New values must mean new policies - Is neutrality sustainable?

AS the world tried to remake itself after World War II idealists — even some hard-bitten leaders in victorious regimes — argued that a world government was the only way a sustained peace might be secured. 

Appalled by what civilisation might do to itself, especially one prepared to use nuclear weapons, these optimists hoped that an organisation like the United Nations might help prevent military conflict. The idea gathered considerable momentum but, in one of the cruel ironies of history, became a catalyst for the Cold War when nation after nation baulked at passing sovereignty to an untried, remote entity.

We seem to be at, or at least approaching, a similar point today, though not pressed by anything like the same level of human need — despite today’s refugee crisis. European states are realigning to reflect changing values. The uplifting social character that once made the European Union such a positive agent for change seems under threat. Policies that once enshrined personal freedoms and rights are not as universally celebrated or as unquestioned as before.

Elections next year — the French presidential election in May and German federal elections in September — may strengthen right-wing, back-to-the-future nationalists. In recent weeks Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orban, attacked EU cornerstone beliefs of tolerance and liberalism. His anti-immigration views were echoed by the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Both celebrated Brexit as a first shot against Europe’s status quo. It is pointless, and wrong, to pretend that those views can be reconciled with the EU’s open-mindedness.

Last night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was another act in the process, one where populist candidates offer grand targets but few enough solutions. Those populists may release ugly forces but their cause is helped by valid concerns — everything from relentless immigration, free trade deals with countries that do not recognise human rights and the relentless decline in living standards because of globalisation add grist to the demagogues’ mill.

All of this suggests we will have to, sooner or later make choices — who do we stand with? What do we stand for? That conundrum was once expressed as a choice between Boston or Berlin but it seems the looming question will be more complex and far more defining. Will we align ourselves with the strong centre of Europe where liberal values are supported by economic robustness? Will we move closer to an Anglo/American Atlantic alliance?

That shibboleth — neutrality — will be questioned and maybe we need to ask if it can be sustained if we want to continue to enjoy opportunities offered by Europe? Last week a vignette in this dilemma played out when the Irish flag was removed from a US military website focused on the campaign against Isis. The flag was removed at the request of our Government. Some may think that intervention appropriate and high-minded but in a divided and dangerous world is it sustainable? Does it have real moral credibility? We may have to answer those questions far sooner than we think.


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