Alan Phillips is a writer, editor, and journalist. He has served as senior editor for several newspapers and magazines, including as a correspondent for Reuters, then as The Sunday Correspondent, Foreign Editor for the Daily Telegraph, Contributing Editor for The National and most recently as Editor of The World Today. Together with John Lahutsky he is co-author of “The Boy from Baby House 10”. Prior to his journalistic career, Philps studied Arabic and Persian at the University of Oxford.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debates in your field?
Investigating China and how this resurgent power can be integrated into existing governance structures is the current question. China watchers have been split into two camps for some time – those who see China as ruling the world and others who see it collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The former camp now rules Washington DC. This is not surprising. The previous consensus that rising incomes would usher in democracy in China – as was the case in Taiwan and South Korea – has been staring-eyed wishful thinking. Now that Washington has drawn the global lines of battle between democracy and autocracy, I am curious to read more reasonable assessments of China. An example of this is Yu Jie’s contribution to the first issue of The World Today since I left, without ignoring the dire development of the surveillance state that China is selling around the world. The question of China’s place in the world cannot be understood without a look at the existing structures from the post-war period, when the US dominated the world economy. We recently had a G7 summit in the UK. This grouping seemed an anachronism as its legitimacy had been sucked away by the G20. But the G7 is now reborn as the spearhead of the liberal-democratic struggle against Chinese autocracy. Is that the way forward? I’m not an expert on China, but I know that the leadership in Beijing has studied everyone how the Soviet Union collapsed when the Communist Party loosened its control of the political sphere, and they will not follow suit.
How has your understanding of the world changed over time and what (or who) has triggered the most significant changes in your thinking?
The 2003 Iraq War, which we now know started under the false assumption that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, taught me about the power of military and security lobbies and the limited clout of diplomats. When the war was planned, I hadn’t openly opposed it – it was clear that the sanctions policy that had been in place since 1990 was killing the country. Sanctions, in the words of a seasoned UN official, were a form of genocide. Far from weakening Saddam Hussein’s regime, they strengthened him. Something had to change, and I had a feeling that the war would be over very quickly. That was true, but when the Anglo-Americans were in Baghdad in 2003 it was clear that they had no idea how to put the country back together. The optimistic narratives built by the Pentagon, the CIA and their favored academics and echoed by the UK Labor government proved worthless. Confidence in the UK government has yet to recover. I was based in Jerusalem at the time and I also became skeptical of the power of diplomatic activity, which appeared to be more focused on solving problems than on solving them. I got a neuralgic reaction to the phrase “peace plan”. Many Israeli-Palestinian peace plans came and went, but there was always a lack of a mechanism to enforce the necessary element of justice.
What made you decide to pursue a career in journalism? Did you study linguistics with a view to such a profession and how did that prepare you for it?
The best journalists are often the ones who have failed at everything else. Take Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. The army did not want him – undoubtedly too undisciplined – and he became a war correspondent, in which he excelled. When I started journalists were expected to be educated thugs, not educated guys. Thanks to international events, I found myself for a Reuters internship. I had learned Russian at school – back then there was a cold war thaw – and then Arabic and Persian. Russian was a prerequisite for working in the USSR – very few people were fluent in English and you had to be able to read between the lines of Pravda. I wouldn’t say that for Arabic – very few Brits are fluent in Arabic because educated people in the Arab world speak English too well, and it takes many years of hard cost to cope with the variety of dialects and the sophisticated style of modern Standard Arabic. Still, at the time, after the oil price shock of the 1970s, Reuters thought it needed Arabic speakers. In any case, anyone striving for an international career (and others too) should learn a foreign language in order to train their brains to understand more about their own language and out of courtesy to their hosts abroad. But there is no getting around the fact that Germans learn English from the age of 8, because their parents know that they need it to get by in the world. Your English will always be better than a British’s German. But that shouldn’t stop the Anglo-Saxons from having a foreign language.
In the course of your journalistic career you have been expelled from two countries, Russia and Iran. In your opinion, to what extent does fear of expulsion or other consequences limit the work of journalists who work between countries? To what extent have technological changes, particularly with regard to conducting remote interviews, mastered this challenge?
In Iran, I wrote something rashly that was interpreted as an insult to a martyr of the revolution and then used by the mullahs as an excuse to shut down the Reuters office. My youthful mistake aside, the temptation for a resident correspondent to self-censor for fear of expulsion is undeniable. Getting kicked means losing interesting assignments that may have involved learning a difficult language and, worst of all, getting back to the newsroom. There are many examples of self-censorship, especially in the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s, when a number of foreign correspondents waited to write their knowledge until they left the country. The bill has now changed.
