Thursday, 27 September 2007

British foreign policy: a tour d'horizon

Every international security pundit would like to summarise the broad sweep of strategic concerns facing the United Kingdom in a single hour. This is just such a lecture.

Sadly (or, for those of you reading it, happily), this is not mine. My comments are limited to parentheses. At least, not originally. Rather, it is a summary of the hour-long inaugural lecture of Professor Michael Clarke, the new director of the Royal United Services Institute.

Prof. Clarke began with the rather trite comment that this was a very uncertain time in international affairs. At such a time think tanks such as RUSI had a lot to offer, for they had the luxury to stoop and think while politicians were too busy reacting to events.

He began (apologetically) with a biblical quote: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong … [for] … time and chance happeneth to them all”. The them for (and title of) his essay was Strategy and Fortune, for luck as much as good planning played a role in foreign (one might argue all) policy. Good strategies can ride over bad luck, whereas bad strategies were destroyed by it.

Having said this, he turned to a long analysis of the Blair years. Until 1997, UK foreign policy had been shaped by Realist orthodoxy: sovereignty; territorial inviolability; balance-of-power. Blair characterised this as a “doctrine of benign inactivity” (though it was clear that he did not see this as quite so benign, as bystanders watching the tragedies of the Balkans and Rwanda might appreciate).

By comparison, Blair’s own foreign policy would be shaped by three strands:
1) Policy designed around values such as liberty, democracy, tolerance and justice, where “idealism becomes Realpolitik
2) The integration of “hard power” (the power to compel) with “oft power” (the power to attract)
3) A recognition that the world was not benign to the UK and that we would therefore need to fight for our values: thus the liberal interventionism exemplified in his Chicago Speech.
This liberal interventionism would have to be based on two strategies: Leadership and Positioning. Leadership meant that the UK should be in the foreground – as it was with Kosovo, climate change and Iraq. Positioning meant that the UK’s success would depend on where it stood; in Blair’s view, the best place to be was among democratic allies, shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States.

Clarke then described Blair as a Shakespearian character whose great successes were followed by great tragedy. And he did indeed begin successfully: his first term saw an increased give and take within the EU, more focussed on the bigger picture; successful intervention in Kosovo where British and French leadership – the willingness to break a deadlock by using ground forces – won the war with Milosevic; a textbook humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone; and Operation Desert Fox, which Clarke argued was in retrospect far more successful than was at first thought – it nearly led to Saddam’s ouster.

But the events of September 11th changed both the world and Blair’s fortune – not because of what Al Qaeda did, but because of America’s reaction to it. Blair’s April 2002 meeting with President Bush at Crawford, Texas left Blair convinced that the US would invade Iraq and that the UK must therefore back them. He therefore came up with a five point plan that highlighted both his focus on positioning and his self-belief (some might argue hubris). He would
1) Get Europe to back the US, which would encourage
2) The US to work though the UN, which would include
3) The US committing to a renewed push for peace in Palestine, which would lead to
4) A regional settlement for the whole Middle East, which would
5) Draw in the Neo-Cons in Washington as it would play into their democratisation agenda.

Eventually (perhaps sadly) he failed on all counts. Consequently the US went it “alone”, and the UK was bound to join them because of Blair’s conviction that this was the position that the UK must adopt if it was to have influence internationally. Four years later the objectives of the coalition have been radically revised, from creating a peaceful, democratic and free Iraq, they are now happy just to retreat with honour from an Iraq stable enough to hold together while Iraqis settle their own differences. The result for Blair was that he lost his power to lead or to take the initiative; indeed, an axis formed against him personally, led by Putin, Schroeder and Chirac. Blair tried to recover. Clarke noted the focus after 2003 on Africa, the environment and global poverty. Gleneagles was a personal triumph for Blair but perhaps also a parting gift from a G8 glad to be seeing the back of him.

The key messages from the Blair era were that
1) Globalisation is not inherently benign (especially if you are from the Third World) and is certainly not equitable
2) The UK is very well placed to benefit from Globalisation because it has an open society and a flexible economy]
3) The UK lives (and dies) by collective action
4) There is a crisis of collective action in the world today.

At this point Clarke turned to the future, and noted that the challenges for the future depended on how one viewed it. Traditional international security problems would focus on the Middle East, a resurgent Russia, Britain’s place in Europe. Trans-national problems included crime, terror, WMDs, energy-, cyber- and food-security. Structural problems include global inequality, climate change, health and failing states. What is not clear is in what way these impact on Britain. What is clear is that the international consensus is weak, unclear and ineffective, and that even the powerful were struggling to impose their will.

In dealing with the apparent problems highlighted above, however, there was a tendency to ignore the problems of international structures – how one achieves an international consensus. There was almost a tragic fatalism that accepted the failure of international institutions since the Cold War, with new sources of legitimacy replacing “clear pillars” with a “subtle constellation of power”; difficulties of control and influence as a result of network, globalised and disaggregated economies; changing “rules of the game” as international law leant more towards human security.

In fact, international law was weaker rather than stronger, and the West only had itself to blame. The West had played fast and loose with international law – acts of humanitarian intervention had undermined legal norms. This was a dangerous game to play, for in what would be the “Asian Century” the West would lose power and influence, and “rules matter most to the least powerful.”

Yet Clarke remained optimistic. He believe that the US would gain from considering and addressing these issues; the UK would gain by working collectively, which it was traditionally good at; the UK remained part of a broad international consensus (if one looked beyond the immediate challenge of Iraq); and the UK had good armed forces. But Britain must be cautious about using them; their very quality led to a tendency to reach for force too soon. He also lamented (as did Lord Ashdown in his recent book) that while the military was more joined up than ever, it was woefully disconnected from humanitarian and civil agencies.

Blair was, in Clarke’s view, correct to position itself beside the US, but the UK must also recognise that the US is entering an introspective stage, and that when it emerges the old certainty that its Janus-faced strategy would always put the Atlantic fist would be gone; in the coming century, America would be a Pacific power first-and-foremost. The UK’s role in the C21st would be to be a hub rather than a pillar of international security, acting to articulate and lead the consensus (as the Stern Review did on climate change).

As for Europe, it would remain peaceful and prosperous, but in the Asian Century, it would increasingly struggle for latitude in which to manoeuvre.

A full transcript is available from RUSI.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Whose progressive agenda?

Escaping some rather dull ALDC training, I managed to attend a fringe event entitled “The Lib Dems and Labour: Whose progressive agenda?”. As the title suggests, it was a debate about where “progressives” see themselves and whether there is more space among them or between them and the Conservatives.

This is all pretty traditional stuff, and has been debated for centuries.

In the specifics of modern politics, Vince Cable explained that there were areas where there was a consensus, mainly around freedom (not that one might know it watching Labour’s attack on civil liberties) and the public service tradition. There were areas where the Liberal Democrats and Labour shared an ideology but disagreed on delivery, such as the well-meant but blundered efforts at wealth re-distribution though taxation and tax credits, and there were areas of fundamental disagreement.

Naturally, Vince dwelt on these. The main area was centralisation. Labour (or more accurately socialists and statists, though that words didn’t feature in Vince’s speech) believes that the state can transform our lives in positive ways. As a result, they introduce top-down (and frankly paternalistic) reforms, managing public services from the centre and set everything to a plan. As a consequence, local government is emasculated. An example of this is the Governments approach to energy policy, which assumes that electricity must be generated at and distributed from a few huge nodes – vast nuclear power stations appealing to the statist mind.

By comparison, liberals believe that power (in both senses) should be distributed as widely as possible and generated as near the citizen as possible. The liberal approach is inherently decentralised, because it recognises that people have a better idea of what is in their best interests than politicians and bureaucrats.

Labour minister Gareth Thomas (my parents’ MP) observed that there were progressives in all parties (bringing to mind Hayek’s dedication of The Road to Serfdom “To the socialists of all parties”) committed to equal opportunities, poverty reduction, internationalism and devolution. He argued that the Labour government had proven its progressive credentials by focussing on poverty at home and abroad, taking a lead on climate change and devolving power in Scotland, Wales and London. He criticised the in-fighting between progressive parties, saying that we “must recognise that the progressive cause was under threat in a greater way than ever before” (which sounded somewhat hyperbolic). However, he accepted that the Iraq War had been a huge divider among progressives. He also noted that in 2005 the progressives had been lucky that the Conservatives had chosen Michael Howard – a hangover from the Thatcherite era – as their enemy. They would not be this lucky again.

Baroness (Shirley) Williams stressed that the central difference was the Liberal Democrats unswerving commitment to civil liberties, manifest in their opposition to imprisonment for 90 days without trail, their defence of trial by jury and their opposition to ASBOs. She noted that Britain currently has a higher prison population than ever before even though crime has been falling (which brought to my mind Michael Howard’s assertion that prison works!). Labour’s micromanagement of public services had undermined and “demoralised those on which public services depend”. She cited (to my mind conservative) statistics that 15 per cent of school leavers are illiterate, innumerate and have no qualifications worth the name. Finally, she stressed the internationalism of the Lib Dems. The Iraq war had damaged the view of the UK as upholding the rule of law internationally. The Liberal Democrats must be vocal in their commitment to the United Nations (which, disturbingly, she believed should be funded by an international tax, a very bad idea that would merely gum up global trade) and the European Union.

Finally, Tim Horton began by speaking about electoral reform, noting that a hung parliament was a bad time to begin reforming the electoral system (though Lib Dems might reasonably counter that it was the only time it was ever likely to happen). He argued that the progressives were linked by their commitment to public services whereas the Tories wanted to shrink the state; their commitment to Europe (where he gave the Lib Dems credit for taking the lead) and, bizarrely, civil liberties. He also gave the Liberal Democrats credit for leading on climate change and taxation, where he felt Labour should be bolder. However, he denied the charge of centralisation, saying that the Liberal Democrats had opposed examples of decentralisation such as foundation hospitals.

For my mind there was an elephant in the room to which only Tim Horton eluded, and from which he drew the wrong lesson. While both liberals and socialists (“Labour”) believe in progress, liberals believe that progress is driven by individuals striving for a better life for themselves, which has positive outcomes for society. Consequently, the state should get out of people’s way as much as possible and allow them to control their own lives. In this it is the Conservatives, rather than Labour and Horton’s Fabians, that are nearer the mark: the state is too big and should be shrunk. The cosy consensus that has emerged around current levels of public spending assumes that we have arrived at a natural economic plateau, whereas in fact it is pure chance that has brought us to a point where the state spends 43 per cent of national output. This is the (temporary) result of a conflict between the state’s greed and its timorousness; it wants to spend but fears the taxpayer.

At some point we need to decide how much the state ought to take. I very much doubt that it is nearly half of everything. There is a need to roll back the state and free people from the grip of politicians. That is an agenda for progress.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Nobody is poor no more

Jesus, it appears, was wrong.

I’m not commenting on that whole “Son of God” thing, or his suggestion that we should forgive people or love our neighbours. Rather, I am referring to his suggestion that the poor will always be with us.

In fact, the poor have been in and out of our lives of late. Until the C20th, it was reasonable to say that the poor were omnipresent. Yet through the remarkable mechanism of capitalism, it seemed that we would at last be able to put an end to poverty once and for all. Nobody in the UK now wants for food, clothing or shelter (at least not for a lack of resources) and across the globe hundreds of millions more are being lifted out of poverty.

Then the socialists stepped in, and for a short period of time they redefined poverty back into existence. There’s nothing a socialist hates more than the end of poverty, after all, for without poverty there is no excuse for socialism. So they redefined it as a relative as opposed to absolute phenomenon: one is now poor if one’s income is less than 60 per cent of the median. Even when human progress has reached the point whereby we each shuttle off to our pleasure-planets in our platinum-plated star ships, those with barely a single continent on which to build their diamond-encrusted houses will be considered poor.

However, having done Jesus the enormous favour of proving him right, the socialists clearly panicked, because they have since re-labelled them out of existence again.

Have you noticed that nobody is poor anymore? These days, those with few assets and little income are not poor: they are “The Deprived”, “The Disadvantaged”.

This is not an innocent move. While at first glance it might seem nothing more than one of those irritating euphemisms that urban self-styled “liberals” (more accurately the bien pensant classes) use to avoid causing offence by giving rise to any suggestion that they may be judging somebody (“vertically challenged”; “work poor”), there is in fact a far darker motive. Just as socialists need poverty to excuse their efforts to force individuals to conform to their will, so they need blame to create the enemy within that all tyrannies require; specifically, they need to blame society as a whole if they are to justify permanent revolution.

Think about these terms for a moment. To be deprived, some person or force has to stop a person accessing something. To be disadvantaged is even more insidious: note that one is not less advantaged, but disadvantaged; they are put in a dis-favourable position. In both cases, something or someone has acted upon the poor to make them poor. In the mind of the socialist, this is the evil structure of society.

