Global Power New Statesman 12 Nov 2012


Paddy Ashdown

As the nature of global power changes, how do we secure our enduring interests?

History comes in two modes. In one of them, the gimbals on which power is mounted are steady, stable and unchanged. These are predictable times, times when we can look ahead with confidence and know what will happen. They are not necessarily peaceful times but they are at least unbewildering times.

Then there is the second mode – the times of change, when power shifts. These are turbulent times, puzzling times and, all too often, bloody times. We are living in the second mode. All is changing, although you would not think so to look at our foreign policy or our defence policy, for they are anchored firmly in the past and pay no attention to the new world now emerging.

Power is shifting from the nations and institutions we are used to holding it, to those we are not – and it is doing so in two significant ways.

First, we are experiencing a vertical power shift. Power is now migrating out of the institutions of the nation state, onto the global stage. This is because today’s world is interdependent in a way it never has been before. When there is swine flu in Mexico, it is a problem for Aberdeen in the next few hours. When Lehman Brothers collapses, the global economy suffers. Fires in the Russian steppes cause food riots in Africa. The irresponsible burning of fossil fuels in the West drowns Bangladesh. We are deeply interconnected and it is that interconnection that matters. We used to pretend that there were issues which were domestic and others which were foreign policy. There is now no domestic issue that does not have a foreign policy quotient to it.

On this global stage, the institutions of democratic accountability are non-existent and the institutions of legality are very weak. The modern powers that are growing have no reference to the frontiers of nation states. They may be things which we like, such as the internet; free trade; global media and global finance but we must acknowledge and wary of the lack of accountability in each of these areas. Of course we also see things we do not like, such as ISIS, international terrorism and global pandemics. What these phenomena have in common is that they each represent a new arena, impossible to control through national law.

Historically the powerful have been relaxed about the existence of lawless spaces. Indeed, they have often benefited because they can exert their power to define the rules themselves. We as a nation have experience with this. However, sooner or later, unwatched lawless space is occupied by destroyers. With the degradation of the power of national law brought about by globalisation, this is exactly what has happened.

From this history of the nation state in the 20th century, we can see that where power goes, governance must follow. In what looks to me like a deeply turbulent age, our capacity to create greater stability rather than greater turbulence will depend on our ability to bring governance to the global stage. We need to abandon isolationism and realise it is entirely in the interests of a medium-sized country which needs stability and security, such as the United Kingdom, to strengthen governance around the world.

For stability to be achieved, we will have to act. It will not be sufficient to stand on the side-lines and have a proliferation of further multilateral UN institutions. The world needs the UN as an international forum; as the developer of international law; as the legitimiser of actions—but when it comes to taking difficult action in non-permissive circumstances, my belief is that coalitions of the willing will have greater practical effect.

I know this from my own experience. As High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, charged by the international community with maintaining stability after the conflict in that region, I reported twice a year to the UN Security Council for the conduct of my mandate. But my managing board was the Peace Implementation Council—a body made up of those who had committed troops and resources to peace in Bosnia.

Governance on the global stage is most likely to be created through the growth of new, treaty-based, institutions. These institutions will, by necessity not be multilateral as the UN is but they will be more effective. We have seen some already emerging: the WTO is one; the International Court of Justice is a second; and the G20, is not quite a treaty but it has quasi-treaty powers, is a third. Kyoto is a fourth.

As a medium-sized nation, it is in our interests to play our part in the creation of these institutions. Yet this idea of a rule-based world order features nowhere in the Government’s foreign policies. British civil servants and diplomats were the people who created the United Nations; we have an immense role to play and the ability to make an immense contribution here. But our response is instead to cut the budget of the Foreign Office

The second great power shift, is, of course, is that from west to east. We have come to accept this in terms of the new economic power of the Pacific basin. What we may not realise is that these will transit into political power and military power in due time.

We are moving from 50 years of a monopolar world dominated by the United States to a multipolar world in which the role of our foreign policy and our defence will be wholly different. If you want a model of what comes next, do not look to the last century as we often so myopically do; look rather at the Europe of the 19th century. Europe then, with its many viable powers is a far better model of today’s situation that then bi-polar arrangements of the cold war. In those times Britain’s role was not fixed; we always played to the balance. This was a period of much more subtle foreign policy. Lord Palmerston, twice prime minister in the 1800’s once said: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow”. Contrast that with our present policy in which we cleave to the old, simple, certainty that we need to do no more than cling to the United States.

Now, if we want to operate in the world, we have to move beyond the Atlantic club; we have to bring in other partners, including for instance the Chinese. Of course, we do not share their values but in many cases we do share their interests. Think of the 3,700 Chinese serving under the blue flag and the blue helmet of the UN. Think of the problems of the Somali pirates off the horn of Africa, where the Chinese provide the largest naval unit that is today fighting the pirates. Why? Certainly not out of charity. They want to keep the sea lanes open, just as we did in the days of our mercantile power. What we must recognise this is in our interest as well, whether we share values or not. These are the kind of relationships we should begin to develop.

In the modern age, the most important part of what you can do, is what you can do with others. The most important thing about our structures, whether nations or any other organisation, are not their vertical capacities but are rather the interconnectors, the docking points, that help us to build the wider coalitions that create the networks that produce effective outcomes.

We will, of course, rely on the Atlantic alliance and Europe as our primary alliances, but we will have to build alternatives and new coalitions beyond that. Where we do that is where we will succeed, and where we do not do it is where we will fail.

We must shed some of our recent geo-political instincts. We see a problem in the world and our first response is to bomb it. We believe we live in a kinetic age, but we do not. We live in the new age of diplomacy, in which our capacity to build wider coalitions to achieve the interests of our nation, not necessarily coalitions of values but coalitions of interest, will define success or failure.

Paddy Ashdown is xxxxxxxxx