Thursday, 30 April 2009

The WHO and the why?

After 12 years of trying, Taiwan has been invited to observe the World Health Organisation's annual assembly after the People's Republic of China finally dropped its objections to the break-away island's participation. This is probably a purely political move - another sign of strengthening cross-straights relations now that Beijing finds in Taipei a government it can do business with, led by the nationalist Kuomintang rather than the pro-independance Democrats. These growing bonds are usually welcomed by onlookers, in that they make devastating war in East Asia that much less likely, although of course they also make it progressively harder for the island ever to escape the mainland's shadow. But political gestures are fragile, and exposed to Beijing's whim as governments come and go in Taipei. It would be much more welcome if the PRC's move showed a new element of cross-straits practicality as well as politics.

Coming as it did mere hours after the WHO raised its pandemic alert level regarding swine influenza to phase 5 out of 6, there is just a chance that the PRC recognises that having an island with such strong links to its own population beyond the bounds of global health infrastructure, with the world now facing such a grave threat, is simply madness. Of course, the PRC's official statements make little mention of its own health concerns - the move is instead couched in terms of 'goodwill' towards the people of Taiwan. But if the PRC is dropping its long term obstructionism in favour of pragmatic and mutually beneficial progress, this would be far more positive than if this is simply a political gesture. It would give hope that the PRC is open to future compromise, and that such compromise is predicated on practical benefits as much as rewarding a friendly government in Taiwan.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Hey ho, Keiko

In the immediate aftermath of the sentencing of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, for human rights abuses commited under his government, it looked pretty unlikely that Peruvian Senator Keiko Fujimori would win presidential elections in 2011, having been up until then a bit-part player on the national scene. Ever since, however, her popularity has soared, fueled by the exposure of the trial and the positive associations many Peruvians still have regarding her father's period in office in the 1990s, when he was credited with kick-starting the domestic economy and quelling the rebellion of the leftist Shining Path.

Now commanding a quarter of the expected vote, Ms Fujimori can simultaneously play the outsider whilst drawing on the reputation of her father as a man willing to do whats 'necessary' for the country - even if that means slaughtering innocents. Moreover, her current level of support probably underestimates her chances of winning in an eventual run-off. While the support of her two closest challengers, mayor of Lima Luis Castañeda Lossio and former presidential runner-up Ollanta Humala, is concentrated in the metropolitan littoral and the highlands respectively, she can hope to garner votes across the country. Her father's reputation is one of economic orthodoxy, appealing to the relatively prosperous citizens of Lima, yet he is remembered for bringing infrastructure and security to more disadvantaged regions as well.

All of which leaves the successful conviction of Mr Fujimori in even greater jeapody, with his daughter vowing to overturn the ruling should she win the presidential poll in two years time. Peru is still plagued by violence and sporadic guerilla attacks, giving the forceful tactics of Fujimorism a superficial allure. But no country should resort to death squads, and today's more prosperous Peru can afford a more comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy to root out whats left of the rebels. Fujimoristas can also point to the partiality of the law, with alleged atrocities commited under current President Alan Garcia during his first term in office in the 1980s yet to be properly investigated. But this is an arguement for extending the rigour of the judicial system, not for a bleak return to the government-sponsered massacres of Peru's vicious internal conflict. The growth of Ms Fujimori's support is alarming, as is the prospect of Peru reaffirming the darkest methods of its recent past.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Doves should fly the nest of hawks

It became a little clearer today just what Israeli Labour leader Ehud Barak thinks hes doing forcing his party into coalition with Likud and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party - aside from securing for himself a continued role in government as defense minister. In a meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - the leaders of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu respectively - he apparently urged the government to recognise the right of the Palestinians to their own state, but only allowing this right to be exercised if Israel's security can be guaranteed. Jam tomorrow indeed, but the hope is that this would be enough to satisfy the Obama administration in America without alienating those within the governing coalition hostile to any form of concession to the Palestians.

But it isn't enough. At a time when other countries in the region are struggling to forge the rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah into a unity government to give Isreal a meaningful negotiating partner, proving that Israel isn't such a partner itself gives entirely the wrong signals. That might well be the aim of figures in the Israeli cabinet such as Mr Lieberman, who express little desire for the peace process to succeed, but it shouldn't be the goal of Mr Barak, unless the once all-powerful Labour Party's position in the Israeli political spectrum really has lost all meaning.

Perhaps a lasting peace - following the example of Northern Ireland - can only be found when the hardliners come to the table. But Labour's presence in government doesn't make this more likely, it simply legitimises those hardliners' current intransigence. Unless Mr Barak can moderate the Israeli far-right - a seemingly impossible dream - Labour has no part in the current coalition, for even the largest concessions on negotiations he seems able to squeeze from his governing partners will simply be too small.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Easing out Ichiro

Once again, having governed Japan all but continuously for half a century, the ruling Liberal Democrat Party might just have rescued themselves from what seemed only a month ago to be certain defeat in elections due this year. As mentioned yesterday, polls now show them ahead of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan - quite a turn around on the embattled government of Prime Minister Taro Aso's recent fortunes. The most popular outcome of the election, according to Jiji Press's poll - and perhaps the most likely given the tightness of the race - would be a 'grand coalition' of the two parties to steer Japan through the economic storm it currently finds itself embroiled in. While this is unlikely to be strictly necessary - one or other of the parties is almost certain to be in a position to form a government without the other following the election - a narrow victory for either one may see them choose to join forces to overcome a deficit of legitimacy that only a resounding win could deliver, while absolving them of responsibility for taking tough economic decisions alone.

Yet in terms of Japan's political development, this would be a terrible outcome. For too long Japan has been governed through backroom deals between the various factions of the LDP. Just as its political system seemed to maturing with the emergence of a viable alternative political force, it would be a gross disenfranchisement of the Japanese electorate if the two parties were to stitch together a government regardless of the people's choice. So far, the DPJ has been an uninspiring government-in-waiting, with an ill-articulated platform to oppose the LDP. In many ways, indeed, it is an LDP-clone - a series of factions cobbled together out of convenience in the pursuit of patronage and power.

What is needed is new leadership - and as a first step the DPJ's current leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has to go. It is his own plummeting popularity, linked to a corruption case launched by prosecuters against him, that is pulling the rest of his party down with him. The danger is, that without the seasoned veteran at the helm - Mr Ozawa was once a LDP-heavyweight before defecting to the opposition in the 1990s - the DPJ would simply unravel. But for the health of Japanese politics, this is a risk worth taking. Politically paralysed by the investigation about him, he is currently mulling his future. He should step down. Under a new leader and a coherent set of ideas, the DPJ might still provide Japan with the choice it so desperately needs.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Japanese generosity

Pakistan, a terrifyingly unstable nuclear state, is desparately short of cash. But at a donor's conference in Tokyo yesterday, over $5 bn was pledged to it over the next 2 years - a fifth of that from the Japanese hosts. Japan is facing an abysmal economic outlook, with the EIU predicting a 6.4% decline in real economic output over 2009, and yet when money is needed elsewhere - whether in Pakistan, or to bolster the IMF, or for the reconstruction of Aghanistan - it is often the Liberal Democrat (LDP)-led government in Tokyo that foots a disproportionate share of the world's bills.

But what if the LDP doesn't survive a general election due this year? Having governed for all but a few months over 50 years, polls until recently suggested that the opposition Democrats (DPJ) were set to seize power from the LDP whenever the elections are called. Now the outcome seems much less clear, with the most favoured result a coalition of the two parties. But ever since its creation in 1955, the LDP has towed a staunchly pro-American line, while DPJ pronouncements on foreign policy have been at best mixed, and in November 2007 it used its commanding position in the Japanese Upper House to force the withdrawal of the Japanese navy from the Indian Ocean from where it was helping NATO in Afghanistan. With a questionable European commitment towards security in Central Asia, if the DPJ were to prevail, America could find itself without reliable allies for new initiatives in the region before the year is out - quite a change from Japan's current generosity.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Blue Menace?

The People's Republic of China has more men actively under arms than any state at peace in history, and yet it doesn't possess an aircraft carrier. The commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Admiral Wu Shengli, promised in state media yesterday a new generation of warships, submarines, fighter jets and missiles, fueling speculation that an aircraft carrier was also on the cards. An aircraft carrier would be particularly significant because it is a prerequisite for a blue-water navy, which would allow China to project conventional military power anywhere across the globe. This would be the first time a non-US ally had possessed such a capability since the end of the Cold War.

