To hell with all the treaties

Having flown over to London to watch England take on Pakistan - I find that my presence always helps the English cricketers, and was even at Lord's last summer on the very day they devastated the West Indies - I came back to the US on Monday evening. The film on the plane was Thirteen Days, dramatising the cold war and set in Washington in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis; I was puzzled why President Kennedy and his brother Bobby kept referring to the Soviet leaders as "buzzards", until I realised that the film and its soundtrack had been "adapted" for showing on planes.

The following morning, courtesy of the 28(AC) Squadron Royal Air Force, I flew over the very different Washington of 2001 in perhaps the world's most advanced mid-size military helicopter: the EH-101. A joint Anglo-Italian project, it is 9ft longer than the cricket pitch at Lord's and has been enthusiastically ordered by the likes of Tokyo's police and the Canadian Air Force. But it will not, I suspect, ever see action with the US military - not so long as Donald Rumsfeld, Boy George's defence secretary, has his say.

Then, as we banked sharply over Springfield, I started to wonder: are the Washingtons of 1962 and 2001 actually that different? Do the same mindsets not still pervade, say, the Pentagon?

By the time Jack and Bobby Kennedy were dealing with the Soviet buzzards in 1962, after all, Rumsfeld had already served in the Eisenhower administration. That very year, he was elected to Congress. He went on to work for the Nixon and Ford administrations, making his debut as US defence secretary. Now, barely a year from his eighth decade, Rumsfeld is immersed in his own recreated cold-war fantasies: to shield the US with the Reaganesque Star Wars II (aka the Nuclear Missile Defence policy), and to hell with the rest of the world.

So, unilaterally, the US is in effect tearing up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1972; the US no longer needs the Russian buzzards, so they can take it or leave it. The 1993 Start II agreement has yet to be implemented, and neither Russia nor the US has made any arms cuts since then. Talks on Start III are already doomed. The future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is now equally cloudy. The Kyoto protocol and all that trendy green nonsense? To hell with that and the 166 other countries which signed it. Tear it up. The international agreement implementing the 1972 treaty banning biological weapons? No deal, after all: America can damned well do what it likes now. Don't we know it's the unrivalled superpower and won't take nothing from nobody?

Slowly the realities of this primitive isolationism of the Boy George regime - which, naturally, you read about here first - are beginning to dawn on the rest of the world.

On my way to Heathrow last Monday, I read the Evening Standard and learnt that Boy George is an "oilman". That, as you also read here first, is true when it comes to Dubbya's domestic policies: pleasing the boardrooms of the polluting oil and energy companies is all he knows.

But when it comes to foreign policy, Boy George actually becomes more unstable and unpredictable. Rumsfeld is an absurdly anachronistic figure who belongs more to Thirteen Days, warning the US president about the red menace in the grey, plastic-rimmed glasses of the era. "We are more vulnerable now to the suitcase bomb, the cyber-terrorist, the raw and random violence of an outlaw regime or a rogue nation armed with nuclear missiles and weapons of mass destruction," he says.

So: tear up the ABM treaty, forget the NPT, and just let the rest of the world pull itself to pieces as long as America can repel these new perils that (along with China) are replacing those Soviet buzzards.

What makes Boy George so pivotal a figure in all this - and in whether the hawkish isolationism of Rumsfeld and his pal Dick Cheney can triumph over the cooler, wiser head of Colin Powell - is not that he is an oilman. It is true that what little experience he has had of the world was in the murky oil business of Texas - and, after his brief but untroubled spell as Texas governor, the self-image he most likes is that of a stetson-wearing, tall-walkin' Texan tough guy.

But the problem is that, in his real persona, this is confusingly blended with the insouciant complacency of a privileged, prissy Connecticut Yalie who summered at Kennebunkport and wintered in Hobe Sound. There is more of the latter than the former in Boy George, but the two conflicting backgrounds make a dangerously unusual combination.

There is a collective delusion here, fostered by this divided Boy George and his cronies, that the good old US is somehow holding the fort in Kosovo and Bosnia. It is a delusion born of lazy ignorance, but now promoted for emotional as well as political gratification by the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney; most Americans would be astonished to learn that the British and French, say, have vastly higher deployment of troops per capita than the US (and in potentially much more dangerous areas, too). But Rumsfeld, as part of the isolationism that the rest of the world is beginning to rumble, already wants to withdraw the 3,800 US troops in Bosnia and the 6,500 in Kosovo - just as progress is beginning to be made in both places.

I hope to visit the UK soon to make sure that England win the Ashes. But Rumsfeld v Powell: that will be the really enthralling battle, with Boy George as the umpire without a clue what to do.

Watch this space.

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 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation