Labour Conference keynotes in times of meltdown

Listening to Gordon Brown’s speech today, Philip Stephens notes that “Mr Brown kept his audience in its comfort zone”:

Though he set out the challenges Britain faces in a period of tumultuous global upheaval, Mr Brown did little to challenge his audience’s preconception that the present mess was all the fault of greedy capitalists.

Reading that brought to mind another Labour Conference speech in times of global upheaval: Tony Blair’s back in 2001.  Remember this?

This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.

I re-read the whole thing this afternoon, and was struck by a) its brilliance, b) its insight, c) how it soars compared to Brown’s speech today and d) the extent to which – in retrospect, with all that’s happened since – it shines with an eerie messianic fervour.  It’s well worth another look: full text below the jump.

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“African ownership” strikes back

It’s ten days since seven UN troops were killed in Darfur – today, one more has been killed.  In between, there have been a series of events that raise big questions about the UN’s future in Africa.  First, there was the defeat of the US-UK effort to slap arms sanctions on Zimbabwe in the Security Council – notable less for China and Russia’s vetoes than the African Council members’ (pace Burkina Faso) rejection of the resolution.  Then there was the ICC decision to charge Sudan’s President Bashir with genocide in Darfur – again, the most striking part of the international response has been the level of African opposition, with the AU’s “Panel of the Wise” announcing the charges could “lead to a lot of danger”.

The convergence of these events may mark a turning-point in how Africa fits into the international system.  African leaders are setting limits on global governance. 

For most of the last decade, the continent has been a laboratory for international institutions: it has hosted the bulk of UN peacekeepers; been the testing-ground of the Millennium Development Goals (and so the G8’s efforts to hang with Bono); and was the ICC’s focus even before the Bashir indictment.  The AU has emerged as everyone’s favorite new regional institution, not least for taking on Darfur.

For quite a few commentators, myself included, it has been almost axiomatic over the last few years that better international institutions mean a better Africa.  But we mostly missed the politics of institution-building: the interests and ideologies of African governments, and the limits on their desire to be subsumed into supranational organizations (hey there, EU specialists, does this ring a bell with you?).  There’s been lots of talk of “African ownership” over all this institution-building, but it’s all too often hollow.  In May, I was at a seminar in Berlin at which the African participants gave the phrase a kicking (check out the event report).

It was never going to be possible to keep on piling international institution on international institution in Africa.  I wrote a short piece in October 2006 arguing that the UN might find itself “Out of Africa” sooner than expected –  that looked silly as the Security Council went on to mandate blue helmets for Darfur, and mused about sending them to Somalia.  But I may not have been so wrong.  It’s too early to know whether July 2008 is a turning-point or a blip in international engagement (or interference, depending on your perspective) in Africa.  But it should be the moment we start thinking what “African ownership” really means.

Zimbabwe veto says as much about US and UK as Russia

The Russian and Chinese veto of UNSC sanctions against Zimbabwe may in hindsight have been predicable, even inevitable, but on day of the vote they came as a clear surprise to many, not least British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who only days earlier told the House the tougher sanctions were in the bag.

Leaving aside whether you believe sanctions are a good idea – I certainly do – what happened? Had Russian President Dmitri Medvedev not signed up to sanctions only days before at the G8 Summit in Japan? Did the Prime Minister simply not take “Njet” for an answer? Bit by bit, the run-up to the vote is emerging. 

It now seems the issue was driven not by No. 10, but from the 7th floor of the U.S State Department, where Jendayi Frazer, U.S Assistant Secretary of State, sits. Even though no U.S interests are at stake, Ms Frazer, an academic colleague of Condi Rice’s from her Stanford days, has focused intently on Zimbabwe, apparently raising the issue whenever she meets African leaders.

Ms. Frazer – who is known to abhor her British opposite number Lord Malloch Brown from his UN days – apparently was in the driving seat on Zimbabwe policy, after having waited in vain for a UK lead. With the US Ambassador to the UN, Zal Khalizaid, she apparently pushed hard for a tough resolution. Better to make a stand, the argument went.