The crucial question is not if, or even so much when, China will be able to so deploy forces in any theatre it wishes. It is what its goals will be in deploying them. China, like any major player in the global economy, had a stake in maintaining shipping routes off Somalia - and has duely sent PLAN vessels there to help secure the area against piracy. But China, like any major player in the global economy, also has a stake in a stable middle east to make sure that the oil found there keeps flowing. The time will soon come when China emerges as a crucial player in the region.

This could be a boon. US actions are viewed sceptically across the world, but it is in the Middle East that there is the greatest hostility. America is seen as irredeemably pro-Israel and prone to armed aggression, and its future interventions will be seen through prisms coloured by its past actions. China, in contrast, barely has a record at all in the region so by default it is unblemeshed. In future, it may well be able to act where the US cannot by dint of its percieved greater neutrality. If China so wishes, the People's Liberation Army could be the peacekeeping force that finally settles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet there is also a more sinister world in which we could find ourselves as China begins to project military power in the far abroad. China's growing interest in African resources - which has seen diplomatic support for despotic regimes in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe - could take a military turn, with oil and metals secured against other powers by Chinese force of arms. That truely would be a repeat of the 19th century's 'Scramble for Africa', and could spread across the Middle East and even into Latin America, risking armed escalation with the US and Europe and destabilising the globe.

The choice between a destabilising and a peaceful rise is largely Beijing's - and so far its Communist Party leaders have stuck to preaching the latter. But the choice is also partly that of the developed democracies of the world - the established powers who must give ground in the decision making bodies of global economic governance to accomodate the rising Asian giants. If China has a stake in a global economy operating to its benefit, it will assert itself to protect the globalised world order. If it doesn't feel like it has such a stake, it will feel compelled to assert itself to secure its exclusive interests at the expense of others', and China, the developed democracies and everyone else on the planet would suffer as a result.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Light in Peru

The former President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, has been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his authorisation of civilian massacres and kidnappings during the country's stuggle against the Shining Path rebels in the 1990s. With an exemplary trial Peru deserves to be lauded, becoming the first Latin American country to convict one of its own democratically-elected presidents on human rights charges.

Yet while under intenational scrutiny Peru's institutions may perform, its people are more sceptical. In Latinobarometro's latest poll respondents across Latin America were asked 'How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country?' - Peru ranked dead last in the region for those 'very' or 'somewhat satisfied'. Indeed, the concern is now that the good work of the courts will be undone by the political process itself. The daughter of Mr Fujimori, Keiko Fujimori, has vowed to pardon her father if she wins presidential polls in 2011. Despite her current strong third place in opinion polling on the forthcoming election, this is pretty unlikely, with a large majority of Peruvians convinced of the guilt of her father as President.

Yet although Ms Fujimori has vowed not to seek a deal with current President Alan Garcia, his party, APRA, only holds 36 seats in the 120-seat Peruvian Congress, and must seek out allies to avoid political gridlock - the pro-Fujimori political bloc, meanwhile, holds a potentially vital 13 seats. More significantly, the field for the 2011 presidential election - in which Mr Garcia cannot run - is badly split. The leading candidate, current major of Lima Luis Castañeda Lossio, barely breaks 20% the intended vote, with last time's runner-up Ollanta Humala not far behind. The temptation for Peru's politicians to cut a deal with the Fujimoristas and promise a pardon for the former President in return for political support will be great. For the credibility of Peruvian democracy - not to mention the exigencies of justice - it should be strenuously resisted by all sides.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Regional Powers

The G20, at least in theory, gathers together the most powerful countries on the planet. But, quite obviously, not all G20 countries are of equal power. If we think about the world as divided into three tiers - global powers, regional powers and minor countries - then the current G20 has one global power, America, and perhaps soon two, or even three, if China, and perhaps the EU, develop the capacity to project their influence into most of the corners of the planet. But the rest of the G20 consists of regional powers, able to assert themselves in their backyards but of lesser import on distant continents. As the very existence of the G20 attests, as American preeminance slowly fades in the 21st century, so the significance of regional powers increases. Turkish President Abdullah Gul reflected in an interview for today's Financial Times:

Of course the US is a superpower, so they have duties, but in this region we are one of the important countries. In this region, from Afghanistan to the Balkans, from energy security to the Middle East, from terrorism to nuclear disarmament, these are issues not only of interest to Turkey but to all of the world.

The visit of the US president to Turkey was not only aiming at strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries but also of great relevance to regional and international issues.

As the power of these regional actors increases so will the respect they demand from those dealing with them. Mr Gul broke into English and interupted his translator to desribe how condescending European complaints about Turkish concerns over the appointment of new NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen were "very dangerous and making us disturbed".

West European powers, meanwhile, face a choice in a three tier world. Having once been firmly top-tier, countries such as the UK and France risk sliding into irrelevance, for while once their authority ran across their former dominions, now on their own they are no more than regional powers; regional powers, moreover, in a continent once at the centre of history, but now at its margins. America, and one day China, will care little about countries whose sway holds only in a region of peace and stability. If the UK, France and Germany want to remain even as influencial as the Turkeys of this world to the global powers in 20 or 30 years time, their only real option is to pool power and push the EU into the top tier to join them.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Vaclav Klaus: Unifier

Poor old Vaclav Klaus, the largely ceremonial President of the Czech Republic and a notorious Eurosceptic. When the centre-right government of Mirek Topolanek collapsed last month halfway through the Czech Republic's sixth-month Presidency of the EU, it looked like Brussels would be in for a bumpy ride for the next few months, with Mr Klaus holding the power to select the make-up of the next government in Prague. But such was the fear that this engendered across the Czech political spectrum, that all the major political parties have united to back a caretaker government to see the country through until the Autumn.

While political discourse is often healthier with outspoken leaders to challenge orthodoxies and cosy agreements, there is always a danger that with Mr Klaus at the helm Czech politics would not be seen as 'serious' - a condescending West European attitude towards many of the governments of the old Communist Bloc. But Czech politics is serious, and while the fall of Mr Topolanek's government was perhaps unfortunate, its political parties have shown an admirable non-partisan attitude in getting themselves out of an embarrassing fix.

Monday, 6 April 2009

America, integrate thyself

Turkish membership of the EU would be good for Turkey, good for the EU and good for stability in a swathe of fragile countries to Turkey's south-east. US President Barack Obama's call to grant the country admission to the political bloc ahead of his trip there in the coming days is thus to be welcomed, even if - despite a week of considerable personal diplomatic successes - expecting his words to inspire a sceptical Europe is optimistic lunacy. Yet of all the issues Mr Obama has addressed this week, pushing for the contentious accession and integration of a populous country on the fringes of a trade bloc is the one where he speaks with the greatest hypocrisy.

As a candidate last year, Mr Obama did his best to sound hostile to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a far loser pact than that of the modern EU. As President, Mr Obama has overseen a sharp deterioration in trade relations between the America and its immediate southern neighbour, abandoning for instance a programme to allow Mexican trucks to use US roads. Yet the case for stronger integration between the two countries is arguably far stronger than for Turkish integration into the EU, with Mexico embroiled in serious drug related violence whose ultimate cause lies in demand within its northern neighbour and whose consequences might also spill north. It would be nice to hear Mr Obama make the case for North American integration as strongly as he makes it for European.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Briefing: The world in concert

Each Sunday this blog briefs the basic background information on a major international event recently in the news. This week: The G20 gathers in London.

The most highly anticipated global summit since the end of the Cold War took place in London on April 2nd, as the G20 - 19 of the world's most powerful countries, plus the EU - gathered to discuss the economic crisis. Following the previous G20 meeting in Washington last November, this week's event cemented the place of the most powerful developing countries, such as China, India, and Brazil, at the top table of global economic governance, and diminished the importance of the G8 - the club of developed democracies (plus Russia) which had hitherto acted as the preeminent forum of the global economy. The leaders at the G20 agreed to a tripling of the resources of the International Monetary Fund, measures against tax havens and strengthened global financial regulation.

