A foreign policy for Brexit?

Sir Ivan Rogers: Britain's ambassador to the EU leaving the EU Summit in Brussels

Britain's ambassador to the European Union Ivan Rogers is pictured leaving the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, on 28 June 2016. © REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

Brexit both contains and is creating uncertainties that will have an impact on international relations and security policy in Europe. How will it be possible to navigate them? asks Dan Smith.

Brexit both contains and is creating abounding unknowns and uncertainties. These will have an impact on many aspects of international relations and security policy in Europe. How will it be possible to navigate them?

Unwelcome advice and its consequences

Some of the uncertainties are in the limelight because of the resignation of Britain’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers. From his email to his staff announcing and explaining the resignation, we glean that,
  1. ‘Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.’
  2. The make-up of the UK’s negotiating team has not yet been decided.
  3. Nor has the mechanism for harmonising the London and Brussels parts of the negotiating process.
  4. The government does not like inconvenient advice.

Rogers’ replacement is doubtless competent and clever. UK Foreign Office staff have a deserved reputation for being so. But Rogers was said to know the EU better than any other senior civil servant. The former head of the Treasury, Lord McPherson, described Rogers’ departure as part of the government’s ‘wilful and total destruction of EU expertise.’

It looks a pretty muddled state of affairs, six months on from Theresa May becoming Prime Minister, less than three months before the negotiations on British withdrawal and a new trading relationship are set to start.

Whither Britain?

Worse, with the ship barely ready and the crew not on board, there also seems little idea about where to go. The EU referendum answered one big question but opened the way for more. It’s fine to run the flag up the mast; now, where are we off to?

The UK has to work out a new relationship with the world’s largest economic and political bloc, with which it currently conducts half its international trade. It has close military ties with most EU states in NATO. But who knows what sort of EU it will be by the end of 2017? Elections in March (the Netherlands), April-May (France) and September (probably) (Germany) could each mark a milestone on the road to somewhere or other.

The global setting is the epitome of uncertainty. The Middle East remains an arena of interlinked conflicts and insecurity; British special forces are in action in Syria alongside French and US forces. The EU (temporarily including Britain) has persistent tensions and disputes with Russia but President Trump’s inauguration is looming and his attitude seems different. The US-China relationship, on which such economic stability as there has been for the last two decades has depended, may well be up-ended in short order once Trump is in the White House.

Brexit negotiations will cover many issues – finance, trade, market access, investment, citizenship and residency rights, police cooperation, counter terrorism and more. The outcome will do a lot to define the UK’s social and economic trajectory in the coming decade. A foreign policy framework is an unavoidable part of the picture. It is part of shaping the goals as well as the tactics of negotiation. It will define some important content of an agreement, such as over cooperation in advanced military technologies. And it will be what makes sense (or not) of the link between a UK-EU agreement and how British interests are defined, supported and advanced in relations with China, India, the US, Russia and other powers.

So what is the foreign policy for Brexit?

The broad options

Since the end of World War II, UK foreign policy has charted a course with three different guiding stars, each one a pole of attraction for different and fluctuating sections of political and public opinion and the policy world:
  1. Close alliance with the US;
  2. An independent world role;
  3. Focus on the EU.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive foreign policy options. Listen closely to Churchill or Thatcher and you hear a harmony of one and two – the US alliance and the world role. Listen to Heath or Major and you hear one and three – the US and the EU. Listen to Blair and it’s all three at once. The history of 70 years of British foreign policy can essentially be told as a history of strife and compromise between these three options and their adherents.

Theresa May is to make a major Brexit speech some time in January. Reportedly, it will set out a vision. If it includes foreign policy writ large, what could it envision? Not the focus on the EU, obviously.

The independent world role option is likely to look quite outmoded to many observers, redolent of Empire as it is. But that is also what makes it popular in middle England (not so much in Scotland, Wales or Ireland, I would guess). This well known clip of anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage retrospectively disowning the claim that leaving the EU will save the UK £350 million a week has a nice little moment at the end, when he says Britain leaving the EU can get closer with the Commonwealth. Exploring that option seriously would take one straight to India, the biggest Commonwealth economy. But India is probably not much interested in a trade deal with Britain unless the latter eases restrictions on immigration – not exactly what the Brexiteers have in mind. However, the Commonwealth Farage, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and others probably mean in their hearts is not the whole thing but Canada, Australia and New Zealand – CANZUK. Whatever else one thinks about it, this group hardly carries the economic and political weight Britain has been used to being part of through the EU. There is also a non-Imperial version of an independent world role for Britain – full non-alignment. This has been pretty much invisible since the end of the Cold War, having had some marginal support in the Labour Party in the 1980s.

Of course, as Brexit tells us, as Trump tells us – what is marginal today may be centre stage tomorrow. Nonetheless, British withdrawal from NATO isn’t on any significant political agenda right now and a neo-Imperial revival isn’t on history’s agenda either. Since the latter sounds reassuring in the Brexit heartlands, however, I would not be surprised to see a pragmatic version of it surface in a Prime Ministerial speech.

The obvious option

At the start of December, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave his first major foreign policy speech (first of a series, he said). It ranged from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to elephants but gave only a few clues about the UK’s foreign policy priorities. Its vagueness and lack of depth did not shock those who take seriously rumours and reports of Johnson’s dilettantish approach to high office. Two big priorities emerged: one was ‘sticking up for a liberal international order’ with strong institutions; the other was close alliance with the US. It makes sense: in the logic of Britain since 1945, if Europe is ruled out, the US is of necessity ruled in.

This will be comfortable – almost the default selection – for many politicians, civil servants and commentators. The ‘special relationship’ with the US was the bedrock of UK security and foreign policy from Churchill to Blair.

But the times, as somebody said, are a-changing. Since 1945, US policy has combined national interest with upholding the liberal international order and its institutions. There has also always been an isolationist, America-first strand of US opinion. Its importance has waxed and waned. Successive Presidents have intermittently used it to browbeat European and other allies into acquiescence with various policies. It has never dominated policy making.

Now, of course, it might. It is a fiendish irony of a foreign policy for Brexit that its logic entails moving away from the EU that until recently desperately wanted Britain, towards the US that, notwithstanding kind words for Brexit itself, may soon be less concerned about the British and European part of the world than ever before. If the Trump administration takes a very different approach towards Russia than the Obama administration and the EU including Britain have done since the Russian move into Crimea in 2014, what then? Does the British government, seeking to cosy up with the US, break ranks with the rest of its NATO allies? Will dependence on the US trump all else?

Or another option

An alternative probably lies only in a further and deeper break with the UK’s foreign policy traditions. Could there be a foreign policy that is neither EU-focused, nor US-compliant, nor Empire-nostalgic (nor, indeed, non-aligned dreaming)?

Such a policy would be so far removed from the preferences and worldview of almost all politicians, civil servants and commentators that it hardly seems worth trying to work out what it would look like. Which international institutions would it focus on and how? What would it mean to be an ally of the US with an independent mindset? What other allies could Britain have for what components of policy? Might it be possible to be part of some EU policy but not all? What new relationships might it seek? Which old relationships would be less important and which ones might be re-energised?

It would be as big a break with the orthodoxy as the Brexit vote was. Which means, I guess, that it is worth some thought. Greater independence was, after all, a theme of the referendum campaign. Working out different versions of that goal in the domain of foreign policy would contribute to a necessary part of the Brexit debate in these times and who knows to what it might contribute some years hence? Overall, the effort does not seem inappropriate.

This blog originally appeared on Dan Smith’s website.

When all bets are off

Donald Trump gives a V sign

Marc Nozell under a Creative Commons Licence

Tolerance, facts, dialogue. Donald Trump may not value them – but that is exactly why we must, argues Dan Smith.

Love or loathe the US election result, it feels like all bets are off. Once again, odds have been defied, opinion polls disproven, and what many people long thought was politically marginal and outside the realm of possibility has become mainstream and a fact. In a world already characterized by growing uncertainty, there is now more: primarily, does he really mean it in practice? Of a few things, we can be sure, however, and to them we must hold tight.

Facts matter. Dialogue works. Tolerance heals.

The rise of conservative populism reflected by Brexit and this election has not yet played out. Like the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, it will be contagious. Success is encouraging. Despite its often chauvinistic ways and the indeterminate shape of the political profiles and ideology of its main protagonists, populism in one country will for a while draw strength from the example of another. Those who dislike it had better learn to do better than repetitively squeal with shock.

As the clouds of uncertainty swirl, values matter more than ever. Let me suggest three. All seem imperilled these days. Number one, facts matter. From Michael Gove saying the UK is fed up with experts (ironic, coming from a former UK Secretary of State for Education) to former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich saying that what people feel matters more than facts for describing how things are, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to sustain concern that we live in a post-fact age.

Well, no thanks. Facts matter more than perception alone. Truth counts more than untruth. Facts are not a value but respect for them is. Number two, we need more attention to the values embedded in dialogue. Numerous commentators have noted a decline in political civility. Debate has always been about scoring points but it was also about achieving clarity by counterposing differing points of view. Increasingly, political debate has become a shouting match. In dialogue, by contrast, listening is as important as speaking clearly. Sometimes it is even worth listening a little harder to the shouts and jeers. It is time to stand up for something different, grounded on more mutual respect.

