The west can no longer impose its will on the increasingly powerful and self-confident nations of the developing world

We are but halfway through 2008 yet it has already born witness to a sizeable shift in global power. The default western mindset remains that the western writ rules. That is hardly surprising; it has been true for so long there has been little reason for anyone to question it, least of all the west. The assumption is that might and right are invariably on its side, that it always knows best and that if necessary it will enforce its political wisdom and moral rectitude on others. There is, however, a hitch: the authority of the self-appointed global sheriff is remorselessly eroding.

There have been two outstanding examples so far this year. The first was Burma (or Myanmar as it should be known). We can all agree that the regime is odious. The question facing the rest of the world in the aftermath of the cyclone, however, was how to assist the millions of victims of a humanitarian disaster. True to form, it was not long before the west, including our own foreign secretary, was talking up the idea of military intervention; warships were deployed off Burma’s coast, talk was rife of helicopter landings and amphibious craft making their way up the Irrawaddy delta.

The idea, of course, was patently absurd. Burma’s closest ally is China, with whom it shares a long border, while it is also a member of Asean (the Association of South East Asian Nations). China, India and Asean – who largely make up the region – were irrevocably opposed to the use of military force. Western leaders were living in a time warp: the kneejerk responses of old, freshened up by the short-lived era of liberal interventionism, have become a stock response. It was not long before the bellicose talk subsided and the west was obliged to channel its aid via Asean – which, from the outset, was the obvious and desirable course of action.

The fact that the west could not understand the geopolitical realities of east Asia – now the largest economic region in the world – and adapt its policies accordingly, revealed that old assumptions and attitudes run very deep indeed. Even when the very thought is ridiculous and utterly impractical, the call for military intervention, on the part of political leaders and media commentators alike, is seemingly the invariable reflex action. In fact, what Burma demonstrated were the limits of western power, the need for the west to understand those limits, and to respect and work with a region rather than seeking to intervene over its head like some kind of imperial overlord.The second example is Zimbabwe. This hurts the British psyche. Because we suffer from an acute case of colonial amnesia, we seem to think that we have some unalienable right to lecture Zimbabwe on its iniquities. Yet Britain’s culpability for the country’s plight – from tolerating Ian Smith’s declaration of independence to the disgraceful land deal that guaranteed the privileged position of white settlers – is second to none. Notwithstanding all of this, the British feel they enjoy incomparable moral virtue on Zimbabwe.

Yet this episode too has revealed British – and western – impotence in its starkest form. After much grandstanding at the G8 summit, the Anglo-American attempt to toughen up sanctions foundered in the UN security council, where it was vetoed by Russia and China and opposed by South Africa and two others. Meanwhile, President Thabo Mbeki, whose efforts to broker some kind of deal have been widely and patronisingly scorned, has scored a major diplomatic triumph. The Southern Africa Development Community’s appointed mediator for Zimbabwe, Mbeki managed to bring both Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC to the negotiating table. All the western bluster and invective now look just that: the route to a possible solution has been the work of South Africa, the SADC and the African Union alone. This is yet a further illustration of a shift in global authority.

Western power can no longer deliver in the face of the growing power, competence and self-confidence of developing countries. Instead of universal western power, we are witnessing the rise of regionalisation and regional solutions. This reflects broader changes in the global economy. Economic power is fast ebbing away from the old G7 countries towards the so-called Bric economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China), or, rather more accurately, a growing number of developing economies. The G7 now account for less than half of global GDP and that share is steadily falling. Such economic shifts are the irresistible prelude to parallel changes in political power. The two examples discussed are classic instances of this process: Burma involved China and India, together with the Asean countries, while Zimbabwe featured South Africa, with Russia and especially China, emboldened in this instance to play a more assertive role on the global stage. They illustrate what might be described as the growing “Bricisation” of global politics.

They also underline the comprehensive failure of Anglo-American foreign policy. At the time of the invasion of Iraq, no thought was given to the idea that western economic power was on the wane; on the contrary, the likes of Bush and Blair seemed to believe that we were seeing the dawning of an era of new and overwhelming western power.

Never underestimate the ability of political leaders to misread history on a monumental scale. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have both served to hasten western decline: they have both failed to achieve their objectives and in the process demonstrated an underlying western impotence. In contrast, those other “rogue” states, namely North Korea, Zimbabwe, and perhaps even Iran, show strong signs of responding in a positive manner to a very different kind of treatment. Liberal interventionism has failed. But as yet the west shows no sign of either understanding the new world or being able to live according to its terms.

It remains in denial, refusing to recognise the diminution in its own authority and, as a result, seemingly incapable of adapting to the new circumstances and coming up with an innovative response. This is certainly true of Britain. The foreign secretary only seems able to utter the platitudes and cliches of the discredited Blairite era: he has yet to come up with a single idea, suggestion or insight that indicates he understands the nature of this new world. British foreign policy is mired in its own past and in its relationship with the United States. In such circumstances we will find ourselves dragged kicking and screaming into the new era, constantly shunned and disappointed, a spectator rather than an architect, cast in the role of Mr Grumpy.