But after the G8 meeting, British diplomats apparently thought that the Russians would balk and became nervous. In fairness, Brown – who had been micro-managing the issue – thought he’d gotten Medvedev on board. But either little thought was given to whether the Russian president could in fact deliver – especially after the British Prime Minister harangued him at his first summit – or the issue was not deemed important enough to merit a Russian rejection.

To be on the safe side, however, the Foreign Office apparently asked Bush to call Medvedev and Rice to raise the issue with her Russian counterpart. None of this happened and things began to fall apart. The Chinese, who diplomats believe would probably have abstained if the Russians had not decided to veto, moved to veto as well.

By then the Prime Minister had already sounded confident in his post-G8 address to the House during PMQs. As a last-ditch effort, diplomats considered tabling a weaker resolution, giving South Africa more time to find a solution and thus putting the onus back on Tabo Mbeki and, ultimately, Robert Mugabe. But the U.S – who chaired the UN Security Council – decided to go for broke, tabled the old text and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the aftermath of the no-vote, the U.S government has been quick to point out that the Russian veto shows Russian cannot be seen as a reliable partner. Russian officials have reacted angrily at this, saying Medvedev never promised support for U.N. sanctions.

But what does the episode say about U.S and UK foreign policy?  That even on an issue of such totemic importance to Britain – and where the Prime Minster has taken a personal interest – the U.S remains in the lead, yet unable or unwilling to do the necessary due diligence to ensure more than declaratory success. 

Gordon’s growing international credibility

An interesting signal in the ether today from Sky News’s political editor Adam Boulton, who has this to say:

It could be said that Tony Blair’s domestic achievements were overshadowed by international misadventures. It may be said that Gordon Brown’s premiership is working in reverse.

For all the travails at home, GB is beginning to cut a substantial (if unshowy) figure on the world stage. He may tour the world in aircraft more suited to rock-star has-beens than international statesman, but supported by a strong foreign affairs team, GB is developing a credible foreign policy.

Despite a wobbly start with the Americans, relations with the White House are back on track. The PM has taken an admirable lead on Zimbabwe and was the lead voice at last weeks EU crisis summit in Brussels. The sceptics are having a field day with the PM’s Jeddah proposals, but he’s taken a risk by being the only head of government to travel here and the ideas put forward are interesting, if untested.

Blair (and Thatcher for that matter) retained a unstinting belief in the UK’s place in the world. I’d argue that Brown is more realistic and, possibly, constructive.

Boulton’s line is worth noting, given that it’s at odds with the prevailing view among the commentariat (c.f. Jonathan Freedland’s verdict earlier this week – “A year in, it’s clear: we got Brown wrong. He is simply not up to the job”).

Still more interesting is the fact that it’s foreign policy that Boulton sees as Brown’s strong suit. In the early days of Brown’s tenure as PM, the general assumption was that Brown was far less interested in matters international than his predecessor (international development being the one exception); for many, his early unwillingness to go to Brussels seemed to confirm the fact.

But Boulton may well be right that things are changing. Brown did indeed show deftness with Bush and Brussels alike last week (notwithstanding an unlucky hat-trick of comms mess-ups: see here, here and here). The PIPA global polling data on trust in world leaders puts him in second place behind Ban Ki-moon. And on top of that, there’s been a definite pick-up of momentum within Whitehall on the PM’s foreign policy agenda, especially on reforming international institutions and on food, energy and climate change. A lot of serious thinking is underway – both on the content of the agenda, and ways to deliver it – and departments seem to be pulling together more than usual.

As David and I noted last year (and I recalled in a post earlier this week), leaders can become statesmen quickly during a period of flux in international affairs like the current global interregnum. It may be too soon to talk about tides turning just yet – but Brown is asking the right questions on the most fundamental global issues, and putting real resources behind the process.

Intervention Blues

Simon Jenkins has a good piece in the Sunday Times about the decreasing willingness to contemplate humanitarian intervention.  The humanitarian creed, he says:

can no longer override considerations of state sovereignty and the natural caution of diplomats and generals.

