Waking up to the new world order

Britain may still consider the US to be its closest ally, but it must look beyond old friends to new

Every foreign secretary quotes Lord Palmerston, who famously said we have no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. But is it true? Today, we have permanent alliances. The US is the single most important bilateral relationship. We are committed members of the EU. We are proud of our role in the UN. These alliances are founded on shared values and embedded in shared institutions. The evolution in foreign policy is not in our values or alliances, but in changing circumstances and the changing distribution of power. This requires new thinking and new solutions.

Foreign policy has never been more integral to building success domestically. Our prosperity relies on a more open Britain - open to new investment and trade, to new people and ideas. Our security relies on tackling injustice at home and abroad, and co-operating with countries on terrorism, migration and organised crime. Our mission to empower citizens depends on global agreements and institutions to tackle glo bal problems alongside more local accountability for local issues. Foreign policy should be a force for good for Britain and in the world. The two are interconnected. But the new distribution of power requires a new diplomacy.

During most of the past century our security concerns were primarily about excessive and expansionist state power. Today, some of the greatest threats emerge in countries where state power is too weak, not too strong - in failing or fragile states. At the same time, we have seen the re-emergence of China, India and Russia. Within 20 years political, economic and military power may be more geographically dispersed than it has been since the decline of the Chinese empire in the 19th century.

Equally significant, however, is that the power to co-ordinate at scale is no longer dependent upon access to the hierarchies of bureaucra- cies; co-ordination can occur through networks. This can be seen in benign forms with Linux challenging Microsoft Windows, or political campaigns such as Make Poverty History, Stop Climate Chaos and MoveOn. The malign counterpart is the increasing capacity of extremists and terrorists to co-ordinate their activities without the vulnerability of a single point of control.

These shifts in power have implications for how we carry out foreign policy. Our influence in the world will depend on four key tools. The first is intellectual leadership - winning the battle of ideas. This means being clear about questions of principle: for example, rejecting the false charge that our foreign policy is targeted against any one set of people or countries. We are right, for instance, to argue for the urgency of a two-state solution in the Middle East. But we do so because it is right, not to placate al-Qaeda.

We also need to be clear about values. For example, the agreement at the world summit in 2005 on the "Responsibility to Protect" marked a vital new stage in the debate about the relationship between human rights and national sovereignty. And leadership means being clear about facts and evidence, such as the economic and national security implications of an unstable climate.

The second tool is influence within institutions and networks. Britain acting alone does not possess the power or legitimacy to effect change. Acting with others, we can make a difference. Bri tain must use its strength as a global hub, financially, culturally and politically.

Multilateral action is not a soft option. Just look at Afghanistan - a country that symbolises our dual goal of protecting our national security and promoting human rights. Our forces are deployed as part of a Nato operation, backed by a UN mandate. The military operation is backed by a comprehensive approach including EU and UN investment in development and humanitarian assistance.

Nor does multilateralism replace the need for bilateral relationships. In practice, multilateral action requires the participation of the major world powers. The US is our single most important bilateral partnership because of shared values but also because of political reality. The US is the world's largest economy. Engaged, whether on the Middle East peace process or climate change or international development, it has the greatest capacity to do good of any country in the world. That is why we welcome the commitment of President Bush to give priority to long-term political negotiation of a two-state solution side by side with short-term humanitarian support for the Palestinian government, led by President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

Some people try to compare our relationship with the US with our position in the European Union. But the EU is not a bilateral relationship - we are members of the EU. That membership is an asset in economic terms, guaranteeing markets and setting standards. It is an asset in tackling crime. And it needs to be an asset in foreign policy, not substituting for nation states, but giving better expression to the common commitments of nation states. But the EU was founded to tackle a threat that no longer exists: conflict within western Europe. If it is to renew its mandate, it needs to find a new raison d'être, including, I believe, a focus on addressing climate change. Creating an Environmental Union is as big a challenge in the 21st century as peace in Europe was in the 1950s.

The third tool - incentives and sanctions - represents harder power. History suggests that the attraction of becoming members of "clubs" such as the EU, the WTO, or Nato is a powerful one.

The benefits of free trade or military protection are linked to states playing by the rules. I am a strong supporter of Turkish accession talks with the EU. The prospect of EU membership has built a bridge to Turkey. In recent years it has abolished the death penalty and improved the rights of women and minorities.

A balanced package of incentives and sanctions is also required to apply pressure to particular countries and regions. Iran has every right to be a secure, rich country, but it doesn't have a right to set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or undermine the stability of its neighbours. That is why we are taking a dual-track approach. We are continuing to discuss further sanctions with the group of nations that comprise the E3+3, an international coalition brought together to address concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. In parallel, through the E3+3 process, we are offering a comprehensive package of incentives, including help with a civil nuclear power programme and measures to support Iran's access to international markets and capital.

There are times when incentives and sanctio ns will need to be combined with, or replaced by, a fourth tool: direct intervention.

Obligations to Iraq

It was right in Kosovo in 1999 to deal with the terrible ethnic cleansing going on there. Almost a decade later, it is right that the UN and African Union are working together to put a strengthened force into Darfur to protect vulnerable civilians there, and right, too, that under French leadership the EU is working on deploying a small military force along the Chad/Darfur border. In Iraq, the Prime Minister has made clear that we will fulfil our international obligations to the Iraqi people and we are determined to do so. As we take these propositions forward, we need to tap into the expertise and insight that lie in and beyond traditional diplomatic circles. That process begins this week in a conversation about how we do business.

First, priorities. Given the levers I have just described, where should the UK concentrate its global effort; where are we most needed and where can we most effect change? My starter for ten would be that if we are to succeed at anything we must succeed at tackling radicalisation and terrorism, building a European Union that is a force for good within its borders and outside, and shaping the global drive for the transition to low-carbon prosperity.

Second, co-operation across UK government. The Foreign Office is a unique global asset. But diplomacy has to be allied to other assets across government: aid, trade, financial institutions and military intervention. How can we improve co-ordination across the FO and other departments on particular countries and challenges?

Third, how can we engage beyond Whitehall, with faith groups, NGOs, business and univer sities? The new diplomacy is public as well as private, mass as well as elite, real-time as well as deliberative. And that needs to be reflected in the way we do our business.

Those of us committed to engaging with the world face profound questions. We confront scepticism and fatalism. John F Kennedy got this right. He said foreign policy should be based on "idealism without illusions". I am under no illusion as to the challenges and the difficulties. But the idealism is there - above all about Britain's ability to be a global hub for discussion and decision-making about the great economic, social and political questions we face.

David Miliband MP is Foreign Secretary

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet