“Individuals pass like shadows, but the Commonwealth is fixed and stable.” — Edmund Burke

The digital age.

Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks — David Howell


The suggestion that the world is entering a new phase of globalisation, a so-called digital age, is not a new viewpoint. Digital technologies are increasingly intermingled in almost all aspects of life. Perhaps the most notable transformation is the emergence of social media – itself often in the news for both the positive and negative consequences of its reach – but the effect of modern technologies extends far beyond this realm.

Computers and networks have enabled almost instant global communication, changing the machinery of society, politics and the economy. This has resulted in a widespread shift in the way that people think, exchange knowledge and access information.

In the digital age, new forces are making a practical impact on events.

Old Links and New Ties focuses on the effect that the digital age has had both on the international landscape and Britain’s shifting position in the world. It serves up a renewal of arguments that were laid out in a pamphlet entitled ‘New Networks’, published by the Globalisation Institute in 2007, and advances David Howell’s appeal for “fresh realism as the starting point for Britain’s repositioning in the global network”.

According to Howell, the USA, once a global giant dominating international relations, no longer holds the position of the most powerful nation on earth. Howell argues that, instead, the digital web, which serves to link billions of people every minute of every day, should be seen as the most powerful ‘nation’.

Howell explores Britain’s place in this new international landscape focusing, in particular, on how the country’s presence at the head of the Commonwealth has given it new international significance – a subject in which the author is very well informed, having stood as Minister of State at the Foreign Office with responsibility for the Commonwealth until 2012.

Howell suggests that the Commonwealth holds new opportunities for Britain to assume an important global role and that the geographical blocs of the last century serve only to hold the country back.

The emergence of new economies, which increasingly rely on fluid connections, gives a whole new role to the Commonwealth, he says.

Howell’s argument draws on the words of Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day speech of 2009, when she declared that the Commonwealth is the “face of the future” standing as a “necessary network of the 21st century”. As an organisation, the Commonwealth encompasses diverse people from small and large states serving to create a sphere in which such diversity can communication freely and equally.

Howell’s proposal, therefore, is that Britain should “re-join” this organisation that has served to unite many of the newcomers to the global market, including Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. Britain’s global links with the Commonwealth put it far ahead of its neighbours, leaving it promisingly placed for the future and far away from the label of the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Britain is surrounded by potential allies and prosperous consumer markets, which are “ready and receptive for a rendezvous with the British”. Indeed, recent history is rife with examples of countries bidding for Commonwealth membership – there have been attempts from South Sudan, Suriname, Angola and even Ireland.

Howell’s message to policy-makers is that they must begin thinking in terms of the real and the virtual all at once. The networked age has brought with it new threats and opportunities and the guiding ‘geist’, as Howell puts it, is the importance of interdependence, not independence.

To this effect, he speaks of the importance of ‘soft power’ – that is, power through attraction and co-operation rather than coercion, force or bribery – in place of traditional perceptions of power dynamics.

Old Links and New Ties is an innovative book, drawing on important topical debates without bogging the reader down with excessive jargon and complicated wording. Howell is able to make the book readable and entertaining by drawing on interesting anecdotes from his somewhat colourful career. He adds further to the book by including several thought-provoking annexes, including his departure letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, after being asked to step down as Minister of State at the Foreign Office. In this very personal letter, Howell suggests that Cameron take heed of this.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing. Thanks go to IB Tauris for providing a free copy of the book for review purposes.

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