Sunday 18 November 2012

The battle for ideas with China

Paul Collier argues that the West, by which I assume he means liberal democracies, should concede defeat in the battle for economic power with China and instead focus on winning the war of values instead.

It’s a seductive argument, because it offers us a chance to fight a battle we feel we can win from within a comfort zone we’re comfortable with, and he makes it in the brutal context of political murders and corporate malfeasance in Guinea, a country wracked by corruption which he rightly points out is aided and abetted by corporate interests based in London, Paris and New York.

And one in which a local Treasury anti-corruption official could be gunned down in the streets when her fight for transparency presented a threat to the profit margins of these dark forces.

Aissatou Boiro: murdered anti-graft official
So what would this "battle" look like, and what sort of "weapons" would we need to fight it? And, more importantly, what would victory actually look like if we won?

The US election was dominated by increasingly hysterical descriptions of Chinese economic wrongdoing leading to car plants in Detroit standing empty. And in Africa, which is the focus of Professor Collier’s piece, we have seen that they adopt a no-questions-asked approach to trade. The new Premier, Xi Jiping, gives no indication of altering course.

Yet that contrast is where I think Professor Collier’s argument partly falls down. No liberal democratic government that wants to be re-elected is going to concede defeat to China on economic grounds. The fact is that China can manufacture goods at a fraction of the cost, and that’s not going to change. The challenge for the West, surely, is to rise to that challenge by responding with knowledge driven services that don’t involve factories as the chief means of production. It might be an idea to turn that Detroit car factory into a business school.

Robin Cook
But that doesn’t mean we can’t open a second front and launch an all-out offensive on values. One of my favourite politicians of the last century was the much maligned Robin Cook who, as Foreign Secretary, announced his pursuit of an “ethical foreign policy”. The idea was that the driving aims of foreign policy would be normative as much as power-politics. It didn’t work out, but that might have been because he didn’t seem to get much support even from within his own Government for the idea.

The battle ground for the second offensive on values would almost certainly be Africa, for the reason Professor Collier gives: home to vast natural resources but also home to violence, poverty and corruption on a similarly vast scale. Yet also home to people, like Aissatou Boiro, willing to put their lives on the line to fight for a better world for themselves and their fellow citizens. They are the people who will do the fighting in this battle. The prize being economic growth, yes, but growth with peace and social justice too.

And that battle will commence *after* 2015, not before it. The current debate over the post-2015 framework is taking off, with some exciting and progressive work already having been done, such as the New Deal for engagement with fragile states, a partnership for inclusive growth, peace and justice between donors and countries affected by conflict. But the debate will need to conclude in a way that countries like China and Russia are happy with, or at least not so unhappy with that they veto it.  So there is much to fight for to shape that overall agenda, but it will only ever create an environment in which the battle for values will be contested.

So one Foreign Secretary of one Western (or African) country, however enlightened, isn’t going to cut it. What might do, however, is an institution that can act on a global scale with the resources and people who are able to support those fighting for the values of fairness, transparency and democracy effectively. Step forward, perhaps, the European External Action Service, the EEAS.

European External Action Service
As an institution it has had a rocky start, not helped by turf wars within the EU itself. But taking the long view this might be the institution that could bring some coherence to Europe’s engagement with Africa, starting by aligning trade policy with development and peacebuilding objectives, and designing its’ support effectively by well thought out interventions, designed in partnership with all those struggling for growth with peace and justice.

Their thinking was outlined by Nick Westcott, Managing Director for the Africa Division, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty in 2011. He talked of three pillars forming a "new framework of engagement" between Europe and Africa. They being: "supporting peace, promoting prosperity, and working through partnership with African countries and others." Not a bad set of goals to marry growth with peace and justice. 

Pie in the sky? It seems so, particularly when you look at some of the ridiculous manoeuvrings that sometimes characterise the European Union. But what are the alternatives?

Syria highlights the utter inadequacy of the UN in the face of a struggle between East and West because it can be held to ransom by one side or the other; while the US is no longer that useful global hegemon that we can all rely on to do that values stuff while we Europeans get on with making consumer goods.

So if this is a battle worth fighting, do we really have any alternative means of collectively supporting, on a global scale, those in Africa fighting for a vision of a better world?

And if the answer to that question is no, it seems to me we either just give up or try to get our European acts together and make this institution work. Sharpish.


  1. What values does the west represent exactly? It looks the other way on global atrocities unless its own economic interests are at stake then desperately tries to bomb the errants back into line when it all goes predictably wrong! Chinas policy of dealing with anybody is successful primarily because it doesnt involve a high horse, double standards or a twisted, self-defeating approach to Middle Eastern politics that apparently has the principal aim of helping a bunch of religious lunatics to self fulfil Old Testament prophecy. Chris sometimes I wonder whether you can distinguish reality from Whitehall propaganda!!

  2. You did hear about the coup d´etat in Paraguay right? While the entire continent of South America was condemning the trampling of democracy by the ultra rightwing elite that led the coup, Britains "liberal democracy" responded by reopening its embassy! The idea that "western values" are superior to anybody elses is laughable and if youre buying that line (or falling for Robin Cooks ethical foreign policy line!!) then you are living in a dream world Im afraid. Or are you going to start lobbying for regime change in Israel? Didnt think so!!!

  3. Always amusing to see how forthright people are when they post anonymously - my point was that there would be a contest of values not that there was a set of norms that were by definition "right"