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Donald Trump’s false proclamation of the end of liberal internationalism

23 Aug

Donald Trump’ s August 2017 speech on Afghan and South Asian policy was quite remarkable in its bellicose tone. In recent history at least, many foreign policy speeches are heavily coded with diplomatic phraseology in which threats and leverage are muted. As we have come to expect with Trump, the language was that of a barroom brawl. Whether ‘we know who we are and what we are fighting for’, or references to American ‘warriors’ and American ‘warfighters’, this was a speech that made explicit that the US would deploy military power to achieve its aims. It defined US foreign policy as ‘principled realism’, with the principle being (as far as I can work out) that the US is top-dog and fights to win.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable passages of the speech was its step back from liberal internationalism, or the notion that by spreading liberalism (democracy, trade, rule of law, rights) within and between states will decrease conflict. This notion of the liberal peace (sometimes called the democratic peace) has been a mainstay of peacebuilding and peace support interventions and policies for the last thirty years (although it has a much longer historical pedigree). The finest exposition of liberal internationalism was probably Tony Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech in which he extolled the virtues of righteous intervention against despots, of the liberating potential of trade, and of the need for a community of nations to intervene for the greater good. The ‘liberal peace’ has been manifest in dozens of countries (former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Bougainville etc.) as international actors have introduced and supported good governance, democratisation and a host of reforms.

Crucially, the US – along with the UK, EU and major international institutions like the World Bank – have been mainstays of this liberal peace. Whether through military force, military advisers, and billions of dollars in assistance and loans, the US has played a key role in spreading the liberal peace and proselytising the virtues of democracy, accountability and liberalism. Obviously there have been bumps along the road, but there has been a good deal of consistency of messaging (if not practice). And then Trump comes along and signals a retreat from liberal internationalism:

“But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

“I share the American people’s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”

According to these quotations, the US is no longer interested in democratisation and nation-building (more correctly statebuilding) – both key pillars of the liberal peace. The notion and practice of the liberal peace depends on viable and accountable institutions. Without them the liberal peace does not make sense.

Clearly Trump was speaking – in part – to a domestic audience, many of whom will lap up lines about tough love overseas and in order to protect the folks at home. But the idea that you can walk away from the liberal peace is crazy for a state like the US. Notions and practices of liberal internationalism are hard-wired into development and peacebuilding support. If the Trump White House wants any sensible engagement with the rest of the world it is going to have to follow a liberal internationalist path in some respects – otherwise international engagement grinds to a halt.

Trump’s speech demands or hints at the following expectations from overseas clients:

Accountable institutions (“not a blank check”)
Belief in individual rights (“it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership”)
Reform of institutions (“I am a problem-solver”, “we will learn from history”)
Free trade (lots of references to economic development and trade)
Liberal optimism (“allow our children to live better and safer lives”)

All of these are in the liberal internationalist playbook. They all can find intellectual routes in liberalism.

And the odd thing is, even Trump’s speech – for all of its talk about warfighting and realism – also mentions partnership and common interests. He knows – or more likely the more intelligent of his advisors know – that tough talk and military might can only go so far.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric disavows many of the key points of liberal internationalism, he will find that he cannot escape it.

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Weeding …. and peace and conflict studies

18 May

Paddy the Dog inspects the heather bed

 

The heather bed

With less weeds

If you have made it past the title of this blog post then you are a special person. Weeding hardly sets the heart racing. But, in the long summer evenings, I try manage to grab 10 or 15 minutes to weed a heather bed I have been developing in my garden over the past few years (seriously, if you are still reading, you are special). It gives me enormous pleasure, but it also makes me think about the subject I study and how I study it.

With weeds

Here are four thoughts:

Hurrah for mud under your fingernails
The world of work – whether academic study or the administration of connected study and teaching – is full of sophistry. Whether it is the study of international intervention or administrative tasks, there is often a vernacular and a series of postures that are highly artificial and take us away from real world concerns. The language of postcolonialists, the datasets of conflict scientism or the argot of New Public Management mean that we are surrounded by artifice that seems very far removed from real world problems. Weeding, and I guess other apparently mundane tasks like kneeding dough, are good reminders that the ground level exists. It is good to turn up to university meeting with mud under your fingernails – a good reminder that we all have a connection to the soil – even if that is generations ago and even if we go to extraordinary lengths to deny it.

