Observations of an ex pat: Tectonic shifts

The Earth is constantly changing. There are something like 15 plates which comprise the Earth’s crust or mantle and they are forever moving towards and away from each other. Geologists call the movements tectonic shifts, and sometimes they cause massive earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

The geological shifts are mirrored in politics. Presidents, prime ministers, governments and countries move to the right and the left. They change alliances and sometimes disappear altogether.

Earthquakes are difficult to predict. The same can be said of tectonic political shifts. In one case we are dealing with nature with all its unknown variables. In the other we are dealing with equally unpredictable human nature.

The political world at the moment is going through one of its shifts. It is a shift which involves the rise of new powers, ideas, concepts, and resources and the decline of their older counterparts in different parts of the world. Just as with an earthquake, or volcanic eruption, these are likely to be disruptive at best and wreak death and destruction at worst.

Fifty years ago the world was locked in a Cold War between two powers—the United States and the Soviet Union—representing two separate and distinct political ideologies. Most of the rest of the world either voluntarily or involuntarily sided with one power or another.

The primary fighting ground in this conflict was Europe. The conflict rose from the ashes of primarily a European war, the Soviet Union was a European power and America’s major markets, historic and cultural links were with Europe.

Asia was important but peripheral because China—the world’s most important Asian power—had withdrawn into its shell to indulge in one of its periodic bouts of self-inflicted political blood-letting.

So the focus of the United States was on Europe. Even when the simmering conflict boiled over in Asian hotspots such as Korea and Vietnam, the statesman were more concerned about the effect weakness there would have on Soviet and American actions on the other side of the world.

Now the plates—at least some of them—are moving again. For a start China has emerged from its shell ready and extremely willing and able to take up its role of regional leader and world power. It is the world’s largest population, second largest economy, the world’s largest army and the fourth largest nuclear arsenal.

The Asian plate is expanding and—in many American eyes–  is replacing Russia as the biggest tectonic threat. But the problem is that for the Europeans–whose EU plate has also been growing in economic terms but not nearly enough in political or military terms—is still worried about Russia.

Moscow has never fully accepted that it lost the Cold War. It has simply changed tack and substituted Marxism with ultra-nationalism. Its self-perceived role as the dominant power of Eastern Europe is as overpowering  now as it was in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Hegemony is part and parcel of its national image.

The Obama Administration recognised these shifts and launched its “Asia Pivot” to shift diplomatic and trade resources to the Eastern edge of the Pacific. The Trans Pacific Partnership—which excluded China—was a key part of this pivot. The Trump Administration abandoned TPP but not its fear of China. It believes that a conflict is coming. The conflict will be with China and its best to have it as soon as possible while the United States is still top dog.

The problem is that Europe remains under threat from Russia. A corruption-riddled political and economic structure keeps the economy weak, but Russia still has the world’s largest nuclear arsenals and President Putin has discovered that foreign adventures win him support back home.

On top of that, Russia and China have rediscovered a community of interests. They were allies and then opponents during the Cold War. Now they are allied again in the cause of authoritarianism versus Western liberal democracy.

The United States is now effectively faced with a two front conflict while its economic dominance is declining. Tricky. Ideally the answer would be to concentrate one front. But which one and how?

* Journalist Tom Arms is vice-chairman and secretary of Tooting Liberal Democrats and a regular contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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  • ANOTHER very , very bad by election result last night. Does not matter if it has not been fought for 18 years, if we are a party with proper national electoral support then we should be hitting 15%. There are far, far too many results in the region of 1, 2 3%. These are the worst times I have known since 1962. We have to face up to it.

  • Theakes: Glad to see that the local party there is now strong enough to put up a candidate but, with a Lab gain from Con likely, a good result for us was always unlikely.

    On Tom Arms’ article: The EU is better placed to stand up to Russia than we will be after Brexit. Russia will not go away as a problem soon as Putin will arrange the succession when he eventually goes. That tectonic plate will keep pressing westward.

  • Theakes
    Where was the by-election?
    Thank you.

  • Laurence Cox 5th Jan '18 - 11:22am

    Perhaps the most important tectonic plate that is shifting is that covering the middle and eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia) who are all lurching towards right-wing anti-liberal politics. Were they applying for EU membership today, they probably would not be accepted.

  • nvelope2003 5th Jan '18 - 12:15pm

    Laurence Cox: There is a reaction against liberal ideas everywhere, not just in the countries you mentioned because people feel the liberal elite have gone too far, just as in the 1980s they felt to socialists were out of step and had left the country in a mess. It is normal for people to turn to those who have completely opposite ideas in those circumstances but in the 1980s many felt the Conservatives had gone too far under Thatcher and the Labour Party were just planning more of the policies they did not want so they turned back to the centrist policies of the 1960s proposed by the Social Democrats and their Liberal allies. This time they seem to want a complete change in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, not a return to the moderate centre, so there will be no Liberal revival until the voters get tired of Socialism as they did before and forget the downside of centrist elitist policies.

  • Alex Macfie 5th Jan '18 - 2:49pm

    nvelope2003: Not “everywhere”: look at the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Canada, and Macron in France. The ANO 2011 party of the Czech Republic, while sometimes included in the populist movements of Eastern Europe, is actually a centrist party that belongs to ALDE. Its leader has been called a “Czech Trump”, but really he’s more a Czech Macron.

