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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 people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

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