April 07, 2007

Blogfoci Roundup

James Higham is one of the best citizens of the blogosphere- always a kind and thoughtful chap he prepares little digests of the blogging world and now does, heroically three of these offerings every week. This week he put out three: a first including such wonderful writers as Paul Linford and Matthew Sinclair is here, a second includes posts on subjects as various as a blogging for business conference, profound thoughts and of course cherries and James's final and third includes posts about losing your keys and the Iran British standoff. As you can appreciate Mr Higham is a man of truly eclectic taste with a good eye- go over and take a look.

Nationalism again

The Political Umpire has posted several fascinating articles on the Falklands- his latest raises some interesting questions upon which I wish to elaborate. The argument is basically over what constitutes a nation- the Argentinian claim to the Falklands is based upon the fact that they are part of Argentina, no matter what the opinion of their inhabitants, the British view is that the views of the inhabitants count. In a sense you can see a similar dispute in operation in the South China Sea between China and Taiwan- where China states the first principle and the ROK the second, the same principles are in confrontation also in Gilbrater and in Northern Ireland.

One of the interesting things about these kinds of dispute is that there is an issue about what constitutes a nation- generally we accept the 1919 idea that self determination constitutes a nation- for example Britain is a nation if the majority of the British consider themselves to be British. In that sense it might seem obvious that the Argentinian, Chinese and Spanish claims have to be rejected- but there is a hidden problem here- what constitutes a territory? As it is definitely true say that if the whole of China voted including Taiwan that Taiwan is part of China does that make the legitimate government of Taiwan Chinese- and if it doesn't, where and on what justification do you draw the line. For example were Kent to vote to become French would it matter that the rest of Britain thought it shouldn't. Where do the proper boundaries lie?

My own sense, and it is pretty provisional, is that politics is the art of the status quo. Eventually boundaries govern where nations lie- so the fact that Taiwan exists means that it is an entity whereas the fact that Kent doesn't means that it isn't. That comes with one proviso though- politics is also the art of the possible- and holding together a nation that wants to split apart or that a significant part wants no part of is an enterprise which creates more problems for the government than is worthwhile- consequently self determination in a democratic system will eventually be acknowledged- as the examples of devolution whether in Scotland, Quebec and the Basque Country show, a central government can more or less successfully attempt to mollify those that don't feel part of the whole. On that ground, Taiwan, the Falklands and Gilbrater should remain independent of China, Argentina and Spain.

Even greater issues can manifest themselves- in territories like Tibet or the Western Sahara even the status of occupants in the territories are in question- for example in the Western Sahara should Morrocans who have been imported into the territory by the government of Morrocco be allowed to vote in any referendum. Should Han Chinese in Tibet be allowed the right to determine the destinies of Tibet? And if that happens does that reward oppressive governments who effectively ethnically replace troublesome populations.

The problems here are huge, the issues are in my view not as simple as they appear. I agree with the Umpire that the Falklands should be British but I do get worried by a simplistic evocation of self-determination- it isn't quite that simple.

The Quality of Andrew Sullivan

Scott Horton has published a review of Andrew Sullivan's Conservative Soul- a book I reviewed myself here. There is much of interest about Sullivan's book and I agree with Horton that it is far above the efforts of Michael Moore or Anne Coulter. Sullivan is a serious figure and deserves serious analysis.

Sullivan's book though has more in common both with his blog and with an op-ed writer than Horton wants to admit. The first part of the book constitutes a savage attack on what Sullivan calls fundamentalism but seems to have a myriad of different qualities and which he never properly defines. The second part of the book which is much less focused on the 'theo-cons' and much more on Sullivan's own political ideas and his view of his faith, rises to become both beautiful and profound. One wonders though whether it doesn't need fleshing out, whether the serious later part of the book needs strengthening, assertions need support and ideas need more coherence.

There is a lot in this book. Sullivan obviously can write a good book- but the Conservative Soul is far too unwieldy an effort. He tries to both defend philosophically a doctrine that he calls conservatism and write an analytical history of the conservatism of the 1990s and its relation to fundamentalism. One task is enough though and by attempting both, his doctrine is too undeveloped though at moments beautifully described, his analysis needs refinement. Mr Horton is right, Sullivan's book is possibly amongst the most impressive books published recently on Conservatism- but it is incredibly sad that this imperfect book represents in our political culture the height of political thinking. Mr Sullivan has a good book in him- this one isn't it- that Horton thinks it is demonstrates to me the poverty of the aspiration of much of our present writing in any medium about politics.

April 06, 2007

Carnival of Cinema

Scott's back on the case and has provided a wonderful collection of posts in the latest carnival. Its a wonderful collection- including a typically inciteful post from Matt Sinclair and an interesting discussion on Imagined Community, not to mention several discussions of what makes an action movie star and how to get a book adapted for the screen.

Foreign Policy and the Facts

Henry Nau has written a very interesting article about the runup to the Iraq war. His basic argument is that there are many legitimate narratives into which we can fit facts, and therefore that there are many legitimate policy options to take upon the basis of those narratives. His examples are very cogent and interesting- and I will leave him to make his own case on them. It is definitely an interesting argument- the problem is to what conclusions does it point us- the problem with Nau's argument is not the argument but where it stops.

His argument gives us the tools to understand each others' politics- politics is about perception. The world appears to you in a particular way and you derive your politics from it. Some people see more of the world than others- but it is the way that the totality of our experience looks to us that ultimately governs how we behave in the social world and in that bit of the social world we define as politics. Experience can obviously come in different forms- its difficult to argue that privatisation was right to a widow whose husband was sacked by a privatised company and who then committed suicide. Its hard to argue for appeasement of a dictatorship like China with a dissident. Its also hard to suggest to an American mother that her son's death in Iraq made sense because of some wider policy objective. Less emotive experiences can influence politics: the fact that I know many homosexual people in stable relationships which have lasted years makes me suspicious of the argument that gay people can't have stable relationships. The fact that in my experience I know both women and men who are exceptionally clever and interesting individuals, makes me suspicious of any argument that says that women are innately irrational or men are innately cavemen. Furthermore Nau is right to say that we also can dismiss evidence we see in front of us: Christian friends of mine have in the past said that gay people can't have long relationships despite the fact that they know of gay people who do, they are the exception to the rule. Similarly a sexist or radical feminist might say that of the intelligent women and gentle men that I know.

I suppose what emerges from this is something that I personally have come to realise especially in doing historical research. Our beliefs are involved in a kind of dialogue with the facts- the facts that you come across doing research are interpreted within the framework of the questions that you are interested in. Having said that they also influence the next question that you ask of the next set of facts that you come across. Having sat for hours in various libraries around the world, research consists to my eyes of progressively dismissing the wrong ideas I have had before because the evidence contradicts them: but I have no doubt that those early ideas influence the shape of later ideas. Part of our job as honest intellectual human beings is to sit down and look at the world and reevaluate our ideas in the context of what we see. We will never reach an objective view of the world- we cannot. But what we can do is constantly refine our thought after it collides with the world that we see in front of us- we all have had moments where our ideas (I definitely have had them) and the world have seemed so fundamentally askew that we shift our thinking from one frame to a related frame. Evolution in ideas seems to me often in my own case to proceed from that kind of reexamination in the light of new facts and new experience.

What Nau reminds us of is the fact that everyone we know is undergoing at various levels of sophistication this same kind of re-examination. He acknowledges and I think its true that there are facts out there and it is possible to be wrong- but often error is the result of well meant perception of reality through a certain lens. One of the more interesting problems of politics to my mind is understanding each others' errors- understanding each others' thoughts: because politics is social, disagreement is going to always be a constant, one of the issues with disagreement though is that in order for us to have a conversation we have to acknowledge that other people mean well and that their views are based often on justifiable if not correct views of the world.

One of the most useful ideas of Christianity (even for a non-Christian like myself) is that criticism has to be an internal function- personally this is a useful idea in terms of behaviour, trying to work out why others are angry before condemning their wrath is often a good way to proceed, but its also a useful idea intellectually. One of the most difficult but useful intellectual activities is to continually challenge one's own beliefs through immersion in difficult facts. Easy answers are seldom right because the world is too complicated to fit into such a useful framework- and that even applies to the easy answer of the difficulties of comprehending complexity. Scepticism about one's own beleifs doesn't mean ceasing to beleive them- but it does mean that one has the courage to change them as they become less in tune with the facts as one sees them.

The formation of ideas and the way that our minds relate to the world are difficult philosophical subjects. Philosophers ranging from Plato to Derrida have been fascinated by the issue of cognition. Much of this post is not meant to be a philosophical argument though, but an ethical one about the ways that one should behave in political society. Acknowledging the possibility indeed the probability of being wrong, and constantly revising one's own thoughts, whilst trying to understand why other people beleive what they do is a political ethics rather than an epistemological statement. Philosophically naive it may be, but I would reckon that it is indispensible personally- and probably the best way to respond to the kind of incisive analysis within Nau's article.

April 05, 2007

Martyrdom in Islam

David Cook, Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Rice University, has just produced an interesting survey of beliefs about martyrdom within Islam down the centuries. Beggining with the Qu'ran and taking in everything up and including the second intifada and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cook attempts to provide a survey of all Islamic martyrdom literature. His geographical range is no less impressive, looking at martyrdom in Islam from Nigeria and Morrocco to Uzbekistan and Indonesia. The essential features of the way that martyrdom has been described within Islamic texts are interesting- no less interesting is the way that he argues the radical Islamic account of present martyrdoms has reduced the meaning of martyrdom in Islam from what classical authors beleived it included.

Cook's survey is organised both chronologically and thematically. Perhaps to a non-specialist the most interesting sections concern the Qu'ranic understanding of martyrdom. Cook points out that the Prophet's life, taken as a template for all other Muslims to live by, did not end in martyrdom and consequently that as a contrast to Christianity for instance martyrdom lies at the periphery of the Islamic faith and not its centre. Bearing that in mind, he points out that there are only three verses in the Qu'ran that unambiguously refer to martyrdom, including a very contentious and highly ambiguous passage about the companions of the Pit (this is made a difficult judgement because the word for martyr- Shahid- is the same as the word for witness- there are quite a few times in the Qu'ran when the word is definitely used to mean witness and others, for instance a list of those that are to be save which includes Shahid where either meaning is possible). Early Muslims understood martyrdom but turned often from the Qu'ran to Arab folk literature and to Christian and Jewish accounts of martyrdom to supplement their own rather meagre martyrologies.

One of the interesting features that Cook brings out is that for many classical Muslims martyrdom could mean just about anything. It included those who were slain on the field of battle- many of the early martyrs and the later Sufi martyrs were warriors killed in terrible feats of arms. It also included other categories of people, and some classical guides to what made a martyr argued that it included every Muslim that died! Particularly significant within the literature are the so-called martyrs to love. Cook brings out a series of stories from within the classical decades of Islam which refer to those who died because of overwhelming heterosexual or indeed homosexual love for another human being. Often these martyrs were unable for social reasons to consumate their passion, some even told their beloved that their union was too spiritually exalted for the profanity of physical passion to become involved, but many of them then became martyrs and were described as such by the classical literature.

Cook is also intent on recovering the differences within the genres of martyrdom between the different strands of Islam. Martyrs for love he argues were related in their type to the martyrs of the Sufi strand of Islam- who would die often in extasy at their mystical union with God. Focusing on the different strands of Islam enables Cook to bring out another feature of Islamic martyrdom. Unlike the Christian tradition which focuses on missionaries or martyrs killed by mostly pagan governments, Islam thanks to its swift military success, has little of that kind of martyr. Rather martyrs are often individuals slain by the government of the day- martyrdom therefore becomes part of an identity which often divides Muslims as much as unites them. In a Christian context, one might think of many Muslim martyrs as being the equivalent of the Catholic or Protestant martyrs murdered in the 16th Century and remembered in order to contradict the other faiths. Supreme amongst these sectarian martyrs is probably Al-Husayn, the son of Ali, who was martyred and became a hero of Shia Islam to this day. But there are other more obscure examples- from as far afield as Indonesia where Siti Jenar was martyred having refused to follow the Sharia because he followed a mystical sense of God instead.

That brings us on to another facet of Islamic martyrdom which is the way that the martyrs created the Islamic communities- often providing a fusion of Islamic belief and local polytheistic ideas and sanctifying that intoxicating mixture with their blood. In India its interesting to find the martyr Kabir who argued that Islam and Hinduism had more in common than either of their adherents would think. The local ruler was encouraged both by the Islamic Ulema (who hated Kabir because he had disdained the Sharia) and the Hindu priests (who hated him for meeting untouchables) to kill Kabir: consequently after many adventures and his death he became a martyr to both faiths! Martyrs might serve as bridges from one faith to another- but they also like many of the martyrs in West Africa served as inspiration for other Muslims in order to convert peoples of other faiths.

