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Problem of plenty

Chris Patten surveys the challenges of the millennium, but is profoundly ambivalent about many issues

Written by Pratapbhanumehta | October 19, 2008 12:10:49 pm

What Next?
Chris Patten
Allen Lane, Rs 795

Chris Patten surveys the challenges of the millennium, but is profoundly ambivalent about many issues
What next? is an engagingly written and fair-minded tour d’ horizon of the principal challenges facing the world: the pooling of sovereignty, inequality, nuclear proliferation, the spread of small arms, civil wars and natural-resource conflicts, water, organised crime and money laundering, drugs, the looming energy crisis, global warming, pandemics, enemies of freedom. The narrative is clear, elegant, often enriched with a deep sense of history and irony, enlivened with a telling fact. In some ways, this book is distinct from many others of its genre, in not having an overarching thesis or a simple, structural story to tell, and often it hedges its own conclusions. In many respects, this is a great advantage.

Patten does not flatten the world, the sectoral focus brings to attention the vulnerabilities and challenges that often get short shrift in more grandiose narratives. But this virtue is also a vice, in that each of these can appear to be a series of discrete problems, ripe for separate interventions. While Patten occasionally gestures at the interconnections between them, there is an overwhelming sense, in the way the book is written, that each of these problems occupies its own separate domain; that they are not systematically linked. In that sense, the book fosters an illusion that each problem (with the exception of drugs) is available for a “technical” intervention if only we had the will to do it. In some instances, these problems then become disembedded from the societies from which they emerge, as if “organised crime”, for instance, is the same everywhere. Much of what Patten has to say is quite sensible — strengthen nuclear proliferation, control small-arms trade, promote peace in the Middle East. Some proposals are bold but vague, as on climate change: “This means putting aside thoughts of a worldwide anti-carbon dictatorship which would move remorselessly from controlling every carbon footprint to trying to control the number of the world’s feet, in other words how much we are allowed to breed.”

Patten is also even handed in his judgments: not afraid to criticise his own government. But there is often a sense that this criticism is more a gesture than genuine self correction. For instance, he is tempted by the idea of nuclear disarmament, passes some strictures on the hypocrisy of the nuclear world order, and is profoundly ambivalent about the Indo-US nuclear deal. But in the end he leaves the crucial question hanging: what will be the drivers of making nuclear weapons illegitimate? What justifies Britain upgrading its arsenal? He discusses the banking crisis, and locates its sources in, among other things, poor regulation. But there is little discussion of the ideological and political currents that led to poor regulation, currents which Patten had a ringside view of.

But there are often two problems with such wide-ranging narratives. First, they tend to be more of rumination than a rigorous argument, gesturing at the complexity of the issues without internalising it. Second, and perhaps more seriously, they take the vantage point of view of a legislator of the world, someone surveying from a high-up perch the various follies and foibles of mankind. From this vantage point, the solutions all seem clear and Patten does not hesitate to propose many. The only thing lacking of this view is that mysterious entity called “political will”, as if setting history right were simply a matter of will.

At one level, Patten’s historical sensibility is quite admirable. He is closer to what in the eighteenth century would have been described as a sceptical Whig, someone who believes progress is possible, but does not believe that it unfolds according to a predetermined logic. Indeed, often its sources are unexpected. He believes in political creativity, understands the limits of reason, powerfully articulates the view that often things go wrong not because we aim to do ill, but because we have romantic conceptions of the good. His account of human motivation is complex: it is not reduced to simple self interest. Instead, pride, fear and a whole range of passions play their part. His heroes are not idealists, they are Metternich and Talleyrand, once dismissed as reactionaries, now acknowledged as realists who kept the worst excesses of virtue and ideological purity at bay. The disappointment of the book is that Patten’s analysis of problems is often at odds with his own understanding of politics; indeed the political questions remain unexamined. Like Talleyrand, Patten rightly thinks that change will come, not from idealists, but from people who can cut deals. Whether for the world or for themselves remains an open question.

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