Thursday, February 23, 2006

"Edinburgh Conversations"

Earlier this week, I went along to a lecture given in honour of the late Professor John Erickson, who was in the Politics Department at the University of Edinburgh. The lecture was given by George Robertson, lately Secretary General of NATO and previously Secretary of State for Defence between 1997 and 1999. He was speaking about Russia, especially in the context of relations within Europe. John Erickson is now justly famous in defence studies circles for the Edinburgh Conversations, conducted throughout the 1980s on a more or less confidential basis, bringing together defence officials and serving force personnel on the two sides of the Cold War. They provided a framework within which such personnel could see the other side of their respective coin, and reduced the likelihood of either Nuclear Armageddon, or serious geopolitical face-offs involving the two superpowers. Of course, they didn't prevent, or particularly alleviate, the war in Afghanistan, and we all know some of the consequences of that, but they did provide a framework within which tensions could be significantly reduced and transitions effected more smoothly after 1989 and during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the point of this? Well, the question is whether there is anything comparable to this going on today, in the context of the geopolitical and religious tensions that we know there are at present. I am thinking, particularly, of relations with Iran, because it seems to me that issues such as this will not be solved by domestic policies on terrorism or on multiculturalism, but by effective international relations and diplomacy. And here I am not optimistic at the present time - and I was curious to see that this pessimism was echoed from a very different perspective by Francis Fukuyama in yesterday's Guardian in a rather odd piece about neoconservatism and geopolitics. Anyway, I was disheartened to see a senior EU official saying publicly that there are no talks going on between the EU and Iran. Also, remember that the Cold War was never, by any means, accompanied by the type of micro level phobias and conflicts which accompany the global clash between the so-called "Western liberal world" and the "Islamic world". That makes me even more depressed. Those who "escaped" from Communism were generally welcomed with open arms as political refugees in the West. Ah, but then they were more like us, weren't they...few of them were Moslems. I wonder, are there people out there who are as prescient in the 2000s as Erickson was in the 1970s and 1980s about the bases of international understanding and conflict avoidance, and who are able to facilitate the types of exchanges that were needed. I wonder. Because if such "conversations" are going on, they would have far, far more capacity to make me feel safe than the sight of policemen with submachine guns in Edinburgh airport, or spot checks on bags on the London Underground. For then, the politicians would lose the great alibi for taking away freedom - in the name of security.

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