The Boy who wants Cold War II

Imagine this. A Chinese Shenyang surveillance aircraft, bristling with state-of-the-art eavesdropping equipment so secret that no other intelligence organisation in the world knows exactly how advanced it is, takes off from a Cuban air-force base. It embarks on a routine spying mission, cruising approximately 70 miles off the east coast of the US and monitoring a US nuclear submarine's movements as well as American radio, radar, phone, mobile phone and fax communications from a radius of up to 400 miles inside the US mainland. Two US Air Force quick-response F-16s are sent up to keep an eye on the Shenyang plane; there is a collision and one of the F-16s plunges into the sea, apparently killing the US pilot. The Chinese crew head frantically to the small runway at Nantucket, where they manage to make an emergency landing of their badly crippled aircraft.

Washington zooms quickly into action to avert a crisis. It immediately gives the order to free the 21 Chinese men and three women crew, allowing them to leave Nantucket under the auspices of Chinese diplomats and then fly straight back to China. On the tarmac at Nantucket, armed US Marine guards are stationed outside the Shenyang plane - which the US has immediately accorded sovereign diplomatic immunity and not even attempted to peek inside - until a Chinese crew arrives to fly it back to Cuba. The search-and-rescue mission for the missing US pilot is unsuccessful, but quickly forgotten in the welter of delight that Americans feel at having avoided a dangerous international incident. In particular, they are relieved that they have assuaged Chinese anger and bitterness.

This scenario may be ridiculous, but it is roughly a mirror image of what happened in recent days - and what the US then asked of China. Perhaps being the world's undisputed superpower gives Americans this sense of entitlement, or perhaps there is just an overriding ignorance of the sensitivities of the rest of the world: I suspect few Americans realise that they comprise just 5 per cent of the world's population, or that in terms of population China is almost five times bigger than the US. Had Chinese eavesdroppers really landed on Nantucket, I fear there would have been a widespread clamour for their immediate execution as spies who intruded without permission on to US territory.

Poor Boy George, naturally, soon found himself hopelessly out of his depth in his first test on foreign affairs. His handlers saw to it that he made only brief, carefully scripted comments. In the election campaign, he had casually dismissed China as a "strategic competitor", rather than part of the strategic partnership painstakingly built up first by his dad (following the 1989 Tiananmen Square outrages) and then by the Clinton administration. Bush I, among the many milestones on his CV, was a US ambassador to China; Boy George has left these shores only a handful of times in his 54 years.

Now all his woeful inexperience, at home and abroad, is coming home to roost. Much of Boy George's approach has been that his "charm" would disarm all foes, be they domestic opponents or major foreign powers such as China. He is due to be making a visit to Beijing in October, for example - but is also expected to make a decision in the next month whether to go ahead with a major US arms deal with Taiwan, letting it have four destroyers equipped with the AEGIS battle management system and other weaponry.

Yet mainland China is now America's second-biggest trading partner, worth about $115bn a year. Thus Boy George is discovering that life is a little more complicated than it was when he was merely signing execution warrants in Texas, and that a rueful grin is not enough to solve the world's tricky problems.

In fewer than a hundred days, in fact, Boy George has already been propelled on to the throne of titular head of a government well to the right of Ronald Reagan's. Last month, on the advice of his cold-war warrior and 68-year-old defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, he ordered the expulsion of 50 Russian spies. Last Tuesday, Rumsfeld was forced to reverse his order that three US destroyers lurk in the waters of the South China sea: a clear sign that fissures are already developing in his foreign policy team, with the secretary of state, Colin Powell, forcefully warning of the dangers of such posturing.

Having destroyed the Chinese embassy in the bombing of Belgrade nearly two years ago, the US is hardly now in a position to lord it over China. To the Jiang Zemin regime, hanging on to power by the skin of its teeth, the latest US blunder is a godsend: by whipping up nationalistic, anti-American fervour, it can bring some semblance of unity to its fascistic country. The first record I can find of a Chinese aircraft intercepting a US surveillance plane was in 1962, so there is hardly anything dramatically new about what happened. And when a Soviet pilot in his Mig-25 defected to Japan in 1976, the US immediately granted him American citizenship - and then stripped the Mig apart and analysed its innards before shipping it back months later.

"I hope this is the beginning of an end to this incident," Powell said in Key West last Tuesday. But I suspect Powell is already wondering what he has got himself into by joining this Boy George administration: with Rumsfeld (and Dick Cheney) pushing for an aggressive National Missile Defence system, the US is close to alienating practically every country in the world (except Britain, naturally).

Boy George and the cronies who propel him along hanker for the good old days: in this case, that means a return to the macho swaggering of cold-war rhetoric.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.