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David Miliband Believes in The West

Britain's former foreign secretary is devoted to humanitarian advocacy in a world where “the autocrats look strategic.”

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It is tricky being a roughly centrist former politician in the post-normal West. No one knows this better than David Miliband, who was once Britain’s foreign secretary and is now the head of the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based NGO that provides relief to refugees and resettles displaced people. I visited Miliband at his offices there, because he has just published his first book about the refugee crisis, Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time. The book is a short argument against anti-refugee sentiment, calling each responsible citizen to action in aid of her fellow man and demanding the correction of harmful and racist stereotypes. But it is also an argument for an increasingly quaint idea of Western civilization as a moral force in the world.

To take a small, but telling example: the widespread use of a nasty word, flood, to describe refugees entering Western countries. This kind of language used to be a “third rail” in British politics, Miliband told me, until its recent rehabilitation by Nigel Farage, the former head of the far-right U.K. Independence Party who represented the dark heart and soul of the Brexit campaign. It had been taboo, Miliband said, since Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech to Parliament in 1968, which told a horrible fable about black children (“grinning piccaninnies”) who know no English except the world “racialist.” Powell’s argument was that the “inflow” of immigrants augured terrible destruction to society. “Like the Roman” of Virgil, he said, “I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”

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Though Powell did not exactly use “flood” in the speech, Miliband is right to connect the contemporary right wing’s rhetoric on immigration to Powell’s watery hate-mongering. It’s a dehumanizing metaphor that turns vulnerable people’s lives into a destructive elemental force. A flood is something that comes inside your home and damages your belongings. President Donald Trump “also uses the ‘flood’ metaphor,” Miliband noted. “It’s part of the idea of ‘foreign’ as poison, or toxic—dangerous. That itself is dangerous.”

I tried to extend our discussion of the flood metaphor to the diluvian myth of the Bible, but Miliband wasn’t quite having it. His book is not a literary one. Instead, Miliband has written it in the style of a political speech. He writes about his own parents, who were once refugees, and he makes rousing appeals to Western citizens’ ideas of themselves as the keepers of world peace.

The day after Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech, he lost his job, never to hold another political post again. But the concept of transgression has been emptied out from anti-refugee speech. It is now normal. The political norms that I grew up with in the U.K.—center-left social progressivism, center-right economic policy, Tony Blair’s grinning face—are gone. They were partly killed by the invasion of Iraq, but they’ve also in large part been eroded by the degradation of political speech around immigration. Miliband voted for the war in 2003, a decision he now regrets. But in the book Miliband identifies another kind of loss: the erosion of the very idea of the post-war West as preserver of global stability, which entails the moral responsibility to help disrupted populations.

In Rescue, Miliband presents a longue durée case for a self-identified “West” and its moral and historical approach to the question of refugee policy. He thinks of the West “as a political construct, not just a geographic one.” Miliband cites the German minister Joschka Fischer, who called the 1941 Atlantic Charter between Roosevelt and Churchill the “birth certificate of the West.” That charter defined the axis of West-ness geopolitically, but also the vision for a world with clear goals for human rights, international diplomacy, and humanitarian standards. Churchill called it “a star, not a law,” and it explicitly included recommendations for the treatment of refugees.

There are problems with looking to an older paradigm of global politics for one’s ethics. But Miliband wants to hold up Churchill’s star, he explained, as “some way of framing ‘the best of the West.’” He’s fully aware, he told me, that “the Atlantic Charter was in various places honored in breach of various decolonization projects,” but that those mistakes “shouldn’t invalidate the high ideals that some Western leaders brought into global debate.”

For Miliband, the notion of “the West” is a recoverable one, even more so now “in a world where you can make a reasonable argument that autocracy is on the march and the autocrats look strategic, long-term, and almost pragmatic.” He mentioned Russia “looking like a winner in Syria,” Turkey’s journey from “being everyone’s favorite next member of the European Union to being a long way from being a member of the European Union,” the “Chinese communist party looking strategic and far-sighted.” It’s in this context, he was clear, that the “best of the West” notion becomes important.

Miliband’s argument for preserving an order that fostered uneven development across the world is a little tough to swallow. And it’s especially difficult to take from a British politician who voted to invade Iraq, no matter how much he regrets it now. Miliband visits Iraq regularly now, working with the very people whose lives his former government threw into havoc. (“It’s on my mind when I go to Iraq,” he said.) He examines that decision in the book, explaining that he really had thought those weapons of mass destruction were there. I asked him why he mentioned Iraq at all, and he said that he wanted to define his version of events once and for all: “A good thing about a book is you can put something on the record—and even if you said it in different places in different ways, [a book] carries more weight.”

Still, he insists that the legacy of that vote is “a bit galling.” As Miliband’s answer about Iraq spiraled on and on, he recalled a bit resentfully how someone had said to him, “You know, Iraq is your albatross.” Is it your albatross? “The albatross is much bigger for the people on the receiving end, the Iraqis, more than it is mine.”

Rescue is filled with journalist-friendly data chunks and first-person anecdotes alike. But it could have done with a slightly more literary treatment. I pressed Miliband on his literary tastes, but he confessed that the book he remembered most clearly from his bookshelf was the autobiography of Dennis Bergkamp. “He’s very cultured, by football standards,” he told me. What political texts set him afire as a teenager? Nothing, apparently. Didn’t he even tote a Huxley paperback around to impress girls? “Uh, no. I was not very cool. I was very sporty, very square in that sense,” he said. “And I didn’t walk around with 1984 tucked in the back of my jeans.”

For as long as I can remember, Miliband was a part of Labour. At 29, in 1994, Tony Blair made him chief of policy. In 2001, he became member of Parliament for the northern constituency of South Shields. The year I turned 20, Miliband was foreign secretary. When he lost the Labour leadership race against his own brother Ed in 2010, it marked the end of Miliband’s cabinet career, but also—in many voters’ eyes—the death of Labour’s centrist dream. (The party is of course led now by the socialist-identifying Jeremy Corbyn.)

I had expected Miliband to be bitter about the changes in our political conversations. But he has no inherent dislike for the new politics of charisma and perceived authenticity. “Nuance isn’t necessarily inauthentic,” he said, “Whether you’re on the far left, center left, middle, center right, or far right.” Defiance of labels should be the enemy of authenticity, not nuance. For this reason he is something of a fan of France’s Emmanuel Macron: “He’s destroyed two political parties with one stone, which is amazing, really.”

It is frustrating to advocate from a position of reduced power. But as Miliband’s sensitivity to the discursive stakes of the refugee crisis shows, his interventions in the culture—whether as an author, a talking head, or something else—could be effective. Capital-A authenticity is not exactly the Miliband flavor, but nuance fares better outside the walls of Parliament.