Paddy Ashdown: It is no longer the case that the nation state, acting alone, can determine its future

In the comments to an earlier post, Bill Le Breton mentioned a speech by Paddy Ashdown in the Lords yesterday. We had a look and thought it deserved to be reproduced in full. In it, he outlines the threats we face, the changes to the balance of power across the world and how we need to change our attitudes and foreign policy to meet these new realities. Enjoy.

A little over 100 years ago, in the midst of the last conflict in which a collection of military primitives in a faraway mountainous country defeated the most powerful military force on earth—I refer of course to the Boer War and the British Army—AE Housman wrote the poem A Shropshire Lad. It is famous for marking the futility of war and its pity. What is sometimes a little overlooked is the fact that it was also predicted that we were seeing a change in the times. I draw your Lordships’ attention to one stanza in particular—which, by the way, was said to echo in Churchill’s brain in the 1930s:

On the idle hill of summer,Sleepy with the flow of streams,Far I hear the steady drummerDrumming like a noise in dreams.Far and near and low and louderOn the roads of earth go by,Dear to friends and food for powder,Soldiers marching, all to die.

What Housman seemed to identify was that the long sylvan summer of stability of the 19th century was drawing to a close. The years in which he wrote the poem marked the last great shift of power from the old nations of Europe to the new rising nation of the United States. In the vacuum left behind by the old powers of Europe was played out the two great, terrible Golgothas of the 20th century.

You might argue that history comes in two phases. In one of them, the gimbals on which power is mounted are steady, stable and unchanged—these are predictable times, times when we can look ahead with confidence and know what will happen. They are not necessarily peaceful times but they are at least unbewildering times. Then there are the second phases, which are the times of change, when power shifts—these are turbulent times, puzzling times and, all too often, bloody times. We are living through the second of those, not the first. All is changing, although you would not think so to look at our foreign policy or our defence policy, for they are anchored firmly in the past and pay no attention to the new world which is now emerging. In this speech, I want to talk about two of those power shifts and then a third element which I think changes everything and needs to be addressed if we really want a foreign policy that serves the interests of our country.

We are experiencing not one power shift but two. We are experiencing a vertical power shift. Power is now migrating out of the institutions of the nation state, created to hold power to democratic accountability and to legality, on to the global stage, where, by and large, the institutions of democratic accountability are non-existent and the institutions of legality are very weak. If we look at the global stage, we see that the powers that are growing are those that have no relevance, no reference, to the frontiers of nation states, and we see other things which by and large we like; for example, the free transfer of information over the internet, the free transfer of trade, the mass movement of people, the power of the satellite broadcasters and the power of this great, vast, swirling money-go-round now circulating at increasing velocity—a volume of money 52 times the amount necessary to fund the trade that it was all created for. We see also the power of the international speculators which nearly wrecked everything only a couple or three years ago.

For the powerful, generally speaking, having lawless spaces is not unhelpful—we rather enjoy it because we can make up the rules for ourselves—but, sooner or later, the lawless spaces get occupied by the destroyers and that is exactly what has happened. For in this space now is also terrorism, which is international; and crime, which is international. The revelation of 9/11 is that you may be the most powerful nation on earth, but it will not save you one bright September day from a faraway danger of which you knew little, which invades your own space and destroys your citizens by using your own systems. It is calculated that 60% of the $4 million taken to fund 9/11 passed through the financial institutions of the Twin Towers.

In what looks to me like a deeply turbulent age, our capacity to create greater stability rather than greater turbulence will depend on our capacity to bring governance to the global stage. There is a sort of rule about stable democracies which is: where power goes, governance must follow. It seems to me, therefore, that if it is true that the globalisation of unregulated power is one of the great threats of our time, then one of the great challenges of our time is to bring governance to the global space. It is entirely in the interests of a medium-sized country such as the United Kingdom for us to assist in making that happen. My own view is that this will not happen through the spawning of further multilateral UN institutions—we need the UN; if we did not have it, we would have to invent it; it is necessary as an international forum; it is necessary as a legitimiser and developer of international law; it is necessary as a legitimiser of actions—but when it comes to taking difficult action in non-permissive circumstances, my guess is that coalitions of the willing will have greater effect. When in Bosnia, I had to report twice a year to the UN Security Council for the conduct of my mandate, but my managing board was the Peace Implementation Council—those who had committed to peace in Bosnia.

