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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The eclipse of the West

What has driven the new age of isolation - and the return of great power politics?

This is the cover story from this week’s New Statesman, The eclipse of the West. Subscribe here.

In May 2015 Russia held its Victory Day parade in Red Square, Moscow, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. The ceremony was boycotted by the country’s former Western allies in protest at Moscow’s interference in eastern Ukraine, though the military procession featured contingents from China and India. Addressing the crowd, President Vladimir Putin complained, “In the past decades, we have seen attempts to create a unipolar world” – by the United States, in cahoots with its allies. By the end of December 2016, with Russia claiming its version of success in the Syrian War and beginning to play kingmaker in Libya, Putin declared in an interview on Russian national television that Western efforts had failed. “We are already living in different times,” he said. “The global balance is gradually restoring.”

From Moscow to Beijing, there is no shortage of those ready to declare the “end of the American century”. Yet what is striking is how much traction this notion has gained in the West. In European capitals, the long-held habit of griping about America’s leadership in international affairs has been replaced by a growing concern about a world in which Washington’s commitment to internationalism is diminished. In the US, meanwhile, there was a time when creeping pessimism about the nation’s ability to shape the world would have seemed sacrilegious. Yet the post-mortems on the “age of unipolarity” – an era in which one power enjoyed a predominance of cultural, economic and military power in the international system – are coming thick and fast. There are trends at work that cannot be explained merely by the election of Donald Trump as president, though he is in part a beneficiary from them.

In Making the Unipolar Moment, Hal Brands describes what is happening as the natural passing of a phase in international affairs, brought about by the convergence of several historical forces, not least the implosion of the Soviet Union – America’s greatest rival – in 1989. Another interpretation, by Michael Mandelbaum in Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, is that the diminution of US power is in part the consequence of overstretch and blowback from its misguided zeal to reshape the world in its image. In this version of events, nothing did more damage than the attempt to bring liberal democracy to Iraq in 2003, with all the blood and treasure that was spent in pursuing the cause.

The new vogue for self-examination should not be confused with any abandonment of Washington’s aspirations to “primacy”. Despite the undeniable creep of world-weariness, it is no easy task to wean the US off its habit of “leading from the front”. In Trump’s formulation, it is time for America to start “winning again”. This does not imply a continuation of the humble retreat that began under Barack Obama. Yet there is no denying that a new narrative has taken hold. The rising power of China, the blunting of US power abroad and the stunting of growth at home have led to a realisation that “pre-eminence” cannot be taken for granted. It is for this reason that America’s international commitments – from Nato to the UN – are about to undergo an audit. Those of us who have got used to operating in this orbit must be prepared to move faster on our feet.

Since the First World War, the question of “what America does next” has been more important to the security and health of the West than anything else. The truth, however, is that America has always been uncertain about the costs of the global leadership envisaged by President Woodrow Wilson and encapsulated in his “Fourteen Points”, outlined in January 1918. For much of the past century, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s formulation, it has been an “ambivalent superpower”. On both left and right, there has been incessant grumbling against elites who were thought to be preoccupied with America’s standing on the international stage to the detriment of the health of the republic at home.

The voices of the dissenters grew louder after the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but they have been ever present in the debate. It is a mistake to see Donald Trump’s victory as a wild aberration from the American national story; rather, it was the forthright expression of sentiments that have bubbled under the surface for more than a century.

***

Trump’s plea to put “America first” has a long lineage, and so does the unvarnished assertion of commercial aggrandisement as the guiding light of foreign policy. The America First Committee, a vehicle for isolationist sentiments that opposed intervention in the Second World War, was dissolved in December 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the sentiments that it expressed did not disappear. By the end of the war, as the US worked closely with the UK to create a new international system – fastened down through the Bretton Woods system, the creation of the United Nations and the building of Nato – there were many objections raised to the course of US foreign policy.

One was that Americans were picking up the bill for European security in a way that freed up the funds for a British experiment in socialism under the Labour prime minister Clement Attlee. Another, shared by many senior diplomats in the early stages of the Cold War, was that the British were taking advantage of the growing divide between the Soviet Union and the West to continue to pursue their imperial “great game” with the Russians in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.

