Miliband and the politics of scarcity

I am at the New America Foundation this morning, where David Miliband is due to ‘discuss the challenge of promoting Western style liberalism, democracy, civil society development in a world that in some corners views the word “democracy” suspiciously.’ The event will be streamed live here.

This is Miliband’s opportunity to connect with a younger audience in Washington. The meeting has been set up by the British Council, as part of its TN2020 network. I moderated the network’s first event in Berlin just before Easter, while Alex and I wrote an essay on climate for the TN2020 book. The intro:

The climate problem is now urgent enough to be a major determinant of the transatlantic relationship. In the wake of Bali, we are promised summits and shindigs galore as the world struggles to agree a global deal to replace Kyoto. This will keep climate at the top of the political and news agenda.

But if a global deal is signed in 2009, the fun will only just have started. Greenhouse gas emissions will need to be slashed by at least half, and probably much more, by 2050. Rich countries will be expected to make deep cuts almost immediately. A colossal and unprecedented economic realignment will therefore be needed. It’s a huge task. So how will Europe and the US fare on this shifting terrain?

The warm-up act is Andrew Sullivan, über-blogger and hawk turned hardcore Obamafan, and absolutely charming in person. He’s talking about the way that – in the new media age – the British and American media audience are merging, with southern England a centre left or centre right ‘blue state’. “I often feel my blog is better understood in London than it is in certain parts of the United States,” he says.

But then Miliband arrives and Sullivan is shuffled off the stage. Introduced by the Washington Note’s Steve Clemons (and our host) as ‘primarily a blogger’, Miliband sits on the table and talks without notes.

He starts with the much-stated, but seldom practised, point that the new diplomacy needs to meld state-to-state relations, economic integration, and the ‘new public diplomacy’ – the mobilisation of non-state audiences.

The great causes in international relations are far from dead, he says, focusing on four challenges. Can we build strong communities across race and religion? Can we take on the conflicts that blight people’s lives? Can we stabilise the global climate? And can we build stronger and more effective international institutions?

Miliband argues that the problems of globalization will be solved by extending globalization. The world needs to tackle its problems through more internationalism not less.

I suggest that the major challenge for globalisation is the combination of rising expectations with limits to strategic resources (food, energy, emissions etc – it’s now a familiar list). What impact will the politics of scarcity have on the international system?

Miliband’s response (with apologies for the paraphrase – hard to type while nodding attentively):

We are living through an unprecedented triple crunch of credit, food and fuel. The common denominator is between food and fuel is carbon dependence. Climate change closes the circle. The key question is whether we can get on a lower carbon trajectory or not. If we don’t, the conflicts that people fear are a real danger.

So, yes, we share an analysis – but I suspect that, collectively, the world is far from having the answers…

The art of not scoring own goals

I’ve been at the Brookings Institution in Washington today for its conference on the transatlantic relationship.

In the chair, Daniel Benjamin, who runs Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe, and who wrote The Age of Sacred Terror and The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Simon.

In The Next Attack, Benjamin and Simon argued that:

It is unlikely that even in his feverish reveries, Usama bin Laden could have imagined that America would stumble so badly and wound itself so grievously. By occupying Iraq, the United States has played into the hands of its opponents, affirming the story they have been telling to the Muslim world and adding to their aura as true warriors in defence of Islam…

There is, as has so often been said, a war of ideas going on, a battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, America has wound up on the wrong side.

Of course, this was pretty predictable. Every effective terror movement in history has been fuelled by the adverse reaction of its host society. The Bush administration has simply proved particularly obtuse and self-destructive- a fact for which Al Qaeda is appropriately grateful. In 2004, bin Laden mischievously quoted an unnamed British diplomat speaking at Chatham House (!) to support his assertion that ‘it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal’.

Benjamin and Simon’s policy prescription for the US can be summed simply as: stop scoring own goals. They call for a ‘deep and dramatic’ engagement with the Islamic world and point to Turkey’s relationship with the EU as a model. It has moved from military repression to relative liberalism, they suggest, albeit a liberalism that has an Islamic hue.

‘These changes, as well as the speed with which they have taken hold, are nothing short of remarkable,’ they write. ‘That they have happened at all is due to one thing: the prospect of membership in the European Union. The transformative potential this prospect has held has been clear to American policy makers for years, and, wisely, they have supported Turkey’s bid consistently and vocally.’

Of course, US support for Turkish accession to the EU is somewhat problematic. George Bush pushed this line in 2004 despite attempts from the French and others to warn him off. ‘Including Turkey in the E.U. would prove that Europe is not the exclusive club of a single religion, and it would expose the clash of civilizations as a passing myth in history,’ he said.

It’s hard for Europeans to be lectured on this issue by a man who believes that the US is in the midst of a Christian revival prompted by the ‘confrontation between good and evil’ (his words) that America finds itself in. Or from a guy who said this in 2001:

Oh, I know there’s some voices who want to wall us off from Mexico. They want to build a wall. I say to them, they want to condemn our neighbours to the south in poverty, and I refuse to accept that type of isolationist and protectionist attitude.

And then signed a bill to build a 700 mile fence along the Mexican border in 2006 – part of a desperate attempt to shore up his approval rating with the shrinking portion of Americans who represent his base.

