The West must respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria

Alexander Pannett 1.15pm

There are growing reports that the Syrian regime of President Assad has been using chemical weapons against his own people. If true, it would herald the crossing of a “red line” for the US and may lead to military intervention from Western forces.

The use of chemical weapons currently appears to be small-scale, tactical deployments. A few chemical shells targeted at rebel bunkers. The danger is that the use of chemical weapons reveals the growing desperation and determination of the Assad regime to resort to any methods necessary to survive. Now that a precedent has been set, it is no longer unthinkable that Assad’s forces would use chemical weapons against civilians on a larger scale. They have certainly shown no compunction in causing mass civilian casualties with more conventional weaponry.   

Assad has shown his disdain for threatened international reprisals if he uses chemical weapons. He has gambled that there will be no direct Western intervention in retaliation and that as Western intelligence agencies are already indirectly aiding rebel groups, there will not be any major escalation in the rebellion. He is correct that the West is reticent.

Considering the quagmire that Syria has descended into, with its kaleidoscope of factions and interests, the West should be cautious about getting directly involved. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the cost and strategic dangers of being drawn into wars in the Middle East. Previous Western intervention has exacerbated regional rivalries and sectarian divisions, raising the threat of terrorism, not diminishing it.

However, the wider issue is that the West must demonstrate to the world that it is serious in its stance against the use of chemical and biological weapons. It must also make it clear to Assad that any escalation in the use of such weapons against civilians would herald direct intervention. Otherwise Assad may believe he can act with impunity, which would have tragic consequences for the Syrian people.

Despite understandable reservations, the West should announce that it is now directly aiding secular rebel groups and it should also impose a no-fly zone. With air assets deployed to enforce the no-fly zone, the West can more easily resort to a direct air war if Assad escalates his use of chemical and biological weapons. If direct intervention is required, use of ground forces should be limited to special forces working in tandem with rebel forces as in Afghanistan in 2001. Their main priority would be to secure all biological and chemical weapon sites to stop such weapons from falling into the hands of extremists.

Obama is right to be cautious and will be loathe to commit American forces to an area of the world that is a distraction from the much more strategically important Pacific. But a leader does not choose the events that he or she faces. For now the West should limit its actions to aid and a no-fly zone. But it must do all it can to dissuade Assad from deploying chemical and biological weapons against the civilian population. Only the imminent threat of force will do this.

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The transatlantic trade pact is a death knell for euroscepticism

Alexander Pannett 1.15 pm

On Wednesday, the EU and US announced plans to forge a free trade area within two years, that would see tariffs removed and markets liberalised between the two largest economies in the world.

It is estimated that, if the agreement is successful, the free trade area would improve competitiveness, create jobs and generate billions in trade for the two economic areas. This is vital during a time of lagging global economic growth.

Combined together the economies of the US and EU account for over 54% of world GDP in terms of value and 40% in terms of purchasing power. Increased trade would also lead to a greater exchange of both human and intellectual capital. This would re-invigorate the trans-Atlantic ties that underpin that elusive idiom of the “West”.

Domestically, the proposed trade agreement has huge implications for the UK’s relationship with both the EU and US. If successful, the free trade area would mortally wound the eurosceptic movement.

British eurosceptics rue the perceived Byzantine tentacles of EU bureaucracy and instead advocate closer ties with the more economically liberal and culturally similar US.  Whilst ideologically supportive of a European single market, they question the worth of suffering a multitude of EU regulations for the dubious benefits of a free trade area with hemorrhaging European economies.

However, leaving the EU will mean being outside the proposed EU/US trade area. Considering the complexity and length of negotiations, there will be no opportunity for the UK to leave the EU and then enter the EU/US trade area as an equal third party. The EU/US free trade area would be a carrot that should not be given up.

Economics aside, abandoning the EU/US trade pact would be an absolute rejection of British foreign policy over the past 70 years. We have consistently seen ourselves at the main bridge between the US and Europe and our geo-political aims have focused on forging closer trans-Atlantic ties. A US presence in Europe assures both our security and our prosperity. It is the bedrock of the UK’s international relations.

Bizarrely, eurosceptics trumpet the foreign policy goal of closer US relations as the reason to leave the EU. They have ignored what America seeks from the “Special Relationship”. The Obama administration has been quite clear that an assertive UK in a strong Europe is what is most useful to the US. They desire an integrated Europe that can be a useful ally, and the UK’s role inside Europe is vital to achieving this.

