Disaster looms in the West, but no leader in sight
The actions of the leadership in many Western countries leave one with a sense of huge discomfort
In May 2000 the global news and business magazine, The Economist, published a sensational cover story that focused on Africa. The cover of the magazine carried a picture of a militiaman, with a rocket launcher on his shoulder, transposed on to a map of the continent.
The simple yet depressing cover line read: “The hopeless continent.”
The story the magazine carried was just as brutal, with a tinge of droll colonial condescension, self-satisfaction and perhaps racism: “Since January, Mozambique and Madagascar have been deluged by floods, famine has started to reappear in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe has succumbed to government-sponsored thuggery, and poverty and pestilence continue unabated. Most seriously, wars still rage from north to south and east to west. No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent’s shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African – brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere – but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.”
The outrage over that cover story – what does “for reasons buried in their cultures” mean when there is no mention of centuries of colonial subjugation? – continues to this day in academic journals and debates. This week, I wondered what The Economist’s reading of what’s happening in Europe would be.
One person who seemed to have an assessment to hand was Richard N Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, who tweeted: “In an instant Europe has gone from being the most stable region in the world to anything but. Paris is burning, the Merkel era is ending, Italy is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the EU, Russia is carving up Ukraine, and the UK is consumed by Brexit. History is resuming.”
Haass, of course, makes the mistake, as happened with The Economist 18 years ago, of reducing a whole continent to what’s happening to a handful of countries. However, there is a need to be concerned about the trajectory of not just Europe, but “the West”, as it were. Europe is unstable. The US is that and volatile to boot. The actions of the leadership in many of these countries, and their commitment to the core foundational values of the European Union and the US, leaves one with a sense of huge discomfort.
Last week, the UK went through even more of its increasingly comical, senseless, but potentially deeply harmful, Brexit gyrations. Divisions are deep. Logic and sense seem to have been thrown out the window. All is populist rhetoric. Ask foreign investors what the future holds for the UK and they will shake their heads and say two words: Instability and volatility.
One of the greatest stabilising forces of the European Union, Angela Merkel, is bowing out of leadership in Germany. Right-wing forces, encouraged by the rise of populism in the US and elsewhere in Europe, continue to try to undermine her legacy. What happens now with Germany will be crucial for the stability of the entire region.
Her closest ally in the EU is Emmanuel Macron, himself facing riots and an unhappy populace in France, but still credibly in power. There is no credibility in Italy, though. The coalition between the politically confused and confusing Five Star Movement (espousing left-leaning policies on some days and the opposite on others, while it is led by a bunch of jokers and their families) and the right-wing Lega is coming up with populist proposals to deal with a struggling economy and the second-highest debt pile in Europe. Italy’s debt is one of the largest in the world at 131% of debt to gross domestic product. The two parties are promising to revive the economy by giving more money to the poor and to reduce taxes. Debt will balloon.
Russia has Vladimir Putin, and he is itching for war. Last month, Russian seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea, triggering fears of a potential invasion.
The greatest threat, however, seems to emanate from the leaderless US, where the president of the country has sided with the murderous ruler of Saudi Arabia and is increasingly stoking conflicts with China and others.
It is easy to point fingers and make lazy pronunciations about the state of countries and continents. Yet it would be foolish to think that “all is well in the state of Denmark” (where, incidentally, they are implementing Hitler-esque measures to send migrants to an isolated island which used to be a laboratory facility for contagious animal diseases).
Has Europe become our age’s “Hopeless continent”? No. We are, however, living through an incredible period of change for “the West” and the world, and it looks to me again that the common denominator that is missing is “leadership”.