Smog in Beijing. Photo: Getty
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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?

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 and served as Robin Cook’s special adviser from 1997 to 2001

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.