Miliband, China, and the World Without the West


UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has begun to cultivate a reputation as a young, thoughtful, and charismatic diplomat amidst more seasoned but less dynamic peers. When he spoke to the Young Atlanticists two weeks ago in Bucharest, he seemed to enjoy playing to this persona. In contrast to every major leader and head of state who addressed the Young Atlanticist Summit, Miliband stood out by doffing his jacket the moment he sat down, rolling his eyes at the reading of his official biography, opting to sit in the platform in front of the speakers dias to make it a more intimate conversation with the young atlanticists, and initially leading off with a mention of his blog of assorted commentary on policymaking, foreign affairs, and football. (He also promised a post on our discussion, on which he delivered).
His brief opening remarks also broke from traditional transatlantic talking points by outlining four major discontinuities that warranted a reconfiguration of NATO in terms of geographic boundaries, non-military functions, and partnerships — particularly but not limited to the UN and the EU.
But noticeably absent from Miliband’s insightful remarks was the word “China” or more specifically any mention of how the evolving geopolitical challenges for NATO and the transatlantic partnership would contend with or accommodate for China’s growth, not as an individual state but something between an imperial power (as Parag Khanna has argued) and an anchor for a new international order (as Steven Weber has argued).
The central basis for the transatlantic partnership Miliband expressed was that of “shared values” but how can the partnership and NATO adapt to these new geopolitical realities where the central challenge is that of states and systems do not share those values. I asked this of Miliband who’s response (see the clip below) I found intriguing, but more aspirational rather than realistic about what we could extract from China.

He essentially suggested we take China’s value on non-intervention and national sovereignty and turn it into a concept of responsible sovereignty –both downwards towards one’s on own citizens and upwards towards the international system. Though a clever rhetorical move, the notion that China would accept Western concepts of “responsibility” after years of reckless, irresponsible foreign policy agenda was improbable.
Perhaps my question did not set properly set up the argument I was angling towards but I was still surprised that Miliband, despite all the appearance and substance as a next generation big-think policymaker, did not put this front and center as an issue for Europe and NATO.
Yesterday at a public forum, Steven Weber, along with Flynt Leverett and Fred Kempe discussed the “World Without West” thesis described in these lines:

The landscape of globalization now looks like this: While connectivity for the globe as a whole has increased in the last twenty years, it is increasing at a much faster rate among countries outside the Western bloc. The World Without the West is becoming preferentially and densely interconnected. This creates the foundation for the development of a new, parallel international system, with its own distinctive set of rules, institutions, ways of doing things — and currencies of power.
The World Without the West, like any political order, is made up of two ingredients: A set of ideas about governance and a set of power resources that enable, embed and occasionally enforce those ideas. This alternative order rests on wealth drawn from natural resources and industrial production (along with the management expertise applied to those capabilities). And it proposes to manage international politics through a neo-Westphalian synthesis comprised of hard-shell states that bargain with each other about the terms of their external relationships, but staunchly respect the rights of each to order its own society, politics and culture without external interference. Neither of these elements by itself would make for a concrete alternative to the Western system, but together they synergistically stabilize into a robust political-economic order.

The implications are grave. Weber suggested at minimum, the degree of interaction amongst the non-west orbit affords increased bargaining power on geoeconomic and geopolitical fronts when dealing with the US and the West, but at maximum, it means the creation of a new center of gravity. In light of this soft-balancing, the non-military ways to constrain us, Leverett argued that we could no longer afford the illusion of ourselves as the indispensible nation, one that does not have to make clear strategic priorities and choices, or accord other rising states more of a decision making role in the international order.
Relative to the other speakers, Kempe was more bullish about what the transatlantic partnership could do to regain some lost ground in these “non-west” or “southern democracy” theaters but all three were bearish on the political leadership, particularly in the United States, coming to terms with these new realities, let alone formulating strategies to address and accommodate for them.
Miliband strikes me as the kind of thoughtful but shrewd leader (and many suggest future British PM) who has the potential to come to terms with these new systems of interaction and alignment and devise a more strategic approach. Though having grown increasingly skeptical of the conventional discussions of democracy-promotion, in a speech in January Miliband offered one of the first sober and an impressive defenses and re-castings of a real democracy promotion agenda — one that takes the long-term development of political and economic institutions very seriously — that I’ve seen in number of years.
Though he may not be there yet, it is evident his conceptualizations of responsible sovereignty and developmental democracy are probably amongst the better tools for formulating a strategy for the future of “the west”.
— Sameer Lalwani


3 comments on “Miliband, China, and the World Without the West

  1. David says:

    Well put, and quite distressing, Don. I especially like your final sentence. Natural determinism can be daunting enough, without humans throwing in various ideological determinisms that have nothing useful to do with the reality-based world, except for the grief they succeed in visiting on the human condition.


  2. Don Bacon says:

    So it’s to be the World Without the West led by China (think Shanghai Conference) against the Concert (Slaughter) or League (McCain) of Democracies led by the US/UK. Guess who’s winning.
    Miliband: a reconfiguration of NATO in terms of geographic boundaries, non-military functions, and partnerships — particularly but not limited to the UN and the EU.
    Translation: The United Nations doesn’t cut it any longer, what with the Russians and Chinese having veto power, so NATO’s the new international war horse.
    No doubt the failed effort in Afghanistan is to be the new paradigm. “We gather in Bucharest to reaffirm our determination to help the people and the elected Government of Afghanistan build an enduring stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state, respectful of human rights and free from the threat of terrorism.” What country will be “helped” next, now that Afghanistan has cemented its place as one of the poorest, most depressing countries on earth?
    Well, Miliband’s an atheist, so at least he’s not driven by Christian Determinism. That’s good.


  3. David says:

    Flynt Leverett seems to me to go to the heart of the matter for the United States, but I cannot imagine Americans in general grasping this in any substantive way, just as we have refused to grasp for the past four decades what has been unfolding regarding the global ecosphere, the catastrophic implications of the exploitation and manipulation of third world countries, alternating with, for all practical purposes, indifference if we did not see an immediate “national interest” at stake. Meanwhile, given our current domestic economic meltdown and the accompanying global consequences, I can imagine those nations which can seeking to pass us by. The overarching reality, however, is that we are all in this together, like it or not, and I cannot see anything but short-lived spikes for any nation or nations who try to go it alone, as we are failing so miserably at, or in concert with like-minded nations, which also isn’t going to work, because there is a planet we must all inhabit, if it will continue to have us.
    Frankly, I think our best hope is younger people who can turn off the misleading blather of the MSM and connect globally via the internet (to which China is, of course, still pretty adamantly opposed, as are some of the Middle Eastern countries, to name a few). I gain more insight from one day of The Washington Note than from a week of standard media fare. And there are a host of other useful websites that I have discovered, which feature voices fully enough expressed to allow for the possibility of actually learning and understanding something. There is also a lot of dreck out there, but it’s pretty easy to recognize, and I don’t have a gatekeeper making sure the “received wisdom” still carries the day. In the past, about the only sources were books by intellectually honest, informed writers, and they were important, but the internet has so much more impact, is so much more widely and readily available, and could well prove to be one of our saviors, if indeed we do get saved from ourselves.
    On the other hand, if the two criminally misguided souls in the White House, or their wannabee successor the faux maverick from Arizona, succeed in starting WWIII, The Wasteland Redux will be about the only appropriate thing to write, if we can find a latter day T.S. Eliot, or maybe a hybrid Eliot/Ginsberg, with overtones of the French absurdists.


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