In the 2005 Conservative Party leadership election, I was one of David Cameron’s earliest supporters. Even before he officially declared his candidacy, I had pledged my support. I helped in his campaign. And I will remain a supporter of his leadership until the bitter end.
Liam Fox, however, was a close second choice, and I am sorry that his ministerial career ended the way it did. His ideas and idealism, grounded in reality, are missed. His new book, Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era, is a masterpiece of analysis of global affairs, combining his own ideals and values with the reflections of others who have held power, anchoring his thoughts about the present and the future with extraordinarily detailed, and fascinating, historical research. There is only one other book of its kind that I am aware of, and that was Chris Patten’s tome, What Next?,a book I reviewed here five years ago.
One of the first points Fox makes is that foreign policy can no longer be a hobby, a “specialist interest” if you have time. In our modern world, there can be little separation between foreign and domestic affairs. He explains:
“Throughout most of our history, we have had the luxury of focusing on our domestic problems and, apart from catastrophic global events such as the two world wars of the twentieth century, our involvement with the outside world has been something of a voluntary choice. That is all changing today. The era of globalisation means that our economies, our trade, our security, and even our politics have more shared risk than ever before.”
“As we become more interdependent we interact with many more players in many more parts of the world than in any time in history. This makes us more vulnerable to external shocks and less able to insulate ourselves from instability in distant parts of the global economy or from transnational security threats which may arise in a far-flung corner of the world.”
Moreover, the world we live in, post-Cold War, is no longer “bi-polar” – a clash of two superpowers, two ideologies – but rather “multipolar”.
A tour de force ensues, taking the reader through an extraordinary list of challenges, any one of which would merit a book of its own: globalisation, radical Islamism, terrorism, immigration, international aid, free trade, the environment, taxation, debt, water and the potential for conflict over resources and self-determination of states, to name just a few. Fox pays particular attention to the countries which pose the greatest challenges to policy-makers, namely: Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and China, as well as, of course, the Middle East after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
Having worked on Pakistan, and written about it several times on this site, I found it fascinating that Fox devotes much of an entire chapter, titled “Troubles with Neighbours”, to this one country. He admits that originally he had considered naming the book The 4a.m. Moment – What Keeps World Leaders Awake (a good title), but he dropped the idea when the same answer came from all the former world leaders he interviewed: Pakistan. A failed nuclear state? Political implosion? A source of global terrorism?
I was just as interested when, in the same chapter, he moved from Pakistan to North Korea. In 2009, having worked on it for five years, I passed responsibility for Pakistan to a colleague and took on North Korea. I often jokingly ponder which of us has the greater headache, and Fox clearly sees these two challenges in the same bracket. But he concludes that no matter how challenging they are to solve, they are problems that cannot be put in the ‘too difficult’ basket:
“Above all, we must keep in mind that whether the problem is a potentially failing state like Pakistan or an unstable and crazy regime like that in North Korea, we would all be affected by a disastrous outcome, so it is in all our interests to do everything we can together to prevent that scenario from occurring. The implication of globalisation is that, whether we like it or not, it is everyone’s business.”
A clear thread throughout the entire book is Fox’s emphasis on the values of liberty, democracy and human rights, and he makes a compelling case. He is not blindly idealistic, or reliant solely on the moral virtues of the argument – rather, he makes the case in terms of self-interest:
“It is important that we keep emphasising that it is not a coincidence that those nations who have embraced liberty most fully have been the dominant global economic and political powers. Free, democratic nations who allow their citizens to express themselves openly and without fear also unleash the powers of creativity and entrepreneurship which are the basis for success in a free market.”
Some of the examples he gives in his recent piece on this site come from the book and give you a taste of his argument, in particular his anger about the West’s “abandonment of the democracy movement in Iran,” because “we failed to reinforce the universal nature of the values we hold and missed a historic opportunity to show that our quarrel is not with the people of Iran but with the leadership of the regime.” He draws a stark contrast with the way Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II provided active, vocal and practical support to dissidents in the Soviet bloc. A combination of supporting “internal dissent” with “external pressure” meant that the Cold War did not just end, it was “won”.
Just as our values should underpin our foreign policy, Fox argues that no conflict can be brought to a genuine end without what he calls “positive attributes”. Drawing on his own experiences in Sri Lanka, he concludes that “peace is not simply the absence of war”. What he then goes on to say applies to the ethnic conflict in Burma, where I have worked for many years, just as it did in Sri Lanka. A genuine peace requires:
“… freedom from fear and freedom of expression, including a free press and broadcast media and the right to dissent within the law. It requires an inclusive political solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict and takes into account the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all the people of a land. Until the rights, identities and hopes of all …, whatever their ethnic origins or religion, are treated as equal, peace and reconciliation will not be achieved.”
If you enjoy history, this is a book for you, for every chapter is laced with riveting historical facts and anecdotes. If international relations, economics and security issues are your passion, this is a book for you, for it examines these challenges in-depth and with rigour. If religion and its place in the world is of interest, this book goes into surprising depth, particularly on Sunni-Shia conflicts and the rise of Wahhabism and radical Islamism. If idealism, philosophy, the cause of freedom and human rights, the world of ideas are what captivate you, this is a must read for you. And if you are a generalist just interested in the world around you, this is a book for you too, because it is written in a highly engaging way. It is comprehensible as well as comprehensive. Fox has managed a rare achievement: to write a book that is thoughtful, deep, stimulating, well-researched and authoritative, full of little known facts and colourful stories, without being wonkishly unreadable. Indeed, it is compelling and captivating.
‘Rising Tides’, by Liam Fox (Heron Books, £20) can be ordered from Politicos.