On the whole, the summit must be deemed a success. By simply not collapsing in protectionist bickering it gave a certain degree of confidence that the leaders of the world will overcome divisive national interests to promote the measures the world economy needs to recover. The strengthened IMF will be able to lend vital funds to economies in acute need, reducing the likelyhood of a catastrophic series of national bankruptcies. Yet there is a sense that the G20 largely ignored the current crisis in favour of preventing future troubles and pursuing distractions.

An overhaul of financial regulation, whilst clearly necessary to avoid a repeat of the bubble and crunch of the last decade, won't aid the global economy in the short term, whilst tax havens are an annoyance to national exchequers, not an impediment to recovery. Despite facing the worst synchronised global slump since the 1930s, EU leaders blocked US and Japanese pressure for a coordinated fiscal stimulus, which would have seen governments around the world pump more money into their economies in unison. Because of the spillover effects of government spending - increasing demand for other countries' exports as well as domestic production - coordinated stimuli are generally much more effective than each government acting alone, but governments in Europe felt that they had already spent enough and feared the long term effect of further spending on their national debt. Still, with many of the details of the promises already made still to be elaborated, the G20 set the meet again in the autumn, and the economic crisis still far from over, further coordinated government action in the near future on any of these issues should not be ruled out.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Fogh settles

After the big powers backed him a few weeks ago, the NATO summit in Strasbourg has confirmed Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the alliance's next Secretary General. The appointment had seemed in doubt until the summit itself, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angry over Mr Rasmussen's role in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005 - which even gave their Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi an excuse to delay the start of the 60th anniversary gathering in an apparent attempt to rescue the situation from his mobile phone.

Whether through Mr Berlusconi's antics or calmer council, Turkey has dropped its concerns and Mr Rasmussen is in. This is to welcomed, and not just because he should make a decent civilian leader of the transatlantic military machine. Mr Erdogan's concession follows a vote in the tarnished United Nations Human Rights Council on March 26th pushing for laws against the 'defamation of religion', backed by many Islamic governments seeking to redefine 'human rights' as defending faiths from criticism rather than individuals from persecution.

For the foremost alliance of the democratic world to have come to prolonged discord over an issue of freedom of expression would have been worrying at any time, but at this particular juncture would have sent a very concerning encouraging signal to those governments who use the law to crush the freedom of others in the name of defending a faith. Mr Erdogan - as the midly Islamist Prime Minister of a strategically vital and populous Muslim-majority state which has traditionally been governed by a secular elite - must always chart a careful course when the river of religion runs into the lake of foreign relations. He has chosen to keep the good-ship Turkey pointed in the same direction as the rest of the NATO fleet, and should be praised for doing so.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Arabian NATO

With the G20 gathering having come to an end, its transatlantic participants now move to Strasbourg to join their NATO partners at the alliance's 60th anniversary summit. The largely symbolic moments will be France's reintegration into the central command and the addition of two new Balkan members: Croatia and Albania. The substance will be the discussion over Afghanistan. President Obama did his best today to scare European audiences into backing a greater commitment from their governments. But NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has already made clear that the alliance doesn't expect Europe to suddenly produce significant numbers of troops. Indeed, it doesn't even expect Europe to put forward much more cash to pay for the operation - with an estimated $2bn a year needed to pay and train the Afghan army.

As Mr de Hoop Scheffer said, "it is difficult to see how Nato allies – given the enormous amounts they are spending keeping forces there – can bring in $2bn a year. It’s impossible for them.” Instead, the alliance is turning to countries beyond. A 'big-tent' meeting in the Hague on Tuesday was attended by “the potential major donor states – Japan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states", as Mr de Hoop Scheffer described them. With their economies in turmoil, it is easy to understand why European governments do not want the added burden of stumping up yet more cash for a seemingly distant war. Yet with oil prices below the break-even point for many Gulf State budgets, and Japanese GDP set to plunge 6.6% this year according to OECD estimates, the 'potential major donors' are hurting just as much as the Europeans, and are just as distant from the action.

That they are nevertheless willing to pay up, suggests that they feel they need to help the Americans, because one day they might need the Americans to help them - a calculation which is no longer valid for European states. Europe doesn't face an assertive Iran, Israel or China - Russia is as yet too weak to seriously threaten the old West. As the world stands, Europe doesn't seem to think it worth taking American requests seriously. How long that attitude lasts may well determine how low Europe's power sinks in the world.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


The G20 summit in London has come to an end, without any real acrimony and with the ability to claim concrete progress in terms of a much enlarged IMF. The world isn't out of its economic funk yet, but that this summit was no repeat of the infamous London Economic Conference of 1933, which collapsed in bitter protectionist feuding which only further fueled the depression then unfolding, bodes well for future successes in this new order of international diplomacy. A further G20 meeting looks certain by the end of the year, with New York and Tokyo the current front-runners as hosts.

Two questions going forward. Will we see a sense of a community of nations spilling over into both domestic politics and other international organs? And what relevance now for G8, and its meeting in Italy in July on the island of Maddalena in the Strait of Bonifacio - a body of water twixt Sardinia and Corsica which Wikipedia informs us "is notorious among sailors for its weather, currents, shoals, and other obstacles"? As I have argued elsewhere, a tighter knit body of developed democracies such as the G8 (if we quietly ignore the presence of Russia) is more important now than ever. Its fate rests in the attention and effort its country's leaders are prepared to put into it.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Dynamic duos

As world leaders gather today before the official opening of the G20 summit this evening, their bilateral meetings reveal a lot about their priorities going into the gathering.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having spent the morning with American President Barack Obama, is now meeting just about everyone. He has to, of course, since he is the host charged with forging agreement over the next two days, and whose reputation is most at stake should things go awry. Having traditionally positioned itself as a transatlantic 'bridge' between Europe and America, Britain must now pivot its purview to encompass the globe. Perhaps it is uniquely placed to do this, having occupied at one time or another part of the modern-day territories of almost all of the member states (only Mexico and Brazil avoided a sustained British presence on their soil). Suprisingly, this never gets a mention when the prospects for a British-brokered success are discussed. Mr Brown will achieve a consensus of rhetoric when it comes to eschewing protectionism and promising 'to do what is necessary' when it comes to fiscal stimulus, and a roadmap for financial regulation and IMF reform, and then we'll all await the next summit to see the details thrashed out.

Mr Obama meanwhile, between meeting his host and the resident head of state, has bilateral meetings with his Russian and Chinese counterparts. For America, then, this gathering is about managing relationships with increasingly assertive (potential) rivals. The G20 is set to be the mechanism through which the aspirations of these reemerging powers can be mediated, and Mr Obama has made it his priority to give them the attention and respect they feel is their due. This should work. While neither country will be central to the proposals discussed at the broader forum, their priorities are not the immediate outcomes of the discussion process but to cement their role within it.

Finally the leaders of continental Europe's two main powers are meeting each other, and holding a joint press conference to highlight their goals. The aim of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nikolas Sarkozy is one of advocacy, strengthening their negotiating position by first solidifying agreement between themselves. Their focus on the conference itself rather than the broader realignment of global power is perhaps a reflection of the fact that they are best placed to claim victory from the compromise that evetually will emerge in two days time, which seems certain to emphasise the need for much stricter financial regulation, long championed by both countries. But with Mr Brown and Mr Obama sounding a conciliatory note this morning, it would be pity if Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel tried to push their advantage too far.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Jostlin' for the G

With little concrete agreement going into the historic meeting, and the host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, playing down his former talk of a 'global New Deal', expectations are pretty low for the G20 summit tomorrow. The gathered leaders will doubtless once more meaninglessly condemn protectionism and profess a unity of resolves in combatting the economic crisis, but a coordinated stimulus is not on the table and even where there is a rough agreement - on the need for renewed banking regulations and a bolstered IMF - we are still probably months away from having the details fully thrashed out.

But while the London Summit may fail the needs of the global economy, in terms of future international coordination the phoenix is already in flight. The Summit is now being cast by Mr Brown's spokesman as "very much part of a process" of which "we are nearer to its beginning than to its end." Italy, France, Japan and South Korea are already jostling to host the next G20 summit to continue the discussion. China is growing into its role as one of the major players on the planet. Even if come the weekend there is little concrete to show for it, the new era of concert diplomacy is undoubtedly here to stay.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The money men meet

The G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors met in London today, to thrash out the outlines of the eventual full summit on April 2. The official communique which sums this up thus gives us the best sense of what will - and won't - be achieved in three weeks time.

