Charity and Equality: Bill Emmott at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 3 May 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Having spent 13 years as editor-in-chief of The Economist from 1993 to 2006, Bill Emmott currently serves as chairman of the Wake Up Foundation, the International Institute for Strategic Studies Trustees, the Japan Society of the UK, and Trinity College Dublin’s Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. In addition to these roles, he continues to share his insights through writing – his latest book “The Fate of the West” and the repository of articles on his website showcase not only his global worldview, but also his incisive opinions on pertinent issues of global significance, such as Brexit and US-China relations.

In two sentences, I asked Bill to encapsulate his vision of what the future might hold for international relations. “International relations will be dominated by the rise of China and evolution of an American reaction to it accompanying its loss of primacy in the world. Around this simple dynamic, there is a fragmentation of geopolitics as poles like Russia, Vietnam in Southeast Asia or Brazil in Latin America seek to establish their own interests, protect them and foster independent policies, but ultimately within the central axis of US-China relations.”

Given the gravity of the topics he delves into, I wondered what Bill hoped readers would take away from his works. Upon mention of his book “The Fate of the West”, Bill quickly whips it out of his bag and places it on the table proudly. In “The Fate of the West”, Bill points out how old nationalisms have rekindled in the face of global instability and economic uncertainty today and explores various changes the West must adopt to promote equality and openness again. Bill sought to share two essential messages from this book: “first, an optimistic one – we are in a crisis, but we’ve been in these crises before. We can get out of this if people around the world really understand the situation and work hard to deal with it. Second, our perspectives are becoming shorter because of online media, and we are losing an understanding of the historical processes behind events and their long-term impacts. This book tries to counter the short-term mindset that readers might have on issues like Trump, Brexit and the rise of China.”

Yet right-wing politics continues to gain traction today, so what is stopping people from recognising the importance of equality and openness that Bill champions and what would make them more receptive to these principles? “People need to see equality and openness being delivered. The popularity of right-wing parties is growing because of fear, be it immigration, terror attacks or job insecurity, and disappointment, because mainstream institutions are not meeting the expectations of today’s generation. Rebuilding people’s faith in an equal and open society means political groups need to step up to deliver shared prosperity and opportunities for the next generation.”

The role of individuals – students like us – cannot be understated too. “Your role is, first of all, to get a strong sense of the meaning of these principles and living them.” Unlike in the past, there is a marked increase in exposure to a range of different perspectives, such as “the opportunity to have a Southeast Asian or Latin American perspective on history”. Pointing out my background as an international student, he says that students like myself, coming from different countries and cultures, have to explain broader perspectives and share our experiences, because we embody what a plural future looks like.

Another stimulating article Bill wrote was the on the danger of a US-China deal, which he argued could marginalise the rest of the world once US and China resolve their differences and extend bilateral ties. To counter the superpowers’ massive spheres of influence, I ask about the opportunities smaller countries like Britain, Japan and Germany could leverage on. “The task for smaller countries is to convince superpowers that it is in their interest to take the views of smaller powers into account, which is why multilateral institutions and dialogue are important. On broader issues like trade, security, the environment and other parts of international relations, superpowers need to work with the rest of the world, through groups like the European Union and ASEAN.” With a wry smile, he says, “if you add up all the small countries, they are stronger than the superpowers.”

I mention how Singapore, a small country in Southeast Asia, makes up for its geographical size by boosting its global reputation through adopting a principled and consistent stance aligned with international law in order to avoid being partisan. Bill agrees, citing the success of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore that his thinktank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, organises. The dialogue gathers countries to discuss defence and security issues within the region, and being a neutral, non-partisan country makes Singapore an ideal platform to further regional stability and relations.

Throughout our interview, it was evident that journalism continues to define much of Bill’s work and worldview. He cites the 9/11 attacks as the biggest defining moment of his time in The Economist, having been in another part of New York on the day of the event. “The shock of it, trying to figure out the consequences of it, the rights and wrongs of different actors…” He trails off, before the professional side of his journalism experience kicked it. “If you are in a publication like The Economist, you have to provide something extra in your analysis to add value to the discussion on mainstream media platforms like the television, Internet and newspapers. And for a story of such scale (referring to the 9/11 attacks), in addition to the immediate event, you need to think about how to present the issue over weeks and months after it. There are consequences we are still living with today, so the nature of the coverage and tone used matter.”

I also sensed a keen urge to change readers’ opinions. “I could write 750-word articles and keep doing that or write a book to get readers to think more deeply about these issues.” Speaking at the Union later, he revisits the idea of encouraging ordinary individuals to refer to more informative news sources, instead of mainstream media, which tends to be influenced by bias and sensationalism. And how might people be urged to seek out deeper analyses of news? Bill suggests incentivising people to find out by constantly challenging the hegemonic worldview. “Provide layered explanations that are readily understandable, not dumb down the content.” In the Wake Up Foundation, Bill takes another route to encourage bottom-up dialogue and raise awareness on social issues in the West: film. “We let people make up their own minds. We just do more civic engagement on our end.”