Oh wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
In that spirit, let me start with a day in the early 1980s in a dreary room in Transport House, the then headquarters of the British Labour Party. I was at the meeting there when Neil Kinnock declared an end to Labour's policy of unconditional nuclear disarmament. He was blunt. 'I have preached unilateral disarmament in the White House and in the Kremlin and in the Élysée Palace. I can tell you; it does not work.' It was a dramatic moment and one which was to be a turning point in Labour's return to electability.
Well, I too have been in the White House, in the Kremlin and in the Élysée and, like Neil, I could see things and my own country from a different perspective. Very different from being in Edinburgh or London. I could see us 'as ithers see us', and for me, like him, it was an eye-opener.
Our country had been traditionally seen from the distance as a model of stability and predictability. Our unwritten constitution was admired, even if not replicated. Our outreach and reputation whether through trade, aid, diplomacy or military strength was respected. Our unique set-up of four individual nations living in harmony and without revolution was seen as enviable. Our education system, especially our universities, was admired and our cultural and artistic influence was everywhere.
We rejoiced in all that; maybe we took it for granted. We patted ourselves on the back and looked out – into a mirror. And that was then. This is now.
Looking at us from the outside those admirers of the British model, and there were so many, now look on with puzzlement and concern. They see a country which ran, and then peaceably dismantled, an Empire and yet kept that family of nations close in the Commonwealth. It led the fight in two wars to save the world from fascism and, in spite of the tensions of constant industrial revolutions, managed to stay tolerant and united and at peace. From the outside, they see it change dramatically.
That country which joined the European Union – a historic consortium of previously warring nations in Europe – and by doing so added weight to it, now abandons it on a very narrow vote. And it is still racked in a bitter internal division about that decision.
They see a rising tide of nationalism in Scotland, after a referendum vote which was (in binding the words of the Edinburgh Agreement between Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron) 'legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome'. They see demands for another vote from the losing side still dominate and divide politics north of the border. They can also see a growing mood of breakaway from Wales, the Irish border once again raising the spectre of agony and they see the largest part of the Union, England, itself experiencing unprecedented tensions between its north and south.
They see Britain renege on a year-old, solemnly-signed treaty with the EU and admitting openly to breaking international law as it simultaneously breaks another domestic law on overseas aid. And all the while offering its sacred word to countries with which it would do a trade deal. No wonder our erstwhile admirers are dismayed. It is not a pretty picture of a country bitterly divided with the very elements of the United Kingdom being torn apart.
But forgetting, as we do, to look at ourselves as others see us, we continue the delusion that we are what we were. It reminds me of the words of Enver Hoxa, the dictator of Albania who once said: 'Remember this, together with the Chinese, we Albanians make up one quarter of the world's population'. Self-delusion is never a comfortable identity – for a person or a country.
When I took up my position in the headquarters of NATO in 1999 our relations with Russia were broken. There had been a breakdown of trust over the war to stop hideous violence in Kosovo. In the Oval Office, President Bill Clinton tasked me to rebuild the relationship with the former super-power. I did so, but only by first mentally putting myself in a chair in the Kremlin and thinking of how I would see NATO from there. That perspective eliminated what is known in the intelligence world as 'mirror imaging'; seeing your opponent or adversary though your eyes and not theirs.
Gradually, and as a result of that thinking, we built a new relationship with Russia which led to the creation of the NATO Russia Council and to big areas of cooperation and dialogue. It is, for me, profoundly sad that we, all European nations as we are and facing the same problems, now see ourselves again in opposite warring camps.
And then democracy? Is it alive and well in the West where it is the signature value?
Now I don't believe that democracy is defined by elections alone. Maybe not by elections at all. Mr Trump has just faced an election and chooses, so far, not to accept the outcome and he is not alone.
Mr Alexandre Lukashenko, President for 26 years of Belarus, also fought an election and refuses to accept the result. Every Sunday, surprisingly big and constant numbers of brave people fill the freezing streets of Minsk to protest about him staying on. Mr Putin stages regular 'elections' but ensures there are few challengers and President Xi in China also holds 'elections' and has abolished personal term limits to provide 'continuity'.
Democracy is much more than these ballots and this is where we should be paying attention.
