Burma and Zimbabwe Reality check for the West

Martin Jacques

We are but halfway through 2008 yet it has already born witness to a sizeable shift in global power. The default western mindset remains that the western writ rules. That is hardly surprising; it has been true for so long there has been little reason for anyone to question it, least of all the west. The assumption is that might and right are invariably on its side, that it always knows best and that if necessary it will enforce its political wisdom and moral rectitude on others. There is, however, a hitch: the authority of the self-appointed global sheriff is remorselessly eroding.

There have been two outstanding examples so far this year. The first was Burma (or Myanmar as it should be known). We can all agree that the regime is odious. The question facing the rest of the world in the aftermath of the cyclone, however, was how to assist the millions of victims of a humanitarian disaster.

True to form, it was not long before the west was talking up the idea of military intervention; warships were deployed off Burma’s coast, talk was rife of helicopter landings and amphibious craft making their way up the Irrawaddy delta.

The idea, of course, was patently absurd. Burma’s closest ally is China, with whom it shares a long border, while it is also a member of Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations). China, India and Asean — who largely make up the region — were irrevocably opposed to the use of military force. Western leaders were living in a time warp: the kneejerk responses of old, freshened up by the short-lived era of liberal interventionism, have become a stock response. It was not long before the bellicose talk subsided and the west was obliged to channel its aid via Asean — which, from the outset, was the obvious and desirable course of action.

The fact that the west could not understand the geopolitical realities of east Asia — now the largest economic region in the world — and adapt its policies accordingly, revealed that old assumptions and attitudes run very deep indeed. Even when the very thought is ridiculous and utterly impractical, the call for military intervention, on the part of political leaders and media commentators alike, is seemingly the invariable reflex action.

In fact, what Burma demonstrated were the limits of western power, the need for the west to understand those limits, and to respect and work with a region rather than seeking to intervene over its head like some kind of imperial overlord.

The second example is Zimbabwe. This hurts the British psyche. Because we suffer from an acute case of colonial amnesia, we seem to think that we have some unalienable right to lecture Zimbabwe on its iniquities. Yet Britain’s culpability for the country’s plight — from tolerating Ian Smith’s declaration of independence to the disgraceful land deal that guaranteed the privileged position of white settlers — is second to none. Notwithstanding all of this, the British feel they enjoy incomparable moral virtue on Zimbabwe.

Yet this episode too has revealed British — and western — impotence in its starkest form. After much grandstanding at the G8 summit, the Anglo-American attempt to toughen up sanctions foundered in the United Nations security council, where it was vetoed by Russia and China and opposed by South Africa and two others. Meanwhile, President Thabo Mbeki, whose efforts to broker some kind of deal have been widely and patronisingly scorned, has scored a major diplomatic triumph.

Western power can no longer deliver in the face of the growing power, competence and self-confidence of developing countries.

Instead of universal western power, we are witnessing the rise of regionalisation and regional solutions.

This reflects broader changes in the global economy.

Economic power is fast ebbing away from the old G7 countries towards the so-called Bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India and the people’s republic of China), or, rather more accurately, a growing number of developing economies. The two examples discussed are classic instances of this process: Burma involved China and India, together with the Asean countries, while Zimbabwe featured South Africa, with Russia and especially China, emboldened in this instance to play a more assertive role on the global stage. They illustrate what might be described as the growing “Bricisation” of global politics.

The “rogue” states, namely North Korea, Zimbabwe, and perhaps even Iran, show strong signs of responding in a positive manner to a very different kind of treatment. Liberal interventionism has failed. But as yet the west shows no sign of either understanding the new world or being able to live according to its terms. It remains in denial, refusing to recognise the diminution in its own authority and, as a result, seemingly incapable of adapting to the new circumstances and coming up with an innovative response.