Interview: Sir Jeremy Greenstock

Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Sir Jeremy Greenstock is one of Britain’s most distinguished diplomats. He has spent much of his career occupied with the Middle East and US/Western European relations.  His diplomatic career culminated as the UK Special Envoy for Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004 following five years between 1998 and 2003 as the UK Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York. 

He began working in the Diplomatic Service in 1969.  He worked in Dubai in the early seventies and in Saudi Arabia in the mid-eighties.  From 1974-1978 he was Private Secretary to Ambassadors Peter Ramsbotham and Peter Jay in the British Embassy in Washington, starting a total of ten years spent in Washington and New York on US and Transatlantic business.

Having been Political Counsellor in Paris (1987-90), Sir Jeremy came back to London as Director for Western and Southern Europe, and this was followed by extensive work on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, in particular on the Balkans, Cyprus and Gibraltar.  He returned to Washington as Minister (Deputy Ambassador) in 1994-95 and was then posted to London as Director General for Eastern Europe and the Middle East (1995) and then as Political Director (1996-98).

After chairing the European Union’s Political Committee during the UK Presidency in the first half of 1998, he moved to New York as UK Ambassador to the UN in July 1998.  As the UK’s Representative on the Security Council up to July 2003, he worked extensively on matters of peace and security in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and South Asia, but particularly on Iraq.   He chaired the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee from October 2001 to April 2003.

He is now a member of the Chatham House Council, and a Special Adviser to the NGO Forward Thinking.  He is also a policy adviser to the International Rescue Committee (UK) and co-Chair of the European Eminent Persons Group on Middle East issues.

Our interview covered a range of practical policy areas and more general questions concerning the requisite conditions for international order in an increasingly unstable world.

On the Conditions for International Order

Margot: What are the significant current challenges to a rules – based international order?

Sir Jeremy: :We have had a long period of global peace, which has lasted seventy years from the end of the Second World War.  In a long period of little cataclysmic change like a war, institutions fade because they do not reform as quickly as the world changes.  This is particularly true of a world that is changing very rapidly in all sorts of ways because of globalisation, because of communications interaction, and because of the availability of information.    The global picture is made up of a very complex, constantly evolving set of circumstances.   These changes have been accompanied by a huge increase in freedom.  Freedom of choice not just for states but also for individuals has increased, which means that in the whole world of interaction, there are far more players effecting the possibility of change.  As a result of structural factors that have accelerated the spread of freedom such as increased prosperity and fewer barriers to movement, the freedom to choose from a variety of possible identities has multiplied exponentially.   The freer people are, the more they tend to return to their default setting which is tribal.  This is in the DNA of human beings.  These changes make it increasingly difficult for any system of order to bring actors under control because there are so many of them within all sorts of different forms of organisation and with so many choices in front of them.

Alastair: Of the manifest variety of the systems of order that are now available to us, like the nation-state, or the larger bloc, or even the United Nations, which seems to be best positioned to manage the changes you have described?

Sir Jeremy: Freedom is valueless without order.   But we are investing much more in the spread of freedom than we are in the spread of order.  It is not a question of saying: where should you look for order because there has to be order to enjoy freedom at all those different levels; it is a question of what kind of order is possible at each level that will create the framework within which freedom can be enjoyed.  You can see that in the policies, say, of the United States, of the European Union, in the choices at elections and referendums of electorates, they are choosing narrower solutions rather than broader ones.  The further the structure is from the local or tribal level, the harder it is, amongst free actors, to get consensus on the rules, the laws, the structures, and the frameworks that preserve order.

All these frameworks are under serious strain:  the UN is under pressure; the EU is under pressure; NATO is under pressure in different ways; and each nation is under pressure.  You mentioned the nation-state.  The nation-state is the central building block of international structure, but the nation-state is under pressure both at the higher level from global concepts such as cross-border openness and the global citizen, and at the lower level, from the increased availability of information and freedom of choice for individuals.

