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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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.