Archive for the ‘Editorial’ Category

Time for real-realpolitik

Feb 27, 2011 4 comments

Realpolitik is politics defined as

politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.

Realpolitik has been practiced, to varying degrees, by the West since before the term was coined. It has been predominant since the end of the World War II. Realpolitik has resulted in various nefarious practices, including (but not limited to): seeking out and supporting “strong men” as bulwarks against Communism (and more recently as protectors of Western interests), using aid programmes to prop up or undermine regimes, and deposing democratically elected leaders.

As Brian Crozier says in his 1965 book “South-East Asia in Turmoil”:

In its search for local ‘strong men’, the United States used anti-Communism as a decisive credential… administrative capacity, and even honesty, were less important than unwavering anti-Communism plus willingness to become a partner of the United States. Nor did it matter if a strong man was also an oppressive despot, as Syngmnan Rhee of Korea and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam turned out to be, so long as he kept repeating that he was anti communist.

Or put more succinctly in the apocryphal statement attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.

(Some claim that this was actually a self-serving statement fabricated by Somoza himself.)

The trouble with realpolitik is that it just does not work. Sure, it can produce short term advantages, but those advantages don’t last, and the long term consequences can be dire. Even a cursory examination of history shows this.

The 1955 partition of Vietnam and the support of President Ngo Dinh Diem – that didn’t work out too well did it? The 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and his replacement with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – that didn’t work out too well either. The subsequent US backing of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, how did that go? The appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s was arguably a form of realpolitik, since an ethical stance against Germany was replaced by a pragmatic one directly seeking peace. That could hardly be called a success. And recent events in the Middle East and North Africa show that the “stability” achieved by supporting despots and kleptocrats is short-lived.

It’s not actually very surprising that realpolitik doesn’t work. If we replace the phrase “practical and material considerations”, with “short term considerations” (since “practical considerations” are effectively things we believe are achievable in the short term) and if we replace “ideological or ethical considerations” with “long term considerations” (since our ideology and ethics is based on how we believe things should be, along with a recognition that those ideals may take some time to achieve), we then find the definition of realpolitik is changed from:

Realpolitik is politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.


Realpolitik is politics base on short term considerations, rather than long term considerations.

When put like that, it’s not surprising realpolitik doesn’t work.

Advocates and practitioners of realpolitik often accuse those who advocate more ethically based policies of being naive. I argue that it is the practitioners of realpolitik who are simplistic in their belief that long term interests can be achieved by narrowly pursuing short term gains. Real-realists know that to achieve your long term goal you often need to make short term compromises.

It’s time for real-realpolitik. It’s time to recognise that we cannot achieve our long term goals by abandoning them as naive and unrealistic. It’s time to recognise that our foreign policy should have a much larger ethical component, not only because it is “the right thing to do”, but also because it is what works and it is what is in our own long-term self-interest.


Tony Blair pledges book proceeds to Royal British Legion

Aug 16, 2010 5 comments

Let me ask you one question,
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find,
When your death takes its toll,
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

Bob Dylan – Masters of War

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Suggestion for a cheaper Trident

Jul 17, 2010 1 comment

I share the opinion that Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham, and General Sir Hugh Beach expressed in a letter to the Times: that Britain’s defence needs would be best served by scrapping Trident and using the monies saved to improve Britain’s conventional forces. However, I am realistic enough to accept that this is unlikely to happen in the current parliament, especially given the statement: “The Government is committed to retaining Trident and the programme will be scrutinised for value for money” (see Strategic Defence and Security Review).

First some background on Trident: the Trident Programme is the UK’s nuclear defence programme. It consists of four Vanguard class submarines each of which carries up to 16 Trident D-5 nuclear missiles. Each missile carries 3 warheads and has a range of approximately 7,500 miles (12,000km). The Trident Programme has a 30-year lifespan that is due to end in 2024 (source: BBC Trident missile factfile). The life span of the Trident D-5 missile has been extended to 2030 when it is due to be replaced by the Trident E-6 missile (source: Missilethreat).

