The new arrogance of power: Global politics in the age of impunity
THE RT HON DAVID MILIBAND
2019 FULBRIGHT LECTURE
19, 20, 21 JUNE 2019
…The central concern of the lecture is a dangerous global trend: what I call the Age of Impunity, which I see every day in my work, and which blights the lives of millions of people around the world. By Age of Impunity, I mean a time when those engaged in conflicts around the world – and there are many – believe they can get away with anything, including murder, whatever the rules and norms. And because they can get away with anything, they do everything. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers. You name it, we are seeing it, and seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it, and less accountability for it.
So this lecture is about the innocent civilians killed or brutalized by conflict, and whether their lives can be saved.
Here is my argument. We have seen impunity throughout history. But today’s Age of Impunity represents a striking deviation from the ten-year period after the middle of the 1990s, when accountability, not impunity, was on the rise. The reasons for this abrupt turn reflect changes in the nature of conflict, and there are some improvements in the interaction between the humanitarian sector and military forces that could make a difference to the lives of the people we serve.
However, the Age of Impunity is born of political changes. It reflects serious shifts in geopolitics. There is a political emergency as well as a humanitarian emergency. The political sea change is that constraints on the abuse of power are being weakened internationally and nationally at the same time.
Where the years after the Cold War saw growing civilian protection internationally and a surge in accountable government nationally, so today we see the reverse. The multilateral system is under assault from its cornerstone in the US, and Brexit represents a further attack here in the UK. Meanwhile, checks on executive power at the national level are also being weakened.
This is the new arrogance of power, internationally and nationally, and it needs to be understood and then addressed if the trends towards greater protection of the most vulnerable are to be restored.
… The political emergency that has created the Age of Impunity does not end there. The retreat from the rule of law in international relations has its match on the domestic front. And you cannot have a rules-based international order without rules-based national order.
The NGO Freedom House has documented that since 2006 more than 100 countries have suffered declines in political freedom. Constitutions are rewritten, dissidents imprisoned, journalists silenced, the media kept at bay. Some countries even have potential Prime Ministers debating the suspension of Parliament itself… This is a democratic recession – successive years in which the number of countries suffering a reduction in political freedom outnumbers those enjoying a growth.
Larry Diamond, author of the forthcoming Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency has summarized what this means: “Every type of regime is getting worse. Liberal democracies are becoming more intolerant. Illiberal democracies are electing authoritarian personalities. Authoritarian regimes that once co-existed with pockets of opposition no longer see the need to bother.”
These two parts of the political emergency – international and domestic – come together. The first part enables the arrogance of power. The second represents it. Together they create the Age of Impunity…
The lessons of this political emergency for me are clear.
First, beware the vacuum. The retreat of key parts of the liberal democratic world from global responsibility, starting before the Trump Administration but dramatically extended by it, has created a vacuum, which is being filled by a range of bad actors, who are exacting a terrible price from the world’s most vulnerable.
Second, foreign policy ethics are built on domestic fairness. The Western retreat from responsibility has its origins in foreign policy mistakes – for example shame about genocide in Rwanda has turned into fatigue, and shame, about Iraq – but also in the shattering of economic confidence by the global financial crisis, the crushingly disproportionate gains from economic growth for those at the top, and the strikingly dysfunctional politics of some of the world’s leading democracies. The retreat will not be reversed until there is a new economic and social bargain that delivers fair shares at home.
Third, the fight for civil and political rights is never over. The nationalist and nativist backlash against the rules-based international order has a contagion effect in domestic politics around the world. I was taught at university that civil rights were gained in Britain in the 18th century, and political rights in the 19th century, so the 20th century challenge was social and economic rights. But the lesson of the 100 countries suffering democratic recession is that every generation has to refight the case for civil and political rights. There is no iron law that says dictatorships become democracies but that democracies don’t become dictatorships. Just ask the people of Hungary.
Fourth, it is not enough to criticize the Trump Administration or Brexiteers: we need to remake the case for international cooperation from first principles. The great mistake of the Remain campaign was to duck the argument about sovereignty and duck the argument for reform of international institutions. In or out of Europe, Britain needs the EU to succeed, because international cooperation will remain a must, but for that it needs to be reformed as well as defended.
Fifth, let’s recognize the new dividing line in politics, between those who believe that laws and norms to protect individual rights, in foreign policy and at home, are there to be observed and strengthened, and those who say “the law is for suckers.” Free societies are built on a simple principle, that power needs to be checked, and that principle needs to be upheld today.
The Arrogance of Power
This leads me back to Senator Fulbright. He wrote an important book in 1966, selling 400,000 copies, and in the process breaking with his friend President Lyndon Johnson and many of his party. The focus of the book was foreign policy, and the reason for the breach was Fulbright’s denunciation of the Vietnam War.
It is relevant to the Age of Impunity because of its core thesis, captured in its title: The Arrogance of Power. It is the American version of Lord Acton’s dictum about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Fulbright’s opposition to the Vietnam War came from and reinforced his core view about American power: that the sheer strength of America tempted mistakes on a grand and global scale, born of what he saw as a messianic streak in the American character, compounded by lack of knowledge about the rest of the world, and driven by the undeniable depredations of the communist counterpart in the Cold War.
The Age of Impunity I have described today is a symptom of a New “Arrogance of Power”. The New Arrogance of Power, in contrast to the Fulbright era, is not born of Western liberal democratic nations, intoxicated by their own virtue, throwing their weight around all corners of the world. Quite the opposite.
The Arrogance of Power diagnosed by Fulbright was the product of American strength. The New Arrogance of Power is the product of liberal democratic weakness. The result is the Age of Impunity.
Turning that round requires a change of course in foreign policy. But it also requires something else.
The checks and balances that protect the lives of the most vulnerable people abroad will only be sustained if we renew the checks and balances that sustain liberty at home. There is a lot of work for us to do.