The biggest achivement seems to be agreement on more cash and responsibilities for the IMF, which will probably be accompanied by its restructuring to bring on board more members of the developing world. Its always nice to hear a commitment "to fight all forms of protectionism and maintain open trade and investment", but there was no sense of momentum to revive the quietly dying Doha round of WTO talks. Europe, meanwhile seems to have won the 'further stimulus vs financial regulation' transatlantic squabble as to the focus of the meeting. The "key priority" is to tackle the "problems in the financial system head on", while the wording concerning fiscal expansion is self-congratulatory, and it is to be 'sustained' rather than expanded.

The G20, in a best case senario, will boost the flagging global economy not so much by the quality of the proposals in and of themselves, but by reassuring markets that the world's leading nations are indeed capable of coordinating an effective response to the crisis. Simply reequipping the IMF will not be enough, at least not after US National Economic Council Director Larry Summers made plain the view of the American administration that a further global stimulus is needed, and brought the divided attitude of the developed world clearly into the open.

Broadening our perspective then, and the long-term outcome of the G20 talks is set to be an entrenching of the developing world in the highest mechanisms of global governance, with the G20 itself emerging as the undisputed first forum for tackling the pressing problems of global economics, and a reshaped IMF being its primary result. But if the talks held so far are any indication, the summit in April will also reveal the continuing deficit of cooperation between the developed democracies which until now have run the show themselves.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Wish List

The developed democracies of the world have paired-off into two camps. Hopefully, all can agree on the evils of protectionism and crowd-pleasing clamp-downs on tax havens. But at the moment, the Europeans are focusing on regulation and resisting calls for further stimulus, while the Americans and Japanese are pushing for renewed global government spending and holding out a beefed-up IMF (which would help among others struggling economies in central and eastern Europe) as the reward. We could get all this if we're lucky, or we could get nothing but vague promises of future frameworks. The London Summit is less than three weeks away.

Taro'ed with the same brush

Surely this time the LDP, which has governed Japan continuously since 1955 apart from a few short months in 1993, will be firmly thrown out of power? The Japanese economy is in the midst of its worst slump since the devastation of the Second World War, and support for the scandal-hit cabinet of current LDP Prime Minister Taro Aso barely breaks two-digits. But now the leader of the opposition DJP, Ichiro Ozawa, who had appeared almost certain to win a general election due by September, is himself facing a growing storm of corruption allegations.

The DJP will probably still win the election, since their support is a product of dissatisfaction with the LDP rather than enthusiasm for their own leaders and loosely articulated platform. But even if they win, the DJP is little but a clone of the LDP, based on factional alliances of convenience rather than ideological bonds. In the long run, govenment in such a manner isn't a particularly healthy way to run a democracy.

An optimist might hope that if Mr Aso and Mr Ozawa are ousted by their parties, a new generation of leaders will emerge to steer their parties into clear ideological waters. Alternatively, a decisive defeat for the LDP might cause it to collapse as its role as a sure ladder of patronage for the traditional elite is cast into doubt, leading in turn to a tectonic realignment of Japanese politics as fresh parties spring into life, perhaps pulling the DJP apart in the process. Unless that happenes, the much-heralded first stable non-LDP government in 50 years might well mark no significant break.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Une certaine idée de l'indépendance

France is back in NATO's integrated military command. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who made it a personal mission to lead it there, argues it will boost French influence in the world. His critics across the domestic political spectrum argue it will diminish French independence. Many military analysts argue it will have no discernable effect on NATO at all. There is truth in all these assertions.

Full NATO membership undoubtedly makes plain France's primary loyalties, perhaps making its diplomatic wiggle-room that little bit narrower. But gone are the days when claiming that France could lie 'between East and West' made any sort of sense, or when Paris could project significant solo influence abroad anywhere except pockets of Africa. A seat at the highest tables of military decision making in the developed world will give France the chance to help shape NATO's future direction. It might also make an integrated EU military structure - arguably Sarzoky's true design - a little more likely.

But NATO's capabilities have not been augmented: France has made no fresh troop commitments to match its renewed political will. Nor has France's reintegration made NATO's future path any clearer: a new Strategic Concept is long overdue, with the last one unveiled as long ago as 1999. Political commitment to the transatlantic alliance is to be undoubtedly celebrated. But NATO's successes in the short run are dependent on the forces it can actually commit; its relevance in the longer term on a vision of what to do with them.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Ominous arguments

On the eve of a G20 summit designed to coordination the responses of the major world actors to the largest economic crisis since the 1930s, the difficulty of actually forging agreement both between the established and emerging powers and within the developed democracies themselves has been on painful display in the past few days.

A spat in the South China Sea both demonstrated the importance of military coordination between the US and China, and the more prosaic regional issues on which such cordination will in the first instance be based. At talks last weekend, piracy and Afghanistan were on the agenda, but until the can work out and agree on their respective roles within East Asia the potential for instability will be ever-present.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and chair of the Eurozone finance ministers, Jean-Claude Junker, summed up the attitude of many European countries when he contemptuously dismissed US proposals for increased and coordinated stimuli as "not to our liking". NATO countries continue to refuse to offer extra troops to serve in Afghanistan. If the transatlantic community cannot agree on common positions, it is hard to see how they will succeed in bringing the developing world on board.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Libertarian escapism

The Economist's traditional free market editorial line has taken a battering over the past year. With capitalism 'at bay', the instictively libertarian magazine has been forced into some tactical retreats in its economic prescriptions. Last week, pragmatism trumped idealism, and it called for the nationalisation of some of the world's biggest banks. This week, however it calls for an end to prohibition: the legalisation of the recreational drugs fueling crime, insurgency and additiction across the globe.

In seven days, then, from the practical and probable to the politically impossible. Even if it must conceed ground in the economic sphere, the Economist still carries the flame of political liberty deep into dark recesses where policymakers may never actually tred. The current global downturn is scary enough, but any shock which would cause the Economist to abandon its social advocacy - whether or not one actually agrees with what its proposing - would be truely, truely terrifying.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Fogh lifts

Proof: developed democracies are capable of coordination. Or are least they are when it comes to political appointments to head their organisations.

It appears that the next secretary-general of Nato, by tradition a European rather than American, will be Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, after Britain, France and Germany agreed to back him for the post. His supposed biggest challenger to become NATO's top diplomat, Poland's smooth-talking Oxford-educated Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, apparently prooved too alarming for the Russians. While Mr Sikorski has endeavoured to built bridges with the Kremlin in his latest role for the moderate Civic Platform-led government, he is paying the price for a previous job as Defence Minister in the much more Russophobic Law and Justice-led administration which left office in 2007, as well as Poland's decision to cooperate with the US over missile defence.

One casualty of Mr Rasmussen's probable elavation is the cause of European unity - or at least of the further integration of Denmark into the EU. Mr Rasmussen was considered a leading candidate for the first permanent President of the European Council, a position whose existence awaits the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty. Mr Rasmussen has presumably decided that he cannot wait forever, and now won't endeavour to carry Denmark into the euro or abolish some of its opt-outs in a last-minute attempt to secure a reputation as a 'good European'. Set to benefit are all those undeclared candidates for the post of President of Europe - should it ever come into being - among whose numbers is apparently Britain's former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Knelling renewal

A column by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in today's financial times gives me an oppotunity to sum up the conclusions of two longer blog posts earlier in the week. Mr Keating argues:

What is needed is a new global economic and political settlement. The first priority should be to make the G20 a permanent gathering. The leaders should meet at least once a year and, in current circumstances , twice. A permanent G20 structure, representative of the major debtor and creditor countries and the most strategically powerful ones, will sound the death knell of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations. This is two decades too late, but better late than never.

