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The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture VII

19 July 1968
An international weather forecast
Delivered by:
The Rt Hon Sir Alec Douglas-Home, KT, PC, DL, MP.  Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1960-1963; Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury 1963-1964.
The weather forecaster, for reasons which are valid, remains anonymous. I recall that when I became Prime Minister an old countryman, asked by a prying inquisitor what my family was like, said: ‘They always know which way the wind blows.’
Sandwiched between the English and the Highlander, we had as borderers perforce to forecast the international weather right. If we did not, we lost our heads. If tomorrow morning at the in quest that is my fate, it will be nothing new to Douglases or Homes. When talking to a select audience at Ditchley I recall the advice of a candid friend given to me early in my political life. ‘Better’, he said, ‘to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
Any inquiry into the future state of the world must start with the behaviour of man and his relations with his neighbour. It has not changed a lot. We are creatures of nature and on all the evidence the veneer of civilization is very thin. Intolerance and violence are barely skin-deep. If reason is the quality which marks us off from the beasts, then we ought in an age of education to have discarded war, but in fact the instrument which regulates the relationship of nations is power.
Paradoxically too at the time when science and technology are driving peoples together and advertising the prizes of unity, the fashion is towards fragmentation and aggressive nationalism.
Man seems to be incurably perverse, and for one born with so strong a sense of self-preservation remarkably careless of his life. Why is it that in spite of the lessons of the centuries man is still his own worst enemy and unable to guarantee his simplest needs, which have varied little in recorded time for bread and security?
For a time which roughly coincided with the Pax Britannica it seemed that the capital generated by the industrial revolution, and the commerce which was generated by the exploitation of physical assets far and wide, pointed forward along an unending vista of prosperity and peace.
There were, no doubt, examples of colonial exploitation of human beings—which, incidentally, were only a pale image of what happens today—but against that could fairly be placed the urge to the better society. In the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the Bible was certainly as influential as the sword. In many ways socially, economically, and politically the barometer was set fair at ‘evolution’.
What were the origins of the storm centres which knocked the world off course?
First, I would place the inability of the ‘civilized’ Europe of the twentieth century to discard war.
Secondly, the advent of Communism with its challenge to religion in particular and to the ‘Establishment’ in general, with its doctrine that the end justified the means, with the means including force. There were several additional factors which enlarged the area of the cyclone.
The fact that the Europeans (the masters) brought the Asians and Africans to watch them in mortal contest.
The fact (surely designed by the devil) that Communism coincided broadly with the beginnings of the emancipation of colonial territories from imperial rule.
And the fact that the doctrine of materialism preached by the Communists seemed on a superficial reading to coincide with the new teachings of science and technology. If man can do so much, what is left for God to do?
The result was that the Communist was able plausibly to pose as the champion of the under-dogs (incidentally, the coloured and the poor); as the friend who, modern and progressive, gave promise of a new world where the benefits for which others had toiled for generations could be harvested by the new independent nations in the twinkling of an eye. That analysis is over-simplified but it is sufficiently near the truth to explain the abrupt transition from the ‘evolutionary’ to the ‘revolutionary’ in a bewilderingly short space of human time.
Communism has been able to upset the world to the point where, after two world wars in rapid succession, it has succeeded in thwarting the world’s desire to organize collective security through the United Nations’ Councils. Has it done its worst?
And to particularize, has the Soviet Union, its chief and consistent practitioner, advanced sufficiently from the doctrine of inter national revolution to conclude that a world of political and economic stability will serve her better than one of confusion and strife?
In terms of contemporary international politics the balance is nicely struck.
To the debit side must be put:
1. The recent steep increase in the Soviet budget for conventional arms.
2. The new forward, if not offensive, oceanic naval strategy based on the long-distance submarine.
3. The decision extensively to rearm Egypt after the defeat of the 1967 war.
4. The refusal, when she has the ability and the international machinery ready to hand, to use her influence to end the Vietnam war.
5. Her continued rigidity over a political settlement on Germany and Berlin.
6. Her readiness to keep force near to the surface of policy so graphically illustrated in the last few days in her pressure on Czechoslovakia.
7. Her veto on the reform and modernization of the United Nations Charter.
The most significant of these items is probably the Soviet submarine fleet and building programme. They have 160 long-range submarines of which two-thirds are deployed in European waters New completions including replacements number about ten each year and most of these are nuclear-powered. The relative strengths of the Russian and American submarine fleets are:
U.S.S.R.          55 nuclear                    U.S. 80 nuclear
U.S.S.R.          320 conventional          U.S. 120 conventional
A total of Russian 375 to American 200.
I am not suggesting that the Soviet Navy of the future is going round the world seeking out ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in order to sink them, but there is bound to be a reaction to this new naval policy of the Soviet because a risk which is posed on that scale cannot be disregarded, and an insurance policy has to be taken out.
On the credit side must be placed:
1. The continuing political dialogue with the United States.
2. The greater latitude tolerated in Eastern Europe with the exceptions of Poland and East Germany.
3. The fact that since ‘Cuba’, brinkmanship with nuclear weapons has been avoided.
4. The relaxation inside the Soviet Union of the more extreme rigours of the police state.
5. The apparent willingness of the Soviet Government to co-operate in non-proliferation and perhaps to establish a ceiling to expenditure on nuclear weapons.
It will not have escaped your notice that the second list is more flimsy than the first.
Of course, varying interpretations may be put on one or other of these items of profit and loss. It is possible, indeed likely, that the Soviet leaders have concluded that the aim of international Communism which is to cause confusion to a point where influence can be asserted or physical take-over made possible, can no longer be furthered by a nuclear threat.
Soviet strategy in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in the Gulf of Iran, the control of Egypt, the rearming of the Arabs, the intervention in the Yemen, the increased diplomatic activity in the Gulf and the Horn of Africa, can certainly be interpreted as part of an outflanking operation in which conventional weapons serve the political end and the Navy will in future play the decisive role.
It would be in keeping with an accurate reading of the ‘red book’ to ascribe to the Soviet the intention to cause a disturbance in any area which can be said to buttress the capitalist system and to push that advantage home. The oilfields of the Middle East and the sea routes which serve them are such places.
But another explanation is possible. Naval strength is traditionally part of the trappings of a great power. It was in fact the main instrument behind the Pax Britannica.
The Soviet Union in twenty years or so will need to import oil, if only to re-export some of it to Europe. The Middle East is the area in which it is cheapest to buy and easiest to carry.
The new interest in India may be the beginning of a recognition that there is a potential crescent of containment of China stretching from the subcontinent of India through South-east Asia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand to the United States of America.
It is against Russia’s historic pattern to operate far afield and it is by no means sure that she can command the economic resources to do so. But she has always harboured imperialist ambitions.
It is certainly arguable that it is in this role rather than that of the champion of international Communism that she will in future flex her muscles. For a time she must be expected to play her hand both ways in the hope that others by creating vacuums of power will connive to allow her to get the best of all worlds. But on balance it is likely that the decision has already been taken in the Supreme Soviet that, for the Russia of the future, comparative political stability will pay the highest dividend. If so, the Western world will be given room to breathe.
Europe has since the war taken a step which is decisive in terms of continental strength. I refer, of course, to the rapprochement of France and Germany, without which the greater unity of Europe could not even begin. Added to this, the partnership of the six nations has carried economic integration at a speed and to a point which has surprised themselves, and there is no doubt that wealth has expanded much faster than if each country had been left to its own resources. This new-found strength is proving a very strong magnet to Eastern Europe and facing the Soviet with a dilemma. It would be still stronger if the United Kingdom could bring about membership. Western Europe cannot yet lower her physical guard but it is time to say that she has won the cold war and that, al though Germany is still divided, war with the West is no longer on the Soviet programme of options.
Where does China fit into this picture of the world balance of power in the next fifty years? It must be conceded that in the first ten years of the rule of Mao Tse-Tung great strides were made away from the fragmentation of society, which had hitherto been China’s Achilles heel, and much progress made in laying the foundations of economic advance. It is true also that Mao Tse-Tung, using the Communist directive, succeeded in regimenting society to a point which excelled anything which the Russians had achieved. On Communist paper it was a copy-book exercise.
But from the moment when in arrogant but misplaced assurance China broke with the Soviet, with the result that the technicians who were advising on her industrial base and infrastructure were removed, her weakness has been exposed.
It is chronic in the sense that the capital which she can generate within her borders can only expand her wealth at the pace of a snail, and that sets a strict limit to her actions and international activities.
Certainly any ambition to challenge either the Soviet Union or the United States or even to indulge in an aggression which would result in united opposition by other less-formidable opponents is, for the foreseeable future, out of the question. She cannot even compete with the Soviet in help to Vietnam. But her leaders, in spite of the dialectical puzzles in which they entangle themselves, are clever people with few illusions. One of the most distinguished of their Ministers, when I accused China of aggressive intentions, put it like this:
‘Do stop talking like that. The trouble with you westerners is that you always think in terms of a lifetime; now we consider that to be fussy!’
The Chinese think in a different time scale from the West.
Any development of China as a serious make-weight in the scales of power will at best be slow. The pace of material progress will depend on attracting capital from outside, from Japan, from the United States, and from Europe and that cannot be done unless she gradually establishes confidence in her peaceful intentions.
Undoubtedly the Chinese will seek to extend their influence through their minorities in South-east Asia. Burma suffers—the guerillas are still poised in the mountains to the north of Malaya— there is infiltration into Thailand.
But if the will is there, well within the time scale, in which China could embark on external aggression, the South-east Asians could, provided they are given external assistance, including for a time an external presence, build their own structure of collective defence.
There is too a factor which cannot be left out of any calculation of the future economic and political strategy of this huge strategic area. It is Japan, with her phenomenal recovery from the last war, her rapidly growing economic strength, and her undisguised interest in investment and development far afield. As she extends her influence she will find that she cannot opt out of the security system of Asia, and her role could be, and I dare to forecast will be, decisive in terms of the balance of power in the Far East.
I will not say anything about South America where rich are very few and very rich and the poor are very many and very poor. Brazil has great potential, but generally the countries of South America have so many domestic problems that it is difficult to foresee the time when, as a continent, they could represent any great influence on the balance of power.
At any rate, on the evidence, by reason of her internal weakness and because of the many checks and balances against active military expansion, China, although she will retain an active nuisance value, cannot challenge the dominance of the two great powers. Where there is time diplomacy has a chance to tilt the scales towards peace.
How can this be done? The response to the ultimate threat from China could be stated in this way. The West to take an active hand on the mainland of South-east Asia with the formation of a collective security system of Asians for Asians. A nucleus is there in Malaya, Singapore, and Thailand. I do not know how far Australia could influence Indonesia to join in. I hope that they would try. The time scale for such an operation could be up to fifteen years, but there is time. I would then like to see the United States and Japan, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand accept the responsibility for keeping open and free the Indian Ocean, the Indonesian seas, and the Pacific, using their combined sea and air power to do so. This implies a reorganization, indeed a replacement, of S.E.A.T.O. and A.N.Z.A.M. and A.N.Z.U.S., but such action would I believe pay an enormous dividend in peace and stability.
If China is weak the continent of Africa is more so. It has been much in the public eye, brought there by the wholesale emancipation of African countries from colonial rule and by the novelty of each of them in turn wielding one vote in the councils of the United Nations. But once the freshness had worn off the act of the former pupils twisting their masters’ tails, the hard realities began to assert themselves. The facts of life are that European administration has done little to alter the social structure of the greater part of the continent. It is still essentially tribal. For the future it will be a task of extreme difficulty to establish countries with a recognizable political cohesion and continuity. Pan-Africanism is miles from reality.
The new-born Africa of independent countries had a political paternity.
Now it is harshly apparent that political slogans do not bring bread and that the push-button civilization of the northern hemi sphere is a mirage. There may be a few exceptions but the great majority of African countries have to climb the ladder of progress from the bottom rung and the first necessity is food. If the need for bread wins over political ideology and tribal jealousies then there is a chance that Africa may attract the capital which otherwise will go elsewhere. It is to be hoped that this will be so. But already there are signs of a fragmentation in African society which will ensure that the influence of the continent will for many years be minimal on the world balance of power.
There is one exception and that is South Africa. Economically and strategically, geography has placed her well. As long as the oil-age lasts she will have a key position in the protection of the sea lanes leading to Western Europe. That fact taken together with the Soviet’s forward maritime policy is a new element in the balance of power. While, in addition, South Africa is rich and seeks to deploy her resources in investment inside a continent where money talks. It so happens that Britain has a defence agreement with South Africa which concerns the Simonstown Naval Base not far from Cape Town. Under its terms, in the event of hostile action east of Suez, Britain has the use of all South African ports including Durban. I forecast that this facility will be of great value in terms of the defence of Western Europe from interference with her oil supplies and that it will in effect become an informal extension of the N.A.T.O. defences, although it will remain a bilateral treaty.
It could be that a colour confrontation will develop between a black dominated Africa to the north and a white controlled South Africa with an extended frontier on the Zambesi. A clash between nationalisms based on colour is widely predicted. It is rash in the emotional context to stick out one’s neck, but in Africa it is the economic realities which call the tune. I would forecast that they will do so both in relation to the racial problem inside South Africa and to the countries seeking development outside her borders. If they do not and politics take charge, then an influence on the world stage which is already minimal will totally disappear and the continent will be set back on its tracks by generations.
So with China operating ‘beyond a lifetime’ and Africa absorbed in her own troubles, the spotlight returns to the question of the confrontation between Soviet Communism and the Western life. Is it to go on until one or other of the rivals wins by arms? Here we come to considerations which are less tangible than those we have measured hitherto.
The Communists have proceeded on two assumptions.
The first that under the pressure of an armaments race the capitalist economies would crack. There are signs of strain but there is still no other system which can touch the capitalist organization in the over-all generation of wealth.
Soviet Communists by concentrating on certain limited scientific and industrial fronts have had their successes—one of them in future, which is likely to pay, is their massive research into the secrets of the sea-bed—but they are being compelled to recognize such bourgeois conceptions as the profit motive. Nevertheless, it can be forecast with absolute assurance that the West has the economic strength to withstand the challenge.
That both the Soviet and the West would gain in economic stability released from the expenditure on nuclear weapons is beyond doubt. I believe that expenditure here is likely to be fixed at a ceiling below that of the anti-missile missile, but that for another period of time each will retain its insurance premium against an aggressor who might calculate that a conventional offensive would pay. There is on either side enough, and to spare, of destructive power, but also some hope that economic realities here too are beginning to call the tune.
The second of the Communist assumptions was that the opposing philosophy of life would falter and that materialism by the compulsion of its achievements would win the day. It is true that traditional values are in flux, that experiment is the order of the day, and that we have arrived at the ‘permissive society’.
The indiscipline of an experimental society could play into the Communists’ hands were they immune from it themselves.
But it has to be remembered that the target of the new generation is the closed mind. That being so, I cannot see the Communist as the victor, unless the rest lose their nerve and their will.
What then is the conclusion? As of today the international barometer is at a new low. It may be on the evidence of history one could argue that man is so fallible and erratic that he will even encompass his own destruction. There is plenty of material for the Jeremiahs and the Jobs. But if the Soviet dilutes its hostility to the Western world, then gradually that easement will be reflected in the United Nations and this body could then become an instrument for co-operative and collective peace, rather than a passive register of a cold war. But I believe that an analysis of human tendencies reveals a trend towards coexistence which is positive. Perhaps this is optimism, perhaps faith, perhaps they are the same thing. I have sought a little to look into the future. A historian wrote to a friend: ‘I have written a book on eternity. I am not sending you a copy because it isn’t your period’.
I hope that I will be excused if I have set no time to the prophecies I have sought to make. For fifty years I have tapped the barometer every morning and because I have to sustain something known as a grouse-moor image, I am going on tapping it for the rest of my active life. On a very close reading of the weather graph, I conclude that one can just perceive a slight turn upwards towards fairer times in international affairs.