The tough fecundity of the margin

The thing about weeds – unless you use some sort of Agent Orange-type toxic weed-killer – is that they often come back. Obviously you try to take out the roots, although that is not always possible. The weeds are a great reminder of what Iain Sinclair calls ‘the tough fecundity of the margin’ and remind me of the persistence of individuals, communities, identities and ideas against immense odds. Obviously I am not saying that particular groups or individuals are weeds (!) – merely a reminder that communities and ideas often persist in the face violence and discrimination. Weeds that I was sure I had gotten rid of can reappear and multiply. Weeds are ‘inventive’ and ‘resourceful’ in the sense that their roots can be a long distance from any obvious manifestation of the weed in terms of the stem and flower. Often weeds will be rhizomes, with complex root structures underground. Deluze and Guattari have written extensively on the rhizome as a metaphor for multiple sites of authority and initiative. Basically, weeding can make you think about politics as a network.

The local matters
Weeding makes you pay attention to detail – to the hyper or nano-local. Miss a root and the weed will come back. Forget to look under a bush, and a host of weeds might be lurking there, ready to come back next spring. The point is that weeding is not just about taking out the great big thistles and nettles. It is also about taking out the small weeds. That requires going over parts of the garden inch by inch, picking out sometimes tiny weeds. It is a good reminder that the local and context matters in relation to international intervention and local and national responses to that intervention.

One man’s weed is another man’s flower

Of course there are good arguments about whether one should be weeding in the first place. Gardening, after all, is a supremely colonial exercise in which we are imposing a particular type of order on territory. This order depends on a set of aesthetics that prioritise one form of beauty over others. What is striking is that some weeds are quite beautiful. All of this is good for reflecting on international intervention and how, in the name of peace, order or stability, it seeks to impose systems of governance and authority on others. Of course, these prescribed systems often have to compromise when they meet local and national circumstances, expectations and even resistance. All of this brings us to a world of mimicry, hybridity and the need to see intervention as long-term processes involving multiple actors. It also explains why my heather bed is not a complete weed free zone (in fact, it is often quite overgrown with weeds). I have resigned myself to managing the weeds but not eradicating them completely – that would take too much time.

And if you have made it to the end of this blog post then you are extraordinary.

Northern Ireland: Time to put the victims groups to bed?

20 Dec

Two former British soldiers, aged in their 60s, are to be prosecuted for the murder of a non-state militant in Belfast in 1972. This follows similar attempts to prosecute former militants and soldiers over ‘historical’ acts of violence in Northern Ireland’s troubles. A significant number of former soldiers and non-state militants have been arrested and questioned over the past four years about decades old offences. In 2013, a 62 year old member of the IRA was charged with a bombing in London that killed four British soldiers. Indeed, in 2014 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with a murder 42 years previously. No charges were brought.

All of these arrests led to howls of protests from supporters who point out the righteousness of the individuals they support. The Sun newspaper called the arrests of the soldiers a ‘bloody outrage’ and ‘witch hunt’ (and, of course, celebrated the arrest of Gerry Adams). The Daily Mail called the soldiers ‘heroes’ and their victim a ‘terrorist’ who would not hesitate to use violence. The reactions are predictable and as though from auto-bot script-writing software. In part the reactions are human and affective – from relatives of victims and those who feel justifiable moral outrage. But much of the reaction is simply politics and is fuelled by entrenched victims groups who are a little too comfortable in their roles.

Northern Ireland can continue along this path of prosecuting pensioners for things they did in their youth until the last of them dies out. Or, it could try reconciliation. The latter path is difficult and would lead many people to feel uncomfortable but the drip-drip prosecutions and constant recrimination is symptomatic of a society that is not at ease with itself and thus maintains the potential for further violence. Despite a major peace accord (the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) there has never been reconciliation: nation-wide, local, legislative, or symbolic. The three major violent actors (the British State, pro-united Ireland militants, and pro-United Kingdom militants – and the communities that support them) have never faced up to their responsibilities on the past – and more importantly – on the present and future.

The powersharing Assembly in Northern Ireland is dominated by two ethno-nationalist parties (the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein) who have little interest in reconciliation. It would – after all – put them out of business. They rely on electoral bases that can be mobilised around familiar tropes of victimhood, sectarianism and long-term zero-sum goals. Rare initiatives on reconciliation are kicked into the long grass. The European Union has spent an unfeasible amount of money – almost £2bn in the tiny space of Northern Ireland – on ‘peace and reconciliation’. That money was spent to buy off militants and communities but it was not spent on reconciliation. It was also raided by the British and Irish governments for general budgetary expenses. The British State – which ran death squads and is guilty of mass human rights abuses – is protected by its security establishment which launches howls of protests if anyone mentions its shameful past. Think Ronaldo diving to the ground and clutching his face when a defender looks at him. Lt Col Very-Safe-in-Surrey is rolled out by the newspapers to thunder about what a disgrace it is that honest and decent squaddies (the working classes that the Lt Col cannot abide in his everyday life) are being prosecuted while ‘terrorists’ roam free.

So where can Northern Ireland go from here? There are reports that privately the two main political parties would like to try to put the past them, but the victims groups that they have (in part) created and nurtured are an obstacle to that. The monsters they have created have a life of their own and lazy reporters from Northern Ireland’s newspapers simply hit speed dial to get an instant quote. There is a case for the political parties (and responsible elements of the media) to distance themselves from the victims groups. This is not to under-estimate the real pain and hurt that the families of victims of violence have experienced. But most mourning – in my experience – is conducted among families and friendship circles. Mourning happens around the kitchen table, in the quiet moment when a relative misses the company of a loved one. Mourning and coming to terms with the past does not – again in my experience – come through spokespersons for victims groups, press releases and giving public money to victims groups. It is time – almost a quarter of a century after the militant ceasefires – to put the victims groups to bed.

It is also time for the two main political parties (they run an absolute duopoly thanks to the rules of the powersharing Assembly) to face up to their responsibilities and draw a line under the past. This would involve a pact (this is politics after all) in which representatives of the three violent actors (the British State, the pro-united Ireland militants, and the pro-United Kingdom militants) would release comprehensive statements dealing with their past actions. So the British State must confess to its death squads, sponsorship of loyalist militants, and massive human rights abuses. The Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association and various other loyalists must acknowledge – in detailed ways – the pain and hurt they have caused through murder, bombing, intimidation and a host of other acts of violence. Otherwise Northern Ireland can sleepwalk into the next few decades by prosecuting pensioners.

It is worth noting that most militants (that is: soldiers, policemen, state militia, and members of non-state militant groups) were in their late teens and twenties when they engaged in violence. They were in large organisations run by older men who gave them orders. Frankly, many were immature and may not hold the views now that they did decades ago. Should we really prosecute adults for what they did as teenagers when they were members of coercive organisations?

After Nice

15 Jul

How can you deal with an enemy that is truly incorrigible? That is the problem facing western European states (notably France and Belgium) in the face of mass casualty attacks by Islamic State and their affiliates. The playbook that many western states have been using is based on a set of premises that simply do not apply to Islamic State and the lone attackers they inspire. The playbook goes something like this: alongside robust security responses to attacks, we can very probably negotiate with our foes. These negotiations are not about finding some sort of perfect peace. Instead, they are about lowering the costs of violence, seeing if there can be negotiated outcomes on some issues and – cynically – exhausting foes and encouraging splits within their ranks.

The basic premise is one of negotiation. There are, of course, my varieties of negotiation (face-to-face, shuttle, leveraged, pre-conditioned etc.) but the notion of exchanging ideas is constant. But what do states do in the case of opponents that seem to want only one thing: your life? These opponents live in a zero sum world in which there is no prospect of harmonious co-existence between groups.

The obvious response is a security one: if the other party is not open to listening then there is no point in speaking. Yet, security responses have been the default. Britain, France, the US and many other states are engaged in permanent war (with airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) and permanent securitization of travel, infrastructure and key events. Doubtless this has averted many attacks, but events in Paris, Nice, Brussels and elsewhere show that security is less than total and that civilians are likely to be the main victims.

But looking at the profile of the attackers, they seem disaffected individuals and small groups of individuals who feel no stake in the society they live in. This, it strikes me, is more fruitful territory to try to stave off further attacks. This strategy would not please Captain Kneejerk or Colonel Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age. It does not have any immediate pay-off and does not bring a sense of ‘striking back’. There is no guarantee that it will not stop lone actors. As the Anders Brevik case showed, even a society with good social provision can produce disaffected individuals capable of extreme violence.

But minimising disaffection seems to be the best long-term strategy. This would involve multiple measures and be something more than the empty rhetoric of a ‘360 degree response’ (copyright David Cameron’s speechwriter) that delivers the same old nonsense. Minimising disaffection would involve addressing the legacy of colonialism, avoiding pointless and unwinnable wars, an ethical foreign policy (that disassociates western states with serial human rights abusers like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel), a political rhetoric based on understanding the other and – fundamentally – domestic policies of social inclusion that regard ghettoes as unacceptable.

All of this might sound like pie in the sky. But consider, for a moment, the level of disaffection required to make an individual drive a truck through a crowded street – crushing children along the way. This level of indiscrimination came from somewhere. Surely it deserves serious investigation.

Otherwise yet another set of European politicians can don on black clothes, come up with the usual statements, and continue along the same path.

Northern Ireland – another opportunity to miss an opportunity

9 May

Northern Ireland has just held elections for its powerharing Assembly. The results can be best described as ‘steady as you go’. There were no major shocks, with the two largest parties, (the pro-United Kingdom Democratic Unionists, and the pro-united Ireland Sinn Fein) retaining their hold of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions. Seats were traded here and there, and two seats for the People Before Profit party should make life in the Assembly a little more colourful, but there are no fundamental changes.

That lack of change means that Northern Ireland is condemned to at least five more years of embedded sectarianism and limited scrutiny of a dysfunctional Assembly packed with (at best) mediocre politicians. The Assembly’s primary role will be to administer the austerity agenda of the London-based Conservative government.

There are other mid-sized parties in Northern Ireland: the former largest unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party), the former largest nationalist party (the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the cross-community Alliance Party. These parties had hoped to make breakthroughs in the Assembly elections but that did not happen. The UUP and SDLP were ‘ethnically outbid’ by their in-group rivals the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

The powersharing Assembly uses the complicated d’hondt system to apportion seats in the Assembly Executive or cabinet. Up until this stage, that means that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been joined at the cabinet table by the middle sized parties: the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance. What that means is that everybody is at the table. And no one (apart from the odd independent or micro-party) is left in the Assembly chamber to provide the type of scrutiny and oversight that legislators need. Scrutiny is needed especially given that the already mentioned mediocre calibre of the legislators and the bickering dynamic that is the hallmark of ethnically based parties.

So Northern Ireland is destined for another five years of non-productive nonsense. Electoral participation rates – once the highest in the United Kingdom – have been falling as people realise that the powersharing Assembly talks a lot but delivers very little.

But things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically. But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more seats than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized parties trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation. They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party in particular is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity. It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Clearly the mid-sized parties have different political agendas – especially on constitutional issues. But there is a lot they could agree on, especially in relation to public policy issues. By working together, they could form an effective scrutinising bloc that could make life difficult for the two main parties, and suggest that a new type of politics is possible.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance have a chance to be brave. They won’t take it because they want one or two of their members to be Minister for Table Legs.

Two visions of Gaza in 100 years time

19 Dec

Gaza 2114 Version 1

The last Palestinian in Gaza was killed today in a planned pre-emptive operation. The 87 year old woman was living in a shack behind Gaza’s largest settlement, ‘Sunnyside Villas’. An Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson said, ‘The indicative metrics showed that the terrorist infiltrator was planning an outrage so a judicial assassination bot took pre-emptive measures. It was also known that she was planning to break the curfew. All Palestinians know that they are only allowed out of doors between 3 and 4 AM’.

Israel, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council following the collapse of Russia, took the opportunity to tell the world body that ‘Israel is now free from terrorists’. The news was welcomed by US President Sarah Palin IV of the Republican Tea Patriot Party. ‘Terrorists know that there is no hiding place and I congratulate Israel on reaching ISO standard 19315 in becoming terrorist free. A new era of peace and prosperity beckons.’

The eradication of Palestinians from Gaza marks the endpoint of a long-term Israeli goal. The Palestinian population had been seriously depleted following the war of 2099 in which Israel deployed tactical nuclear weapons after a small child was seen acting suspiciously. Since then, a strict no child policy, robust security measures, and enforced deportations have meant that the Palestinian population has rapidly dwindled.