The most important part of our freedom is the rule of law – of an honest judiciary and an equality of treatment before it. No ballot box can be a substitute. Democracy is also about free speech and a free press. It's about the separation of church and state and the right to believe and practice your faith. Democracy is about tolerating opinions you don't agree with, of believing in compromise and it's about the right to change those who rule you when you want to. These elements define the democratic ideal – and it is what my generation has come to accept and hopefully to treasure. Previous generations fought and many died to protect it.
And are these rights under siege? Should we be worried that the President of the United States of America, the very bulwark of our democratic part of the world, will not accept the verdict of the people and that his mighty party, the Republicans – the party of Abraham Lincoln – supports his insurrectionist stance? Should we not be worried that Poland and Hungary, two states liberated from Communism and now part of the European Union, are systematically undermining their free press and the independence of the judiciary?
Should we not be worried that our own UK Government tried to prorogue Parliament to prevent some inconvenient votes and were only constrained in their illegality by the Supreme Court? Should we not be worried that here in Scotland a majority in our Parliament in Edinburgh has twice, I repeat twice, told the Scottish administration to provide a legal opinion but has twice been thwarted? An English Tory MP told me recently that he met a constituent who said to him: 'You told me that if I voted for Mr Corbyn last December I would get a government which spent money like water and which would restrict all my civil liberties. Well, I did vote for Mr Corbyn, and true enough, we're spending money like water and I can't go to the pub or hug my grandchildren'.
In the time of COVID-19, we have voluntarily surrendered many of the casual liberties we were used to and miss them only when they don't exist. Of course, we did so voluntarily and hopefully temporarily, but the question remains as to whether we will get them all back again. For example, face masks. They are only a symbol, though in America they have taken on political significance, but will we be wearing them for a very long time to come? Will travel be restricted, gatherings prohibited, sport behind closed doors, alcohol rationed for the long term? Who dares to predict?
Well, you might be saying, in spite of his belligerent denying of reality, Mr Trump met his nemesis on 14 December when that strange American animal the Electoral College met and he has to accept the verdict. The checks and balances of the US constitution (many of which were put in place by Scots after the Revolution) will signal that the Twitter feed from the Oval Office will be less noticed. It's true that the strength of American democratic and legal institutions will protect the American people – and indeed the world too – from more of The Donald. But let it be noticed that it was the rule of law in the United States which saved us, not just the ballot box.
Just look at the recent words from a Federal Court in Pensylvania, from a Trump-appointed judge no less, the Hon Stephanos Bibas, who said this: 'Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof… We have neither here'. He dismissed the President's case. Three cheers for the rule of law.
Consequently, a new man will occupy that modest Oval Office in the White House and Joe Biden will look out at the world – and the world will look at him with hope and expectation. He will have much to do just to repair the damage done to US's reputation from the last four years. But he will have more to do than that.
He will have to face a domestic crisis of enormous proportions as COVID-19 marches on – killing people and jobs and hopes, and severely damaging the economy. That challenge with all the costs and sacrifices involved will be mind boggling. He also faces the problems which have multiplied in the absence of American leadership. Climate change, migration, terrorism, inequality, Iran, China, Russia, Syria. The to-do list is formidable. His rescue operation Herculean. But in many ways, his major challenge will be in rebuilding alliances. That network of friendly, like-thinking countries who add strength to America's role in the world.
For all of these massive global problems there is no single nation solution. If we ever thought that we could avoid the interconnections of today's world the virus has converted us. It spread across the world without any regard for borders or national boundaries or even walls. We were all helpless in its path. The President may have declared 'America First' but as a perceptive friend said, the reality was 'America Alone'.
The problem for Joe Biden, who I got to know well as Senator and who is a good and decent man, is how to roll back the tide of protectionism and nationalism which has been the response to the virus without US leadership. When international cooperation was self-evidently necessary, the response was to put up barriers and retreat behind walls.
When the world cried out for cooperation and coordination, the response was competition and beggar-my-neighbour. The result was fragmentation and suffering on a grand scale. President Trump's decision to abandon the World Health Organisation in the middle of a global pandemic spoke volumes of his malicious incompetence.
President Biden, on 20 January, when he sits at that desk made from British man-of-war timber in the Oval Office, will look urgently for allies and friends. Top of the list will be NATO alliance which I had the privilege of leading for four turbulent years but which was decried and derided by Donald Trump. And yet it is the most successful defence alliance of free nations the world has ever seen. It is the West's permanent and most enduring alliance of like-thinking allies – it has a multiplier effect on all security issues.
The fact that Britain still has a leadership role here will continue to give us purchase. However, America's main route to influencing Europe and the European Union was traditionally through the UK. It must now turn to others for that role – and here again is where we will find ourselves diminished. Looking from the outside again, it seems to others that we have self-harmed by Brexit and seem oblivious to it.
It's not as if British influence is not important at this point. The international scene will not improve soon. The disruption caused by COVID-19 will have stirred the pot globally and we will not be immune as it spills. There will be continuing fear. For every illegal rave and outlawed house party there are thousands of others terrified by the knowledge of the disease who will continue to isolate and be reluctant to travel. That will mitigate against the previously forecasted v-shaped recovery. And if one virus has humbled us all, what about the next one? There is little to reassure us.
There will be anger too. We still feel in society the ripple effects of the outrage at the banking crisis of 2008, 13 years ago, which did so much to erode public faith in those in charge of our financial system. This time thousands of people have died prematurely in the pandemic and millions will feel the pain of unemployment, failed businesses and economic hardship. The electorate will not be kind to those who mismanaged the crisis.
Make no mistake, that fear and the anger will chip away at the fundamental building block of our democratic societies – that of trust in our leaders. Even those who seem to have communicated better than others will have to face the cold examination of decisions which were made and mistakes which had catastrophic consequences. People will ask, searchingly, as to why countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea have had negligible deaths but we had 50,000? Did they do things better? Did they learn the lessons of SARS and bird flu and therefore were more prepared?
The American people will be asking that question as much as we do – and the answers will not be well-received.
The fact is that the Trump revolution is not really over just because its personification will leave the White House on 20 January. He gathered 74 million votes in this election and he has turned American politics upside down. His brand of nationalism appealed to many disillusioned folk – as most empty nationalisms do. I watched the whole of a Trump rally speech when I was in the US last year and it was truly remarkable. This was no ranting demagogue or emotive platform orator. He spoke to, and not at, the crowds. His was not a speech but a rambling conversation. True, he whipped them up but he told them they were great, their country was great, that they mattered. They listened – and so should we.
The fact that he himself was the kind of billionaire insider he was railing against was lost in the sympathy he engendered among those who forgave him as an exception.
Populism and appeals to national interest, the attractiveness of finding someone to blame for your problems, the preaching of division and hate did not start with Donald Trump or Nigel Farage of Victor Orban in Hungary and, unless we care enough, it will not end with them either. Vigilance about our liberty and rights is an essential mission, not some luxury add-on.
So, what happens now? Only a brave and foolish person makes a prediction about the future – especially in the light of what we are living through – hit, out of the blue by a virus which has paralysed our countries and has randomly taken lives, livelihoods and liberties on a grand scale. But for the last four years the world has missed American leadership. Even those who hated it and regularly campaigned against it found themselves missing it. And the free world missed it most.
President Joe Biden will make a difference. His initial picks for top positions are sensible and safe but also thoughtful. In a capital city sometimes unfairly characterised as having lots of clever people but very few wise ones, Joe Biden has chosen some very wise ones. Already there are signs that the change coming to the White House is already having an effect. Confrontation can be replaced by cooperation. Partisanship and aggression can be subordinated to a positive internationalist mood. Division may have run its course but will need time to be fully marginalised – but an effort can be started. Multilateralism, global cooperation on shared challenges can be back in vogue, alliances of democratic nations can be rekindled. There can be hope.
Barack Obama was an outstanding President of the USA and here are some of his words as a reminder of the challenge both in America and, looking at ourselves from afar, also to our great nation: 'What is troubling is the gap between the magnitude of the challenges and the smallness of our politics… our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem'.
Future generations of Scots will be unimpressed if we, in our small but proud country, cannot rise to that daunting challenge.
Lord Robertson was the 10th Secretary General of NATO, UK Secretary of State for Defence and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. This is an abridged version of a talk to the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Church of Scotland