Even the darkest clouds can have silver linings. Theresa May’s words on landing yesterday in America could not be clearer: “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”
True, May felt obliged to incant the fake chumminess of all British prime ministers setting foot on American soil. She spoke of special friends and relationships. She used the old interventionist talk of a “joint responsibility to lead … to stand strong together to defend our values and interests.” But her opening sentence was a statement not of policy, but of fact. May’s words were carefully loaded: “intervening … sovereign … remake … own image … over.” She hailed what she must hope is a new era.
Is this realistic? May was guided by Donald Trump’s campaign dismissal of the Bush/Blair wars of intervention. To grasp at a few wild remarks by Trump as basis for a new global order is near reckless. George Bush, led by Condoleezza Rice, said much the same before taking office, to zero effect. Trump has threatened blood-curdling aggression against Isis and taken a belligerent stance towards states as diverse as Mexico, Iran and China. He hardly sounds an apostle of global detachment.
His brand of non-interventionism has also advanced from opposition to sovereign aggression to a wider scepticism towards Nato and to those states, notably in eastern Europe, that expect America to defend them with nothing in return. There is much to debate here, many tired assumptions worth challenging. But the Nato alliance is the rock on which the global power balance has rested for half a century. It cannot be replaced with a vacuum. That some interventions are wrong does not make them all wrong.
The Trump/May doctrine clearly needs articulation. We need to know what new rules should guide the west’s response to global events. To say that Russia and the Arab world offer no existential threats to the west may be true. It does not mean they offer no threat at all to the network of alliances on which global peace and prosperity continue to rest. If an arrogant, chaotic, counterproductive and cruel policy is over, that is welcome. But to move forward it needs a post-mortem, some understanding of what went wrong.
The past quarter century’s wars of intervention have upheaved one Muslim state after another, mostly with catastrophic effect. They have devastated millions of people. They have done nothing for world peace, and reduced the west to gibbering paranoia over terrorism. If May and Trump can declare this era over, we can cheer. But what next?