The submarine based system was part of the cold war strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction: no nation will lauch a pre-emptive first strike against the UK because the UK will be able to launch a devastating retaliatory strike from its submarines (since at least one of the submarines is always at sea at a hidden location).

The cold war is over. The nuclear threat against the UK is no longer that of a pre-emptive first strike, so a submarine based nuclear deterrent is no longer required.

This suggests a cheaper alternative to the full Trident Programme: move the Trident missiles to land-based silos and scrap the submarines.

There are probably technical difficulties with launching a Trident missile from a land-based silo: the feasibility and cost of a land-based Trident nuclear deterrent needs to be evaluated and compared with the option of replacing the four Vanguard submarines. Both the replacement and subsequent running costs need to be compared. The question of how many land-based missiles are required, and how many warheads each missile carries needs to be addressed (I believe that under arms limitation treaties more warheads are allowed on ICBMs than SLBMs). Currently the UK has a guaranteed launch capability (provided by the one submarine that is always on patrol) of 48 warheads provided by the 16 missiles aboard a Vanguard submarine. A similar capacity could be provided by 12 land-based missiles each carrying 4 warheads, or 10 land-based missiles each carrying 5 warheads, if such configurations are allowed by international treaties.

Moving the Trident missiles to land-based silos provides an effective nuclear deterrent until 2030. At that time there will be an option to replace the Trident D-5 missiles with Trident E-6 missiles. A land-based Trident programme is likely to be more cost-effective than a replacement submarine based programme and deserves serious attention.

I have submitted this suggestion to the HM Treasury Spending Challenge site.


A middle way on Trident, by Shirley Williams.

The Myth of Panic

Apr 8, 2010 Leave a comment

We see it time and again in the movies. A disaster is about to happen: a nuclear bomb is about to explode in a major city, a deadly virus has been released from a laboratory, a giant meteor is about to strike the earth, an alien spaceship is spotted heading towards the earth. And the reaction from the president is always the same: “We must not tell the public or there will be mass panic and hysteria”.

Except there won’t.

The assumption of public panic is a useful plot device for disaster movies, but as an instrument for policy formulation it is defective. Policy makers seem to assume that the public will panic, but research shows the opposite. Baruch Fischhoff, professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Society for Risk Analysis, says “people, however stressed, almost always keep their wits and elevate their humanity”. In his article A Hero in Every Aisle Seat he says:

Studies of civilians’ intense experiences in the London Blitz; the cities of Japan and Germany in World War II; the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York; the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995; and even fires have found that people, however stressed, almost always keep their wits and elevate their humanity.

In his article Panic: myth or reality, Lee Clarke, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Rutgers University states:

Before, during and after disasters, the ‘general public’ warrants trust and respect. Panic is often used as a justification by high-level decision makers to deny knowledge and access to the public, on the presumption that people cannot handle bad news. Research on how people respond to life threatening disasters and the stories form the World Trade Center show that people handle even the most terrifying news civilly and cooperatively. Our leaders would do well to see us as partners in recovery rather than a ‘constituency’ to be handled.

In The Swine Flu Panic That Wasn’t. Mass hysteria fails to materialize. Again. Jesse Walker says:

People are sharing information, they’re seeking out information, they’re asking questions about whether or not they have the symptoms,” says Jeannette Sutton, a researcher at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Those are not incidents of panic or hysteria. That’s rational thinking, where people are asking questions and trying to make decisions based on the information they have available to them.”

It’s not as though there haven’t been any destructive overreactions to the H1N1 flu. It’s just that they’ve come from officials, not the general public.

A John Hopkins University study dispels panic myth and suggests ways to involve the public in response to a bioterrorist attack.

Planners and policy makers have long discounted the public’s ability to participate in a response to bioterrorism, because of a belief that an attack would create mass panic and social disorder.

However, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who reviewed the public’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the recent anthrax mailings, and other disasters concluded that the public does not react with panic but with effective and adaptive action and can be an valuable response force and that should be considered in biodefense planning.

It is a myth that a community’s first response to a crisis is panic.

The public are much smarter than portrayed – we pay much more attention to the actual reported numbers than the apocalyptic predictions of the media and politicians.

The assumption of public panic results in poor policy decisions. It’s not the public who panics, it’s the politicians.

The Nobel Prize and the Test of Time

Oct 11, 2009 1 comment

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Charles Kao for his 1960s work on optical fibers and to Willard Boyle and George Smith for the 1969 invention of the CCD sensor. The Chemistry Prize was shared by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for working out the structure of the ribosome, work that began in the 1980s and was completed in 2000. The Physiology or Medicine prize was shared by Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for the 1978 discovery of telomeres and the 1985 discovery of telomerase. The Literature prize was won by Herta Müller for her depictions in poetry and prose of the landscape of the dispossessed – a body of work that spans over 25 years. The Peace Prize was awared to Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.

Let’s look at some of the more famous Nobel Prize Laureates:

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911 for her 1898 discoveries of radium and polonium.

Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his 1905 explanation of the photoelectric effect.

Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey shared the 1945 prize for Physiology or Medicine for the 1928 discovery of penicillin.

Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 prize for Physiology or Medicine for the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA.

In 1979 Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work leading the Missionaries of Charity, work that she had begun in 1950.

Nelson Mandela won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending apartheid in South Africa, work he pursued for many years, including 27 years spent in prison.

Great works and achievements do not need to be immediately recognised with awards. Indeed, they should be allowed time to speak for themselves


Trident is the Eurofighter of nuclear deterrence

Sep 26, 2009 1 comment

In Britain we are debating if we should replace Trident, our fleet of four aging SLBM equiped nuclear submarines. The argument against replacing Trident is that it would be too costly, or that the money would be better spent on conventional forces, or that given the UN Security Council resolution calling for nuclear disarmament we should not be pursuing rearmament at all.

I want to talk about something else: the pertinent question is not “Shall we replace Trident?” or even “Should we have a nuclear deterrent?”, it is “How should we best spend our defence budget to ensure the security of our nation?” Answering that question requires us to analyse the threats we face and requires us to work out the best ways to defend against those threats. It means we need to weigh the benefit of additional conventional forces and equipment against the benefit of a nuclear deterrent. It means, even if we decide we need a nuclear deterrent, we need to decide what form that deterrent should take, given the technology currently available and the threats we are likely to face in the future. It does not mean blindly re-adopting a technology that was appropriate in the 1980s.

For the purposes of the rest of this blog post I’ll assume that we have decided that Britain needs a nuclear deterrent.

During the cold war the our nuclear deterrence was based on the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction: any one who attacked us with nuclear weapons would face an immediate retaliatory strike resulting in their own destruction. Our ability to retaliate depended on our second strike capability: the ability of our nuclear arsenal to survive a preemptive first strike. In this situation submarines with nuclear armed ballistic missiles are an effective means of providing a second strike capability. Their long range, high survivability and ability to carry many medium- and long-range nuclear missiles, makes submarines a credible and effective means of delivering full-scale retaliation even after a massive first strike.

During the cold war Trident may have been an excellent nuclear deterrent for Britain.

But the cold war is over. Weapons that were effective during the cold war are not necessarily effective now. Witness Eurofighter. The threats are different and the technology available has improved.

We longer face the threat of a massive preemptive first strike by a large cold war adversary. Instead we face the threat of a small scale strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. Our ability to retaliate is no longer determined by our ability to survive a first strike.

We could blindly readopt a costly cold war solution that will be expensive and won’t work. Like we did with the Eurofighter. Or we could look at a modern more cost effective solution. And we could spend the savings on conventional forces.