Chatham House’s Director Bronwen Maddox’s 2023 Opening Lecture: the Less Said, the Better, for Whom?
Chatham House’s Director Bronwen Maddox’s 2023 Opening Lecture: the Less Said, the Better and for Whom?
By Fernando Gómez-Herrero
I like the style of the new Director of Chatham House Bronwen Maddox who is picking up the baton after Robin Niblett (Robin Niblett: "The More Coherent the World is, the Less Influential Britain will be." Interview. (fernandogherrero.com); Spanish version: “Cuanto más coherente sea el mundo inmediato, menor la influencia británica” (lavanguardia.com)). I want to see sobriety and probity besides her self-definition of “pragmatism” and something like impatience for indirection and understatement, which is British brand of internationalism, whether there is rain, thunder or sunshine. Dry humour does not have to mean sterility and concision or succinctness do not have to reflect the stereotypical phlegmatic mood of the dominant nation of the four nations. Truly, saying less than is needed plays with the implicit, the tacit, the implied and the explicit, whether comforting or not. The rhetoric will give the speaker away no matter how much she tries to hide behind it or her silences. This article is about an “event of consequence” as it was called (The Director’s Annual Lecture 2023 (chathamhouse.org) and credit to the new Director for creating the tradition. Perhaps it will be more significant next year. In the meantime, two men of the same political party were credited for inspiration. A greater collection of names, national and foreign, will be needed soon since it is the world –big, foreign, messy, disorienting as always—that is at stake. No single institution and no single nation will properly rein it in, to be sure. This was an opening salvo to what is a tumultuous year in the island and “the rest of the world,” as the brutal split in a recent weather forecast had it.
Bronwen Maddox and Rafael Behr, 10th January 2023, Chatham House, the Director's Annual Lecture.
A sober, almost sombre Rafael Behr of The Guardian –sporting a very bright orange watch and a matching long tie—sat with Bronwen Maddox (New York-City-born, according to Wikipedia, of mixed background, Welsh scientist father and an American mother of literary biographies who settled in Britain, Oxford-education, background in journalism and a previous role as Director at the Institute for Government). The father, John Maddox, brings connections with The Guardian. That may explain the presence of Behr who is not a typical draw at Chatham House, leaning more, in content, mood and mode, on The Times among the general right-wing British press. There are touches of Financial Times too. Perhaps this was a wink towards the social-democracy of the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer, the Corbyn era gone. The House could be many things but I still the core as ‘old-style’ Tory, the one defeated by Brexit, genial David-Cameronian Europeanist and pro-austerity-George-Osborne-internationalist is the immediate legacy (Osborne praises the shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves who returns the favour in relation to his business partner and bosom friend, Jim O’Neill, former President of Chatham House; Jim O’Neill, Chatham House, Chair: International Cooperation does not Require the Same Form of Gover (fernandogherrero.com); Spanish version: Entrevista a Lord Jim O’Neill, presidente de Chatham House (lavanguardia.com). Something of this bipartisan navigation may also involve the new Director and the bigger House still trying to find a straighter course of action.
Behr did nothing to steal the show. The light was on the lecture and the lecture was light. It comprised a succinct three-point desiderata from the standpoint of the “older democracies.” It was not really a “lecture per se” of the old-fashioned magisterial kind (some of these formats are still around in London and elsewhere, but there are probably on the way out). If you were looking like I was for a wide opening of a great canvas of world avatars, this was not it. There was no mention of the West and little mention of the sole-standing superpower. The global map was suggested. There were few, quick brushstrokes without an awful lot of empty to go by (the speaking platform in the Chatham House auditorium has a mappamundi of pure silhouettes fading from purple to blue as discreet background). Such “purity” was delivered. This discreetness was foregrounded. Is less more? Is less plenty? Is less less? Is less good, no good? And for whom? Maddox’s “lecture” was minimalist. It was not meant to be theoretical, erudite, strategic. There was a quick-journalistic feel to it, as though the presenter had scribbled some notes and these passed scrutinizing eyes. Maddox is diligent, hard-working and serious. I wonder about the lack of substance in the lecture which I pick up after its summary.
Bronwen Maddox, Director of Chatham House.
