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 CastaƱeda 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 CastaƱeda 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.