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Our leaders' self-interest has brought us to the brink of world war

If we'd had more astute leadership in the governing of the world we would not be facing threats to our peace

Sarajevo in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, June 1914. Image: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s difficult thinking about the eradication of poverty when we are warned by military leaders and newspaper columnists that we might be heading towards a world war. Such a frightening, fearful thought is followed by analysis, with references to Hitler and the 1930s, and how we have to avoid being appeasers before Hamas and those that are attacking the west and its allies.  

A more useful comparison might be the First World War and the assassination in Sarajevo, in summer 1914, of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Such an apparently local event led within a few months to the start of the First World War; but even that comparison pales before current times.

Hamas’s deadly breakout from the poorly maintained defence cordon around Gaza, a weakness that Netanyahu, as of yet, has not been required to answer for, seems more likely an event planned to grow into something more world shattering. So it was unlike the Sarajevo assassination in that that murder was not planned to lead to something bigger.

But as soon as the Hamas breakout took place it was obvious that this was a provocation and not just a desperate act expressing the pain of the oppressive open-air prison that Gaza had become.  

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How do we face up to this perilousness; and how do we carry on with the struggle to end poverty in the lives of as many people as possible? When the threats are of such a cataclysmic nature?  

And how do we face up to this when a new world order – which looks ready to replace the old one that maintained a peace in the west – will shatter that peace? That all of our considerations about race and class and gender and equality will become irrelevant in a world blasted by war and death? One’s place on the housing ladder may become irrelevant when bombs and death overtake our world.  

The terrible thing is that if we had had more astute leadership in the governing of the world over the last decades and centuries we would not be in our current plight – a plight that is largely the result of how our leaders followed self-interest first, without realising that self-interest throws up echoes around the world. That putting British industry and oil businesses ahead of anyone else’s would mean that you create enemies in order to prosper.  

Without wanting to go too deep into history, imagine the coup that the British and US secret services helped orchestrate to put the Shah of Persia in power in Iran; and the assassination of Mossadegh, the elected Iranian leader, to cement the dominance of this western-pleasing Shah.  

Imagine if you could resurrect those historical arseholes who put the meddling in Iranian politics into play and ask them to look at the damage that followed from that: the oppressive Shah regime leading to the current Iranian regime that now seeks vengeance against the west for such meddling, and for supporting the creation and existence of Israel.  

The recently deceased Henry Kissinger was heralded as a great diplomat for sticking to a policy of realpolitik; a kind of supposedly grown-up form of recognising the realities of other regimes. Hence Kissinger was sent by his president – Nixon – to open up a relationship with China. It seemed more realpolitik to befriend the giant developing nation, previously ostracised by the west.   

But Kissinger’s involvement in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile by General Pinochet, by helping to arrange a coup in 1973, led to untold levels of anti-Americanism throughout South America. The growth of this anti-Americanism inspired civil wars in many countries, and the destabilisation of virtually all societies has come to bite the US big time. For the millions seeking access into the US from Mexico now are mostly those displaced by civil war and the destruction of economic stability – largely a result of the US foreign policy practised by the likes of Kissinger.  

The laying down of history, like layers of swamp we have to negotiate, is not helped by our leaders complaining in an outraged and moralistic manner about the bad behaviour of others, when so recently our leaders of a former generation have behaved in so cavalier a fashion with other people’s self-interest. Great Britain would find it hard to moralise about others behaving badly if an audit was done just of the post-Second World War years, in Africa and Asia in particular.  

Of course a whole chorus of historians will be outraged at the suggestion that what is going on in the world is partly the result of poor thinking from our former leaders. But I cannot see our foreign policy, and the moralising over the new empires being created, showing a high level of realpolitik.  

It is no consolation that history as committed by our poor leaders is now coming to harm our peace. Let’s live in hope that it does not end up in a war that destroys everything, including the argument to rid the world of poverty. And one’s place on the housing ladder. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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