FROM ME TO WE: Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford takes a philosophical look at diplomacy
I’M EMBROILED IN a Master’s programme with the University of Buckingham, studying Philosophy. This is a mistake.
Philosophy is the annoying child who keeps asking ‘Yes … but why? How can you be sure that there isn’t a rhinoceros hiding behind your back?’
Ludwig Wittgenstein captures it nicely:
I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden. He says again and again “I know that that’s a tree,” pointing to a tree that is near us.
Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”
The world of diplomacy invites us to look at one hefty branch of philosophising, namely political philosophy. In the broad ‘Western’ tradition, it has a long and distinguished history going back over 2,400 years to Plato in Athens. Plato posed questions that stay with us today. Is there an ideal way to organise society? How should a society take decisions? How best to ensure that those decisions are wise?
For much of the next 2,000 years, the general practice was that kings, popes and emperors took and imposed decisions, asserting that they spoke with unique divine authority. They also fought war after ruinous war in the name of competing divinities. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 made a determined attempt to redefine the way European rulers ruled: sovereignty came to be based on territories (states), not faiths.
A new question emerged: was this power exercised by all these squabbling kings, popes and emperors legitimate?
This opened the way to the revolutionary idea that leaders should exercise power over people only by the people’s consent, through a ‘social contract’ between rulers and the ruled. And how better to make sure that this relationship was clear than to allow the ruled to choose their own leaders? Democracy!
These ideas in their broad modern form were framed by the American and then the French Revolutions. Both upheavals forced to the fore a new question: what are the limits on power? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to explain how Reason and the Categorical Imperative could move moral authority from me to we. It would be unimaginable that anyone rational consent to (say) genocide or torture, so state power too had such limits.
Thus emerged the idea of human rights. Along came Marx, asserting that workers were exploited by rich property owners who grabbed for themselves the product of the workers’ toils.
The 150 years up to the present day have featured an uneasy jostling between rival philosophical conceptions of rights. Are rights about individuals or communities? Are they a shield for individuals against state power? Or a sword to be used by the state to impose a ‘general will’ on individuals who might be unimpressed by it? Are rights what you can’t do – or what you ought to do? And underlying all this is a question familiar to Plato: how and where is the political community responsible for taking decisions?
These are awkward, almost abstract questions that seem to yield no solid or lasting answers in real life. The biggest diplomatic issues of our time are big precisely because they compel us to look at what we take to be basic principles and then challenge the very basics.
For example, ‘climate change’. A formidable diplomatic/environmental policy industry now exists around this subject. Yet for all the scientific arguments, key philosophical issues are also in play going to uncertainty and to inter-generational equity and legitimacy.
Does human activity have an impact on the planet? Of course!
Are the effects good or bad? Some must be bad (eg if we eat every fish, no more fish). But it depends on what timescale you choose to use – what is Bad over (say) a century may turn out to be Good or at least OK over a longer period. Thus, the Industrial Revolution and ‘capitalism’ poured out nasty pollution (and still does) but they opened the way both to ending human poverty and to a far smarter use of natural resources now and into the future.
Is it better to act now to stop future bad outcomes? This is the heart of it. We really can’t be sure what will be bad outcomes and what will be good ones. So perhaps it’s wise not to overinvest now in vast inflexible and expensive schemes to ‘prevent’ climate change, but rather to adapt in the light of events?
Look at it this way. Which scientific innovations or other trends/developments would you have stopped in 1919 to make things better now?And how would you have been sure that you hit the right ones then? Why should poorer people in 1919 have subsidised far richer people in 2019? Why should poor people in 2019 subsidise far richer people in 2119, or 2219?
Or ‘migration’. Would-be migrants recently staged a protest at Paris’ main airport and were reported to have made a truly revolutionary claim:
France does not belong to the French! Everyone has a right to be here!
Think about the striking philosophical implications of that idea. There is only one sovereign political community – the human race as a whole. International borders and national sovereignty count for nothing. Anyone has a right to go and stay (and presumably vote) anywhere.
A New York Times op-ed has picked up on this thought, and claimed that mass migration from poorer parts of the world into richer Western countries is a form of righteous reparations for colonialism:
To avoid paying the ‘migration tax,’ the rich countries would have to stop propping up dictators, stop starting savage and unnecessary wars, restrain their multinational corporations from ripping off mineral wealth of poor countries and make sure that global trade is more equitable.
In other words, ‘we the global masses all have the legal and moral right to come and live in your country until you do what we demand.’Western leaders (and not only Western leaders) may well ponder how to draw up a political programme for their current citizens that gives expression to that proposal.
And so to Brexit. The diplomatic community in London are torn between shock and awe at the Westminster omnishambles unfolding before their very eyes. They have been trained to see the Brits as sensible and pragmatic and above all organised, albeit in a rather crafty and cynicalway. How to report back to capitals what it all means?
The issues here go right to the heart of political if not moral philosophy. What is the Social Contract between EU member states and their citizens and EU headquarters in Brussels? On what basis can rules and directives issued by Brussels substantively claim to be legitimate? What if the voters in one country unambiguously vote to withdraw their consent?
It is no coincidence that leaving the European Union is so ghastly in practice. One whole philosophical goal of the EU project from the very start has been to forge ‘ever-closer union’ as defined by those who scheme to run such an ever-closer union. Such ever-closer union of course requires a one-way ratchet. More (and more and more) powers and decisions taken in a technocratic ‘post-democratic’ way at the EU-level, with puny member states’ parliaments minding their own diminishing business.
This has worked spectacularly well over the decades. The very capacity of British politicians and Whitehall officials to think independently has been eroded, perhaps beyond repair. Back in 2016 after the Brexit referendum vote, I wrote here these prescient words:
It’s impossible to quantify the sprawling intellectual energy and financial cost that UK civil servants have devoted to EU Working Groups over the past few decades. It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that some people will have done little else for the whole of their professional careers …
As goldfish hitherto confined to swimming in useless circles in a tiny glass bowl that are now cast back into the lake, our public servants must learn to swim boldly in different directions; to make sense of a quite new (and perhaps more perilous) way of policy life.
What if our elected MPs and elected government and their Brussels counterparts are unable to deliver on a solemn decision made by the British people as reaffirmed in a general election?
Where does that leave our foundational and hugely influential British political philosophical ideas of legitimacy, consent and sovereignty as elaborated since the seventeenth century? If they totter and fall, then what?