Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case by Anatol Lieven - review by Mark Malloch-Brown

Mark Malloch-Brown

Red, White & Green

Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case


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For Anatol Lieven, one battle has been won but now begins the hundred years’ war. In Climate Change and the Nation State, he presumes that the climate change deniers have been vanquished and have largely fled the field. So he dismisses their case. He starts from the proposition that this debate has been won. Lieven is impatient to engage in the real struggle, the civilisational war for survival. And indeed, on cue, floods in the UK and bushfires in Australia and California appear to confirm the urgency of the situation. The weather and the waters are moving. We face extraordinary challenges.

He is despairing of the current politics of the campaign for human survival. He fears that the cause has been captured by the old Left in Western democracies and thrown together with a host of other issues, from demands for open immigration and gender and minority rights to opposition to nuclear power and more. The campaign is too woke to win.

He believes we must start again – or, rather, return to older foundations in the face of this primal threat to our planet’s future. We need, he argues, a new nationalism. The nation-state must break with the corrosive process of free-market globalisation that has divided our societies and put us at odds with each other. We need a disciplined national effort and strong state leadership. Like generations before us, we should be willing to forgo comfortable consumer plenty to secure our grandchildren’s future and we need to be on a war footing to do this. Lieven approvingly quotes Second World War slogans directed at civilians in the USA and the UK urging them to walk rather than drive short distances and to limit themselves to five-inch baths.

He correctly argues that to rebuild our economies in a way that successfully caps climate change will require consistency of purpose among governments of the Right and the Left across a number of electoral cycles. Climate change cannot be stopped in a four- or five-year presidential or parliamentary term. Durable consensus of this kind can only be achieved by remedying the failures of the political status quo. In place of what he sees as the failed liberal order, Lieven hopes to rebuild state-level politics around a revived nationalism, while also addressing the problem of economic disadvantage among the white working class by limiting immigration, offering long-term income support and, above all, empowering the state to oversee the workings of capitalism. This is Eisenhower’s America, not Reagan’s or Trump’s. Nor, he adds, was it Clinton’s or Obama’s America, or Thatcher’s or Blair’s Britain. These leaders lived in thrall to naked capitalism. Their governments allowed a free-for-all approach that generated the social exclusions, most notably of blue-collar white males, that have buried the liberal order.

So, Lieven believes, now is the time for enlightened state command. Democracy as presently practised has become about short-term gratification. If we are to prevail against climate change, we must adopt a Chinese perspective and concentrate on the long term. Nevertheless, he cites approvingly the US Democratic Party’s Green New Deal, which bundles together solutions to social ills with investment in a new green infrastructure that will create a boom in jobs and investment. But he worries that there are still too many traces in it of the preoccupations with gender, sexuality and minority inclusion that have paralysed the Democrats and are red rags to Republicans and those blue-collar workers who must be brought on board if this programme is to enjoy robust long-term support across the political spectrum.

Lieven is surely right that climate change will reshape our politics as thoroughly as the two world wars did. It is time (and hopefully not too late) to put ourselves on a war footing. We must spawn a new politics. But is Lieven’s model of the nationalist siege state, keeping away immigrants while addressing internal inequalities, the right one for facing an existential challenge of this kind?

The trouble with climate change is that it is not like a conventional war. The enemy is not grouped on the other side of a national border. The enemy is everywhere because the climate and the processes changing it simply do not respect borders. Emissions in one country impact carbon levels in another. Whatever the value of the nation-state as a unit of action, this crisis needs all states to cooperate, not to crouch in opposition to each other. Nor does it help to close borders to migratory movements. In the future, much migration will involve the movement of climate refugees, but migrants will also be responding to growing employment demands in ageing Western societies. How the push-and-pull factors influencing these flows are managed will be critical to global social peace.

This is a war of the world, not a war of countries. We need to generate international cohesion where every state, company and individual plays a part. The free-rider problem, where only some states or companies act, is already evident. Even establishing proper burden-sharing between old industrial powers and new ones is a problem still eluding resolution.

Admittedly, watching the annual UN deliberations on climate change is frustrating. The woolly compromises and soft plans of action that emerge from them are still more honoured in the breach than the observance. We have a vast way to go, but we cannot get there without much-derided international cooperation of this sort.

Lieven also underplays the importance of a second set of actors: companies. He is wary of their empty promises but does not perhaps fully acknowledge that at present their business interests are not aligned with the climate fight. Cutting emissions is too often perceived as a cost to businesses, rather than an opportunity. Yet as decisions over public spending and regulation put the green agenda at the centre of our economies, corporate interests will realign. That’s the nature of the bottom line. Businesses follow opportunities. Companies can become innovators and leaders in the fight against climate change.

Lieven imagines a siege state response. I imagine a world that makes common cause against a shared threat. Neither approach is probably right on its own, but the more dangerous scenario is that nothing happens at either level. So we should heed Lieven’s call to action.

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