The referendum proposed by David Cameron will allow the British public to fully engage with the pros and cons of EU membership. As John Major iterated in his backing of Cameron in a speech at Chatham House yesterday, "It will be healthy to let the electorate re-endorse our membership, or pull us out altogether. At present, we are drifting towards – and possibly through – the European exit.”

This is why the launch this week of European Mainstream, by pro-Euro Conservative MPs such as Robert Buckland and Laura Sandys, is a necessary reminder that there are many in the Conservative party who understand the importance of our relationship with the EU. This group supports the Prime Minister’s position on Europe; that both the UK and the EU are stronger with the UK inside Europe.

The proposed EU/US trade agreement is a timely reminder of the huge opportunities that the EU provides and will continue to provide. We have allowed the eurosceptics in politics and the media to dominate the debate for too long. The EU needs reform. I believe this as sincerely as many eurosceptics. But from the recent EU budget concessions to the enlarging of the EU and liberalising of the single market, the UK’s vision for the EU is bearing fruit.

The world is changing and Britain’s global interests must change with it. We are right to seek out new markets and partners and to review our existing relationships. But we must not be blind to the importance of our relationship with Europe. The British public deserves to know all the facts.  

It is time for pro-Europeans from across the political spectrum to announce themselves.

The Decay of Relativism: Man is flattened for the good of Man

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 10.49am

Western history, almost uniquely universal in its claims, marches us up inexorably to the guilt of the twentieth century and hastily concludes that no idea or value should ever be worth harming a person for.

Man must therefore be circumscribed. He must be domesticated.

This philosophical adendum to the world wars chimes nicely with the political mood that endlessly flirts with what Orwell described as, “the underlying motive of many socialists [:] a hypertrophied sense of order… a desire to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard”.

The problem with this uninventive outlook is of course that if you take away values worth dying for, you tend to take away the values worth living for. If men died in trenches for values that could not withstand the onslaught of the decadently dessicated intellect; men now risk not really living in a world full of banal simulcra.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The state necessarily fills it. It arbitrates and acts as the sole moral agent. A soft, pragmatic nihilism is the result while the relics of a Christian legacy can be relied upon to provide some form of vision - a cogency between past and future. However, in the long term, genuine nihilism or its opposite, absolutism, present themselves as solutions to the deficiencies of the current system.

Both trends are already apparent. Nihilism a la Dark Knight Rises is evident in the justice system that treats both parties as victims of circumstance. Absolutist values too are elevated from constituent parts of discourse into the demarcators of progress. If an argument or a fact contradicts one of these beacons (e.g. equality) it is discounted as incorrect; not because of some innate falsity but because it transgresses the social gravity placed upon the value.

So the West plays out its end game. Even to relativist stalwarts relativism is necessarily relative to its time. It is intrinsic to its very nature that nobody should be truly willing to suffer for relativism.  Not even its most vocal servants, the self-hating white middle-classes.

We stand therefore at the blurred frontier of late civilisation and barbarism. Ibn Khaldun, echoed in Spenger, and later in the English historian AJ Toynbee’s A Study of History, famously wrote about how the Empires that abandoned the values of early civilisation usually fell to barbarians or to civilisations that did not.

Relativism may be a luxury we cannot afford if we still believe the West is worth fighting for. But the rot may have set in. I’m not sure many of us really think anything worth dying for any more.

Do the Left have a better claim to the tenets of Western culture than the Right?

Alexander Pannett 8.40am 

For the modern Western human we often appear to hurtle through our combustious, modern lives, inoculated from niggling doubts of banality through the adulation of mass entertainment.

In such a precociously unsettling realm do concepts of higher culture still find meaning.

Can we still be cultivated to appreciate so-called higher values when post-modernism appears to ground down all sensibilities to an osmosis of the lowest common denominator.

What role does art, music, literature and comedy play these days to develop enlightenment notions of civilisation. Is culture merely a mutable plaything of socio-economic matrices or an educational vehicle of tradition and accumulated wisdom.

These were the queries that were bandied around at a debate I attended yesterday between respective darlings of the Left and Right; Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton.

Despite coming from opposing political opinions, both thinkers appeared to agree that the maintenance of critique was vital for a defined sense of culture.

For Eagleton, critique, that was un-molested and un-hindered by the vagaries of late capitalism, was both progressive and historical in its development of a shared sense of society.

For Scruton, critique allowed individuals to understand and affirm their interaction with their community and derive values from their surroundings.

For these academic luminaries, the importance of questioning was deemed to be the bedrock of Western culture. Its perceived entropy in modern society was lamented as a disastrous set-back for both the progressive ambitions of the Left and the traditional values of the Right.

