When Robin Niblett became director of Chatham House he never contemplated that his parting thoughts would be that “the wheels are coming off” the rules-based international order.
The world in 2007 had yet to experience the financial crash or Brexit or Donald Trump. But mankind is now entering a “time of great division”, the retiring think tank chief told 'The National'.
The war in Ukraine has served merely to accelerate the descent, leading the global population to a “very, very unpredictable moment”.
The real prospect of nuclear strike in addition to a pandemic, financial crisis and runaway climate change has left the internationally respected academic confounded, struggling to articulate a diagnosis for a planet gone awry.
“It feels that I'm leaving Chatham House at the moment where the wheels coming off, what we used to think was a formidable order, the rules-based international order,” he said.
“Liberal democracies have realised that they don't dominate any more, that they are not top of the hierarchy and that they have to come together. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has absolutely accelerated that process. Everyone's stepping up now. Everyone's realised the threat is as big as it is.”
Dr Niblett's office in central London has hosted presidents, prime ministers and a galaxy of foreign dignitaries. A large painting of the great Liberal British statesman William Gladstone looks down on his guests, alongside a mantelpiece containing a large inscribed bullet marking the end of the Colombian civil war, given to him by president Juan Manuel Santos. Books on world politics and thinkers dominate, but it feels none has yet quite explained where global politics is today or might be tomorrow.
“I suppose the big thing that's changed is that we're now trying to manage these very intense geopolitics alongside an acceleration of the big global problems,” said Dr Niblett. “For most of my 15 years here I felt that that balance could be won, or could be managed in the near term — that there was a capacity to coexist within certain boundaries.”
He pauses for a moment, glancing over to the leaves spreading across the lime trees of St James’s Square in the heart of London. “What Putin has done is that he has really driven the proverbial grenade into the middle of the table. He's exacerbated what were already rising food insecurities, he has forced China to show its hand even more than Xi Jinping had already done because they can't abandon Russia.”
After five decades of witnessing world events, writing countless books, articles and giving evidence to the UK Parliament, the only label he can find for the myriad problems created by Mr Putin’s actions is “this crazy phase”.
“For the last three or four years we’ve been trying to manage the reality of a rising China as the main geopolitical dynamic, along with climate change, pandemics and global financial instability. What Vladimir Putin has done now is weaponise that moment to his own advantage when the West is weakened.”
Mr Putin might not have used nuclear weapons but he has unleashed a new existential terror previously uncontemplated. Days after his invasion, the Russian president was direct: if Nato attempted to intervene transparently in Ukraine he threatened nuclear weapons. It worked. America and the rest were rattled enough not to directly oppose it.
“People look at the way Russia has used the nuclear threat to give itself room for conventional military action. That lesson has now been sent to many other people that your real security potentially comes from owning a nuclear weapon.”
With Iran on the threshold of nuclear bomb viability, Mr Putin’s actions may well “provide the excuse for other countries” to seek a nuclear arsenal to prevent conventional attack, he said, listing Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia as potential nuclear powers.
“What Putin has done is remind us it's a dog-eat-dog world, that we can't trust anyone any more. You could be in a position in two or three years’ time where there's a bunch of other countries have done a nuclear test. No one is stopping Putin from attacking because he's got nuclear weapons.”
Dr Niblett said it was likely that there would now be three global camps: the West, Russia and China, then the rest.
“We end up with this very strange world where you've now got a kind of a very large, non-aligned community. You've the G7 plus Australia and South Korea, then Russia and China, not in an alliance but sufficiently back-to-back, each wanting to support the other even if they mistrust each other. Then the rest of the world, who don't want to be with either and they will triangulate.”
Areas such as the Gulf region, could “play it both ways”, continuing their economic relationship with China while remaining on good terms with the West.
There was also doubt over the future of the G20, which will hold a summit in Indonesia this November. “The G20 was meant to be the proof that the world could come together,” he said. “But I just don't even know if it's going to meet properly in Indonesia. If Putin is there I don't see Biden or Johnson or Macron present.” The summit could turn into a “G20 minus six or seven”.
The grim outlook prompted the question of whether Dr Niblett was hopeful for the future.
“Honestly I'm struggling,” he said. “We're entering a period of division rather than competition. Never has the world been in this place before. Never has it had planetary challenges that are accelerating before our eyes.”
He gave a recent Financial Times story as an example. It reported that 20 million people in the Horn of Africa were on the edge of starvation due to rain failure.
“The climate emergency is going to keep coming,” he said. “It's unstoppable at the same time as all of this craziness on the world. The hope had been before Ukraine that you could section off areas of global cooperation.”
Rule of law
The rules-based system has largely kept the world in relative peace since the Second World War. Did it still apply?
“The global world hierarchy is now being rewritten,” he said. “We were born to the idea that it should be a world led by the rule of law, not the rule of force,” he added, quoting Lionel Curtis who helped found Chatham House in 1923.
There was also a need to “stand up for those values and not compromise on them”.
“They are beacon values that history has proven give the best and most stable forms of economic development and human empowerment possible,” he said.
“We need to stand for the side of the rule of law over the rule of force, even if that means countries having to fight for that.”
To avert disaster the global community had to “keep avenues open for dialogue wherever possible”.
Dr Niblett, 60, suggested it was “good governance” for him to move on after 15 years at the helm, although he will still contribute academic papers.
He has taken Chatham House from a respected institution to one that is now globally renowned, producing papers on key subjects including Africa, climate, cyber and health.
Its academic strength has grown from 60 to 210 personnel funded by a £20 million annual private income from individuals, foundations, governments and conferences.
What advice might he have for his successor, Bronwen Maddox, the respected former journalist and current director of the Institute of Government?
“Think tanks are going to be more in demand than ever,” he said. “Because the world is more complex than it was before. Her challenge is going to be more prioritisation and focus, not purpose.”
The need for think tanks to understand the world was fundamental in “a moment of international turmoil of the like I've not seen in my 15 years”.
Was there any hope for the world? Frowning, Dr Niblett paused for a moment. “I want to find an optimistic line. We can be optimistic about the technology because I think the technological advances we're seeing today will probably help us deal with the climate challenge. It'll help create new work.”
It is a flicker of hope before reality returns. “What technology can't do is answer that human need for identity and purpose, which is what drives Putin. He doesn't care about people being happy or better off.”