LONDON — There is a marvelous painting by Brueghel in the Brussels art gallery. British poet W.H. Auden was sufficiently impressed to write a poem about it: Icarus, his wings melted, is plunging to a watery grave. But the world goes on. Peasants continue with their lives, plowing their fields. They show no interest in the dramatic fall.
Real life often seems simply to tick on like that, regardless of headline news and momentous events. So U.S. President George W. Bush will go back to Crawford, Texas, at the end of the year. Will anyone notice? Does anyone care anymore?
His wings scorched from Iraq to Guantanamo. Bush already seems to be yesterday’s story; his minders carefully steer audiences into the front rows at public events, lest the absence of interest in what he is doing and saying becomes too obvious.
The reason we should take more notice of his departure is not what his absence will make possible, but what will remain absolutely the same. Consider four examples. First, we will still have to find better ways of managing the world’s economy, reducing its inequities and coping with its environmental hazards. Most important, American and European leadership is required to avoid a lurch into protectionism and the consequent killing off of the Doha trade round.
At the same time, the West needs to develop together a negotiating position on carbon emissions and climate change that will engage China and India. It will have to take account of its historic responsibility for today’s global warming, of size of population, and of present economic strength. Second, the Palestine-Israel struggle will continue. Moreover, the American presidential campaign has shown that it is not only the absence of a responsible hands-on American policy in the last seven years that has contributed to today’s bloody standoff. Even Sen. Barack Obama, who has demonstrated a clear commitment to building a more open-minded, less unilateral relationship with the rest of the world, has said things about Palestine and Israel that would appear to rule out the sort of initiatives required for a peace agreement.
Indeed, far from criticizing continuing Israeli settlement of the West Bank, Obama has pledged his support — more than some members of the Israeli Cabinet have done — to Jerusalem as an undivided capital of Israel. This looks like a green light for all those intransigent supporters of the settlers who have campaigned for the development of East Jerusalem deep into the West Bank, a line of settlements running down to the Dead Sea. It is difficult to see how any future American diplomacy based on this approach will attract Palestinian support. So the Middle East will continue to dominate diplomatic argument and debate.
Third, nuclear proliferation will still plague us. How do we deal conclusively with North Korea, which probably already possesses a handful of nuclear weapons? How do we manage our relationship with Iran, which may — or may not — wish to develop a military nuclear capability as well as civil nuclear power?
These questions, with all the knock-on effects in East and West Asia, must be tackled in the runup to discussions about the renewal of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2010. The nuclear powers that signed the NPT believe it is solely about preventing proliferation.
Other countries argue that it is about disarmament, and that the nuclear countries have clearly agreed to work toward giving up their nuclear weapons.
This fudge has been the foundation for the international approach to proliferation. It now seems clear that if we want a nonproliferation treaty with more teeth — for example, tougher monitoring and surveillance — countries with nuclear weapons will have to honor what others believe is their side of an unfair bargain. Even after Bush — who became so unpopular in Europe (not always fairly) — the European Union will find it hard to become the partner in tackling global problems that America needs and seeks.
The latest row over the so-called Lisbon Treaty, caused by its rejection in a referendum in Ireland, reminds everyone of Europe’s main problem. Europe sometimes seems more concerned about is own institutional arrangements and internal affairs than about its global responsibilities. But global poverty, environmental catastrophe, proliferation, Afghanistan and the Middle East are not problems that can be put on hold while Europe talks to itself.
Moreover, Europe too often gives the impression that its citizens can be taken for granted. If what Europe’s leaders decide among themselves is criticized or rejected by those who elect them, it just shows — the elite seems to suggest — how correct it was to ignore them in the first place. But Europe cannot be built on this democratic deficit. The EU must increase the involvement of its own voters in endorsing and supporting the decisions taken in Brussels. This lesson needs to be learned fast.
So, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will go. But a lot of the same old problems will be around. Welcome to the real world.
Chris Patten is a former governor of Hong Kong and European commissioner for external affairs. He is chancellor of Oxford University and co-chair of the International Crisis Group. © 2008 Project Syndicate www.project-syndicate.org