Biden’s multilateralism is all very nice. But now let’s see action

For international correspondents, the last couple of weeks represented a gourmet meal of global summits, bilateral meetings and multilateral fora. But what does all this frenzied diplomatic activity mean for the real world?

Among Western leaders, there have been smiles and backslapping aplenty, with the G7 and NATO meetings functioning therapeutically as a dance upon Trumpism’s grave — and good riddance! Leaders can once again see eye-to-eye and hold civilized debates on issues that matter.

The question is whether these global powers today collectively possess the unassailable diplomatic clout they once enjoyed in an international environment where authoritarian leaders are running amok, entire regions are afflicted by disintegrating states and human rights are trampled upon on an industrial scale.

One of the most visible tests of Biden’s fledgling presidency was whether or not he could stand up to figures like Putin and Erdogan, both of whom exploited the anarchy of the Trump years to invade a handful of states and aggressively project personal power inside and outside their borders. How did Biden do?

A single meeting was never going to compel Putin to admit the error of his ways, and many commenters dismissively condemned the encounter as an opportunity for the Russian president to bask in his own self-importance. They simultaneously criticized Biden for naivety and stubborn optimism.

However, Biden used the summit to establish ground rules on issues like cyber-warfare, his implied message being: We don’t want to have to hurt you! Perhaps a textbook example of the diplomatic art of speaking softly while wielding a big stick would do? We’ve already seen tin-pot dictators like Erdogan moderating their behavior in the knowledge that the current US administration will no longer tolerate flagrant warmongering and demagoguery.

With these latest summits taking place in rarefied locations like Geneva, Brussels and Cornwall, it’s easy to miss the fact that our planet sits atop a live volcano.

Baria Alamuddin

Given that much of Putin’s aggressive behavior apparently stems from a sense of personal and national inferiority, there is no harm in offering him respect and cordiality as part of this reset. The world is sick to death of unearned excessive Western superiority and over-confidence. The West can deservedly earn superiority if its human rights and governance record remains superior, but let’s see an era of greater modesty, honesty and respect for non-Western civilizations, coupled with a pragmatic readiness to genuinely set the world to rights and address existential challenges like climate change, regional instability and extreme poverty.

The Trump regime inflicted lasting damage upon the credibility of American democracy, and Europe is asking: What will happen in four years’ time? Will anything Biden signs be torn up by a bellicose successor?

These summits were a glorious triumph of style over substance. Leaders took pains to proclaim their unity versus China, but regrettably, Secretary of State Blinken isn’t being imitated by many other foreign ministers when he defines Beijing’s actions against the Uyghurs and other minorities as genocide.

Only fleeting exposure was granted to chronic instability in locations like Syria, Yemen, Burma, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. Have Western leaders surrendered responsibility for far-flung areas of the world engulfed in quasi-permanent conflict and turbulence — ungoverned spaces that relentlessly export mass migration, terrorism and anarchy?

This is the pervading situation throughout much of conflict-wracked Africa, while Lebanon and Iraq — sitting precariously on either side of Syria — are a mere step away from the abyss. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s impending disintegration risks dragging Central Asia into compounded turmoil. Why scarcely a word about these disaster zones?

France is currently withdrawing 5,000 troops from the Sahel region at the worst conceivable moment, following a succession of coups in Mali, with neighboring states still confronting a jihadist onslaught. Britain is equally disastrously slashing funding for the world’s poorest states, abandoning millions to starve. None of this is unrelated to the West’s current obsession with China and Russia, with both states profiting from such chaos to aggressively expand their global footprint. Recent reports spotlighted the embroilment of Russian mercenaries in appalling human rights atrocities in the Central African Republic.

Why is the US withdrawing its Patriot anti-missile batteries from the Middle East at the exact moment that Khamenei has engineered the coronation of grizzled hardliner Ebrahim Raisi for the presidency? Raisi is a dangerous extremist who has built his national profile upon the mass executions of political prisoners, blatantly heralding a new phase of terrorism and mischief-making on a global scale.

Hence, it’s all very nice for Biden and Western leaders to waffle passively and complacently about cooperation and multilateralism, but to what end? Where is the commitment to promoting good governance, fighting poverty and supporting failing states? It is difficult to envisage Western pressure having any meaningful influence on Putin and Xi’s style of governance, but what about the dozens of states where they could have an impact through vigorous diplomatic pressure and well-targeted developmental support?

With these latest summits taking place in rarefied locations like Geneva, Brussels and Cornwall, it’s easy to miss the fact that our planet sits atop a live volcano.

The world is an infinitely less stable place than just a decade ago. Climate change threatens to render vast regions uninhabitable. Conflict-resolution and international law institutions like the UN Security Council are broken beyond repair.

Mass refugee movements and polarized political discourse will continue rocket-fueling the same xenophobic, anti-immigrant backlashes that swept Trump and other repugnant far-right tendencies to power.

Hence, if Biden, Trudeau and Macron don’t want to be swept away by a new tsunami of anti-democratic populist barbarians, enough of the platitudes and backslapping. Roll up your sleeves and start seriously putting this broken world to rights!

* Baria Alamuddin

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