Towards a new Cold War
DID you ever get sick on a plane? Some years ago, in Sydney, I was told by someone in the know, "I have a friend who travels a lot and he never eats on planes." In terms of poisoning, a plane offers advantages. The event will occur in international airspace. National laws prohibiting such activity may not apply and even if they do, will be impossible to enforce. Airline meals can be delivered to specific, numbered seats. It lowers the risk of unintended victims, especially in the case of lone passengers. If there ever was a genuine inquiry into the practices of western security agencies one might be surprised.
Of course, poisoning doesn't necessarily mean fatal nerve agents such as the substance said to have been involved in the recent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in the United Kingdom. It can be as simple as inducing an upset stomach. A basic physical malady can promote a bad experience and thus a tainted impression of a country being visited. It could be a means to keep key international negotiators off peak form.
Does it matter? There's a vast gulf of difference between an upset stomach and an extremely serious if not fatal medical emergency. On the other hand, any deliberate interference to undermine the physical health of another human is still a grievous assault.
Following Britain's lead, western governments are pointing the finger at Russia for the poisoning incident in Salisbury. Numerous Russian diplomats and alleged spies are in the process of being expelled from western countries in retaliation. Further action is being contemplated, including a boycott of the football World Cup due to be held in Russia mid-year.
The Kremlin claims, meanwhile, that Britain is waging an anti-Russia campaign to which it will respond in kind. As serious as the Salisbury incident was, and particularly in light of the west's inaction over far more horrifying events such as the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, it's not unreasonable to consider if the reaction of the west to the Skripal poisoning isn't an overreaction, perhaps a strategic one.
With the Soviet Union's departure in 1991 a vacancy was created in the entrenched us-and-them scenario prevailing in the west. In that first decade of what is ostensibly called the post-Cold War era, speculation was rife as to where a new "enemy" could be found. Most notably, Huntington's clash of civilisations theory hypothesised that future conflict would likely be drawn along cultural and religious rather than ideological lines. Islamist extremism was earmarked as the next big threat.
We've all seen the result. American military budgets experienced significant cuts after the Soviet Union's fall only to return to former levels after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Filling the power vacuum in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Daesh came to rule swathes of territory in neighbouring Syria as well. Yet despite the turmoil of Islamist terrorism, from which western countries were not immune, by 2018 Islamist extremism is not looking as formidable a threat as it once did.
In terms of global peace, one of the great failures of the late twentieth century was the failure to properly integrate Russia into both the European Union and NATO. While the smaller states of Eastern Europe were enthusiastically drawn into the North Atlantic geopolitical sphere, with Russia, insufficient efforts were made. But then, if Russia was included in NATO the raison d'être for that organisation may have ceased to exist. As for the EU, to include Russia would've required unprecedented, genuine compromise.
In the post-Cold War era, western nations have also experienced significant change at home. The perceived victory of capitalism emboldened the partial dismantling of the welfare state. Wealth inequality both domestically and globally has grown. In many western democracies the gap between governing elites and the governed, strengthened by the implementation of mass surveillance, has likewise expanded.
Could it now be useful to distract western publics with a rallying cry against a new "enemy", which just happens to be that same old foe? For the current generation of western leaders and strategists the Cold War is a comfortable stomping ground. It's the paradigm they grew up in.
Andrew Eagle is an author and regular contributor to The Daily Star.