It was only after the triumph of foresighted American statecraft under the postwar secretary of state George Marshall that the US learned to take the long view and to come to terms with its superpower status. With leadership of the free world came a growing sense of the mission’s gravity. For some, it was a gift bestowed by providence; for others, it was something of a cross to bear. Either way, generations of American elites were trained to assume these global responsibilities.

The people who hold these views have not disappeared in the space of one presidential campaign. Before Donald Trump’s election, Washington was dominated by those who believed that America was the “indispensable nation”. Among this cohort were many liberal internationalists who were concerned about a growing perception of American retreat under Barack Obama. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, they would now be in the ascendancy.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this alternate reality. Clinton believed that, under Obama, the United States had been too reticent in asserting itself and too complacent in letting the US-led order decay in the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. “Don’t do stupid shit” – Obama’s mantra – was, in Clinton’s view, an inadequate organising philosophy for a nation of this status and historical calling. That she served only one term as secretary of state gave her a chance to distance herself from aspects of Obama’s foreign policy on Syria and Ukraine. Likely Clinton appointees, such as Michèle Flournoy, who was odds-on to be her secretary of defence, also stayed aloof during Obama’s second term. This was partly because they were confident that they would be granted the opportunity to do it better.

Those who hung on in the hope that a more activist foreign policy would emerge (such as the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power) looked increasingly forlorn. There was something pathetic, in the true sense of the word, about the sight of Power, who rose to prominence as an anti-genocide campaigner, chiding Russia at the UN for its actions in Syria while the nation that she represented opted to stay on the sidelines.

During last year’s presidential election campaign, many of Hillary Clinton’s critics warned that she was a “liberal hawk” and more likely to engage the US in conflict overseas than Trump. The American left was not galvanised by the prospect of a return to the business of policing international order under Clinton. Bernie Sanders raised the alarm at Secretary Clinton’s interest in Henry Kissinger’s latest book, World Order (published in 2014), and at the way that she called Kissinger her friend.

On the right, the cost of US hegemony also became a live issue during the primaries. The many Republican foreign policy experts who placed a premium on the continuation of US leadership on the world stage were alarmed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Their concerns manifested themselves in the “Never Trump” letter, which was signed by some of the most influential figures in the Republican national security establishment. In both the Democratic and the Republican Parties, therefore, the champions of a US-led world order have found themselves locked out in ever-growing numbers.

This trend did not start with Trump, even if he has given it the fullest ­exposition. The Obama world-view – sprinkled with moral philosophy and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr – appealed to many sophisticated minds in the West. However, it turned out to be much more pessimistic, restrained, introspective and centred on America than it appeared in those heady days in 2009 when he won a Nobel Peace Prize. The anti-Bush he may have been; yet a world healer he was not, nor did he pretend to be one.

At first glance, Obama and Trump could not be more different, but they share at least two core convictions. The first is that the US has been too intoxicated by the old way of thinking about its power: an obsession with maintaining “credibility” and acting as the guarantor of global peace and security. The second is that the US is paying too high a price for the privilege. Thus Obama was willing to break away from the “Washington playbook” when he resisted pressure to take military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, after his “red lines” on the use of chemical and biological weapons were crossed. Those who despair that Trump respects no playbook must acknowledge that the one in the Oval Office was looking pretty dog-eared.

Of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements to date, what has caused most panic in Western capitals is his suggestion that Nato, in its current form, is “obsolete”. Once again, however, we could do more to distinguish between the message and the messenger. America’s exasperation at the failure of its Nato allies to pull their weight on defence spending has been growing for years. It was Obama who announced what he called the “anti-free-rider campaign”, referring to the European nations that had grown lazy under the protection of the US security umbrella. Symptomatic of this, he hinted, was the poor performance of Britain and France in Libya following an intervention that they had pushed for in 2011.

As for the sanctity of Nato, there have been several senior European statesmen willing to play fast and loose with it long before Trump. Last year the French president, François Hollande, said: “Nato has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be . . . For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat. Russia is a partner.” In Britain, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has stated that British troops stationed in Estonia are a provocation to Moscow and that Nato should have been wound up in 1990 along with the Warsaw Pact.

***

Those who speak of the imminent decline of the West often view it through the lens of the growing power of Asia, or in terms of the US’s declining competitiveness against new superpowers such as China and India. Yet the more immediate challenge is its internal fragmentation in the face of these pressures.

