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The big interview with David Miliband: The West in retreat

In our Big Interview, David Miliband talks to AIQ about the growing humanitarian emergency in war-torn countries, the retreat from global engagement by the West and the future of centre-left politics.

9 minute read

David Miliband is not cut out for the quiet life. In his role as president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Miliband oversees the agency’s humanitarian relief operations in over 40 war-torn countries. It is a job that has grown significantly during his tenure, reflecting the mass-displacement of citizens in countries such as Somalia, Syria and Yemen. 

Miliband took up the role in 2013, relocating to the IRC’s US headquarters in New York. As the son of refugees – Miliband’s parents fled to the UK from Belgium and Poland during World War II and its aftermath – there was a personal connection to the job that made it a natural step following his departure from frontline British politics.

He admits the scale of the task facing the IRC and other agencies doing similar work is “overwhelming”, with over 68 million people driven from their homes by conflict or persecution in the past year alone – more than at any time since the Second World War.

No wonder then that Miliband refers to this as a “humanitarian emergency” and one that has major implications for global stability. But the stakes have been raised further due to what he describes as the “retreat from global engagement by the West”; evident in everything from the rise of Trump in the US to Brexit. 

His views on the latter have seen Miliband back in the headlines over the past year. The former foreign secretary [Miliband held the role from 2007 to 2010] is one of the most prominent voices calling for a second referendum on Brexit and has not given up hope of it happening. In an article for The Guardian, published on December 24, Miliband wrote: “A people’s vote is not an admission of defeat or a poke in the eye to those who voted leave. “Better safe than sorry” is the right approach when buying a house, and so makes sense when making a momentous national decision.”1

Some believe Miliband is positioning for a return to UK politics, with reports in November suggesting he is being lined up to lead a new political party.2 Miliband declined to be drawn on the speculation during a wide-ranging conversation with AIQ, but offered a passionate defence of centre left politics; as well as discussing the linkages between the humanitarian crisis in war torn states and global political developments.

You’ve said before the IRC is sadly “a growth business in a growth industry”. How critical is the current situation?

I see it as a double emergency. The first part of the emergency is the growing gap between the number of people in humanitarian need and the amount of help they receive. One in every 110 people in the world has been driven by their home by conflict or persecution. The scale of tumult is overwhelming the humanitarian system. That is why you have the nutrition crisis that is in the headlines. These are not people killed directly by war, but indirectly by the consequences of war.

These people are not arriving in rich and stable countries. Only two per cent of the world’s refugees are in America and eight per cent are in Europe: 88 per cent are arriving in poor and lower‑middle income countries that are struggling to support their own populations.

Secondly, these people are not going home.  Less than two per cent of the world’s refugees went home last year. That is why you have this cumulative growth in the number of people displaced by conflict or persecution. Thirdly, the image of a refugee is someone in a refugee camp, but 60 per cent are in urban areas. These people are not penned in to separate lives; they are part of the global system and the urbanisation process.

The fourth aspect is that half of the world’s displaced people are children. I would argue we need to help not just for reasons of heart but for reasons of head and global stability. It is a huge gamble to have children recruited as soldiers, which is what I saw driving from Sana’a to Hodeida. I saw 11-year olds with Kalashnikovs manning the checkpoints, chanting “death to America”. 

When I started this job five years ago, I knew humanitarian crises were a product of political crises.  What I have learned is that an unattended humanitarian crisis leads to political instability. People do not stay in the country or the region they come from. 

What’s the second part of the emergency?

The second part is that western countries, the anchor of the global order over the past 70 years, are in retreat from global engagement. I feel this especially strongly living in New York. When switching on the news, you get a sense of the political polarisation, but this pre-dates Trump’s election. 

There is a retreat from the norms that underpin the global system, most obviously the rights of refugees. The US government, which supports the IRC to reunite families around the world, is separating families when they arrive at the US border. I never thought I would see that happen. The US has historically allowed in more refugees for resettlement than any other country - around 90,000 a year. The current administration has reduced the number of refugees allowed in to just 2,000. 

