Welcome to the Woodhouse College Model UN. As the world watches Donald Trump’s inauguration in a few hours time, we gather to debate and consider international relations in an unprecedented time. I have a few reflections before we start.
Forgive me, I am old. I was born in 1961 a few months before the Berlin Wall went up; I was born a child of the sixties. The sixties was an age of contradictions, on the one hand it was called the age of Aquarius, the era of hope; on the other hand, it was a time of fear with the threat of world war 3 and nuclear annihilation hanging over us.
After the Berlin Wall went up, the Cold War dominated international relations for the first 30 odd years of my life, with many proxy wars and confrontations taking place around the globe.
As a toddler, the Cuban missile crisis caused people to fear war breaking out between the US and the Soviet Union. It was close, a few minutes to midnight, people said. My parents left me at home with a babysitter and demonstrated in Grovesnor Square outside the US embassy against the Vietnam war. I was pushed in a buggy on the Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons, a movement that grew and became the campaign for nuclear disarmament, CND.
I remember my RE teacher at school telling us at school that nuclear war was likely in our lifetime, and the government issued a leaflet to all households called ‘Protect and Survive’ – what to do in the event of nuclear war. It had advice on how to hide under the kitchen table. Meanwhile the growth of CND culminated in a huge march against nuclear weapons over a million people with slogan ‘protest and survive’.
War after war took place around the world, most with USA and Russia backing different sides. The Iran Iraq war, which you may not know much about, lasted 8 years with a million dead and many more injured, Saddam Hussein backed, incidentally, by the west, who supplied him with those same weapons of mass destruction that later triggered their own invasion.
The Israel Palestine conflict goes on to this day, with Israeli expansion and settlements condemned across the world but underwritten and supported by USA.
And terrorism is not a new phenomenon and featured throughout my life, from the red brigade and the PLO and IRA in the 70s to and Al Qaeda and Isis today.
When the Wall came down, some declared ‘the end of history’, but it all continued, repeated invasions of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Russia and the west playing out their games.
And all this time, who did reasonable liberal people look to save the day? Who did they call upon to reduce the danger from nuclear arsenals, from proxy wars? Who did they ask to stop and prevent wars, from Vietnam to Cambodia, from Yugoslavia to Iran and Iraq, and now Syria? The united nations. And when 2 million marched in London against Tony Blair’s war in Iraq, their demand was no war without UN resolution. They saw the UN as a white horse, part of the solution, part of the way forward to peace.
But the UN let us down every single time. The UN has been repeatedly ineffectual and weak. The big powers block anything that is against their interests. The Israel Palestine sore remains an open wound, oozing poison into the region and into the world, and what has the UN ever achieved there? What has the UN achieved in Syria?
Lenin called the UN’s predecessor the League of Nations a Thieves’ Kitchen, a “piece of fakery from beginning to end; it is a deception from beginning to end; it is a lie from beginning to end”. Is the UN any different?
So we now live in bleak times. The mantra of the Blair years “things can only get better” seems unbearably innocent and naive. With Brexit at home, the rise of proto-fascism across Europe and Donald Trump in the Whitehouse, it is hard to locate hope for the future. I feel doubly affected: I am both a British citizen and an American citizen – I hold two passports. I am equally depressed by Brexit and Trump, both of which could end as appalling disasters – not for the rich and privileged, but for ordinary people.
In this context, what advice can I offer? What optimism can I put forward for you? I am at a loss. I am of the generation that has failed to solve the problems of the world and has handed to our children a world with fewer opportunities and greater challenges than my parents handed to me.
So I have just one thought for you. Voltaire, that great figure of the enlightenment, who was part of a movement that changed Europe and brought in rationalism and tolerance and ideas of equality and human rights; Voltaire write a book Candide. He wrote it in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake that killed up to a hundred thousand people. There were many who tried to understand such a disaster, tried to work out what it meant that their God had allowed so many to die. Some said that ‘all is for the best in this best of all worlds’, but Voltaire couldn’t believe that to be true, and he tried to find hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
His famous conclusion to the book is this: ‘il fault cultiver notre jardin’. We need to work our garden, a metaphor which I remembering originally struggling with in my French A level at sixth form. President Obama put it more plainly yesterday in his final press conference in advice to his daughters: “we have tried to raise them”, he said, “to understand that when you get knocked down, you pick yourself up and get back to work.”
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to get on with your lives, to do the right thing for the right reasons. As you work through this weekend, remember that politics is not a game. Politics is not about one-upmanship, winning a debate through procedural manipulation or sophistry. Politics actually affects people’s lives. Have principles, live by them and make the world a better place.