By Matt.Ross

18 Nov 2008

Paddy Ashdown, former Lib Dem leader and co-chair of the IPPR’s Commission on National Security, tells Matt Ross that we are ill-prepared for the challenges of a new era of globalised, decentralised power


Paddy Ashdown is a former soldier, a politician, a diplomat and a lord – Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, no less – and no more given to introspection or apologies than most of his peers. But he wants to get something off his chest: “I think history will say that I made a terrible error of judgment,” he says: “I was in favour of the Iraq War. I wrote [Tony] Blair a letter saying ‘I think you’re right to do this’ – though I couldn’t make it public at the time, because I was [the international community’s high representative] in Bosnia.”

Ashdown’s initial support for the Iraq War was typical of this muscular liberal interventionalist: despite his 11 years leading the instinctively doveish Liberal Democrat party, Ashdown has always been outspoken in his pursuit of international justice. And when he speaks out, people listen: his views are given authority by his experience in soldiering, diplomacy and – reportedly – intelligence work (see CV box, pIV). Most recently, Ashdown spent some years knocking heads together in Bosnia-Herzegovina: critics dubbed him the ‘viceroy of Bosnia’ for his autocratic style, but his benign dictatorship succeeded in forging a functioning nation-state in a country torn apart by years of civil war.

Last year, think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research asked Ashdown to co-chair – alongside Lord George Robertson, former defence secretary and Nato secretary-general – a Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. Charged with assessing the changing global environment and making recommendations on how to bolster British and international security, the panel’s membership list reads like a Who’s Who of security experts from the worlds of diplomacy, politics, governance, academia and policing (see box, right). Its final report is due next year, but on 27 November the commission will publish its interim report – and from our interview, it’s clear that the group will be calling for a revolution in governments’ handling of security issues.

“We now live in a deeply interdependent world, in which power has migrated out of the institutions created to control it – the institutions of the state – on to the global stage, where it isn’t subject to law or regulation,” says Ashdown. He cites satellite broadcasters, the internet, climate change, energy security, the “global currency money-go-round that we see now out of control” – and, of course, terrorism:

“It’s not by accident that al-Qaeda uses the global space: it’s as unregulated as the mountains of Afghanistan,” he says – and there’s only one solution: “There’s a rule of history that says: where power goes, governments must follow. So if the phenomenon of our times is the globalisation of power, then the challenge of our times is to bring governments into that global space.”

For the West, Ashdown argues, that challenge will be heightened by our economic decline relative to the emerging nations of the East. The financial crisis, he believes, exemplifies and accelerates a fundamental shift: “You are seeing the gimbals on which world power is based changing, with a massive transfer of power from the nations around the Atlantic’s shores to those around the Pacific Rim,” he says. “This is not an economic crisis like previous ones. We won’t go down and come back up to the same place; we’ll go down and end up poorer, in relative terms. This is part of a step change.”

For hundreds of years, Ashdown notes, cash was siphoned through trade and empires from East to West – but in recent times, the shift of manufacturing eastwards has started to reverse that flow. Britain’s growing dependence on service industries and new technologies, he says, is an economic sticking plaster: “We don’t have to make widgets, but we do have to make tradable goods,” he argues. “For a short time, our tradable goods can involve adding value through design, skill, technology – but do you imagine that the Chinese or Indians aren’t soon going to do that work themselves?”

The results of this change, he believes, will be dramatic: “Have you ever seen a siphon reverse itself?” he asks. “There’s tremendous power when it does so.” And it has important implications for internal security in the West. “We think it’s democracy that holds our nations together, but it’s not. It’s the prospect of rising prosperity,” he explains. “Take that away, and something very nasty begins to come into view.” Facing declining living standards without the social glue provided in bygone days by the class system and established moral codes, Ashdown believes, “We’ll see a lot of internal social disruption in western countries.”

So, how to handle the challenges of globalisation and these shifting hubs of power? What’s required, replies Ashdown, is a “mental change”: a recognition that security is no longer the remit of the Ministry of Defence, but of every arm of government. In order to both remove the causes of conflict and tackle its results, public agencies and national governments will have to learn to work much more closely together, managing multi-faceted problems on many fronts and occupying the power vacuums of global space.

“This has profound implications for every government department,” comments Ashdown. “Take the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It used to be this dizzy organisation full of sophisticated and highly-intelligent individuals who wrote elegant telegrams from foreign countries. But that’s no longer good enough: to do its job in the future it will have to become a project manager, managing the other departments to deliver security.”

This changed role will require dramatic change in the civil service’s structures, says Ashdown – particularly the replacement of vertical hierarchies with horizontal lines of communication and partnership between departments (see news story, p1). The differences between the skills and structures required to manage the world of 100 years ago and those required today, he argues, are as great as “the difference between what you need to construct a steam engine, and what you need to construct a computer-based system”.

“A revolution is going to have to come in the civil service,” he adds – and while Whitehall is “groping towards some of these concepts”, it has a long, long way to go. Indeed, Ashdown proclaims himself “really disappointed” by the government’s existing cross-departmental security strategy: “It was a great opportunity, and there were elements that were right – I could see the hand of the foreign secretary in that; he gets it intellectually, I think – but I don’t think that deeper thinking was anything like there.”

Lord Ashdown emphasises that in advocating cross-departmental cooperation, he is not supporting government initiatives that would undermine civil liberties. The national identity database, he says, is “the wrong approach because it could develop into a ‘big brother’ system. We must not create institutions that could be easily used by tyranny or diminish our civil liberties, undermining the very thing that we’re supposed to be defending.”

Indeed, he is furious about the home secretary’s proposals to gather data on people’s use of emails and mobile phone networks: “it’s outrageous that, the day after the government suffered a defeat on 42 days [of detention without charging] in the Lords, this monstrous proposition was unveiled”; the idea is, he says with a rare flash of open emotion, “horrific, preposterous”.

Calming down, Ashdown returns to the international stage: here, he argues, governments must cooperate much more closely to colonise the global space. “What I learned in Bosnia is that if the international community is divided, you achieve almost nothing; and if it’s united, there’s almost nothing you can’t do,” he says. “So multilateralism – your capacity to dock with other institutions, both bilaterally in coalitions of the willing, and through multilateral organisations – is one of the crucial aspects of security.”

The United Nations is vital in facilitating better multilateral action, Ashdown says – but it should be a policymaker rather than a delivery organisation. “The UN is not very good at managing executive action, neither in terms of war nor of reconstruction,” he comments. “There are certain UN organisations, like the UN Development Programme, which are key players in the field, but the UN should migrate into a structure whose primary aim is the legitimisation of international action, acting as a repository, protector and codifier of international law.” The hands-on work of peace-making, peace-keeping and reconstruction, Ashdown believes, should be “subcontracted” to regional security organisations.

Meanwhile, to handle other areas of international cooperation, “we’ll probably rely on treaty-based organisations like the World Trade Organisation”. Several aspects of global security – nuclear non-proliferation, for example – already utilise treaty-based organisations rather than UN management, and Ashdown believes that the model is appropriate for other issues that are increasingly important to security. “Climate change is a much greater threat than terrorism, and a problem that has to be solved on a global basis, using global governance structures,” he says. “I think we will need a world environmental organisation that will grow out of the Kyoto process.”

Here, though, Ashdown sounds a warning: the new world order will have to be founded on the changed realities of the 21st century. “The bottom line is that we’re reaching the end of the point where there’s a western hegemony of international affairs,” he says. “It’s really important that we draw in the new world powers – and I think they’re ready to come in and help us bear this burden.”

As “western largesse, power, order and stability” shrink back, Ashdown fears, the international power vacuum may grow; China must be encouraged to join the international community and fill that gap. “China is a mercantalist power, and it has an interest in a rule-based world order,” says Ashdown, a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker. “Russia is different: it doesn’t mind criminal structures, because it’s quite used to dealing with those internally. But China wants order. In constructing a mechanism for the next 100 years, China and the emerging powers have to be brought in, even though that will require some rather unpleasant compromises – on Tibet, for example.”

To date, Ashdown says, the West has not reacted well in this changed and globalised world. George W. Bush responded to 9/11 with unilateralism rather than multilateralism, “and they paid a catastrophically, desperately high price for it in Iraq. So Bush didn’t understand – and I’m not sure that Blair did, either.” In Afghanistan, he says solemnly, “the complete failure of the international community to speak with a single voice, to have a single plan and a clear set of priorities, has cost us many lives and opportunities – and may very likely cost us success.”

For the international community to succeed in future interventions, Ashdown believes, it must learn to seize the “golden hour” immediately after the initial fighting stops, throwing its efforts into nation-building. “An occupying army has a very short shelf-life,” he says. “I remember being a young soldier in Belfast, and when we arrived the Catholics gave us tea and butties. We were their saviours; but it didn’t take us long, with stupidities like Bloody Sunday and internment, to lose their support. It took us 37 years to win it back again.” The West’s task in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ashdown believes, would have been infinitely easier with effective post-conflict management: “Very rarely have we intervened against local opinion. We’ve started off being welcomed, and wasted that opportunity.”

For Europe, Ashdown warns, security issues will become more pressing still as the US rethinks its priorities. “The US will find that its interests are elsewhere – particularly to its west and in the Pacific,” he says. “My guess is that Europe will be less important to every successive US president, including Obama, than it has been to any previous US president, including George Bush. In the future, hanging on to the apron strings of our friendly neighbourhood superpower is not going to work as a foreign policy; we’ll have to manage something much more subtle to play our role in what will be a multipolar world.”

So the challenges are huge, and the international community has got things badly wrong since the watershed moment of 9/11. But Barack Obama’s election does, Ashdown believes, offer a real opportunity to turn things around. “Half the sensible world is dying for America to give people reasons to love it again, and the US has this amazing, immense ability to be light on its feet and to change,” he says. “Look at Obama being elected just 40 years after Martin Luther King; at the speed with which General Petraeus, as commander general of the multi-national forces in Iraq, has changed the entire American military so that they’re now better at counter-insurgency than we are.”

With a black family in the White House, he concludes, “a new dynamic has been released”. Now Obama will have to capitalise on that potential – and this, Ashdown suggests, is the biggest of all the many challenges facing the incoming president: “to take this last opportunity for the US to claim some leadership, before power begins to drift away from the West. And to ensure that the new world order is built along broadly western, liberal lines – because a new world order has to be constructed.”

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