Tag: Foreign affairs

Can someone now start the real EU debate, please?

We arrived home from holiday last week to find campaign literature from both sides of the EU referendum campaign in the letterbox. I was dismayed by both: the arguments presented were dubious, to say the least, and it seemed to me that neither side dares to say what it really believes.

Humans are tribal creatures and the EU debate is ultimately about the size of the tribe. Do we want a tribe which is large and strong (if possibly fragmented and slightly fractious), or do we want our tribe to be small and cohesive (if possibly short of resources and clout)?

The Eurosceptic viewpoint seems to me to be driven by two fundamentals. The first is the image of Gulliver strapped down by the Lilliputians: Eurosceptics hark back to the days when the United Kingdom was a great power in its own right and feel that it could be so again if it were not enmeshed in a web of European bureaucracy and compromise. The second is a deep discomfort with immigrants, the idea that we are losing our country to invaders and not even putting up a fight over it.

European history My own beliefs are the opposite. I was born in 1958, which makes me pretty much the first generation for as long as anyone can remember to live sixty years without a major European war, and I attribute this not merely to nuclear weapons but largely to the EU – not to its specific institutions, but to the change in mindset that makes European governments start with an assumption of co-operation.

I don’t buy the “UK can be great again” argument. The UK is great: I love my country for the creativity, humour and fundamental sense of decency of its people, not its empire – which was lost not because of the EU but because the UK bankrupted itself over two world wars and because the prevailing ethical climate made it impossible to continue with the colonialist principles on which that empire was built. I’m only too pleased that historical episodes such as slavery, the opium wars and the salt tax  are well behind us, and if a Brit ever feels the need to preach to the world about genocide, they would do well first to consider the question “why are there no aborigines in Tasmania.” (Answer: because we killed them all). And I fundamentally believe in government by compromise – at the European or the UK level. To get technical for a moment, I actually believe in stuff like pooled sovereignty and subsidiarity.

Turning from those who hark to the olden days to those who merely say that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and can stand perfectly well on its own, I would reply “yes, but for how long?” As education globalises, can a heavily populated small country with depleted natural resources really maintain the productivity lead that we have had in the past?

These are huge issues, and I’m more than happy to debate them with an open mind – and I believe we should be debating them. In my view, it is neither evil nor racist to feel uncomfortable at living in a city where you often can’t understand the language of the majority of the people in your street, or to be concerned at democratic deficit. But that’s not the debate we’re having.

Rather, on both sides, the debate so far has been about nickels and dimes, with statements being made that are deeply misleading. Consider this one, from the “Leave EU” side:

“We can remove our politicians who are answerable to us. Unlike unelected European commissioners”.

European commissioners are the equivalent of our senior civil servants, who are every bit as unelected. The laws in the UK are written by civil servants and voted on by politicians, just as EU laws are written by commissioners (and their staff) and voted on by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament, who are people we elect. At heart, it’s not the existence of appointed officials that Eurosceptics dislike – otherwise, they should be trying to get rid of the whole of Whitehall – it’s the idea of appointments being made by what they consider to be the wrong people.

The Stay camp hardly fares better. “AA warns of pain at the pump with possible 19p rise if Britain leaves EU,” trumpets the leaflet, quoting the authoritative source of The Sun. Really? Even if it’s true, which sounds highly dubious, is the future of our country’s international relations really to be decided on the basis of motorists’ worries about their next petrol bill?

Or “Good for women, with the EU protecting women’s rights in the workplace, including vital anti-discrimination and equal pay laws”. I’m sorry, I may be an ardent supporter of the staying in campaign, but I can’t accept the idea that the UK Parliament is in some way incapable of enacting wise gender equality laws without having to rely on the EU to police it.

