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It is all too much. Look around at the poverty, the tyrannies, the broken states, the ethnic conflicts, the global marketplace in weapons of mass destruction. Reflect on the wickedness of those whose corruption of Islam brings death and mayhem to our cities. We cannot fix everything. Better to man the barricades.

The existential threat of a nuclear holocaust has been replaced by that of the pervasive insecurity of global terrorism. The dangerous order of the cold war has been replaced by the unpredictable chaos wrought by the suicide bomber. In the clash of ideas with liberal democracy, communism has given way to extreme Islamism.

This transformation has muddled the familiar impulses of political right and left. Liberal interventionists find themselves in the embrace of American neo-conservatives. Anti-imperialists of the left stand alongside realists of the old right in renouncing Rudyard Kipling’s burden.

The confusion was crystallised by the Iraq war but it runs deeper. There are disagreements within the opposing camps as well as between them. Interventionists agree on ends but quarrel about means. Realists include isolationists and nationalists.

But the big division remains between those who believe that they must remake the international landscape and those who would shelter behind the fortress walls.

Last week leaders of the Group of Eight industrial democracies had a stab at tackling poverty and climate change. They made some progress. Debt relief and increased aid for Africa will make a difference. The opening of a dialogue between the US, China and India on global warming is a small step but a step nonetheless.

These are issues, though, that cannot be filed away. A communiqué is one thing. The aid package will mean something only if it is followed by a decade of remorseless endeavour, as much by Africa as by donor nations. Cooling the planet will be a great deal more painful than agreeing at last that it is getting hotter.

Yet even before the G8 had affirmed its intentions, the bombings in London had reminded us that these were two big challenges among many. Islamist terrorism is a threat that will be with us for many years. Its roots lie deeper than the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians or the war in Iraq. Much of the Muslim world remains untouched by modernity.

To cast a glance across the Middle East is to look at a slew of undeveloped nations, many under authoritarian rule, most with large populations of restless and alienated young people denied both prosperity and political participation. Islam’s militants could not ask for more fertile ground.

The lists of broken and threatening states in this and other parts of the world seems to get longer. The horrors of Darfur slip in and out of our consciousness at the whim of the news bulletins. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and a paranoid tyrant in North Korea join the roll of clear and present dangers.

Western governments have learned that nation-building is a painful and costly business. Defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan was easy. Creating a functioning democracy in a nation in thrall to tribal power and tradition is something else altogether.

Why bother? We all know the feeling when confronted by a seemingly impossible number of tasks. If you cannot do everything why try anything? The best we can do is protect our strategic interests – securing oil supplies, destroying terrorist enclaves, building homeland defences. While realists thus declare that policy must be guided by narrow national interest, their allies on the left proclaim the west must not violate the United Nations charter by interfering in the affairs of sovereign states. Washington’s mission to spread democracy is denounced as imperialism in a fresh wrapper.

The realists seem to have common sense on their side simply because they call themselves, well, realists. We cannot expect to wave a magic wand over so much tyranny and want. Yet scratch below the surface and, in truth, realism defies the realities of today’s world. It speaks to an age when conflicts were essentially about territorial conquest, when nations could otherwise insulate themselves from the domestic policies pursued by their neighbours, and when the rights of the citizen were subjugated to those of the state. It is a doctrine of the cold war, when the threat of mutually assured destruction made an unanswerable case for the status quo.

The fall of the Soviet Union unleashed both the frozen pressures for political change and the suppressed chaos of authoritarianism across the world. Globalisation has brought with it the realities of interdependence and vulnerability. This interconnectedness is defined not just by the vast international flows of goods and capital but by large-scale migration and the market in ideas that comes with fast communications. Globalisation has given us cheap Chinese T-shirts and Indian software; it has also brought the international trade in atomic weapons design and al-Qaeda websites.

The atrocity of September 11 2001 demonstrated the perils of leaving failed states such as Afghanistan to their own devices. The attacks on London a week ago, perpetrated by British citizens, showed that national borders are no defence against an evil ideology. Distant dangers have become threats on our doorsteps.

The real argument in foreign policy should not be between self-styled realists but between the interventionists. Everything that has happened in the past decade or more – and recall remember that this week Europe hung its head in shame at the 10th anniversary of Srebrenica – says the west cannot escape the consequences of events in far-flung countries.

What matters is the nature of the intervention. Iraq stands as grim testimony to the dangers of imposing democracy at the point of a gun. Yet tyrants such as Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to prosper.

Effective action demands the legitimacy that flows from the rule of law. It requires robust multinational institutions – not the UN of the cold war but one ready to act in defence of international order. Yes, intervention will be messy, imperfect and hugely costly. But true realists will judge that, like democracy, it is a great deal better than the alternatives.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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