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Time to rethink realpolitik

Henry Kissinger, once accused of war crimes, is back and working for the Obama adminstration. Is thi

Henry Kissinger, in 1982, wrote: “Blessed are the people whose leaders can look destiny in the eye without flinching but also without attempting to play God.” The former US secretary of state is an unlikely – and unfashionable – source of reassurance, but his injunction is one that the west would do well to follow in the Obama era.

The US National Intelligence Council predicted a bleak future in its most recent Global Trends Review. America's dominance will disappear by 2025, it said, and the EU will become a "hobbled giant", unable despite its economic strength to exert significant global influence. With the last superpower reduced to a "first among equals" as new giants rise in the east, the "unipolar world" will be "over". The report warns of nuclear proliferation, mass migration, environmental catastrophe. "The next 20 years," it says (just to make sure we've all got the point), "are fraught with risks." Confronted with these dangers and uncertainties, however, some western leaders are still overly tempted to "play God".

At the Munich Security Conference on 7 February, Kissinger was awarded the first Ewald von Kleist prize for his "contributions to global peace and international co-operation". At the same time reports emerged that President Barack Obama had sent the good doctor to conduct secret talks on nuclear weapons reduction with Moscow in December.

“We cannot rule out arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries”

But the world leaders gathered in Munich also heard the first major address on the new administration's foreign policy. Although Vice-President Joe Biden spoke softly - "We'll engage. We'll listen. We'll consult" - he still carried a big stick, delivering warnings to Russia and Iran, and urging US allies to be more willing "to use force when all else fails". His remarks were consistent with Secretary of State Clinton's statement at last month's Senate confirmation hearings, when she denied reports of her country's imminent relegation to equal rank status with other world powers: "Some have argued that we have reached the end of the 'American moment' in world history. I disagree."

Hillary Clinton advocated the use of "smart power", combining "hard" military and economic with "soft" cultural and diplomatic tools. That may sound eminently reasonable, but let's note how the Bill Clinton-era diplomat Suzanne Nossel concluded the essay in which she popularised the term in 2004: "Now is the time . . . to reassert an aggressive brand of liberal internationalism . . . and fortify it through the determined, smart use of power."

Such talk of aggression is dangerously misplaced. The chaotic, uncertain world of today requires something starkly different. It is time, instead, for a new realpolitik.

In one sense, realpolitik never went away. Its cardinal principle of non-interference - that no state has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another - is one to which over half of humankind is theoretically signed up, through the 118 countries that belong to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The developing-world titans who founded it in 1961 - Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, Tito and Sukarno - are long gone, and we in Britain may hear little of the NAM. But it goes far from unnoticed in the United States, not least because Cuba (under Raú Castro) holds the presidency of the organisation and Hugo Chávez emerged as the star of its last summit in 2006. It regularly votes as a bloc at the UN General Assembly, as do other caucuses of developing countries such as the Group of 77. In an interview late last year, Noam Chomsky dismissed suggestions that the NAM was a relic of the Cold War. "I think that it is a sign of the future," he said.

The more recently formed Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is another body of which we hear little. But perhaps we should pay more attention. Made up of Russia, China and four former Soviet central Asian republics, the SCO clearly states non-interference as a core principle in its charter - as does Asean, the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations, whose combined population is close to 600 million.

Admittedly, realpolitik has sometimes been used to symbolise the very opposite. In association with Kissinger, for instance, it has come to stand for all the excesses of US foreign policy during the period he served as national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

This is to cast the doctrine purely (and thus falsely) in terms of the cold pursuit of national interest (often masquerading under the cover of "spreading freedom") that led some to charge Kissinger with war crimes. It obscures the great successes of his realpolitik: détente with the Soviet Union, the opening of relations with China, and the shuttle diplomacy that ended the Yom Kippur War and ultimately laid the foundations for Jimmy Carter to host the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

It is this pragmatic aspect of Kissinger's foreign policy that should inform a new realpolitik. Yes, the human rights records of many of these states was lamentable and scruples were understandable. Yet the outcome was increased peace and stability. Was that not a greater prize than a salved conscience?

