When common interest no longer reflects shared values

13 January, 2012

Richard Burge, Chief Executive writes:

I have been watching Lord Paddy Ashdown’s TED talk on current global change. He says that the lesson of history is not to underestimate (and to be prepared for) the turmoil that will be caused and the blood spilt as a result. He reflects on a short extract from the prophetic and sad poem “A Shropshire Lad” by A E Houseman

“On the idle hill of summer,

Sleepy with the flow of streams,

Far I hear the steady drummer,

Drumming like the noise of dreams.

 

Far and near and low and louder,

On the roads of earth go by,

Dear to friends and food to powder,

Soldiers marching, all to die”

Lord Ashdown says the distant sounds that Houseman heard 15 years before the First World War are now beating loudly in our ears. And the peril for the future is as great now as it was then. The changes we face are profound and they are predictable, even if we do not know how probable each one may be. The turns of events are straining to the limit the resources and skills of diplomats and politicians across the world. Many are like our own in the UK; conscious that the consequences mean we may we send our sons to war and watch the innocent die in their homes. Sadly, a few others see the turmoil as an opportunity to be exploited, regardless of its human cost.

Lord Ashdown says we face conflict between common interest and shared values. There are many tactics that can be deployed at times of high international instability. Tactics in the absence of strategy might provide momentary respite, but at what long term cost? If a nation’s action is based solely on short term common interest with others rather than on the values that underpin its very existence, what sort of foreign policy is that, and for how long has peace, security, and prosperity truly been bought? In a crisis it is relatively easy to find other nations who fear the same things as you do, but surely common interest can be pursued only with those who share your values – otherwise the pressure to compromise values for expediency will become overwhelming.

Our history is littered with events where a current problem was replaced with a deeper crisis because it was “necessary” to suspend or dilute what knew to be good, right, and proper. Necessity is a deceptive and deadly chimera – Pitt the Younger, when confronted by those who saw the economic necessity for not banning slavery, responded “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves”.

We have a busy year ahead of us at Wilton Park – over 55 events in at least 10 countries with around 2800 participants from 120 nations. We will cover every aspect of international relations where patient and discreet dialogue is needed urgently. And the common ground of every discussion (a common ground we occupy with our colleagues in the FCO) is that shared values between nations – not common interest – act as the ultimate guarantor for peace and as the catalyst for prosperity.

 

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