Conversations as foreign policy

Another weekly slice of excellence from the great William Lind. This week: why “good decisions are far more often a product of informal conversations than of any formal meeting, briefing or process.”

History offers a useful illustration. In 1814, the Congress of Vienna, which faced the task of putting Europe back together after the catastrophic French Revolution and almost a quarter-century of subsequent wars, did what aristocrats usually do. It danced, it dined, it stayed up late playing cards for high stakes, it carried on affairs, usually not affairs of state. Through all its aristocratic amusements, it conversed. In the process, it put together a peace that gave Europe almost a century of security, with few wars and those limited.

In contrast, the conference of Versailles in 1919 was all business. Its dreary, interminable meetings (read Harold Nicolson for a devastating description) reflected the bottomless, plodding earnestness of the bourgeois and the Roundhead. Its product, the Treaty of Versailles, was so flawed that it spawned another great European war in just twenty years. As Kaiser Wilhelm II said from exile in Holland, the war to end war yielded a peace to end peace.

Read the full piece here.

State of play

Amidst the predictable froth about ‘strategic plans’, ‘program evaluations’, ‘senior reviews’ and ‘departmental performance plans’ in the US State Dept‘s 2006 Performance and Accountability Report, there are a few small gems.

One of the more eyebrow-raising is the table starting on page 71 that sets out State’s own evaluation of how it’s doing on a range of key objectives. Across a lengthy range of indicators, there are just three where State judges itself to be ‘above target’ or ‘significantly above target’. One of them – ready for this? – is “stable political and economic conditions that prevent terrorism from flourishing in fragile and failing states”.

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The swindle

“The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Hurricanes are blowing. And it’s all your fault. Scared? Don’t be. It’s not true.”

You didn’t need to see Channel 4’s hatchet job on climate change to have an opinion on it. (David Miliband: “I didn’t see the programme, but I promise you I will do a blog demolishing its arguments.”) I hadn’t when I wrote my first review. But I have now

First off, wasn’t it great? Fab music. Lovely graphs. Ravishing graphics. And the plot! Pacey. Strong messages (“you are being told lies”). A surprise villain (Margaret Thatcher, of all people, bribing the scientific community). And a plethora of victims (brave critics “censored and intimidated”, with a couple of billion of the poor tacked on for added emotional impact). Continue reading

Chris Chyba on biosecurity

Just back from a seminar on national security issues at Stanford University, where Chris Chyba gave an outstanding presentation on biosecurity. (Chyba’s nothing if not a polymath: as well as being one of the US’s top biosecurity experts, he used to be the Carl Sagan Chair of the SETI Institute‘s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. There’s an interview with him on his work at SETI here.)

Chyba argues that the term “weapons of mass destruction” is more misleading than clarifying: the kinds of nonproliferation, deterrence and defence strategies needed against nuclear weapons, cyber threats and and biological weapons are entirely different in each. In fact, he says (in a 2005 presentation given at a Carnegie Endowment conference),

“…biological terrorism shares as many or more characteristics with cyberterrorism as with nuclear terrorism. And the trajectory of biotechnology is such that these similarities are only likely to grow—bio is moving closer to the “cyber” end of the continuum.”

See also a 2004 article in the IISS journal Survival here.

It’s not enough to be right

In the Sun – the UK’s leading tabloid in a shrinking market – Jeremy Clarkson, professional motormouth and patron saint of petrolheads, is having fun.

Clarkson is sceptical about the theory of global warming. Actually, that doesn’t quite catch it. He thinks the idea is “bonkers, idiotic, a complete fairy story.” He blames the usual suspects (politicians, the media, “scientists on the climate change payola”) – plus a few less familiar ones (Margaret Thatcher, who created global warming to allow her to close down Arthur Scargill‘s coal mines).

But Channel 4’s documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, has convinced him he’s right. After all, it had “proper scientists” arguing the case. “Global warming started off as a lie and became an industry,” he writes. “Now it’s a fashion statement and that, ultimately, is what will kill it off.”

Of course, no-one listens to this rubbish (even American climate sceptics hate Clarkson)… apart from all the people who believe every word of it. And it’s them that we should be paying a lot more attention to. Continue reading