For Brexit Britain, access to new markets and centres of innovation in Asia is highly prized. Part of the rationale behind Brexit is that the EU lacks the requisite dynamism to wrap up quick deals. Even outside the EU, however, it is not so easy to escape entangling commitments. Under David Cameron, Britain was prepared to risk the wrath of  the US in signing up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Given the importance of agreeing to a trade deal with the US, Theresa May’s government will now have to think twice before attempting such a trick.

Such realpolitik calculations give our foreign policy a 19th-century feel. On the one hand, this may be a natural turning of the historical wheel. On the other hand, since the end of the Cold War, the West has lost a narrative about itself and a vision of how the world is supposed to work. This, in part, is an intellectual problem. The post-1945 international system was built on certain assumptions that reflected the views of the Allies who triumphed in the Second World War. Chief among these was a version of historical development that held that economic and social progress would create the foundations for peace.

Many of these assumptions have been challenged in Western states by populations which reject the world-view that they imply. And they are fraying under the pressure of what the writer Pankaj Mishra, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche, calls the politics of ressentiment. Until a successor vision emerges for the management of global affairs, one that has a broad domestic consensus behind it, it will be our fate to deal with the moving parts – the changing alliances, porous borders and emerging threats – as they collide and splinter.

Much has been said about the internal crises draining the legitimacy of the Western elites, the ripping up of consensus and the quasi-revolutionary mood that is sweeping across nations. And yet, to an extent that has not been fully grasped, the crisis of the West has been tied to repeated failures in foreign policy.

Since the start of this century, the limits of Western power have been illustrated time and again – nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Compounding this, there has been a loss of appetite for lengthy and complicated foreign entanglements – in diplomacy as much as in war – and of the patience needed to see them through.

The Western way of war has become discredited in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The fashion for counterinsurgency that characterised the past two decades partly grew out of a desire to evolve towards a more sophisticated, humane and more politically palatable use of force. In extremis, there was talk of campaigns being won – such as when British troops were sent to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006 to wrest control from the Taliban – without a shot being fired. Even in the rare cases of success, such as the US-led “surge” in Iraq, the political and financial costs of such lengthy campaigns are unsustainable. Not before time, rusty old concepts such as “deterrence” are being given a hearing again.

Blessed with decades of relative security, we have lost the custom of thinking strategically. Having enjoyed a preponderance of force and wealth, we have failed to grasp the changing nature of power in international affairs. Since 1989, from a position of strength, the West has evangelised about its capacity for “soft power”, even attempting to quantify it as some sort of saleable commodity. Russia – a country with scandalously low life expectancy, haemorrhaging population levels and a sclerotic economy – has made a mockery of this. Moscow has not only deployed conventional “hard” power in Syria and Ukraine, but crafted its own version of “soft”, or cultural, influence using instruments such as the media groups Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today).

Underpinning all of this is a loss of confidence in the merits of “Western civilisation” that would have seemed odd to our forebears in 1945. It is too easily forgotten that the vision of liberal internationalism was Western in inception, and it was based on a belief in the legitimacy and superiority of the Western way of government. Although imperfections were admitted, the organising philosophy was to apply these goods – such as the rule of law and the principle of self-determination – on an international scale.

By the same token, the linkage of our domestic political contracts to the ways in which our nations behave in their relationships with others is deeper than is sometimes understood. The foundation stone of the post-1945 world order was the Atlantic Charter of 1941-42. As Elizabeth Borgwardt explains in her wonderful book, A New Deal for the World, it can be understood as a globalised version of Franklin D Roosevelt’s domestic New Deal politics and the broader conception of liberty contained therein.

It was in the same spirit that William Beveridge began his white paper of 1942 with the statement that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. In a series of newspaper articles, Beveridge interspersed his advocacy for its implementation on the home front with articles in support of what later became the UN. For the generation that fought the war, the two causes – domestic political renewal and the ­construction of a parliament of nations – were indivisible.

As last year’s presidential election got under way, the Princeton foreign policy expert G John Ikenberry argued that Roosevelt had bequeathed the US a “centrist tradition of American world leadership”, marked by a “strong bipartisan internationalist tradition”. A radical conservative critique, he warned, was challenging “the progressive foundations of Pax Americana” by disparaging the New Deal foundations on which American internationalism was based.

