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Foreign Policy

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It has been well known for some time that most the citizens of the West dislike politics. Unless in protest, many don’t even bother to vote. Not in apathy but angry disillusionment.

At the same time with no Hitler or Stalin massing troops just down the road or across the water, most people feel there is no great urgency about getting involved in debates about foreign policy. Except when there’s a dramatic issue, like Bosnia or the Iraq war.

The effect is to leave the conduct of foreign policy to a small group of politicians and officials, influenced by lobbyists, and pollsters.

This is dangerous. Men and women who have reached the top of politics often posses an impressive combination of qualities, but having a well-informed, enlightened strategic approach to the rest of the world is not necessarily among those qualities. 

Occasionally you get a few glimpses into the way they make major foreign policy decisions, as, for example, in the aftermath of the recent Iraq war. When you do it leaves you with a sense of mild incredulity that this is how the world is run.

 

Dangerous

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It is vital that we all appreciate this simple truth about our rulers. Half the time they don’t know what they are doing.

Foreign policy is too important to be left to the politicians. According to political commentator, Timothy Garton-Ash we need to mix in and shape it ourselves. This means finding the right mix of realism and idealism.

Aspirational policies based on hard facts that look outward to a more positive future. When politicians look only one or two weeks ahead, we, the citizens, should compel them to look one or two years ahead.

When they raise their sights to one or two years, we should insist on ten to twenty. We should not demand the impossible of them; just the nearly impossible. Demand it of them, and of ourselves. For we are the thousand million who have never spoke yet.

 

Empowerment

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If we think our politicians corrupt and useless, we can go into politics and get rid of them. If we don’t like old-fashioned party politics, which require us to live in half-truth, other forms of direct action are available.

For example, we can give our time and money to pressure groups, charities, and non-government organisations (NGOs), some of which are very good.

The relieving of the debt burden of the poorest countries was in large part a response to an NGO campaign. So was the international treaty to ban landmines. When Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in bringing that about, was asked how she did it, she replied “e-mail.”

E-mail and the Internet can empower us in ways that we’ve only just begun to explore.

What is called the democratisation of politics is one of the great advances of our time. With the erosion of official secrecy, and the genius of Google, we can know what are rulers are up to almost before they know themselves. And then using email we can do something about it.

Not all of us can be politicians or get involved in foreign affairs. But we can get involved in the ways mentioned above. Locally, nationally or internationally.  

Small actions, for better or worse, add up to the state of the world.

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This essay draw on the work of the renowned political commentator Timothy Garton-Ash. His latest book Free Speech is a manifesto for global free speech in the digital age. To learn more click here.


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