As we develop systems of governance on the global stage, I think that they are more likely to be created through the growth of treaty-based institutions. We see those already emerging: the WTO is one; Kyoto is another; the International Court of Justice is a third; and the G20, which is not quite a treaty but it has quasi-treaty powers, is another. It must be in our interests for us Britons to create, and to play our part in the creation of, such new institutions that bring governance to the global stage. We are a medium-sized nation. David Miliband when Foreign Secretary used to talk about a rule-based world order. It must be in our interests to do that, yet this features nowhere in the Government’s foreign policies. We are not actively playing our role. British civil servants and diplomats were the people who created the United Nations; we have an immense role to play. But our response is not only to ignore it but to cut the budget of the Foreign Office at the very moment when it has a significant role to play in something that is of real interest to our nation.

The second great power shift, and I need hardly talk about it, is that from west to east. Put your hand over the side of the boat. Feel how strong that tide is running. It is an economic tide to date, for sure, but that will develop into political power and military power. Let us look at where defence budgets are being augmented and where they are being diminished: they are being diminished in the west and being augmented in the east. We are seeing a new world developing that is totally different from the world that we have had. We are moving from 50 years—rather unusually, by the way—of a monopolar world dominated by a single colossus to a multipolar world in which the role of our foreign policy and our defence will be wholly different. If you want a model of what comes next, do not look at the last 50 years, as it seems to me myopically we do; look rather at the Europe of the 19th century, the famous five-sided concept of Europe, the European Areopagiticus, as Canning and Castlereagh used to call it. Britain’s role there was not fixed; it was always to play to the balance—a period of much more subtle foreign policy. Canning once said that Britain has no fixed allies, but it has fixed interests. It plays the relationships with the rest of the world. The revelation that we see now is that the 400 years of the hegemony of western power, western institutions and western values—I date 400 from the end of the Ottoman Empire—is over. We now have to share power in a multipolar world. I think that the United States will remain the most powerful nation on earth for the next 20 or 30 years, but the context in which she holds her power is wholly different.

Now, if we want to operate in the world, we have to move beyond the Atlantic club; we have to bring in other partners, and we have to bring in the Chinese. To those who say that the Chinese would play no part, I say that of course they would, because they have an interest in this, too. What is the number of Chinese serving under the blue flag and the blue helmet of the UN in the world today? Does anybody know? The figure is 3,700. In Africa, already committed to multilateral defence, what is the largest naval unit that is today fighting Somali pirates? Well, you are ahead of me: it is the Chinese—of course, it is; they want to keep the sea lanes open, just as we did in the days of our mercantile power. We have to begin to develop those relationships. We have to move into a wholly different kind of policy where we will, of course, rely on the Atlantic alliance as our primary alliance, but we will have to build alternatives and new coalitions beyond that. Where we do that is where we will succeed, and where we do not do it is where we will fail.

We have to get out of the kinetic age. We see a problem in the world and our first instinct is to bomb it. Clausewitz said that war is the extension of politics by other means. We remember the war, but we forget the politics. And so, we forgot the politics in Afghanistan. We did not co-operate with the neighbours; we did it all by kinetic power. We forget today the politics in ISIL; we do it all by kinetic power when there is a great, wide coalition to be built—Canning and Castlereagh would have understood—which would have involved Iran and Russia in order to isolate ISIL; and then you can use your military power to greater effect. We will never beat ISIL simply by using more western high explosive to kill more Muslim Arabs; it needs to be much wider than that. At this very moment, we believe that we live in the kinetic age, but we do not: we live in the new age of diplomacy, in which your capacity to build those wider coalitions to achieve the interests of your nation at the time—not necessarily coalitions of values, but coalitions of interest—will really define success or failure in the age to come. Canning and Castlereagh would have understood that very well; our foreign policy seems to ignore it completely.

