Will riots make Britain more humble about judging other societies in trouble?

Aug 11, 2011

The shocking riots in Britain have been a knock to the country's global prestige. They will almost certainly also result in a reduction in British 'soft power' and influence, at least in the short term. Will this also lead to a quieter, less judgmental foreign policy towards countries like Zimbabwe?

Britain and its friends gave moral reasons for their intervention in what is now the bombing campaign of Libya: the protection of civilians from a repressive, illegitimate regime. Similar reasons have been given for Britain's robust condemnation, including sanctions, of the government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

This moralizing has come up against the contradictory reality of Britain having good diplomatic and economic relations with other repressive regimes, such as that of Saudi Arabia and others in Africa that are not very different from Mugabe's in how they exercise power. Uganda's and Rwanda's are just two examples. But Britain's overall weight as a world power largely allowed it to get away with these contradictions. Implicit in its self-portrayal as a global moral force able to judge other regimes was the idea that British society and governance were exemplary and largely beyond reproach, at least compared to the countries and regimes being judged.

That will now be much harder an assumption to carry off as a result of the riots. Whatever their cause, their scale and violence show a very troubled society. The lack of the early ability to control them or understand why they happened at the very least show a disconnect between the governors and many of the governed. The calls from many quarters for drastic measures to put a stop to them show a control progression not very different from that observed in some countries Britain has been at the forefront of condemning.

Not surprisingly, regimes that have been at the receiving end of British lecturing about 'democracy and human' rights have been some of the first to revel in the UK's current civil unrest.  

Zimbabwe's Mugabe: ''Britain now is on fire, London especially. We hope will extinguish their fire. They should pay attention to their internal problems  and leave us alone because we do not have any fire here.They are experiencing problems which have dogged other countries before and they have in those circumstances accused those countries of lacking freedom. Let them tell us what is happening; whether there is lack of freedom or it's something else.There is a lot to do in Europe, please leave us alone.''

This goading will probably be infuriating to the British, partly because it is coming from a person they love to hate, Mugabe, but also because it is all very hard to dispute.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president: "This savage treatment of people is absolutely unacceptable, and British statesmen must hear the voice of the people and grant them freedoms. British politicians should look to help their own people instead of invading Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to plunder their oil. Even if one hundredth of these crimes were to happen in countries opposed to the West, the UN and other organizations claiming to defend human rights would vehemently decry it."

Khaled Kaaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister: "(British prime minister David) Cameron and his government must leave after the popular uprising against them and the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations by police. Cameron and his government have lost all legitimacy. These demonstrations show that the British people reject this government, which is trying to impose itself through force."

Libyan TV, in a parody of typical British accounts of the western-supported war in Libya: "The rebels of Britain approach Liverpool in hit-and-run battles with Cameron's brigades and mercenaries from Ireland and Scotland.''  

Of course this is all self-serving, but that likely does not lessen its sting for the British, nor the fact that there are large grains of truth in this mockery. While much of the previous criticisms by the British of these now taunting regimes may have been valid, it is also true that it often took a superior tone that many countries and peoples found annoying in a way the British often simply dismissed as typical third world hyper-sensitivity.

For much of the British and western media in general, any trouble or calamity in one African country is an event in amorphous, generic 'Africa,' to the eternal irritation of Africans. Again, this would usually be ignored or dismissed as ''Bloody hell, what a chip on their shoulders those Africans have; one place in Africa is just like any other place in Africa, what's the difference.''

It was therefore interesting to see how the BBC bowed to pressure from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales for the riots to be referred to as 'England riots' rather than UK riots! It is like a west African vainly protesting to the western media that an event thousands of kilometers away in southern or eastern Africa has little or no bearing on/relationship to him except for the accident of being on the same gigantic land mass. Nigeria, Somalia or Zimbabwe is not 'Africa' any more than Tottenham, London is 'the UK.' Many of the British are now asking for news coverage distinctions to be made that they don't care about making in the coverage of upheaval in other countries.

Perhaps the riots will help the British understand all this a little better. Or is that too much to expect?

Whether this makes Britain a little more humble in its relations with other countries or not, there seems little doubt that its voice will not carry quite the same international weight as before when it passes judgment on how other countries struggle to solve their problems.  


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