The Airplane theory of International Relations

I am sitting in the lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal Five, a monument to the idea that one of the few acceptable occupations for sadists that doesn’t involve wearing black leather or working in TV programming is designing airline terminals. It is absurdly complex, gigantic, uninviting, cold and just the perfect atmosphere for turning weary travelers ...

585118_090609_roth2.jpg
585118_090609_roth2.jpg

I am sitting in the lounge at Heathrow's Terminal Five, a monument to the idea that one of the few acceptable occupations for sadists that doesn't involve wearing black leather or working in TV programming is designing airline terminals. It is absurdly complex, gigantic, uninviting, cold and just the perfect atmosphere for turning weary travelers into snarling, drooling knots of hostility. 

In fact, I have a theory that one of the central problems in international relations is created by the brutal, dehumanizing nature of world travel. Well intentioned souls who want to build international understanding and good will get on airplanes and by the time they get to their destination, they want to kill, subjugate native cultures and exploit their natural resources. If people on airlines were actually nice and airports were not the meat-grinders of the soul they are, perhaps people would arrive in new countries with a positive outlook, a smile and less of an impulse to steal valuable intellectual property.

I am sitting in the lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal Five, a monument to the idea that one of the few acceptable occupations for sadists that doesn’t involve wearing black leather or working in TV programming is designing airline terminals. It is absurdly complex, gigantic, uninviting, cold and just the perfect atmosphere for turning weary travelers into snarling, drooling knots of hostility. 

In fact, I have a theory that one of the central problems in international relations is created by the brutal, dehumanizing nature of world travel. Well intentioned souls who want to build international understanding and good will get on airplanes and by the time they get to their destination, they want to kill, subjugate native cultures and exploit their natural resources. If people on airlines were actually nice and airports were not the meat-grinders of the soul they are, perhaps people would arrive in new countries with a positive outlook, a smile and less of an impulse to steal valuable intellectual property.

Of course, it all depends on the country into which you arrive. My 24 hours in the United Kingdom have exposed me to a kind of giddiness that one seldom sees outside the slumber parties of 11-year-old girls. There is only one thing that can cause the British to drop the reserved mortician act and reveal their inner Spice Girl (or for the more sophisticated among you, their inner Alan Ayckbourn). And that of course is the misfortune of prominent Brits, in this case, Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

It is ironic that Brown, who probably couldn’t inspire a reflection out of his mirror, is triggering such hilarity.  But following what newspapers are heralding as the worst national election defeat for his party since King Arthur (ok, since the first World War), the prime minister has people marveling at the surpassing awfulness of his situation. In the wake of scandal, financial crisis, fiscal catastrophe and Manchester United’s crushing defeat at the hands of Barcelona, Brown is hanging on only by what the Guardian calls “the brute business of internal politics, especially the crushing of internal dissent.” Key cabinet members have resigned. Others are openly plotting against him. And yet, Rasputin-like, he survives the poisoning, the gun-shots, and the stabbings.

Of course, ultimately Rasputin got tossed in the river and drowned and sooner or later Brown will probably go the way of the dodo. And the Labour Party will probably go with him. Probably. But talking to a senior British business leader today, it was explained that if only Labour could forestall an election until next year and if the economy were to start to turn around, “they might just win because no one believes that the Conservatives, once in office, actually will have any idea what to do.”

You see, the problem with the conservatives is that what they are right now is The Party That is Not Labour. And appropriately, their leader, David Cameron, is The Political Leader Who Is Not Gordon Brown. Literally, that is virtually Cameron’s only distinction. He is, in the words of one member of the House of Lords with whom I spoke (Ooo La La. The House of Lords.  They would be so impressed back in New Jersey.), “a former PR guy, that says it all.” I’ve actually met Cameron. I chaired a panel he was on in Davos once. And I have to say, he’s such an empty suit he wouldn’t feel out of place on a hanger at Brooks Brothers. 

So that is the choice here in the United Kingdom: the guys who screwed it up versus the guys who are going to screw it up…at a moment when the country and all Europe face problems of a scale unseen in decades. Which is why the giddiness at the horrendousness of the past few days for Brown seems an appropriate reaction. Much like the laughter you see coming from the shell-shocked in old British war movies. It’s also why every one I spoke to here, regardless of political persuasion got all doe-eyed and misty whenever Barack Obama’s name came up. They’re not sure he will be a big success either. But at least he might be. At least he looks like a leader. At least he sounds like one. 

Meanwhile Britain is as rudderless as it has been at any time since the 1970s when they were teaching the world a thing or two about collapsing empires and bungled bail-outs of auto companies. (Which reminds me.  Speaking of botched leadership, Steve Rattner, please go read about British Leyland.) 

And this damn airport is not helping to dispel the impression of a nation in disarray. So I’m leaving. And going someplace that is prospering: Mumbai.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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