However, both thinkers had missed the fundamental shift in the ownership of culture that has arisen from the revolution of the digital age.

The internet has allowed all sections of society to have instant access to multiple truths. Questioning is no longer a laborious exercise reserved for the upper echelons of an academic or social elite but a freedom available to all at the click of a button.

Critique is therefore no longer framed by socialist or privileged hierarchy but by a liberalisation that has both cheapened and expanded its horizons. For many today, the subtle complexities of Big Brother say more about the human condition than any reading of Montaigne.

Facebook, World of Warcraft or Wikipedia have done more to develop a sense of community and values amongst today’s youth than any previous forms of high culture, such as Mozart or Pinter. As for an establishment of abstract critique, it is well documented that social media, powered by the internet, lay behind the emancipatory success of the Arab Spring.

The access to instant information has ensured that a plurality of critique is now a fecund product of the masses rather than a dictate from above. Once intractable value-systems have been split open and new depths of the human imagination probed as humans have re-framed their social imperatives. Culture has become both proletarian and metaphorically polyglot in its usurpation of the elite’s previous monopoly of critique.

Where once Right and Left polemically held sway along socio-economic lines, now all culture is both ontologically possible and impossible. Humans become Elf heroes in mystical virtual lands, whilst others gain cult followings due to ironic self-publicity on Youtube.

In such a world, previous concepts of culture are redundant. Fears that critique has been lost due to perceived postmodern nihilism are deeply unfounded.

As humans have retreated from the material certainties that once shackled them, they have found new virtual domains to explore and question both themselves and the prevailing social truths they left behind.

Far from a retreat from culture, the isle is full of noises.

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China can still learn from the West

Alexander Pannett 11.50pm

This week has seen the visit of Xi Jinping, the Vice-President of China, to the US.

It has been heralded as an important moment for the man widely expected to become China’s next president.

If this is so, Xi Jinping will be the leader of China at the moment that China has been forecast to eclipse the US as the largest economy in the world (in 2023).  To underline the importance of this fact, this will be the first time that a non-Western nation will have been the largest economy in the world for 500 years and the first non-democracy in almost 200 years.

The visit has again raised debate over the huge economic achievement of China compared with a soporific West that seems to lurch from one debilitating crisis to another. Commentators have insisted that it is now the West who should take political and economic lessons from China regarding the “China Model” of state capitalism rather than the alleged languidness and instability of the Western democratic model.

Impressive and sustained Chinese growth has been the defining feature of geo-strategic politics over the last 20 years cannot be denied. It appears that the rise of Islamic terrorism was a minor detour against the real historical changes affecting the world; the continuing transfer of wealth and power from West to East.

 Chinese advocates point to their government’s long-terms solidity, being able to implement projects that bring economic growth regardless of public opinion. The one party state can extend its will throughout China as no Western democratic government can. This allows for extensively ambitious construction works that have forged an infrastructure that has driven China to its current economic paean.

While the East has grown in importance, the West has descended into paralysis due to internal disputes. In the US, politics has never been more partisan, which has resulted in repeated failure to reach an agreement in lowering the titanic debt that is undermining America’s stature in the world, symbolic as the Chinese are the main creditors of this debt. In Europe, a sovereign debt crisis that has no end in sight threatens the very survival of the European Union.

America’s war on terrorism has shattered the Western unity that existed during the Cold War. Worse still, the Western intellectual genealogy that stemmed from a shared Enlightenment inheritance appears to be fraying as an increasingly secular and liberal Europe drifts further apart from an increasingly religious and conservative America. As America looks to the Pacific, Europe is becoming more pacific.

However, while there are undoubted merits to China’s economic growth, it still has much to learn from the West. Fractious as Western politics may be, democracies benefit from an attribute that all the economic growth in the world cannot bring: accountability.

Ruling through the acquiescence of the people ensures that Western governments must justify why grand endeavours are of benefit to their people. This checks the more hubristic ambitions of politicians. It also brings a modicum of transparency to the corridors of power that can too easily be swayed by vested interests, even corruption.

 A society that permits free expression will produce more innovative thinkers than a state that rejects views that differ from its priorities. It is telling that China has caught up with the technology of the West not from creating rival products or ideas through native research and development but from widespread piracy of Western intellectual property.

Though its economic growth has been herculean, China’s environmental record has been consequently sisyphean. Development has led to huge water shortages, with more than two-thirds of cities reporting an inadequate water supply and two-thirds of Chinese lakes have chemical deficiencies caused by pollution according to government estimates. Huge dust storms now envelop Beijing due to increasing desertification from over-farming. In 2005 China’s worsening air pollution cost the country $112 billion in lost economic productivity.