Reaction in Arab capitals was muted. The League of Princes and Sultans, the body that speaks on behalf of the ruling monarchies throughout the Middle East, said ‘We are watching developments with interest.’ An unnamed source close to the Royal Family in Riyadh was quoted as saying ‘Thank God. The Palestinians were a pain in the neck. The Israeli strategy against the Palestinians has inspired our strategy against the Shia underclass across the Middle East.’

OR

Gaza 2114 Version 2

The closing ceremony of the 2014 Gaza Olympic Games was regarded as one of the best ever seen. Not only were a number of world records broken on the athletics track, but the Games were also seen as a triumph of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians who now share the Middle Eastern state of Hummusland.

Following decades of conflict between the state of Israel, Palestinians and neighbouring Arab States, Hummusland has only been in existence for 25 years. It was formed following a string of popular uprisings across Arab states in which populations swept away corrupt western-backed monarchies. These newly democratic states then pressured the only non-democracy left in the region, Israel, into a transition away from apartheid.

Hummusland has had its ups and downs, but with support from the world’s economic powerhouse – the African Union – it has been able to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure. More importantly, the one-state political solution seems to be working. Rigorously enforced equality laws have meant that cases of gender, sectarian and racial discrimination are respected.

Hummusland’s joint Presidents (one Israeli and the other Palestinian) officiated at the Games closing ceremony. They put out the Olympic flame, which will be lit in four years time as it goes to the next host city Pyongyang. But away from politics, these Olympics will be most remembered for Archibald Mac Ginty’s 100m sprint in 8.27 seconds.

Poppy Bling

2 Nov

One of the laudable initiatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was that all gravestones for British, British Empire and British Commonwealth soldiers would be the same. So a highly decorated general would have the same gravestone as a lowly private. The standard headstones (in Portland stone) made a magnificent statement: all sacrifices were equal (http://www.1914-1918.net/readcemetery.html). Rank and status did not matter when it came to death.

If you walk among the thousands of headstones in cemeteries maintained by the CWGC in France and Belgium then it is possible to see graves marking people of all ranks next to one another: A major next to a private next to a corporal. All the gravestones contain basic information: name, regiment, rank, number, decorations and date of death. They are usually adorned with a simple cross (other religious symbol such as the Star of David) and in some cases there is a religious inscription along the bottom. Most also have the crest of the regiment to which the soldier belonged.

The standardized headstones are a striking act of egalitarianism and stand in marked contrast to the dominant ethos of the military (highly stratified through ranks) and British society (and the seriousness with which it takes class). They set the tone for remembrance that was humane and saw the loss of a soldier (general or private) as a common tragedy with individual parts.

But over the past few years it is noticeable that the other “equal” act of commemoration, the wearing of the poppy in the weeks leading up to the 11 November Armistice Day commemoration, has become under threat from massive variations in the style of poppy. The wearing of the poppy (signifying the fields of northern France where so many young men lost their lives in WWI) began in 1921 and is very popular in the UK. The standard poppy is a simple stiff card and plastic affair, with the money from their sale each autumn going to the Royal British Legion, an organization that looks after servicemen and women and their families. It has become noticeable, especially on television, that the standard poppy is not good enough. Many “celebrities” and presenters wear modified poppies that are actually fashion jewelry: they (the poppies) glitter and sparkle and compete with one another to be more glamorous than the next. The standardized symbol becomes enlarged, adorned and decorative. In one variation, the green cardboard sprig behind the poppy flower has been replaced by a gold sprig.

With much else in society, many individuals and groups want distinctive materialistic displays. This is what the fashion, and to a certain extent jewelry and car, industries rely on. Yet it seems incongruous that the poppy becomes just another fashion accessory, something to ‘jazz up’ an outfit and add a little sparkle. It may be that the wearer/manufacturer of the more elaborate poppies give more money to the poppy appeal fund. I simply do not know. But the price seems very expensive – a retreat from the egalitarian notion behind a sombre homogenous symbol of commemoration. Despite the high monetary price of the pimped-up poppies, they seem to devalue the symbol.

None of this is to engage with the other debate on whether or not people should wear the traditional red poppy or the white poppy (favoured by pacifists) or indeed on the line between commemoration and celebration. It is, instead, to wonder about the motivations behind ‘poppy bling’ and the reduction of a symbol into a fashion accessory.