15 November 2007

All for One and One for . . .

All the news from Pakistan seems a tad on the surreal side at the moment, not least because of the political resurgence of Benazir Bhutto, who I'm afraid I always think of as the most famous person to have ushered me through a front door.

I was at a conference and at that point was at the residence of the American Ambassador in London. Having been ushered in by Ms Bhutto, I strolled about, vaguely disappointed that there wasn't a Ferrero Rocher to be seen in the place. A sign of bad taste, I couldn't help but feeling. That marked the real start of a funny few days, with me slipping away from a conversation between Roger Bannister and a couple of Nobel-winning physicists to talk to Olivia De Havilland, without quite finding the nerve to tell her hat my Dad had admired her from afar one day in Dublin when he was a child, with Bertie Ahern chatting to me before dinner, with me disagreeing forcibly about an issue of jurisprudence with a former head of the F.B.I. as we chatted on a bus, and with Mikhail Gorbachev rubbing off me. Not in a kinky way, I should explain, just squeezing past me while making his way to the dinner table.

Other highlights of the weekend included embarrassing Zahi Hawass with the fact that I've spent two summers working on digs -- both in the field and the labs -- in Greece, while he was spouting nonsense about why basically everything in the world should go back to Egypt, chatting away with the Google founders who were down as student delegates like myself, discussing Churchill and Wellington over lunch in the Palace of Westminster, and listening, rapt, to such people as Stephen Jay Gould, Frederick Sanger, Murray Gell-Mann, and Martin Rees.

Shameless namedropping aside, the highlight of the whole shebang in a lot of ways was a panel discussion chaired by Wes Clark where the topic of this missile shield malarkey came up. He asked Joe Ralston to explain it to us, and so, the then Supreme Allied Commander, Europe carefully explained to us why it was a good idea. Put simply, he said, if London or Paris were threatened with a nuclear attack, America would be more likely to come to their aid if New York and Washington, say, would not be threatened in turn.

Later that evening, in conversation with several others who'd been at that discussion, this sank in. America, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, would be more likely to abide by its obligations under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty if she knew she would be safe than she would if her safety was in doubt? In other words, there are circumstances in which America might decide to leave endangered allies to their fate?

And that night, pondering further, it became blatantly apparent to me that the whole 'nuclear umbrella' spiel as peddled by the likes of Robert Kagan is, frankly, a myth. But this raised a serious question: if even students such as I can see this, then surely European politicians, the bureaucrats, soldiers, and other policy-makers of one sort or another must be able to see it too. So what are they doing about it?

In truth, it's pretty obvious that a common defence policy is on the cards, the only real questions being when and how this will happen. I've long suspected that the feeble amounts spent by Europeans on their defence budgets reflect not an unwillingness to invest in national defence, but a recognition that individual national defence won't work anymore, and that what's needed is a coordinated European defence.

More on this tomorrow. I'm sure you can't wait.

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