Unrealpolitik: a new new world order?

Saturday 29 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Lecture Theatre 1

On a diplomatic tour last year, Prime Minister David Cameron tried to make friends in Turkey at the expense of Israel by calling Gaza a prison camp. He played to an Indian audience afterwards by accusing Pakistan of exporting terror. In both cases, bemused Foreign Office officials scrambled to deal with the fallout. Other public squabbles have involved French finance minister Christine Legarde accusing Germans of selfishness by keeping wages low and not stimulating domestic demand, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking why Germans should bail out ‘workshy’ countries like Greece or Portugal. So why is diplomacy increasingly played out in public rather than behind closed doors? Is it a good thing, bringing transparency and accountability to what were secret deals? Helped by Wikileaks revelations of diplomatic cables? Or does it reflect a tendency among world leaders to say what people want to hear, right here, right now? To rely on short-term, emotional, appeals to cover the absence of any long-term strategic planning. Margaret Thatcher opposed the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, but, in the interests of shared Cold War values, restrained her protest to writing privately to President Reagan.

More recently, the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US has had to cope with rows over the Al-Megrahi affair, the BP oil spill and plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Why rowing one week and sharing aircraft carriers or bombing Libya the next? Are today’s diplomatic squabbles just personality clashes, testament to political inexperience but not evidence of real underlying differences? Or is it because countries like Britain and America struggle to know what they are? Great Britain, after all, seems so unsure of what its interests are that it outsourced responsibility for the release of Lockerbie bomber Al-Megrahi to Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, as the decision was deemed so sensitive the prime minister could not comment on it. President Obama’s recent European visit left every government feeling they were the special ones in terms of US foreign policy – so which was it? - while his administration looked embarrassingly flat-footed over events in the Middle East.

Have today’s great powers lost the knack of long-term, self-interested diplomacy, swept up by day-to-day concerns and preferring to defer to international law and institutions? Or perhaps Realpolitik is alive and well, albeit in the East: China moved quickly to take advantage of the anti-American fallout from the Osama killing to tie up a naval base deal with Pakistan. Is all this making the world more dangerous? While we might have lived in the shadow of the bomb in the Cold War, was it, ironically, a world made safer by the brutal realism of a Kissinger? Or does today’s diplomacy of soft power and the international community represent a positive step away from the great power politics of yesterday?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Kerry Brown
director, Lau China Institute, King's College, London; and Associate Fellow at Chatham House

Dame Ann Leslie
journalist, Daily Mail; veteran foreign correspondent and broadcaster

Karl-Erik Norrman
founder and secretary-general, European Cultural Parliament; former Swedish ambassador; author, The Gala Concert, Verdi/Wagner 200 years

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Mark Seddon
writer and broadcaster; author, Standing for Something: life in the awkward squad

Dr Tara McCormack
lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches

Produced by
Joel Cohen communications manager, BeyondMe
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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