Cook also provides us with a template for looking at Islamic martyrs- they are described in conventional terms often using the same kinds of language. Martyrs are frequently described as smelling sweet, often with the scent of musk. They often spill their blood onto rocks symbolising the end of the body- the body itself is described as holy and parts of the body can acquire the sanctity of the sacrifice- a particularly good example being the head of Al-Husayn. Furthermore their deaths can expiate other sins. One of the most frequent ideas is that sexual rewards will follow martyrdom- with houris that smell of musk (as well) waiting for the martyr to arrive in heaven to satisfy his every need. These common features show a common tradition in formation.

He argues that the radical Islamic approach to martyrdom has been to eliminate all discussion of all other martyrdoms save for those in battle and to interpret those as suicidal martyrdoms. Classic Islamic law prohibited suicide and there was a key division between the actions of a martyr and the actions of a suicide. Despite that radical Islamic approaches to martyrdom have attempted to reinterpret the classic texts to support their interpretation. It is interesting to see as well that a movement which traditionally is hostile both to tradition and to the hadith, faces problems in discussing martyrdom. There is so little Qu'ranic reference to martyrdom itself that the intellectual gymnastics required to reconcile martyrdom and a minimalistic reliance on the Qu'ran alone generate problems for the radical Islamic scholars.

Despite that the flaw of Cook's book is also its great strength- much of it feels like he skims the surface of particular traditions- I would like personally to have seen discussions of the ways that say African or Indian martyrdoms influenced and were influenced by the surrounding culture. One gets the impression often that he has little space and not enough time to develop the points he wants to make- more could be done in all the areas surveyed in this book. What say is the relationship between the martyrs for love and the knights of medieval romance? That is but one of the many obvious questions floating around- and sometimes one entertains a suspicion that there must be more evidence out there about martyrdom in all these various and very literate cultures. There is also the difficulty about whether Islam is an appropriate unit of study- especially in India I was left wondering whether Indian martyrs might be a more appropriate field than Islamic martyrs- there must be elements of Hindu tradition in India that he doesn't see because of his focus on Islam.

Despite that, Cook's book is an interesting introduction to a fascinating subject. Its well written, its short and provides a wealth of fascinating detail. My own thinking is that it provides a good starting point- there is a focus on Islam as an entity that I am unhappy with- but in general this is a good book to read, to attempt to get into especially Qu'ranic understandings of the word, martyr.

Trouble at top

Robert Dallek provides some insights into one of the stormiest relationships of recent years- that between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in this article, there isn't really enough to make substantive comments upon, though he does allege that Kissinger played an unconstitutionally vast role in the later period of Nixon's administration- but the extracts quoted are fascinating.

April 04, 2007

Iran and the British Sailors

The British sailors have been released. I have refrained from commenting on this because I couldn't see a good way out of it. There has been much criticism of the British government policy- but to be honest I fail to see what more they could have done. The end result is the one we all would have wanted. The only alternatives would have been sanctions which might well have prolonged the sailors' imprisonment without extracting them or would have been war. Personally given the situation in the Middle East I don't think war is a sensible option for either us or the United States at the moment- we don't have the troops, we have enough problems in Iraq, we have enough problems with nuclear proliferation including Iran but also North Korea and a war started now would not be started on our terms and would make us even more unpopular throughout the Islamic world. Kathryn Jean Lopez continues to think that it represents a victory for Iran and maybe in public relations terms it does- but I fail to see any better result, from the moment that the British were captured than the one we have today. My own view is that the whole episode has been one of embarassment on all sides- the Iranians have made a mistake- our sailors were captured. This is the best solution- we get the sailors back and the Iranians pretend they have saved face. Ultimately we have what we want- the sailors have been released and no concessions have been made by the UK to Iran, as far as we know.

This is just a brief post and I don't have more to say- apart from the fact that I hope there isn't a news conference- my feeling is and has always been that the British sailors were definitely not in Iranian waters- the Iranians said so at the beggining and then reversed their position- personally I think we owe it to them as individuals that we leave them to their families at the moment. Today its a time in my view, if the stories are true, to give three cheers for the diplomatic service that got them out of the situation, a job well done- no war and the prisoners home strikes me as a victory for British Diplomacy.

LATER Glenn Greenwald summarises what some of the supporters of war have been saying, in particular Mario Loyola, Mark Steyn and the National Review staff here.


Jealousy is an unsettling and terrible emotion to suffer- when combined with mental illness, it can catapult a human being into becoming a monster. Like in Othello, the jealous man can make his world his own creation- a creation where every thing that he perceives becomes yet further evidence that his obsession is right. In creating our worlds, we string together facts into fantasies, single words or experiences into sentences or stories. The distinction between someone who is well and someone who is ill is that the ill person strings together stories which begin to veer off from the world, where the story and not the data he perceives becomes what he observes, where the story branches away and guilt and innocence are adjudicated with a mind that is fitting facts to a theorem, not a theorem to facts.

That is the state in which Paul, the hero of Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer finds himself in. Paul is an overworked businessman, he owns and runs a successful hotel. He has a beautiful wife, Nelly, played by Emmanuelle Beart, and a son. To understand Paul's emergant mental difficulties, we must begin with Nelly. She loves Paul dearly and throughout the film this is evident- Paul's suspisions are not groundless but they are incorrect. Nelly is flirtatious unconsciously- she has a sense of fun, a sense of humour and mischief that are not meant flirtatiously but can appear so. She loves and enjoys life- she is the kind of person who is like a spotlight shone on other people, she can illumine moments for them that had no charm. Paul perceives this charisma- this basic joie de vivre as flirtation- he starts by seeing her laughing at a film with a young muscular man in a dark room and then slowly progresses to seeing flirtation as tantamount to sex, and sex with one man as tantamount to sex with many. He extends his picture of her until it becomes completely divorced from reality- and yet for the viewer it is possible to see how he has sexualised his wife's charisma into being aldultery at first, for us at a distance we quickly realise that Nelly just has charisma, for him close to the situation there begins a path that leads to his undoing.

Chabrol's filming technique might be described as staccato- he gives us instances, glimpses into their lives which illuminate that which we do not see. What he attempts to create and does very well is a dual impression in the mind of the viewer- we know that Nelly has not committed adultery but we also understand Paul's sense that she has. There is a particularly wonderful segment where we see Paul running alongside the river, where Nelly is being boated around by a male friend- and what we see is Paul's imagination of Nelly's sensual glee at this male friend's company. What is fascinating as well is that Chabrol shows us that there is nothing that Nelly can do to convince Paul that he is wrong- nothing she can offer will show him that he is making a mistake. She tries to convince him by giving up male company, by giving up her trips into town but nothing she does will ever convince him- and the slightest petulant or angry moment becomes part of a code through which he interprets the world.

Roger Ebert in his review of L'Enfer argues that the most interesting character in the film is Nelly- Ebert beleives that she provokes Paul and that by staying with him in a way she wills her own destruction. I disagree with Ebert on the first point- but the second is more interesting. For Nelly does stay even though it is evident that Paul is going mad and is becoming dangerous. Again I think Ebert is wrong- its quite clear that at the end of the film Nelly stays with Paul in order for him to receive psychological treatment. She does at one point petulantly tell him that she doesn't love him but his money- but again I read that through the lens of a character under amazing stress- we have all said things like that to people and meant them in the moment but not in the longterm, I think that is what is going on there. Nelly stays with Paul because she wants to help him, she wants to convince him, she loves him. She remains his advocate though others are pealing away from him- her behaviour during his period of madness is the conclusive evidence that she isn't what he thinks she is. She is willing to suffer for him and does- and its here I think that we see that she is a normal charismatic young woman and not the harlot that Paul imagines- though of course he doesn't see it like that. Her endurance is fascinating because to some extent it marks an invisible boundary between love and masochism- when should she leave? When is too much too much?

The film raises all sorts of questions and leaves most of them unanswered. It is one of the best meditations on film about jealousy and the way that it consumes and also about the way that marriage and relationships work. Chabrol plays with the way that narrative constructs a character and the way that human beings construct character out of the instances of a person that they perceive. It also fascinatingly attacks the question of how far to go for someone one loves, and how far one is bound to save onesself. Many of these questions are left unanswered- but this is a film for pondering through and not neccessarily finding answers through.

April 03, 2007

Murders in early 20th Century Chicago

1920s Chicago will always be known as the city of the speak easy and Al Capone, the city immortalised by Howard Hughes in Scarface in 1930 for its violence and its gun culture. The city of the gangsters and corrupt mayors rigging elections and getting votes in from dead voters. The city of Jimmy Cagney and of Paul Muni. Of course that is a fictional image- but much of it is true- Chicago was a particularly violent place in the early 20th Century and amongst the reasons for the violence of the city were the attitudes within the criminal justice system to murder.