The first two sentences, in the context of an altered global order, are undeniably sound. Ideally, the G20 should be institutionalised with a secretariat to give it the coherence it has lacked since its formation in the aftermath of the Asian and Russian financial crises a decade ago. But far from heralding the end of the G7, a broader concert of powers makes a developed democratic concert more important than ever. A coordinated position of the developed democracies is the best hope of nudging the G20 towards stricter measures concerning nuclear proliferation, the environment and human rights. It is also the best hope of lending coherence to the G20 even on issues with a basic consensus - with 20 countries to bring on board for any measure, prior agreement between some of the more powerful members will naturally aid negotiation. The G7 should be deepened, and perhaps widened, but certainly not abolished.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Covert Grand Bargaining

America and Russia have both pooh-poohed talk of a "quid pro quo" deal to halt the missile defence project in Europe in exchange for Russian support for sanctions on Iran. If cooperation on neither of these matters is not forthcoming, it suggests that we are in for a period of renewed tensions between the old Cold War foes. But thankfully that isn't the sense emerging from Washington or Moscow at the moment at all.

Russian President Dimitri Medvedev is against a simple deal, but has not ruled out a broader set of agreements. His stated position is that “if we are talking about some sort of trade or exchange, then I can say that the question cannot be put that way – it’s not productive.” Which of course implies that if the question was phrased differently, it may well get positive response - one hopes that American diplomacy can manage a formulation a little more subtle. Indeed it already has, in the month-old letter from the incoming American administration which sparked the latest rebutals: “to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for or the need for a missile defence system”, is how the outline was described by American President Barack Obama. Strengthened sanctions for shelved shields is still a senario still firmly on the negotiating table. If this comes as part of a more complex set of understandings between the Russian and American governments then this would probably be a good thing.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

G what?

The previous blog post discussed the need for a renewed concert of developed democracies. What, in practice would this look like?

Lets start with the existing G7: the US, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Canada. Add in Spain, which today has a bigger GDP than Canada, and South Korea and Australia to take into account rich democratic Asia. Defining 'developed' as a GDP per capita of at least $25,000 per annum by purchasing power parity, and measuring clout by total nominal GDP, and we would thus have gathered together the world's ten most powerful developed democracies. Throw in a seat to represent the EU as a whole and that would leave us with a G11.

Such an arrangement would bring together two-fifths of global GDP and four-fifths of global military spending. Its purpose would be to coordinate policy among developed democracies to give their positions greater weight within the broader multilateral institutions now emerging, particularly in their areas of non-proliferation, But it would leave out developing democracies of increasing significance, most notably Brazil, India and South Africa. Most proposals for a concert of democracies are explicitly designed to bring these emerging powers on board. But this assumes that the foreign policy alignments of developing democracies are informed more by their 'democratic' nature than there 'developing' nature, and this is manifestly false. India, for example, is the world's largest democracy. But its desire to develop trumps concerns over the environment or qualms over support for the brutal regime in Myanmar, and it became the first country to distort its civilian nuclear industry for military purposes in the 1970s. India, looking out at the world, has more in common with autocratic emerging powers than the already developed democracies of Europe, North America or East Asia-Pacific. Then-President George Bush's attempts to tempt it into a new American orientation during his second term in office only succeeded in blurring and damaging the Non-Proliferation Treaty, not in affirming it.

This is not to say that the developed democracies should make any new group they form exclusive, except in terms of clout and goals. Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India and so forth, should be allowed and indeed encouraged to join if they prove willing to push for non-proliferation, environmental protection and an end to human rights abuses worldwide, but these goals will get lost if such countries are begged to sign up for the sake of democratic-solidarity alone. Agreement on such goals cannot be taken as a simple corrolary of a democratic political system, even if the emerging democratic powers would prove an invaluable asset to their attainment should they use their influence to such ends. Until then, the developed democracies of the world must push such causes alone, and must organise to do so.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Keeping friends close, and relations closer

Characterising America's interests in East Asia last week following US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's tour of the region and Japanese Premier Taro Aso's visit to Washington, Philip Stevens cast America's dealings with Japan as still its most important friendship in the region, but its dealings with China as nevertheless its most important relationship. If the ferocious recent growth of China doesn't prove Sisyphean, soon a similar framework will be established on a global scale: America's partnership with the developed democracies of the world will remain much closer than that with China, but that with China will have most bearing on the course of the world.

If we assess the major issues facing the global community - trade (and energy) security, economic crises, failed states, state conflict, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and human rights - there exists a rough consensus of rhetoric addressing them all among the major powers: even China pays lip service to 'democracy' and the rights of its people and others. But there is a dramatic sliding scale of agreement as to the significance and shape of appropriate policies in each of these areas. In practice, the Chinese leadership places states' rights inviolably above those of people, almost always sees the needs of development trumping those of the environment, and is much more sanguine about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. The governments of the developed democracies, meanwhile, typically give greater weight to each of these issues and advocate a much more proactive policy with respect to them. It is much easier for Europe, America, Japan and Australia to elaborate a common position concerning them than it is to bring China on board.

Over the weekend, the US and China held defence talks that signalled warmer relations between the two countries set to dominate the 21st century, and highlighted the areas where China is, in contrast, a much more willing partner. Discussions centred on anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, where People's Liberation Army vessels have been operating since January - their first ever 'out of area' mission. Another important topic on the agenda was the security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan - the first time bilateral Chinese-American talks on the region had been held. America is clearly hoping that China will become a responsible stakeholder in the world and is encouraging it in that direction - and so it should.

For the clout of Beijing to go untapped would be maddess. There are clearly issues on our list above - trade security, economic issues, failing states, conflict and terrorism - were there is a broader, if far from complete, pattern of agreement as to the neccesary steps the major powers must take to secure stability in the world. Such a situation points to the renewed concert of great powers that the G20 meeting in London in April seems to suggest is now emerging. But it would equally foolhardy to abandon completely heightened cooperation of developed democracies which has since the fall of the Soviet Bloc served as the de facto primary mechanism of global governance, with its institutional expression in the G7 and the Bretton Woods' institutions. For while it is neccesary than emerging powers are given a seat at the top tables as soon as possible, a corrolary to such a reordering is that if issues which usually lie beyond the strategic and development concerns of such powers are to be pushed, the developed world must find even stronger mechanisms to coordinate their positions on such issues. If we want progress on human rights, the environment and nuclear proliferation in the future, it is vital that the developed democracies of the world strengthen their own concert, on top of nuturing that of the world as a whole. We need a G20, but a G20 only makes a reinvigorated club of developed democracies more important than before.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Iraq: bipartisan

The Democrats won two elections in America - in 2006 and 2008 - on the strength of their ardent opposition to continuing the Iraq war, which the governing Republican party had championed and botched. That Barack Obama's plans to end 'combat' operations by August 2010 have been welcomed by both Republicans and Democrats shows the extent to which the debate has moved on from the three-year campaign season which finally came to a close last November. Iraq's increasing stability has made an orderly withdrawal seem sensible to all sides, while the war remains unpopular enough to render continued Republican jingoism unpolitic. In any case, within Washington, foreign policy issues have been swamped by economic concerns.

Yet the broad bipartisan support for Obama's plan also shows that the American system, outdated and perverse as it often seems, can at times still function as healthy democracy should. On his left, the President has congressional Democrats forcing him to justify the continued presence of 50,000 soldiers in the country for training Iraqi units and counter-terrorist activities; on the right he has Republicans obtaining assurances that there exists a 'Plan B' should the progress secured to date begin to unravel and the violence increase. But all have swung behind an eminently sensible compromise to end the occupation without unneccesarily jeapodising the gains made so far. It is of course relatively easy to secure bipartisan support for foreign policy, when so much of the ultimate decision making power for adventures abroad rests in the hands of the President. But the emergence of a rough centrist consensus concerning the Iraq war is undoubtedly a welcome contrast to the fractious factionalism that still infects domestic politics: a Beltway blessing of the tentative progress in Iraq.

Bibi doesn't budge

Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party in Israel, was right this week to lead it into negotiations with the right-wing Likud party, who it beat at the poles but whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is nevertheless more likely to become Israel's next Prime Minister. If, as Livni herself suggested, those talks fell apart yesterday because Likud refused to accept the two-state principle in the Palestinian conflict, then she was also right to reject the deal. It would be impossible for an Israeli government to negotiate honestly with the Palestinians without first agreeing on such a solution as the desired outcome, and it would be better for Kadima to retreat into opposition than to participate in a government possessing no real plan to bring about peace.