While opposing every intervention known to man, Jenkins goes on to lament:

This noble cause has vanished in the wind. Almost before it is put to the test it is gone. The failure to intervene in Darfur and the deference shown to the dictators of Burma and Zimbabwe indicate a pendulum swinging fast in the other direction.

It is not hard to see why the negativity. The West has failed to intervene in Burma and ships are now being forced to return after waiting in vain. The EU military mission in Chad was originally conceived by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner as a repeat of the U.S safe zone created in the Kurdish areas in Iraq. But instead of a mandate to go into Sudan, it has had to sit on the Chadian side of the border. Problems, of course, plague missions in Iraq and Afghanistan while Kosovo refuses to solve itself.

But Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan argued against this pessimism in the Washington Post last year.

America has frequently used force on behalf of principles and tangible interests, and that is not likely to change.

The duo behind the League of Democracies, remind readers that the U.S has intervened between 1989 and 2001 with significant military force on eight occasions — once every 18 months. This interventionism, they go on, has been bipartisan — four interventions were launched by Republican administrations, four by Democratic administrations. The implication: interventionism is here to stay. It is as much a part of international politics as state sovereignty.

I have to say I agree with Daalder and Kagan. The West is only temporarily numbed by recent failures, as well as being logistically constrained because of troop overstretch. True, in Europe few governments seem willing to spend the necessary funds on the required military and civilian capability. True, the U.S electorate is in a particularly sour mood, to the extent that more Europeans now support democracy-promotion than Americans.

But this will pass. And once a new U.S president begins a draw-down in Iraq – a policy I expect from both Senators McCain and Obama – and surge in Afghanistan – again something to expect form both – the balance of sentiment will be re-calibrated in favour of intervention. 

However, we need a re-definition of interventionism, a Chicago speech for the new post-Iraq millennium. And David Milliband is the man to give it, in my view.

Slum wars

Richard mentioned Mike Davis’ compelling book Planet of the Slums a while back and I’ve recently finished it, coincidentally it seems, just at the point when shanty towns and squatter camps in and around Jo’berg have erupted into violence. As Davis argues in his book

the contemporary mega-slum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register. If the aim of the “war on terrorism” is to pursue the erstwhile enemy into his sociological and cultural labyrinth, then the poor peripheries of developing cities will be the permanent battlefields of the twenty-first century.

In Jo’berg attacks have taken place in Alexandra, Reiger Park, Diepsloot, and Primrose. Estimates of the numbers of immigrants chased from their homes range from 13,000 to 20,000 with police patrolling the streets and the army called in to quell the violence – the first time they have been on the streets since the end of apartheid.

The wave of violence against foreigners in South Africa has now spread to Cape Town where Somalis and Zimbabweans have been attacked by mobs who have looted their homes and shops overnight. The cause of the outbreak is down to rapidly escalating food and fuel prices mixed with a healthy dose of xenophobia with South Africans accusing foreigners of increasing crime and taking jobs.

Tory foreign affairs spokesman lost in Africa: Can you help him?

The Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague issued a press release on Tuesday calling on David Miliband, foreign secretary “to take urgent action with regard to the Chinese ship, currently heading to Uganda carrying arms bound for Zimbabwe”.

From the FT blog:

Hague’s intervention sent the Foreign Office into a spin, as officials pored over atlases trying to work out how the Chinese vessel might achieve the unlikely task of offloading its weapons in a land-locked country in the heart of Africa. Perhaps he envisaged the ship heading up to the Mediterranean, taking a right turn down the River Nile and then making the tortuous journey through sub-Saharan Africa to Lake Victoria. Not sure whether the river is up to taking ocean-going ships though. “What is he talking about?” asked one government official. So far there has been no explanation from Mr Hague’s team about this strange Ugandan affair

Aware that readers of Global Dashboard are an imaginative, thoughtful and pragmatic bunch we want to know how you would best transport the shipment of arms onboard the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang from is current position (off the South Western coast of Africa via Uganda to Zimbabwe). A small prize will be awarded for the best post.*

* Very small…