Professor Jeffrey S. Adler published a fascinating article in the Fall 2006 issue of the Journal of Social History. Professor Adler looked into the conviction rates of murderers in Chicago in the early twentieth century- what he found was that convictions were relatively infrequent. Partly this was due to prosecutorial incompetence- many of the coroners say were elected political appointees and lacked expertise, many of the prosecuting lawyers were inexperienced and untrained. Partly it was due to the fact that juries were often packed politically or were filled with 'Fridays', men who turned up to get the penny paid for Jury Service. But partly it came down to what is the most interesting conclusion of his research- the attitude of juries and of ordinary citizens of Chicago to murder.

From 1827 onwards, in the state of Illinois, jurors were the judges not merely of fact but of law as well. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, juries routinely disregarded Judges and Lawyers in coming to their decisions. It seemed to some observers, that to quote Charles S. Deenan, that when faced with a murderer, the jury 'is inclined to say when a man is tried for murder: `It is his first offense. We might as well let him go.' Many jurors beleived that if a man was insulted by another man he had just cause to kill the other man- self defence in Chicago was expanded to include insults to honour as well as to person. Furthermore jurors often accepted arguments that no man could be guilty of murder if the victim had had an affair with, insulted or assaulted his wife or sister or mother. Jurors often found that no murder had been committed if a fight was fair or if the victims were ethnic. Equally despite the law minimising the importance of intent, jurors often would not convict anyone where there was a doubt that they intended to kill someone- so a jury would release someone who placed a spittoon on the head of a barman and attempted to shoot it off, missed and killed the barman. Another jury released a man who had driven his car along the pavement and killed several pedestrians. As in both cases there was doubt not over the crime but over the intent to kill, the jury decided that the men were innocent.

Jurors though did convict more on certain crimes that violated their norms. So for example if a black was killed, the chances of a conviction were low, but a black murdering a white would find that his chances of acquittal were also low. Intriguingly as well, juries were particularly aggressive against wife murderers- 7% of murders in Chicago between 1875 and 1920 were murders of wives by husbands but 14% of executions involved those murderers. Juries objected to uxoricide largely because they considered it premeditated, it violated ideas of fairness (women being beneath the notice in some way of men) and it was cowardly. Unfair, cowardly and premeditated killings were hated by jurors and consequently anyone who committed one would be in a bad position as far as conviction went.

Professor Adler has undoubtedly done some excellent work and accumulated some brilliant data- he agrees that Chicago was unique because of the status of the jury trial under the Illinois statute however he considers it typical insofar as the attitudes of juries in Chicago were pretty much universal across the nation. Professor Adler's evidence is intriguing- it demonstrates how even the concept of murder is culturally constructed and changes over time. For a Chicago man of 1920 shooting someone in a bar after a quarrel was barely murder: for a modern audience it might seem more suspicious. This is a fascinating paper and more studies like this need to be done- the evidence on uxoricide is particularly interesting, many of the same jurors would have been happy with wife beating but unhappy with uxoricide, an interesting counterposition.

Much more may be gleaned from this research than this brief survey can account for, but I reccomend it to people as an interesting piece which makes one rethink exactly what murder is and how historically contingent our own thoughts about it are.

The Dangers of Conspiracy Theories

Polly Toynbee illustrates today in the Guardian the dangers of thinking in terms of conspiracies. She alleges that there has been a vast rightwing conspiracy to undermine the present budget and attack Gordon Brown, she cites the usual suspects, thundering editorials from the Times and Telegraph, slips by ex-cabinet secretaries and the murmerings of Blairites. Anyone attacking Brown is performing a role in a drama scripted by the Tories who are merely copying, George Bush. Anyone- even Sir Andrew Turnbull- who speaks out against Brown cannot claim that they are making an innocent mistake or criticising Brown on honest grounds: everyone must unite to repel the darkness.

Polly doesn't mention one leading candidate for such a role, a piece in a popular daily newspaper, by a leading leftwing commentator, which lambasted Brown as giving a budget which allows Cameron to attack him easily, a budget which removed his room for movement and made him a sitting target for the Conservative party- a budget which has disappointed his friends and cheered his enemies- a budget which confirms the impression that Brown is a cautious Scot stuck in a 'twilight zone of uncertainty'. And who wrote this piece, it must have been upon the orders of George Osborne in this new Bush-lite campaign to attack the Labour leader presumptive- who wrote it, who has joined the conspiracy.

