These are depressing times. But the situation is not hopeless. There are ways of managing all the threats we face. The problem is that the present world leadership – which is for the moment dominated by one great power, the United States of America – does not appear to understand the threats we are facing, and is acting in a way which is exacerbating rather than helping to resolve our problems. Sadly our own country is simply trotting along behind the current leadership of the US, and is therefore part of the problem rather than the solution.
I have been thinking a great deal about previous periods of great change in history and what it took to get the elite of those times to understand the changes that were taking place and to The situation in the Middle East and the risk of nuclear proliferation are being managed in such a way that we are seeing an undermining of international law, the authority of the UN, the Geneva Convention and the Convention on Torture. make new arrangements that manage change for the benefit of humanity. For example in Europe the end of feudalism, the establishment of the nation state and the rule of law, were achieved as a consequence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These events brought transformation to the governance of Europe but at great cost in bloodshed, warfare and suffering. In Britain the beginnings of the industrial revolution brought people out of the deep poverty of the countryside to live in squalor in the cities. And thus the great new wealth being created by industrialisation lived alongside illiteracy, child labour, squalor and disease in the great industrialising cities of this country. It took a long period of struggle to share this wealth fairly beginning with the struggle to establish trade unions in order to achieve basic decency at work. Alongside this people had to fight for democracy in order to shape the state to ensure that the new wealth was shared so that all had access to work, housing, health care and education. This struggle went on throughout the 19th century and was not really won until the great Labour Government of 1945 established the new settlement of full employment and a welfare state that gave basic protection to all. And it is notable that much of the thinking that underpinned the new settlement was developed by great Liberal thinkers like John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge. The point I am trying to make by referring to these examples is that existing elites rarely understand the forces of historical change and in consequence historical change is often brought about by thinking and agitation from outside elite structures which is often accompanied by great turbulence and violence.
I suggest we are now living through a similar period of massive historical change and that the current leadership of the world is trapped in old thinking that arises from the cold war period. In order to solve the problems and grasp the possibilities of these times, we need new thinking. This will emerge from the turbulence of these times but this time the ideas have to face up to the need for a new global settlement. There are no ideas which can solve the problem of any one country in isolation from the rest. And when we listen to debate in the House of Commons it is clear that very little thinking is taking place there and so the thinking and new movements will have to emerge from outside the establishment, sweep away old decaying order and create a new and more just global settlement. And thus this is a particularly important time to encourage thinking and debate outside the establishment channels and I am delighted that the University of Bath and RSA are co-operating to this end.
The major challenges we are now facing are firstly the growing anger of the Arab and Muslim world over the grave injustice and endless suffering that has been inflicted on the Palestinian people over the last 50 years. This sense of anger and alienation has been greatly enlarged by the war in Iraq and the quagmire of the post war situation. US policy, following the attack on the Twin Towers has made Osama bin Laden increasingly popular, spread the ideas of his movement across the Moslem world and led growing numbers to conclude that they should support violent insurgency because there is no political route to justice. The torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the shocking phenomenon that has come to be called “extraordinary rendition” which means that the US kidnaps individuals from wherever it finds them and then flies them to a country – usually in the Middle East – in order that they can be tortured to extract information, shows how far we have fallen. The fact that our Prime Minister calls Guantanamo Bay simply “an anomaly” and that the Government will not come clean on whether US flights carrying prisoners for torture are being allowed to land in Britain, demonstrates again how far the UK has fallen.
The second major challenge is nuclear proliferation. Israel, along with India and Pakistan refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. All three are now nuclear powers and close allies of the US and UK. Iran signed the non-proliferation treaty. The treaty is based on a compact that the nuclear powers will reduce their nuclear arsenals and the non-nuclear powers will be guaranteed accessThe current leadership of the world is trapped in old thinking that arises from the Cold War period. In order to solve the problems and grasp the possibilities of these times, we need new thinking. to civil nuclear technology. But this agreement is being allowed to unravel. The US and the UK it seems have no intention of reducing their nuclear arsenals and Israel is now the fourth largest nuclear power. Iran is determined to assert its right to develop nuclear power, but as one Israeli commentator said they would be mad not to want to develop military capacity. Israel lied and claimed it wanted only civil nuclear power. Iran may well do the same. The logic of the position is clear. The US attacked Iraq and not North Korea. But this means that US policy – strongly supported by the UK – in the name of preventing the spread of WMD is in fact encouraging proliferation.
