Reclaiming territory

Progressive internationalists must show they are best-placed to promote democracy and tackle terrorism

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David Miliband’s speech in Oxford last month laid out the clear
challenge that faces progressive internationalists in the post-Iraq
invasion world. But to understand where the internationalist left
should go from here it has become important, if not essential, to
define clearly what we are not. This is always a depressing place to
have to begin building a case from, but after Iraq it is vital that we
state clearly what we are not before trying to engage people with what
we are for.

Whenever you do this on a personal level the results
are surprising. I have lost count of the number of times I meet people
who initially cannot understand how a progressive can be in favour of
intervention, indeed can have endorsed the necessity for regime change
in Iraq. After outlining what progressive internationalism is not the
conversation alters direction substantially. After explaining what
progressive internationalism is for, one can begin to glimpse the
reconstruction of that broad coalition that embraced a new dawn in
international relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union and
before the hegemony of the neo-conservatives led us to the disastrous
implementation of regime change in Iraq. Let us state what we are not.

internationalists are not neo-conservatives. We are not warmongers and
we do not believe that hard power solutions either always work or are
always the right answer. We do not believe there is one model of free
market capitalism that must be imposed on the world. We do not believe
that west is always best; that Islam is a totalitarian ideology that
wants to take over the world; that George Bush is the new FDR or that
Tony Blair could, if he wanted, turn water into wine. But neither do we
believe that western intervention always makes matters worse, that if
an American politician believes something it must be wrong or that
fascism dressed up as religious belief is an invention of totalitarian
western ‘democracies’ designed to replace reasoned political discussion
with fear of the other.

The reason fear exists in this world,
at this time, is because there is an ideological struggle going on and
within that struggle there are people who want to destroy our way of
life and the way of life of their moderate co-believers. It is a
struggle with a revolutionary cadre who will use any means necessary to
achieve their objectives. Our challenge as progressives is to defeat
this enemy and, at the same time, remove the ground from which the
support for
this enemy grew.

If the foundation of our
international identity as social democrats is universalism then the
expression of that belief must be actions rather than words or
resolutions to act at some point, when the circumstances are right and
the conditions amenable. Nye Bevan used to say that the social
furniture of the 20th century was too fragile to live alongside the

In the 21st century it is again the case that the
characteristic image that can express the experience of life in many
states, especially for women trying to make their own choices about
their lives, is a jack boot in the face – not as a kick so much as a
constant pressure holding you down so that you cannot escape. And now
the jack boot is not only directed by states it also comes from
international terrorist networks who do not kick in faces but strap
explosives around the waists of well-paid Martyrs who sit on buses or
walk into nightclubs. There is no progressive ideology of the left that
should accept this state of affairs or try to understand it as being
culturally relative. It is not a relative issue. It is, or should be,
for progressives, an absolute truth – there is no religion dressed as
ideology that justifies the murder of civilians.

There is a
violent revolutionary movement which cloaks itself in the language of
Islam and which is set on destroying democracy. It must be fought as
any revolutionary movement has been fought through the ages when it set
out to impose the will of the minority onto the life choices of the
majority – through hard and soft power. Our failure to quickly confront
and defeat such movements in the past, for example the Bolsheviks and
the Nazis, had terrible consequences.

If we can accept this then
we begin to create the space for the discussions that need to take
place. Progressives are not neo-cons for many reasons but mostly
because they embrace the complexity of the interconnectedness of issues
and do not have a simple blueprint for solving the world’s problems. They have an approach and, understanding and defining that approach,
they make clearer the distance between our worldview and that of the
isolationist right and the fellow-travelling left. This
interconnectedness can be summed up and thought about in a series of
key relationships and challenges.

The threat of global warming
is both environmental and profoundly political. It is underpinned by
resource wars which have ravaged Africa, South America and the Middle
East. The political dimensions of energy policy and the implications of
energy-derived wealth for the prospect of democratic consolidation will
become increasingly central issues as oil dependency faces ever
dwindling supply.

The deepening of energy inequality, unless
offset by redistributive economic policies on a global scale that go
significantly beyond millennium goals, will continue to feed systemic
underdevelopment in sizable portions of the world. This poverty does
not create violence. Ideas create contemporary terrorist networks, but
poverty provides footsoldiers who die and audiences that cheer the
bombing of symbols of western freedom. Poverty also provides a context
that victims of the Pilger worldview can point to as explanations and
justifications for terrorism. Economic growth and development that is
evenly distributed are keys to political development. Successful
democracies therefore have well-functioning states based on social
markets and progressives should be at the forefront of opposing the
‘stateless’ models of the neo-cons. In turn the free movement of
peoples and the relationship between democratic consolidation and
greater equality is clear.

Progressive internationalists also
need to return the issue of nuclear proliferation to the forefront of
debate. This needs to be done both in terms of new states seeking to
join the nuclear club but also in terms of reducing and destroying as
much of the old Cold War nuclear stockpile as possible.

all of these challenges and problems, the root cause of many of them
and the essence of their solution, is what David Miliband calls the
‘Democratic Imperative’. Progressive internationalists need to reclaim
the territory of democracy building as our own.