And that leads to number three, tolerance. Not just for different skin hue, nationality, religion and sexual preference. But for different points of view. Conservative populism actually makes a very strong point about the arrogance and intolerance of a political elite that is metropolitan and cosmopolitan. It is also true that the spokespeople for populism are themselves part of the elite they excoriate. But that doesn’t let the guardians of the political mainstream off the hook of their own shortcomings. It is a chronic problem in democratic polities. The result is visible in the polarized political worlds of the US and many European countries. Concern about where current political developments are taking us both in national and international politics cannot be blind to the impact of that polarization on policy and politics. For overcoming it, a more thought-through tolerance will be key.

Which brings me to something underlying all three – not an ethical value but a cast of mind: the propensity to think that thought also matters. The first answer that jumps to anybody’s mind isn’t always the right one. Even if it turns out to be, it will probably be an even better idea if we think it through a bit more. We don’t all have to be experts, we just need to care enough to take some time to reflect about things.

If candidate Trump’s headline-grabbing soundbites about climate change being a Chinese invention, not caring much about alliances, walling up against Mexico, ‘extreme vetting’ of Muslim immigrants (replacing his previously touted temporary ban proposal), and others – drive US policy in the coming years, consequences could indeed be serious. In these difficult times, we only really have a chance to defend gains that have been made for peace, prosperity and reducing the damage we do to nature, and we can only make a new start towards a better future, if we stick by some core values.

Facts matter. Dialogue works. Tolerance heals.

Dan Smith is Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a part-time Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manchester, where he is affiliated with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

This blog originally appeared on Dan Smith's website.

Bombing in the Middle East again: three easy questions

President Obama

President Obama has decided that the rules he imposed last year to prevent or at least minimize civilian casualties from drone strikes will not apply in the present bombing campaign against ISIS. DVIDSHUB under a Creative Commons Licence

The West is a couple of weeks into the latest air campaign in the Middle East, targeting the group we know among other names as ISIS. It is too early to see an outcome on the ground. The first test of its success is Kobane on northern Syria’s border with Turkey. As the fighting goes on, it seems the bombing could not halt ISIS’ continuing advance to the town though there are claims it has started to have an impact on the street-to-street fighting. Amid the uncertainties on the ground, three questions remain relevant.

With apologies

In case anybody is offended by the apparently flippant tone of these questions, apologies in advance. It’s a product of frustration at the way these issues are debated in the UK and elsewhere: Here they are:
1. Has the West ever done anything like this before in this region?
2. How did that go?
3. What is the definition of madness?
Now read on.


We need no reminding that ISIS has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria and has declared itself the caliphate and Islamic State. Likewise, we know it revels in promoting itself worldwide with videos displaying its brutality and barbarism. It is a truly awful organization even if, lest we forget, it has not killed nearly as many people as the Assad regime has in Syria.

We should need equally little reminding that, despite its name and claims, the organization does not represent Islam. It has been condemned repeatedly by leading Muslims including British Muslim leaders and Egypt’s senior religious authority. Its declaration of a ‘caliphate’ – the establishment of the authority of the Prophet Mohammed’s successor over all Muslims – lacks all credibility and has been denounced by representatives of almost every strand of Muslim opinion. Its actions are justified by nothing except its leaders’ and fighters’ twisted view of the world.

The case for air strikes

These points are important because they combine to make the core of the case for the West, together with some Arab allies, to use military force against ISIS. Some advocates put a few layers round this core, primarily the argument that if we do not fight them ‘over there’, we will end up having to fight them ‘over here’. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken to the UN General Assembly about ‘the mortal threat we all face’ from ISIS. The extra layers seem to be quite popular, appealing to fears that have real foundations if one thinks back to bombs in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.

ISIS is more likely to be a threat ‘over here’ if the West attacks it ‘over there’ than if it is left alone

In their simple, everyday politics form, these additions are not especially persuasive. It is not clear exactly why ISIS would attack the West if the West did not attack it but terror strikes in response to attacks on it seem a rational response and quite likely. And if Western actions defeat ISIS on the battlefield, why that would make clandestine terror actions impossible is also unclear. More likely, an inability to win on the battlefield will make clandestine terror a more attractive tactic. Suppress the problem in one place and it will appear in another. Its ability to do this should not be doubted, thanks to international recruitment and because it is the richest group of its kind in the world, while successful strikes by the West give it a clear motive. In short, ISIS is more likely to be a threat ‘over here’ if the West attacks it ‘over there’ than if it is left alone.

A better case can be made, that, because it is actually seizing and controlling territory, it will have a profound impact on stability in the region. But the pragmatic, self-interested security case for the West’s military campaign is weak.