Nenatyahu will now turn to the religious right and entice them into an unholy marriage with the hard-line secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party who have already agreed to back Likud. The best hope for the cause of peace is that such a coalition will be as fragile as its religious incoherence suggests, and that it collapses before it can do too much harm to the battered peace process. Whether Isreali voters will deliver a more practicable distribution of power at the next election is, to say the least, somewhat moot.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Briefing: Stimulus

Each Sunday this blog briefs the basic background information on a major international event recently in the news. This week: Barack Obama signs into law a $787 billion stimulus Act.

The passage of the world's largest ever economic recovery package is US President Barack Obama's first major achievement in office. But it came without the hoped-for bipartisan support, and on its own it will be unable to rescue the troubled American economy.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 became law last Tuesday after President Obama appended his signiture to a compromise hashed out between the two houses of the US Congress the week before. Designed to alleviate and shorten the current recession by boosting demand in the US economy, it is a mixture of government spending on infrastructure and social programmes amounting to two-thirds of the total, and tax cuts accounting for the final third. After the inaction of the outgoing Bush administration in its final months in office, speed was seen as essential to shore up collapsing confidence in the economy and prove that Washington was capable of enacting effective and timely aid. The passage of such a large bill less than a month after taking office is an undoubted success for the new President.

However, the neccesary haste with which it was passed carried it own problems. Detailed scrutiny of the bill in such a short timeframe was impossible, and the Act in its final incarnation is far from flawless. It contains feast of 'pork' - projects designed not for their economic effectiveness but to win voter support for individual congressmen and women - protectionist signals to foreign countries with provisions to 'Buy American', and measures making it harder for foreigners to obtain Visas. More important in terms of the image of Mr Obama was his failure in the time avaliable to win over more than three Republicans to his cause. The rest of the Senate Republicans and the entire Republican contingent in the lower house adamantly opposed the bill, undermining Mr Obama's prior claims to usher in a new era of bipartisanship. Yet it is the Republicans who deserve most of the blame for this, holding out for package far more skewed towards tax-cuts than government spending, and it is they rather than the Democratic President that most polls shows Americans blaming for the lack of compromise.

Even if most macroeconomists supported the stimulus package, there remains great uncertainly as to whether it will succeed. What seems clear, however, is that on its own it will struggle to do so, and the Obama administration must follow it up with a comprehensive package to help rebuild a functioning financial system, without which the economy as whole stands little hope of recovery. So far the proposals to do so have been worryingly vague but there is an increasing consensus that radical government intervention may be neccesary in the banking sector, with once unthinkable options - such as nationalisation - firmly in prospect. Unless the financial underpinnings of the economy are reconstructed, the early success of President Obama in getting his stimulus package passed will be for nought.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Mulling over Moscow

Both the US and Russia want strategic arms reduction, a Taliban and terrorist-free Afghanistan and a non-nuclear Iran. They disagree over the role of US power in Eastern Europe and the presence of a missile shield in its centre. At first glance, these latter issues pale next to the former, and the importance of minimising the risk of a nuclear atrocity. Might they be abandoned in the pursuit of a 'grand bargain' with Russia to pursue the greater goals?

The outlook for US-Russian relations is certainly warmer under President Obama than it would have been under a President McCain. McCain never minced his words about the Russian state or President-cum-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in whose very eyes he claimed "to see the letters K, G and B". His characterisation of the Russian system as a "new Authoritarianism" may well have been accurate, but such candidness would undoubtedly have soured relations between the Bear and the Eagle right from the start. Yet even Mr Obama doesn't have it easy dealing with Moscow - anti-Americanism is much more entrenched in the old heartland of the Soviet Union than across the rest of Europe and the new President will gain less of a boost for simply not being George Bush.

Of the matters over which the two powers broadly agree, a new START treaty limiting the numbers of nuclear warheads and ICBMs is widely held to be the easiest to garner agreement on. Russia is at least prepared to offer logistical support to NATO troops in Afghanistan, even if it is making America's life difficult in Central Asia by encouraging the closure of its remaining military bases there.

Tactics differ considerably over Iran, meanwhile, with Washington in recent years much more inclined to take a hard line with Tehran and leave the military option on the table. But a broad compromise firmly tying together the central European missile shield and Iran would be viable, with America agreeing to slow down its plans to build radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland in return for much greater levels of Russian support in putting pressure on the Iranians. After all, not pursuing the shield until the threat of an Iranian missile attack becomes much more immediate would have the added bonus of convincing the Russians that it is in fact designed to counteract Iranian missiles and not their own.

But not all US-Russian tensions can be so easily lumped together and solved at a stroke. There may indeed be a temptation in Washington to buy Russian support elsewhere by quietly abandoning support for Atlanticist leaders in countries in Russia's 'near abroad'. Ukraine and Georgia are at best imperfect democracies, and are former Soviet Republics that the Kremlin has long deemed to be firmly within its own sphere of influence. Letting it dictate to governments in Tblisi and Kiev might seem a cheap price to pay for the promise of a safer world, with fewer nuclear warheads, a stable Afghanistan and a neutralised Iran.

This would be a grave error. While governments anywhere in the world are democratising and looking to the Open World, the Open World - and especially America, as its most prominent and powerful member - should offer them support. It might seem like the short term expedience of abandoning liberalising regimes for the sake of harsh Realpolitik outweighs any moral imperatives - perhaps in times of crisis, such as at the height of the Cold War, it does. But the power of reputation and consistency of action should never be underestimated. Letting nascent democracies fall on the edge of Europe will make entrentching democracy anywhere in the future even harder, as governments all over the world learn what a fickle friend the Open World proved to be. Russia, meanwhile, will learn that bullying and aggression work; such a pact may in fact increase its intransigence on other issues as it again digs its heals in and tries to extract the maximum concessions avaliable. The alarm of other former Soviet satellites, even those safely behind the borders of both NATO and the EU, would further destabilise the region should America begin withdrawing its backing from those most in need.

Russia is a vital partner on many of the most imporant issues President Barack Obama faces, but it can be encouraged to cooperate on most of them because it is in its own interests to do so. Care must be taken not too offer too much in a vain attempt to win Russia round. If the price asked for such cooperation is an abandonment of liberal values it is probably a price too high.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Learning not to loath Lieberman

Last week's Israeli election produced an even more indecisive result than usual. Just about the only clear winner to emerge was the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which overtook once mighty Labour to become the third largest in the Knesset after Kadima and Likud. The platform of Yisrael Beiteinu is unabashedly anti-Arab, with plans to force Arab-Israelis who refuse to swear allegiance to Israel and fight in its army to leave, and to redraw Israel's borders to exclude major concentrations of the Arab-Israeli population. Such an ultranationalist outfit should have no place in a healthy and vibrant liberal democracy. Yet Yisrael Beiteinu is at the centre of post-election deal-making in Israel: the party to whom it assigns its support will almost certainly go on to form the next Israeli government.

Yesterday Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu's founder and leader, announced his preference for Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the rightwing Likud party, to be the next Prime Minister. But his endorsement came with a twist:

“We recommend Benjamin Netanyahu only in the framework of a broad government. We want a government with the three biggest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu.”

It is easy to see why such an arrangement would appeal to Yisrael Beiteinu, allowing it to continue to play the insurgent against the two largest governing groups whilst sharing in the spoils of power. Bringing Kadima on board also obviates an alliance with the gaggle of religious parties on whom a rightist government would otherwise rely, and with whose beliefs the staunch secularism of Yisrael Beiteinu would jarringly clash.

But, out of the mess and rightwards drift that last week's election produced, such an arrangement also represents the just about the best hope of progress towards an eventual Arab-Israeli settlement. The constituent members of such a coalition are not at all promising. The outgoing Kadima government was responsible for unleashing a fresh torrent of illwill in the Arab world through its recent war in Gaza. Mr Netanyahu's last period in office in the late 1990s crushed the momentum of the Oslo Accords. Yisrael Beiteinu takes almost as hard a line towards Palestinians in the Territories as he does to those within Israel proper.

Yet if a peace deal is ever to be made, it is better to have the three largest Israeli parties behind it from the beginning, rather than encouraged to attack it from the opposition. A tripartite coalition would make a much more coherent partner for both the Americans and the Palestinian leadership than the confused assemblages of disparate groupings that usually make up the Israeli government. A government independent of the smallest Israeli parties might also be in a position to make concrete steps towards constitutional reform, curtailing the almost 'perfect' proportionality which continually produces a succession of weak regimes incapable of effectively ruling.