Two logics follow from this. The first is that society is somehow unfair, that it advantages some and disadvantages others. This is nonsense. Society advantages everybody. Specialisation, for example, is a feature of static, agrarian civilisations, without which everybody would be subsistence hunter-gatherers expecting to live just long enough to see the majority of their children precede them to the grave. Our modern societies have gone further: thanks to capitalism, nobody need want for food, water, shelter, clothing or warmth. It is true that some have benefited (“been advantaged”) more than others, but that does not disadvantage those who have benefited less, it merely advantages them less. They still have advantages that on their own, in splendid isolation, outside society they would not have. Without spendthrift consumers there would be fewer jobs waiting tables or designing jewellery. Without the fabulously rich there would not have been the early adopters of MP3 players, video cassette recorders or motor cars that were so vital to getting those industries up and running and eventually making the products widely available to all.

This capitalist society is anathema to socialists, for it is random and organic, not rational and organised. It challenges their desire to put into practice their planned societies, where each individual is a cog in a finely tuned machine that operates at their direction. By blaming society for individual poverty, they justify revolution and the implementation of The Plan. In the end, we will be as equal as any robot on an assembly line. And this siren song is attractive to the mass of poor voters, because it absolves them of responsibility for their own situation.

For that is the second logic that results from re-labelling the poor as “deprived” or “disadvantaged”. The poor are not to blame for their poverty. There is of course a circumstantial element that influence individual outcomes – social mobility has declined under both the Tories and Labour, so that it is more difficult than ever for an enterprising person to better their circumstances – but the suggestion that other people and/or society are entirely to blame for an individual’s poverty is both spurious and self-serving.

At least some responsibility for their situation must lie with the poor themselves. This often makes people who see themselves as liberal uncomfortable, for there is undoubtedly a correlation between liberals and bleeding hearts. Yet there is clearly also a correlation between poverty, poor school achievement, criminality, drug use and a number of other social problems. And here lies the crux of the liberal dilemma: if liberals believe in the primacy of the individual, and in an individual’s ability to exercise their free will, then how can liberals deny that some of these result from bad choices. It is unfortunate that many of these choices are made when people are young (though I’m not convinced that they are always too young to know better), but nonetheless the decision to play truant or refuse to do homework is a choice exercised by the child, for which their adult self will suffer. The same can be said of youth or unmarried motherhood; it is not judgemental or reproachful to say that the mother has exercised her choice to have unprotected sex and to have a child, and that consequences will result from that choice.

Society in fact benefits from the fact that the choices made by individuals have consequences; it is these consequences that encourage us to make good choices that will benefit not only ourselves but others too (I want money, therefore I work, therefore I generate wealth for society as a whole). That does not mean that we should have no welfare safety net, or that we should not help those at the bottom of the pile improve their circumstances. There is a strong case for focussing on education to ensure that all children have a good start in life, and for helping people (but not making people) make sensible decisions. But both the health of society and the freedom of individuals depends on our creating a system that encourages people to look first-and-foremost to their own welfare, that encourages them to make decisions in their own best interests. The alternative is to strip individuals of responsibility for their own circumstances, prosperity or wellbeing and instead give credit or blame to society as a whole.

By absolving individuals of responsibility we obviate the need for them to make sensible decisions (indeed, any decisions), we reward failure and penalise success, and give our freedom up to politicians and bureaucrats.

Then we really would be deprived.

The Polemicist returns!

Apologies to my humble reader for having abandoned blogging over the past six weeks.

As the more observant of you (including those who have opened their free copy of Pravda) will have noticed, the Polemicist has been dipping his toes in the waters of democratic politics.

The rather frenetic six week campaign drove me onto the streets campaigning every night and all day at the weekend, rather curtailing my blogging, and there’s nothing more sorry than a blog that’s not been updated for weeks. If it’s not been updated regularly, it’s not really a blog (though some might argue that as I use this site to discuss whatever issue has agitated my brain that day, it’s not much of a web-log anyway, but just a cheap website – heaven forbid!).

Anyway, I now have a small modicum of time on my hands once again, though rather less than before I was elected, so I hope I’ll be able to keep up a reasonably steady stream of opinions. Only time will tell whether service to the local populous will soak up all my free time and concentrate my mind on more practical matters.

In the meantime, I have a Conference to attend. That should provide plenty of fodder…