Syria, France, and why nothing divides people quite like a common cause - especially in a crisis

Across the world, groups with common interests are failing to put aside their differences in pursuit of the common good. When will they just get on with it?

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Disunity in the face of crisis often surprises. How can people be so foolish, one asks? Take the Syrian rebels, split into groups that won’t co-ordinate their actions even though their individual situations on the ground are often desperate.

As a result, the West, in the shape of the US, Britain and France, understandably argues that it cannot supply arms to a rebellion that is divided into factions. So why don’t the anti-government forces bury their differences and just get on with it? Well, judging by this week’s news, perhaps they have. We shall see.

Uncertainty

Turn to Italy. Mario Monti’s government of technocrats has been painfully struggling to return the country to solvency so that it can remain a member of the eurozone. Mr Monti was due to step down next February when Italy goes to the polls. But earlier this month, along came the controversial former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to declare his intention to stand for office again. Mr Monti replied in effect: “Very well, I will push off earlier than planned.” As a result, uncertainty has returned on a scale that spooks the financial markets. The dysfunction in Italy's political processes that has brought the country to its present pass continues unabated.

More dramatic, but marginally less serious than the Italian situation, has been the sudden outbreak of civil war in France’s main political party of the right, cast into opposition at the last election, the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) founded by former President Jacques Chirac.

The poll of party members to choose a successor to Nicolas Sarkozy was bitterly contested with the rival candidates, François Copé and François Fillon, each accusing the other of electoral fraud – ballot-stuffing and the like. Successive recounts of the total votes cast gave first one candidate the advantage and then the other. The two sides are at each other’s throats as, meanwhile, the health of the French economy steadily deteriorates to the extent that France’s ability to meet its Eurozone commitments is in doubt. With President Hollande losing allies, France may face its greatest post-war crisis with no real political leadership.

Disunity spreads far and wide. It now has the leaders of the global economy in its grip. Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, warned in a speech in New York this week that the “Group of 20”, which brings together finance ministers and bank governors from the major economies, has lost its sense of common purpose. “There has been no agreement on the need for working together.” Instead, currency wars are beginning to break out – what the Governor politely calls “actively managed exchange rates”. You could see, Sir Mervyn said, that month by month the number of countries pushing their exchange rate down was growing. In other words, competitive devaluation has begun, just as competitive protectionism disfigured the world economy in the 1930s.

It is easier to make sense of Syrian disunity if the difficulties that have confronted other resistance movements are recalled. In this light, the Syrian experience appears more understandable than it does at first glance. In these situations, different bands of fighters often have their own deeply held beliefs, for which they are willing to risk their lives. They wouldn’t take on vastly superior forces without such strong motivation. On the other hand, driven individuals like these cannot easily be persuaded to compromise.

Patience

To this sort of disunity, the only feasible response is patience. In wartime France, for instance, it took more than three years to achieve any sort of cooperation between the right-wing, socialist and communist resistance groups that were opposing the German occupation.

When we turn to political disunity in the Western democracies, we find something much less inspiring. I see contemporary politics as mainly a battle between rival clans for office and prestige. For a professional politician to lose these benefits is to find oneself without a raison d’être. There are no political ideas at stake, for example, in the Copé and Fillon battle. And the participants, made blind by greed for future office, cannot see the consequences of their tussle for France as it faces its increasingly serious problems. Unsurprisingly, the two leaders’ standing in the monthly opinion polls has plunged. They fight on while the rest of France can but shrug its shoulders.

The outbreak of competitive devaluations feared by the Bank Governor, being like a zero sum game, is a more serious matter. It points to a weakness in the international regulation of markets. Since the disaster of the 1930s, for instance, competitive protectionism has been kept at bay by a relatively strong construction, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to which 157 countries belong. It took decades of negotiations to create. Now it looks as if the International Monetary Fund will have to do for currencies what the WTO has done for trade. Here, then, the correct response – institution-building – is very different from what is appropriate in the preceding examples.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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