The second way in which there is a retreat by the west from global engagement can be put in a bucket called ‘power’. The balance of power is changing, and decisions made by western countries are contributing to that. There is no question President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has created a vacuum in the Far East, which gives China the opportunity to be the new lead actor. There is also a power vacuum in the Middle East and, most obviously, people in Syria and Yemen are paying the price.

There is also a retreat from institutions. It is about the US ignoring the climate treaty and withdrawing from the Human Rights Council and a range of other bodies. But it is also about Brexit, which could be a source of instability in Europe as well as Britain. 

To me, the retreat creates instability in the global system. That is a trend, not a blip. The Jamal Khashoggi affair is an example of what happens when norms are not defended, and impunity is the new norm. It is dangerous.

In other words, you see clear linkages between the issues the IRC deals with and global political and economic developments?

The issues we tackle are not separate to those broader trends, but part of it. The global displacement crisis is a symptom of fragile states; of weak and divided governments; of resource stress – sometimes tied to climate change; of tumult within the Islamic world. These are all global trends and the products of the displacement crisis, with more refugees in urban areas being a symptom of urbanisation; while the movement of people is to some extent a symptom of globalisation.

Given the scale and complexity of these issues, do you feel you’re fighting a losing cause?

One of our main challenges is operating under enormous resource constraints. Those constraints are acute when it comes to putting in money to the back office. It is understandable people want to see money going to the front line, but unless you fund the back office – your HR, security, IT – you’re not going to be able to deliver front of house. It is challenging for a big NGO, which is resource constrained on the infrastructure side, to clearly establish systems for effective delivery.

Another challenge is that many of our donors are fragmented, including governments. We are running short-term grants for limited amounts of money to tackle long-term problems. We are a three quarter of a billion dollars organisation but run 400 to 500 grants at any one time, with an average size of $1 million and average length of a year. That’s a real constraint on our ability to have an impact.

What’s at stake from the retreat from global engagement by the West?

The liberal international order was liberal because it privileged human rights alongside the sovereignty of states; it was international because it involved the whole world in the foundation of the United Nations; and it was an order because it built institutions to manage difference.

What’s at stake are the blessings and progress that have been built over the past 70 or 80 years. Clearly the West has made mistakes and we continue to face profound challenges; not least the exploitation of the planet and rising inequality. But the blessings of the last 70 years are at stake: the shrinking of the middle class, the threat to the global environment, the danger that the undermanaged global commons becomes a source of instability are all real. This is a threat to living standards as well as the norms we have taken for granted. The stakes are very high.

Presumably the rise of nationalistic politics in the US and Europe will make it harder to find solutions to those global challenges?

Yes, and you’re right to use the term nationalistic – or nativistic – politics, which is a better phrase than populist politics. It is a real reversion. The debate between President Trump and President Macron is incredibly important: Trump speaks of nationalism, not globalism; Macron speaks of patriotism, not nationalism. The nationalists allege there is a zero-sum game and the patriots, like me, argue it is a positive-sum game and there have been mutually-beneficial gains from global integration.

This is a fundamental issue, and the fact nationalists are winning some of the political arguments raises the spectre of what you might call de-globalisation.

I would argue the benefits of having a more connected world are real: they are economic, social and cultural. They are about lifestyles and living standards. However, and without wishing to sound pompous, the exploitation of the planet’s resources – living like there are three planets, not one – is catching up with us. We must recognise globalisation is too unequal; too unstable and too unsustainable for its own good. That is why the management of the global commons - the way in which we manage the connections between peoples and states - is key to the future. There is no future in trying to address these issues alone.

How do you see the trade spat between the US and China playing out?

It’s an interesting question. Obviously, I live in the US now and spent some time recently in China. The rationale for those two countries to come to an accommodation with each other is enormous. The benefits – even of unbalanced trade – are real. My own instinct is that it is wrong to predict a new Cold War; I don’t think the Trump administration – for all the fire and fury – wants to attack the Chinese system ideologically. They are looking for a modus vivendi with them, but there is obviously a risk that the trade spat becomes a fully-fledged trade war.

I saw no evidence that the Chinese were ready to collapse or abandon their position, but I do think there is a future where China makes reforms that address some of the concerns that not just Americans, but Europeans, also have about the way in which China has followed or not followed the World Trade Organization’s rules since joining in 2001. It’s important to say that issues of intellectual property have not only been raised by the Trump administration. Many European businesses would raise the same questions.