The state we are in: one of “disintegration and disorder in relation to national life and international life.“ The assumed mores is that of offering “positive policy” suggestions. So, there is no need for a deep diving in past troubles, which mostly fall on the Tories. If there is a “policy” focus, kid-glove-handling of the national politics must follow suit. Expect no political excavation and no political theory. No deep philosophizing. No historicizing either. British convention will call it empiricist or pragmatist (theories are for the continentals!). Bye, bye to the manners of old publicists and old historians who read a lot and wrote a lot and, in some cases, travelled a lot, for example. Arnold Toynbee whose smiling photograph holding a copy of A Study of History still adorns the walls of the institution. Perhaps one could rescue the tradition of open debates following magisterial lectures offering big vistas of world avatars. But we live in slimmer times and swim often in rapid, shallow waters. Maddox’s “lecture” was listener-friendly, balanced in a national introspection that suggested criticism but never reached vituperation and the international extroversion that delivered candles to already well-lit scenarios, the tone never reaching stridency or xenophobia. That is neither the director’s style nor the House’s.
There was not a lot in either introspection or extroversion in the lecture that had not a lot in general terms. It was safe, Starmeresque, if I may put it that way, in seeking consensus across the aisle. Consensus was achieved. There was not an awful lot of dissonance as regards the different tendencies in the British foreign-affairs establishment. The disclosed subtitle of the lecture: “what democracies need to get right this year.” The meaning of “democracy” was left undefined as though well understood (electoral politics, free press, freedom of religion, no longer freedom of movement, etc. is the typical implied list). Predictably, the liberal terminology was used, but I sensed something like reflex, inertia and a lack of enthusiasm about it. Political antagonism was alluded but not developed either, and you guessed it, the other side (of the Moon) is authoritarian. The adjective was mentioned briefly, once or twice. Liberal and authoritarian: the former are the good ones and includes the speaker, the audience and an unspecified concert of nations. The latter are “the others” with two heads of the Medusa: Russia and China and presumably other speakers, audiences and nations.
"The historian and writer Arnold Toynbee becomes director of studies and establishes the Annual Survey of International Affairs, hailed as a 'pioneer in method and a model for scholarship.' Toynbee, assisted by Veronica Boulter, edits the Survey until 1955 (so reads the legend of the photo adorning the House walls).
Very few nations were named in this lecture. No leaders were singularized (no “good guys,” not even “bad guys”). Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey were labelled “non-liberal democracies.” There were two or three references to ”older” democracies, which were not listed. These occupied, however, “the locus of enunciation” as semioticians would tell us. But a convincing cognitive mapping was not painted, not even in broad brush strokes. The 2023 lecture was in essence reduced to the three points that these “older democracies” needed to get done to prevent the “bad side” from gaining real and symbolic territory. There were not many specific proper names, no social groups (no civil service for example), no concrete events and all details were missing in action. There was no intellectual light house invoked one could turn to for the darkness of the times. What a dreary landscape this one was with no comforting figures of political enlightenment! Iran and US were said to be grappling with internal divisions. But off they went like rabbits in a magician’s hat! Britain was named two or three times, not unkindly but not warmly either. The nation of no written constitution was said to be getting the wrong kind of attention and Maddox did not need to elaborate after the year of the three Prime Ministers (Johnson, Truss and Sunak). The only historical reference was to World War II. The things we took for granted were no longer, we were told (was the implication about the welfare state?, the run of electoral politics?, general institutional praxis?). Maddox was no alarmist, although there were Cassandra-like insinuations, and one could almost feel a chill in the January air: democracies, older or not, are under-performing and must do more.
2022, the year of the 3 Prime Ministers on the Brexiteer Spectrum: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
The three main points are: one, the need to secure Ukrainian victory against Putin’s Russia; two, the self-protected stance against China does not have to be exaggerated; and three, the plea is for a greater international collaboration. Hardly the stuff of intellectual fireworks.
Credit:Olena Borodyna,Ilayda Nijhar andRebecca Nadin (fromODI's Global Risk and Resilience team). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating cascading risks across Eurasia – here’s what to watch out for | ODI: Think change (access date 18th Jan. 2023).
Not a lot of sausage and gravy, mostly mash and peas. Mesh the points and China is core with the Russian satellite and “we” (empty subject) need to calibrate better and cooperate more. This is the gist of the lecture. Those who disagree, raise the hand! The U.S. was alluded three or four times without effusion. The once reliable superpower, a member of the “older democracy” group, now needs to resolve its own problems at home before embarking convincingly in international pursuits. Credibility is another matter, but such theme is not for public elaboration in think tanks that stick to the “liberal West” narrative as the Chatham House does. I have witnessed other presentations by Maddox in which the UK was treated with more severity. So, what happened on the 10th of January? Leaning on the lectern, Maddox looked composed but perhaps a bit nervous, playing with her fingers whilst following the lines of the speech, nails painted in bright red. The big necklace sought attention against black clothes matching her raven black hair. Intentionally, there were no distracting colours of any kind. This is one angular issue raised: 35 countries abstained from sharp condemnation of Russia’s war in Ukraine. An unnamed Indian diplomat said to her that these countries see Russia’s war in Ukraine as a squabble among European countries with no implication for others. This comment alone merits one good lecture. Will the House deliver?
The statement that made it to the headlines: “it is essential that Russia lose in some sense.” The vague adverbial clause is the dog bite in the leg. Citing William Hague (a name that may have faded from the general public but is recurrent in some internationalist circles to this day), a victorious Russia will come at a greater deterring cost. The question-and-answer moment left the meaning of the crucial nouns (victory, loss) empty. And there will be a wild bunch of situations in between. But this war is in its infancy. It is too early to tell. Perhaps in a year’s time? The key thing is for Putin not to remain threatening in the post-war future. The first point wins majority vote in contemporary Brexit Britain (“Brexit” did not show up, the term is now a mixed bag of failure and awkwardness, opprobrium, shame and fear plus xenophobia and racism).
William Hague (The Independent, credits).
The second point is one of European-style “calibration” about China. If Russia is not an exportable social model, Maddox said, China makes claims otherwise. So, one must be careful with binaries or dichotomies with this colossal entity. My language hypothetically distils the meaning out of her language that was deliberately not colourful throughout the lecture. Gone are the days of George Osborne calling for a golden age with China in the Cameron government (2010-2016). Maddox’s weathervane registered this change in weather. She did not change the mood either way. Yet, we are now in a space in between Sinophobia and toleration of the apparently irrepressible rise to world supremacy of China. Russia is another matter. Maddox’s mood remained neutral. Her mode was calm about such news, unlike the thicker-texture prose of the Americans which displays –at least in some of them-- a visceral animosity towards the “existential threat” of China (interesting how the language of “existentialism” is used to convey an increasing belligerence in the political discourse that is more common in the Anglozone than the Eurozone). China means the possibility of global or systemic change, Maddox mentioned, which automatically relegates the Russia’s war in Ukraine to a secondary status, something that is serious but not “existential.” The Director mentioned how Rishi Sunak pulled back from calling China a “threat” in the last Integrative Report. Will the next one include it? Yet, the weight falls upon the US regarding Taiwan (Maddox used Taiwan, not Taipei) as it does in all other matters. What could middle-size powers do in Europe or in the South Pacific or anywhere else by themselves? There is no doubt that Russia’s war in Ukraine happens in the aftermath of the “liberal West” intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hasty U.S. retreat from Afghanistan –leaving all other nations exposed-- is a lesson that remains in the air. Maddox did not dwell in these damning contexts.
Good Old Days? Former Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese leader Xi Jinping enjoy a pint in 2015 (ANDY RAIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES; Foreign Policy, Britain’s Tories Are Being Split Apart by China (foreignpolicy.com); access 18th January 2023).
If we get oil and gas from Russia, we get a lot of things from China (cheap products, electronics, big numbers of students in British universities, Covid tests, etc.). I sensed no apprehension in these “things leaning the Chinese way” but Maddox is not someone who registers apprehension publicly. She mentioned the “decoupling” taking place after “three decades of globalization.” The “negative” poly-syllable must be a common euphemism to phenomena others are calling a “new cold war.” Yet, what does the world look like now in 2023? We did not have many pieces with which to build building blocks and our imagination was left alone to do the work. In the meantime, Sinophobia is mainstream in the British press from the morning radio programs to generally very poor coverage of the international world (Russia tops the list of bad agents, followed interchangeably by Iran, China, North Korea, Turkey and Hungary from time to time, Arab-Gulf states less so…). Our unstable world of “decoupling” between U.S.-China was puzzle with too many missing pieces. The moment is one of immense uncertainty and Maddox was not pretending otherwise. Yet, she provided no lantern.
The third point is the need for the old democracies to seek cooperation actively. There was no institution, big or small, good or bad, explicitly mentioned. Maddox’s plea was for the protection of post-WWII institutions. G20 was mentioned. African States making it into G20+1 was added. The Indian Presidency of the G20 is just beginning. The Japanese Presidency of the G7 was called “one of the most consequential” of recent times. The Japanese offer a good example (30-billion aid for Africa) to the bad one of the UK shrinking its aid to buttress narrow national interest. One was clutching hairs in the air for any other concert or alliance. U.N. Security Council has problems, but no U.N. at all? No mediating International Criminal Court? No human rights of any kind? Such invocations might have been lightning rods! Appropriately, one very general question about NGOs –or civil society-- was dismissed by Maddox because there are simply so many types out there that no one single formula will do.
The 2023 lecture was stingy in (false) praises. That is Maddox’s style. The US did not receive one single praise in the lecture. No other nation did, either. Inconsistency is the euphemism to use in public in relation to the inability of the superpower to stand up to its own declarations of good intent. Maddow said that the non-aligned vote of yesterday, which was anti-Western, is not so today in relation to Russia’s war in Ukraine. A second good lecture on the bitter fruit of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth repeating (you can add the famous Malcolm X line about the chicken and home and also about the “strange fruit” of the Billie Holliday song for flavor). If this “poetry” is not typically included in conventional discourses in conventional think tanks, and Maddox didn’t, yet she still made a reference to Barack Obama’s red lines broken by Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad with no consequences. Putin and others certainly paid attention and here we are today. The lecture was not going to land a heavy punch on the nose of Uncle Sam, not even a poke in the ribs of John Bull, who is essence following in the same journey, whether Tory in the past or Labour in the next few years.
Non-alligned countries, the Asean Post (Non-Aligned Movement: New Role Amid A Pandemic? | The ASEAN Post, access date 18th of January 2023).
Maddox deadpanned: “things would be easier if the US assumed its leading role.” The casualness of the diction and the conditional leave matters strangely dangling and this is obviously not good at all for the British establishment that without the Americans cannot seriously insist on playing solo or hitting hard on sovereignty (the last noun, sovereignty, favourite pet of the Brexiteers, was not mentioned in the lecture). To the Europeans the Brits are not going to turn publicly after Brexit, except perhaps in military collaboration in Ukraine or the South Pacific. Where else will Britain go internationally? Why? How so? It is not at all clear. “So unpredictable now” is the world superpower with its internal problems, which is a big problem for the “older democracies.” Will they manage to come up with a plan-B and written by whom? Maddox marked the ebbing and flowing of (dis-)engagement, internationalism and isolationism and we may be on the declining and contracting terms, although the latter terminology was not used in the lecture either. The U.K. has problems in spades and education, health and pension come quickly to mind. Her quip: the distraction of the Duke of Sussex is probably welcome by a grateful Rishi Sunak who is not the favourite of the bookies for the next election (the Tories have been in power for the last twelve years lag 20 points behind Labour in voter preferences). “Welfare state” was not mentioned as such, but that is what is at stake too: its deterioration. January is month of strikes in Britain. There were not mentioned either. The 2023 opening lecture was rich in silences.
Mash points one, two and three and what do you get if not “handle Chinese relations carefully without exaggerations –unlike the Americans—and we should cooperate better with others among other things to defeat the Russians.” These cooperations are ad hoc, it seems. There are no firm plans or predictable institutions anymore. The door is wide open once you leave the EU and all these commotions relativize the absolutism of the solo position (NATO was not mentioned, neither “Five Eyes” and “the Quad”). Maddox represents, I think, the Chatham-House position of wanting to forge closer relations with Europe with or without Brexit, given China ascendancy, the U.S. turmoil and the decoupling between the two that will split most of the world that is possibly disclosing emergent markets (which side will the non-aligned countries go?, that is a great topic for another lecture). The economic deal between the U.S. and the U.K., post-Brexit, is nowhere to be seen, Maddox reminded us, in case we had forgotten. The Northern Protocol, post-Brexit, remains intractable. What else is there to show? Maddox’s rhetorical reticence was not going to defend Brexit Britain. Neither is the Royal Institute of International Affairs that is still looking for a good role in the U.S. withdrawal or relative decline and an undeniable Chinese ascendancy.
