Category Archives: international

Trump’s first triumph

One of the many thoughts I composed in my head but never got around to posting was a reaction to the election of Donald Trump.  An optimistic reaction, mixing tongue-in-cheek (to wind up some – probably most – readers), benefit of the doubt, and a few realistic hopes for how his presidency might lead, intentionally or otherwise, to real improvement in the world.

It’s too late for that now.  He’s made so many appointments I’d have to dig into them before taking a Panglossian view on his rhetoric about surrounding himself with the best people.  He still has the outsider’s potential advantage that, if he chooses, he can better afford to stand up to Vested Interests – including those who control purse-strings for US politicians of both parties – than his predecessors in modern times.

On one matter of foreign policy he’s sent a message which is both clear and constructive.  He is not in favour of warmongering around the world where his country has no business.  Like provoking civil war and supporting terrorist and rebel groups on a my enemy’s enemy basis.  The most obvious potential beneficiary of that is Syria, where the hope and expectation of Western intervention launched and subsequently fuelled a devastating civil war.

Trump gets elected, and after just a couple of weeks the rebels in Aleppo finally cut their losses.  Another couple of weeks and we get a ceasefire backed by Russia and Turkey, and for the first time the Western-backed rebels seem to have dropped their show-stopper precondition that Assad and his government be booted out.

Coincidence?  Even if we attribute Aleppo to pure military victory, the change in the rebels’ stance is surely not unconnected with Trump’s election.  Trump has sent them a clear signal that the leading warmongers in the West – like John McCain in the US or Andrew Mitchell in the UK – won’t persuade our governments to step up military involvement.

Of course that doesn’t mean peace: it remains to be seen to what extent that can happen, and indeed whether Russia and Turkey can make a better job of it than the West’s interventions in other countries (above all Iraq).  The key point right now is that the US – and by extension the West – no longer stands in the way of peace.

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A lesson from Castro

With Castro dead, the world can draw another line under the Cold War.  I have no intention of trying to comment on his life: a complex subject on which I have nothing really to say.

But the reporting of his death reveals an interesting split, between those who revered (or at least respected) him and mourn his passing, and those who hated him and danced on his grave.  The former being Cubans in Cuba, the latter being Cubans in Miami.  Plus a handful of  global Cold Warriors on either side, who will dismiss the other side with a quasi-religious fervour.

Could that split between a home population and expats in the West be the exact same phenomenon that led us into fighting and provoking so many disastrous wars, particularly in the middle-east, in recent years?  At various times, our media have presented us with articulate expats from countries we’ve openly invaded (like Iraq and Libya) or meddled more quietly in and stirred with agents provocateurs (like Syria), in support of our campaigns.  Those would be their countries’ equivalent to the Miami Cubans dancing on Castro’s grave.  And that’s where our narratives of our wars come from: when our powers-that-be want war, they can find some extreme but articulate expats and present them as the voice of ordinary people.  Only once the die is cast do some in our media start to question dodgy dossiers and claims.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Once upon a time, there was an archetype.  The young lad who leaves his home and braves all to seek his fortune.  We could call him Dick Whittington.

Today there are millions (or should that be billions?) with dreams of betterment.  For many in the poorer parts of the world, one such dream is of the streets of Europe or America, paved with gold.  No doubt a few will make their fortunes, while many will be disappointed.  Many will risk life and limb in the pursuit of a Dick Whittington dream.  Our meeja and public opinion will swing between being swamped by immigrants and being outraged by their plight.

What should we in destination-countries do?  I have no intention of addressing issues of immigration policy here, but one thing is clear: we should not be sending out misleading signals, leading people on with a deception.  Even when it’s also self-deception.  If we’re not going to welcome the millions, we should send out the signal loud and clear and without ambiguity.  And above all, we should be consistent, not chop and change policy on the whims of meeja and public opinion.

Yesterday’s scenes of refugees reaching a true fairytale conclusion to their long ordeal is no doubt a happy one for the individuals concerned.  But it begs the question: how many million impoverished Africans who may have idly dreamed of seeking their fortune in Europe, just saw yesterday’s scenes and made their minds up to set out on a perilous quest?  Unless we welcome them all (which of course we can’t – not even those who survive and make it as far as pick-up points such as those off the Libyan coast), we’ve just perpetrated a cruel deception on them.  For a change, our own Prime Minister appears to be behaving better than what either our meeja or some of our European colleagues are trying to pressure him into.

Dodgy Data

Oxfam grabs a headline with a report telling us the richest 1% will own half the world’s wealth in 2016.