Why Polly its you- welcome to the fold- now do you see the dangers of thinking that every comment against Brown is part of a strategy against him- methinks a bit more caution in the future about generalisations like that would be in order. There is undoubtedly a campaign to get Brown- and the Tories would be pretty pathetic if there wasn't, just like Labour have a plan to get Cameron- but not every hostile comment to Cameron or Brown is part of the campaign- or Polly we might have to ask you about your article of a couple of days ago.

Star Maps

I have just found a fascinating website called Wikisky which gives you a star map, which can orientate to reflect the sky over the place where you live and where you can click on a star or galaxy and they link to articles about that part of the nightsky. Such are the things which need noting in this world.

April 01, 2007

Britain's place in Great Power Politics

It is often unrecognised that the Bush administration came to power in 2001 with a clear set of foreign policy priorities, which were emphatically not about the creation of stability and democracy in the Middle East, but were about the Great Powers and the new emerging powers of China and India. As Daniel Drezner chronicles in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs the Bush administration has made more progress on this front than one might expect. It has pushed for engagement with China on a whole range of issues, recognised the Indian nuclear capability, attempted to adjust IMF voting ratings and also pushed for the reform of the composition of the United Nations Security Council. As Drezner argues such moves make sense for the United States, they open up the possibility of coopting India and China into a global framework, rather than seeing new alliances develop in different parts of the world which would undermine global peace.

What Drezner also argues is that this would weaken the position of the United States's traditional allies, the European partners who America aided in the last world war and who it supported in the Cold War. For Drezner an increase in the power of the Asian Behemoths will lead to a reduction in the power of the aged European powers. The problem for a British administration is how to deal with this reorientation of intentions- should we object for instance should our security council seat be taken from us and given to India or to Brazil even, should we object if we lost votes in the IMF and in other international organisations. How should we see our role in the world that Drezner is talking about?

It is interesting in this context to observe that the UK is the fifth largest military spender in the world at the moment, and the four countries ahead of her are all members of the UN security council. One of the reasons that we spend so much upon defence is for the influence that supposedly it guarentees us within the councils of the globe- guns and troops buy us seats on international bodies and the ability to intervene diplomatically in conflicts like that in Sierra Leone. There is though a natural problem for us with this- and that is that the UK's position is gradually being economically eroded. More and more we shall have relatively less and less to spend, in comparison with other nations- so even if we maintain defence spending at current levels, others like China, India, Pakistan, Brazil etc will be able to pass us with ease and outspend us at will. In addition given Drezner's argument and the levels of influence that the British have had over Iraq- it remains an interesting question as to what our military power even now manages to buy us.

There is of course the argument then that by weakening our forces we would weaken the Western Alliance as a whole. There are two problems with this suggestion. The first being that it seems unjust to argue that the UK ought to maintain forces without having influence over what happens to them when in theatre- in Iraq for instance the cosmetic delivery of British units into Baghdad just before the US elections in 2004 was widely ridiculed on this side of the Atlantic as an example of how servile the British were to the Americans. The second issue would be whether the resources devoted to the military might be best spent in other ways- in improving education for example, into research which would benefit the West but also the UK economy- perhaps even reinvigorating manufacturing.

In many ways we face dilemmas not unfamiliar to the British before. Since the end of the second world war, British Prime Ministers have had to face the fact that they have ruled not a superpower but a great power. The readjustment that our fathers and grandfathers had to come to was a readjustment of the reach of British power- from the days of 1953 when the UK could overthrow Iranian governments to now when we can do little for our troops arrested by the Iranians is a long way down. It may be though that in the next generation we have to cope with a further reduction of global reach. That's not to say that our foreign policy need not be independent and virtuous- the Norway route of becoming a country which specialises in peacekeeping and conflict resolution, or the Australian route of becoming a regional ally to the United States are open- what is not open is the current global deputy sherrif game.

British Foreign policy will look a lot different in a world governed by a big three of China, India and America from what it looked like under a big three of Russia, America and Britain- it will look a lot different from today. In many ways this is the debate which hasn't yet started in Britain- amidst the confusion of the Iraq war- the real question for the UK is about what our role in future global politics will be. It may be less prominent. Our task is to make sure that it is as effective at building or helping others to build the kind of world in which we would like to live.