    I don’t think the success of Corbyn reflects popular support for his brand of hard-left socialism. Indeed what is striking is that many of those who support him do not share his values. Most notably, many peole who voted Labour in the recent general election thought that Corbyn would stop Brexit, despite his deep-seated hostility to the EU, the Labour manifesto commitment to “honour” the referendum result, and Labour’s recent voting record on Brexit. IN short, Corbyn and Momentum have successfully conned many people into thinking he is a small-l liberal, when in fact he is anything but. It remains to be seen how long this con can be maintained.

    As for “liberal elite”, I refer you to Tim Farron’s quote:

    “The phrase ‘the liberal elite’ is usually bandied about by people who aren’t liberal but who are the elite.

    Whereas I am a liberal but am not the elite.”

    Hence the bare-faced cheek of uber-elitist Jacob Rees-Mogg calling Andrew Adonis “arrogant, out of touch and elitist”, especially considering Adonis’ distinctly non-elite background. The Brexit referendum result was a victory for the illiberal elite, such as Trump, Rees-Mogg, Farage, the Tory right, Murdoch and Dacre. I think one thing liberals need to do is to call out these fake anti-elitists, and not validate their false “liberal elite” narrative are nvelope2003 is doing.

  • I’m not so certain there has been a reaction against liberal ideas or a tectonic shift. so much as there was over confidence . To me it looks as much like the arms industry politics and military strategists on all sides remaining suspicious of their old foes mingled with a desire to keep the money flowing. There are huge contracts in defence, lots of jobs involved, lots of research. lots of history. Domestic policy, I suspect, has been trundling along for decades with abundant evidence that there was not much support a lot of it. The key factor to me is commentariat thinking the world had changed based on a couple of old essay by the likes of Francis Fukuyama and then going into shock when it turns out it hasn’t changed much at all.
    What have we really found out? The cold war never really ended, Republicans vote Republican in elections, local populations don’t really like mass immigration and The British aren’t that European. In further news war is bad and Elvis is still dead.

  • nvelope2003 5th Jan '18 - 5:49pm

    Alex Macfie: Justin Trudeau’s Canadian Liberals were elected after a long period of Conservative Government. No one really knows what Macron stands for – maybe a bit like Corbyn in that respect – but he has made the right noises. Even in Greece there was a revival of the Liberal party which had been moribund for over 30 years. These are all places where Liberals had not held power or influence for a long time. The German Liberals also did well recently after 4 years without parliamentary representation.
    I do not think many people would regard Jacob Rees-Mogg as any kind of Liberal. What I meant by the liberal elite is the sort of people who, for example, allow a man who has killed 2 wives to be released from prison to murder a third wife, or a multiple rapist to be let out after only 10 years. I know these are extreme examples and not the sort of thing many Liberal Democrats would support but people hear these things and the comments of the press and it worries them.

    I think it is possible that after a few more years of Conservative government under the present leader there could very well be a change. It is what happened in 1964 and 1997.

  • Alex Macfie 5th Jan '18 - 6:05pm

    nvelope2003: My point about Jacob Rees-Mogg is that he is the sort of illiberal elitist that Tim Farron was referring to when he spoke the words I quoted, calling non-elite liberals “elite” despite himself being of the elite. Not that I think he’s any sort of liberal — he self-evidently isn’t.

  • nvelope2003 6th Jan '18 - 10:15am

    Alex Macfie: I do not wish to give any comfort to the illiberal elite.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Jan '18 - 11:48am

    I see a world where alliances are looser and determined by the issues of the day. No country can afford to allow previous alliances interfere in what are its current interests. Moreover, large multi-national organisations whether regional or global play a large part in determining actions. What we have are common values and it is translating these into specific issues that determines who we ally with. It is essential that our values are clear and how we will act if they are threatened equally so. Credibility like truth is suffering as we all seem to speak with a forked tongue.

  • “Moscow has never fully accepted that it lost the Cold War.”

    Nonsense. Moscow knows perfectly well that that the Soviet Union lost the cold war but we’re talking about Russia now and that’s a whole different ballgame.

    For one BIG thing it aspires to be a normal capitalist country. That’s greatly complicated by the horrific mess of the transition under Yeltsin from communism when state assets were privatised too quickly and without first building a proper institutional framework. That enabled oligarchs to seize the assets (sometimes literally at gunpoint) making the emergence of a genuinely democratic polity highly problematic.

    For another thing Russia lost upward of 20 million dead in WW2, possibly more than 25 million, so they are naturally and reasonably concerned when NATO makes hostile moves against them as it has been doing in recent years.

    Russia has an economy about the size of Australia and huge underdeveloped lands at home. It makes no sense whatsoever for it to threaten its neighbours although some of its more paranoid ones would have us believe otherwise. What it would like is to engage in trade with us but that doesn’t suit the US book – hence sanctions.

    Better explanations of what’s going on are that (a) the US cannot accept it is not the sole global superpower it would like to be, and/or (b) that the ‘military industrial complex’ (of which Eisenhower warned) has succeeded in suborning enough politicians to be beyond effective political control. It needs enemies – even if they have to be manufactured – to justify its epic budgets at a time when the US cannot apparently afford either healthcare nor keeping its infrastructure more or less maintained.

    Russia may indeed be “corruption-riddled” but that is their problem to work out and there is some evidence of progress. The US appears to be headed in the other direction – witness recent events in Washington.

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