All the structures of order that have worked since 1945 are under pressure, and this is particularly true of the nation-state.  The paradox is that the nation-state is the most obvious pivotal unit of global structure, but it is the nation-state that is most under pressure because it is leaking power in this fast-changing context.  In effect, these systems of order are moving beyond the control of human organisms.  Why this conversation is important is that global change now has a quality that runs beyond the control of any individual.   This trend will continue unless certain quite difficult choices are made to bring control back to institutions that are responsive to the majority of ordinary people.

Margot:  What do you think those things that need to happen are for people to start trusting organisations again?

Sir Jeremy:  In previous eras it has been wars.  It has been the threat of violence from outside.  This is a tautology but quite an interesting one:  no period of peace in the past has ever ended in anything but a war.  The structures that preserved that peace as long as they did broke down in some way.  Our structures are going to break down and move from competition amongst equal human beings for finite resources into conflict, unless certain things happen.  Human beings have to do something unprecedented in this century to avoid another war at the global level or between the great powers.  The things that are necessary to prevent war are not happening because they require cooperation, compromise, the swallowing of pride, and the control of subjective imperatives to a far greater degree than has been achieved than at any time in the past.

On Russia, the United Nations and Global Security 

Alastair:  If we are to distinguish between impersonal institutions and personal institutions, perhaps Russia can form the basis of a comparison?   Its institutions have no internal capacity to evolve in a personal way, unlike the network of mediating mechanisms that make up authority in this country.  Russia’s system is characterised by arbitrary extremes of action.  How can we effect change in those countries like Russia to make them more personal to their own subjects?  Where does the balance lie between external coercion and cooperation?

Sir Jeremy:  There is only one route available to us: we must think in terms of interests.  We are never going to align values in an open, free, culturally multi-diverse world.  Values can be a red herring.  Politicians talk about them a lot in order to claim moral authority but in the end, it is all about interests.  You can only change people’s behaviour by appealing to their interests and it is in this way that subjectivities can become aligned.  Politicians are having trouble with this because the nation-state is their stage.   There is no higher level of political decision-making than the nation-state.   International institutions can only reflect the decisions of member states to come together in certain ways under treaties made amongst them.  If there is a treaty available, it is then possible to respect or abrogate it according to the wishes of each nation-state.  With that in mind, how do you get Russia to behave?  Coercion is part of it but it cannot be military coercion.  It must be persuasion.

Sanctions have become an important new tool.  They were a wasting old tool because they are such a difficult instrument to get right, because they hit people and not leaders most of the time.  You think of South Africa and Rhodesia and obviously Iraq and other particular instances.  With Russia you are dealing with a country which will take advantage of a soft approach because it feels it has fallen behind the superpower race.  Russia has behaved in contravention of international standards and international law, so there needs to be a punitive response.  We have tried persuasion, and the Americans have tried persuasion.   There is also a fairly constant dialogue on the control of nuclear weaponry amongst nuclear powers.  But these diplomatic channels are not working to the extent that Russia is prepared to subscribe to international law in everything that it does.  It is looking for ways to reassert itself as a superpower and behaving badly in doing so by grabbing other people’s territory.  Sanctions therefore are necessary because there has to be a penalty for behaving like that.

The role of the United Nations in this regard is critical.  It is not a dying organisation at all, in fact it is one of those unprecedented things that we have in our locker that previous eras did not possess.  And we need to do something unprecedented to avoid the scourge of war in the future.  It has a wonderful set of principles, charters, laws, conventions and treaties, but it has a rotten system of enforcement and instruments for implementation.  They have to be by agreement between member states.  This means that the United Nations has a central flaw, because member states will never agree to an automatic set of penalties to be imposed, because they foresee that they might be imposed on them at another juncture.  Member states tend to insist on each situation being argued out at the time in its own way.

The United Nations has another crucial downside.   It has vigorously promoted the cause of freedom and of individual sovereignty for peoples who can claim to have a territory and a social organisation.   Self-determination of peoples has been an important principle.  This has helped to create freedom in all sorts of ways.  The problem is that The United Nations has never matched this enthusiasm for freedom with a clear framework to limit the divisions that self-determination could create.