So please, let’s debate the real issues. Will a Brexit do irreparable damage to our relationship with European countries? Can an independent UK continue indefinitely to punch above its weight economically? Is it real or illusory that ordinary people will gain more control over the decisions that affect them? Should we wean ourselves off immigration, which we have relied on to cope with the economics of an ageing population? And if the answer is yes, is it feasible for an independent UK go about doing so?

For me, the answer is simple and emotional. It lies in a clip from the unashamedly anti-Brexit Great European Disaster Movie, in which a German lady lays out on her table a series of Iron Crosses, each representing a parent / grandparent / great-grandparent who died in a European war. She is of the first generation not to add to that list, and is unspeakably proud of it. Long may that trend continue. Being part of a whole, peaceful Europe enhances my life.

Gaijin view 3: Hiroshima


Atomic Dome
Hiroshima Atomic Dome

As one would hope, visiting the Peace Museum in Hiroshima is a deeply moving experience. The horrors of the atomic bomb are told with an icy clarity. The sheer magnitude of a single blast is shown by a scale model of the flattened city and the fireball that caused the damage. Real portions of damaged building attest to the unnatural power of the weapon. Most tellingly of all, the human stories are told by charred fragments of clothing accompanied by the stories of the people who wore them. A child’s much beloved tricycle, buried with the child by his grieving father, tells the tragedy as strongly as the recording of a mother who describes walking every day, for years, down the usual road to work of her daughter, whose body was never found. Model of Hiroshima destroyedMessages of peace and goodwill from a plethora of world leaders provide a thimbleful of soothing balm, while just down the road, the Children’s Peace Monument tells the story of the girl who hoped that if she could make a thousand origami cranes, she might survive her A-bomb related leukaemia. She did not.


And yet.

Once I’ve choked back the tears and got rid of the lump in my throat, I’m more disturbed by what’s missing from the Peace Museum than by what’s in it. The problem is this: at the end of my visit, my emotions have been stirred and I’ve dutifully  signed the petition to call upon the world’s leaders to discuss nuclear weapons reductions, but I haven’t actually learned much that matters – merely a bunch of details about an event of whose horrific nature I was already utterly aware.

Children's Peace Memorial
Children’s Peace Memorial

What I wanted to learn was some insight into how the A bomb dropping came about, from the Japanese point of view: what is their view of the causes of World War II and what made things escalate to the point where the US even considered such desperate measures. And perhaps even from the American point of view: I’d have loved to see the briefing papers given to Truman on the day the decision to drop the bomb was made, or to Roosevelt when authorising the Manhattan Project.

Rather, in this museum, the start of the war was glossed over by a single sentence in a single panel, saying that “tensions arose” after the Manchurian Incident in 1931. Later events – until the bomb itself and its aftermath – get little or no attention.

I can’t help but compare this with Berlin’s Museum of German History, which devotes considerably more space to the question of how Hitler could have risen to power in the first place as it does to, say, the plight of the Germans ethnically cleansed from Pomerania after the war. I came out of the Berlin museum with a clear feeling that the Germans have taken a good, hard look in the mirror and understood the place of Hitler and World War II in their history. I did not get the equivalent impression in Hiroshima.

Saying that “this must never happen again” is, of course, the best possible starting point. But it’s not enough. The burning question is the one of how these wars happen and how the chance of them can be mitigated.

The museum is being renovated, with the new facilities due to open in 2018. Among what is promised is an exhibition floor devoted to the dangers of nuclear weapons, which may well address some of these concerns. I hope it does so. As I gaze at a clear blue sky – just like the one on 6th August 1945 from which such horrors emerged – I can hardly contain my gratitude for having been born into what is now seventy years of peace for my country. Hiroshima should be an ideal site for focusing minds on maintaining peace as best we can.

Origami cranes at Children's Peace Memorial
Origami cranes

Semi-ethics and blowback

It was in my business software days that I first came across the concept of a “semi-ethical” policy. We were looking at companies who wrote software for lawyers, and I remember with complete clarity one of their product managers explaining to me that you could have a “fully ethical” timesheet system (where the system printed precisely the time recorded on each job), a “non-ethical” system (where the lawyer could write in whatever time they wanted) or a “semi-ethical” system, which defaulted to the actual time recorded but then allowed the lawyer to modify the results before sending them on to the client. My younger and more naive self was shocked, not so much by the fact that the systems (or indeed the lawyers) behaved in this way, but by the brazenness of the nomenclature.

The late Robin Cook caused some seriously raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles when, upon becoming foreign secretary in 1997, he appeared to suggest that our future foreign policy should be an ethical one. But Cook’s exact wording was more nuanced: he said that our foreign policy should “have an ethical dimension” – in a speech that explicitly placed security as the first goal of foreign policy and included a commitment to “resolutely defend British interests”. A semi-ethical policy, in other words.

A couple of decades later, it strikes me that a semi-ethical policy is precisely what we are pursuing in the Middle East, and that this is a major cause of our present levels of confusion and muddle. The problem is that we’re prepared to be ethical, but only in isolated compartments (and, one suspects, when it suits us for other reasons). For example:

  1. Saddam Hussein is an evil tyrant, so something must be done. For the sake of his people, we must overthrow him at all costs.
  2. Bashar al-Assad is an evil tyrant, so something must….(repeat above)
  3. The Soviet Union was an evil empire, so when we had an opportunity to damage it at little risk to ourselves (such as in Afghanistan), it had to be seized at all costs.

The point here is that regardless of the ethical choice that you’re making (if, by the way, you accept the principle of self-determination, you have to be pretty doubtful about both 1 and 2), such choices made in isolation have a nasty habit of leading to results that are at best unpredictable and at worst seriously counterproductive.

The term “blowback” was originally coined to refer to the effect of battlefield poison gas when the wind changed and brought the gas back onto one’s own soldiers. Semi-ethical policies – or, to be more precise, policies in which one’s reliance on one’s ethics are limited to a particular, narrowly drawn issue, are particularly vulnerable to blowback. Our support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan created the conditions in which Osama bin-Laden founded Al Qaeda. It turned out that the undoubtedly evil Saddam Hussein had been effectively keeping the lid on an explosive sectarian conflict, and it’s easy to trace the rise of IS directly to his removal. Our insistence on the deposition of Assad as a primary policy goal has led to the current crisis in Syrian refugees.

The difficulty faced by policy-makers is that most fully ethical policies look just as unappealing as ever, whereas in 21st century democracies, policies which disregard ethics altogether are becoming almost as unviable.

A fully ethical policy with the ability to prevent the Syrian crisis would have required the prevention of the global warming that caused or at least exacerbated the multi-year drought that triggered the crisis in the first place (see this graphic); our direct involvement could probably have been avoided only by getting rid of our dependence on Middle East oil, enabling us to be genuinely disinterested brokers. Both of the these things required sacrifices in lifestyle that Western electorates have found and continue to find unacceptable.

In the 19th century, ethics would have played little part in anyone’s thinking: a British or US government would have achieved its ends by a combination of overwhelming military force and diplomatic deviousness (there’s a reason for the name “Perfidious Albion”), without batting an eyelid. But times are different: as Robin Cook pointed out in that 1997 speech, “We are instant witness in our sitting rooms through the medium of television to human tragedy in distant lands.” The results of total ruthlessness in foreign policy are visible with considerable ease both to other nations and to our own electorates. Tony Blair’s prime ministership was very much a success until the Iraq invasion: for many, the results of the invasion and particularly the shenanigans surrounding the “dodgy dossier” that was used to justify it have turned Blair into a figure of hate.

So the chances are that semi-ethics will win, and that the processes of media spin and intensive muddling through will continue. At any given crisis, the cries of “something must be done” will be heeded and something will be done – even in the Middle East. But there’s little indication that the something will be the foundation of fair and lasting peace: that’s going to take a lot of luck, a commodity that’s been in short supply in the region.