Friday, 27 March 2009



“And so...?” That was the question which former British foreign secretary Lord Carrington would ask after a problem was described to him. With time the issues have changed and they more than often pose major challenges to our collective endeavour to progress. From global warming, energy, arms proliferation --- nuclear or smaller ones, epidemic diseases, drugs trafficking to terrorism --- the challenges are too many to be handled by one super power or one global body. Lord Chris Patten, better known as the last governor of British-ruled Hong Kong and the European Commissioner for External Affairs, utilised his vast experiences as a politician and administrator to delve into all these issues with a futuristic perspective in his recent book What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century. In this interesting work Patten, who once worked for Lord Carrington, tries to figure out what waits the world --- what we ought to do to deal with the innumerable issues that define our lives in this planet. I got an opportunity to meet him and ask him few question.

Patten, known for his liberal views and pro-European Union views since his days in the British Conservative Party, has earlier penned several books on world affairs, namely, East and West, and Not Quite the Diplomat. How different is the recent book from the earlier ones, I ask. “The previous books were more of my personal account based on the experiences in Hong Kong and on general themes. This book is a combination of both experiences and studies,” Patten replies, adding, “There are issues, like endemic diseases and I had no experience dealing with it while I served in different offices. So I had to study them.”
I tell Patten that the book doesn't always read like as one being written by a Conservative politician. So, while writing such a book, who comes first... politician-administrator Lord Chris Patten or Chris Patten, a British citizen or Chris Patten a global citizen? “That's an interesting question. I think it's the global citizen who takes control though I have other identities as well... that of being a half Irish, an old-fashioned Conservative politician who prefers 'free trade' but has liberal social views on issues like homosexuality,” he explains.
Divided into 15 chapters, this near 500-page book demanded years to research and writing. How easy or difficult is it to write such books while you are in office? “It is far easier now to write than while I was in office. Still, since I need to travel a lot and do have responsibilities of a Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle universities, co-chair of the International Crisis Group, chairman of the UK-India Round Table, I have to really make out time for writing. Just a while ago as I was flying in here, I was writing a book review,” Patten informs me with a smile.

It requires immense expertise to write such a book. But what should be a reader's expertise to fathom all the issues that Patten has dealt with, I ask. The veteran of international relations thinks “it is not a rarefied subject so that common people would not understand”. One has to ensure that these subjects are written in a “simple and interesting way”. There is no reason, says Patten, that international relations shouldn't be made accessible to people outside the domain of the pundits of foreign affairs.

Patten was once a minister for overseas development under British prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher. Based on his experiences as a minister Patten has argued in the book that aids to developing nations should be conditional upon their adherence to democracy, free judiciary, rights of expression etc. But why must, for example, African countries with dictators like Robert Mugabe or Omar Al Bashir accept such condition when they can receive investments from China who are not bothered about human rights, I ask Patten. “Good Luck to China,” Patten says. “But soon they will realise the realities of Africa. You see, I have maintained that the West must be careful not to preach values to the East. But, we have some experiences and we have learnt from the past to foresee the problems ahead. So, it would be wise to not to ignore our ideas,” he adds. However, he admits to the double standard that the West often applies in connection to Arab countries by not promoting democracy there.

Patten is often described as the best Foreign Secretary that Britain never had. I mention this to him and he laughs. I then turn his attention to South Asia and ask about his possible advice to President Obama about the volatile situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I would not seek to advise President Obama, but I would have suggested him to think of a honourable pull out though Afghanistan will be a long haul for the USA and there is no point to talk with moderate Talebans. Who is moderate Taleban after all?” Patten asks, ruling out people like Hekmatiyar. Patten then rues the fact that the West did not promote the cause of democracy in Pakistan that much and supported Musharraf instead. In this context he refers to president Bush and says: “I support his freedom agenda but Bush handled it badly.”

Comparing India with China, Patten says, India being a democracy must have a special place in the West's policies. “But, India must not be treated like a pawn in West's conflict with China over issues like democratic values and human rights.” In this regard he reiterates his stand that “China and the USA must collaborate rather than squabble”.

