Echoing Roosevelt: Matthew Barzun greets President Obama at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on the eve of a NATO summit in Wales, 3 September. Photo: Getty
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Matthew Barzun: Despite ebola and Isis, could it be that we are living in the best of times?

Why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? asks the US Ambassador to Britain. 

We live in challenging, complex, even confusing times. Our world is in constant flux. Charles Dickens’s description of the French Revolution seems just as appropriate today: it is the worst of times. Indeed, it may be even more true now, as the changes are global, rather than confined to one or two countries. Newspaper headlines suggest as much. They are littered with demoralising words such as “beheadings”, “aggression”, “hatred” and “fever”. Of course, ISIL is engaged in barbarity in the Middle East that is reminiscent of some of the most grotesque of the 20th century, while the ebola virus poses a global public health threat on a scale as large as anything we’ve seen in recent decades.

At the same time, the number of refugees and internally displaced people presents a great humanitarian challenge. And human rights violations abound in many parts of the world. But here is an equally valid and, I concede, sweeping narrative that suggests this is also the best of times.

It is a time of levelling. The world has reduced extreme poverty by half since 1990. Global primary education for boys and girls is now equal.

It is a time of enduring. The number of deaths among children under five has been cut in half since 1990, meaning about 17,000 fewer children die each day. And mothers are surviving at a nearly equal rate.

It is a time of flourishing. Deaths from malaria dropped by 42 per cent between 2000 and 2012. HIV infections are declining in most regions.

It is a time of strengthening. Africa is above the poverty line for the first time. Tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty in China. The debt burden on developing coun­tries has dropped 75 per cent since 2000.

It is a time of healing. The ozone layer is showing signs of recovery thanks to global action. And all the while, the technological and communications revolution is making more people better informed than at any time in history.

So why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? Do we believe there’s a common unravelling force at work behind the ebola tragedy, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the independence campaign in Scotland? My guess is that it might have more to do with how we feel than how things are.

My grandfather Jacques Barzun was a cultural historian who wrote a book called From Dawn to Decadence, in which he argued that western culture had been in decline for many decades. Less crotchety than it sounds. It was his observation that the culture had moved from confidence, to self-consciousness, to a time of “anti-” and “post-” prefixes; but he also believed that something would take its place.

Whether he was exactly right or not, there is a consensus that the world is undergoing a period of extraordinary transformation. We are experiencing a “pre-” that we can’t name yet. Understandably, we feel insecure and have a deep urge for reassurance. One reaction has been to suggest that we are in need of a grand master plan to re-ravel the world, and that President Obama’s lack of it makes him small and inconsequential.

But is a grand master plan what we really want? Vladimir Putin has one. Do we agree with him that it makes him look big? What is the best way to lead and govern in times of remarkable change?

Here’s what Teddy Roosevelt said at the dawn of the progressive era: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” And one of America’s great unsung heroes, John “Gil” Winant, ambassador to Britain during the Second World War, explained in 1946 his approach to leadership in chaotic times as, “Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere . . .”

When President Obama articulated our military policy at West Point this spring, he spoke from this same American strain. It’s a policy that has been consistent throughout his presidency. And one of the critical pieces of it is the unprecedented global alliance that the president leads, and the extraordinary results it is getting. Co-ordinated air strikes on ISIL are depleting the terror network’s capabilities, while airdrops are helping to relieve the humanitarian crises it has created. An international sanctions regime is holding Russia to account for its aggressive land-grab in Ukraine, and forcing Iran to come in from the cold over its nuclear ambitions.

Work behind the scenes has also produced some other notable successes, such as the transformation of Myanmar from firm dictatorship to fledgling democracy. In times of uncertainty, this approach of leadership matched with partnership amounts to global earthquake protection against the seismic events that must inevitably come.

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. And it is hardly fair to accuse the US of not having a highly detailed blueprint but simultaneously warn us that we should be taking into account our allies’ opinions and concerns. We take our responsibilities seriously but cannot be responsible for everything that happens. Other international actors make choices for good and for ill. So even the most far-sighted diplomacy must sometimes be reactive.

President Obama was elected to bring much-needed change and he has delivered on that promise. But he has also proved extremely adept at managing change. His ability to do so, making America more flexible, nimble and creative in response to global threats, has made the US and the world more peaceful, more prosperous and more just. 

Matthew Barzun is the US ambassador to the United Kingdom. @MatthewBarzun

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.