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Yet the broad bipartisan support for Obama's plan also shows that the American system, outdated and perverse as it often seems, can at times still function as healthy democracy should.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.