Asia’s ability to compete on a global scale will remain severely hampered until the Northern Hemisphere’s better off nations loosen their economic grip by removing barriers to trade. Access to markets in the West is a vital lifeline for the development of Asian countries, not only on purely economic levels, but also in terms of establishing more stable democracies.
Strong economies are a keystone of healthy democracies, and the United States, Britain and the European Union (EU), have to put their money where there collective mouths are in terms of ensuring this liberalization takes place, or so says former-British Conservative MP, -Hong Kong Governor, and -European Commissioner, Chris Patten.
While Asian development is not the focus his book, Not Quite the Diplomat: Home Truths About World Affairs, it is one of the most pertinent issues likely to hook the region’s readers.
The book is the parting shot of his political career, his “final despatch”, so to speak. And he doesn’t pull any punches whether he’s criticizing Britain’s Europhobia, American expansionism, French arrogance, or the EU’s failure to prevent genocide in the Balkans.
“There was quite a lot that I wanted to say, what I thought was really going on in international affairs, and to give my views on some of the players. So as soon as I left Brussels [where the European Parliament is based], I picked up my pen with a lot of enthusiasm,” he says.
Speaking by phone from London Heathrow Airport – as he embarks on a whistlestop publicity tour of Singapore and Hong Kong – Mr Patten, 61, says a strong Europe is essential for Asian development.
“It’s very important to resist protectionist pressures in Europe and America. Some people in Asia have been given the impression that it doesn’t matter very much if we have success at the Dohar development round of the WTO talks, which culminate in Hong Kong in December.
“It matters hugely. When you look at how important exports are to Asian countries you see how true that is. So I think it’s vital that everybody works together to reduce the prospect of growing protectionism.”
He cites European, in particularly, French agriculture as a key issue here, stating that Europe must tackle the dual issues of its market protectionism and the distortion of its food prices through subsidies to level the playing field.
Mr Patten, who became a peer earlier this year, is well versed in matters of economic trade and foreign affairs. His five-year tenure as European Commissioner for External Relations ended last year, and prior to that he was the Governor of Hong Kong for five years until he presided over the handover of the island to China in 1997.
He is encouraged by Asia’s rising super-economies in China and India, in particular by how these centralized bureaucratic governments reaped the benefits by rapidly liberalizing their markets.
Such transformations should not be ignored by the West, he says.
“America and Europe have to recognize the enormous, significant changes that have taken place in Asia. They need to draw China and India into solving global problems and constructing global governments.”
However, before Europe and America can decide on how to work better with Asia, they need stronger cooperation between themselves.
Not Quite the Diplomat outlines the great paradoxes and ironies that inhabit the complex political and bureaucratic web of international relations involving America, Britain and Europe, and how these impact on their subsequent dealings with Israel, Palestine, the Balkans and Asia.
Mr Patten argues that Britain has been suffering a “collective nervous breakdown” regarding its post-imperial identity. A neurosis compounded by the fact that Britain was no longer a global economic or military power after World War II.
This lingering psychological funk, and fears of Brussels-based Eurocrats dictating how Whitehall should run Britain, have led to its current half-hearted position as a member of the EU, but not of the “Eurozone” currency union.
“We’ve had great difficulty really for 50 years working out exactly who we are and what role we want play in the world,” says Mr Patten. “I don’t think that our national interests are best served by withdrawing from Europe.
“If we’re going to be a member of the European Union, which is not constructing a superstate, but a collection of national states, then we should play that role enthusiastically.”
Playing this role enthusiastically, could have proactive repercussions on global cooperation and security, countering the negative affects of the Bush administration’s go-it-alone attitude. This would provide an opportunity for Britain, through its “special relationship” with the US, to serve as a bridge between the two continents.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair makes much of the so-called “special relationship”, but Not Quite the Diplomat, argues that this inverted filial connection was severely damaged by London’s support for the war in Iraq, a move that further undermined Britain’s standing amongst its European partners.
“I fear that Mr Blair’s version of the ‘special relationship’ didn’t secure very much influence for us in Washington and basically secured a free bus pass for President Bush’s administration to do whatever it wanted. I think that a good ally is different from a feudal vassal, we have opinions of our own after all.
“I also think there isn’t a European policy unless Britain, Germany and France work well together. It seems to me the best approach to America lies about midway between Paris and London.”
Throughout his book Mr Patten comes across as a highly principled man. In Britain’s 1992 general election, he refused to take up the offer to change constituencies to a safer seat when he knew he was likely to lose his, dismissing the idea as “distasteful carpetbagging”. He’s avoided making Not Quite the Diplomat as “kiss and tell” affair, sticking to the issues raised, rather than betraying personal confidences and private conversations. As such he is a rare creature who chooses to distance himself from the backsliding and wrangling commonly associated with the world of politics.
He draws on four decades in politics and diplomacy, including 23 years as an MP, serving under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, to give candid observations into the machinations of national and European politics, and international diplomacy. Taking a non-partisan view in terms of assessing people’s abilities and attitude, Mr Patten has no problem in praising Socialist MPs he had to work with in Europe, while strongly criticizing members of his own party, like Nicholas Ridley, who he saw as divisive.
The strongest examples he gives of the disastrous impact that certain individuals or cliques can have in the world of politics, is that of the Eurosceptic Conservatives who he rightly blames for the demise of their own party.
Rather than settling scores or muckraking, Not Quite the Diplomat’s raison d’être, is more worthy, and something that its author should be thanked for.
“People sometimes talk and write about foreign affairs as though it was the sort of subject that can only be understood by a secret society of diplomats and politicians. In fact they should be accessible to all of us.
“They’re pretty straightforward and I think I’ve written about them in a pretty straightforward way.”
Originally published in IHT ThaiDay, November, 2005.