Some believe that this means that this is the age of the network, so we do not have to worry about Europe as we can build wider networks with the Commonwealth. However, foreign policy depends on who shares your interests, not who shares your systems. It is madness that we should move away from Europe at this stage. Do we not understand how much the terms of trade have changed in Europe in the past 10 years? We no longer have a United States looking east across the Atlantic but one looking west across the Pacific. We do not have a United States any longer with troops in Europe dedicated to the defence of Europe. They are here because it serves their operations elsewhere in the world. We do not have a United States any longer that we can depend on as a defender of last resort and a friend in all circumstances.

On our eastern borders we have an aggressive Russian president who is prepared to use tanks to capture European territory. To our south-east we have an Arab world in flames. To our south we have a Maghreb in chaos right the way down to Mali. All around us are economic powers which are individually more powerful than any of us are individually in Europe. Is this the moment to abandon our solidarity with the rest of Europe? It is madness—it is madness beyond madness—in pursuit of what is called sovereignty, the totally elusive sovereignty of the cork bobbing around behind someone else’s ocean liner. This is not the moment to abandon that.

The third element that is changing is that this is no longer a world made up of nation states: it is a world which is uniquely interdependent in a way it never has been before. You have swine flu in Mexico; it is a problem for Aberdeen in the next hours. You have Lehman Brothers collapsing; the whole world goes down. You have fires in the Russian steppes; there are food riots in Africa. You have the irresponsible burning of fossil fuels in the west, and the drowning of Bangladesh. We are deeply interconnected and it is that interconnection that matters. We have to realise that there are no longer sovereign states. We used to pretend that there were issues which were domestic and others which were foreign policy. There is no domestic issue that does not have a foreign policy quotient to it. It is no longer the case that the nation state acting alone can determine its future.

When I was a young soldier fighting in the jungles of Borneo in the last of the imperial wars, if you were to ask me about the defence of Britain I would have said that it depended on a strong Navy, a strong Army, a strong Air Force and strong allies. Today that no longer applies. Today the Minister of Health is involved in the security of Britain because pandemic diseases are a threat to our security; the Minister of Industry—if we had one—would be involved because the cyber capacity of our enemies is a threat to our security; and the Minister of Home Affairs is involved because what that second-generation Muslim family in that terraced house in Bolton does is a threat to our security. The security of Britain no longer rests with the Ministry of Defence but with our capacity to network across the piece. It is the network—not the vertical high ground and the command structure—which is the paradigm structure of our age, and Whitehall knows that not at all.

Imagine that it is not me speaking today but that the year is 1879 and Lord Roberts of Kandahar is telling you about Afghanistan—not about how he lost but how he won. He would talk about his screw guns and his brilliant generalship. He would not mention drugs or poppies growing in the fields because they were not connected to anything. Afghanistan has always been a centre of the opium trade. Nowadays it is connected to crime in our inner cities. He would not have mentioned the mad mullah in the cave, although he had those too. The mad mullah of the time was called the Wali of Swat, about whom Edward Lear wrote a poem in which he asked who or what is the Wali of Swat; is he short, is he fat, is he squat? He would not ask today who or what was Osama bin Laden because he is connected to that terraced house in Bolton. Everything is connected to everything. He would not talk about collateral damage—he caused a lot of that—because it did not matter. Nowadays that piece of American high explosive falling on that wedding party in Afghanistan inadvertently matters very much and it is round the world a nanosecond later. Everything is connected to everything. It is no longer our vertical ability that matters but our ability to network. The most important thing about our nations and our organisations are the interconnectors, the docking points, that help us to build the wider coalitions that produce effective actions, rather than pretending stupidly sometimes that we can act alone or only with our friends.

