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2 April 2011

The Complexity of the Modern World

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics

In the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of meeting two leading thinkers on the modern world, Mark Malloch Brown and Rory Stewart. Lord Malloch Brown is a former United Nations Deputy-General who in his book The UNfinished Global Revolution seeks to diagnose the central global predicament of the twenty-first century. As we have become more integrated we have also become less governed. National governments are no longer equipped to address complex global issues. From climate change to poverty, international organisations have not yet been empowered to step into the breach.  Lord Malloch Brown in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts called on national governments to have the confidence to delegate power both down to local forms of government and up to global organisations. He cites good examples of collaboration among NGOs with help from enlightened statesmen and business leaders in the fight against human rights abuses, disease particularly AIDS and the destruction of the rain forests in Indonesia thus slowing down the pace of climate change.

Malloch Brown was deputy to Kofi Annan whom he rates as just one of two great Secretary Generals of the UN, the other being Dag Hammarskjold. He described the rest as “more secretary than general.” He not only served the UN but various other NGOs on the frontline and was for a short time in the Brown government. He believes the threat to globalisation is rising inequality which needs to be managed. The UK consensus on AID with the Coalition government ring-fencing the Development budget is good and worth several aircraft carriers in the message it sends around the world and also to young voters who care about these things.

He observes that the most sophisticated global actors are NGOs and activists. An example of their ability to raise awareness leading to action was the fight to contain and destroy landmines. This was stimulated not only by activists but also veterans who saw for themselves the appalling damage they do to civilians. Then Canada, which Malloch Brown describes as more an NGO than a country, gave it legitimacy and the campaign took off.  Many such great achievements are ignored such as the mass enrolment of primary school age children in Ethiopia. But he fears that the threat to liberal democracy is that governments cannot solve their own problems. To solve the sovereign debt crisis will require the pooling of sovereignty. Westminster is not the World Bank.

On the thorny issue of intervention Malloch Brown is definitely an interventionist and believes that the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect now trumps the long established UN Charter legal principle of non-intervention. Democracy should come from within but where there is demonstrable evidence of human rights abuses versus a nation’s own people there is a case for intervention. This was the evening before the UN resolution 1973 on the Libyan question but Malloch Brown supported such an intervention. However he would have justified it on the grounds that Quaddafi is a proven threat to peace and security in the region.

It is worth reading an article The Mythology of Intervention, Debating the Lessons of History in Libya[i]by Micah Zenko who points out that those who talk about successful interventions in Kosovo and so on have very selective memories of what happened. It was actually the withdrawal of oil supplies by Russia that brought down Slobodan Milosovitch.

Rory Stewart MP is also an interventionist although his direct experience in Afghanistan and Iraq made him deeply sceptical about those campaigns. He was elected in the 2010 General Election as Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. At the age of 37 he seems to have already had half a dozen careers and no doubt will have several more. He has been a soldier, diplomat, adventurer, Harvard professor, author of several books and now politician. He has been described as a modern day “Lawrence of Arabia” who walked across Afghanistan in the wake of the allied invasion, governed a province of Iraq and has been hailed as the best new orator to enter Parliament in a generation. Esquire magazine named him as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.

Like Malloch Brown, Stewart draws his credibility from his front line experience and from a thorough reading of history.  He has read extensively on Britain’s adventures in the 19th century and reminds us that Britain withdrew from both the 1st and 2nd Afghan wars in the 19th century after just 9 months of bitter fighting. In 1920 she did the same after becoming embroiled in the newly created Iraq.  Now we have been in Afghanistan for coming up to three times the length of the 1st World War. What has changed is blindness to reality entangled with profound ignorance of local cultures. In the 19th century our diplomats spent many years in the locality before being given significant responsibility; one Viceroy of India had been there 35 years before getting the job. Now only two British ambassadors in the Middle East speak Arabic.

Afghanistan is a nation of 20,000 villages, each with its own leaders and culture. Stewart observed a 19 year old Glaswegian soldier attempting to train locals to be policemen. None of them spoke a word of English. In the US things are worse. Richard Holbrooke, who died recently and was mourned as a great US statesman and diplomat, had spent only 5 years abroad by the age of 67. Today we are unable to acknowledge our failures. Back in 1880 General Roberts wisely observed “The less they see of us the more they like us. “

So coming to Libya, and this was after the no-fly zone had been enforced, Stewart thought it a very limited resolution. He thought the best policy was usually “masterly inactivity.” But over the longer term, say 30 years, he was optimistic that huge progress would be made in the region.

Malloch Brown served the Labour government and Stewart is now a Conservative MP although he was n’t in the party a year ago. Both are however mavericks who tell it like it is. They are both disillusioned with much of what plays for national politics but optimistic about what can be achieved when there is a real attempt to understand the needs of people on the ground and  a concerted effort to meet those needs.

[i]The Mythology of Intervention, Debating the Lessons of History in Libya Micah Zenko

Foreign Affairs Published by the Council on Foreign Relations (US) March 28, 2011


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