NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, about how uncertainty in Washington and London may affect global conflicts.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we’re going to spend some time thinking about how political uncertainty in the U.S. and the U.K. could affect global conflicts. This week, as we just heard, the impeachment of President Trump will likely move forward after a full House vote. And in Britain, Parliament will return with a much more robust Conservative and pro-Brexit majority, all but ensuring Britain’s departure from the EU, although it’s still not clear under what conditions.
Both will likely have an impact on global politics because the two countries are among the largest contributors of global aid and military assistance around the world. And politically, the U.S. and the U.K. have been seen as stabilizing forces in global conflicts, so the outcomes of this week’s events may affect how each country and their leaders will respond to chaos around the world.
We wanted to learn more about what this week’s events could mean for global conflicts, so we’ve called on David Miliband. He is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. That group responds to humanitarian crises around the world by helping people affected by conflict to rebuild their lives – helping refugees with health care and resettlement costs, for example.
He is also a former member of the British Parliament and the former U.K. foreign secretary. He served in that role from 2007 to 2010. And he’s with us now from New York.
David Miliband, thanks so much for joining us.
DAVID MILIBAND: Yes, great to be with you.
MARTIN: So let’s just take a step back briefly and just take a look around. And as you look around the globe at some of the protests happening around the world – some, like Hong Kong, very much in the news, others less visible in other parts of the world – but what do you make of it? I mean, how would you describe what’s been happening in many countries around the world this year?
MILIBAND: I think that there is a really existential struggle for countries to come to terms with the consequences of global connectedness. We all know that economy and society and communications are more intertwined than ever before. But the international political system is struggling to keep up. And what you’re seeing, I think, is global problems growing – climate change being a good example, but frankly, trade wars are a symptom of a failure of global governance as well.
On a local level, elites in countries like Lebanon are failing to deliver for their own people, and a consequent howl of pain. Now, in democratic countries, that howl of pain fortunately has a vent through the ballot box, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in a number of countries around the world, Britain as well. And the U.S., we’ll see next year.
MARTIN: So now that the U.S. and the U.K. have been mired in their own political divisions – the U.S. with the impeachment instigation, the U.K. with Boris Johnson’s election victory – and I think that the voters there are telling us that this is similarly reflective of deep divisions despite the fact that the outcome seems rather lopsided. How does the rest of the world see what’s happening in the U.S. and the U.K. affecting them?
MILIBAND: I think there are three main changes that are being triggered – three domino effects. The first is the retreat from global problems that we’re seeing in a number of Western cases, the U.S. most obviously. If I think about the places of maximum humanitarian distress at the moment – Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, where there was ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Muslims – what’s notable is the absence of American and British diplomacy.
Now, Western diplomacy doesn’t always stabilize things. One can think of the Iraq War in that context. But the withdrawal of countries like the U.S. and the U.K. from active international diplomacy is creating, frankly, a crisis of diplomacy. And the refugee crisis is one symptom of that.
The second thing that’s happening is that there is license for bad actors to commit more and more crimes without accountability. More aid workers are being killed in service and more civilians caught up in conflict. We’re seeing that not just in Syria but elsewhere as well.
And the third danger is that the international political system becomes a vacuum. Countries like China are taking more responsibilities, but they can’t substitute for the thoroughgoing anchor role that the U.S. has played and, frankly, the Western alliance has played in international governance since the Second World War.
MARTIN: So then how do you – forgive me. I’m going to ask you to rely on your own – your knowledge of your home country. I mean, how do you understand last week’s results in the parliamentary elections?
MILIBAND: I think the data is absolutely clear. The Labour opposition was utterly repellent for large numbers of voters. And although they found Boris Johnson and the Conservatives unpalatable, they preferred that, they saw that as a lower risk than voting Labour. However, Brexit is now going to happen, and many of us fear that not only will Britain pay the price of that retreat but that the influence that Britain’s been able to exercise in favor of global stability gets undermined in a very serious way.
MARTIN: I think what I hear you saying, then, is that leadership matters. The quality of the leader matters.
MILIBAND: Leadership definitely matters. I mean, I don’t think one should fall prey to the so-called great man theory of history that is all about individuals. But without individuals, there is no history, and the choices that are made have global reverberations. One of my reflections is that the old division between domestic policy and foreign policy has basically broken down. Issues of economics, of immigration, of climate are now global issues that have local consequences. And it’s that central tension between the local and the global that I think is playing out in politics around the world today.
MARTIN: There is David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He’s a former member of the British Parliament and a former foreign secretary. We reached him in New York.
Mr. Miliband, thank you so much for talking to us.
MILIBAND: Thank you so much.
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