The New World Disorder

This article is adapted from the fiftieth annual Ditchley Foundation Lecture.
Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
Rescuers searching for bodies at the crash site of flight MH17, eastern Ukraine, July 18, 2014

When the bodies and belongings of 298 people tumbled out of the sky on July 17, and then lay unhallowed and uncollected in the fields of eastern Ukraine, clarity seemed to follow in the silence. John Ashbery’s lines in “Soonest Mended” came to mind:

It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators…

It no longer matters whether the charge against President Putin is direct incitement of those who shot down the plane or reckless endangerment by supplying them with the weaponry. By reaffirming his support for secession, he has made his choices, and it is up to Western leaders to make theirs. It no longer matters whether the West brought this new Russia upon itself by expanding NATO aggressively to its borders. What matters now is to be very clear, so that political responsibility is fixed where it belongs, so that actions have consequences, so that security guarantees are given to the vulnerable allies on Russia’s borders and that these guarantees are believed.

What matters, also, is to understand, without illusions but without alarm, the new world that the annexation of Crimea and the downing of MH17 have pitched us into.

Horror in Ukraine is not the only shock that brings clarity in its wake. With the proclamation of a terrorist caliphate in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq, the dissolution of the state order created by Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot in their treaty of 1916 is proceeding to a fiery denouement. The self-proclaimed Islamic State is a new thing under the sun: terrorist extremists who have tanks, oil wells, territory of their own, and a chilling skill in the propaganda of atrocity. Airpower can stop their advance but it cannot defeat them, and the ground forces available to the US—the Kurdish peshmerga—will have their hands full defending their own homeland. Assad of Syria has effectively surrendered his desert provinces to the IS, and as for Iraqis, the Shia will defend their holy places in the south but they cannot retake Mosul and the north.

If, as seems likely, the caliphate endures, no state in the region will be secure. Israel may again “mow the grass” in Gaza, but the bombardment of civilians will not secure it a peaceful future. Until Palestinians and Israelis recognize that there is an enemy they ought to fear more than each other—the utter disintegration of order itself—there will be no peace in their neighborhood.

In East Asia, US, Japanese, and Chinese naval fleets are circling each other, Chinese oil platforms are drilling in disputed waters, and belligerent…

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