Alastair:  There are further complicating factors.  An ambassador to the UN from Syria, Iran or Iraq or any other country which is experiencing internal instability can only ever represent the particular client interest in control of the state at any one time, or a particular faction, or is expressive of some instrument of domination of their own people, whereas the British, French or German ambassador to the UN is representing something with its own internal stability and coherence.  Does that not further complicate the picture and make it harder to enforce the kinds of rules you describe?

Sir Jeremy:  It is true that there are far too many member states with their own sovereign prerogatives.  In any large committee, you nearly always have particular powerful members within that number trying to organise things at a lower number.  There is not a decent caucusing system inside the UN.  They can agree on motherhood and apple pie but not on conflict resolution, environmental change or anything truly significant.

Margot:  Do you think then that the size of the Security Council should stay as it is?

Sir Jeremy:  It does not matter so much how the UN organises itself, it still comes back to disputes between member states and particularly between powerful member states.  For example, reorganising the Security Council at twenty four rather than fifteen would be useful in certain ways.  It would make it a more difficult organism to get decisions out of but it would also be more representative.  Still, it would be no more able to change the order of the day as far as fragmentation and individual nationalistic approaches are concerned.  It would not make a blind bit of difference to the general trend.  The world is so free and so fragmenting that it is finding it desperately hard to find the rules under which everybody should live, and which are acceptable to everybody.

Emerging nations are an important part of the picture.  They resent the dominance of the West in the previous era.  They are trying to catch up with them both in economic terms and on measures of  freedom and defence.  There is a great deal of resentment about the privileges that the West have created for themselves in the 1945 system and they would like to make that subject to reform.  They cannot change it under the rules of the United Nations because its roots lie in the Western dominated world at the time of its formation.  Those circumstances no longer reflect the realities of a 2016 world, let alone of a 2020 or a 2030 world.  The emerging nations will subscribe to collective decision-making where they can see that there is a problem that needs a global solution.  Albeit with a lot of struggling and resistance, we have seen a series of decisions taken to act on rules for carbon emissions and for keeping global temperatures down.

Occasionally there is agreement on a multi-national level on certain conflict situations, particularly in Africa where there is no real superpower quarrel.  By contrast, on the Middle East, on Europe, and on certain aspects of East Asian security, consensus of interests has proved impossible and therefore we need to call on a different approach.  At the moment, this approach is ‘adhockery’.  Certain states get together when a problem gets too big to ignore and try to resolve it.  What has happened on from the old UN system of 1945 is that that group of nations for any one specific problem is different from the next group of nations for the next specific problem.  The G20 is not proving to be the catch-all organisation that can create solutions on things like the global economy, trade imbalances, security problems, and the environment.  The G20 is more representative but it has a wider spread of disagreements within it.

Nations will only cooperate at an international level if their leaders understand that that it is a sensible way to protect their own interests at the national level.   Clearly, in certain circumstances it is a very sensible way to proceed on everything that moves across borders.  Take the spread of disease, for example, which is a fairly mechanical and uncontroversial issue.  It is a bit more difficult on the environment because everybody wants to pull the blanket their way on the costs of lower carbon emissions.  It gets particularly difficult over territorial and political disputes.

On Terrorism 

Alastair:  In that regard, what would be the best way to combat neo-fundamentalism or Jihadism?  The ISIS is creating a community without territory, defined by a global ethic, and yet simultaneously the group has built a set of institutions in Iraq and Syria.  It is possible to pledge allegiance anywhere in the world.  It is something that is almost completely unrecognisable, similar in structure to a virus but with none of the neutrality you associated with the fight against disease, and no straightforward antidote.

Sir Jeremy:  It is clearly a huge challenge to global order and to our safety and security anywhere.  Anybody can get caught up in it and they kill many, many more Muslims than other religions.  It is true that it is now a franchise.  The idea is out there and it cannot be put back in the box.  One of the answers is that they must be denied territory because their appeal increases with the holding of territory.  This is why the concept of a Caliphate has come back.  They have obviously borrowed it from the past, because they want a Caliphate to hold territory and then they can recruit people to join them on that territory and then they can begin to grow that territory and then to hold it and therefore be a force to be reckoned with.  They must be denied this strength.  Denying them territory is hugely more difficult if they have local sympathies, so there needs to be a political attack on them as well as a military one.  This denies them the easy recruitment of mainly alienated and dispossessed individuals from communities all around the world.

That has become particularly difficult because Islam is a broad church religion with many different currents.  These are not controlled by an apex hierarchy.  As a British observer worrying about my country and my own security, I am slightly critical of Islam as a whole, of the Muslim community in the world for not condemning its extremists more.  There should be Fatwa after Fatwa because they are not true to Islam.  They are not following the Quran in all sorts of ways.  They are killing people in violation of the word of the Prophet.  They are doing certain things abhorrent to moderate Muslims.  Centrist, moderate Islam is not speaking up loudly enough to deny them the privilege of owning a concept that is alien to Islam.  They must reject them as being highly dangerous to their way of life and their concept of Islam.

So although we will have to take up arms, and are taking up arms at least in the air against ISIS, there has to be a coalition of interest in each spot where ISIS appears or anything like it appears, to try and deal with it.  There have been some positive developments.   Across the world, a number of military operations have taken place which have pushed them back.  The picture in Iraq grew worse because the Jihadists got together with the Ba’athists, and with criminals and others who were anti-Baghdad.   They all formed a temporary allegiance to each other to create a resistance to a Shia-dominated Iraq.  That will need to be dealt with in its own context.  In Syria the rebellion against Assad was not Jihadist -inspired.  It was a true local rebellion.   As it gained momentum, it turned into a series of rebellions which the Jihadists could then come in and exploit because the opposition was divided and because they proved to be more effective military leaders than any of the rebels.

We have to deal with the politics at the same time as the military considerations.  And it is Russia which is creating problems here,  There was a possibility  earlier this year of putting the Assad question to one side in Syria and going after ISIS first, dealing with that and then coming back to the politics.  The Russian bombing of Aleppo in order to preserve Assad has put itself beyond the pale in international operational terms, and this makes it more difficult for a coordinated response to ISIS.   ISIS is benefiting from the divisions between Russia and America.  This problem has spread to Africa.  In the Sahara, and in the Maghreb where the French came in for a while in Mali, we don’t know what is forming in the desert there.  All sorts of units are coming out of the chaos of Libya and Tunisia, and in the Tuareg regions where the tribesmen are often ready to work with ISIS.  It is incredibly complex to get rid of these people all together but the larger their profile, the easier it is to hit them.  They will find it extremely difficult to grow beyond a certain level of capability.

Alastair:  What alarms me, particularly about the events of the last five years, is that initially the psycho-drama of global Jihadism was played out in the shadows – a lot of their propaganda comes from their involvement in Chechnya, for example.  The psycho-drama had a huge and enduring appeal, but its reach was nothing compared to what can achieve in the open.  It is now gaining its imaginative momentum in the bright glare of global media.

Sir Jeremy:  As its profile enlarges, it becomes easier to hit.  In reality, they are losing territory in Iraq and Syria.  It will be bloody and nasty, and Mosul may look rather like Aleppo in a few months.  There is a natural limit to the growth of these organisms, as there is a natural limit to the size of an insect.  The danger is something else, that the aspect of protest becomes a global focus point.  It is a form of protest against the system which gives younger people in alienated societies a meaningful narrative.  The protest phenomenon is the same all over the world.  The difference between movements is a matter of degree, not of difference in type.  From the people in the United Kingdom who voted for Brexit to the detriment of their own economic interests to the people in America who vote for Trump to those who strike out to join the Islamic State, the phenomenon is a recognisable whole.  There is a huge element of protest, because globalisation has created winners and losers in a material sense.  But globalisation has also meant the loss of identity and the loss of opportunity in a protected local setting.  This is making people protest at the wider political scene.  That is not an Arab, American or European phenomenon.  It is global, which makes it much harder to manage with the mechanisms available to us.