Such objections are not relevant, however, if you just focus on the core argument that ISIS is terrible and must be stopped. It has not been more eloquently or vividly expressed than by the avowedly anti-war Tim Stanley, who thinks ‘bombing rarely helps anyone’ but who, writing for The Telegraph blog, calls bombing Iraq ‘an act of mercy’. He puts it this way: ‘When a shark swims towards a group of people stranded in the water, what do you do? You shoot the shark. Conservation be damned.’

The shark and the people

But it’s not so simple. First of all, the shark is not heading towards the people; it’s already among them and looks a lot like them. Though ISIS has regular military formations, it is also in control of territory and functions by infiltration as well as frontal attack. This may be why President Obama has decided that the rules he imposed last year to prevent or at least minimize civilian casualties from drone strikes will not apply in the present bombing campaign against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. So the ‘act of mercy’ argument falls at its first and simplest hurdle: its impracticality, recognized at the highest levels, eliminates the action’s apparent moral clarity.

It might give advocates of air strikes some further pause for thought if they took note of reported scepticism among some of the very groups the strikes are intended to support – the Syrian opposition.

What would success look like?

Even if those difficulties did not exist, the strategic purpose and shape of the mission are unclear. Yes, to degrade and defeat ISIS – but exactly how? As Mehdi Hasan, UK political director of The Huffington Post, tweeted on the day of the House of Commons debate, ‘The definition of “victory”? In General Petraeus’ famous phrase: “Tell me how this ends”. Can anyone?’

There are two components to the argument here: one is military, going from tactical aspects to strategic; the second is political. That air strikes alone will not suffice is a commonplace of current commentary, confirmed by a recent head of British armed forces. And as General Sir David Richards pointed out when saying air strikes would not do the job against a tank-equipped conventional enemy that is ready to fight, this does raise the issue of who will provide the rest of what’s needed.

On the ground: allies or boots?

In Syria the opposition to ISIS consists of Assad and allies whom the West won’t support, Islamist groups (including those allied with al-Qaeda) that the West hasn’t wanted to support though some of its Arab allies have, and a weaker opposition that the West has tried to support but which seems to be getting steadily less effective. Indeed, in Syria, which groups Western force will aim to support may still be an open question. Kurdish forces offer committed and solidly organized resistance to ISIS but their strength should not be over-emphasized. The Kurdish YPG militia has appeared unable alone to prevent ISIS entering Kobane.

The unquestioned politics of it and the default resort to force get in the way of every other possible action to remedy deep-seated ills that these same actors have inflicted on the region over many decades

In Iraq, the lavishly trained and equipped Iraqi army has proven wholly unable to resist ISIS. The Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq have a reputation forged out of long years of battle with Iraqi government forces but whether they remain as capable now as in earlier years has not been put to the test. In any case, they may be tougher defending their homeland than in mounting an offensive. Not surprisingly, then, the once reviled Mahdi Army, a Shi’a force against which US ire and force were concentrated repeatedly during the attempt to stabilize Iraq, has drawn some attention.

How strange, if the West’s best hope for protecting ourselves against the mortal threat of ISIS turns out to be Assad in Syria, and Muqtada al-Sadr and the forces of a would-be state the West has steadfastly refused to recognize for 90 years.

Or else, as General Richards said, there is always the possibility of Western Boots. On the ground. In Iraq. Again. And in Syria.

Politics, ideology and, of course, history

Beyond this warning that air power is not enough to achieve the military objective, the other thing that, as one commentator said, is a matter of ‘common sense and natural wisdom’, is that neither will nor military power alone bring peace. Nor military power plus state-building on the lines of the US approach in Iraq since 2003 and Afghanistan since 2001. That the confrontation with ISIS has to be more than military seems, to be fair, well understood in the US administration, but several commentators have pointed out that the track record shows US administrations ill-suited to successfully operating with a more rounded approach.

More fundamentally, however, this is a political and ideological issue. ISIS sprang from al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and broke away in 2013. The roots of ISIS, like al-Qaeda, go back into networks of political militants and romantics in, above all, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s. The driving forces behind their rise and continuing appeal will not be addressed and weakened without political change both in the Middle East and in relations between the West and the Middle East.

Broadly speaking and simplifying massively, they need accountable instead of arbitrary authority (that’s what the democratic movement of 2011 and since has been all about) while we – the West – need to behave with a bit of respect. Those two things would be a good start, at least.

But none of that is going to happen quickly. Instead, the arrogant West aligns with unaccountable Arab rulers. The unquestioned politics of it and the default resort to force get in the way of every other possible action to remedy deep-seated ills that these same actors have inflicted on the region over many decades.

The fog

And so we return to the uncertainties. The fog of war is swirling, made thicker by the foggy politics of Western intervention and even foggier Middle Eastern politics. There is a lot that is not known about what is happening on the ground. This is war and truth is always one of its casualties. Air strikes could slow ISIS and encourage the emergence of new coalitions of fighting forces in Syria and Iraq. In these wars, forces wax and wane because groups make transitional alliances of convenience. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there will be developments across the next few weeks that give grounds for those who advocate and those who are carrying out air strikes to feel optimistic and anticipate success. How long that optimism might endure is another matter. There have been optimistic moments before, not least in Iraq, several times.

