The Obscurer

Don't Look Back

I have considered The Guardian’s kind offer for me to interfere in the US Election, and I have decided to keep my nose and my bad English teeth out of it. For one thing, I know how I would react if I received a letter from an American telling me how to vote; for another I just have no enthusiasm for Kerry, no matter how much I may dislike Bush. Quite frankly, I am glad I don’t have to choose between them. In any event, I have little idea about their individual domestic agendas; I don’t believe British politicians much when they start quoting statistics and criticising their opponents policies, so I am not going to start on Americans. And on foreign policy, if this article on BBC News is to be believed, there may be little difference in practice whoever wins next week.

In case you can’t be bothered reading the link, the gist of it is that there has been some criticism recently within Republican circles, led by former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, that the neo-conservative experiment under the Bush administration has run its course, and that it is time for the United States to operate a more pragmatic foreign policy, more akin to that which Kissinger was so associated with.

To some extent this is a bit harsh on the neo-cons; as William Kristol explained on Newsnight last week, many neo-cons are as annoyed as anyone about the way Bush has enacted their ideas, and the quagmire (well, everyone else is using that word, so why shouldn’t I?) in Iraq reflects unfairly on their theories. Just because Iraq hasn’t worked out (yet) according to plan, doesn’t mean that the neo-con theories themselves are dead.

The problem I believe is that even if I agreed with the idea of unilateralism which is intrinsic to the neo-conservative agenda (I don’t), and even if I thought its motives were entirely honourable (I don’t), the idea that the USA and whichever allies decide to tag along will go around benevolently knocking nasty regimes off their perches is totally unrealistic, as I argued in “The Next War”. The theory that an altruistic America would democratise the world has much appeal, but even America doesn’t have the resources to do it; I don’t believe for one moment that I am the only person to realise this, and to that extent the war in Iraq was in some ways as pragmatic a decision as those made during the Kissinger era. Whatever the claims of the pro-war supporters, I believe that if Iraq had less oil, was in Africa, had a more fearsome armed forces and hadn’t pissed-off the President’s Dad and his old buddies in the new administration, then the war would not have happened, no matter how deep the mass graves in Halabja. Pragmatism still allows us to cosy up to nasty regimes such as the one in Uzbekistan, where the British Ambassador was recently suspended.

But at least there is some sort of moral compass buried deep in the heart of the neo-cons ideas (although always near the surface when they run into difficulties on Iraq) about involving ourselves in other countries when the ugly side of humanity gets busy. In contrast the Kissinger-Scowcroft ideology has no such redeeming feature; it is purely driven by American self interest, and if that means supporting mass-murdering dictatorships in South East Asia and undermining democracies in South American then that is what it will do. Sorry, that is what it did do.

Now it is entirely understandable that the USA, like every other country, is going to be driven largely by self interest, and it would be unrealistic for it to be any other way. And of course pragmatism is often a very good idea for many obvious reasons. But I find it deeply depressing to hear John Kerry in the States, and the likes of Menzies Campbell in this country, getting massive rounds of applause when they say that if they were in Government they would not commit troops under any circumstances unless it was in the national interest. That wasn’t why I opposed the war; I wasn’t thinking just of the national interest.

Whatever the faults of the neo-con agenda, to return to a Kissinger-type policy would be a retrograde step. I know it may sound idealistic, in fact I know it does, but is it not possible to combine the idea of pre-emption against dangerous and despotic regimes with a genuine multilateral approach, perhaps under the UN but under a new organisation if required, which could be housed in a framework of fair International Law? Can we not get an independent body, free of national interests, perhaps guided by the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to decide which are the most abusive regimes currently in existence, and where the most pressing current human rights crises are, and then to methodically bring them to book? Perhaps then we could actually intervene meaningfully and swiftly in the worlds troublespots, with the richest countries leading the UN’s work rather than leaving it to the poorest countries as we often do now.

Naive ideas, I suppose, and naively put, but at least it shows the direction I think we should be going in.

Peace In EU Time

Last week on “Question Time”, Michael Heseltine mentioned that the European Union had maintained the peace across Western Europe since 1945, and Melanie Phillips responded that it was, of course, NATO that has kept the peace since the Second World War. It is becoming a habit; it is only a few weeks since Robert Kilroy-Silk said much the same thing on the very same programme. I wonder if they have they been conferring?

But you do not need to like the direction the EU is going in to understand what Heseltine was saying; it is a matter of History. One of the initial objectives of the European Coal and Steel Community which was formed at the Treaty of Paris in 1951 was to create a form of economic integration where war between the member states, primarily France and Germany, would be a thing of the past. It was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, a French civil servant, and speaking to BBC Online, his former personal assistant Richard Mayne, stated “Coal and steel were essentially weapons of war, and (Monnet) thought that if they were pooled then war would become unthinkable or impossible.” Over time, the ECSC evolved and grew into the EU.

Today the idea of a war between France and Germany seems ridiculous, but it is perhaps a tribute to the EU in its various guises that such a thing is indeed unthinkable. Of course it was not always like this; 1951 was just 6 years after VE Day, and there had been three wars between France and Germany in the previous eighty years. To put this in context, it is now 9 years since the Dayton Accords ended the war between Serbia and Croatia, and it would take a brave man to think that these countries have solved all their problems. The closer economic ties between France and Germany, two nations who had decades of shared enmity, have resulted in a situation where they are now criticised for being thick as thieves and dominating the EU. It is something we take for granted, but it is really remarkable to think such a change in attitude can have taken place in just a few generations.

To ignore all this is really to be blinded by Euro-scepticism. You don’t have to want the Euro to understand the role the EU has played in maintaining peace. You can still yearn for the days of the curved cucumber and yet still accept that not everything about the European project has been bad.

Of course NATO has played a major part in maintaining peace in Europe after the war, but its purpose was to be a counterweight to the Soviet Union, not to prevent wars between Western European nations. It is an obvious but important distinction. Both the EU and NATO have played important but different roles.

And I feel the EU can still play this role of peacemaker. Earlier I mentioned Serbia and Croatia, and how it would be optimistic to think that all the problems between these two countries are behind them, particularly if either country were to elect a nationalist in the Milosevic or Tudjman mould. But as things stand both nations are looking towards EU (and NATO) membership, and as with France and Germany, I can see that if they are both admitted then the idea of a future conflict between them would be just as absurd.

When stupid Europeans come out with a stupid anti-Americanism, stupid Americans often respond in two ways. Some say that if it wasn’t for the USA we would all be speaking Russian by now, and they are wrong. The rest say that if it wasn’t for the USA we would all now be speaking German. This second version is chronologically correct; it was in wars between the Western European nations that the Americans first rescued us, before the Soviets got a look in. I think Melanie Phillips and Robert Kilroy-Silk have missed the point.