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

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496