“The world needs visionary leaders to solve today’s problems”: 5 minutes with Adrian Kendry

17 Dec 2018

In October, former NATO Senior Defence Economist and Adviser to the 12th Secretary General and Visiting Professor of Economics and Security at the University of Winchester, Adrian Kendry, delivered a lecture on the role of religion in modern society and its impact on the economy. We spoke to him about politics, economics, and religion and asked for his thoughts on Brexit.

1.     What did your role at NATO entail?

I arrived at the NATO Headquarters some 10 days before the attacks of September 11th 2001. A son in South Africa phoned me urgently to tell me to watch the nearest TV. As if in a dream, I thought I was watching some kind of disaster movie until I saw the second plane crash into the New York World Trade Centre South Tower. This and the other devastating attacks triggered violence and conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan during the next few years that continue to cause misery and insecurity for millions today. Before that happened, I had a particular vision of my role but, in light of this tragedy, this quickly changed. My job became much more focused on coordinating all NATO economic intelligence. I became responsible for thinking about the economic and political impact of terrorism and, from a financial point of view, was asked to consider what kind of measures NATO could adopt to cut down funding and support for terrorism. I was also responsible for coordinating intelligence on Russia and I played a big part in shaping NATO’s response to challenges of energy security with Russia and the Middle East. My role took me everywhere; from the Middle East and the Gulf to China, the Russian Far East  and South Eastern Europe. When you work as an international diplomatic civil servant in an organisation such as NATO, life is very intense. You work very long hours interacting with representatives of many NATO member countries and partners, all of whom are working in the same building. It was endlessly interesting, endlessly busy, and sleep deficiency came with the job.

In 2012, I was asked to become a personal economic adviser to the 12th Secretary General. With our Scandinavian roots (he was Danish and I am half-Swedish) we got on well and I worked intensively to write a report on the outlook for the security and economy in Afghanistan for a Defence Ministerial meeting in 2014 following my retirement.

2.     What do you believe are the biggest issues in global politics today?

The biggest issues are existential with climate change and environmental degradation the most alarming and threatening. A whole host of species are rapidly disappearing and the rainforests and savannahs are dwindling. Therefore, climate change is a political problem because, if we don’t manage to do something about it in a globally cooperative way, our children and grandchildren are going to face a dangerous and uncertain future. After all, with examples like the recent flooding in Venice and fires in California, we can already see evidence of the changes taking place. We need to do something about this urgently.

That said, I think the biggest political problem today is the anger and the lack of compassion that is shown by people from different political ideologies. People are becoming antagonistic in the name of their beliefs and this is breeding hate and extremism, whether that’s in the form of an attack on a Jewish synagogue or negative rhetoric directed at immigrants. While this is currently associated with the major political and social challenges in the UK and the US, this is a global problem and we desperately need a revitalised and reformed United Nations to address these problems and the underlying sources of inequality that are driving water, resource and economic insecurity.

I also think that politicians globally need to pay close attention to technology and artificial intelligence and monitor what it’s doing to our societies in terms of creating inequality. In the UK, inequality is a massive political challenge for everybody but the gap between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated, between healthy and not healthy, is getting bigger.

Personally, I think that governments across the world are singularly failing to get to grips with these really big problems, largely because they are getting distracted by other issues they should not be spending so much time on.

3.     How do you think Brexit will impact the UK’s relationship with other economic powers and role in global politics? 

In the days after Brexit, I wrote some analysis for the International Institute for Strategic Studies on how leaving the European Union would impact the UK’s trade relationships using well-known statistical methods that economists use. Unfortunately, this revealed that leaving the European would severely damage the United Kingdom's economy and trade relations for many years to come.

Nothing has changed in two years. If anything, the number of trade organisations and international economic and business bodies that take a more pessimistic view about what will happen from the decision to leave the European Union has increased. Whether we have a deal or no deal Brexit, none of the potential outcomes are particularly attractive. While I would like to offer a more positive appraisal, my research suggests that it will take years for England to be able to create the new kinds of trade relationships with India, China and other countries we need to either substitute for or reinforce the relationship we will have with the European Union. The government have wasted two years of our time and failed the people of the United Kingdom with their inaction on Brexit.

People such as Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg, Liam Fox, David Davis have perpetuated a lot of myths about the supposedly positive impact of Brexit. Unfortunately, they have a view about Britain's position in the world that is completely arcane, archaic and unrealistic. This is a frightening prospect for students and young people at Winchester, who come from many different countries, because, while many of the politicians who support the position of leaving the European Union are wealthy and will be financial successful whatever the outcome, many people who voted to leave the European Union (because of many reasons including economic and political frustration, dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reforms in the European Union and an ambivalent attitude to Europe and Britain's relationship) will suffer economically.

Let me be clear; the European Union is not a perfect institutional arrangement and it has a lot of problems. I have lived in Brussels and have seen the European Commission at work first hand. While the institution is, in some ways, undemocratic, it is important to recognise that it has accomplished a huge amount of really important things in terms of regional social, infrastructure and transport funding. With that in mind, I think that, before the vote, we were missing the education that would have given people a better understanding why the European identity is really important. I think this is a shame because statistics show that many young people, who may not have been old enough to vote in 2016, would vote to stay in the European Union. Figures suggest that that the perhaps 60% or more would now vote to remain.

What will happen now remains to be seen. The truth of the matter is that, through sheer chaos, we might have a situation where the government cannot agree on anything and, therefore, there might be a push to have a second referendum. However, I, unfortunately, don’t think that a people’s vote would change very much. We might get a few percentage points back for Remain but ultimately, we are profoundly divided as a country. However, I think that many of us can agree that, whatever side of the fence you are on, Brexit has turned out to be a wholly negative exercise.

4.     We live in a politically and economically uncertain time. What do you think world leaders need to do to rebuild hope, cooperation and equality across the globe?

Well, first of all, there has to be a much more civilised approach to discussion, negotiation and disagreements. You can disagree with a decision maker but you should try to find the means of decision-making that make the process what economists would call a ‘positive sum’ as opposed to a zero sum and, worst of all, a negative sum. I think that too much of what we do these days has a negative sum outcome, which means that everybody’s worse off. We’re seeing this in all kinds of decisions being made at the moment, such as the sanctions the US have imposed on China, Brexit or a host of other challenges across the globe to do with migration, violence and climate change. I think that we need to take a much more visionary approach to solve these problems and that, to do this, we need visionary leaders to give people hope. However, unfortunately, I think there is currently a terrible dearth of charismatic leaders, which is causing major problems. 

5.     What relevance do you think religion has when it comes to society in modern times?

It’s an interesting question. Is religion becoming more important or less important? There are some competing statistics and studies from a number of people on this. There is evidence to suggest that, while the number of people who are becoming unaffiliated with religion is perhaps increasing, the growth  in the global population is increasing at a faster rate. This ultimately means that the percentage of people with no religion is set to decrease. For example, at the moment all G8 countries except China have a Christian majority, but some projections suggest that, by 2050, only one country, the United States, will have maintained their Christian majority. What that implies for the importance and relevance of non-Christian religions is unclear. So there’s a very interesting shift coming.

Not everyone agrees with this view. There are some that theorise that, as countries become wealthier, they will embrace religion. On the other hand, others believe that it is actually poorer countries that embrace religion. Being honest, I don’t know the answer to this conundrum.

However, I do think that religion is going to remain important and relevant in society. If you look at the crackdown recently on Chinese Christians and Buddhists in China and at the terrible conflict that is taking place between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, this shows that religion important to many people. I think that religion offers a dimension to people’s lives that can be really important in terms of spirituality and ‘humanitarian values’. Some people, like Steven Pinker (in his book Enlightenment Now) and Yuval Noah Harari (in his book Homo Deus) think that technology and artificial intelligence pose a huge danger to religion and believe that people are going to rely on data sets and algorithms to make decisions rather than beliefs in God but I disagree. Religion sometimes hasn’t helped itself, especially with the scandals it has created, but, at the end of the day, I think that billions of individuals across the world gain a sense of identity through what they believe. Ultimately, knowing what you believe and what you don’t is absolutely critical to help give purpose to life and, without it, people often despair and become depressed. There’s no easy panacea to this but that’s my personal belief.

Read Adrian Kendry’s recent blog, Pascal’s Wager, the Lure of Prosperity and Losing My Religion, here.

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