As with many reports coming from lobbying organisations, this one provokes scepticism.  Not outright dismissal, but a “really“, and a need to know what they’re actually measuring before I can treat it as meaningful.  It also provokes mild curiosity: how rich do you have to be to be in that 1% (not least because I have a sneaking suspicion it includes a great many people who our chattering classes don’t consider at all rich).

The Oxfam report itself is a mere twelve pages and disappointingly light on data.  If there’s any attempt to substantiate the headline claim then I missed it.  But googling “World Wealth” finds this report, which tells me total world wealth is projected to be $64.3 trillion in 2016.  OK, that’ll do for a ballpark calculation.  $64.3 trillion between 7 billion people is an average of about $9k per head.  If the top 1% own half of it, that’s $32.15 trillion between 70 million people: an average of $459k per head within that top 1%.

That’s £300k.  There must be a millions in Blighty with that much in housing wealth alone (and others correspondingly locked out).  Not to mention in other high-cost countries around Europe, America, Asia, and I expect even a few in the third world.  All above the average of that fabled top 1%.

But of course housing isn’t our only asset.  In Blighty and around the developed world, a big chunk of our wealth takes the form of Entitlements.  One such in the UK is the Basic State Pension, which is worth £200k, and even the poorest Brit is entitled to it.  It seems you can be in that top 1% without being rich enough to buy a house in Blighty!

Hmmm.  Oh dear.  Maybe Oxfam’s spin isn’t really very meaningful at all.  Except perhaps to highlight how incredibly egalitarian we are within Blighty – and probably all developed countries – once you include the effect of government actions.

The right side of history

The world’s favourite Elder Statesman dies.  The world’s media are filled with his story, and (for a change) the volume of coverage does seem merited.  What can I add to miles of newsprint?  Probably nothing meaningful, nor should I try.  History is being written, but I am no historian.  But there seem to be crucial questions none of the media care about.  Can we draw lessons from Mandela’s story for the present and future?  Where might the next Mandela come from?

Let’s brush over his achievements.  The figurehead for his people’s struggle, and their first black president elected by a process we can recognise as democratic.  The achievement that really reflects credit on him is to have brought about that democratic change without a bloodbath, and indeed with an extraordinary level of goodwill that didn’t just evaporate as soon as something got tough.

What’s altogether more interesting is the context.  What made Mandela as a great figurehead and eventual president was surely his long imprisonment.  Yet he was imprisoned as a terrorist, and that was real.  His imprisonment was prolonged by his consistent refusal to renounce violence, and it was former president de Klerk who had the courage to make the first move, and release a man publicly committed to violence against his country.  That must have been as unthinkable for some at the time as it would be now to release Michael Adebolajo (having first convicted him) and enter into dialogue with him.

Of course they did release Mandela, he rewarded them by negotiating in good faith, and the rest is a history much happier than those of so many newly-created or liberated countries.  Perhaps there was a greater force at work than any individuals: the force of history.  For history was firmly on Mandela’s side, and many elements of his story (though not their combined whole, nor I think the happy outcome) were matters of historical inevitability.  The force of history is perhaps the most crucial difference between Mandela and his era’s other high-profile leader of an oppressed people, Yasser Arafat, who did renounce the violent struggle and make many other compromises yet never achieved a happy outcome.

Where is today’s Mandela?

If history is to be of use, we need to be able to draw lessons from it.  Are there other potential Mandelas out there perhaps ready to step up to the mark and bring other conflicts to a resolution?  I don’t see any obvious candidate, but then I wouldn’t expect to.  Even if the media and supporters draw the world to a candidate – as they did with Mandela – we would still be faced with a profile of a candidate who could be anything from a great statesman to a complete nutter.

What about de Klerk’s role: the incumbent in power who can seize a moment in history and make that critical first move towards reconciliation with his historic enemy?  People in power are easier to see: after all, we’ve heard of them.  Those in conflict, fighting terrorists, holding political prisoners, should in principle have a great prize for the taking if they can identify a Mandela amongst their enemies.

Those fighting the so-called War on Terror must be prime candidates, and should be looking hard for their Mandela in Guantanamo Bay and such places of ill-repute.  Yet as of now we appear to be firmly in denial: there is no force of history ready to thrust a peace process on us.  Perhaps a real candidate for the Mandela role could have been Hakimullah Mehsud, so recently on the point of entering peace talks before someone killed off that process?

When Mandela was tried and imprisoned, he had a public and media spotlight which led eventually to his elevation and his country’s reconciliation.  Those who assassinate their enemies, or kidnap and hide them forgotten are denying themselves that prospect.  The contrast between due process – however harsh – in Apartheid South Africa and denial of any such process towards some (not least the Pashtun people[1] as a whole) today is indeed disturbing.

[1] Commonly described as “the Taliban” in reports of conflict, especially when they’ve been killed.

