In the old 1960s film, the ‘Mouse that Roared’ a tiny country facing financial ruin decides to declare war on America. Its prime minister, brilliantly acted by Peter Sellers, explains to its puny parliament ‘that there is no more profitable undertaking than to declare war on America and be defeated.’
The film was based on the United States’ economic and ideological assistance to Europe after World War II, with a twist at the end when defeat proves a little more elusive than anticipated.
The message is unmistakable: a comic war against the US can be won in more ways than one. This was evidently not lost on North Korea, an impoverished little country of 25 million, that threatened America with nuclear weapons and won the argument.
The twist in this story, however, came at the beginning while US President Donald Trump was still in Canada attending a meeting of the G7 on trade. Before he flew out for his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore, he told America’s allies that the era of gullible America was over for them just as it was about to begin for North Korea.
Apparently, at his meeting with Kim Jong Un, Trump sought to persuade Kim that there is some really valuable real estate in Korea that could be developed into a very profitable tourist destination if only he would decommission his nuclear arsenal. The smart Korean knew that Trump is just a showman and replied that he would think about it if America stopped playing war games. Trump rolled over and that was it, bar the shouting from the loud American afterwards. So much for the art of the deal.
Trump is a loose cannon with a penchant for alternative facts and contradictory tweets so he can say and do as he pleases knowing that someone is going to pick up the pieces in his wake – in this case his hapless Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who has been telling anyone who will listen in East Asia that nothing has changed.
The jury is not just out on the one-page deal Trump struck with Kim; it is asking lots of questions, not least why Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal containing pages of detailed scientific provisions and stringent independent verification procedures – honoured to the letter by Iran – yet was prepared to sign a deal with North Korea containing nothing more than weasel words and his preposterous signature the size of his ego. Because let’s face the facts: Kim Jong Un got the United States to stand down the war games she plays every year that were the reason North Korea went nuclear in the first place, in exchange for a vague promise to denuclearise.
There is nothing in the Korea deal beyond the oneupmanship Trump has been playing against president Barack Obama ever since he followed him into the White House. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this year, Kim Jong Un would rather allow his people to ‘eat grass’ than give up nuclear weapons. He said this in China, a country that knows North Korea well, and no one demurred. I hope Putin’s assessment is wrong but there is nothing in the agreement signed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that suggests that Putin’s assessment is mistaken.
And yet there can be no denying that a new world order was ushered in by Trump, Brexit and the populism that seems to have gripped Europe and America lately. History has a momentum of its own and leaders such as Trump reflect rather than determine its tectonic shifts.
The post-World War II consensus buttressed by the human rights and refugee conventions, the EU treaties and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – now enshrined in the WTO rules – are all being undermined in ways not thought possible before Trump and Brexit.
The world is different to the one that prevailed after World War II when America felt it was necessary to protect human rights and refugees and to secure peace and encourage trade.
People have forgotten the millions of people who became refugees in Europe at the end of the war and the millions who perished when populism run amok in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy where human rights were trampled on by people with similar views to those resurfacing again in Europe and America.
The irregular movement of people to Western Europe is a major contributory factor to the new intolerance that has gripped the world. No one wants to go to Hungary or Poland, so they can turn as intolerant as they like until they are, hopefully, expelled from the EU on the grounds they got in under false pretences, but the rest of the EU needs to tackle immigration, not by trampling on human rights but by addressing the problem at source.
For me, the ultimate irony about Brexit is that the EU is losing Britain, the mother of liberty and democracy, and keeping countries like Hungary, Poland and Austria that are so intolerant they are a disgrace to the European Union.
I witnessed professionally the arrival in Britain of Cypriots, Lebanese, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Turks and Kurds, Arabs and Africans, East Europeans and Russians and many others from India and Pakistan and China and South America for more than forty years, and I am familiar with the push and pull factors responsible for the movement of people. These are sometimes political and sometimes economic but they are also psychological: ‘in England my mind is free’ is a common refrain.
That said there is an ebb and flow in the movement of people. As the case of Cyprus shows, migrants return as the situation back home becomes more tolerable.
People are naturally attached to their countries and their culture and would remain there or return if the political and economic conditions are conducive to a modicum of prosperity and happiness. The way forward is neither fortress Europe nor walls across borders but a fairer distribution of wealth around the world and a targeted export of the universal values that enhance the quality of life rather like America exported to continental Europe after World War II.
The lessons of the past are being ignored on the back of an unnecessary referendum in Britain to leave the EU, the vagaries of the American electoral system that put Trump in the White House and a resurgent populism similar to the one that elected the likes of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe between the two world wars last century.
After plunging the world into two catastrophic wars which killed fifty million people across the world Europe has a duty to stay civilised.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge