History of the Present (week to 4 March 2023)
One rare piece of good news this week was the 'Windsor framework' agreement negotiated by Rishi Sunak with Ursula von der Leyen and the EU. This squares the circle of the Northern Ireland Protocol through a magnificently complicated piece of classic Whitehall-Brussels fudge. Madeleine Albright used to tell the story of a senior French diplomat who once said to her 'Madam Secretary, we know this will work in practice but will it work in theory?'. Here it's the other way round. Theoretically, it's impossible to have frontiers that are simultaneously open and closed. Practically, it may work.
Another push may be needed to bring the unbelievably stubborn Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) back into a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland. Perhaps President Joe Biden might give that final push around a visit to mark to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, which was signed on 10 April 1998? We shall see. But what is clear is that this agreement opens the door to an incremental improvement of relations between Britain and the EU.
For us in universities, a crucial first step is to get back into the EU's Horizon research programme. Sunak – who is, after all, a globalist Brexiter – is reported to be hesitating about this, also given the steep pricetag, but it's essential for the future of European science on both sides of the Channel.
Yet what a long and weary way back this will be to closer relations between the UK and the EU. 'Back' is actually the wrong word, since we will never get back to the enviable position we had as members of the EU (but with several key opt-outs) before 2016. My hunch is that, particularly given the excessive caution of Keir Starmer, it will take two parliamentary terms (i.e. into the late 2020s or early 2030s) before we really know what the future relationship between Britain and the EU will be. I hope – and will work with my pen and voice – for a condition in which, first, the EU is again overwhelmingly attractive to (re)join and, second, we have a Britain with a clear majority who want to rejoin. As a historian, however, I wouldn't count on it. Indeed, we might now ask who will be in the EU first: Ukraine or UK?
In any case, that's a long hard decade of work ahead, to get to somewhere about 500 metres behind the starting line we were at seven years ago. Sigh.
United West, Divided from the Rest
I've spent a good deal of time over the last fifteen years working very enjoyably in and with the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think and advocacy tank of which I was one of the co-founders back in 2007. Now I've done a report with my good friends and co-conspirators Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev on a remarkable piece of polling that ECFR recently did in collaboration with our Oxford University 'Europe in a Changing World' research project. At the end of last year and the beginning of this one, we polled people in ten European countries and in what we, in our Oxford project (hat tip to my colleague Paul Betts), have christened the CITRUS countries – China, India, Turkey, Russia, US.
The main findings are clear: the war in Ukraine has led the West to become more united (Europeans being closer to the US than a year ago in their views on how the war should end ), but more divided from non-Western great powers such as China, India and Turkey, not to mention Russia.
Startling answers to the question below also suggests one reason why Biden's rhetoric of 'democracy versus autocracy' does not have much traction in these countries.
Rather than seeing countries such as India and Turkey simply as 'swing states' that have to be swung over to the one, true right side, that of the West in a new Cold War, or as some undifferentiated 'global South', we have to start by understanding where they are coming from, and how we can relate to them in terms of their own interests, perceptions and values. Preach less, listen more.
You can read our full report here. I happened to find myself sitting on the other side of the aisle from David Miliband on a BA flight back from the Munich Security Conference, and gave him a copy. He said that, while he is generally a sceptic about opinion polling, he liked the analysis. A couple of days later, Carl Bildt said something similar in an email. If we persuaded those two seasoned sceptics that there was something in our analysis based on this polling, perhaps you may find it of interest.
Ivan, Mark and I discuss it in this freewheeling podcast, recorded in a soulless cubicle at the Munich Security Conference.
… has now been published, and I've been talking about it, as one does. The novelist Ian McEwan says that when you are promoting a new book you become 'an employee of your former creative self'. I haven't reached that stage yet, since some of the questions I get are still interesting and challenging. I'll be discussing Homelands at Daunt's bookshop in Marylebone High Street, London, on Wednesday, March 29 (tickets here) and with Oxford's dynamic and innovative Bodley's Librarian, Richard Ovenden, at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday, April 1 (tickets here).
Here's a review in the FT which I think well captures the spirit and argument of the book.
Next up is the Dutch edition, about which I'll be talking in Amsterdam and Brussels later in March. (Dutch publishers always try to get their editions out early, otherwise their admirably polylglot readers will already have bought it in English or German.) It will be interesting to see how different their take is from that in Britain.
I’ll be arranging an exclusive chat about it with paid subscribers to this newsletter (sorry, free takers are just too numerous) after people have had a chance to read it.
And a reading recommendation on the war in Ukraine…
In every major foreign policy crisis, there are one or two new authors you come across who really know what they are talking about – and can express it clearly, precisely and concisely. On the war in Ukraine, one such discovery for me is Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute. He not only knows his military onions but also has a calm, level-headed political and historical perspective. I have linked here to his recent piece on the War on the Rocks blog, on a year of war in Ukraine.
As a lifelong member of the centre-left endlessly frustrated by the refusal of the leftier portion of my side of politics to listen to the electorate, I’m usually very receptive to ‘preach less, listen more’ arguments (this is why my political terachy is Paul Keating/Tony Blair/Bill Clinton, they all would compromise with the electorate while still leading) but I’ve got zero interest in ‘listening more’ to Hindu Nationalist Modi-Stans or the CCP
When you say ‘listen more’ who are you saying we should listen too? The political elites who’ve hijacked these nations or the people on the street and their desire for freedom and (if you think freedom is too vague a word) their desire to have a say in the politics that governs their lives
I’ve no interest in ‘listening too’ or ‘compromising with’ the political elites of these nations, I’m all for listening to the actual ppl of these countries and working out ways to strengthen their rights in these countries and let them get the lifestyles we in the west take for granted
For someone who’s formative political experience as an adult was basically hating the neo-cons I can’t believe I’m in a place where I’m saying this but I now genuinely believe it, it’s time for the west to stop apologising for democracy and to start being proud of it, there’s a reason boat’s arrive on the coasts of France, Italy and even the Northern Territory (Australia) and not in Saudi Arabia or off the coast of Shanghai, despite those cities looking more inviting (certainly more inviting that outback Australia) it’s because our way is just better and we should start being proud of that fact