The international world is no picnic and national politics is no sunshine. Maddox’s core of the discreet lecture in relation to national politics is that Brexit is not working. She said it not raising her voice and in passing, but she said it. But the real issue is how to modulate the bad news for domestic consumption. One could go as far as calling her position “Remainer,” even “Remoaner,” piano-piano anti-Brexit. Yet Brexit is here to stay, so what to do? She said that Sunak and Starmer do not say the obvious, that Brexit means a self-inflicted harm and that it carries a cost in economic terms, reputation, credibility, etc. and not only with the Europeans. The wager is whether this “old democracy” model (read: Anglo-led Western supremacism since WWII) is wise enough “to weather the storm.” Second serious conditional. Second chill in the air. In the international world, the Americans are in disarray. In the national scene, the recognition that Brexit is not working is looking for a brave and eloquent public speaker. China sits in between points one and three with the greatly disruptive Russia flying in the wings of a serious but no existential threat according to the previous dictum.
Is it a threat to Europe alone –and that tells you eloquently where the U.K. is situated—or to the rest of the world as well? Either way, the generic Chatham House message of cooperation is renewed. But the devil will be in the cooperative details going in many directions. No devils, except Putin’s Russia, and no details about either cooperations and directions were included in the lecture. Who is going to say “no” to generic cooperation? Maddox mentioned one significant transatlantic difference: Europeans do not like what China does whereas the Americans do not like what China is. Is this the latest version of “the Europeans are from Venus and the Americans from Mars” (Robert Kagan)? “Doing” and “being,” praxis and “ontology” but this is not a metaphysics. In between calibration and existential threat, Maddox, and Chatham House in general too, are more “European.” This is the battle at the core of internationalism in Britain at the moment and there are not many detectable schools or flashy colours. I do not see many big differences, but the narcissism of small differences: Russia is bad and “we” must fight it, “how?” is another matter; China is competitively “bad” and yet “we” cannot afford to be Manichaean given the bulk, scale, might, etc., so we must “calibrate,” and finally we must learn again to cooperate better with a variety of actors and please bring the Europeans closer. Half the British economy, with shrinking exports and imports, is EU28. Are you going to delink? Maddox and Chatham House will answer “no.”
Phillip Hammond (Theresa May's Chancellor in both Cabinets) in a different Chatham House event from the one described here.
Maddox quoted from Phillip Hammond (Theresa May’s Chancellor in both Cabinets) who was sitting in the front row and who was said to be quoting from an unnamed Chinese official who brought another important conditional to the fore: “if democracies cannot make the necessary arrangements and sacrifices for their own survival, they will not fare well” (the fully credentialed Rt Hon Lord Hammond of Runnymede sits in the senior advisory role at Chatham House and that gives you an idea of the Tory family in the vicinity). Are we sensing something of an authoritative mediator quoting unpleasant truths coming from undisclosed sources of both Chinese and Indian provenance? So, we must have “grown-up conversations” which each ourselves and others and this was the expression Maddox said she disliked but still used (the expression means something like handling a bad hand as in cards or dealing with very bad, almost irreversible news, or start swallowing bitter pills). The connection with these conversations: the National Health Service. “Everyone can see it is not working,” Maddox added, in a week of endless news coverage about NHS malfunction and strike action. The “grown-up conversation” euphemism can go in many directions: red-light-alert, danger zone, crime scene, a need for a major overhaul, partial or total privatization, rethinking foreign-labor recruits, aging populations, erosion of the welfare state and other unpleasant things.
The brief lecture felt very brief. Note-taking was light. The question-and-answer period conducted by Rafael Behr delivered some insights. The current Director “was not promising continuity to the intellectual regime with the previous director.” This riposte followed a question about the “new non-aligned concept” of the previous Director apropos those nations that do not want to get caught in either the hegemony of the U.S. or China. Maddox’s non-answer rescues the missing party of the EU, whilst adroitly distancing herself from her predecessor (should we make a big deal of the difference between The Guardian or the Financial Times versus The Times in matters of international affairs?). Be that as it may, the “non-aligned” option is one possibility for Britain to use its influence and Ukraine, Maddox said, is one example where “the UK is taking something of a lead.” I like the attenuation. It is interesting to notice that Ukraine is probably the only symbolic international space invoked often at the moment for the Brits to feel good among themselves –but mostly when they are talking to other Brits. I have never witnessed a greater development, nor a multi-perspectival symposium about such “leadership.” It must be ascertained time and time again that the coverage of international affairs bypasses EU voices –let alone voices other than the Americans-- and the national scene –Chatham House included-- is conventionally speaking largely echo chamber of official US statements about the world at large (this is done in the three recent modalities: Sunak’s discretion follows Truss’s bluntness, which follows Boris Johnson’s histrionics). The song remains the same in the Anglozone: will 2023 be different? Will the Royal Institute of International Affairs open up to an expansive diversity of perspectives other than North Atlantic “Western” hegemony? How different will the new Director be from previous Directors in the following months?