On Brexit 

Margot:  What significance does Brexit have in this new spirit of global protest?

Sir Jeremy:  Brexit is a hugely symbolic event.  It makes a statement from a major member of the European Union that the EU is not functioning properly.  No state is going to resign from the UN, because the UN does not impose anything on states except by a particular agreement at a specific time.  It is also too useful to have the meeting place and the repository of norms, laws, principles and conventions that makes up its framework.  It is true however that the usefulness of the UN and the applicability of UN instruments has been weakened significantly because of nationalistic subjectivity.

Margot:  How do you think Theresa May’s government in particular and their approach to Britain’s place in the world is going to impact that trend?

Sir Jeremy:  Theresa May has understood some of the global trend.  She is trying to say that her predecessor government did not do enough for the dispossessed and this led to Brexit, and so people finally reached for the instrument of protest.  Of course, it was unwise of David Cameron to allow them to reach for that instrument.  She is faced with challenges from all sides.  This is an extremely competitive world and our economies are competing with each other.  Where the use of military power and even the use of political compulsion is extremely unpopular, the primary criterion for a successful state or a successful community is its economic performance.  And yet, she is finding herself, either willingly or unwillingly, putting immigration before economic performance as the criterion by which Brexit is judged.  That is going to be a hugely damaging thing for the British economy.

Foreign workers are so important to the British economy.   They are chosen by companies to fill positions because they out-compete any other available source of labour.  There is no point of being protectionist about British workers if they are not competing meritocratically for the job.  The government does not  dare say that some people are not competing successfully for jobs because they are not housed well enough, not  educated well enough, or are not  trying hard enough to be the people that can be productive in the economy.  Immigration of at least skilled workers is extremely important for our productivity growth and for our competitiveness, and Theresa May has not brought that out.  Some other figures are bringing it out, but it was not brought out in the Remain campaign’s arguments.  That was a bad campaign, a scare campaign.

The pre-Brexit United Kingdom had the best set of global positions of any country on earth and the best compromise between hard and soft power of any country.  Nobody was saying that during the campaign.  Let’s be careful – we currently have a marvellous international position.

Alastair: In the end it will surely be brought under by the weight of its own contradiction – between those like Liam Fox or Boris Johnson who seem to be arguing for even greater competition with global forces than before.  By contrast, Iain Duncan Smith seems much more interested in communitarian issues, for example.

Sir Jeremy:  It is an almost impossible job for an apex figure like the prime minister to bring all those different things together.  But she has to choose certain priority criteria and there is a danger of making immigration the top one because of popular anger.

Alastair: Do you think it will be possible to secure access to the single market without freedom of movement?

Sir Jeremy: No I don’t.  It is hard Brexit or no Brexit.

Margot: So you think the government will pick no access to the single market?

Sir Jeremy:  It is funny what happens when the cold light of day gets into the room.  People voted by quite a small majority but they did vote for Brexit.  They did not know they were voting for a particular set of circumstances from Brexit.  They believed what the Leave campaign was saying and the Leave campaign was telling untruths about what was going to happen.   The logic of that is being realised in the demands by parliament that it is consulted on the national interest before the Brexit approach is chosen.  This is surely a very sensible appeal because only parliament in the end can legitimately represent the mass of the people’s different wishes and objectives.  I think at the moment we are condemned to a hard Brexit.  That is going to be damaging.  The fall of the pound shows us how damaging that is going to be.  We are a great enough and talented enough people to get through it.  The Brits are still something to be reckoned with when they have got their backs to the wall, and our backs are being put against the wall here.

