What I hope to achieve, in the course of my lecture this evening, is to describe the very important window of opportunity that arose between the end of the Cold War in 1989/90 and the declaration of the War on Terror in 2001/2, and to try to draw out some lessons from this experience. I do this, not simply to share with you my account of those years, but because reflection on the experience of those years could teach us important lessons about what needs to be done to advance humanitarian values. I want to suggest that humanitarianism is too often perceived as a marginal series of activities–famine relief, development assistance, peacekeeping, emergency humanitarian relief–which are all worthwhile but which exist alongside the main thrust of foreign and defence policy and too often fail to challenge the central thrust of foreign policy thinking which frequently perpetuates the conditions in which humanitarian emergencies will continue to emerge.
I cannot speak with any inside knowledge of the period between 1989/90 to 1997 before the government of which I was a member took power, but I’m sure we all recall the impressive achievements of the velvet revolutions that toppled dictatorships across the Soviet bloc, and then led on to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is worth recalling, that just like the early days of the Arab Spring, it was achieved by people power and without military action. (It is also worth recalling that Western intelligence agencies had no idea that this massive historical change was coming, which reminds us not to overestimate what they know now!)
But we must also recall that in addition to these massive developments, it was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Nelson Mandela was released from prison with the promise of the end of apartheid and therefore a great new opportunity for an end to conflict and progress in development in Africa.
It is worth pausing to reflect on the way in which the Cold War had shaped foreign and defence policy thinking across the world from the end of the Second World War until the 1990s. As wellThe Foreign Office was furious about the establishment of DFID and in the early months of the new government briefed against it and tried to cause it as much trouble as possible. as the massive expenditure on nuclear weapons deployed against each other by both blocks, there were vast numbers of troops stationed in Germany. And every conflict in Africa and Latin America saw the two sides lining up against each other through their proxies – from Cuba to Chile, Angola and Mozambique to Ethiopia and in the western support for the Taliban rebellion against the Soviet supported regime in Afghanistan. And of course you were a major wars in Korea in 1950’s and Vietnam in the 1960/70’s that took millions of lives. So although the Cold War did not lead to an all out confrontation, it did lead to many regional wars and considerable loss of life.
The reality of the total domination of Cold War thinking in the foreign policy and defence establishment helps to explain reality the complete failure of Western policy towards the Balkans and in relation to the genocide in Rwanda. The old system had broken down and foreign policy establishment was confused about what it was meant to be doing and failed quite terribly in both these situations.
It was in this atmosphere that the Labour government took power in the UK in 1997 and the new Department for International
The important point here is that the FCO was furious about the establishment of DFID and in the early months of the new government briefed against the new Department and tried to cause it as much trouble as possible. This was perhaps an understandable reaction to losing control of the policy and the budget, but in a sense I think the FCO, although behaving in an unconstitutional way, was right that a stronger development Department would inevitably challenge foreign policy thinking and therefore its’ authority
Thus in 1997 we were in an era of defence cuts, cuts in the budget of MI6 and threats to the FCO budget; and these cuts were not the result of austerity but in a sense of past “success”. I can remember for example successive “C’s” coming to call on me to try to persuade me that we needed their services in Africa! For DFID, the budget was only £2.2 billion (it is now £8.5 billion) but we quickly established strong new analytical and policy- making capacity in areas such as trade and arms sale and strengthened our capacity on areas such as international environment, IMF and World Bank policy. We had a battle with the Treasury over whether Gordon Brown or I should be the UK Governor of the World Bank. As the policy lead on the World Bank was housed in DFID, I won that battle, which was completely logical but left the Treasury very upset. These small anecdotes about the initial powers of the department begin to demonstrate how the commitment to a separate Department starts to push the development agenda up the Whitehall hierarchy
The important point that I want to convey is that the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the intelligence agencies were feeling defensive, facing cuts and lacked clarity about their role in the world whilst the Department for International development was full of enthusiasm and clarity about its mission to seek to eliminate extreme poverty from the world and the possibility of making considerable progress. We very quickly published a well received White Paper reviewing all aspects of policy against the commitment to eliminate extreme poverty. And then we began the task of reviewing every aspect of the Department’s policy against this objective; this included all our country programmes, our contribution to the World Bank and all the international development banks, our contribution to UN agencies and to UK NGOs. And it included the wider UK policy agenda on Trade, Arms Sales, international environment agreements, World Bank and IMF policy, Export Credit Guarantees and so on.
Very soon, we became focused on the need to make greater efforts to end the conflicts in Africa that had proliferated after the end of the Cold War. Clearly it was impossible to promote development where conflict was pervasive. The FCO was furious, they were not much interested in conflict in Africa but they wanted DFID to concentrate on distributing aid and not dare to think that it was entitled to take a view on conflict. The ending of the civil war in Sierra Leone has been talked about as one of Blair’s wars. It was no such thing. The UK military were deployed to evacuate the Europeans when there was a danger that the rebels would overthrow Freetown after the kidnapping of many of the UN peacekeepers. We in DFID had been involved in the humanitarian situation and in trying to support a UN peace process and I therefore pressurised the Prime Minister to ensure that the UK troops did not withdraw, but remain to focus on strengthening the UN peacekeeping effort and training a new Sierra Leonean army. On this Tony Blair’s response was good and once the Prime Minister showed enthusiasm the FCO came in behind. But my point here is that our focus on Sierra Leone, which was I think a policy in which we cam take justifiable pride, flowed from the development engagement rather than foreign or defence policy priorities.
Similarly, it was DFID concern for the suffering of the people of Rwanda during and after the genocide that led to UK involvement in supporting development in Rwanda and focusing on the need to bring an end to conflict in the great Lakes region. This became a major priority for the new conflict prevention strategies, which linked together the work of the FCO, Ministry of Defence and DFID, and again this flowed from DFID’s engagement in Rwanda rather than FCO consideration of UK national interest.
It was DFID in 2001/2 that tried to block the sale of an out of date military air traffic control system to Tanzania by British Aerospace, that was both damaging to Tanzania’s development and corruptly procured. Our efforts were strongly opposed by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and our objection overturned. As you are probably aware in 2010 BAE pleaded guilty to corrupt behaviour in this case and paid fines in the US and UK and was ordered to return £28 million to Tanzania.
In November 2001 a new trade round was launched; DFID played a major role in the thinking that underpinned the launch and it was declared to be a Development Round. Sadly the round has come to nothing and it is probably a significantly part of the explanation of this failure that the commitment to development in subsequent years declined. When DFID first developed its trade capacity, the leading official in the Department of Trade and Industry was suffused with anger. Later, Our focus on Sierra Leone, was a policy in which we can take justifiable pride. It flowed from the development engagement rather than foreign or defence policy priorities.after hid retirement, the two departments undertook shared analysis and officials in DTI became proud of their contribution to advocating a fairer international trading system. In the past they had been invited only to consider the U.K.’s narrow interests. And then when it came to preparations for the new Millennium, the world was looking for suitable ways to mark this great historical event, it was DFID and the UK mission at the UN that proposed and worked for the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and a commitment to the systematic reduction of poverty across the world as the way to mark the opening of the new millennium in the post Cold War world.
It is not possible here, to outline all the issues on which DFID battled against other government departments and came out on top. The Department of Trade and Industry strongly opposed the abolition of the Aid and Trade provision, which used aid to subsidise British exports; and to the abolition of tied aid, but both were achieved. In the case of the powerful, church led, Jubilee 2000 Campaign, to abolish the debt of developing countries, we were able to shape the outcome to require the World Bank to write off debt on condition that countries put in place a monitored Poverty Reduction Strategy rather than the unconditional debt relief that the campaign advocated. This in turn help to reshape the World Bank’s engagement with developing countries, and to make measurable poverty- reduction the centre-piece of their programs, and was a large move away from the old Washington Consensus.