Thus, my questions: have we been here before, with what results, and why does that not encourage our political leaders to think again?

This article was originally published on Dan Smith’s blog on 8 October. Crossposted with permission of the author.

Syria: the pace quickens — but towards what?

Air strikes would cause yet more devastation in Syria.

Cynthia Yildrim

The prospect of military action against the Assad regime by western powers has become increasingly real. Soon it may be all but inevitable. But what kind of action, for what purpose, in the service of what larger strategy? All this remains obscure.


Evidence of massive civilian casualties in northeastern suburbs of Damascus emerged on Wednesday 21 August. By the weekend, Médecins sans Frontières offered compelling and impartial evidence of the horror – over 3,000 patients presenting symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic agents on the morning of the attack, of whom 355 died. Only five days after the attack, increased activity was reported at the British Akrotiri air base in Cyprus. Meanwhile there was a UN investigation team in Syria investigating earlier allegations of nerve gas use by both sides; diplomatic pressure, with cooperation from Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, got it access to the new attack sites, though as it started work it was shot at by unidentified snipers.

For many people, the issue of evidence will be the big one, especially after it turned out Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons after all. The conservative Telegraph is clear that the first condition for approving military action is that it be legal and legitimate, which means the evidence must be unassailable.

A full scale intervention to ensure the victory of the anti-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policy makers

It is not clear how far the evidence will go, however. The UN investigation team is there to collect blood and soil samples so as to analyze what happened. But their mandate does not include identifying who did it. At the end of their efforts we may have proof that a horrible crime has been committed but not by whom - even if we think reasonable deduction points one way rather than the other. Reportedly, US analysis of the evidence will be released in the next few days but unless the US has agents on the ground and is willing to go public about them, it’s hard to see in advance what more its evidence will show than the UN’s.

To my mind, however, the evidence is far from the most important part of the story. It is an obvious logical point that if the evidence offers unvarnished and unspun proof of grotesque criminality, that does not mean that any action that follows is therefore justified. The argument will depend not only on the strength of the moral case but also on other factors including what action is planned and with what intended outcome.

Action and Scenarios

The predominant image of likely action seems to be air or missile strikes and perhaps increased arms supplies to the anti-Assad forces. For the time being, the prospect of forces on the ground seems not to be a real option in almost anybody’s mind. Thankfully.

I remain of the opinion that a full scale intervention to ensure the victory of the anti-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policy makers in particular as well as a scenario in which war continued for a long time. This would bleed the power and weaken the regional influence not just of Assad but of Iran, a much bigger prize.

It’s a grisly scenario and contains nothing but misery for the people of Syria. I am not surprised to find arch-realist Edward Luttwak, author inter alia of the pleasingly titled article, ‘Give War a Chance’, setting out his view in the New York Times at the weekend that an enduring stalemate in Syria is the only viable policy option for the US. He argues it can be simply achieved by arming the insurgents until they are doing well, then denying them arms till they are doing badly, then arming them, then not.

Limited strike

What seems most likely, has started to feature in the political debate and is wholly compatible with a long-term strategy of bleeding Assad’s regime and its backers is a limited missile strike. This avoids the risks of a major intervention but has nothing else to recommend it.

Of course, if judged by the criterion of ending the conflict or tipping the balance of advantage decisively towards the insurgents, a limited strike will not achieve anything. But there are some proponents of a strike who will come out and say that is part of the point.

Moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has already set out the ground for this. He said that the action would be purely a response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more: ‘What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another.’

In this sentiment he’s joined by Labour leader Ed Miliband who has set three conditions for offering his party’s support to a strike against Assad, one of which is that the action must be ‘specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.’

This seems quite likely to become the centre ground consensus, the moderate view, the political common sense of the day. So let me be very careful and nuanced in expressing my own perspective on it.

It is barking mad. And cruel too.

The success record of limited strikes

It is cruel because it will raise expectations of escalation among Syrians who want Assad overthrown, only for them to be dashed with the passage of time.

And it is mad for two reasons. First, taken on its own terms, there is no reason to expect it will work. What is the record?

Remember US missile strikes against actual and suspected al-Qaeda targets in the 1990s? I would not argue that they caused 9/11 but they did nothing to deter it. Or how about the US air strikes against Libya’s Qadafi in 1986? Again, I won’t argue they caused the Lockerbie bombing two years later but they did nothing to deter it.

