Group hug

Gordon Brown has persuaded many that he is the "real thing", but that just shows we hardly know how

There was a time when almost everyone said that Tony Blair would be a very hard act to follow. They were wrong. Gordon Brown - not flash, just Gordon - has begun the second act of new Labour like the seasoned pro he is. Following the consummate actor-politician style of Blair meant that Brown has been allowed to represent himself as the real thing. Confused as we now are about what constitutes reality, many have breathed a sigh of relief. The bizarre spasm of outraged naivety that occurred at the beginning of Brown's tenure, over the fact that some things we see on TV are . . . er . . . made up, was but another symptom of our anxiety about what and whom can be trusted.

At the moment, we are liking this return of the real shtick partly because we can read whatever we like into it. There is a kind of unanticipated group hug going on between Brown and much of the media that is bound at some stage to end in tears. Right now, though, the consensus is that Brown has done very well indeed, outflanking opponents from both the left and the right. David Cameron, who once looked like the future, is flailing because he looks flimsy and fake compared to the unflashy son of a preacher man. He has little room to manoeuvre while he has to fight the ghouls in his own party.

Brown can do pretty much anything he wants at the moment and is sending out so many contradictory messages that they cancel each other out. But, strangely, we continue to accept that no spin is the new spin. Saatchi & Saatchi will be paid a fortune to tell us exactly this, for Brown is working as carefully on his image as Blair ever did while at the same time telling us that this really isn't his thing at all.

What came naturally to Blair - being all things to all men - is hard work for Gordon, but we know he likes to work. Non-stop. That's why I say: don't simply believe the hype, try squaring it with the reality. Ask yourself how a social conservative can bang on about the progressive consensus. How a man who wants "citizens' juries" is stopping delegates voting at their own party conference. How a pusher of PFI can bully public sector workers into not asking for more money. How he continues to defend the in vasion of Iraq when even people such as Alan Greenspan will now say it was largely about oil. How the purveyor of new politics has so few women around him. How he is going to generate grass-roots re-engagement with the political process from the top down.

Some of this is about sheer nous, cunning, cleverness, realpolitik, whatever you want to call it. But there will come a time when this self-proclaimed conviction politician has to show us his convictions. We think we know what Brown's are, and they involve words like work, duty, alt ruism, civic responsibility. We know little about his foreign policy. His gnomic pronouncements about needing to go beyond "a narrow debate between states and markets" in order to find solutions to many of our problems surely make us see that this man of substance is really rather vague on many issues. Perhaps this is what the new politics is actually about, and we just want someone who seems to be purposely getting on with the job to keep up appearances.

The aura of authenticity that Brown is cultivating is incredibly important: it allows him to claim the future but also to reference the past, when politicians didn't have to worry about effeminate stuff like style so much. But it is also indicative of what happens when politics moves to the centre and difference dissipates. When left and right become indistinguishable, what matters is not what people say but whether we think they really mean it. This is Cameron's problem. His ease and charm now look insincere up against Brown's brusqueness. Yet it wasn't only the Tories who underestimated Brown's appeal. His own side appear quite dazed and confused. For years, they were so dependent on Blair's charisma that they can't quite believe how it vanished into thin air overnight.

What can the opposition do? They can offer us politicians who are also extremely good at acting unspun, like Boris Johnson. They could move to a more libertarian position to counter Brown's innate puritanism. They could venture further inside the big tent, but they must know that Brown wants not only to win the election, but to obliterate them as a political force for ever.

Because the Conservatives are so boxed in, they are choosing to fight over the difficult territory of social breakdown.

Labour has been in denial about the growing social fragmentation it has presided over. A discourse of social justice and equality should come naturally to Brown, but it's tricky, because at some point he will somehow need to explain how the decline in social mobility took place on his watch. He is, of course, right to say that solutions will not come from narrow debates about states and markets, but it is now clear - even to the Tories - that they cannot be left to markets alone. Even on something so obviously sensible and popular as banning food additives, Brown seems remarkably reluctant to take on big business.

Closing our minds

The visceral distaste for the workless hordes who live on incapacity benefit with their dan gerous dogs and hooded children appears now also to be shared equally between right and left. The hard-working families beloved of Brown, the so-called respectable working classes, are acceptable. Those at the very bottom are seen as responsible for their own demise. It is a joke, however, to talk of social cohesion and even quality of life if we are closing our minds to such people and closing down their escape routes.

Brown could take on this argument much more forcefully by talking of our moral as well as political obligations. There is clearly room to do so if he chooses; just look at the middle-class revulsion at huge City bonuses.

If he dares, Brown will show that he has convictions instead of just telling us that he does. Conviction is part of this new image, too. Replacing old-fashioned ideology as the crucial political accessory, conviction sounds like gut instinct, absolute certainty like faith. It sounds a lot better than the pick'n'mix value system that Brown has pursued like all other important politicians of his generation. For he is both the man whom supporters say promoted redistribution by stealth and the man who facilitated the very PFI deals that may yet bankrupt the public sector in 15 years' time.

What is becoming apparent is not how much we know about Brown after a decade, but how little we are sure of. His solidity melts into air. The collective relief that now we are governed by a man's man who isn't going to do all that overemoting is still tangible. But - and it's a big but - have we really entered the age of seriousness, where fakery is despised and substance has at long last replaced style?

I wait to be convinced. Brown's style is actually what people are responding to right now. He has persuaded many that he is the real thing - even better than the real thing - which only goes to show we hardly know how to define the real any more.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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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

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