Back to the Future


I heard Condoleezza Rice speak at Chatham House last week. Apart from being even more articulate than I’d expected (and having a remarkably dry sense of humour), three things struck me.

The first point is the emphasis she placed on the role of Russia in the resurgence of great-power rivalries in the context of current inter-connected crises. We see Russia’s name cropping up, repeatedly, but hearing an expert on the Soviet Union comment on the role of Russia in current affairs and situations shone a spotlight on the point.

The second point follows from this: history has this horrible habit of repeating itself. It’s a resurgence of great-power rivalries. This is hardly a novel point, but it’s linked to the importance – that Dr Rice emphasised – of playing the long-game and being patient. Western Europe has had centuries to settle its democratic institutions – and decide that democratic institutions are what it wants – and expecting other countries to reach similar conclusions in the space of a few years is unrealistic in the extreme.

The final point is more difficult to pin down, but there was a sense that Dr Rice’s comments could only have been made by someone from the pre-Obama era of government. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve become more used to a tone of disengagement and a perception that US and European governments would prefer to distance themselves from international conflicts. The level of reassurance that can be given by presence in NATO ally countries, the view that sanctions are a blunt weapon and the willingness to identify the weaknesses of an isolationist approach all felt pre-2009.

I’m not saying one approach is right or wrong and I don’t regard myself as a hawk. But I realised just how used I’ve become to withdrawal starting to be the norm.

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