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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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.