Is any American literary genre more despised than works by sitting members of Congress? Windy, vacuous, banal: with few exceptions, they are embarrassments to the republic.
Not so on the far side of the pond. Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, Roy Jenkins, Matthew Ridley: the houses of Parliament have long been among the United Kingdom’s richest veins of political, economic and historical writings. “Rising Tides,” a new book by Liam Fox, member of Parliament, is a case in point.
For most of the past decade, Dr. Fox (a physician as well as MP) held shadow Cabinet and Cabinet portfolios in the British Foreign and Defense ministries. He traveled widely and developed close ties with many of the senior geopolitical players of our time. Leader of the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party, he became the Tories’ most prominent Euroskeptic and Parliament’s strongest advocate of the U.S.-U.K. “Special Relationship.” This last proved a problem.
In the United States, the Special Relationship is a rarity — a policy that enjoys practically unanimous support on both sides of the political aisle. President Obama discovered this early in his tenure after it got out that he had unceremoniously returned to the British Embassy a bust of Churchill, an earlier gift of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush. By 2012, his people were trying to deny that the slight had ever occurred, clearly feeling that for re-election purposes, putting down arguably our single closest ally had been a mistake.
The Special Relationship is much more contentious in British politics. The hard left of the Labor Party has long been hostile to the capitalist United States. The Liberal Democrats and even many Tories are barely less disdainful of America’s culture and wealth, and distrustful of its global power. Afghanistan and Iraq exacerbated these ill feelings, as did the global financial crisis, widely seen as a failure of American policy and institutions. So it should surprise no one that via a roundabout route involving a small, semiactive nonprofit (whose American board I sat on), Dr. Fox’s high-profile championing of the Special Relationship led to a 2011 media storm and his subsequent decision to resign as secretary of state for defense and move to the parliamentary backbenches.
Stepping down gave him time to reflect more extensively on global affairs. His research included long talks with such former transnational security colleagues as Mr. Blair, John Major, Robert M. Gates, Condoleezza Rice and Donald H. Rumsfeld, as well as numerous unnamed (sometimes for their own protection) others. “Rising Tides” is the result.
Dr. Fox’s original title was “The 4 a.m. Moment: What Keeps World Leaders Awake.” He sketches profiles of Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iran, Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism, the global financial crisis, international debt and more. These sections offer up revealing histories, surprising insights, telling details and arresting conclusions.
For example, what tops the global leaders’ list of 4 a.m. moments? The nearly unanimous answer turns out to be Pakistan. Termed by some “a failed state with nuclear weapons” and “a source of global terrorism,” Pakistan’s very name suggests,Dr. Fox learned, its shallow-rooted national character. It is an acronym of the names of its provinces, dreamed up in the 1930s by Cambridge University students, early champions of carving a Muslim state from India.
On China, he quotes a “leading business representative” in Hong Kong who tells him that China is “about how to divide the spoils between the three or four hundred elite families.” Is this arrangement sustainable? At a dinner, also in Hong Kong, with “a range of political, media and business figures,” one prominent participant announces, “China is becoming an enormous pressure cooker with very few outlets. More money is now spent on internal security than on national defense . The West is so seduced by what it sees in terms of economic growth that it can’t see what lies beneath.”
Of the Syrian civil war, he writes: “[O]ne of the causes was the licensing system of new wells. In 2005, the government began licensing the digging of agricultural wells, but its policy of keeping the Kurds economically underdeveloped resulted in licenses being denied [to them, so] more than half the country’s wells were illegally dug, and hence unregulated, leading to rapidly depleted groundwater reserves.” Dry wells combined with recent drought and an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees into a tower of tinder. Sparks came; a conflagration followed.
However, Dr. Fox has produced much more than an anthology of histories and essays on current issues. He has built a case that the “two worlds” that defined most of the past century have unraveled and on what to do next. Those worlds are that of the post-Versailles Treaty of nation-states and of post-World War II multilateral institutions designed to resolve issues among nation-states.
From rising states, such as China, to failing states, such as Pakistan, to resource-constrained states, such as Syria, to migrations that are making most major states multinational to nonstate players, such as drug cartels and terrorist networks, the new world presents challenges that the institutions of the faded worlds are unequipped to address.
Dr. Fox argues that European Union is among those outmoded institutions. Its currency, the euro, was designed neither as a vehicle to hold the union together nor as an economically viable monetary unit among economically similar countries. It is inherently unstable, dependent entirely on Germany’s willingness to prop it up.
Meanwhile, across the EU, publics have soured on the “political class in Brussels and its unaccountable bureaucracy,” which is ready to inflict austerity on others but never on itself. If Britain “is unable to renegotiate a looser relationship with Brussels,” Dr. Fox announces, “I and many others will campaign and vote to leave the organization.”
“Rising Tides” provides a highly intelligent, fresh look at the world scene. It is a global reality check from one of the English-speaking world’s most talented political figures.