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Leadership and Motivation

Not So Splendid Isolation

By Dominique Moisi 

PARIS – At the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire pursued a policy of what it called “splendid isolation,” reflecting its leaders’ determination to stand aloof from international engagements. With the strength of its economy and the superiority of its navy, the United Kingdom could afford to avoid entanglement in others’ affairs.


Today, as recent events have shown, isolation is – more often than not – a mistake, an unenviable condition resulting from failed policies. Cuba’s emergence from decades of forced isolation is a victory for the island, while North Korea’s pariah status has led it to the brink of collapse. Similarly, Israel’s controversial policies and diplomacy risk leaving the Jewish state unprecedentedly alone. And inward-looking policies in Russia and Turkey, driven largely by their leaders’ egos, are unlikely to produce anything but harm.

By beginning to normalize relations, Cuba and the United States have snatched victory from the jaws of a double defeat: the failure of the embargo and the failure of the Cuban economy. The deal struck in December allows Cuban President Raúl Castro to claim success in mending ties without making significant political concessions. For US President Barack Obama, the breakthrough is a chance to cement his legacy as a transformative president, like his models Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt – even if, in ending nearly six decades of failed policy, he more closely resembles Richard Nixon, who presided over the opening to China.

Though Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, was instrumental in facilitating the resumption of diplomatic ties, so was the plunging price of oil. Continued isolation would have left the Cuban regime dangerously exposed, given the declining financial fortunes of its primary sponsor, petroleum-rich Venezuela.

North Korea stands in stark contrast to Cuba’s successful policy of engagement. With its alleged involvement in the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures, the regime has backed itself further into its tiny corner. The result can only be deeper – and ultimately more painful – isolation. Even China, North Korea’s main patron, is losing patience with its client state.

In an interdependent world, isolation is no longer a source of pride; on the contrary, it is a cause for concern. Nowhere is that more evident than Israel. Not even the country’s technological wonders or its vibrant civil society can make up for its unappealing politics and policies. The result has been a dangerously rapid diminution of much-needed Western support.

Equally worrisome is the recent drift of former imperial powers Russia and Turkey. Both countries’ leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, place their own power above their citizens’ interests, and both are fanning the flames of misguided nationalism and religious chauvinism, surrounded by frightened courtiers whose main function has been to keep reality at bay.

Turkey is more dynamic and energetic than Russia, and its economy certainly is faring much better, but both regimes are overestimating the strength of their position and underestimating the cost of their autocratic turn.

Just four years ago, Turkey was seen as a model to follow, particularly for the Muslim world. Today, the country is on the defensive, fearful even of its own journalists. During the early stages of the Islamic State’s siege of the Kurdish town of Kobani, just across the border in Syria, Turkey seemed to be replicating the Soviet Union’s tactic during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, when Nazi German troops fought Polish resistance fighters: Let the belligerents exhaust each other as much as possible before intervening. Such policy may be brutally effective in the short term; in the long term, it is certain to be costly for Turkey.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the further the economy plunges, the more defiant Putin becomes. The great unanswered question is how long Putin will be able to rely on nationalist kitsch to overwhelm Russians’ rational calculation of their interests.

What is certain – as every recent example shows – is that, in an increasingly transparent and interdependent world, isolation is less a splendor than a blunder.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.



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