An interview with David Miliband

“If you ask that, you’re dead”. Perhaps asking Philip Mudd, a senior CIA and FBI operative, what question he most feared was a naïve error of judgment. But I certainly didn’t expect a death threat. Fortunately for me, David Miliband’s congenial persona swept away the atmosphere of a Guantanamo interrogation room.

His history is impressive to say the least: the youngest Foreign Secretary for 30 years; Environment Secretary; winner of the most number of votes of Labour MPs and Labour Party members, but not of Trade Unionists, in the 2010 Labour leadership election… the list goes on. And just when I’m on the point of questioning whether I have the requisite acumen to interview a political colossus, he steps into the room, the last of the evening sunlight spotlighting his face. In the flesh, he’s an imposing presence, confident in stature, a streak of white hair bristling on a bed of jet black. Striding towards the table, he shakes my hand and gets straight down to business.

Miliband’s conviction is that the arena for foreign policy has shifted. He elucidates: “In the Cold War era, foreign policy was like steering a ship along the Panama Canal – you kept your eye straight and just tried not to bump into the sides. In the 1990s, foreign policy was like being in the English Channel – you had water all around you but you could see the land on each side. In the modern world, we’re out on the high seas and no one can see any land mass”. Before, we were big fish in a small pond. Now, it’s a stark image of isolation, diplomatic power adrift in a perilous sea.

Defeatism had permeated his summary of “the most traumatic decade for the West since the 1930s” just an hour earlier at a public lecture focusing on the reshuffled pack of power since 9/11. With the attacks on the World Trade Center, al-Qaeda managed to jam the mother of all spanners in the works, forcing a “detour from the drive to build up the governing institutions for a 21st Century interdependent world”. His arms outstretched, guiding the audience, Miliband explained: “When we talk about a balance of power in the future, we’re going to need to talk about people, not just states”. As I watched him from afar, his passion was obvious, infusing every word with a fiery sincerity.

But up close and personal, he’s a different beast. Frank and laconic, he responds to my questions with an impromptu air of confidence that avers his patent political talents. “That’s an interesting question,” he replies when I express reservations about Britain’s diplomatic capital in the modern era. He sits back in his chair to collect his thoughts: “I think that in the Pakistani case – President Musharraf – we’re seen as having been big promoters of civilian democratic government”. There, the UK’s engagement played a key role in toppling autocracy. However, he candidly concedes that “you can’t make the argument that the West has been instrumental in the return of civilian democratic government into Egypt”. Sadly, the West was too late; it took over 30 years for a popular explosion to give vent to repressed national pride and the inevitable desire for personal freedom. Indeed, and he says this with a sense of remorseful honesty that cuts through any tinge of political point-scoring, “there’s real damage in that we were perceived to have given up on many of the causes that the Egyptian people hold dear”.

Aren’t we just making the same mistake in Syria, then? Not according to Miliband. Different situations, different reactions. In Libya, “the circumstances created the military plan” – “there were several hundred thousand people in Benghazi who credibly were under threat… and there was something we could do about it” – whereas he believes that the Syrian plight is poles apart. “There are three tests for that sort of intervention,” he says, weaving another persuasive string of thought into his tapestry of foreign relations. A credible military plan is the prerequisite response to the need for humanitarian missions. “And what about the geopolitical consequences?” he continues in a measured style: “in the Libyan case they’re relatively limited, but in the Syrian case they’re really very explosive”. So Miliband still supports the UN resolution? “Very much so,” he affirms with the eagerness of a kid offered a bag of his favourite sweets. He goes further: “I’d like to see a UN resolution on Syria as well because circumstances demand it”. The stumbling block, though, is Sino-Russian intransigence. “Whereas my view would be that if a country is abusing the rights of its own people… then there is a legitimacy to act,” he goes on, Russia and China maintain that “what goes on within the borders of Syria is only a matter for the Syrian authorities”. It feels like, freed from the shackles of political conformism and diplomatic secrecy, Miliband’s polemic is unfettered.

None more so than when it comes to Israel. Barack Obama’s resounding message in a speech on 19th May 2011 confronted the problem head on, outlining that the “international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with a permanent Occupation”. But no tangible progress has been forthcoming in his tenure. Miliband sees the recognition of the 1967 borders, “which is actually also the 1949 line,” as an essential checkpoint on the road map toward peace. It’s “the only way in which you can start the discussions,” he declares as though it’s a no-brainer, “plus or minus the land swaps that President Obama talked about,” a stepping stone on the path to a solution to a problem that has doggedly pestered foreign policy like an angered wasp for several generations.

In the modern age, democratic governments have become the touchstone for moral standards. Inflammatory abuses of human rights at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were subjected to a gruesome cocktail of torture and rape, have arguably created a backlash, an environment conducive to terror in which the queues lengthen for thousands of potential jihadists to fall into al-Qaeda’s welcoming arms. “I think you’ve got to be a bit careful,” he warns in a teacher’s chastising tone as a disclaimer for what is to come. He expands: “I mean, there’s no question that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib massively inflame the sense of outrage and fuel the charge of hypocrisy. That’s not the same as saying that they would make people become terrorists”. Perhaps, he mediates, it’s going too far to say that we’re “complicit in sponsoring terrorism,” but we certainly have a responsibility to uphold “our own legal and moral standards”. And here’s the rub: “we have to do so because democratic governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organisations”. We can’t dodge the tides of public opinion; we can only be judged by our greatest failures.

But the world is not static; the Arab Spring has shown as much. As power shifts from centralised political organisations to ordinary people, accountability has mutated into close scrutiny. And “when people have a voice, they can say anything. When they have a voice collectively, they can elect anyone”. That’s the risk we face. He clasps his hands together, his piercing eyes filled with a seemingly genuine optimism. “I think that if we’re going to take any lessons from the Arab Spring, the first should be that the primacy of politics is something that speaks to every person in every part of the world”. His enthusiasm for political awareness, sincere and self-evident, speaks volumes. It becomes clear that he’s in tune with the popular risings that have framed 2011; “you have to, in your gut, either feel that it’s better to take a chance on the good side of human nature or think it’s not worth taking that chance”. I’ve barely been sitting opposite him for ten minutes, and I’m almost ready to get up and take that chance with him.

“Look, I’m going to get into trouble if I’m not back,” he says, having almost trebled the time he’d allotted me. An effortless smile replaces the intensity of the interview. Discussion over, he stands to leave. It’s rare to encounter such a combination of intellectual poise and humble self-awareness. “Nice to meet you, and keep up your interest in politics,” is his parting gift. It’s thanks to people like him that I probably will.