The Strategist Six: Gideon Rachman
13 Mar 2019|

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has now lost a range of symbolic and substantive parliamentary votes on Brexit. At the same time, Europe is sticking to the line that it won’t reopen the text of the withdrawal deal. Do the prime minister’s challenges today stem mainly from Westminster or Brussels?

It’s a combination of the two and the interaction between the two. For a long period the prime minister was focused on getting a deal from Brussels and maybe wasn’t able to concentrate on what Tory MPs would find acceptable. That approach ran into problems and now she’s trying to find some mid-way point. Although she denies it, her policy is about running down the clock and then facing the Tories with the prospect that they could lose Brexit altogether if they don’t accept something very close to the deal that they previously rejected. I think it might well work—we’ll find out in the next month or so.

With the various options for ‘how to Brexit’ having been given a good public airing, do you think that the British people should be given an opportunity not only to reconfirm their desire to leave the EU, but also to nominate how the country forges ahead with that intention?

Remainers tend to be the ones who want a second referendum. I voted ‘remain’ and part of me wants a second referendum, because I don’t think it has worked out the way it was sold. In fact the ‘leave’ campaign was quite deliberate in being very unspecific about what Brexit would actually look like; they basically said, ‘It’ll be fine.’ Over the last two years the British people have discovered that a lot of the claims made for Brexit were wishful thinking at best. But I’m genuinely divided. While I’ve written that we should take May’s deal, I find that whenever that deal comes close to fruition I feel depressed because I don’t actually want to leave the EU. So, intellectually, I’m in one place; emotionally, I’m in another.

I personally don’t have a problem with a second referendum, and I think it’s likely that Britain would vote to stay this time—certainly opinion polls for the last few months have shown a narrow ‘remain’ majority. But I don’t say it with much joy or confidence, because I think it would be a highly divisive move and would play into the narrative of the leavers, who have always said, ‘This is an elite conspiracy which shows remainers aren’t interested in what the people have to say.’

So if you were to turn around and reverse Brexit—even by perfectly legitimate democratic means—there’s a risk of political disillusionment tipping into something that’s quite corrosive for British democracy. Leaving the EU will really be damaging both for the British economy and for Britain’s clout in the world. But equally, it’s not obvious that endangering the UK’s traditional political stability in favour of staying inside the EU is the right trade-off.

In the long term, is the goal of a ‘global Britain’ made more or less likely by Brexit?

I think it’s a pretty empty slogan. Britain is already global in the sense that it’s a global trading economy with international interests and with—perhaps as a legacy of empire—an unusually wide network stretching all the way to Australia and the Pacific. I think the slogan meant to convey that Britain had become locked into a European mentality and set of markets, and that we should reorient ourselves to the dynamic, emerging markets of the world—particularly those in Asia. The trouble is that it’s a false choice. I don’t think that being a member of the EU prevents the UK from taking advantage of such opportunities. Arguably it makes it easier: the EU has just signed a big trade deal with Japan, and it also has a deal with South Korea. Britain as a global hub is much more attractive inside the EU than outside of it, so the danger is that Brexit makes us less global, not more.

You wrote recently that the ‘era of populists’ could last decades if nationalist governments deliver tangible results. Two years in, how successful has US President Donald Trump been in ensuring that those who elected him feel he has improved their lives and arrested their sense of relative American decline?

It depends on who you speak to. America at the moment is so divided along partisan lines that nobody is really shifting their position, sort of like Brexit. So Trump’s supporters, unless they’re directly affected by an event, be it a factory closure or whatever, will tend to say, ‘Yeah, he’s going well.’ His opponents don’t see it that way.

There hasn’t yet been that defining event that will fix in people’s minds whether Trump is seen as a success or a failure. Jimmy Carter’s failure to respond effectively to the occupation of the US embassy in Iran, combined with the second oil shock and Carter’s own demeanour, created the sense that his was a failed presidency—even though he lost quite narrowly in the end. For Ronald Reagan, there was the resurgence of the American economy, the invasion of Grenada oddly enough, and a few other things that created momentum and led to his being seen as a success. But Trump isn’t yet fixed in people’s minds as a success or failure, and maybe it won’t happen anymore because America is so divided. Barack Obama’s supporters see him as the greatest president ever, while his opponents still detest him.

What is your view of Chinese President Xi Jinping—his premiership, his agenda, his authority, his grip on power?

Pretty negative, to be honest. I think he’s been very bad news for China. You don’t have to embrace the naive idea that China should move instantly to one person, one vote and a full liberal democracy; I have some sympathy for the argument that you have to play that carefully. But Xi is moving China backwards in the sense that the cult of personality is very retrograde. It is infantilising for what are very sophisticated people. This isn’t the Cultural Revolution generation who were cut off from the outside world; these are people who are well educated and know the world yet have to follow this line.

I don’t claim to know China very well, but I have been going every now and then for quite a while. It seems to me that the scope for debate—what intellectuals are prepared to talk about in public or in private—has narrowed. People are scared now in a way that they weren’t five years ago. In fact, I remember five years ago going out for dinner in Beijing with a bunch of professors from the top Chinese universities who were prepared to have a very lively discussion in a restaurant about whether China should aspire to be a democracy. I just don’t think they would do that anymore.

My impression is that there’s a climate of fear now under Xi, and it’s not just about politics but it’s also about business because of the anti-corruption drive. Now, obviously the system was deeply corrupt, but the sense now that anybody’s vulnerable is destabilising. It’s very worrying for China and for the world.

Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the state of global affairs in 2019?

I’m not terribly optimistic and the reasons are fairly clear. If you’re of a ‘liberal’ disposition both in economics and in politics, we had a very good 30 years from 1978—the opening of China, and Thatcher and Reagan reinvigorating the West. That was followed by democratisation, which is commonly and understandably associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things were going in the right direction.

We also saw state control of the economy going out of fashion and it seemed there was a formula that worked and was going global—a combination of political and economic freedoms advancing. But, significantly, 1989 was the year not only of the Berlin Wall but also of Tiananmen Square, where China didn’t take the same route yet it has since been successful beyond anyone’s imagining, despite being a one-party state.

Then the Western system had its own seismic economic shock in 2008 from which we never fully recovered, and in the aftermath we’ve had a rise of illiberal politics, which Donald Trump exemplifies in the West. But it’s not just Trump. If you look across Europe, the AfD is the official opposition in the German parliament, Brexit is here in the UK, France has the gilet jaunes, Spain is threatening to break up, democracy is under threat in Poland and Hungary, Russia has gone backwards to become a menacing player in the international system. And strongman politics is back in fashion, not just in China but even in India, the Philippines and Brazil, and along with it a rise in economic nationalism, which is potentially dangerous.

So no, I don’t think it’s a particularly great period. The question is how long it will last. The other thing that makes me anxious is actually the environment. The sense that we’ve failed on climate change, that the goals aren’t realistic or probably enough in themselves. And with things like species extinction and so on—I see you had one in Australia very recently—it’s very alarming.

The only thing I would say, though, is that one can misread these things. I was actually talking to my mother about it recently—when I was born in ’63 she had a strong sense that I had come into a world gone wrong because the Cuban missile crisis happened just a year before, everyone was terrified of nuclear Armageddon around the corner and things looked very dangerous. And yet, I’ve lived in a very blessed era of peace, prosperity, steadily expanding freedom and reduction of poverty around the world. So you can have a snapshot of a time and think, ‘Oh well, it’s obviously terrible.’ But we may be wrong. I hope so!