Trade of arms --- big and small --- has been a contentious issue. Whether in the USA where the Gun Owners of America oppose any control over citizens carrying guns to the vicious nexus between arms manufacturers, dealers, drugs traffickers, rebels and terrorists --- the menace is increasing. Like all the other issues in the book, Patten has made an in-depth study of the problem and has provided the readers a clear picture about how the characters like Victor Bout and Dmtri Soin have been exploiting the turbulence in locations like Transdniestria and several African nations. I ask him what role USA, UK, Russia and other developed countries can play in this regard. “Not just developed nations, but all the nations must cooperate in stopping the sell of arms to non-government agencies. The stockpile must be subjected to surveillance,” he says, adding it is more of a domestic issue though to begin with. “What you expect from outside world depends on what you do inside your country.” In this context we dwell on situation in Myanmar. “Countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe must be subjected to pressure from the neighbours. But I can understand the position that both India and China have taken in regard Myanmar,” Patten states. “The role of ASEAN in relation to Myanmar has been feeble.”

We take a quick look into today's Russia and Patten sounds dismissive about Putin and Medvedev. "They are nothing. All those headline grabbing antics of Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev are inconsequential. We are strong enough to resist any attempt to push the world back to the days of Cold War," he contends.

Despite being a Roman Catholic himself, Patten impartially viewed the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the Unionist Protestants in Northern Ireland. He has vividly described his role in the conflict as a British minister, the death threats he suffered and describes the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as terrorists. With the recent attacks by breakaway factions like the Real IRA, Continuing IRA --- terrorism doesn't seem to have been solved. I ask Patten about his opinion keeping in mind the collaborations between terrorist groups across the world irrespective of their political or religious affiliations. “I agree that terrorism is not only about Osama bin Laden and his men. It is the worst manifestation of identity politics by any group claiming to represent any community. The IRA phase is over in Britain. The recent violence in Northern Ireland is an aberration. I don't think we need to get hysterical about it. Normal policing will help it as I had suggested,” he assures.

I ask him about the issues of 'multiculturalism', 'integration' and race relations in the UK. Patten doesn't look amused. “We need to define these terms properly. I think that it is important for a migrant community to adhere to the basic values of the country where they have settled. In the UK, for example, we expect the migrants to adhere to the rule of law. If someone doesn't do that, we cannot accept it. That is not to say that the diverse communities cannot stay together. People from different background must be respected. We can learn from India how to accommodate differences,” he states.

Patten is rather blunt when he writes: “The British built plenty of railways in India, true; in 1919 they also gunned down at least 379 Indian civilians in cold blood at Amritsar and then lionized the man who ordered his soldiers to open fire. It was a different world then, maybe a more ordered world in some ways --- but a better world?” I ask him about West's role in today's world with the emerging economies like India and China flexing their muscles and economic meltdown hitting hard. Patten, a known supporter of 'free trade', replies: “Everybody is slipping into protectionism. But that will not help. We need to keep faith in free trade and Obama must resist pressure from the Congress. See, if you can't sell then you can't buy. What will happen if USA stops an Indian company from exporting good there? India can also ban importing American products.”

The book has ended on a positive note, stressing on cooperation between nations as well as effective reforms within countries, good governance etc. Will such solutions hold good in the future as well? “I hope so. There cannot be a problem without solution. I have faith in the political leaders of the world,” he affirms.

As we inch towards the end of the interview, I tell Patten about his interview with CNN's Anjali Rao where a taxi driver in Hong Kong tells Patten that he (Patten) looks like Patten. It brings out a broad smile in Patten. “I didn't watch beyond the first few minutes of that interview. But last night I watched Anjali interviewing Aamir Khan,” he tells me much to my amusement. Patten obviously was unaware that I have no interest about Bollywood films and did tell people around me that 'Patten is much more important to me than people like Aamir Khan'.
I hope Patten didn't watch it for Aamir Khan but for Anjali Rao.
But you never know...
So, I didn't probe further and we got up for the photo shoot.