The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Orderby David Runciman
Tony Blair has often said that he wishes history to judge the great political controversies of the early twenty-first centuryabove all, the actions he has undertaken in alliance with George W. Bush. This book is the first attempt to fulfill that wish, using the long history of the modern state to put the events of recent yearsthe war on terror, the war
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Tony Blair has often said that he wishes history to judge the great political controversies of the early twenty-first centuryabove all, the actions he has undertaken in alliance with George W. Bush. This book is the first attempt to fulfill that wish, using the long history of the modern state to put the events of recent yearsthe war on terror, the war in Iraq, the falling out between Europe and the United Statesin their proper perspective. It also dissects the way that politicians like Blair and Bush have used and abused history to justify the new world order they are creating.
Many books about international politics since 9/11 contend that either everything changed or nothing changed on that fateful day. This book identifies what is new about contemporary politics but also how what is new has been exploited in ways that are all too familiar. It compares recent political events with other crises in the history of modern politicspolitical and intellectual, ranging from seventeenth-century England to Weimar Germanyto argue that the risks of the present crisis have been exaggerated, manipulated, and misunderstood.
David Runciman argues that there are three kinds of time at work in contemporary politics: news time, election time, and historical time. It is all too easy to get caught up in news time and election time, he writes. This book is about viewing the threats and challenges we face in real historical time.
The proximate cause of Tony Blair's decline is self-evident: the Iraq war and its sequel. However, as David Runciman shows in this mordant study of political hypocrisy and the misuse of history in our time, the inability to distinguish make-believe from facts, the contempt for due process and the almost willful ignorance of history that were the hallmarks of Blai''s Iraq adventure could, and should, have been detected well before it.
David Runciman provides a brilliant analysis of the contemporary politics of fear by situating the post-9/11 world within a layering of temporal periods and using the broad historical time in juxtaposition with 'election time' and 'news time'. Through such a prism the fear generated and hypocrisy of much current political discourse and justification for the pursuit of war in Iraq is dissected.
"Runciman concludes, there is little new about the new world order. Whatever difficulties it throws up are best dealt with by going back to political basicshaving strong parties, muscular parliaments, balanced constitutions, an alert judiciary and a watchful public. It is a measure of how far we have traveled from the liberal democratic norm that this comes across as a radical cry."Alison Rowat, The Herald
"The proximate cause of Tony Blair's decline is self-evident: the Iraq war and its sequel. However, as David Runciman shows in this mordant study of political hypocrisy and the misuse of history in our time, the inability to distinguish make-believe from facts, the contempt for due process and the almost willful ignorance of history that were the hallmarks of Blai''s Iraq adventure could, and should, have been detected well before it."David Marquand, New Statesman
"David Runciman provides a brilliant analysis of the contemporary politics of fear by situating the post-9/11 world within a layering of temporal periods and using the broad historical time in juxtaposition with 'election time' and 'news time'. Through such a prism the fear generated and hypocrisy of much current political discourse and justification for the pursuit of war in Iraq is dissected."David Ryan, International Affairs
"David Runciman combines the expositional clarity of a talented political journalist and commentator with the conceptual concerns, historical depth, erudition, and theoretical sophistication of a gifted scholar. The result is a lucidly and gracefully written book that usefully probes fundamental issues raised by both the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the highly dubious patterns of response associated with the political leadership of George W. Bush in the United States and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom."Richard Falk, International History Review
"This is a powerful piece, a short critique of the types of rhetorical arguments used by the creator of New Labor in his notorious 'preacher on a tank' mode. Runciman assails the use of 'new dangers' as a justification for 'new obediences,' the way that if a 'risk' is 'new,' a democratic leader need not make the normal informed balance of known risk and known freedoms, and thus the way that not taking the country to war becomes a 'risk no responsible government could afford to take.' . . . Essential for understanding how he is likely to be judged when he leaves office? Sadly, absolutely."Peter Stothard, Globe and Mail
"The Politics of Good Intentions . . . signals a welcome re-engagement of contemporary political thinkers with politicians' thought. We can but hope that Runciman's efforts will be reciprocated."Political Studies Review
This is a powerful piece, a short critique of the types of rhetorical arguments used by the creator of New Labor in his notorious 'preacher on a tank' mode. Runciman assails the use of 'new dangers' as a justification for 'new obediences,' the way that if a 'risk' is 'new,' a democratic leader need not make the normal informed balance of known risk and known freedoms, and thus the way that not taking the country to war becomes a 'risk no responsible government could afford to take.' . . . Essential for understanding how he is likely to be judged when he leaves office? Sadly, absolutely.
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The Politics of Good IntentionsHistory, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order
By David Runciman
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneINTRODUCTION: SEPTEMBER 11 AND THE NEW WORLD ORDER
Did September 11, 2001, really change the world? This question was being asked across the globe within hours of the attacks taking place. But within days, it had become clear that there was to be no consensus on the answer. In Britain, at one remove from the raw emotion being felt in the United States, political commentators wasted no time in setting out their opposed positions. On 13 September, writing in The Guardian, Hugo Young, the most measured and reasonable of British political observers, declared:
What happened on September 11th, 2001, changed the course of human history. We cannot yet grasp, by any stretch, all that this means. But already we start to imagine how it will poison trust, wreck relationships, challenge the world order, and vastly magnify the divide between the enemies and friends of democracy. It will harden the last vestiges of tolerance for compromise, and further reverse the presumptions of freedom-of travel, speech, politics, everything. It calls into question what power any longer is or means.
Two days later, in The Times, Matthew Parris, anequally clear-sighted writer about politics, responded to Young. "And after September 11, 2001," he wrote, "and the horrible, horrible deaths of thousands of innocent people, one thing will be certain: the world will be the same again after all".
Is it possible, after the passage of a few years rather than a few days, to say who was right? One thing now seems abundantly clear: Young was correct when he foresaw a poisoning of trust and a wrecking of relationships. There are few political relationships-between states, between political leaders, between politicians and their electorates-that have not suffered contamination from the fallout of that fateful day. Some important political institutions-NATO, the United Nations (UN)-may now be in permanent decline. Others, like the European Union (EU), are in flux, and it is impossible to be sure in what form they will eventually settle down, if they settle down at all. Yet does it follow from all this upheaval that we can no longer be confident what power is, or what it means? The turmoil in global politics over the last few years is a consequence of the exercise of political power in one of its most recognizable forms: the power of the determined leaders of well-armed nations to seek security through force. When politicians exercise this power, the results are invariably serious, and often deeply disorienting. But it does not follow that the power itself is unfamiliar, or that we should be doubtful about what it means. It means what it has always meant: war.
It was not what happened on September 11, 2001, that contaminated political relationships and destroyed trust; in fact, for a short while many traditional political ties, including those between Europe and the United States, seemed to have been strengthened by the challenge of confronting the terrorist threat. It was the Iraq war of 2003, its build-up and its aftermath, that did the damage. It is true that this war would never have happened as and when it did if the United States had not been attacked two years earlier. But to many observers, September 11 simply provided George W. Bush and his administration with a convenient prop on which to hang a set of military and ideological objectives that had been identified well in advance. The feeling has been widespread feeling among opponents of the Iraq war that the Bush administration exploited the opportunity provided by September 11 to pursue its own, preferred course in Middle Eastern politics, and it is this sense of exploitation which has generated so much of the mistrust. This mistrust only deepened when it emerged that in attempting to fit the case for war in Iraq onto a post-September 11 political framework-in attempting to justify it in terms of the terrorist threat-the Bush administration was forced to stretch the evidence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and so misrepresented the nature of the threat he posed. Having been confronted with the evidence of this misrepresentation, Bush, and his ally Tony Blair, were repeatedly forced back onto their last line of defence. They had to argue that those who wished to pick holes in the arguments presented before the Iraq war for taking military action were missing the bigger picture. What was the bigger picture? It was, as Tony Blair put it in his speech to the Labour Party conference in September 2004, in which he defended his conduct in Iraq notwithstanding the mistakes that had been made over the intelligence, simply this: "September 11 changed the world".
This, then, is the real difficulty with trying to determine whether the world changed on that day. The claim is not just a historical one, to be confirmed or rejected by historians at some point further down the line than we are at present. It is also a political claim, and it has frequently been made to serve some blatantly political objectives. It was a central plank, at times almost the only plank, of the campaign to re-elect George Bush. The message that Bush's opponent, John Kerry, did not appreciate the ways in which the world had changed after September 11 was hammered home by Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney throughout the campaign. "Even in this post-9/11 period", Cheney announced in his brutal, highly effective speech accepting the nomination of the Republican Party at their national convention, "Senator Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed". In the first of their three presidential debates, Bush derided his opponent for what he notoriously dubbed his "pre-September 10th attitude". It was a charge that was to be reiterated endlessly until polling day. Bush lost the debate, but he did not lose the presidency.
The attraction for any incumbent politician of talking up the significance of epoch-making events is obvious. If the world has changed, then politics must change with it, and elected politicians can shirk some of their old responsibilities along the way. A new world order needs a new set of rules. The temptation always exists for politicians to use the appearance of a transformed world to avoid difficult questions about the particular consequences of their own immediate actions. But the countervailing temptation also exists: to dismiss all political claims to be operating under the dispensation of a new world order as inevitably self-serving and evasive. The idea that September 11 did not change the world-that things are, in Matthew Parris's words, "the same again after all"-can serve narrow political purposes of its own. Critics of the Iraq war have repeatedly blamed its architects for not foreseeing the predictable, if unintended, consequences of a military occupation, because they were blinded by the transformative possibilities of September 11. Critics of the Iraq war, therefore, have every reason to want to argue that the world has not really changed at all.
This is why it is so hard to determine what is new about politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and what is familiar. Much of what appears to be new has been exploited in ways that are all too familiar, and much of the familiar response to that exploitation neglects what appears to be new. This book is an attempt to disentangle some of these claims and counter-claims, in order to determine what has really changed. To do so, it explores not just the dynamics of the new world order, but the motives, arguments and deceptions of some of the politicians who inhabit it. Too often, these are treated separately, as though they occupied different universes. The torrent of writing about contemporary politics that has appeared in the wake of September 11 divides into two broad streams: those books and articles that use the attacks on New York and Washington to exemplify the new set of challenges politicians now face (many of the books were written or at least conceived in what George Bush would call a pre-September 10 setting, but when they appeared sought to demonstrate early inklings of a post-September 11 frame of mind); and those books and articles that wish to demolish the politicians who have used the attacks to pursue courses of action on which they were already determined. These books, like so many of the partisan political arguments on which they are based, often appear to be talking past each other. And it is not only books. For many critics of the Bush regime, the world did not change on September 11, because the day on which it really changed was 12 December 2000, when the United States Supreme Court finally determined, by a vote of 5-4, the outcome of that year's presidential election. Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11-which characterizes all the events consequent on Bush's election as a literal nightmare-perfectly captures the terms of this argument, which is no argument in any terms but its own. Moore's unwillingness to consider alternative scenarios to the one in which Bush steals the election and then contrives the war on terror serves only to enrage his critics. But Moore's own rage is fuelled by his sense that the alternative scenarios have all been hijacked by the politicians, and put to work serving sinister purposes of their own.
This book does not seek to take sides in the sort of dispute that finds George W. Bush on one side and Michael Moore on the other. Instead, it tries to find a broader perspective in which to assess the claims of both politicians and their critics to have identified a new pattern in world-historical affairs. Of course, there are many books, and many academic books in particular, that also seek to locate recent events in a wider historical or theoretical context. But in this book, I try to do it without losing sight of the narrower political arguments, and without ignoring the motivations of the politicians who make them. I do not believe it is possible to assess whether we have entered a new phase of politics without considering the ways in which politicians have tried to exploit such claims. Nor, however, do I believe that the fact that such claims can be exploited means that they are necessarily untrue.
Tony Blair and the New World Order
The particular politician on whom I concentrate in a number of the chapters that follow is not George Bush but Tony Blair. This may appear a somewhat parochial choice for a book about world-historical politics. In global terms, the British Prime Minister is a much less consequential figure than the American president. Indeed, Blair has proved much less consequential than many of the members of the president's administration, as he has discovered to his cost. Blair is a more conventionally articulate politician than Bush but, notwithstanding the silver-tongued reputation he acquired in the United States after September 11, I do not focus on him here because of his purported ability to articulate a more resonant defence of American policy than the architects of that policy have managed. Rather, I am interested in Blair because his articulation of the newness of politics since September 11 cuts across some of the arbitrary divisions imposed by that date, and by the American election that preceded it. The relative proximity of the contested election of late 2000 to the traumas of September 2001 has trapped much discussion of recent developments in global politics within a relatively narrow time-frame. It is all too easy to think of politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century as defined by a choice between the relative significance of these two events: either it was the arrival on the world scene of Osama Bin Laden that made the all difference, or it was the arrival of George W. Bush. But Tony Blair's political career, though likely to be defined by his response to the same two events, is not limited to the period begun by them. Blair, unlike Bush, is a political leader of the late twentieth century as well as the early twenty-first. He was deploying many of the arguments that were to justify his conduct after September 11 well before that date. Moreover, he is a politician whose entire career has been built around his ability to embrace what is "new". In the mid 1990s he rose to power on the back of the rebranding of the Labour Party as "New Labour". By the end of that decade, his attention had turned to international politics.
In the speech Blair gave to the Economic Club in Chicago on 22 April 1999, under the title "Doctrine of the International Community", he used the example of the ongoing conflict in Kosovo to make the case that the world had already changed. "Twenty years ago", he announced, "we would not have been fighting in Kosovo. We would have turned our backs on it. The fact that we are engaged is the result of a wide range of changes-the end of the Cold War; changing technology; the spread of democracy. But it is bigger than that. I believe the world has changed in a more fundamental way." He went on:
We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other countries if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our back on conflicts and violations of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure. On the eve of a new millennium we are now in a new world. We need new rules for international cooperation and new rules of organising our international institutions.
If George Bush believed any of this in 1999, when he was Governor of Texas, he gave little indication of it. But it was the doctrine by which his presidency would ultimately be defined.
Blair's Chicago speech establishes an alternative time-frame in which to view the politics of the new world order. On this account, the defining moment came in 1989. The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new set of opportunities in international relations, but also created new kinds of imperatives. Both the opportunities and the imperatives derived from the increasing economic, political and technological interdependence of nation states. After 1989, it was possible to contemplate humanitarian and, if necessary, military intervention in the world's trouble spots without having also to face the prospect of initiating a wider conflict between nuclear superpowers. At the same time, it became harder to ignore what was happening in the world's trouble spots, because of the ways in which information could be spread. With the spread of information came the potential to spread the political consequences of the trouble itself-consequences that might include terrorism, racial hatreds and the displacement of peoples. All these developments Tony Blair brought under the bland general heading of "globalization", and in 1999 it was globalization that he took to have changed the world, and to have fundamentally altered the terms in which national politicians should seek to engage with it. It was also this globalization that he used to justify the actions that he, Bill Clinton and the other NATO leaders had taken in Kosovo, without a UN mandate. In the post-1989 world, it was possible to confront a tyrant like Slobodan Milosevic without risking a catastrophic war with the former Soviet Union. It was also necessary to confront Milosevic, because the consequences of his tyranny could no longer be reliably contained. The doctrine of the international community, as Blair understood it, made intervention in such cases both possible and necessary.
Excerpted from The Politics of Good Intentions by David Runciman Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
John Gray, London School of Economics, author of "Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern" and "Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals"
Cass Sunstein, Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor, Law School and Department of Political Science, University of Chicago
Corey Robin, City University of New York, author of "Fear: The History of a Political Idea"
Meet the Author
David Runciman is Lecturer in Political Theory at Cambridge University, and Fellow in Politics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of "Pluralism and the Personality of the State". He has worked as a columnist on the "Guardian" newspaper, and has written for a wide variety of other publications. He currently writes about politics for the "London Review of Books".
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