Somewhat to my own credit and surprise, I can still recall sitting in class, waiting for our English teacher to arrive, at my prep school in the autumn of 1962 just as the US/Russian Cuban missile crisis was reaching its height.
He was a popular chap, not least because – then aged somewhere between 23 and 30 – he was seemingly about thirty years younger than all the other masters, and indeed every other adult that mattered in our immature lives.
Eventually he strode in and we dutifully opened our textbooks, preparing for what we thought was to be just another period at the coal-face. However, in a distinct break with tradition, he then came round in front of his desk and sat on it with his feet dangling over the edge, to announce that he wasn’t at all sure why he was bothering to turn up today because the great likelihood was that, by tea-time, we’d all be dead.
[I cannot remember the exact details, but my impression is that, at the time, US president John F. Kennedy had just issued an ultimatum to Russia effectively stating that – if they failed to do something by a set deadline – the United States would regard itself at war.]
In some respects the current situation in the Ukraine seems to contain faint echoes of the Cuban missile crisis.
What strikes home to me is that, faced with Russia’s unbendingly stern attitude to its former colonies and geo-political sphere of influence, ‘the West’ has a massive problem in knowing how to respond and at the moment is flailing around in a state of complete disarray.
Watching my television yesterday, I was deeply unimpressed as William Hague, British foreign secretary, and then US secretary of state John Kerry, spoke to the media about how dim a view ‘the world’ was taking of the Russian president’s antics and … er … what draconian and far-reaching measures of retribution might soon be visited upon him if he did not repent. For some reason, a vision of Mr Putin laughing with derision in response from his Jacuzzi bubble-bath, sipping super-chilled Russian vodka, came to my mind.
Part of the problem is that the United Nations, which ostensibly purports to be an organisation helping to maintain a sense of order and logic in world affairs, is in fact nothing more than a talking shop.
You could argue convincingly that even this limited function is better than none.
However, the problem with conventions that, with all good intentions, seek to give all the main world players a seat at the table and treat them with equal respect and status is that – whatever norms and ‘rules’ are drawn up – everyone can interpret them as they wish, i.e. to their own advantage … and, thereby, other people’s disadvantage.
For example if – in order to ensure that nothing to strategic disadvantage of the West can occur – you include a veto in the system, then logically any West-opposed country or grouping must also be entitled to use one.
Ergo, an inbuilt capacity for potential stalemate and/or paralysis.
It’s both frustrating and fascinating to see – in newspaper pieces and television interviews with contributors representing all the relevant parties – the same principles being invoked on both sides of the argument. Whenever the British, Americans, Europeans and NATO complain that, by occupying the Crimea, Russia has violated the independence of Ukraine that it had itself supposedly been part of guaranteeing, those put up by Russia immediately shoot back by citing America and Britain’s invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
The truth is that, in geo-political terms, any country can just about justify virtually any action by reference to defence of its ‘interests’ and/or identified minorities that are being oppressed, or whose human rights are being violated. Justify that action to itself and its home audience, that is.
Right now, we in the West know that there’s nothing we can do about Russia’s action in the Ukraine. What’s more, the Russians know that we know that.
We may have treaties and obligations to the sanctity of Ukraine’s borders, some of them strong enough to cause those Ukrainians who rose up and deposed their president to feel emboldened, but in practice they’re barely worth the paper they’re written upon. The voting populations of the West have grown tired of the costs and potential future implications of adventurous interventions in foreign countries, whether sanctioned by the United Nations or not.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to a matter of principle. When you sign a treaty guaranteeing to maintain a fellow nation’s sovereignty … and somebody violates it … what is your response going to be?
Do you talk, or do you act?
Furthermore, can you – should you – really decide your response by weighing up whether the disagreeable consequences of taking action outweigh those, including the humiliation, of not doing so?
On 4th August 1914, after its ultimatum had been ignored, Britain duly declared war on Germany because the latter had ignored the sanctity of the frontiers of Belgium, which Britain had guaranteed to support. Of course, that was in a different age when principles counted for something different – and perhaps more – than they do today.
Last week, in separate television programmes, historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings argued whether Britain’s interests were best served by going to war in 1914, or might have been better served by not doing so.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, of course. It might be more worthwhile at the moment if perhaps said gentlemen (Ferguson and Hastings) were now invited to mount similar programmes, arguing the pros and cons of the West now standing behind the commitments it made to the Ukraine – or not.