Who will fight Europe's last dictator?
The further sentencing this week of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - the oligarch who failed to play the game - was a telling reminder of the hegemony of the 21st-century variant of state power.
On the morning after elections were rigged in Europe's last dictatorship and KGB thugs beat up and arrested presidential candidates, the home page of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website led with a tribute to Brian Hanrahan and a warning about the weather.
Hanrahan was an excellent journalist and lovely man. Snow was certainly causing havoc at our hapless airports. But the fact that these two stories were given greater prominence than an act of thuggery in Belarus, a country on the doorstep of the European Union, says everything one needs to know about the priorities of British foreign policy.
Later in the day, the Europe minister, David Liddington, put out a proforma statement of rebuke. Forty-eight hours after that, William Hague finally mustered the energy to express his "extremely serious concerns" at "what appear to be forced recantations". The Foreign Secretary offered no view about the rigged elections, even though OSCE monitors declared the honesty of the outcome to be either "bad" or "very bad" in half of Belarus's polling stations. Hague's mild statement was sandwiched between departmental praise for improved relations with the Netherlands and a five-year strategy for South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands.
Compare this to his language in 2006, when President Alexander Lukashenko last stole the elections. It was time, the then shadow Foreign Secretary declared, to support the people of Belarus "and take a harder line against a government that is forfeiting its legitimacy, and it is certainly time for more European governments to say so".
Everywhere one looks, authoritarian regimes have never had it so good. Democracy promotion is as good as dead - not that it really functioned as a coherent philosophy. A number of facts have caused its demise. The first, inevitably, is the record of Tony Blair and George W Bush.
Not only did Iraq destroy humanitarian intervention as a central tenet of international policy-making, but the record of the US and UK governments in promoting or tolerating torture, secret "rendition" flights and other abuses of international law denuded their actions and assertions of credibility.
The second is the economic rise of China, and the surprising resilience of Russia. China's overt rewarding of lucrative deals to countries that turned a blind eye to human rights abuses has produced clear winners and losers. Those governments that have caused trouble - such as, briefly, President Sarkozy's ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics - have been heavily penalised. The boycott of Carrefour stores in China was spectacularly successful. French business leaders lobbied ministers against any such repetition. Now when leaders visit Beijing they go through the motions of complaining about the imprisonment of dissidents; but they know how far they can push. Developing countries, particularly in Africa, have for several years seen the merits of economic deals with China, with no political strings attached: the so-called Beijing Consensus.
As for Vladimir Putin, he is increasingly confident in parading the might of Russia's political, business and security elite working to each other's mutual benefit. The further sentencing this week of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - the oligarch who failed to play the game - was a telling reminder of the hegemony of the 21st-century variant of state power.
The third rationale regards the first two as a given. Officials privately point out the futility of British initiatives at the United Nations. Ever since Iraq, the Brits have had to hide behind others to get any of their business through, knowing that thanks to that misadventure their clout was spent. Shortly after taking office, David Cameron called for a more "hard headed, commercial" approach to foreign affairs.
He saw the damage that had been done by Blair's combination of Manichean fervour and supine support for the United States. As he once famously put it, there was little point in promoting democracy from 30,000 feet in the air.
Now, with spending cuts, it is unlikely that the UK could make an effective contribution to a US-led military intervention, even if it wanted to. Cameron's re-balancing back towards an unromantic notion of national interest brings foreign policy back to the pre-Blair era, when John Major stood by and watched the genocides take place in Bosnia and Rwanda. He had safety in numbers.
The Americans and Europeans were doing the same - until the scale of the horrors galvanised governments into action. From that point, the international community (much, although by no means all of it) coalesced around the notion.