Robin Niblett, previous Director of Chatham House in his farewell presentation in 27 May 2022 (How the world has changed on my watch | Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank; FGH photography).
What happens if the dollar is weaponized? Most things are weaponized now. The question was answered generally. Anything goes in political antagonism (banning Russian musicians from classical-music halls, Russian tennis players from Wimbledon and closing down Confucian cultural centers in British Universities is one native modality). About the terminology of “liberal democracy,” there is no need to make a fuss, apparently. It is an Anglo convention that never gets into the troubled waters of explanation, typification or the simple mention of one or two good sources that could help us make sense of things versus the “authoritarians.” A question about the silence about the Gulf States, yes, and there was silence about Latin America and the Middle East and Africa was only mentioned in relation to adding one up to the G20. The lecturer did not want to get her fingers caught up in too many details about the world and it was explicitly a very small and petty, even pitiful vision of the international world. There was an awful lot of emptiness in this world to go around. It was no merry-go-round: the reverse is true. The question about Ukraine’s victory found no answer. Maddox did not fake one. It is too early to tell. There was reiteration of William Hague’s point –which the Director made “with feeling,” she said-- that Russia must not be allowed to sit nearby afterwards and be able to mount threats, big, serious or existential. Would this mean containment? Would Crimea be involved? Reparations? Is this realistic? Regime change was not mentioned and we remember how the Biden administration had to row back about his President’s faux pas. No faux pas here: Maddox self-defined herself as pragmatic (“I am all for pragmatism”), which is not saying much of anything since the canvas had an awful lot of purple-and-blue color gradation and little else. This world was empty of figures and names and simply lacked any detail. The question on “managing migration” found the highlight of the verb. The key thing was “to manage legal migration,” whilst keeping an eye towards aging populations, job vacancies, adding incentives in the points of origin. What “manage” means, is another matter for the mischievous wind to whistle in the January winter. Migration is “immensely complex,” Maddox said. We all agree. And it seems wise not to elaborate, given the naturalized anti-immigration mood of the country. January 6th was agreed to be a threat to democracies: who disagrees on this side of the Atlantic? The invitation to pose a “contrarian belief” was dealt with a plea for optimism in relation to possible discoveries by science and medicine and speedy discoveries –and I may add recoveries from future infections. Will the sciences save us?
Sober and serious, not dull, succinct and concise to a fault, discreet, even scant, not curt, but close, the lecture was branded as an “event of consequence,” but it wasn’t. It was thin, insufficiently nourishing. I left hungry, pondering some thoughts. Hers was a calculated gesture of opening the new year without fanfare. There was reticence. It was a bit too economical, almost niggardly. Chatham House’s Director Bronwen Maddox’s 2023 Opening Lecture was indeed small cargo in the English ship in these times of troubles and she is an intelligent and driven woman so I still wonder how and why. What do we make of a speaker who does not say much with troubles galore? Does the Director enjoy enough independence of mind and spirit, whilst representing a centenary institute that seeks to reinvigorate its role of a “positive policy” provider for the British State, the one-eye Polyphemus? No space for the critique of the state here (Chris Nineham: Boris Johnson is a good example of the fragility of the ruling class today in Britain (fernandogherrero.com); see the Spanish version: Chris Nineham: “Boris Johnson evidencia la fragilidad de la clase dirigente británica” (lavanguardia.com). Is the British State “the natural space” for this type of official internationalism? But there will other stakeholders and shareholders, nationally and internationally too. The institute roster makes the methodological nationalism and the economic determinism very clear and perhaps this is unavoidable in the official social-sciences. Is the Institute solely beholden to the British State? Does it see itself as faithful servant, a menina, its handmaiden? But the Sunak end-of-Tory-tail is Brexiteer, which means that some “calibration” must happen if one tries to adjust to governmental preferences and joins the few platforms of international observation, which are not many and now unimpressive. Perhaps the next government will be more Europeanist? It is also too early to say anything worth quoting about it or about Russia’s war in Ukraine or China and many other issues. Will the foreign-affairs intelligence be in better shape a year from now? Will the next lecture move from “don’t say anything –or as little as possible-- if you have nothing good to say”? Having seen a more terse and more demanding Maddox in other occasions, mine is just a guess.