As long as it’s not presented as a threat to upend the Chinese system, I can see the Chinese leadership thinking there are reasons for reform and amendments to the way they work. But they [the US] are not going to achieve it just by shouting at them.

Centre-left parties are losing ground in Europe – or in the case of the Labour Party in the UK, shifting decisively to the left. What are the reasons for this, and is it reversible?

In my view, the historic role of social democracy or centre left/progressive politics has been to prevent free markets from going beyond their own capacity; in other words, to prevent capitalism from overreaching. That’s what regulatory states and the Keynesian welfare state after the second world war were all about.

The historic task of social democracy has been to manage markets in such a way that you gain their benefits but curb their vices. There is a second historic task and that is to help advance and defend the institutions of liberal democracy. The truth is that the age we grew up in was one where we took for granted democratic and liberal norms with regards to individual choices and individual rights. The danger is that those come under threat. We know of the authoritarian turn in countries like Turkey; we know the abuse of power is a real fear, even in a country where the courts are as strong as they are in the US.

So, I think there is a historic task for progressive politics to advance liberal norms and to ensure markets are used to serve people and not the other way around. As to why this is not being achieved, if I had to point to one thing I would say that we – and I put myself on the side of this type of politics – have not yet cracked what is the political economy that reduces inequality while increasing innovation and growth. We’re challenged from the ultra left, who think they have their own solution in going backwards; and from the hard right, who in some ways join with the hard left in terms of protectionism. I don’t think you can have an answer to the travails of the centre left without having an answer to the question of what constitutes progressive centre left political economy today.

In our case, I would argue one of the biggest mistakes was not defending what we did, including reducing inequality. There are all sorts of things we did that were imperfect, but nonetheless positive. I still believe strongly-managed markets are better than free markets; that the politics of inclusion are better than the politics of division; that the combination of free people with strong government and progressive or enlightened business is the way to manage complex economies.

You support a second referendum on Brexit. Why should we expect the outcome to be any different?

I refuse to fall victim to the pessimism that says we’re doomed to leave the European Union (EU) with a crash. The deal the prime minister put forward cushions the short-term blow but doesn’t answer any of the long-term questions about the relationship we’re to have with the EU; it recycles the fundamental question at the heart of the Brexit talks, which is that if you want to gain the benefits of access to a vibrant European economy you need to pay a price for it. The price is adhering to its rules. In other words, if you want to leave the tennis club but still use the courts on Saturday mornings, you have to pay for it.

That dilemma has never been answered by the Brexiteers. The Brexit that was promised at the time of the referendum in 2016 is never going to be on offer: there’s never going to be a Brexit that delivers £350 million a week for the National Health Service, for example.

I think it is a matter of democratic principle as well as common sense to say two things: one, you can’t not follow the referendum result without a second referendum; secondly, a further referendum is justified on democratic grounds because the options that were presented to people either don’t exist any more or never existed in the first place.

Is there any deal that could satisfy all sides?

I don’t think there is any exit deal that could be as good as what we have at the moment. Having said that, there would have been ways of exiting that would have left people like me dismayed or disappointed but not able to do anything about it. If the prime minister in 2016 had said: “Look, we’ve decided and we’re going to leave, but I’m going to fashion a Brexit that brings the country together rather than divides it; that recognises the leave side won, but with an unspecific mandate; but also recognises the strength of feeling on the remain side.”

I think she could have fashioned a Brexit deal that allowed us to leave in an orderly way and reflected the diversity of opinion and interests in the country. The fact she decided to say at the beginning there would be no membership of the customs union and no membership of the single market condemned us to the position we’re in now.

A second referendum, providing a further choice between the terms of departure and remaining, is in the interests of the country. Obviously, crashing out with no deal is worse than having a postponement of the final decisions, which is essentially what the withdrawal agreement does.


1. Corbyn has given up on Europe. For the good of Britain, we cannot. The Guardian, December 2018

2. David Miliband is tipped for return to frontline politics to lead new centre-left party backed by ‘Blairite movement’. The Mail on Sunday, November 2018

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