The Internet and globally encrypted communication mean that messages from Russia are less likely to be processed by the correspondents based there. Belling Cat, the Netherlands-based online investigation team, revealed the identity of Sergei Skripal’s poisoners in Salisbury and the team that tried to assassinate Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny in 2018. This was done remotely, with local technical and journalistic help and the use of some bitcoins to buy information from data brokers. Not the core competencies of the foreign correspondent. Ironically, one of the primary jobs of a resident foreign correspondent these days, as fakes clog the news feeds, is telling the newsroom that the story they are trying to write is rubbish and that they shouldn’t touch it.
You recently edited your finale problem from The World Today, after almost a decade in the role. A central theme of this issue is the British government’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy”. To what extent does the Integrated Review represent a coherent shift in orientation from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region with regard to the debate about the role of the UK in the world?
The key word here is coherent. Governments far and wide are concentrating on this region as the new cockpit of the world, just as Europe did in the 20ththe Century. Even NATO is alarmed at the “shocking” pace of China’s military modernization to show the United States that it accepts the new challenge. The problem for the UK is that it is a country that is still finding its way after the decision to leave the European Union, while under the leadership of a prime minister who likes to say yes without going into too much detail . The result is stronger with slogans – like “Global Britain” – than with strategic coherence. Given the turmoil of Brexit and Covid, it may be unfair to ask about refractory strategies at this stage. But the British armed forces are now so small compared to America’s that Washington has lowered its expectations of the tasks its ally can perform. It should also be remembered that the Indo-Pacific change in Britain is often viewed as the reverse of its 1971 withdrawal from “East of Suez”. This policy was a dramatic example of the waning global ambitions of the former imperial power, which led to the need to find an alternative in membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). It should be remembered that both decisions – withdrawing from the east of Suez and joining the EEC, as the European Union was called at the time – were driven by financial constraints, which could again prove crucial in shaping policy.
Another key theme in The World Today is the United States’ renewed commitment to combating climate change under the Biden-Harris administration. How realistic do you think it is in the longer term to expect the signatories to the Paris Agreement to honor their commitments?
The Biden administration wasted no time in demonstrating its commitment to fighting global warming by appointing John Kerry as its special envoy on climate change in its first week in office. The rush to move forward is admirable, but reveals a longer term uncertainty. The US election cycle never stops, and it’s entirely possible that the Democrats could lose control of Congress next year, which would hamper the Biden agenda. John Kerry is a tenacious negotiator and one of the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement, but that doesn’t guarantee success: as Foreign Secretary he’s also invested a lot of time and energy pursuing a doomed Middle East peace deal. There are certainly some positive signs in US politics, especially the presence of younger Republican politicians who take climate change seriously, but their time has not yet come as Donald Trump still seems able to pull the strings of the party. Optimists point out that US cities are taking action to combat climate change that the federal government couldn’t do, but those initiatives are easily hampered by fossil fuel interests, which argue that, despite its “natural” brand, natural gas is a strong contributor to the world global warming is a cleaner fuel. Internationally, the central theme is China. Only if the US and China work together will there be a realistic prospect of global progress in meeting the Paris commitments. But with China now seen as an adversary in Washington, any partnership is always unsettled by events such as the crackdown on Hong Kong, the threats to Taiwan and the treatment of the Uighur minority. It will take tremendous political will and focused diplomacy if the Paris commitments are to be met, and perhaps the time when the US could click its fingers and the rest of the world saluted is over.
When you look back on your time as editor of The World Today, what was the biggest challenge you faced during that role? What challenges and opportunities do you expect for the publication in the next ten years?
The magazine was first published in 1945 with the aim of expanding the foreign affairs debate beyond diplomatic professionals and thus preventing another world war. That goal still applies. Our goal is to publish the most accessible content from Chatham House and to reach a younger readership in addition to the Institute’s core audience. The magazine is artistically illustrated and as free of technical jargon as possible. So far so clear. The question is how a six-yearly publication can achieve these goals in a fast-paced news environment under the leadership of social media. Part of the answer is segmentation. The World Today has posted more timely articles online between the magazine’s release when the more thoughtful articles appear. This gives the magazine reader a satisfying immersive experience in print while keeping the website fresh between issues.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
As an outsider with no academic credibility, I hesitate to advise international relations scholars. I would just say that if you want to reach an audience beyond your area of expertise, you have to step out of the academic lexicon and ask yourself: How can I tell an interested but inexperienced person something that they didn’t know? know and wish they had known?
Further reading on e-international relations