, the first question all present in Paris should ask each other is what the hell have we learned in the last 100 years?  And the second, if and how can it be fixed?

Richard Galustian is a political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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