To my mind, the EU was beginning to unfold anyway in terms of 28 nations creating a unit.  Our support for enlargement was always in order to prevent the formation of that unit by having a nice club of various countries.  But the original six and those who think like them in the European Union are still trying to glue everybody together as one unit in spite of the recognition that there are huge differences.  This consensus is beginning to fracture.  The German mind is just now beginning to turn because it is too expensive to pay for Greece.  The French mind is beginning to turn in terms of the support for the National Front.  The French do not want to sacrifice their national identity.   And so, the national stake in what the EU should look like is becoming more and more part of the debate across all of Europe.  It happened in Britain, and in Scandinavia they are worried about it too.  In Greece they are desperate not to lose the EU, but if they have to they will go off on their own.  They would rather be paid for in a unified system.  In Italy they are all over the place.  They are schizophrenic about this issue.  It is still ingrained in them that they want to be in the European Union, but the value to them of the creative growth of the European Union peaked some time ago.  It is on the decline.

On Intervention 

Alastair:  Let’s come back to the question of where authority has flowed out of the kinds of institutions we are talking about and what the reasons might be behind that.  Large-scale intervention has both seemed to be a tremendously hopeful thing in the world and also it has had insidious, destructive consequences.  A Russian journalist, Artyom Borovik, said of the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan:  “We thought we were civilising a backwards country…but we rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us.”  I wonder if to the same extent we did not really understand how these things would poison our own political debate?  Look at the Labour Party, which has been torn in two by the debate over intervention.

Sir Jeremy:  Russia’s Afghanistan is our Iraq.  In my book, ‘Iraq – The Cost of War’, I trace the connection between the February 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq to Brexit.  The connecting link is people on the streets saying to politicians that they are not listening to them.  The Soviet Union suppressed the facts of what the Afghanistan campaign was doing to its army, to its young people and to its coffers.  But Blair did not suppress what was happening in Iraq.  He was shown however to have been describing it inaccurately as the facts came out and therefore he was dismissed as a liar.  Chilcot makes it clear that he did not lie deliberately in order to deceive, but he misinterpreted what was happening on the ground.  When voters are pushed by policymakers into doing something that is initially unpopular but promised to be successful in the long term, if it all goes wrong, those in charge suffer for it.  Russia is still suffering from that to some extent.  We are still suffering from Iraq.  The Americans are still suffering from Vietnam.

I call my book ‘Iraq – The Cost of War’ because war has a cost and because Afghanistan and Iraq and some other interventions proved eventually unsuccessful, they became causes célèbres, portrayed as big mistakes.  The fact is about intervention that intervention into another state’s affairs can only be achieved with hugely powerful resources.  The interventions in Sierra Leone and Northern Mali are about the limits of what a European state can do.  The Americans did it in Panama, Bosnia and Kosovo with mixed success.   They failed badly in Vietnam.  They failed in Iraq.  They failed in Afghanistan.  They would fail in Syria if they tried.

Intervention does not mend, it freezes.  The circumstances on the ground are frozen by an intervention.  Intervention can lead to regime change but it cannot replace it with something new.  Syria is a hugely difficult problem for this reason: there is no natural process in the civil war for producing a new leader or a winner.  In this respect, it is like the Spanish civil war where the nationalists and the Republicans are opposed to each other.  Assad is today’s Franco and he may well win.  But the Assad regime and its military has committed humanitarian abuses which exceed those committed in Spain.

Alastair:  The contours of the Spanish civil war define Spanish politics to this day.

Sir Jeremy:  The Spanish civil war was only put to one side because there was a world war that followed.  Is that going to happen on the conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya?  Some of these precedents are looking extremely nasty.

Alastair:  Equally, the end of the nineteenth century was a time of great hope for the possibilities of international order.

Sir Jeremy:  Foolish political leaders could not see this opportunity, principally the Kaiser in Germany.  Britain could have intervened diplomatically earlier in the run up to the First World War, but we were unable to realise that there was so much inflammatory material lying around that a single event in Sarajevo could ignite it.  They just could not understand the vulnerability of the system.  There are echoes of that in today’s world.  The system is vulnerable, and a match in the wrong place could prove extremely dangerous.  Now, I try to tell myself that old men always say that sort of thing, but I am worried. I think we have bequeathed your generation a very flammable global situation.