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Good riddance to a decade of backward steps

ONE of the more enjoyable moments of the last 12 months has been the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That ushered in an age of hope: the end of communism; the Cold War, the peace dividend; bliss was it in that dawn to be alive . . . but the Nineties turned out to be anything but blissful, as nationalism in Eastern Europe emerged at its most toxic in former Yugoslavia and genocide killed more than a million in Rwanda.

We nonetheless emerged hopeful into the new millennium (for me it was my first year as British ambassador in Dublin) with the threat of the 'millennium bug' as the main preoccupation. The ink on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was barely dry and there was a spring in the step at the thought that power-sharing would soon bring a devolved administration in Northern Ireland. Well, there were, in fact, many problems just behind the headlines 10 years ago. But what has been so depressing in the last decade is the scant progress we have made to resolve them and how substantially we have added to the list.

The course of the GFA hasn't run smoothly. Even now, Sinn Fein is threatening dire consequences if justice and policing are not promptly devolved, and this against a background of dissident republican murders in Antrim and Lurgan.

In the wider world, the intractable problems that we brought into the new millennium remained just that, intractable -- only more so. The threats from nuclear proliferation (Iran, North Korea) and climate change, from pandemics and international organised crime are all still there. The Arab/Israeli problem, 60 years old, shows no sign of being resolved. The Bush era largely made matters worse. The attacks of September 2001 brought the threatened clash of civilisations ever closer as George W Bush spoke of a crusade against Muslim extremists and Islamist terrorists accepted with zeal his challenge of a war on terror, demonstrated in the last days of the decade by the Christmas Day bomber.

Bush's approach seemed closer to that of Caligula: oderint dum metuant ('Let them hate us as long as they fear us') rather than the religious idealism behind the crusades. Either way, it was a bad metaphor.

And the consequential wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led and continue to lead to thousands of deaths, largely of the hapless locals, but including, of course, many of the military coalitions involved. Nor are these wars close to victory or resolution, despite the May 2003 slogan on USS Abraham Lincoln during President Bush's visit: 'Mission Accomplished.' As Machiavelli said in his History of Florence: "Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please."

Both wars have now been going longer than the Second World War, and President Obama's decision to start drawing down US combat troops as early as 2011 doesn't guarantee a "result", as football managers are prone to say.

Then there is the global financial crisis, the biggest financial collapse in history, which began in the US, and which for some marked the end of the American century, with the baton definitively passing to China. But China has a vested interest in the US economy surviving the turbulence in good or at least reasonable shape. It holds 13 per cent of US Treasury bonds.

Moreover, we in Europe have little to boast about. US share of world output is around 21 per cent, roughly unchanged since the mid- Seventies; Europe's share was around 40 per cent in the Seventies and has now shrunk to 25 per cent.

And as for Europe's political influence, we were told at the Copenhagen climate conference that we were drinking in the last chance saloon. This was to be the most important conference in recent world history. Yet the Copenhagen debacle only emphasised how, in a multi-polar world, Europe can be sidelined and taken for granted as a little echo of the US. When the final deal was cut, President Obama had to ask the Chinese premier, "Are you ready to see me?" as the latter was caucusing with the other participants in the crunch meeting, China's fellow members of the so-called Basic group, Brazil, India and South Africa.

Europe was nowhere to be seen and her acquiescence in any agreement reached taken for granted. For the continent which has invested more heavy intellectual power in climate change than any other, this was a real humiliation.

At the beginning of the decade, the EU came up with a strategy at Lisbon to transform itself into "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world". The high-flown rhetoric was then followed by years of wrangling over institutional reform, culminating in the grudgingly accepted Lisbon Treaty. The EU then appointed two nonentities as the Union's president and foreign minister. How better to guarantee the EU's increasing international irrelevance. Commission President Barroso said in September: "Do we want to lead . . . or will we leave the initiative to others and accept an outcome shaped by them?" The decade's final act appears to have given Barroso the answer he didn't want to hear.

Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and former British Ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia

Sunday Independent