It was 1991 and the Coalition forces were sweeping north through Iraq; crushing an ill-equipped Iraqi army. Alec, my neighbour, a countryman not given to radical opinions, watched the progress on his small television. “Do you know, Mr Poulton, if Kuwait had fields of cabbages and not oilfields, no-one would have gone to help them”.
I nodded agreement, but felt that I should demonstrate some sort of establishment view, “But Alec, isn’t it right that we should defend a country against aggression?”
“Aye, certainly”, he said, “but it seems odd that we can only do the right thing when there’s something in it for us”.
In 1979, in my days as a first year undergraduate at the London School of Economics, David Owen spoke at a student meeting. The British government in which he had been Foreign Secretary had lost power in the general election of the previous May and Owen felt free to express his own views. “The first duty of the Foreign Secretary”, he asserted, “is to protect the national interest”. No high principles;, no doing what was right for the sake of it; no asking what is good and what is true; the national interest, plain and simple; realpolitik, as Bismarck would have called it.
Perhaps it was always thus, perhaps self interest and profit have always been the determinant of policy; even the religious wars of the Middle Ages, fought for supposed reasons of “faith” were deeply motivated by the belief that if one engaged in such conflicts it would bring tangible eternal rewards.
Twenty years ago, the Western powers did nothing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. Foreign forces came into Kigali to take out the foreign nationals; the Africans were completely incidental. It is impossible to read the memoir of Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN forces in Rwanda, and not be left feeling deeply cynical about the politicians of the United Nations. Nearly a million people died in Rwanda while the outside world listened to reports on the radio. There was no profit in intervention. A year later, a 400-soldier strong UN contingent did nothing to prevent the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia
Genocides pass while the world discusses the merits of intervention and passes resolutions at international conferences. A blind eye was turned to the atrocities in Darfur because the Chinese were actively involved in the Sudan and none of us could afford to alienate the Chinese; it would not have been in the national interest. This year’s unrest and killings in the Central African Republic quickly slipped from the television news; our interests were not affected.
What are we going to do to defend Ukraine? Make noises, pass resolutions, wag fingers, and then what? Is anyone really going to send soldiers, dispatch warships, launch missiles? Economic sanctions? Russia provides $100 million worth of gas to Europe – every day. Is anyone going to risk European economic and financial stability for the sake of Ukraine?
Winston Churchill may have been an heroic figure, but it is the politics of Neville Chamberlain that have triumphed. In 1938, he described the Czechoslovakia crisis as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. In 2014, the conflict in Ukraine would be similarly regarded. Concessions in 1938 only served to encourage Hitler; the West will gamble that Putin will not be encouraged by passivity, will hope that matters quickly settle, and will get on with the business of promoting the national interest.