But I digress. Continue reading

Soldiering and European society

General Richard Dannat, the head of the British army, once remarked that the British Armed Forces are less understood and less honoured for their commitment and sacrifice by ordinary Britons than in comparable societies, like United States, and probably even less than in earlier periods.

But this is not unique to Britain. And it is part of two broader inter-related trends; the disappearance of sacrifice as an element of Europe’s development and, as a result, the divorce of the institution most knows for sacrifice – the military – from European society.

The most obvious example is the disappearance of ex-military officers from politics. The appointment of Admiral Sir Alan West, the decorated former head of the Royal Navy, to a junior ministerial post in Gordon Brown’s government is remarkable precisely because it’s rare. Military experience has similarly become less important for reaching reach high office; no Ministers in the current Cabinet have served in the armed forces.

Few European countries appoint general officers to civilian positions; none serve at the top of the European Union’s bureaucracy, the Commission or the Council Secretariat. Of seven hundred European parliamentarians, only one was a former high-ranking officer: Philippe Morrilon, the former French UN general.

Contrast this with the United States, where, from George Washington onwards, military officers have regularly shed their uniforms to take high office.

Continue reading

No, Minister

Last night I had dinner with a group of security experts and sat next to Chatham House’s Robin Niblett . We got to talking about the role of Ministers and how they seem to struggle with their role in overseeing today’s counter-insurgency missions i.e. operations like in Iraq. They shy away from detail, but are forced into minutiae by events. They go for headline-grabbing figures – like withdrawal numbers – that rarely materialise. They oversell missions – does anyone remember John Reid’s comment that British soldiers would not fire a shot in Helmand? You get the point.

However, is this any different from the past; and if so, why?

Even a cursory reading of Churchill’s memoirs or those of any of his wartime colleagues (like his defense chief, Lord Alanbrooke) leaves you with the impression that no detail was too small, no maneuver too inconsequential for the PM to take an interest – and, frequently, a direct role. As we know, this did not always have the intended beneficial effects, but the PM’s involvement was clear, all-pervasive – and ultimately crucial for Britain’s war-time effort. 

But in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as Britain fought countless battles against Soviet-backed, liberation movements – the heyday of counter-insurgency – the role of Whitehall seemed to decrease. Decisions were delegated to theatre level, as in the Malay campaign. It was only when the Troubles began – and the fight was brought home – that the day-to-day involvement of Whitehall began to increase.

But besides Northern Ireland, the Cold War did not include – indeed require – day-to-day ministerial oversight. Plans were laid to roll back a Red Army advance and the PM had to write a letter to submarine commanders bearing instructions for nuclear retaliation. But there was no day-today role. The Falklands War was may have been an exception to this hands-off, strategy-focused Cold War role.

In the modern world, however, wars like the Iraq War are fast-paced, cost billions of pounds, risk the lives of hundreds of soldiers and can cost ministers their careers. This drives greater ministerial involvement in decision-making than before. But, on the other hand, the complexity – and sometimes brutality – of modern counter-insurgency means many ministers are reluctant to get too involved in decisions, lest they be blamed for the choices made by a soldier in Basra or a diplomat in Kandahar. Continue reading

The FSB versus the Russian-Oxford alumni association

I was astounded to read today of the FSB’s arrest of Ilya Zaslavsky, who’s a manager at TNK-BP in Moscow, and also the organizer of the Russian branch of the Oxford Alumni, on charges of industrial espionage.

The Russian-Oxford alumni association held monthly drinks in Moscow, which I went along to a few times. Can’t say it was a hotbed of Decembrist activity…more like a lot of Russian MBAs back-slapping each other and reminiscing about that time they drove through Oxford back in the 90s. Ilya seemed like a decent-enough guy though.

The FSB (the heir to the KGB) apparently invaded the offices of TNK-BP and found all sorts of ‘incriminating evidence’ against him, such as the business cards of ‘foreign military agencies and the CIA’ according to an FSB spokesperson. This is sufficient, apparently, to prove that both Ilya and his brother Alexander, who the BBC says works for the British Council, are illegally getting industrial secrets for foreign companies (presumably BP).

But if they really were spies, would they leave the business cards of CIA agents lying around on their desk at work? And isn’t gathering information on market participants like Gazprom not ‘industrial espionage’ but simply doing their job?

This could be a way of turning the screws on BP, as Gazprom prepares to buy many of its Russian assets. But it’s also a sign of the continued unchecked power of the secret services to harass private citizens on the flimsiest of charges. And it’s further evidence of the FSB’s growing harassment of foreign individuals in Moscow, or Russians working for foreign companies.

Another friend of mine, an American journalist, had to leave Moscow abruptly last year, when he was advised by the US government that he was in the process of being set up by the FSB. He had been handed over some military secrets by a taxi-driver who claimed to be ex-FSB (I know, weird circumstances). But he was then told, while abroad, that if he went back to Russia, he could be in hot water. So he never went back.

Well, I hope Ilya and his brother – who both have dual Russian and US citizenship – are let out soon. Using the freedom of your own citizens as bargaining chips in mergers and acquisitions seems like a pretty shoddy way of behaving.