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 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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism