This is the UN International Day of Peace so I share Dan Smith’s blogpost. There is some good news in amongst the reflections on the obvious disasters of Syria, Yemen, Ukraine …
The talking up of the new Cold War is now reaching a crescendo. This weekend, the normally sober Financial Times led with a story on how the UK could not withstand a Russian attack. A Russian attack? Why would Russia attack the UK? What possible rationality could be extended for Russia to attack the UK?
The Financial Times story is just one of many news stories and political briefings that are talking up a new Cold War. For The Economist, Russia is anxious to move from a cold war to a hot war. Other news sources are full of (conveniently leaked) stories of how Russian jets have ‘buzzed’ US ships or how Russian submarine activity has reached Cold War levels. Every few weeks news stories emerge that Russian military aircraft have approached British airspace and have been warned off by scrambled UK jets. It should be noted that these Russian planes are ageing ‘Bear Bombers’. They entered service in 1952 (it is worth googling the hit singles of 1952 to remind yourself just how long ago that was).
In the past twelve months, I have been to various events in which speakers have talked up a new Cold War, virtually salivating at the prospect of renewed permanent tensions with Russia. I’ve heard Joschka Fischer (former Green Party(!) German foreign minister) give a talk full of realist nightmares of renewed Russian aggression. He mentioned a foreign policy of ‘a big stick’ many times. I’ve heard a senior member of the British military comfortably slip into Cold War rhetoric, almost delighting that an old reliable enemy has appeared again. He seemed to be overjoyed that the UK’s possession of what he called ‘heavy metal’ (that is, tanks) could now be justified in an era of defence cuts. And I’ve heard a briefing from a former member of an intelligence service that was so bereft of political context that it would have made a cartoon aimed a three year olds seem sophisticated: Russian = bad, the west = good. All three talks routinely referred to Russia as ‘the bear’, as though this was a shared code for an aggressive, unknown creature.
None of this is to offer any support for Russian foreign policy or militarism. The Russian bombs falling on Syria are real and have been dropped with a dreadful lack of discrimination. The annexation of Crimea, and the stoking of conflict in the rest of Ukraine, has caused real misery for millions. And Russia’s posture to the Baltic States, and its cyber-warfare, are causing unnecessary anxiety.
The essential purpose of this blogpost is twofold. The first is to point to the absurdity of the new Cold War narrative. The second is to wonder about the motivation of those stoking this new Cold War narrative. Yes, Russia is assertive, but so is the US (600+ overseas bases in 38 countries) and NATO. The Russian economy is in serious difficultly, after being hit by declining oil prices and sanctions from western states. The economy has shrank over the past six quarters, and a modernistation programme for the military is seriously delayed – simply because the state cannot afford it. Even Putin’s seizure of Crimea, hailed by some as a masterstroke of realpolitik, is best seen as a strategic error. Putin is now responsible for an additional two million people who live in an economically unsustainable enclave. The same can be said for his support of Syria’s Assad: Putin has acquired a dependent liability – while alerting western states of his intent. The seizure of Crimea and the entry into the Syrian war hardly present existential threats to ‘the west’. Putin is a mid-sized bully, not a tactical genius on the cusp of world domination: he can’t afford world domination and would face crushing opposition (Russian defence spending is merely one tenth of US defence spending).
This leads us to the second question: Why are so many people so keen to talk up a new Cold War? The most obvious answer is because it justifies their existence – as militaries, defence analysts, and armchair generals. A Cold War – against a permanent but easily identifiable threat – is a good way of justifying increased military spending, the political relevance of the military, and the renewal of nuclear deterrents. Don’t mention the evidence of just how ragged the Russian ‘bear’ actually is.
A podcast of me at the University of Oxford talking about linking qualitative and quantitative peace research19 Sep
US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has pneumonia. Most people, if they had the option, would take time to get better. That is, they would alter their normal schedule and take time off work or education. But, of course, political (and business) elites in many countries have gotten themselves into the position where they cannot be seen to be ill – or normal. They have willingly built an edifice of ‘superhumaness’ around themselves.
The problem with this fiction is that they are not superhuman. They get sick, tired, drunk and stupid – just like the rest of us. Italian dictator Mussolini reputedly left the light on in his study late at night so that people in the street outside would think he was working at his desk. The same vanity prevails today. Politicians and their media teams perpetuate the myth of the superhuman politician who is forever fit, forever working, forever switched on. They go to absurd lengths to hide their ‘normality’. President Obama smokes cigarettes in the shadows – out of sight of the photographers. Most UK politicians – apparently – dress in sober business suits 24 hours a day. Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern once released his daily schedule that began with a 05:45 start. Those who knew his actual schedule were surprised.
The forever-on politician is just one part of a wider construction of the superhuman politician. Key to this is the notion that politicians are never wrong and can never apologise. We see politicians go to extreme lengths to avoid being seen to change their minds or reconsider options. In many other walks of life (for example, medicine or law) the careful reviewing of evidence and changing one’s stance to suit the evidence and circumstances is seen as prudent. Politicians have convinced themselves that the very human (indeed humane) qualities of frailty and fallibility are weakness.
I would predict that we will see Hillary Clinton going to absurd lengths to prove not only her fitness, but her super-fitness. Cue photo opportunities of Mrs Clinton doing things that most 68 year olds would not do (probably playing some sort of sport she has no interest in). This is just plain ridiculous. Many politicians have constructed the myth of them as super-human and now a sick woman who needs to take time out to get better will forced to live up to the myth.
A sign of a healthy polity is space for opposition, critique and dissent. That space is there in the UK – but it is currently unoccupied. The Labour Party – what should be the main opposition party according to the number of seats it has in parliament – is pre-occupied with its own leadership contest and so is unable to provide meaningful opposition.
And meaningful opposition is required. The current UK government is led by someone who is un-elected as leader of her political party and un-elected as Prime Minister – thus raising real questions of democracy. Moreover, on all sorts of measures (social mobility, class sizes, poverty, inequality, prisons) this is a government of failure. And then there is the small matter of Brexit – an issue on which the government has no strategy (and, as is becoming clear, engaged in zero forward planning). So the need for a credible opposition that can hold government to account and scrutinise legislation is urgent.
Rather than providing opposition the Labour Party is engaged in civil war over who can be the leader. The current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is an old style leftist with an energised activist support base but virtually no support from his fellow MPs (and patchy support in the rest of the country). His opponent in the latest leadership contest is someone forgettable. If I thought long and hard enough I could dredge up his name. And that is the point. The Labour Party, as an institution, has failed if it cannot come up with three or four credible alternative leaders. This is very telling about the nature of the Labour Party (and perhaps other parties too). It tells us a lot about selection procedures, the calibre of members and candidates it attracts, and the internal disciplinary mechanics of the Party.
If the Labour Party, or any other political party, was a healthy organisation, then it would be packed with bright, energetic people with charisma who could offer credible leadership alternatives. Instead, it seems to be full of people who are utterly forgettable and shallow. Where are the other alternative leaders? So, for me, the issue isn’t about Corbyn versus the other bloke whose name I forget, but about the fundamental derogation of duty by those in the ‘leadership’ of the Labour Party for the past decade or so. They have nurtured an organisation full of people with the backbones of jellyfish (I don’t think I am being overly harsh here).
In the absence of an effective opposition a Tory government with a slim majority (only 12) is able to act as though it has a majority of 212. If I am allowed to offer advice (and it is my blog) then I think an honest assessment is that Jeremy Corbyn (although a thoroughly decent man whose policy ideas are about peace, justice, sharing and community) is never going to appeal to middle England (a fundamentally selfish and conservative constituency). There are simply not enough people out there swayed by the Corbyn offer. Yet, there are not enough people who will be swayed by that chap whose name I forget (Is it Robert Owen or something like that?). Shame on all those self-satisfied – and now retired on hugely generous pensions – Labour politicians who failed to put down the roots for an effective opposition. This is the real toxic legacy of Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Straw, Beckett etc.