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Why the world is too dangerous for the West to step back

Updated: Jan 14

Opinion Piece

President Xi Jinping with President Vladimir Putin, 2023 | Wikimedia Commons

The first weeks of 2024 see the world an ever more unstable place: we are enduring the greatest period of global conflict since the Second World War.

Tank battles are once again being waged in Eastern Europe while frontlines in Ukraine are locked in an impasse as troops dig in, reminiscent of the trench warfare of the Western Front over a century ago. In the Middle East, a truce between parties in the Yemen war now looks precarious following Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea provoking US-UK air strikes, whilst the decades-long conflict in Israel and Palestine has once again escalated with devastating humanitarian impact, leaving tens of thousands dead.

A post-Cold War era of American hegemony in which the US may have reasonably claimed to be the world’s sole superpower could be drawing to a close, as its global influence and firefighting capacity declines.

Rival powers such as Russia, Iran and China see an opportunity to increase their power at the edges of Western influences. Russia was emboldened by weakened responses to attacks on Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 to launch its full-scale invasion to try to seize territory and topple the pro-Western government in Kyiv. With an eye on the West's response in Ukraine, China is closely watching Saturday's elections in Taiwan, where the incumbent Taiwan-first Democratic Progressive Party may well retain power, escalating tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. And across the Middle East, Iran is funding and supporting militant extremism among allies and proxies from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthis to militias in Iraq and Syria. Houthis have seen the Gaza crisis as an opportunity to further disrupt Western trade and economic stability by launching missiles on civilian vessels and crews.

Each of these powers supports the others, identifying common interests in assisting their opposition to the West. Iran’s provision of drones and other military equipment for Russia to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine went in tandem with Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow,  providing political and diplomatic cover to Putin amidst the international condemnation he has faced from the West.

So far, Western diplomatic engagement and military support has played a crucial role in helping to contain these threats. Support for Ukraine’s armed forces from the US, UK and EU helped Ukraine regain territory, re-open shipping in the Black Sea and prevent Russia from making significant further advances. Sanctions and an economic war against Russia have sought to isolate its economy and weaken its productive capacity, leading to rampant economic problems and food inflation.

US warships stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean helped deter Hezbollah’s possible escalation of war against Israel, while Western diplomatic pressure helped to secure a temporary ceasefire, Israeli hostage releases, and humanitarian aid for people in Gaza. Though the fighting has resumed and the tragedy of civilian casualties mount, Western engagement will be crucial to brokering a future peace arrangement.

However, there is a real risk that a rise of nationalist and isolationist populism across the West hampers international efforts to defeat the threat of Russia and malign actors across the world. Republican legislators in Congress have already held up US funding for Ukraine with significant consequences for military aid to Kyiv.

President Trump’s re-election would dramatically endanger continued US support, while even President Biden’s rhetoric softened from a message of backing Ukraine “as long as it takes” a year ago to “as long as we can” last month, as deadlock on the battlefield has led some to reassess the possibility of full-scale support.

In Europe, right-wing and far-right parties are growing in power and popularity. The far-right Party for Freedom, whose leader Geert Wilders has argued against giving military aid to Ukraine, won the most seats in the Netherlands’ recent election while elections to the European Parliament will embolden the far-right in France, Germany and across the continent and may well weaken European nations’ response.

The UK has pledged to continue supporting Ukraine until 2025 but it must go further. Longer-term support alongside partners in the US and Europe to give Ukraine the help it needs to win will demonstrate to Russia and other rival powers a commitment that military action, war crimes and seizing of territory will not be rewarded.

Should Russia’s war be a success, China will be emboldened in in Taiwan Strait while Iran and its proxies will be encouraged to continue attacking civilians and ships in the Middle East, and funding terror groups that are hostile to the US, the UK and their regional allies.

Today’s US-UK operation against Houthi military targets should form part of a wider diplomatic strategy to find sustainable peace. This will not be easy but a political solution recognising both a state of Israel and a state of Palestine and the rights of their citizens to exist in dignity is the only way in which the cycle of horrific civilian casualties will be broken.

The world is too dangerous for Western leaders in the US and Europe to turn their back on Ukraine or to pause efforts to work for peace in the Middle East. Doing so would only encourage further conflict and aggression and will be to the detriment of freedom, democracy and humanity across the world.


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