What Next? Surviving the 21st Century, by Chris Patten

Reviewed,Denis MacShane
Friday 26 September 2008 00:00

In every fat book, there is thin book struggling to get out. Chris Patten has written his longest book so far: 500 pages of observation, wisdom, and a great deal of history about world affairs. Already, events are moving on. Since Patten finished this work, America has indulged in the biggest wave of nationalisation of finance capital seen since Lenin. Meanwhile, Russia reverts to being a 19th-century imperial power, sending much bigger warships than gunboats as well as 20,000 men, 2,000 tanks and its air force to punish the foolish mistake of the president of a faraway country, Georgia, of which most knew little until August this year.

The US election changes little. Barack Obama, for example, has made it clear he will substantially increase US troop numbers in Afghanistan. With Islamist fundamentalist ideology using terror to win power and the keys to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and with Pakistan under constant pressure from the Indian nationalism which stations 500,000 soldiers in the divided region of Kashmir, the complexities of foreign policy grow daily.

Patten was the last Governor of Hong Kong and is almost the last pro-European in the Tory Party. He has warm words for the EU but does not examine the visceral anti-Europeanism of his party and its leader. In Berlin recently, David Cameron promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty were he to become prime minister and the Treaty were not to be ratified. That would mean that the first period of any Tory government unleashing, as its main contribution to international politics, a festival of xenophobic hate against Europe. The Tories, BNP, UKIP and the Daily Mail would win the vote – but at the cost of reducing Britain's influence across the Channel and Atlantic to zero.

We are witnessing the re-nationalisation of European politics just as we are witnessing the growth of nationalism from China, India, Russia and America. British policy since 1945 has been based on building international structures – Nato, the Council of Europe, the EU, the the WTO, OSCE or, more recently, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto process - in an effort to persuade nations to share sovereignty and accept common rules.

Today such multilateralism, and the effort to move from a Hobbes world of all-against-all to a Locke world of contract and rule of law, faces three threats. First, from Bush's oxymoronic diplomacy; secondly, from the rise of "sovereign democracy" as defined by the Kremlin and implemented by China; and thirdly, from the anti-Europeanism pushed by right and left with equal zeal.

Chris Patten is the best foreign secretary Britain never had. This book is an encyclopaedia of good sense, but pulls rather than lands punches - a tribute to Patten's liberal decency and the tolerance educated into him at school by Benedictine monks. He makes a startling confession, however: that he has never eaten a Big Mac.

De Gaulle complained that it was impossible to govern a nation like France which produced 350 varieties of cheese. Can we trust a man who has never entered the golden arches and eaten the same food as the rest of the world? Thomas Friedman, the New York Times apostle of unfettered globalisation, claimed that no two countries with McDonald's in them ever went to war. But both Moscow and Tiblisi are stuffed full of McDs. Russia's little war and its annexation of part of a UN member nation was the first armed conflict between two capitalist states headed by elected leaders in the 21st century.

Now Russia is proposing to send warships with nuclear weapons off the coast of Venezuela, in breach of the 1969 Tlatelocolo Treaty which bans all nukes in South America. Patten's world knows no limits to its dislike of George W Bush, but others from Vladimir Putin to David Cameron seem hell-bent on tearing up the supra-national rules or weakening institutions like the EU - and replacing them with über-nationalisms that create new dangers.

Patten ends on an optimistic note, praising a world which can still show "rationality, creativity, generosity and kindness". I share that optimism - far better than the dark pessimism of a Lord Salisbury and his not-very-splendid isolation. But that is where Britain may be heading. The 21st century is not having a happy start as wars, hates, inequalities, poverty and economic crisis fill our lives. If a few of tomorrow's policy-makers read Patten, my optimism that we can control rather than be controlled by events will grow. In the meantime, let him write a thin volume of advice to the next Foreign Secretary, of whatever party. Every thinker on, or practitioner of, international affairs will profit from reading any book that Patten writes on foreign policy.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham; his new book 'Globalising Hatred' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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