"What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism." The words belong to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under the first President Bush and a disciple of Kissinger. Their conservative provenance should not stop us from recognising that if only they had been engraved in brass and placed on the desk of every foreign minister in the west we might have been spared much dangerous posturing over the past decade.

It was foolish idealism that led to Nato's eastward expansion into the new democracies of the old Soviet bloc. (One assumes so, since no Nato partner rests more easily in his bed knowing that the might of Latvia and Lithuania is now at his disposal.) The realist would have pointed out that this humiliation of Russia, in the process encircling its Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, was perhaps not the best way to build friendlier relations with the possessor of the world's largest natural gas reserves. Nor that announcing plans to instal interceptor missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic would be taken in particularly good part.

Russia's reactions, both in Georgia and to the missile bases, should have been expected. Dmitry Medvedev will not be the last occupier of the Kremlin to defend his country's "privileged interests" in neighbouring states: the demise of the USSR did not excise centuries of Russian domination from the history books, nor from that nation's sense of self.

Idealism of a different hue bedevils the west's relations with China. Today, Hollywood film stars in thrall to a media-savvy old monk have encouraged many to regard the patient diplomacy that led to Richard Nixon's breakthrough as pusillanimous gradualism; public pressure and face-shaming demonstrations are seen as the way to persuade Beijing to act over Tibet. (Not having the benefit of such good-looking advocates, other regions with equally worthy claims to greater autonomy are apparently of little concern.) Barack Obama's voice was raised in the idealistic campaign to boycott the Beijing Olympics last year. Reality has since bitten, and he must hope the Chinese are willing to overlook his part in that shouty chorus, now he needs them to bail out the US economy.

Go to Riyadh, Singapore or St Petersburg, and you will find populations deeply convinced of differing value systems. Idealistic liberal internationalists, however, see superficial similarities – a Norman Foster building in Shanghai, a McDonald’s in Cairo – and assume that sharing consumer culture leads to a common political culture. We are entitled to hope that that will happen, though we would be wise to follow Scowcroft’s advice about how to help the process: “You encourage democracy over time, with assistance, and aid, the traditional way. Not how the neocons do it.” We have no reason, however, to shade our hope into certainty.

We should also acknowledge that in the past 30 years Wahhabist Islam has been far more successful at exporting itself, at the expense of pre-existing, liberal political cultures in Muslim countries, and often through the precise means Scowcroft suggests: funding hospitals, schools and the like.

If anything, our era is marked by the reassertion of older, less globally unifying impulses. "We cannot rule out a 19th-century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries," concludes the NIC report, which also suggests that several African countries may become completely ungovernable.

Such forecasts bode ill for the inevitable progress of liberal universalism. Yet so does the unacknowledged reality of the present. You do not have to share Chomsky's optimism about the Non-Aligned Movement as an organisation, for instance, to appreciate the long-term significance of its support for Iranian nuclear enrichment. "The fact of the matter is that the majority of the world supports Iran," he pointed out. "But they are not part of the world, from the US point of view." It is a view that can be sustained as long as the west has overwhelming superiority in wealth and weapons. What happens when it doesn't?

Sooner or later China, Russia and that "rest of the world" we ignore, except to luxuriate on its beaches or to shed a tear for its natural disasters, will demand that we meet them on their terms, and not just ours. This will be no surprise to Kissinger-era diplomats, who knew that history's arc was uncertain and quite possibly endless, and that there are many painful questions to which there are no satisfying answers, just a series of "least worst" options.

Realpolitik may not offer the comfort of doing the "right thing". However, until we can agree on what the "right thing" is, that is a moral discomfort we must learn to bear. If the alternative requires shackling, or bribing, or threatening our fellow man to concur, there is nothing "smart" about it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood