Bruce Anderson: The world is in an alarming state of flux – and there is a limit to what Britain can do about it

When Dmitri Medvedev was elected, Gordon Brown talked as if he was putting him on probation
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The Independent Online

We are living in a dangerous world, and that will remain true for the indefinite future. Yet to a surprising extent, political debate in this country fails to reflect this. In consequence, our efforts to secure our own future are doubly impeded. We underestimate the urgency of the need to take crucial steps to improve our long-term prospects. We overestimate our influence on global problems.

Despite years of agonising, we have proved wholly incapable of bringing relief to either Zimbabwe or Darfur. Yet some commentators and politicians talk as if the Russian and Chinese authorities were trembling at the thought of British moral censure. When Mr Medvedev was elected, Gordon Brown talked as if he was putting the new Russian leader on probation. The old joke about the Skibbereen Eagle having its eye on the Kaiser has long since grown green mould. Yet Gordon Brown's ability to overawe Mr Medvedev is hardly greater than the eagle's power over the Kaiser.

World events have rarely been more interesting: never more unpredictable. What will Russian and China be like in 20 years time? We can only speculate. India and Africa are slightly less uncertain. Out of Africa, there will always be something bad. In an era of raw material shortages, Africans ought to prosper but misgovernment will ensure that most of them fail to do so. From the West's point of view, apart from the helpless frustration of observing avoidable humanitarian crises, there is a danger that failed states will turn into terrorist states.

India will continue to wear its chaos on its sleeve. It will make remarkable progress, yet much rural poverty will remain intractible. Every generalisation about India will remain true, as will the opposite. Yet despite the country's problems, it will more or less work.

Russia has the advantage of a formal if imperfect democratic system plus a post-Soviet civil society. This should mean that high commodity prices lead to improved infrastructure and the diffusion of prosperity. It is easy to be cautiously optimistic about Russia's prospects.

China is more complex. Over the millennia, the Chinese have mastered every art, except politics. The current regime lacks legitimacy. The rulers are afraid of the ruled. At some stage, this will have to change. Will there be a careful transition guided by a statesman of genius so that the inevitable turbulence never breaks out of control? Or will there be breakdown, with hideous consequences? There are no guarantees.

Whatever the outcome, China will be a difficult global partner. The Chinese believe that history – abetted by the West – was brutal to them for 150 years. They are determined to make up for that. They will use their economic power to compete for raw materials thus forcing up world prices. They will project diplomatic and military power.

China is developing a blue-water navy. In foreign ports, warships are a splendid setting for cocktail parties. One suspects that this will not be their only role. How long before the Chinese acquire base facilities in Africa? If – which is, fortunately, almost inconceivable – the Malaysian government were to persecute its Chinese minority, how long would it take before Chinese warships appeared in Malay waters: 48 hours?

Taiwan apart, the West has no current territorial dispute with the Chinese, and it would be absurd of us to create a conflict by exposing the Tibetan cause, which we are powerless to assist. In 1956, some Hungarians joined the uprising because they thought that the West would come to their rescue. The West had to stand idly by while those noble patriots were martyred. After the first Gulf War, the Marsh Arabs rose in revolt against Saddam in the hope that we would protect them. More culpably than in Hungary, we did nothing and the fragile eco-system which sustains the Marsh Arabs' ancient way of life was almost destroyed.

Another ancient way of life is also under threat, in Tibet. But we are at least as powerless to help the Tibetans as we were in Hungary. Some people have been talking and writing as if we could use the Olympics as leverage on the Chinese authorities. In reality, the criticisms of China have mobilised popular support behind the Beijing government, which feels thoroughly irritated and therefore even less likely to make concessions. It would be useful to obtain Chinese co-operation on a range of issues, especially in Africa. But the sentimental mishandling of Tibet will do nothing to achieve this and a lot to obstruct it. For many years, we British have punched above our weight in international affairs and long may we continue to do so. But there has to be realism.

The same is true in British domestic politics. It has long been apparent that the UK has unmet needs, which could cause grave social and economic difficulties in the decades to come. The first is energy; the second, education.

For many years, almost every realistic analyst has known that Britain's future energy requirements could only be met if there were a substantial increase in nuclear capacity. Yet nothing has been done. Greenpeace et al have been allowed to inhibit the debate and prevent action, even though the logic of the eco-extremists' position is that mankind should live in long houses, on roots and berries. Every year in which we procrastinate is a year not far off in the future when our economy could be crippled by energy prices and energy shortages. Again, we need a rapid outbreak of realism.

This is also the case in education, where there have been some horrifying developments in recent years, including the virtual eradication of the hard sciences from large sections of the state system. In technology and science, British schoolchildren are at the bottom of almost every European league, and we do not only have to worry about Europe. In India and China, tens of millions of youngsters whose families have known hunger in recent decades, are now equally hungry, for education to lift them out of poverty. If we do not emulate them, they will drive us into poverty. The day could come when there will be businesses in Bangalore who employ a cheap call centre in Birmingham.

One nation in which there is little educational failure is currently celebrating its 60th birthday. Israel has remarkable achievements to its credit. It has made the desert bloom. It has created a vibrant democracy in an inhospitable region. It has also become a world leader in high tech industries.

If only it could share some of those benefits with its neighbours. Palestine is still the world's sore tooth. It is possible to admire everything which the Israelis have achieved and yet to go in fear of the consequences of their political blindness.

Israel is a country which embodies the paradoxes of the human condition. Great achievements, greater threats; great hopes, recurrent fears. A refuge and a glory for a people who barely escaped from the Holocaust; an enduring threat to peace in the Middle East, and the wider world. Britain is not the only country which has problems.