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9 January 2008

The world beyond Bush

Shirley Williams, adviser to Gordon Brown on nuclear proliferation, warns George Bush is searching f

By Shirley Williams

Let me start with a warning note. President George W. Bush still has a year left of his term of office. Like many other world leaders, he is concerned about his legacy. He also has an unfulfilled objective, to curb the power and influence of Iran, and to stop in its tracks any move there towards producing a nuclear weapon.

The search for a legacy and the existence of a large unmet objective can be a dangerous combination. So before we get to A.B., After Bush, bear in mind there could still be a B.B., Before Bush, which could, like a kaleidoscope, shake up our assumptions and the world’s.

Setting that aside, much, but not everything, depends on who becomes president of the United States. The list of candidates promises substantial change. Whoever it is will be dogged by his or her inheritance: a United States distrusted, less loved and respected than in the era of Bill Clinton or even of George Bush the Elder, a world whose peace and order depends on a network of treaties and conventions which have been shredded or holed, a queue of countries ripped by internal conflict or trying to recover from the chaos of war.

If the victor is a Democrat the world’s expectations will be daunting. The poor at home will look forward to accessible and affordable health care, the old to the rescue of the popular Social Security system from the debt that could sink it, the minorities to an end to discrimination.

Africa may well expect a more generous aid-and-trade deal from one of its own. Yet the resources to meet these expectations will, for all the candidates, be constrained by what looks like being a quite serious recession, brought about by the housing crisis and the sky-high price of oil.

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In below-freezing New Hampshire and Iowa, voters were already getting worried about how to keep warm, and about the inadequate and evasive responses of the candidates of both parties. So the domestic scene may well be tough.

We have to admit, however reluctantly, that President Bush may be justified in having opted for a “surge” in Iraq against the advice of many of his political and military experts. The improved position in that country should allow the withdrawal of most if not all US troops by the date of the Presidential election, and at least a temporary stabilisation.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is potentially the next President’s Cuba. The West will worry that eastern Pakistan, the tribal areas beyond Islamabad’s control, will spawn al Quaeda’s shock troops of jihadis.

The US may be tempted to send special forces and “advisers” into this hostile territory, with the potential for escalation into full scale military intervention (shades of Vietnam). It could be the toughest item on the new President’s foreign affairs agenda.

But not the only tough one. The presidential candidates on the Democratic side have shown much more sensitivity to the dangers of nuclear proliferation than has the United Kingdom, now embarking on a massive expansion of domestic nuclear energy.

That expansion is paralleled by scores of other countries, busily planning over two hundred new nuclear power stations without much thought about how to keep them safe or how to avoid the diversion of nuclear materials like highly enriched uranium and plutonium to military purposes.

The new president’s task of strengthening the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and extending the Start treaty on reducing strategic nuclear arsenals beyond its termination date of 2009, will not be made easier by Russia’s indignation at the foolish attempt to place US missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. She or he will have to cultivate the new Russian President, Mr. Medvedev, while remaining conscious of the long shadow behind him, the formidable Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Then there is climate change. The Europeans, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom (if I may chance my arm by calling our bad-tempered country European) will call for an American change of heart and direction. If the world is to have any chance of slowing global warming, which seems to accelerate with every new piece of evidence, the United States has to respond. Yet politically nothing is tougher for an American President than to advocate higher taxes on oil, especially so when the cost of the raw material itself has sky-rocketed.

No wonder Edouard Balladur, the former French Prime Minister, has called for a US-Europe Atlantic political union to meet such challenges. The paradox is that Europe would be reluctant to unite with a United States that fails to eschew unilateralism. But there are deep forces in the United States that want to turn their backs on a threatening and disagreeable world. A.B. will not be as different from B.B. as most of us would hope.

Shirley Williams will be a speaker at the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January

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