Supreme importance

Julian Assange gets a supreme court hearing in front of no less than seven judges!  Is that a legal first since we had a supreme court?  No matter, it’s certainly exceptional.

And over what?  An extradition hearing.  That being extradition to a friendly European country whose democratic credentials and legal system are pretty-much as trustworthy as anywhere in the world.  Aren’t they?  And his alleged crimes for which he’s being extradited are also mundane, no matter how potentially serious.  How the **** is that so legally interesting and important as to merit a hearing in front of their Lordships, let alone seven of them?

The public line is that it raises a legal question over whether the authority requesting the extradition has the right to do so.  That’s a fine legal technicality, and one which under normal circumstances a judge would undoubtedly be happy to decide either way, depending on what outcome (s)he wanted.  So we must conclude there’s an unspoken point of legal interest to consider at the very highest level.

Well of course there is.  There’s the suspicion that the alleged sex crimes are merely a device in a politically-motivated persecution.  It’s hard to think of a less likely country than Sweden to engage in such political persecution, but that’s not saying much!   And in today’s decision, it seems Their Lordships are implicitly raising precisely that suspicion, and saying to the Swedish authorities we don’t trust your motives.  Interesting!

Of course if it had been extradition to the US to face charges in connection with Wikileaks, it would indeed raise important and unique issues of public interest to merit Their Lordships’ attention.  Gary McKinnon got a Lords hearing, but not Assange’s seven judges!

Electing the worst

As expected, Netanyahu is to be Israeli prime minister.

Again.

This is the man who tore up the 1993 peace deal, vigorously expanded his Lebensraum, and made it perfectly clear that nothing short of a Final Solution would satisfy him. In the process, he also threw away most of the tremendous international goodwill (particularly in Europe) his country had won with a succession of positive moves.

But the responsibility wasn’t his alone. The international community stood back and let it happen: so long as the palestinians maintained their side of the agreement, noone was interested. The world sent a loud and clear message to the palestinians: peace does not pay.

And who was at the head of that international community? Oh look, it was the husband of the present US secretary of state.

Some things come round again …

In 1933 the germans elected a monster. But they only elected him once. Nor did he throw away a good situation: he came to a country in collapse.  I’d say that makes what they did rather less inexcusable.

Good on ya, Oz

(excuse the cliché!)

To my aussie friends and colleagues,

I don’t follow aussie politics, and I don’t know what you’ve just elected. But good on ya for throwing out the dinosaur Howard: that’s certainly something you and the world needed!

Another conspiracy theory

I wasn’t going to say anything about this.  It’s way outside the scope of what I know anything about.  Then I saw no less a source than The BBC publishing a conspiracy theory, so I thought I’d add my £0.02.

Who is in charge of current events in Pakistan?

The military dictator has been good for The West for several years.  And it’s hard to fault some of what he’s done, especially in defusing the tension with India.  But he’s now in trouble, and potentially a candidate to go the way of the Shah of Iran – the western-backed despot who was deposed in the then-popular Islamic revolution in 1979.

So, accepting that he’ll fall sooner or later, the next best thing the West would like is former democratic prime minister Bhutto.  But she’s been weakened by seeming too close to the dictator, to the likely benefit of her democratic rival Sharif, and probably others altogether more hostile to western interests.

What better for Bhutto and her friends than a little bit of old-fashioned repression with extraordinarily convenient echoes of Burma?

Bursting Bubbles

Has Uncle Sam just conned the world?

There’s been an element of the pyramid scheme in stock markets for as long as there’s been a stock market. From time to time a pyramid grows into a big bubble, and bursts.

Right now the bubble that’s bursting is US housing, and money lent on it is being written off (even as the dodgy lenders are sending ever more spam). But who is paying? Markets in Europe and Asia appear to be suffering proportionally more than American markets. Does that mean the rest of the world is writing off a (big chunk of now privatised) US national debt?

And why are central banks bailing out their financial industries with huge amounts of public money? If I get into trouble, the best I can hope for is social security, and I’m not even eligible for that while I have a business. But for financial institutions, an altogether different story. Isn’t it massively inflationary to pour in billions of public money like that?

Something here smells of Keynesian intervention. But it’s being applied as an uncontrolled panic measure, a sticking plaster over the symptoms (not the cause) of the underlying problem. Can any good come of that, or is it pouring good money after bad?

Americans have a long history of being smarter investors than the rest of the world. That’s what gives them their big success stories, such as all the biggest names on the ‘net. And it’s probably also why their markets are faring less badly than others right now. But it has an ugly side, and when Uncle Sam unloads dodgy debt while continuing to accrue ever more of it, he’s no better than a con-man. The world is full of suckers.