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
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Meet the ex-footballers launching a support network for victims of sexual abuse in the sport

The Offside Trust is set up after hundreds have come forward, and 55 football clubs have been linked to allegations of abuse.

In a sumptuous room inside a luxurious hotel in the centre of Manchester, the country’s media anxiously await the arrival of a man whose story has rocked English football to its very foundations.

Since Andy Woodward went public with allegations that he experienced sexual abuse as a young footballer in the 1980s, the nation’s favourite sport has been left in crisis and, in the process, forced to do some soul-searching.

Following Woodward’s story, a number of his peers have also come forward with tales of unimaginable suffering.

This week, some of those men have joined together to launch the Offside Trust, an independently-run body aiming to provide support to players and the families of those who have suffered sexual abuse in football and other sports.

According to Woodward and his colleagues, the Trust won’t just be a way to help those who have been abused while playing the sport they love, but also represents a direct response to institutions that, in their view, have failed to protect them.

“A number of people who have come forward have indicated that they don’t have trust in the establishment,” says Edward Smethurst from Prosperity Law LLP, a Manchester law firm in charge of administering the trust.

“We are not here to criticise any of the establishment bodies, but we do have to respect the sensibilities and the opinions of the victims.” 

Wearing a crisp blue suit, hair combed neatly into place, Woodward’s composed demeanour masks the tremendous emotional stress he has revealed to the world he had to endure for decades, in silence until now.

Hearing him retell his story time and again, it is evident that, although exhausting, this process of letting the world know the horrors he says he experienced as a boy is both cathartic and a way to help others.

“I’m totally overwhelmed, the emotions are just unreal,” he says. “I can’t believe how many [people] have come forward, but I just encourage more and more [people] to have that strength and have that belief to do it.”

Sitting beside Woodward is Steve Walters – a former football prodigy whose career was cut short due to a blood disorder – who says he fell prey to the same serial child molester as Woodard. The person in question can no longer be named for legal reasons.

Walters tells me how his story has affected every aspect of his life. “It has ruined marriages, the relationship with my children, flashbacks, lack of sleep, panic attacks,” he tells me.

Walters speaks of “injustices” done to him for the past 20 years by those in charge of the sport he once loved. But he also knows how he would like to start turning the page and move on with his life.

“An apology [from Crewe Football Club] would be a start,” he says. “For them to not even put out one small apology, it does hurt.”

Since Woodward’s allegations were first made public on 16 November, 18 police forces across the country are now investigating claims of historic sexual abuse in football.

Every player I speak to at the Offside Trust launch in Manchester describes this as an epidemic, and that, in modern Britain, some children are still at the mercy of paedophiles operating within the sport. 

“I do believe it’s happening,” says Jason Dunford, who also claims to have been abused at Crewe Alexandra. “I believe it’s happening on a lower scale than when we were children, but as a father of a young boy who is around the football industry at the moment, I still have worries.”

Woodward coming forward has had worldwide implications. Walters and Dunford tell me they have been contacted by players as far-flung as South America and Australia who say they have been through the same ordeal as young footballers. The men are adamant this is not a UK problem, but a football one – wherever the game is played.

Woodward is mentally drained. Prior to the interview, he repeatedly tells me how the whirlwind of the last few weeks has affected his health. But he knows that this is his chance, perhaps the only one he’ll get, to help those like him.

“The closure will be when I feel like I’m satisfied that I have done everything I can to help as many people out there as possible,” he says. “People with children in football need protecting.” 

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.