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Life after west: Influencing Tomorrow by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns

The era of global liberalism ended in crisis and retreat and world power is now shifting east. How does our foreign policy adapt?

Smog in Beijing. Photo: Getty
Smog in Beijing. Photo: Getty

Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy
Edited by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns
Guardian Books, 224pp, £12.99

The era of liberal globalism that spanned the two decades between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers was supposed to usher in a post-historical utopia of expanding wealth and freedom based on the spread of western norms. Instead it will be remembered as an age of hubris in which the faith of our leaders in their ability to remake the world using free markets and military power ended in crisis and retreat. The world taking its place is one in which power is migrating east and the basic principles of political and economic organisation are once again ideologically contested.

Western leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge the scale of this shift, preferring to talk about the rise of Asia and the developing world generally as if it was an interesting new business opportunity rather than the systemic challenge it truly is. So, it’s refreshing to find in Douglas Alexander, Labour’s foreign secretary in waiting, a politician willing to grapple with the more unsettling implications of this emerging world order.

The essays presented in Influencing Tomorrow, edited jointly by Ian Kearns, set out a daunting list of challenges. The US is pulling back from traditional commitments and pivoting towards Asia. A more assertive Russia is “leaving the west” and rejecting its values. The Arab spring has enfranchised Islamist forces, exposing the narrowness of the UK’s regional alliances and its dependence on declining military power. The EU remains beset by political and economic crisis and increasingly dominated by Germany. Dangerous climate change is already unavoidable and there is no agreed plan to prevent it reaching catastrophic levels.

The highlight is Mark Leonard’s analysis of China, in which he punctures the liberal assumption that rising prosperity and deeper integration into the world economy would lead ineluctably to democratic change. China has instead found new ways to shore up its authoritarian model, channel popular sentiment and turn the internet to its advantage. Even at an international level, “China’s participation in global institutions has hollowed out many of the progressive norms rather than ‘socialising’ China.”

Leonard’s solution is to “China-proof” the UK and the west by working more closely with allies, pressing ahead with Euro-Atlantic integration and, in a departure from free-trade orthodoxy, insisting on tougher conditions in trade deals with Beijing. Alexander falls short of endorsing Leonard’s more provocative conclusions but is right to focus on the need for more multilateral engagement. Even this presents difficulties in a country where the two loudest voices are currently the anti-European right pressing for disengagement and the post-Iraq left that remains suspicious of the US.

There are, the editors concede, significant gaps in their coverage. Given that they acknowledge the importance of “developing a model of capitalism that generates wealth, promotes fairness and protects the environment” in restoring lost western influence, it is a shame they could find no space to explore the scope for global economic reform to contribute to that goal.

Economic recovery on its own will buy limited additional influence if conditions of social recession persist because soft power comes from being the kind of country others wish to emulate. With economic stagnation, social division and political disillusionment the new western norm, we are a long way from the time when George W Bush could declare democratic capitalism to be the “single sustainable model for national success”. Now that Ed Miliband has made responsible capitalism a major political dividing line, this should be natural territory for Labour to explore. Perhaps a further volume could take this as its starting point.

David Clark is the editor of shiftinggrounds.org and served as Robin Cook’s special adviser from 1997 to 2001