There are those who would have us neatly separate the domestic and foreign into separate spheres. Yet there is a reason why a desiccated version of foreign policy realism or naked rationalism – the type of cultish obsession with the “national interest” that often emerges on the right in times of international flux – has never been pre-eminent among the West’s leading states. For the past century at least, the practice of Western foreign policy has been tied to an organising philosophy, a larger vision of how the world should work, bolstered by myth.

This required both theologising and evangelicalism in the name of universal goals. An element of “sacred drama”, as Conor Cruise O’Brien explained in his 1968 book on the United Nations, served a higher purpose. The risk has always been that sacred dramas are pushed too far – that the champions of international peace built their castles in the air, placing their faith in vapid utopianism that evaporates at the first sign of stress. And even though the post-1945 world order has lasted for more than 70 years, many of the myths around it have run their course.

The “rules” we often talk about are conceptual and moral as much as they are legally binding. In truth, the fate of Syria shows that, when it comes to maintaining certain international standards, it is the combination of political will and power that matters. Too often, the lawyerly emphasis on rules has ignored that they are unenforceable without order. It is a lesson that many liberal internationalists have found hard to stomach, to the detriment of their project.

***

As with the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, watershed moments in international history can creep up on us without much warning. Since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, it has become fashionable to invest 2016 with a sense of great historical significance – as a year that future historians will look back on with sorrow and furrowed brows. This is before time.

A true historical sensibility should warn us against such fatalism. The Western world faces many challenges – none more pressing than its declining share of global wealth and population compared to Asia’s leading states. Yet looking to the future with trepidation should not take the form of giving in to despair. To do so is to court a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some of the most tumultuous years in history have been spurs to acts of great ­forward thinking and imagination. It was in 1933 – which began with Adolf Hitler becoming the chancellor of Germany – that H G Wells published The Shape of Things to Come. Part novel and part “history” of the future, it tells an alternative story of humanity up to the year 2106. The world that the book depicts is one in which Franklin D Roosevelt fails to implement the New Deal and an economic crisis lasts for 30 years, punctuated by a second world war. (Wells predicts that it would begin in January 1940, sparked by a clash between Germany and Poland over Danzig.) There is no victor; the leading powers emerge exhausted, unable to prevent a plague that emerges in 1956 – spread by a group of baboons that escape from London Zoo – and wipes out much of the world population.

Here Wells envisages a benevolent “dictatorship of the air”, which takes shape at an international conference convened in Basra in 1965. The dictatorship goes on to attempt to eradicate the world’s leading religions, but eventually melts away a century later, making way for a peaceful humanitarian utopia in which the struggle for material existence has ended, and a society that could therefore be governed by reason. The last recorded event in the book takes place on New Year’s Day 2106, when there is a levelling of the remaining skeletons of the skyscrapers of New York.

As idiosyncratic as this may have been, it was the work of visionaries such as Wells that spurred the statesmen of the West to take hold of historical developments and to try to build a version of this world state. As much as anything, it was about ensuring the survival and adaptation of a beleaguered and near-bankrupt Western civilisation.

The first paragraph of The Shape of Things to Come describes a world experiencing a “confluence of racial, social and political destinies”. With that, “a vision of previously unsuspected possibilities opens to the human imagination”, which entails “an immense readjustment of ideas”. Civilisation, as Wells puts it in words we could heed today, is “in a race between education and catastrophe”.

Where today are the leaders or intellectuals in the West capable of offering a vision of the shape of things to come, around which their allies or populations might rally? In the short term, we have seen few front-line politicians since Tony Blair who have provided us with a view of the world around them (however disputed their vision might have been) and the nation’s place within it. The great foreign policy speech seems to be a relic of the recent past.

If there is anyone looking to Donald Trump’s White House for a vision of a “new world order”, they will be disappointed. In his inauguration speech, there was no softening of his line and he wasted no time in reiterating that his priority was to put “America first”. In the past 70 years, there have been few such unambiguous exhortations of this creed.