Second, it is mad because you cannot launch missiles at a state involved in a civil war and think you are having no impact on that. It surely does not need to be said that if Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, that is as part of that same civil war. This is not some other, separate issue. To launch missile strikes without having a clear idea of how they fit into the bigger picture is indeed madness.

A peaceful goal needs peaceful means

And that is the problem, the bigger picture into which missile strikes fit is slowly bleeding Syria and its main regional backer, Iran. The bigger picture that might bring something like real peace to Syria does not include missile strikes.

It is not an easy argument to make for moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons is the obvious civilized reaction. But moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy. To repeat points I made when last I wrote on Syria, before they can start playing a useful role in building a more peaceful future for the country, western leaders need to understand three things: 1. They cannot do it alone. 2. If they seek a military option, it will not be easy. 3. If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria among others.

The use of chemical weapons is awful. But nothing about them changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If that is not the primary goal of western power then their policy is wrong-headed and duplicitous. If it is the prime goal, then missile strikes are wrong-headed.

This article was originally published on Dan Smith's blog.

Dan Smith is Secretary General of International Alert, based in London, and former Director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also author of The State of the World Atlas, 'The Atlas of War and Peace' and 'The State of the Middle East'.

What will happen when the MDGs expire?

UN flag
The UN High Level Panel report has a universal focus USAID, under a CC License

The UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has reported. The UN General Assembly is expected to agree on something to replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September 2015 and the HLP’s report has ignited the debate.

The report focuses on a universal agenda. That is, it is about development of and for all countries, not just low income countries. And it brings peace in from the cold where the current MDGs left it.

Five shifts & twelve goals

To drive the new agenda forward, the HLP features five ‘transformative shifts’:
1. ‘Leave no one behind’ – end extreme poverty ‘in all its forms’
2. ‘Put sustainable development at the core’
3. ‘Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth’
4. ‘Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all’
5. ‘Forge a new global partnership’

The HLP has finessed the argument about how concrete to get in explaining the big vision by setting out twelve ‘illustrative’ goals, themselves broken down into 54 ‘illustrative’ targets.

The twelve goals are:
1. End poverty (meaning extreme poverty – people living on below $1.25 a day)
2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning
4. Ensure healthy lives
5. Ensure food security and good nutrition
6. Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
7. Secure sustainable energy
8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
9. Manage natural resource assets sustainably
10. Ensure good governance and effective institutions
11. Ensure stable and peaceful societies
12. Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance

There will be plenty of back and forth about whether they have included everything. But by focusing on the big issues, the HLP has focused the debate on development as an overall process rather than on aid and the technical details of implementing aid projects.

$1.25 a day

But there is need for much more discussion. The report makes the global clarion call to end ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. That would indeed be a great achievement. However, a poverty line is an odd thing. The $1.25 a day level is the average poverty line of the 15 poorest countries in the world calculated in 2005 prices (for comparison, the US poverty line is $63 a day).

Today about 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. So beware: if the effort to ‘lift’ everybody above the $1.25 mark is narrowly focused, there is likely to be some statistical bunching not far above the $1.25 line, with the goal achieved yet the number living below $2 a day staying almost static.

How to avoid this seems to me to be a major issue for poverty alleviation in the coming few years. The HLP’s answer is to go for ‘equitable economic growth.’ I’m not quite sure I remember what that is: in Britain, three years under the coalition government headed by one of the HLP’s co-chairs have given us 1.1 per cent economic growth and an increase in youth unemployment from 20 to 22 per cent.

If the HLP has neatly set out what the aim is, it remains to discuss how to get there and what things have to change so that we can get there.

Peace and the institutions of security

The four targets for the peace goal offer a partial combination of the what and the how:
1. Reduce violent deaths and eliminate all forms of violence against children
2. Ensure justice institutions are accessible, independent and fair
3. Stem the external stressors that lead to conflict
4. Make security forces, police and judiciary more capable and accountable

Even reading these alongside the accompanying goal and targets on good governance, it is clear that the HLP’s work on building peace has looked more at the formal than the informal institutions and focused more on authority (and the mechanisms that make authority accountable and responsible) than on social interaction.

The HLP’s implicit theory of peace thus omits dialogue, mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation, whose necessity is underscored by experience. As debate proceeds, while protecting what is good about the HLP report – especially its political rather than technocratic focus and its universalism – we need also to strengthen it in places.

This is an edited version of a post published on Dan Smith’s blog. Read the full version: ‘International development post-2015’ here.

The unequal state of the world

The state of the world is not just one thing.

Each of the five big issues I have been highlighting in my recent blogs (wealth and poverty, war and peace, human rights and democracy, health of people and health of the planet) and in The State of the World Atlas is complex, prospects for progress on them are not the same for each, and the interactions between them add further layers of uncertain outcome. At the same time, people and their circumstances are highly diverse and a world system that gives a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs to one group of people is torturing another.

