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Friday 14 December 2018

Threat of nuclear conflict grows as we're all overtaken by 'events'

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a holiday last year in the remote Tuva region of Siberia. Photo: Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a holiday last year in the remote Tuva region of Siberia. Photo: Getty Images

Comment: Ray Kinsella

Never was a cliché more appropriate. When asked what politicians feared most, British prime minister Harold Macmillan reputedly replied: "Events, dear boy, events."

The daily stream of 'events' from the US, Europe and the UK is remaking history in ways that hardly seemed tenable even at the start of the year.

The manner of US President Donald Trump's firing of secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his replacement by the hawkish Mike Pompeo was extraordinary. The appointment of John Bolton as Military Adviser is - well, frightening. Suddenly, the prospects for a more aggressive stance towards North Korea, and, perhaps even more so, the Middle East, looms large and it bodes ill for global political stability, as if we were accelerating towards some kind of perfect storm.

Who could have envisaged the poisoning by a highly toxic nerve gas of a Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil, allegedly (and that caveat is important) on the orders of the Kremlin - a Gubu scenario straight out of a James Bond novel.

The impact on already glacial relations between Russia and Nato is wholly unpredictable. The expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats by the UK as a first response - and the inevitable reaction by Russia - is only the beginning of a process that could so easily slip out of control.

There will be set-piece political speeches when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal moves to the theatre of rhetoric that is the UN.

What is certain is that these events will ramp up still further the militarisation of Europe. Ireland is now a part of that militarisation since the government joined PESCO last December, emasculating our Neutrality. They will exacerbate global political uncertainties and trade tensions already ratcheted up by the exit of US secretary of state Tillerson as a moderating influence. There is no credible system of global governance - only the most aggressive insistence on the misconceived doctrine of US 'Exceptionalism'.

The point needs to be made that these events bring Europe, and the world, appreciably closer to a nuclear 'event'.

Those with no knowledge of the build-up of Nato's tactical nuclear weapons systems along the EU/Russian border, or those who are lacking in an understanding of European history, will be tempted to emulate the ostrich.

The dangers are very real, and greater than at any time since the Berlin Blockade at the start of the Cold War - the difference being that there are, by orders of magnitude, more, and infinitely more destructive, nuclear weapons being deployed.

The reality of cyber warfare, and the concept of space as a 'domain of war', recently mooted by Mr Trump, add whole new dimensions.

Closer to home, these developments reinforce the sense that the Brexit negotiations are in stasis despite the Fallback Clause that effectively preempts Northern Ireland's future - and the dangers that this poses as the UK and Europe face into these bleak geopolitical headwinds.

They will, of course, strengthen Theresa May's position, both within her own Conservative Party and within the UK. The prospect of external threats always does that.

A second referendum on Brexit, the EU's Plan B, now looks even more remote.

But it goes deeper than that. There is a growing sense that the EU is mired in a negative sum game - no one gains, and everyone loses. For the EU, the key argument has always been the 'moral hazard' issue - 'if we don't make it difficult for the UK, they'll all be doing it'.

We are well past that point. It's no longer about moral hazard: it's about realpolitik and rethinking priorities. Like a relationship that has run into the sand, it's time to end the engagement on the best terms possible term s, which is what the letter and spirit of Article 50 is all about.

'Events' more important than bruised egos are in play. In the bigger scheme of things, the challenges posed by a near complete breakdown in political relationships and security co-operation between Russia and the EU/Nato are more formidable than the messy arrangements for Brexit. It's time for a coming-together.

It's a 'Kohl' or, if you like, a 'Gorbachev' moment. The real and latent tensions are such that there may not be too much time before we are overtaken by 'events'.

Irish Independent

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