One final thought. Now that we are interconnected and the enemy is now inside the gates and not only outside, something else has changed. For the past thousands of years—I suppose since history began—defence has depended on collective defence; it is been our capacity to stand together that matters. If you are interconnected, you share a destiny with your enemy. It was the realisation of that that enabled me as a young diplomat in Geneva in the 1970s to participate in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. We understood that we shared a destiny and that using the weapons that we possessed would destroy not only ourselves but the others. It was an understanding of that shared destiny that brought peace, at last, to Northern Ireland. It is a failure to understand that shared destiny between Israel and its Arab neighbours which is the biggest impediment to peace in the Middle East today.

So it is that, in the modern interconnected age, it is not only collective defence that matters but an understanding of common security as well. This has been the common proposition of saints, heroes, visionaries and poets, but now it moves from a moral proposition to a necessity to shape and frame our policies for the future. The great John Donne’s poem states:

Each man’s death diminishes me,For I am involved in mankind. Therefore send not to knowFor whom the bell tolls,It tolls for thee.

For him, it was a proposition of morality; for us it is part of the equation for our success, perhaps even our survival.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and News.


  • George Potter 3rd Jul '15 - 1:11pm

    This is a great speech and one I’ve heard him give before in the form of a lecture at my university – this is obviously a more truncated version but it rings even more true now than it did two years ago.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '15 - 2:02pm

    I don’t agree with Paddy here. First of all the attitude of “only acting with our friends” is one that we should embrace more. Acting with everyone has led us to become economically dependent on the likes of China and Saudi Arabia. China, who are threatening war with Japan and refusing self-determination for its own people, including Hong Kong.

    Sometimes the liberal thing to do is to stand up for the small nation state against the bigger entity. We can’t just say “the big enemy is capital, so nation states always have to stick together”. Some nations don’t deserve our support.

    I also question the idea that the UK is a “medium sized nation”. We are still a great power and need to use our soft power much more. Our language is very powerful and we shouldn’t talk ourselves down in a way to build support for European federalism.


  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '15 - 2:16pm

    Just read more of the speech. I try to speed read big speeches in order to not waste time. He is right to criticise those wanting to pull away from Europe, but listening to Liberal Democrats support the EU is nothing new. We need new thinking and I think it starts with standing up for self-determination around the world and no more talking down the UK.

    Good debate to have though.

  • John Tilley 3rd Jul '15 - 3:11pm

    Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul ’15 – 2:16pm
    “….We need new thinking and I think it starts with standing up for self-determination around the world …”

    Does it perhaps start with Self-determination for Scotland, Eddie? Or would that sort of thinking be a bit too “new” for you? 🙂

    I can understand you wanting to fit quickly through this speech from Paddy. There are parts of it where one might think he was trying to out-do Conrad Russell for obscure historical parallels. Although any reference to Edward Lear is a good idea in my book. I think of Lear every time I go pass the enormous sculpture of a chicken on the roundabout in Dorking.

    Paddy’s speech may actually be indicating more new thinking tha you realise. Read the paragraph that first mentions the house in Bolton again. It indicates a different view from views of the past expressed by the Paddy Ashdown who more than once has been in faour of so-called Liberal Interventionism. Those of us who disagreed with him when he did express those old views might see his new thinking as a welcome change for the better.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '15 - 8:26pm

    Thanks John! I am fully in favour of referendums in Scotland and they have had one! My argument is also one against free trade, with a bit of reverse imperialism thrown in.

    Of course, I don’t think we should say “don’t co-operative with Russia or China over ISIS”. What I am saying is: don’t let China build nuclear power plans in Britain! Something you would be very interested in :p.