So I thought that in the next few weeks I would highlight a few of the facts and sometimes paradoxes about our condition today, that struck me as I prepared the atlas.

Readers of the atlas will know I am a qualified optimist. On three of the five big issues (peace, democracy and people’s health) progress has been made but there remains much to do. On the other two – wealth and poverty and the health of the planet – we are currently heading in the wrong direction. And among the biggest obstacles to making further progress is inequality.


Some inequality is all right, necessary, arguably even positive. It provides incentives for personal improvement. But when 0.000016% of the world’s population holds 16% of its economic output, something grotesque has happened. The relationship between those two figures is 1 million to one. So if you thought (as I do not) that everybody should own exactly the same amount, that 0.000016% of the world’s population owns a million times more than they ought to.

Increasing life expectancy is a good indicator of social progress and because it’s an average, it’s a reasonable indicator about the spread of the benefits of progress. But averages also mask a great deal. The average life expectancy in the UK these days is over 80. But for the homeless in England (and probably the rest of the UK but the England statistics are all I saw), the average life expectancy is reduced by 30 years to a level that’s about the same as in war-torn, impoverished Afghanistan and Central African Republic.


Billionaires by the way were hard hit by the financial crash of 2008 (as you would expect since so much of their wealth is paper assets). Before the crash, a world total of 1,125 dollar billionaires owned $4.4 trillion worth of everything. In 2008-9 the numbers sank: there were only 793 billionaires in the whole world and they owned by $2.4 trillion. But just 2011, billionaires were on the up once more, their numbers growing to 1,210 individuals owning $4.5 trillion.

This does, by the way, imply that there is a little more equality between billionaires these days than there was before the crash, which may or may not mean something.

The recovery of the billionaires is doubtless cheering news to the 400,000 residents of Athens who were receiving free food daily during 2012.

Many of the ways in which we have understood our divided world over the past 40 or 50 years have been becoming steadily less cogent in the last decade or so. In particular, a division of the world into poor countries and rich countries, in which we imagine that poor countries are where poor people live, is becoming actively misleading. There are more poor people in India than in any other country, India with a space programme, an overseas aid programme and 450% economic growth over the last 20 years (compared to the EU’s 130%, the USA’s 155% and China’s 1000%).

This looks likely to be a pattern for the coming period, with most poor people living in middle-income countries, not the poorest ones.

However, don’t run away with the notion that the distinctions between rich and poor countries have wholly collapsed. GNI per head is 200 times higher in the richest countries than the poorest.

The lead Millennium Development Goal was to reduce extreme poverty by a half by 2015, and the world is on track for that, mainly due to what has happened in China. That seems like progress, even if it is not reducing inequality because the richest few may be rising faster than the multitudinous poor. And indeed it is progress. But this the extreme poverty of living on less than 1 dollar a day (or 1.20 these days – inflation?). Meanwhile, the number of people living on less than 2 dollars a day is 2.6 billion – more than one-third of the world’s population.

Crossposted with permission from Dan Smith’s blog

The latest edition of The State of the World Atlas, a magnificent visual survey of current events and global trends, is currently on sale in the New Internationalist shop.

The State of the World

Today is publication day for the new edition of The State of the World Atlas. It presents information about the world – economics, politics, conflict, health, environment and demography – in a variety of forms, primarily in maps and other visuals, also in text. If you will excuse me, I want to introduce it to you.

coverGolden illusions

This century, though we are not far into it, has already seen the evaporation of two illusory golden ages. After the end of the Cold War in 1989-91, the USA seemed set to enjoy a golden age as the sole superpower while its allies basked in the security it generated. Those comfortable assumptions were detonated in 2001, not only by the force of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and subsequent attacks elsewhere, but also by the wide-reaching, aggressive, and ultimately self-defeating, US “war on terror”. 

Even so, there was a sense that economic growth and prosperity were broadly dependable. There were winners and losers as always, but for most people in the rich world times were pretty good, and for many people in poorer countries conditions were also improving a little. But it was based on an unsustainable and unbalanced system of debt and credit that came to an end with the shattering credit crunch in 2007 and 2008, triggering recession and a financial catastrophe whose full effects had not played out some four or five years later.

The loss of those golden illusions has created an environment that is not conducive to finding bold responses to the give big issues – wealth and poverty, war and peace, rights and respect, and the health both of the people and of the planet.

Wealth and poverty

The world is marked by large inequalities of wealth. Though the proportion of the world’s population that lives in the extreme poverty of less than one dollar a day is declining, progress is slow and more than one third of all people live on less than two dollars a day.

