Shocks to the system and the geopolitics of flight MH17

EPA/Alona Zynika

The apparently deliberate destruction of flight MH17 has sent shockwaves around the world. Few places have been more affected than Australia, which has been relatively immune to many of the world’s recent traumas and outrages.

This latest tragedy is a painful reminder that in a world shrunk by globalisation, nowhere and no-one can be entirely confident about their security, even if the risks are comparatively small and the epicentres of conflict remain remote.

Like the London underground bombings, tragedies of this sort reveal both the vulnerability of innocent civilian populations and the cosmopolitan nature of the victims. The sense of international outrage will be multiplied as a consequence, as will the demands for action justice and – in some quarters, no doubt – revenge.

Understandable as such sentiments may be in the immediate aftermath of such an outrage, it is vital that cool heads prevail, especially among those with the capacity to make consequential decisions. It is important to remember that the most significant direct impact of September 11 was to plunge the US into the disastrously ill-conceived Iraq war with all the further bloodshed and mayhem that generated.

According to prime minister Tony Abbott, it:

… now seems certain it’s been brought down by a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile.

There is every chance that this analysis will prove correct. The question then becomes: what kind of response is appropriate and proportional for a country such as Australia, and more importantly the European Union and the US?

If the links to Russia can be unambiguously demonstrated then it becomes vital that other states – indeed, as many other states as possible – respond decisively. However, it is important that it not be seen as simply the usual suspects ganging up on an already paranoid and defensive authoritarian regime.

The US will inevitably play a prominent role in this, but so too must the UN and hopefully even China. If ever China wanted to a chance to demonstrate its potential as a responsible stakeholder this could be it.

The key objectives of any international response should be firstly to ensure that Russia changes its behaviour if it is found to be at fault. This is a worthwhile goal even if its culpability is not definitively established. Russia’s role in destabilising Ukraine and egging on – if not directly supporting – the rebels has clearly made a bad situation significantly worse.

The second goal that flows from this is to make sure advanced weapons systems do not get into the hands of the ill-disciplined forces that have been leading the revolt against Ukraine’s central government. There may not be any ‘right’ hands into which to place sophisticated weapons systems, but there are plainly some wrong ones.

Cutting off their supply has got to be part of any reduction in the regional tensions that have consequences beyond eastern Europe.

A third goal should be further developing the existing sanctions regime against Russia. Sanctions work. They are already doing significant damage to a Russian economy that has failed to modernise and which remains highly dependent on the west for trade, investment and access to the ‘good life’ its own government seems so conspicuously incapable of providing.

Leaders around the world will be under enormous pressure to ‘do something’ in response to this tragedy and the emotions that they inevitably generate. Western leaders will be especially pressured as these events represent the most existential of threats to the privileged and generally secure existences so many of us take for granted.

There is no basis or justification for a direct military response, however, even if Russian troops prove to have actually brought the plane down.

We have to realise that there are no optimal or obvious responses to such crises. Sadly they are a recurring feature of international history and interaction. The challenge is to make responses proportional and – even more importantly – effective.

Despite all of the opprobrium that has been heaped upon the head of Barack Obama because of his supposed indecisiveness and procrastination, personally I would much sooner have someone who is reflective and capable of recognising complexity and nuance in the White House at a moment of crisis.

Events of this sort are a profound shock to, and test of, ourselves and the systems we have created to govern our domestic and international relations. Once the initial anger and outrage has passed it is vital we learn the lessons: don’t encourage thugs of any sort, whether they lead countries or rabbles.

More pointedly, make sure the latter don’t get their hands on the means to make all of our lives a misery.