  • Eddie,

    Does it extend to self-determination for Crimea as well? If they had a properly supervised referendum I am pretty sure they would still choose Russia by a huge margin.. In fact if I lived in Crimea I would probably vote to be in Russia… much more stable, no shells falling nearby, no neo-fascist militias (who are quite likely to take power when the Ukrainian economy collapses under the tender mercies of the IMF). Well, I would not be happy about Putin of course, and I think he bears most (but by no means all) the responsibility for the tragic situation in Donbass… But i think people do not appreciate how much worse it was for Russians under Yeltsin (for example)…

  • Good speech by Paddy! (despite misquoting Edward Lear!)

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '15 - 10:30pm

    Yes Andrew, it does include Crimea, and actually the whole of eastern Ukraine. Self-determination for everyone should be one of the biggest liberal causes.

  • John Tilley 4th Jul '15 - 6:58am

    Andrew and Eddie,
    Which people in Crimea?
    The Russians who have emigrated there over the last 250 years or The Tartars who were shipped out en masse by Stalin, made their way back and are now subject to Russian ethnic military rulers again?

    Difficult stuff this sef-determination – don’t you think?

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jul '15 - 11:48am

    Hi John, all permanent Crimean residents should get the vote. This is the same policy I ask for for the UK, but we don’t deliver it because we focus on “citizenship”.

    The important thing is consent of the public, which is why I use the phrase “self-determination”, rather than democracy, because as we know from our country: some like monarchies.

    Of course I am a democrat, but in terms of foreign policy some countries don’t want it at the moment.

  • @ John Tilley,

    Presumably you will be campaigning for the restoration of Kaliningrad to Germany, the deportation of the current 100% Russian population, and the forced transfer of the grandchildren of Germans deported by Stalin back to Konigsberg?

    The Tatar minority in Crimea obviously need protecting, but we are where we are now. Trying to right the wrongs of Stalin’s massed deportations 70 years later would be truly pointless. And what Stalin did to ethnic minorities in so many places was actually more humane than what the Serbs did in Srebenica, or Ukrainian hero Bandera did to the Poles in Volyn (no excuses for Stalin, BTW, but Putin is not Stalin by any measure)

  • Eddie,

    I am pleased you agree with me on Crimea. Of course the conduct and timing of the referendum was all wrong, with Russian “polite green men” all over the streets and no opportunity for any opposition to mobilise. But the result is very unlikely to have been different.

    The Kiev government should have agreed to a federal solution in Donetsk and Luhansk though, instead of attacking their own civilians… You just have to look at the opinion polling at the time of Maiden to see how much people in the east distrusted the Kiev government. Now they hate them… If there is ever going to be peace in Ukraine now the Kiev government is going to have to accept that Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk are lost to them now, and plan for a peaceful partition as happened eventually in Yugoslavia. If the rebels can be persuaded to accept a federal solution so much the better, but they will only accept that if they get the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Putin (and almost all the Russian people) wants to protect the interests of Russians in E Ukraine but there is no sign he wants to conquer the whole country (after all he did not do that with Georgia…). His policy and the strident propaganda from Moscow have made things worse, but personally I do not blame him for sending tanks (secretly) into Donetsk to stop the rebels being defeated any more than I blame us for bombing Gadaffi’s armies to pieces in Libya. The foolish thing was when he let people like Strelkhov take over buildings in the east with masks and rifles. He could probably have stopped the civil war then if he had made it clear that Russian troops were not going to march openly across the Ukrainian border then. But since the civil war started in earnest Putin’s policy options have been very limited in the face of overwhelming opinion in Russia, and the West needs to recognise that. What on Earth are the Americans doing getting involved in Ukraine, for example? Europeans yes, we are neighbours like Russia, but Ukraine is not a Nato member and the Americans can only make things worse there.

  • I should be clear that I blame us in Libya and Putin in Ukraine approximately equally! Foolish policies that have not led to any good in both cases…

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