At the start of the century, world leaders undertook to make a major new effort to help developing countries move forward. In the confident spirit of that time, more money was committed and targets were set with a fixed date – 2015. These Millennium Development Goals have guided Western countries’ official development assistance ever since. In the much less confident spirit in which these donor governments are working a decade on, still reeling from the economic aftershocks of 2008, it is clear that there has been progress but the targets will not be met.

The MDG effort is largely an effort of the old world powers. It remains uncertain whether it will be in any sense taken up by the rising powers of China and India. China’s economic out-performance of the US, Europe and the rest of old capitalism has been dramatic since 1990 and staggering sicne 2008, even if the shrinking of its world markets is hurting now. We have yet to see anything like the full political consequences of this.

War and peace

This is not a peaceful world and yet it is more peaceful today than at any time since before the First World War and, some argue, ever. Armed conflict remains a major cause of death, yet by comparison with earlier times, there are markedly fewer wars and they are less lethal. There has been an avalanche of peace agreements in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, and a major, sustained if quiet effort not only to make peace, but then to lay the foundations for long-term peace in conflict-affected countries.

Of course, it’s not a case job done. In many countries, peace hasn’t really been achieved peace but, rather, conflict has been bottled up. Look at what is happening in Belfast these days as an example.

In many countries, there are patterns of violent conflict that are from a different mould than civil wars. They are generated by, and reinforce, a dangerous intersection between crime and politics, and in several cases they revolve around the trade in illegal narcotics.

And there remains a risk that the number of civil wars could increase. The environmental, demographic and economic pressures are there and the governments that have tended to fund peace efforts include several that have been economically hard hit since 2008. Some may conclude they face too many competing calls on economic resources to be able to support long-term peacebuilding.

That’s the risk. But if the UN and those governments can stay focused, a reasonably successful record of building peace will continue.

Rights and respect

In 2012 48 per cent of the world’s population live in established democracies, up from 43 per cent in 2008. Governing in this way is a relatively new development. The trend of history has only been moving in that direction for one or two centuries and until the last 20-25 years it would have been impossible to think of democratic government as the global norm.

Like peace, the democratic trend needs safeguarding. Sadly, when it is well established and the struggle to achieve it has been forgotten, it often seems barely to be taken seriously by those who could most benefit from it.

A good litmus test of the depth of democracy as well the rule of law is respect for human rights. The web of international agreements and laws that support human rights is steadily strengthening, with the result that a brighter light is on shone human rights are abused.

For rights to be real, the responsibility to respect them must also be embraced. In the best functioning communities, there is a balanced sense of rights and responsibilities.  A society that respects human rights is one in which people not only have a clear sense of their rights but also of their duties to each other.

Health of the people

Without our good health, what can we do? Providing for our own and each other’s health is fundamental. Health is a matter both of political choice and of personal responsibility, both government policy and individual behaviour.

In broad terms, health is improving. There is still too much suffering from curable and preventable conditions and, in many countries, the way that psychological disorders are handled is a scandal. But medical science is advancing, the sequencing of the human genome has been worked out, the genetics of cancers are being unlocked, and new treatments are coming through.

Scientific progress alone will not be enough. The main ailments whose incidence is increasing today have social causes – lifestyle diseases whether of poverty or spreading prosperity. On most of these, the cure lies in prevention through education, behavioural change and social progress.

Health of the planet

On top of all this, there is growing awareness about the unfolding crisis in the natural environment. Compared to the other events that have shaped the spirit of our time, changes in the natural environment are slow moving; their timescale is much longer than a four- or five-year political cycle, which is the maximum many of us are used to thinking in. By the standards of 21st-century political culture, they do not deserve the name of crisis at all. But we do seem to be approaching some turning points – some planetary boundaries.

Basic arithmetic shows that the majority of the world’s population will face water scarcity before 2030. As our economic output has soared, we have pumped large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years and the laws of physics say the effect of that is to increase the global average temperature, which is happening. And at the same time, we have generated waste and thrown it away as garbage with abandon and if we go to the right places we can see the consequences of that with our own eyes.

Knowing the world

Our enemies in trying to generate new and better approaches on the environment and on the other four big issues are inequality, unfairness and social exclusion, short termism, and blinkered allegiance to norms and policies that used to be functional. Anything and everything that limits the amount of knowledge that can be brought to bear on a problem and the number of knowledge-holders that can get engaged is an obstacle.

Of course, knowledge is not the same as wisdom. You can know all the facts and still not be able to act wisely. But without knowledge, it is harder to be wise.

There is no new knowledge as such in the atlas but for many people it will be much more available, more accessible in this form than in the statistical tables of the dry reference books and reports from which its drawn. That, at least, is my hope. Helping increase the accessibility of some of the world’s very large store of knowledge and thus making it more useable for wise decisions – that is the ambition of the 9th edition of The State of the World Atlas.

Post originally written by Dan Smith on his blog.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop