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Oxford Union votes not to look to the US for leadership

The Oxford Union voted against the motion ‘This house would still look to the US for Global Leadership’. The debate took place amid a packed chamber, with many members coming to watch this term’s US debate. 

The motion came in the wake of controversial American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which raised questions about the US and its role as a global leader. It failed with 124 votes in favour and 166 against.

Speakers in favour of the motion included Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who held a number of cabinet positions under Thatcher and Major including Foreign and Defence secretary; former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman; and former Conservative Party co-chairman James Cleverly MP. Dr Laura Smith, Senior Access Officer at the Oxford Union, also proposed the motion.

The motion was opposed by Russian Ambassador to the UK Andrey Kelin, Professor Amitav Acharya, Professor of International Relations at the American University, Washington DC, and two students: Simon van Teutem and Patrick Cole.

Union President Chengkai Xie opened, after which Dr. Laura Smith took the floor, introducing the speakers and assuring the audience that the Russian ambassador, speaking for the opposition, “probably knows who should be replacing the US”.

Van Teutem opened for the opposition, asserting that the UK, as a part of Europe, should look with the continent elsewhere. He criticised the decision by Americans to blindside France with the AUKUS, and the failure that left “citizens, translators and refugees behind” in Afghanistan. “If Europe wants to defend its long-term interests, looking to the US, leaning on the US, is worthless”.

In response, Sir Malcolm Rifkind QC told a string of jokes, saying that “ambassadors can be disarming even if their countries aren’t”, prompting laughter and applause from the chamber. He defended American leadership as an example to the world, showing that the rule of law worked there in a way it did not elsewhere. He could not, however, have supported the motion if Trump was still the president, assuring that “if the choice on the ballot were between Trump and Putin, he might just choose Vladimir Putin”. 

Ambassador Andrey Kelin started by agreeing with a condemnation of communism and saying that Russians, too,  had wanted to be Western, but that the West had refused to help. He said that “The US won the first cold war as it was only facing one opponent. Now, in the new Cold War, it is facing two opponents, Russia and China”. He said that the US should look at itself, going as it did from crisis to crisis. If the democratic system was so strong, he wondered, how could it be that the Russians were supposedly influencing debates and elections? 

While the Ambassador was telling the audience that the policy of Russia was very simply aimed at sovereignty, Charlie Mackintosh, Standing Committee of the Oxford Union, interrupted to ask what that meant for the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine. The Ambassador attempted a response involving ethnic Russians and the Russian language. He ended by denouncing US aggression, sanctions and military power.

Congresswoman Harman began by announcing that her vote on the Iraq war was “wrong”. She said that the US is not perfect, but despite its defects, its leadership is strong and urgently needed. “China and Russia have squandered the best opportunity they had to present a convincing alternative”. She told the audience that Russia poisoned two of its citizens on UK soil, and that foreign actors showed that US leadership was needed now more than ever.

The last speaker before the open debate, Amitav Acharya, questioned the idea that the liberal order will collapse without America. Much of US policy, he asserted, was built around the hubristic notion that they had to lead. However, China spends more money on international development than the United States, so “why shouldn’t they lead?” According to him, much of American aid was aimed at fighting fires they started themselves. He said that the US was losing to free-riders and that the world needed a G+ approach.

After an enthusiastic floor debate, James Cleverly MP started his speech by paraphrasing Tony Blair saying that “outside elections we choose between this government and a perfect option, now we choose between this government and the alternative”. He reminded the audience of America’s “tendency to drift toward isolationism” and that only by looking at the US, could we ensure that they were the best versions of themselves.

The last speaker for the opposition, Patrick Cole, spoke on the imperative to move beyond imperialist attitude. In the end, a majority of the audience agreed with him and his fellow opposition speakers. AYES: 124 NOES: 166

Image: mpewny via pixabay.com

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