The dawn of a new world Order?
Two years later Conrad, whose father had been a fervently anti-Russian Polish nationalist, wrote his second great novel “Under Western Eyes,” about the malign and clandestine activities of the tsarist intelligence services. Conrad, who had been a Russian citizen, did not simply invent all these machinations. It was not just the tsarist Okhrana, a secret police force, who behaved in this way.
Just as the intelligence services of the Islamic Republic of Iran modelled themselves on the shah’s Savak, and in the process became more brutal, so the Cheka and OGPU, and their successors the NKVD and KGB, took things even further after the success of the October Revolution in 1917, including carrying out assassinations overseas and targeting the alleged enemies of the USSR, including most famously Leo Trotsky in 1940.
The satellite agencies of the communist states of Eastern Europe behaved in the same way, most notoriously with the assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
In the same city 12 years ago, Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector and former intelligence agent, was assassinated by polonium poisoning, with agents of the Russian government the prime suspects. Moscow effectively refused to cooperate with the investigation.
Now we have what the British government says is another assassination attempt on a Russian exile in the UK, with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in the quiet English cathedral town of Salisbury. Moscow has again unconvincingly rejected claims of involvement. It is not clear how much it expects to be believed, or whether it cares.
My point is not to argue about who bears ultimate responsibility for these cases. Moscow has been only too happy to abet the massive use of chemical weapons in Syria, participate in the uncontrolled bombing of the civilian population there, develop a comprehensively unconventional approach to conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, and delight in the manufacture of fake news and black ops to undermine and divide its perceived enemies. So why would it hesitate to assassinate its own citizens and send a message to its opponents, domestic or foreign?
I do not propose to speculate about how we characterize the alleged attack in Salisbury under international law, something that is being argued by legal specialists elsewhere, or how we might rank it in terms of other alleged assassinations by state actors in recent years. My point is to reflect on why Russia might feel able to behave in this way now. To answer that requires a broader understanding of contemporary currents in international affairs.
At the heart of these currents is the fragmentation of the international order. You can argue endlessly about whether Russia — and indeed China — might be justified in regarding this order with suspicion, as constraining the achievement of their national goals. You can also argue about whether the way in which the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse was handled was optimal.
But such behavior is not unusual. If states think they can get away with behaving badly, especially if they have no internal checks and balances, then they will. This was the lesson Europe failed to learn from the 19th century, with the gradual erosion of the settlement reached in Vienna in 1815 through mutual suspicion, competitive imperialisms, abortive revolution, and the rise of mass participatory and often highly populist politics.
It was a lesson again not learned through the failure of the attempt to create a workable system of international security after World War I, when the US — which had emerged as an essential component of any new structure that guaranteed minimum standards of conduct and order — declined to join the League of Nations.
Moscow has been only too happy to abet the massive use of chemical weapons in Syria, participate in the uncontrolled bombing of the civilian population there, develop a comprehensively unconventional approach to conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, and delight in the manufacture of fake news and black ops to undermine and divide its perceived enemies. So why would it hesitate to assassinate its own citizens and send a message to its opponents, domestic or foreign?
Sir John Jenkins
If you read the first half of “The Sleepwalkers,” a comprehensive study of the origins of World War I by distinguished Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, you would be forgiven for thinking that our world is starting to become uncannily similar to the one he describes.
The story he tells is one where blinkered and often conspiratorial statesmen sought to lock their governments into a web of often conflicting and contradictory bilateral relationships, which they hoped would afford their countries some measure of protection from each other.
At the same time, they actively sought to undermine the domestic politics of rival states by suborning the press, inventing important news stories, bribing willing agents of influence, and conducting clandestine campaigns against their domestic critics.
The epicenter of conflict then was the Balkans. Today it is the Middle East, the borderlands of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the South China Sea and the Balkans. That makes the situation more complex, but the challenge is the same. To contain, deter and constrain the rogue behavior that threatens the international public good of collective security and stability, you need an effective mechanism to consult, agree and enforce.
That used to be the UN, particularly through the Security Council, and behind that was the fact of US military, economic and political power. The US used this to its own advantage. Which state would not? But it also believed that the international order it helped create also had to benefit others for it to be useful and stable, and was prepared to use its power to maintain it.
I do not believe that US dominance has simply vanished. It has not. But the belief in a world where order is collective and mutually beneficial or it is nothing — and where such an order needs active maintenance and cannot simply be left to others to procure — now seems at severe risk.
We see this not just in the US — and not simply because of the last 15 months — but also in the inexorable rise of populist politics in the EU — and not simply Brexit — which risk opening previously hidden divisions on how to deal with Russia and China.
This will have a massive impact on the Middle East and North Africa, where the real risk is that we return to a world of great-power competition that we last saw in the 1960s and 1970s, but this time with no one to hold the ring, and where new technologies give even the conventionally weaker party unprecedented power to undermine, intimidate and destroy.
When a resentful, revanchist power such as Russia or Iran is allowed to exploit this situation for its own purposes and get away with murder without paying a price, that is not a recipe for peace, prosperity or stability. Watch Syria, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, Lebanon and Turkey. Watch this space.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.