Towards a pre-emtive foreign policy?

Given the international nature of the discussion and topics here this week, it seems a timely moment to post my report on a debate held in London by Intelligence Squared. The subject: the merit of pursuing a pre-emptive foreign policy. It was a fascinating experience, and used a form I’d love to transfer to a venue in Belfast and/or Dublin on subjects nearer to home.It is easy to forget just how informal public discourse has become in these days of internet blogdom and 24 hour news, until you see the revival of an old classic, the Oxford-style debate.

Two years ago, a pair of media entrepreneurs – John Gordon, founder of research company Xtreme Information, and Jeremy O’Grady, co-founder of news digest magazine The Week – sensed a demand for more participation in the intellectual struggles of the day.

So they set up a forum called Intelligence Squared and persuaded the great and the good to come and debate propositions that ranged from “Islam is Incompatible with Democracy” to “Let’s Get Rid of Scotland”.

Tonight, in the oak panelled lecture theatre of London’s Royal Geographical Society, two impressive teams are assembled to argue whether “A pre-emptive foreign policy is a recipe for disaster”, or not.

The audience arrives in a steady stream, some 700 people, an eclectic mix of nationalities, religions and age. There’s a gentle competition for the seats nearest the stage, where it is immediately apparent that this is to be a conflict of age and style as much as substance.

Age is represented by the tidy form of The Times columnist Simon Jenkins, a model of respectability and decency in British journalism. His partner tonight is the former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who looks much younger than his 67 years. He’s introduced as an experienced foreign policy thinker, but is perhaps remembered more as the 1988 presidential candidate, whose campaign collapsed when he was discovered with model Donna Rice sitting in his lap aboard a yacht named “Monkey Business”.

The youth team, which opposes the proposition, is represented two prominent columnists: by a tense but focused David Aaronovitch and his transatlantic team-mate Christopher Hitchens who scans the audience over his steel framed glasses.

The chair, BBC presenter Francine Stock opens the proceedings with a rough poll of the audience which finds most people comfortably on the side of age: that is against a pre-emptive foreign policy. A more formal vote will be taken at the end of the debate to determine the winning team. What hangs in the air, of course, is Iraq. Success will hang on the debaters’ ability to exploit this divisive topic.

The first to approach the podium is Gary Hart is the only politician and the only American (though Hitchens is a long time resident of Washington DC). He and Jenkins go on to rely on a balanced and scholarly appeal to principles of proportionality, and argue that pre-emptive action must be avoided except when ‘a threat is immediate and unavoidable’.

On the other side, Hitchens swigs heartily from a bottle of Irish spring water. Aaronovitch looks ready for a fight. They begin by turning the motion on its head, asserting that a reactive foreign policy dangerously ignores the reality of a post cold war world in which the lines of conflict have become protean and subject to unpredictable change. For good measure Aaronvitch taunts Jenkins with his support for Israel’s pre-emptive attack on an Italian and French funded nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.

Then it’s time for the audience to ask questions. One young woman argues that pre-emption is only used in cases of US self interest. Aaronovitch tosses the question back to each sceptical inquirer whether they favour pre-emption in Rwanda and Sudan. Two single voices ring out – yes. Jenkins gathering himself for further attack, ‘All our interventions are messes. You do not go into other people’s countries, blast it to pieces and then find you’ve got some clean result which establishes a nice acceptable democratic regime”.

Hitchens reminds us of the imperative behind the genocide convention. He then picks up on John Kerry’s pledge to beef up the police and firefighting services, adding that ‘these services intervene to pull people out of the rubble after the attack has taken place. That’s what happens when you can’t even think pre-emptively”.

Hart returns to the subject of Iraq: “We have made some very strange friendships in this war. A number of brutal dictators are on our side, simply because we have paid them money, or provided them weapons”. But the tide has clearly shifted.

Audience votes are collected while the speakers make their final pitches. The final verdict is projected and the audience gasp at their own apparently radical change of heart. Hitchens and Aaronovitch have won. The ‘don’t knows’ have melted to 45, and the motion is defeated by 400 to 265.

The victors turn and warmly congratulate each other. The losers look slightly dazed, not quite understanding what happened to the support they had only a hour and a quarter before. Hart smiles broadly and stays to sign his latest book. Jenkins exits quietly, alone.

First published in the Financial Times Magazine