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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, as always in such debates, the agenda is wide-ranging, but I shall concentrate on what I regard as the primary event in international affairs in November: the re-election of President Bush and the consequent appointment of Dr Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. I wish to concentrate on one aspect: neo-conservatism. I may cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, but I am prepared to do that.
Neo-conservatism is not a cabal. It is not a mafia. There is not even agreement among those who are neo-cons on how their views should be put into practical political action. Neo-conservatism has been variously described as a "persuasion", a "sensibility", a "tendency" and a view. It is up to us to treat it as a view, rather than a conspiracy. It is with that issue that I want to engage.
The international dimension of neo-conservatism has been defined by somebody whom I regard as the best apostle of the creed and whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, quoted: "They"the neo-cons
"would make democracy possible by deposing dictatorial regimes that threaten American security and world orderusing military force if all else fails; they would follow regime change with nation building; and they would rely on 'coalitions of the willing' rather than on the United Nations".
To that, I would add only the view proclaimed by President Bush in his campaign that peoples should be allowed to choose freedom. I also add the rider, which Secretary Rumsfeld apparently wants even to this day, that nation building should be "stricken from the agenda". After the shambles of Iraq, I cannot blame him for thinking that.
I take the notion of freedom first. It is an attractive slogan, and it is fine as it stands. However, it is almost a cliché to say that there are two sorts of freedom: "freedom from someone or something" and "freedom to do something". It is no good having "freedom from" an oppressive regime without having "freedom to"; for instance, to eat or engage in the legitimate pursuit of happiness. History is littered with instances where people would rather have bread than votes. Without a proper supply of bread, "freedom from" as such makes no sense.
There is, alas, no sign that that point has been fully understood. That is illustrated in the words of Dr Rice, who rejects,
Well, perhaps I am being a bit condescending, but I imagine that many people in the Middle East, let alone Africa, would rather have a plentiful supply of breadto have "freedom to" rather than "freedom from".
Dr Rice goes on to equate that freedom with democracy. She says:
"We do not seek to impose democracy on others, we seek only to help to create conditions in which people can claim a freer future for themselves".
Most neo-cons, however, go further than that. They believe that the desire for western values, including western-style democracy, is universal and deeply felt and that it is America's destiny to release those latent longings.
That view is supported by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who declared in his address to the US Congress, that,
He is also on the record as claiming that "democracies do not start wars"; a claim, incidentally, which is historically incorrect. Fifth century Athens, for instance, known as the cradle of democracy, started a number of wars in order to impose its system on the rest of Greece, which I suppose makes Pericles one of the first neo-cons.
It is always difficult to challenge affirmations of quasi-religious faith. Rational voices are generally ignored. But there is manifold historical evidence to show that over the centuries people have preferred a variety of different constitutional arrangements to western-style democracy. After all, we have only to look at the history of the British Empire as an illustration.
It was widely held at one time that the Westminster model, of which we were rather smugly proud, was exportableeven to countries with an indigenous population who, we assumed, would realise that their primitive state needed developing to a higher political aspiration, and, when that was done, would adopt a system that had evolved over centuries in this country and was particularly suited to our Judaeo-Christian culture. Other countries have different cultures. Islam has had its say, as have African tribalism and the Chinese version of communism.
What I have described is probably the crudest form of neo-conservatism, but there is no doubt that that was the dominant influence in the decision to invade Iraq. But events have their own way of creating their logic. It seems to mealthough I say this, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has said, somewhat tentativelythat there is now something of a shift in the ideological wind.
After the shambles of Iraq, the appetite for "regime change" and "nation building" has diminished. Enthusiasm for a similar adventure in Iran, for instance, is somewhere between limited and non-existent. If that is so, it is a development for which rational people should be devoutly thankful. The international atmosphere would become much more benign.
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Yetthere is always a "yet" in these mattersit would be quite wrong to deny the United States the right to guard its own security; and the Bush administration is justified in identifying threats to American security and even to consider pre-emptive military action, as a last resort, to remove them. In practice, of course, the Bush administration, while waving a big stick, is treading carefully in two major areas of identified nuclear threatIran and North Koreaat least for the moment.
That leaves us with the question of how we should work alongside the United States in combating terrorism and the nuclear threat from hostile states. Obviously, the first answer is to try to make those states less hostile; Libya is a good example. But that will not always work. The second answer is to be part of a "coalition of the willing" in a particular exercise. Iran is an example of where Britain, France and Germany, as has been mentioned, are playing the "soft cop" role with the United States playing the "hard cop" role.
The third answer is to work within the framework of the United Nations. But we must bear in mind that the United Nations has been badly damaged, not just in American eyes but in those of many others, by the oil-for-food scandalmore than 20 billion dollars missingby the vapid statements of the Secretary-General, by the rows in the Security Council over Iraq and by the inability of the Security Council to enforce its resolutions in wherever they may be. We can hope only that the so-called "wise men" will come up with a formula to make the UN more effective. Personally, I would not bet my house on that.
The fourth answer is to work within the NATO framework; in other words, openly to recognise NATO's political rather than military role, as the new Secretary-General has suggested. The very sensible answer is to choose whichever option is appropriate under the circumstances presented to us. What makes absolutely no sense at all is to try to set up the European Union as some sort of political opposition to the United States. The European Union is simply not in a position to play such a role, nor should it be. The largest member states of the Union will continue to nurture their bilateral relations with the United States.
If the French Government wish really to see the European Union play the role that President Chirac apparently has in mind, they will no doubt suggest that the Washington embassies of EU countries should be merged into one and that there should be one single European membership of the UN Security Council replacing that of Britain and France. That at least would show consistency and true devotion to the idea, but that would show that pigs can grow wings.
So where does that leave us? It is no good moaning about the result of the American election. It is no good pretending that the second Bush administration will be less aggressive in defending America's security wherever and whenever it may be threatened. We should concentrate on modifying, mitigating and
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then moderating the quasi-religious drive of neo-conservatism, encouraging the shift in the ideological wind that I mentioned earlier.
It so happens that help is at hand. I undertook not to refer to United States domestic policy. But the problem for the neo-cons lies in the twin US deficitsthe public sector deficit and the balance of payments deficit. An aggressive foreign policy requires continuing and ever-expanding expenditure on American military power. Otherwise, the ultimate threatthe use of military poweris whittled away.
So it may beit just may bethat the empire of the neo-cons, already undergoing something of an ideological change, will ultimately fall to the financial imperatives of its own countrythe United States of America. All empires fail and no doubt that one will fail too.
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