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.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - John Kampfner

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.

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