Bronwen Maddox, highlighting the journalistic background in Prospect, The Times and the Financial Times, soon before taking over the Director role at Chatham House (Bronwen Maddox - Chartwell Speakers Bureau, access date 18th of January 2023).
What would happen if the Americans are not coming to tell us what is going on in the world? Chatham House does not naturally turn to other nationalities, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Spaniards are safely kept out of sight, etc. to learn about the world at large. Jump to other continents and there is less-than-zero participation in foreign-affairs debates in the diminished House. The Africans and the Latin Americans, when they rarely show up, are only talking about “their” problems in “their” localities and not in “ours.” There are no Russia experts of note who regularly keep us posted. There is one brave Ukrainian addition at this moment filling in the blanks. China does not have regular senior coverage and one brave China-origin fellow deserves more light. I have not detected one single Indian expert who brings light on the most populous nation. Latin America is an invisible allegorical figure of the observe of Uncle Sam. Will Europe deliver a thousand and one options? Africa is a big hole that does not even ride in the tailcoats of the Commonwealth. The world may be tilting to Asia, but Chatham House is not quite yet. The Middle East is under chronic under-development. The conventional North American global narrative is now debilitated and the traditional model of Western hegemony is in need of serious questioning. There is an unconscious reflex mechanism and a strong sense of inertia (“Latin” and “Hispanic” peoples reading these lines, in case you are wondering, you are missing in action in this “global West:” Culture Fudge in the Anglozone: Gideon Rachman's "global west" (sic, in lowercase). (fernandogherrero.com)! Will this be tackled? There is no Toynbee telling us good things about big civilizational lessons –including strong self-criticism of the “Anglo ways” as he put it. Is there anyone writing good prose about the civilizational challengers (China, Russia, India) like E. H. Carr did with the Soviet Russia? The type of publicist who is not subservient to the immediate pressures of the nation-state and the panoramic historian or ambitious social scientist diving deep are gone, it appears. Humanists are invisible (wo)men. I fail to see political theorists in Britain who will disagree with the Americans publicly in matters of substance. Where are those who look comparatively at the various societies in the world outside automatic attachments and predictable affiliations? Philosophy is not something one does publicly in the “pragmatic” and “empirical” islands. Look for no names of foreign scholars in foreign-affairs platforms (how about Carl Schmitt or Giorgio Agamben?) who might give us a good account of the world and the West in it from different ideological perspectives. Instead, there is a British-press hesitation as to whether to use uppercase or lowercase for the “West/west,” which is symptomatic of an awful lot of things. Will universities deliver good things? Add to the scarcity of Area-Studies experts, the extinction of “the languages,” and this is the pitiful picture of the world normality out there in Blighty. But the (unpleasant) truth is still “out there” for those who want to catch it ”in here.” The bigger the dilemmas of the world, the bigger the retreat inwards? The more challenging the profession of internationalism, the worse the retreat into provincialism and the island mentality? This interregnum, i.e. the brave new world of an apparently irresistible decline of the Anglozone, needs the exact opposite: a recommitment to big brains and big thoughts, big writings and big readings and big lectures. Loose lips sink ships?: Maddox, a smart woman, was not guilty of that. I bet the next lecture will be better.
In the end I include a question of mine that was not picked up the 10th of January. It is not a question which is typically discussed in the general debate in Britain and elsewhere but it lingers: what is the UK -what are “we”-- learning from other national settings (EU, Africa, Asia, Latin America, even China and Russia) about the transformational challenges in our imperfect situations?
Fernando Gómez-Herrero has taught in fields of Literature and Culture, Translation and Interpretation Studies at the Universities of Manchester and Birmingham in the U.K. He has obtained his PhD at Duke University. Most recently, he published ‘The Latest American Appropriation of Western Universalism: A Critique of G. John Ikenberry’s “Liberal International Order”.’
18 January 2023