As I saw my children off to school this morning, I thought of the brilliant summer they just had. It was one of those early teenage and pre-teenage summers where everything is possible and where all sorts of opportunities present themselves in increasingly confusing varieties. It also struck me how much has changed in our world since they left school in June.
In June, the world appeared to be a relatively peaceful place with the exception of Syria. Many articles were written in June about the centenary of the Sarajevo assassination. The general theme was that although the world is not always stable, the notion that there might be wars with new countries created, old ones collapsing and resulting mass expulsions of populations, was far-fetched.
By September, no one can be too sure.
The speed of geo-political change has been mesmerising.
An extreme Sunni Muslim group called Isis emerged in Iraq, sweeping through the country, killing ‘infidels’ as it went. Just as we digested this ghastly spectacle, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had been relatively quiet for a few years, erupted in Gaza with diabolical results. In Syria, the killing continued.
Then, in Eastern Europe, Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner, escalating dramatically the stakes in eastern Ukraine. Two thousand people have been killed thus far in Ukraine. Now Russia, naturally, sees itself surrounded by enemies.
Sanctions against Russia have hit German economic confidence, driving the major power in Europe backwards. Deflation stalks large parts of the eurozone and without the German economy to pull it out of recession, the French economy stalled. This week, we see that the upshot of no growth in France has been the second major government reshuffle in a year. The relatively new presidency of Francois Hollande already seems impotent and subject to attack from his own party.
Speaking of attack from his own party, David Cameron is now being pushed by the Eurosceptic Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to lead Britain out of the EU in 2017. And, who knows, it may be a rump Britain of England, Wales and Northern Ireland without Scotland.
It is a measure of just how strange the world has become that the notion the Scots may end the 300-year union with England rarely gets front-page billing in Ireland.
Despite all these geo-political upheavals, financial markets continue to behave as if there is no risk in the world. They have continued to rally, without a significant reversal, all summer.
If you are confused, I don’t blame you.
The most telling evidence of the demise of respect for America was the fact that the Egyptians – recipients of billion of dollars of American military aid – made John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, walk through a security check the last time he visited the Egyptian president. Meanwhile, on the ground, far from the corridors of power, the situation can only be described as medieval meets 21st century.
How else can you describe the beheading of a journalist? Or how else could you describe the herding of thousands of villagers up to the top of a hill, where armed fanatics intend to slaughter them all in the name of religion? How do you describe Israeli fanatics burning a young Arab boy alive?
Looking at the situation in Gaza, what we have looks a bit like a medieval siege of an entire city surrounded on two sides by Israel on the other by Egypt and hemmed in by the sea. It is sometimes forgotten that Egypt has also laid siege to Gaza and the miserable Palestinians are stuck in the middle.
Sieges of cities were common in the Middle Ages. We are back there now – except this time with so-called social media.
For Isis the future is the 11th Century. Success in this diabolical project will depend on its winning a sectarian inter-Muslim war, not unlike Europe’s Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century which was motivated, initially at least, by pure sectarianism. This notion of the pure, religiously based state, where only the chosen ones are accepted and the others will be forced into exile, has a deep Ferdinand and Isabella feel to it.
One other aspect that makes the world feel medieval is the absence of an overwhelming power that can keep the lid on everything. In our lifetime this power was either the US or the Soviet Union. Now it is neither. However, in recent years Russia’s global power has been on the ascendency while America’s has faltered.
Think about when Vladimir Putin came to power. Russia was a wreck. On the other hand, America in the late 1990s was the world’s undisputed heavyweight power. Putin, without much by way of resources, has remade Russia into a significant power. Whether you like it or not, Russia has alliances with China and has the Egyptians knocking on its door to buy arms. Its friend in the Middle East, Iran, remains the power broker and, of course, Europe’s winters depend on Russian gas for heat.
What is Russia going to do with Europe if this is a severe winter? What if it turned off the taps?
To answer this, maybe we should wait until the schools break for the Christmas holidays, come back, and then and inspect the lie of the land.