Editorial

CAN THE CENTRE HOLD?

What do the sudden detention of a swathe of the Saudi Arabian establishment, Angela Merkel’s failure to form a government in Germany and even the fall of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe have in common?

They are all signs of how much the old international order is fragmenting – and that is without mentioning the presence of Donald Trump in the White House. If his election and Britain’s vote to quit the European Union were the shocks of last year, 2017 is ending with further evidence of uncertainty on all sides, as several articles in this issue show.

The drastic actions of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince are in part a reaction to a power shift in the Middle East which has seen Iran extend its influence across much of the region. Tehran-backed forces have all but erased Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, in the latter case with the help of Russia, which is in the process of brokering a Syrian peace deal.

President Vladimir Putin acted as host in meetings, first with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, then with the presidents of Iran and Turkey – the latter having begun the conflict as Assad’s enemy, before seeing which way the tide was running. President Trump? He was informed afterwards.

Leaving aside the suspicion that the US leader is in some way beholden to the Kremlin, which is the subject of investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, Russia’s emergence as a Middle East mediator adds to the sense that the US under Trump is becoming less relevant in international affairs. His recent Asian tour did little to dispel this feeling: for all the ceremony with which he was received in Beijing, where he delivered blunt messages on trade and North Korea, there were few signs that the Chinese leadership felt compelled to heed him.

Nor were there incentives for smaller nations in the region to resist China’s gravitational pull, which is strengthened by billions of dollars of potential investments under the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. Chinese money and influence reach far beyond East Asia to Europe and Africa – so far, indeed, that the Zimbabwean generals who overthrew Mugabe allegedly sought Beijing’s blessing. However improbable such a claim might seem, the point is that it was taken seriously.

In the light of America’s retreat from the stage, Chancellor Merkel was put forward by some as the leader of the free world, but her inability to construct a coalition with a parliamentary majority could mean the end for her. Uncertainty in Germany, which faces another election and possibly months of further political wrangling, is a serious setback for the European Union,which is already struggling with a confused and divided Britain’s decision to leave. The kind of discontent demonstrated by Brexit is also on display in the rise of the far right in several EU countries.

Into this toxic mix of ‘fake news’, anger at globalisation and resurgent nationalism arrives the Paradise Papers, the latest massive leak from within the shadowy world of money laundering and offshore tax havens. Nothing can do more to convince publics across the world that all the conspiracy theories are true. If they suspect that their élites are irredeemably corrupt, in league withlarcenous oligarchs andtax-dodging multinational corporations, they can find plenty of evidence in the torrent of documents and emails posted on the internet for all to see. Indignation is justified, but the danger is that it is being exploited by forces deeply inimical to democracy.

Against this background, it is important for those who hold democratic values to push back against the increasingly confident efforts of authoritarian leaders such as Putin and China’s Xi Jinping to undermine those values. And where better to look than the world’s largest democracy? It is in India’s interest to work with countries that share its ideals, and our cover article reports on one means of achieving that.

Enhancing India’s role in the Commonwealth would do much to strengthen an organisation that, despite many lapses and imperfections, stands first and foremost for democracy. A small step towards restoring faith in democratic ways, perhaps, but a useful one all the same.

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