The curse of superpowers is to see only their own reflection

WikiLeaks above all shows the difficulty the US has in understanding other cultures and societies.

If anyone had doubts that James Blunt had averted World War Three in Kosovo by hesitating over a US order to take Pristina Airbase from Russian hands with fire, they may be ebbing away after WikiLeaks.

Only the Americans could see the world with such crystal clarity – bullet-point intelligence gathering from Iran watcher in Baku, or tabloidese assessments of heads of states. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in the Guardian, what seems to be missing from US diplomatic missions abroad, with some exceptions, is talent: for which read talent of observation and comprehension.
 
We must be only a matter of days away from the cable revelations to Washington that describe Gordon Brown as a useless "squatter" or David Cameron as a snake-oil merchant: both of which descriptions appeared in the right- and left-wing British tabloid press.

What do American ambassadors do every day? Probably, as Alexander Lebedev described during his time as a KGB employee in London, they simply read the papers to fill their cables. Or, in the case of Iraq, prior to invasion, read Rough Guides.

It is a calamity, but at the centre of it is something quite unique to superpowers – as Christopher Andrew's Mitrokhin Archives revealed about the Soviets: the difficulty of experiencing and feeling other cultures and the people of the world as anything other than default Americans or Soviets.

If there is anything touching at all in the cables, it is the lesson in how to conduct talks with the Iranians by the British ambassador in Tehran (which also shows that the Achilles heel of UK ambassadors abroad may be pomposity). But even this is relayed back to Washington like a literal, 1980s textbook lesson from a management consultancy book.

The curse and downfall of superpowers is that they lack imagination. A recent edition of Crossing Continents on the BBC World Service, about Christianity in China, reported how Beijing had launched a serious study of the Protestant work ethic because it seemed single-handedly to the Chinese to hold some golden key to how the United States and northern Europe had become wealthy through capitalism.

For now, however, it seems no country suffers from lack of understanding like the Americans. It was there among its ordinary people post-9/11 – "How could anybody dislike the US?" – it was there in the US army's inability to believe that its soldiers would not be welcomed with open arms as liberators in Baghdad. It is clearly visible in the cable despatches sent out to Washington – intelligence sent without context, understanding or grasp of subletly; tabloid tittle-tattle rattled off as if from a bunch of Yale fraternity kids: "Oh he's not worth bothering about, he's a dork", "she hasn't got a brain". The cables show an entire corporate mindset at work on world populations that must surely be, in their psychological make-up, just like Americans.

How do you tell a world superpower of 300 million citizens, or 1.2 billion (China), or 250 million (Soviet Russia), that the world's other 4.5 billion don't think the American, Chinese or Soviet way? That societies and cultures are as complex, subtle and various as the millions of people who compose them? How do you prevent superpowers that, in trying to understand the rest of the world, take it to be their own reflection in a mirror looking back at them?

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.