And the way these crises are being addressed is leading to an undermining of international law. The very basis of international law, following the Second World War, is that no country can take territory by force. This principle is being deeply undermined in the Middle East with US support for Sharon’s plan to establish the Israeli state on the lines of the wall – declared illegal by the international court. Israel wishes to maximise its territory but not risk a Palestinian majority just as apartheid South Africa was designed to avoid a black majority. Israel therefore plans to follow apartheid’s example and prevent the Palestinians becoming a majority in the expanded state, by establishing a series of Bantustans on 15% of historical Palestine with East Jerusalem incorporated into the Israeli state. No Palestinian leadership can accept this and thus the conflict will continue for a long time to come. I believe that this problem will not be resolved until a future US administration accepts that the only way to peace and the best way to undermine support for “terrorism” is a just settlement in the Middle East. The reality is that such a settlement is available but not being grasped. It would mean a state for Israel and Palestine on 1967 boundaries. It would also mean a negotiated end to the occupation of Iraq and abandonment of the commitment to long term bases through which the US aspires to control the Gulf and its oil. The third element of a long term peace in the Middle East would require removal of all WMD from the region, including Israel’s. At the moment there is no prospect of such a settlement and the conflict will inevitably continue and probably enlarge. An attempt to bomb Iran’s nuclear power stations either by the US or Israel as its surrogate would destabilise the region further.
The situation in the Middle East and the risk of nuclear proliferation are being managed in such a way that we are seeing an undermining of international law, the authority of the UN, the Geneva Convention and the Convention on Torture. It is deeply worrying that at a time of great turbulence in the world, the authority of the UN and international law is being gravely undermined.
These worrying developments contrast starkly with the spirit of hope and optimism that spread across the world in 1989/90 when the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. We dreamed then of the establishment of a more just and stable world order. The end of the Cold War meant the end of a balance of nuclear terror and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. Instead we hoped that reduced defence spending would mean that extra resources could be deployed to promote development. In addition the end of the destructive consequence of apartheid and cold war interventions in Africa, promised an era of hope to the poorest continent.
And for a decade there was considerable progress. In 1997 agreement was reached at Kyoto to begin to tackle global warming. In 1998 agreement was reached to establish the International Criminal Court to establish the international rule of law and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2000 the world agreed that reducing poverty was the priority for the new millennium and all countries committed themselves to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. In March 2002 at the UN Summit in Monterrey, all countries agreed on how development should be financed. In November 2001 the world agreed at Doha that there should be a new trade round focused on making the trade rules fairer for poor countries. And in September 2002, the UN summit in Johannesburg held to measure progress since the first UN environment summit in Rio, agreed that to achieve sustainability the world must commit to reducing poverty for all and sharing our environmental resources more equitably.
However, this short era of progress was soon to begin to unravel with US unwillingness to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, US opposition to the International Criminal Court, failed UN missions in Somalia and Rwanda and the spread of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It was after such failures that we began to appreciate how for fifty years, world order had depended on the structures of the Cold War and how its ending had left the world’s only remaining superpower floundering.
There was eventually military action in Kosovo to bring to an end theLoss of fish, forests, and spreading desertification at a time when the world population is set to rise from 6 billion to 8-9 billion will greatly increase the strain on the world’s environmental resources. programme of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And the UN – with strong UK backing – brought an end to civil war in Sierra Leone. But following the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11 2001, the US succumbed to the danger President Eisenhower warned them of when in his final Presidential address to the nation he warned of the influence of the military/industrial complex. And thus the interests of the defence lobby and an old cold war mindset led to the declaration of a nonsensical “war on terror” and a massive growth in defence spending. Thus the vested interests of the defence lobby and a mind set that was most comfortably with a new enemy to replace the old Soviet Empire, adopted a counter productive policy which is exacerbating rather than solving the problem that needs to be addressed.
