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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 shiftinggrounds.org 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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear