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Four horsemen

“The worry has to be that our global institutions are becoming overwhelmed and have no answer to the scale of the problems facing us.”

9.40 am, and despite occasional bouts of acid reflux I am eyeing the remaining fifth of last night’s bottle of poor quality Chilean Cabernet speculatively. It’s not good.

I was just reading a badly written but interesting article on Bloomberg, arguing the proposition (if I have understood it aright) that you can’t see the situation in the Middle-East as a simple Sunni-Shi’ia split. In a nutshell, as well as the basic Big Divide,  you have Good Sunni (Saudi Arabia, Syrian opposition) vs Bad Sunni (Islamic State, Hamas) and Good Shi’ia (Iraq) vs Bad Shi’ia (Iran, Assad) and many smaller sectarian divisions inbetween, of varying degrees of dogmatic difference; with Israel now acting as a kind of power broker, and formerly inimical Arab states perversely looking to Tel Aviv to solve their own internal problems.

The author states, and I have no reason not to believe him, that Saudi is arming itself with nukes, borrowed from Pakistan, while at the same time hoping to persuade the Israelis to take-out Iran’s nascent nuclear capability, since Obama won’t do it for them. In addition, the USA’s decreasing dependence on Saudi oil is cutting the two states loose from the somewhat distasteful embrace in which they have been waltzing for decades. American influence in the region is declining, leaving the field clear for those two other impostors, China and Russia.

While this is rapidly turning into a multidimensional conflagration affecting the whole region, there are other areas of concern. The latest figures from the Eurozone show the mighty German engine going into reverse, mainly as a result of the sanctions against Moscow which Merkel tried so hard to avoid. France, Italy, Spain remain on the floor. The fragile growth of the past year has faltered. Britain (just where we like it) stands alone, sort-of.

These sanctions, a kneejerk reaction to Putin seizing the moment of an incipient ‘velvet revolution’ in Kiev to annexe the Crimea, and the reverse sanctions imposed by Moscow on agricultural imports from the EU, have had an almost immediate braking effect on the entire economy, both of the EU and of Russia. They are doing nobody any good; not even the Ukrainians. Especially not the Ukrainians, where the action by a government whose fragile authority is disputed to pull down roadblocks put up by pro-Russian separatists armed and trained by nationalist elements over the border has turned into a nasty little civil war that threatens to drag Moscow into a possibly fateful incursion.

It is by no means clear that Putin, portrayed in Western media as the villain of the piece, is entirely in control of what is happening down on his south-western border. If he has made a mistake, it is to court popularity by riding on the coattails of some very dubious people, mostly ex-Spetsnaz personnel degree-qualified in thuggery in Bosnia and Georgia and available for freelance work, egged-on by supra-nationalist elements in the Kremlin and beyond. It is a hook of his own making, on which he is now wriggling. Actually, he needs our help, not our sanctions; but he is too Russian to ask for it. To make things worse, NATO’s Rasmussen has been issuing portentous threats (apparently blissfully unaware that no country in the EU or the USA is actually standing behind him, and all the other leaders are on holiday).

The foreign policy implications for both sides point only to deeper confrontation, with Ukraine as the prize neither side really wants. If there is a parallel with 1914, it seems to be that Europe is drifting into a conflict nobody wants, or expects, other than a few mad generals encouraged by a reckless media exploiting a general air of unwarranted national superiority emanating from too many countries at once. Islamic State, however, is another matter. A lifelong anti-war human, nevertheless I believe the only answer to Islamic State is to destroy it, now, as one might pour boiling water on an ants’ nest. It might take ‘boots on the ground’, that trite cliche, but if it is allowed to continue on its present path unchecked except perhaps temporarily in Kurdish northern Iraq, we shall all be living in a very different world five years from now.

I’m not a great believer in millennarianism either, but it does rather seem that, with Ebola raging in West Africa (do we really believe the official death toll of 1,069?*) – thanks largely to the medieval ignorance and superstition in which too many people are still kept servile to the interests of corrupt regimes – widespread droughts, floods and famines; the huge number of people around the world, over 100 million, living as displaced refugees; the nasty little insurgencies widening out into a growing number of civil wars with quite staggering civilian death tolls, and the threat of major conflicts, as, for instance, between the two Koreas or China vs Japan, we have a full set of apocalyptic Horsemen galloping around looking for a gymkhana.

The worry has to be, surely, that our global institutions, the UN, the big NGOs and the contingency funds and resources even of governments the size of the United States, are becoming overwhelmed and have no answer to the scale of the problems facing us. To give an example, GM crops might well hold the answer to global hunger, but not when that hunger is in a state of confusion and violent dispersal: solving the long-term quantity problem is a lot easier than solving the immediate logistical nightmare. Rapid intervention forces can be maintained, perhaps on two or three fronts, but not everywhere simultaneously. It’s said that US special forces are currently operational in more than 80 theatres of conflict. The degree of interrelation between them is creating an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube of horrible possibilities.

Future historians, should there be any, may very well concur that, in 2014, the Third World War was already well underway. What you see is what you get.


*themindbogls strikes again. 15 Aug, the WHO comes out and admits, the official figure is probably just the tip of a worryingly large iceberg. 19 Aug, Medecins Sans Frontieres, many of whose staff are risking their lives in the frontline, say the outbreak is out of control and health services are overwhelmed. The fragile Liberian economy is said to be collapsing as a result of control measures that are not working in any case. There is a threat of return to civil war.


One tiny chink of light, after a 72-hour ceasefire that has pretty much held, Israel and Hamas are still talking to themselves in Cairo, and another five days’ truce has been offered.


Oh, no they’re not. Normal service is resumed.


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