The other major challenges we face, alongside the dangers of the situation in the Middle East and the risks of nuclear proliferation, are global warming and the loss of precious environmental resources – loss of fish, forests, and spreading desertification at a time when the world population is set to rise from 6 billion to 8-9 billion which will greatly increase the strain on the world’s environmental resources. And climate scientists are now agreed that we are experiencing a dangerous era of global warming as a result of our burning of fossil fuels and that this will lead to growing instability in weather patters, drought, heat waves, disruption of agriculture , loss of territory, millions of refugees – all terrifyingly serious problems that we will have to confront. At the same time we see major development taking place in China and now in India and bringing about the greatest reduction of poverty for the largest number of people that the world has ever seen. But we are also seeing the limits to the economic growth, the planet can bear. According to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC, who is one of the leading US environmental analysts, if growth in China continues at 8 per cent a year, by 2031 China’s income per head for its 1.45 billion people will be equal to that of the US today. He said:
China’s grain consumption will then be two thirds of the current grain consumption of the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 billion barrels a day – and the whole world is currently producing 84 billion barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more. If it consumes paper at the same rate that we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them.
Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world’s major environmental trends for 30 years concluded:
The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is, it’s not going to work. And if it does not work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, nor for the other three billion people in the developing countries. And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated world economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain.
The bottom line of this analysis is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of The old model that saw the developing world becoming like the OECD countries is neither desirable nor possible. 20% of people living with material plenty in a world in which a billion people remain abjectly poor is also unsustainable. As the poor of the world urbanise and see very clearly how others live they will not be willing to tolerate the suffering and poverty they currently endure. fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.”
Our conclusion has to be that if the OECD countries have their current way of life then the people of China and India as well as Africa and Latin America are entitled to the same and the future will be catastrophic. The planet simply cannot cope with all the people living in this consumerist and greedy way. But in addition, this way of life does not make people in the OECD countries happy. We have growing problems of obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, family breakdown and a general sense of malaise following from a loss of a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
So my conclusion is, at the end of the UN decade dedicated to the eradication of poverty, that the old model that saw the developing world becoming like the OECD countries is neither desirable nor possible. And the inequality of the world with 20% of people living with material plenty in a world in which a billion people remain abjectly poor is also unsustainable. As the poor of the world urbanise and see very clearly how others live they will not be willing to tolerate the suffering and poverty they currently endure. And thus if we want our civilisation to survive we have to learn better to share our knowledge, technology and capital to make the world more equitable both between and within nations. All people have to have access to the basics that they need and to education and health care and the freedom to be themselves, express their ideas and be treated with respect. And within such a world order we have to evolve a new way of living that ceases to make economic growth the purpose of politics. We must instead look for genuine sustainable development and ways to find satisfaction in our lives without the expectation of ever increasing economic consumption. Within such a world order, we are more likely to be able to reach agreements on curbing carbon dioxide emissions so that over a number of years we converge on an equal entitlement per head to a share of what our planet can bear. We must do the same for our fish stocks and we must reward those who live in the forests for preserving the forests on our behalf.
It goes without saying that such a world cannot be built without a stronger, more representative and effective United Nations that can effectively end the terrible wars within states that are causing so much suffering in the post Cold War world and have cost 10 million lives over the last 10 years. And if we are to focus the world’s attention on these matters we must reinstate respect for international law and reach a just settlement in the Middle East.
The challenges of this era are immense but solutions are available to all the problems we face. Our greatest problem is that the world’s leadership is pointing in the wrong direction. We are living in a period of massive historical change and there is a serious mind lag problem amongst the global elite. It is a time for new ideas and new thinking. I fear that we will face more catastrophes before we begin to solve our problems but we must not give up hope. We must continue to think and agitate so that our generation provides solutions to the crises of times as previous generations have before us. The UK alone cannot of course solve the problems but presently, by being the automatic ally of the US we help to reinforce their errors. And because the UK is always aligned with the US, it becomes impossible for the EU to stand for a new multilateral order committed to equity, justice and the rule of law. And thus a change in the UK position could be pivotal, in creating greater authority for a changed EU vision and using our influence in the IMF, World Bank, UN Security Council, Commonwealth and European Union to seek allies to build the new, more equitable global order that we so urgently need.