“Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”
Jim Mattis, former U.S. Marine Corps General & Secretary of Defense
The front-page headline of last Thursday’s ‘The Times’ quoted Sir Stephen Lovegrove's call ‘Talk to our enemies or run the risk of nuclear war’. His warning reflects a deep concern that, in contrast with the Cold War decades of the late 20th century, engagement between the superpowers is much less in evidence today. In a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think-tank, he said that the breakdown of communications with China and Russia created a higher risk of ‘rapid escalation to strategic conflict’.
The dilemma between whether to engage or detach has challenged humanity for millennia. In all walks of life, from international tensions to faith, and from living in a civilized society to personal relationships, it challenges us — whether to work hard at finding solutions, or to stand aloof.
So in this commentary we take a lead from the gospel story of Zacchaeus to look at the very contemporary challenge of climate change; and, like Sir Stephen Lovegrove, we conclude that the answer is clear — engage, don't detach.
The story of Zacchaeus recounts how Jesus was passing through Jericho amidst a thronging crowd. Being a short man, Zacchaeus climbed a tree to get a better view: the story tells how he was a despised and wealthy chief tax collector. Notwithstanding the reputational challenge of associating with such a sinner, Jesus promptly invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house and transformed his whole outlook on life.
In spite of this clear example of engaged leadership, the Church has found it very difficult to shake off its ‘holier than thou’ approach. Whether in monasteries, by clergy separation and hierarchy, or via its liturgy, the Christian Church has found it hard to resist the instinct of detachment. In the midst of the crucifixion story we read how the veil of the temple, which separated the ‘holy of holies’ from the people, was torn asunder: but still that prevalent attitude of separation exists today.
The challenge also drives deep into our approach towards climate change, which has been described as humanity's greatest existential threat. Investors who prioritise the drive to eliminate fossil fuels work hard to devise ethical investment policies to steer their way around these moral issues. The Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) is the body which advises the Church of England's investment managers, and its focus on effective and determined engagement is deeply appreciated.
There are, of course, some industries where 100% detachment is appropriate, where the only outcome is bad: tobacco producers comes to mind in this respect. But we all need energy and, while a decision to divest from all fossil fuel energy companies may look very principled at first sight, it achieves very little as a one-off statement in comparison with the persistent hard graft of persuasion by shareowners determined to change the corporate culture, using monitors such as the Transition Pathway Initiative. In my 15 years as a member of the EIAG, its secretary Edward Mason concentrated on change through shareowner argument, and divestment was very much the last throw of the dice.
And so it should be with international relations. As we've seen in Ukraine, detachment leads ultimately to conflict. It's an outcome which our ancestors have had to suffer throughout history but, since the mass deployment of nuclear weapons, it is now an existential threat every bit on a par with climate change. So, engagement is now not only the preferred way forward — it's the only way which makes it possible to see a long-term future.
How to engage effectively needs a lot more attention. Both Europe and the United States have sleep-walked into massive trade imbalances with Russia and China, notwithstanding their diametrically opposing stance on issues such as democracy. We must address these imbalances urgently, even if it means suffering a bout of soaring inflation and supply disruption.
But we also need to consider which are the political structures most likely to help us achieve convergence. In the ‘free world’, we rightly give great credence to democracy because it is a really helpful way to facilitate change in systems of political intermediation. However, given that both China and Russia are implacably opposed to countenancing any adoption of democracy, it might be that the gradual move away from excessive intermediation which is enabled by individual economic freedom — a more egalitarian form of capitalism — might provide for a better journey towards convergence than an insistence on regime change.
However we choose to approach that engagement, engage we must — as both Sir Stephen Lovegrove and our Christian heritage make clear. Detachment is increasingly, in our modern times, the road to oblivion.
Gavin Oldham OBE