At the moment, Likud have signalled a desire to work with Kadima, but Kadima is still insisting that unless it leads the coalition instead of Likud it will move into opposition. But for the sake of an eventual settlement it should reverse this stance, but make its cooperation contingent from the beginning on genuine steps towards a lasting peace. If Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu sign up to this, the Obama-regime in America will be given an opening to hold them to their word, and there might just be the beginnings of momentum towards a settlement with the Palestinians. However repugnant their platform, the current proposal of Yisrael Beiteinu should be seized. Amid a great deal of dispair among those hoping for peace sooner rather than later, it represents the best coalition option currently avaliable.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Great shame?

At last week's Munich Security Conference American Vice-President Joe Biden spoke of NATO's often strained relationship with Russia, highlighting common concerns - in Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation - where they could work together, but also warning "we will not agree with Russia on everything".

We will not recognize a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.

Earlier today the Kyrgyzstan parliament voted to close the last remaining US base in Central Asia - with full Russian support. Meanwhile new supply routes through the region are being formulated - but again only at the sufferance of Moscow. The latest installment of the 'Great Game' in Central Asia isn't being won by any of the current combatants at all. Instead, one of the most important lasting effects of the NATO mission may well be the tacit American acknowledgement of reestablished Russian hegemony in the region.

Spheres of influence have a bad reputation: the abandonment of half of Europe to the Soviet empire was one of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century. But they are only pernicious when they are involuntary. The crucial line of Mr Biden's quoted above was not his guff about spheres of influence, but his point that sovereign states should be free to choose their friends. Since the second world war, Western Europe has been within an American military sphere of influence; since the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe has been within a Western European economic one. Today, Russian attempts to subvert the governments of the Baltics or Georgia should be resisted, because as sovereign states they are free to reject such influence and are largely chosing to do so. But by precisely the same reasoning NATO will recognise a Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia, because the governments of the region have entered into one of their own volition. These governments include among their ranks some of the least democratic regimes on earth, but without the acute humanitarian disaster that could justify a liberal intervention, they are the governments that the Open World will have to deal with. That they want to reject an American military presence is, perhaps, to be lamented, and will constrain NATO attempts to secure Afghanistan further. But this is one Russian sphere of influence that America is going to have to - and indeed should - accept for now.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Democratic hope

The Italian opposition is rudderless, after Walter Veltroni quit as leader of the centre-left Democratic Party. When they lost the general election last April to Silvio Berlusconi's coalition of the People of Freedom and the Northern League, this blog counciled patience for the Democrats, arguing that they should invest time in forging a coherent centre-left identity and seek to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the governing coalition. But following a string of regional election set-backs and corruption scandals, Veltroni leaves the party in danger of unravelling, disorientated by the economic crisis, the resiliance of the Berlusconi government and its own failure to formulate and project a credible image.

It would be gravely disappointing if the Democratic Party, formed in October 2007 out of the two then-largest leftist blocs, was to collapse again, or to abandon attempts to stake out the centre ground by instead attempting to recreate the broad leftist coalition of the previous Prodi regime by reaching out to far left groupings ousted from the legislature at the last election. While the last election produced a troublingly xenophobic and populist government, one blessing to emerge was a much simplified political landscape with a greatly reduced number of parties in parliament. Rather than two disparate blocs, each straddling both the Catholic centre and the extremes, it seemed that Italian voters would in future face a clear choice between a pair of major parties, one on the centre-left and one on right, which in turn would make the process of actually elaborating government policy a lot more efficient. Reaching out to the Communists risks returning either to the old incoherent political blocs or a wholesale abandonment of the reformist centre - an alarming development in the midst of an economic slum.

Economic realism need not come at the expense of political success, for forming a credible centrist alternative remains a viable medium term strategy for the Democrats. The Berlusconi regime remains heavily dependent on the charisma of the Prime Minister himself to hold the coalition together and keep up support in the polls, but Mr Berlusconi is almost certainly too old to contest the next election personally, and will instead spend the next few years distracted by his attempts to end his political career in the largely ceremonial Presidency. This desire was in evidence when he deliberately sent the country into constitutional crisis to undermine the current leftist incumbant earlier in the month, when he issued a decree to keep alive an Italian woman who had entered persistent vegetative state 17 years ago which the President then refused to sign. If the Italian public have to face such shenanigans - against the backdrop of a truely dire economy - for the next few years, only an opposition in utter disarray could fail to capitalise. It is up to the Democratic Party to hold themselves together, and hold true to the moderate platform they have largely represented up to now.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Berlin to Baghdad

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Germans scented riches and strategic gain in the sands of Mesopotamia, and so began construction of a railway line from Baghdad to Konya in Anatolia, to join up with existing lines that stretched all the way to Berlin. Now they're back, or at least their foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is, on the first visit of a German minister to Iraq since 1987. As they were 100 years ago, Germany is again active in the region to build bonds with the regional hegemon. In 1903 it was the Ottoman Empire that was considered an ally worth fostering; this time around its the Americans.

Mr Steinmeier arrives promising the promotion of stability through closer economic co-operation, and support for "a peaceful settlement between religious and ethnic groups" and "democratic consolidation" for "this new Iraq". Proactive German involvement in the country is a far cry from the empty handwringing which accompanied first the invasion and then chaos of the last 6 years, and its an open secret that this sudden engagement is due entirely to a new man at the top in the US. Global goodwill towards Barack Obama is legendary, and European governments are keen to appear willing to heed his call for greater support in cutting the trickiest knots that the US finds itself tied up in. The Germans recognise that they must now in some form up their support of their NATO allies, and backing the new Iraq is simply more palatable than sending more troops to Afghanistan and letting them see front-line action in the hostile south.

But there is only so much favour in Washington that the deployment of soft power alone can generate. Obama's priority is now the forthcoming 'surge' in Afghanistan; simply supporting Iraq economically will not enough if Europeans want to stay relevant to the superpower. Helping consolidate a battle already largely won will not suffice when Germany has the wherewithal to help win the battle in the first place. It is perhaps too much to expect the fragile coalition government in Germany to reopen the subject of German military adventures abroad in the run-up to tense federal elections in the Autumn. But come the end of the year much more will be expected of Chancellor Angela Merkel, or indeed a Chancellor Steinmeier if his SPD out-polls her CDU, than a delegation to Baghdad.

The Berlin to Baghdad railway was incomplete and largely irrelevant during the conflict that began in 1914, and upon the Great War's cessation the railway was taken out of German hands, to eventually be completed in 1940 to serve against it in yet another world war. One wishes the Germans a lot more success as they have another go at engaging Baghdad a century later. If it proves a precursor to greater German commitments elsewhere it is to welcomed wholeheartedly. If not, Berlin's attempts to please America will be about as successful as its Mesopotamian railways.

Monday, 16 February 2009

The Revolution Will Not Yet Be Finalised

Hugo Chavez has won the extended term limits he tried and failed to secure in a referendum in late 2007, by winning the latest plebiscite 54.4% to 45.4%. Talk of the Bolivarian revolution unravelling a year ago was clearly premature. This time around, the crucial difference seems to have been Mr Chavez's more modest proposals - with a mere 5 articles of his 1999 Constitution up for amendment rather than a wopping 69 - and a much higher turn-out of 67% rather than 56%. With international observers widely reporting a clean and fair vote, Mr Chavez's social movement still clearly commands a wide base, and unlike in December 2007, this time it was able to energise it and bring it to the polls. Mercifully this was managed without the usual shrill attacks on 'imperialist' America and Spain that Mr Chavez uses to drum up nationalist support, but not without ugly anti-semitic violence accompanying the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador on January 6th.