This is to say nothing of the social costs that have resulted from human rights abuses and a growing economic under-class. Despite its prosperity, most of China’s population earn too little to reach the threshold for income taxation. Only 24 million people make the $545 monthly threshold for taxation, according to the Ministry of Finance.

 This is the dark underside of a political system that is not accountable for its actions. The former USSR provides plenty of horrendous examples of wide-reaching government ambitions having ill-thought out and disastrous consequences. The Aral Sea is now an environmental wasteland and half its original size, due to extensive Soviet irrigation that attempted to turn Kazakhstan into a giant rice and cotton production centre. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is another example.

 The Western model of democracy is not the only model of governance or without its own faults. Western governments have often been guilty of grand strategies that have brought more pain and suffering than any lasting achievement. It should also be recognised that the current Chinese one party model originates from political ideologies that were cultivated in the West.

 However, before China grows too confident in its own manifest destiny, it should be aware of the severe dangers of a government that rules without accountability. While China’s economic achievements currently dwarf those of the West, China still has much to learn from Western democracy.

Let us hope that the coming century will be a beacon of mutual erudition between East and West. A Confucian century of social harmony, rather than a Machiavellian century of rivalry.

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Russia’s Syrian hypocrisy

Alexander Pannett 10.38am

Yesterday, diplomats at the UN Security Council were engaged in a concerted attempt to pass a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power, which is a key part of an Arab League plan.

This is a welcome move as bloody government reprisals against the protesters have led to more than 7,000 civilian deaths as Syria slides into civil war.

The text, however, had to be dropped due to Russian objections that it amounted to “regime change”, which was a threat to the principles of national sovereignty as protected under the UN charter.

This is contrary to the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which was recognised as a concept by all countries (Russia and China included) at the UN World Leader’s Summit in 2005.

Responsibility to Protect is a concept for intervention in a state by the international community for the prevention of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass killings and human rights violations taking place, in a country which is unwilling (or unable) to stop it. In the event of any such acts occurring, the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to prevent it.

Both the Russians and the Chinese, whose modern history has been dominated by bloody foreign interventions, are understandably reticent about any development of liberal interventionism that protects a people from the violent abuses of its government.  Considering the poor human rights records in both these countries, it is unsurprising that they will be wary of a liberal doctrine that legitimises external interference along the grounds of human rights.

However, it is callous in the extreme for the Russians to cite the UN charter’s protection of national sovereignty as the rationale for its support for the Assad government.  Or for the Russians to justify their current intransigence with a resolution against Syria by suggesting that the UN resolution that allowed for “all necessary means” to protect the Libyan people went too far in toppling the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi.

The Russians were quite happy to cite the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine with their invasion of Georgia in 2008 or use interventionism with their ongoing suppression of “terrorist” separatist groups in the Northern Caucuses or recent use of energy blackmail to interfere with Ukrainian elections.

The real hypocrisy of Russia lies however with the realpolitik of their global strategic ambitions.

At Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, lies one of only two Russian naval bases outside Russia that Russian capital ships can dock at for re-supply. With the other naval base outside Russia at Sevastopol only on a 25-year lease and subject to the whims of a Ukrainian government with lukewarm relations towards Russia, Tartus is crucial to the Russians’ plans to re-establish themselves as a world military power.

The Syrian government recently agreed to transfer the naval base permanently into Russian hands and the Russians have since been pouring billions into the base to allow it to host a new Mediterranean fleet. To re-affirm Russia’s interests in Syria and its support for the Assad regime, a flotilla of Russian ships, including the Russian flagship, were deployed to the Tartus naval base in November 2011.

Without Tartus, Russia’s plans to project its power around the globe would be severely curtailed, especially in the nearby oil-rich Middle East, an area of vital strategic importance.  It is this concern that is dictating Russia’s morally bankrupt actions at the UN rather than any simulacrum of UN protections of national sovereignty.

As Aaron Ellis has pointed out on these pages, the West is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence about what it stands for in the world. While hard questions are rightly being asked about the Western economic model, we must not forget that our political and liberal values helped shape the present structure of international relations.

Our voice is needed to help prevent the oppression of the weak and dispossessed and to uphold the goals of the UN which sought to prevent massacres such as those that are occurring in Syria.

The West has certainly made terrible foreign policy errors that have resulted in the deaths of innocents. But we should not forget the far worse, dystopian machinations of those to whom our current angst would cede the leadership of the world.

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