In the absence of an international vision, however, the burning question is whether Trump’s foreign policy will follow a method; or, failing that, a pattern. An optimistic view of this has been ventured by the historian Niall Ferguson, who has suggested that Henry Kissinger, who is 93, has provided a script for the global rebalancing that may begin under Trump. The US president has sought Kissinger’s counsel since his election, as did Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the vote. There are rumours that Kissinger may be used in an attempt to reset relations for Russia. It was notable, too, that he was being feted in Beijing just as Trump was tweeting against China for its behaviour in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Will Trump’s foreign policy follow Kissingerian grooves, in the form of some sort of triangulation of great-power diplomacy between Moscow and Beijing? Is there a strategic rationale behind the bombast, or could one emerge?

This is a possibility but nothing more. The first few days of the new presidency do not suggest that Trump the campaigner is about to give way to a statesman with foresight. Nonetheless, it is likely that US foreign policy will settle into a recognisable rhythm over the course of the year.

President Trump’s propensity for slaying sacred cows is not shared by his nominees for secretary of state (Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive of the ExxonMobil oil company) or secretary of defence (General James Mattis). Both have stressed the importance of America’s alliance network and their belief in the importance of Nato. The same applies to Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina and former Trump critic, who has been chosen as ambassador to the United Nations. The US state department and the Pentagon have grown used to acting in certain ways that suggest that a revolution on American foreign policy will not occur overnight.

The most important variable in second-guessing Trump’s foreign policy is the extent to which he will seek to control it from the White House, continuing a trend of recent years, or leave his appointees to their work. If the Oval Office becomes the locus of action, the role of General Mike Flynn, Trump’s controversial national security adviser, is likely to be of growing importance.

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For the past hundred years – but particularly since 1945 – Britain has carved out a privileged place for itself by operating in the slipstream of US foreign policy. In that time, the UK’s greatest strategic nightmare has been the prospect of an American retreat from its global responsibilities. There have been periods, as during the interwar years, in which the US preferred to mind its own business rather than engage in the business of world government. It is no coincidence that these were some of the most perilous years in British history.

Despite the hand-wringing that greeted Donald Trump’s victory, these habits are deeply ingrained in our diplomatic and national security establishments and cannot easily be changed. Those arguing that it is time to break from the US and seize the opportunity for a new relationship with Europe, in which Britain plays the role of security provider, are both regurgitating an old argument and presenting a false dichotomy. Likewise, the idea that the leadership of the free world has passed to Angela Merkel’s Germany is absurd.

The saga of the bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office – beloved by George W Bush, removed by Obama and brought back by Trump – has become a rather tired metaphor for the state of Anglo-American relations. In truth, the British delegation in Washington has engaged in catch-up since Trump’s surprise victory but there are signs that the nettle has been grasped. As 2016 drew to a close, the British ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, held his nose to deliver a speech at a US conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Speaking the language of “burden-sharing”, he announced that one of the UK’s two new ­super-carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is scheduled to sail through the South China Sea on her maiden deployment in 2020, a restatement of the shared Anglo-American commitment to free navigation of the seas.

The Prime Minister has already managed to bump herself up the queue and is the first foreign leader to make the pilgrimage to the Trump White House. According to the Sunday Times, Bernie Sanders has expressed the hope that the UK might perform the function of a “moral conscience” in relation to the Trump administration’s foreign policy. There will be developments in US foreign policy that will be hard to stomach, on matters from the Iran nuclear deal to climate change. Equally, the stakes are now so high – on trade and security – that Britain will have to pick carefully those issues on which it dissents.

In this new world, the choice facing Britain might seem stark. On further reflection, however, it is no choice at all. A rebalancing of the international system is about to begin, involving the world’s major powers. The cosy “universalist” language to which we have grown used (and of which we are the foremost purveyors) may belong to another era. Britain can gripe from the sidelines and negotiate ourselves into irrelevance as the curator of the old order, or do its utmost to be present at the creation of the new.

A sprinkling of H G Wells might enliven our sense that there is a future to be grasped and an opportunity to contribute to a larger vision of how the world should work. Yet there has to come a time when we draw a line under the fin de siècle angst and get on with it.

John Bew is a professor of history at King’s College London, the author of “Citizen Clem: a Biography of Attlee” (Riverrun) and a New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West