Of course, not all the problems facing the Venezuelan leader have simply evaporated. Half the government budget comes from oil revenue, leaving it cruelly exposed now that oil prices are bobbing below $40 and the economy falters. There are already signs that Mr Chavez's chequebook diplomacy is scaling down - should his domestic social programmes follow suit he may be in real trouble. But he doesn't face the voters again until 2012, by which time a global recovery - including one in oil prices - should be underway. The marrionette spirit of Simon Bolivar will haunt Venezuela for a few years yet.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Briefing: Zimbabwe

Each Sunday this blog briefs the basic background information on a major international event recently in the news. This week: Morgan Tsvangirai is sworn in as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai last week finally agreed to a power-sharing arrangement following disputed elections last March. Mr Mugabe will retain the Presidency, but Mr Tsvangirai becomes Prime Minister and the oppostion will control just over half the seats in the cabinet.

Mr Mugabe has ruled in Zimbabwe since the end of white-minority rule in 1980, having previously been a prominent leader of the black opposition and armed-resistance. For years his regime, led by the ZANU-PF party, was on the whole considered a rare African democratic success story, but since the end of the 1990s Zimbabwe has experienced international condemnation and a combination of crippling domestic crises. These began with a land-seizure programme from white farmers, which has in turn triggered famine and hyper-inflation, while more recently the country has also been hit by a cholera epidemic. ZANU-PF has been forced to use brutal repression, harassment of the opposition MDC party and election-rigging to hold onto power.

Yet nevertheless, the opposition won a majority in parliament in elections last March and the candidate of the MDC, Mr Tsvangirai, almost won the Presidential election in the first round, only to withdraw from the contest before the decisive second round was held amid mounting ZANU-PF sponsored violence, leaving Mr Mugabe to win uncontested. Since then the opposition and government have been locked in talks brokered by the largely toothless Southern African Development Community, with a deal appearing in outline last September but only finalised on Wednesday with the swearing in of Mr Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.

While the agreement represents progress from sole ZANU-PF rule, serious doubts remain as to its actual effectiveness. It is unclear how much real authority ZANU-PF, which still controls the army and will jointly oversee the police, has ceded to the MDC, and how co-operative long standing enemies will prove sharing government. Even more worrying, the Zimbabwean economy still lies in utter ruin, and even a united and fully functioning government would find its tasks Herculean. Large-scale international aid from the US and Britain awaits decisive proof that the deal is more than a smokescreen and that Mr Tsvangirai is actually allowed to govern.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

European relevance

Europe merited no direct mention in Barack Obama's inaugural speech last month, and it was three days before the new American President phoned a European leader, having contacted the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority just a day after taking office. The Economist notes that Europe might have thus slipped somewhat down the list of American foreign-policy priorities. Good. Why should Europe have trumped the middle east, say, in absorbing precious moments during Obamas first hours in charge? War had ravaged Gaza until mere days before the swearing-in. Iraq and Afghanistan - the only foreign countries to merit a mention in the inaugural speach - are theatres of continuing conflict. Iran, which may be months away from aquiring a nuclear weapon, recieved a further oblique reference in the speech with the offer "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist".

Should Europe be worried if it is overshadowed by more pressing foreign issues? No. Europe hasn't disappeared: even if it recieved no explicit recognition in the inaugural speech, its continued centrality to the operation of US foreign policy was still implied. It is hard to read lines such as:

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.


To those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders.

without reading them as references to the proactive role the US hopes that Europe will come to play in the world.

A non-European focus to the early days of the current US administration shows not an indifference to Europe, then, but a shift in the position of Europe in US foreign-policy thinking since the end of the Cold War. For much of the 20th century, America was troubled with the problem of securing an undivided Europe of peace and prosperity. When I spoke before the US election to Erik Jones, an advisor affiliated to the Obama campaign, he described how until the last few years,

when we talked about 'foreign policy', we talked about what was happening in Europe. Now we talk about what's happening in Europe because want to see what Europe is going to be able to do to help us in dealing with the outside world. Europe has become much more the instrument of foreign policy concerns than the object.

That Europe is no longer listed alongside the dilemmas facing an incoming US administration is to be celebrated rather than feared. Europe risks irrelevance only if shirks the global obligations to the still outstanding problems of the world that come with being one of the problems now solved.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Barbarians within the walls

The spectre of state failure should concern us all, even those within countries least at risk of it themselves. On top of the humanitarian obligations that increasing anarchy elsewhere imposes on those with the means to remedy the situation, failing states can pose a threat to the developed world by harbouring elements capable of striking at it. "It was not the well-organised Persian Empire that brought about the fall of Rome, but the barbarians”, as the eminent British diplomat Robert Cooper argues in his book The Breaking of Nations, quoted approvingly in last weeks Economist. While the Roman Empire represented stability, "outside the empire were barbarians, chaos and disorder."

The trouble is that this historical analogy is misleadingly false. The Germanic successor kingdoms that emerged from within the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries were by no means the first "barbarian" structures of the Roman dominion. Indeed, ever since the days of the Republic, "barbarians" were employed to hold, defend and expand swathes of Roman territory, and with a military career a sure route to political power, Rome even began to have "barbarian" emperors from the 3rd century onwards. Successive waves of Germanic migration from at least the 2nd century BC put pressure on Rome, but "barbarians" were successfully absorbed into Roman structures of power for centuries, with those who led military expiditions against the empire often subsequently promoted to positions of power within it; even Attila the Hun was awarded the title of magister militum and was recruited by the rulers of Rome. Romulus Augustus, whose abdication in 476 is usually taken as marking the end of the Empire in the west, was the last Western Emperor because for Odoacer, the Germanic ruler of Italy, the title of Emperor had become more of a burden than a boon.

Rome didn't fall to an unprecendented flood of chaos from beyond its lands; it survived as long as it did through a flexible and pragmatic embrace of "barbarian" peoples, and it failed in the 5th century when the mechanisms for dealing with them stopped functioning and Roman titles lost their allure. The story of the fall of Rome itself, therefore, is one of state failure, not of a comparatively developed polity undone by anarchy from distant lands. What is more, such an accurate assessment of the fate of Rome actually sheds more light on the current threats facing the developed world than Cooper's spurious reading. Failed states today are often feared primarily as havens for international terrorist organisations, but if we look at the terrorist atrocities that have occured in industrialised democracies over the last decade - those of New York and Washington, London and Madrid - they were all organised from bases in functioning states: the former from pre-invasion Afghanistan, and the latter two at least partly from Europe itself. As the Economist article cited above goes on to note, organisations such as Al-Qaeda simply couldn't function without stable modern structures such as international money transfers, mobile phone networks and the internet. In the modern world, as in ancient Rome, the barbarians to fear are often those who work within the system, rather than those from the chaos beyond.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Follow the money

Austrians have traditionally been one of the more hostile European nations to EU expansion. In the latest Eurobarometer poll, for instance, a mere 33% of them ventured that the expansions since 2004 had strengthened the bloc, the lowest support for past enlargement across all 27 member states. Which is why it might appear strange at first glance to see the Austrian Finance Minister and vice-Chanceller Josef Pröll taking a keen interest in the economy of Ukraine, linking it to member states and membership candidate countries in calling for EU instruments to stand ready in support of battered financial systems across the region.

Mr Pröll's anxiety doesn't stem from simple good neighbourliness or a sense of old Hapsburg imperial fraternity with Ukraine's western corner. He rightly worries about "a domino effect in terms of economic difficulties in the EU" should "such a huge neighbouring country" like Ukraine run into acute trouble. But Austria's stake in the situation runs deeper than this. Austrian banks such as Raiffeisen have led the way into eastern Europe, and were their position in countries like Ukraine to weaken dramatically, Austria's own €100bn banking sector support plan would be seriously undermined.

So the financial sector is leading the EU framework deeper into eastern Europe, just as it paved its way into central Europe through the 1990s. If the current credit crunch eventually passes to leave something at least vaguely resembling the old banking networks in its wake, they will in time once again resume the hunt for new markets and profits on the boarders of the EU. One such country in Europe that Raiffeisen has yet to reach is Turkey, but it is hard to see why they eventually won't, unless Turkey is first goaded into turning its back on the EU for good, and where the banks lead, political support follows. Come a subsequent financial crisis in 10 or 20 years we might well be treated to the spectacle of that arch-sceptic of Turkey's membership bid, Austria, calling for greater EU support for its next giant neighbour.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


America has a new president, who comes to power promising less hope than George Bush in 2005, and less change than Ronald Reagan in 1985 - at least if his inaugural address is anything to go by. Amidst these "gathering clouds and raging storms", its time for this blogger to start blogging again.