I hope I have been able to evoke for you the atmosphere within Whitehall in those times, the confidence of DFID and clarity of its aspirations and ability to win cross Whitehall battles in various areas. I should underline the fact that almost all of this was done outside Cabinet without the involvement of Ministers in other departments except when there was resistance, but the mood of the times and the clarity and energy of DFID’s purpose meant that we very frequently won the battles, and if not we would come back to try again and very often win the second time round.
Then came the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This was undoubtedly a terrible crime which led toSeptember 11th led to major distortions in foreign policy, for example the refusal to recognise that Hamas had won fully democratic elections in the Palestinian occupied territories, and thereafter on to the cruelty of the siege of Gaza, and a complete failure to promote the peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. great loss of life and more dangerously a sense of humiliation in the US. It is worth remembering how deep was the international sympathy and solidarity. The Security Council of the United Nations passed a unanimous resolution deploring the crime and calling on all countries to cooperate to find and bring to justice the perpetrators; the UN General Assembly also passed an almost unprecedented unanimous resolution to the same effect and Le Monde carried the headline “We are all Americans now”. it is important to be clear that the only weapons deployed in this attack where bolt cutters and an ideology that distorted Islam to promote hate, that grew out of the values of Saudi Arabia and was promoted by a man who came to fame fighting for the US interests against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Terrible as these attacks were, the response, with the declaration of the War on Terror and a massive increase in US military spending, beyond even that of the Cold War years, was irrational. Vice President Cheney even advocated an attack on Iraq in the immediate aftermath of September 11. From then on the focus of foreign policy worldwide became the War on Terror and everywhere this meant Islamist terrorism. This in turn led to major distortions in foreign policy, for example they refusal to recognise that Hamas had won fully democratic elections in the Palestinian occupied territories, and thereafter on to the cruelty of the siege of Gaza, and the complete failure to promote the peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. Similarly in Somalia the conflict was seen through the lens of the war on terror and therefore the opportunity to achieve a settlement when the Islamic Courts made their great advance in 2006 was thrown away. I would also argue that the failure to bring peace and order to eastern Congo with the loss of 5 million lives and endless suffering was partly a result of it not mattering in War on Terror terms. Another example of lost opportunities was the civil war in Sri Lanka; there was an effort to achieve a peace settlement beforehand, led by the Norwegians, in which DFID played a part but it wasn’t a priority for the war on terror.
I believe that it is impossible to explain this irrational, wasteful response to the attack on the twin towers which exacerbated rather than helped to solve the problem without going back to President Eisenhower’s retirement speech to the American people. It was this former second World War General and Republican President who warned the American people to beware the military industrial complex, by which he meant the vested interests that want to make and sell weapons and therefore need enemies to fight. I am not of course arguing that there did not need to be a response to the attack on the twin towers and the growth of Al Qaeda but I am convinced that the strategy in Afghanistan after the Taliban had melted away was mistaken and the attack on Iraq was designed to fulfill the objectives outlined in the Project for the new American century i.e. to give the US permanent bases on the Persian Gulf, and the war on terror was simply used as camouflage for a different objective.
Of course development efforts continue and significant achievements have been made against the Millennium Development Goals but the dominant discourse has shifted very considerably and irrationally away from humanitarian objectives that are morally preferable but also more likely to make the world safe and secure.
The major threats we now face of climate change and other environmental shortages; the massive growth in population that will take place over the next 25 years within the poorest countries and growing speed of urbanisation which will make the poor increasingly restive and rebellious. All of these forces could be shaped to help create a more just and secure future world order, but instead massive spending on arms and and foreign and defence policy capacity is being wasted in the creation of growing bloodshed and bitterness. I do not believe that the future is hopeless because the road we are on is wasteful and counter- productive. New opportunities will arise to shape better policy thinking but the big message I want to convey today is that humanitarians must be ready with strong and persuasive analysis analysis and capacity that will enable humanity to survive the next 50 years without major catastrophe and to leave a decent settlement to future generations.