Monthly Archives: February 2007

The idea that Tony Blair is George Bush’s "poodle" is now so firmly established in the public mind that it would take a political earthquake to shake it. But, in fact, there is growing evidence that in his last months in office Mr Blair is quietly but effectively distancing himself from key aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. There have been three important divergences in just the past ten days.

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The country is developing weapons of mass destruction; its leader is a new Hitler; he has connections with terrorists; time is running out; containment has failed; we must strike before it is too late.

If you think you have heard it all before, you have. The arguments for an attack on Iran are almost exactly the same as the arguments that were made for an attack on Iraq. The people making the case have not changed either. Read more

No sooner had Tony Blair announced a withdrawal of some British troops from Iraq, then it emerged that more soldiers will be going to Afghanistan. This is not so much a scaling back of Britain’s military commitments overseas, as a re-deployment from one battlefront to another.

There is an unstated logic behind the British move. Iraq is going very badly – and the war may eventually be lost. Under these circumstances, it becomes all the more crucial that the western allies prevail in Afghanistan. Two defeats in the "war on terror" (or whatever you want to call it) would be catastrophic.

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Some events make a big splash the next day – and quickly disappear from the news. And then there are others that take a while to sink in – but which grow in significance, the more people have a chance to think about them. Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich security conference on February 10th falls into the latter category.

Putin’s speech was startlingly blunt. He told his audience that he was going to "avoid excessive politeness" and he was as good as his word. The most striking passages were his attacks on American foreign policy. How’s this for example – "Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of conflicts." As well as laying into American unipolarity which "can be no moral foundation for modern civilisation", Putin attacked specific western policies on issues like Nato expansion, arms control and missile defence.

The vehemence of his attack took many in his audience aback, even at the time. But senior British, German and American officials seem, if anything, more shaken after having had some time to reflect on Putin’s words. Senator John McCain was in the audience and gave a fairly robust response to the Russian president. But McCain’s people say that some of their Russian contacts have since told them that they should regard Putin’s speech as the equivalent of Churchill’s "iron curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri. A senior European diplomat says that Chancellor Merkel’s advisors in Berlin were "still reeling" from Putin’s broadside, days later.   

A senior British minister says that Putin’s speech fits into a trend of increasing Russian nationalism that has been evident for some time. He says that the British have tried to explain that they support the spread of freedom and democracy to places like Ukraine because they are in favour of freedom and democracy – not because of any desire to encircle Russia.

But Putin does not believe this for a moment.

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Tony Blair’s script for his last few months in office is becoming clearer. He is planning to use the G8 summit in July as a last hurrah. In the ideal world, he will leave office as a hero – having persuaded the United States to sign up to a new accord on global warming.

A global-warming deal would be sweet for Blair for a number of reasons. First, it would win him back credit with all the lefties who have despised him ever since the Iraq war. Second, it would demonstrate that he does indeed have clout with the United States. All the critics who have derided Blair as a deluded poodle, who has got nothing for his fealty to George Bush, would have to eat their words. Tony has delivered the Americans and saved the planet. Thank you and goodnight.

Blair is obviously too cautious to put it quite like that. But he is definitely sounding hopeful. In an interview this week, he insisted that there has been a "change of mood on climate change" in the United States.

There is some evidence for this. There are numerous bills on climate change pending before Congress. And even the Bush administration is going on the offensive, to persuade the world that it does take the issue seriously.

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During the cold war, western diplomats told a joke about the frustrations of negotiating with the Soviet Union. It was like putting your money into a Coke machine and finding that the machine had not delivered you a Coke. At that point you had three options: you could put some more money in and hope that the machine delivered the second time around; you could try and break into the machine and get the Coke you had paid for; or you could give up and decide you didn’t want a Coke after all. But the one thing that was not going to work was trying to talk to the machine.

For hardliners in the Bush administration, trying to negotiate with the "axis of evil" is like trying to talk to a Coke machine – an exercise in futility.

Given this deep scepticism about the utility of chat, the North Korean nuclear deal announced yesterday represents a remarkable change of strategy. It has involved two things that are traditionally anathema to the Bushies: tortuous multilateral negotiations and compromise. As Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations, who negotiated with the North Koreans for the Clinton administration, explains, the Bush administration has effectively abandoned its insistence on complete North Korean disarmament. Samore says –

I think this was available at least three years ago when the North Koreans indicated that they were prepared to accept a freeze on their plutonium production. At that time, the Bush administration was insisting on complete disarmament. And unfortunately, that just wasn’t an attainable objective. And I think the Bush administration recognized that it wanted to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula and avoid the danger that North Korea would walk away from the talks and resume nuclear testing. It was better to accept a more limited practical agreement to freeze and engage in subsequent negotiations, because insisting on total disarmament was simply not attainable.

Following the North Korean deal, the Bush administration finds itself in the unusual position of being condemned by neo-conservatives and praised by the editorial pages of the New York Times.

The obvious question is whether this new spirit of compromise in Washington will be extended to Iran.

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Over the past few days I’ve been in Beijing, talking to Chinese officials, generals and academics. I was with a small group of Americans and Europeans. Three of the Americans had worked in top foreign-policy jobs in the Clinton administration, and the Europeans included people who currently hold senior positions in the French foreign ministry and the European Commission.

The quasi-diplomatic nature of our “delegation” had a couple of effects. The first was that we got very good access. It also meant that the dialogue often had a curiously formal, indeed formulaic quality to it. The Chinese side were often laying out official positions – much as they would with a visiting government delegation. That can be useful and informative. But it also means that sometimes the real insights come when your hosts stray off their script. It is the stray remark, the occasional flash of temper, the unexpected question and the subtle change in wording that can be the most interesting bits of the discussion.

Anyway, here are some of the impressions I gathered about official Chinese thinking:

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In Singapore, I kept being told how fast China is modernising and changing. And it is true that the first thing that you see as you come out into the arrival hall at Beijing airport is that symbol of American-led globalisation – a giant Starbucks.

But yesterday evening I went to an official banquet, where the official style was very Communist – and the food was like something from Britain in the 1950s.

I should explain that I’m travelling with a small group of American and European think-tankers, sprinkled with a couple of diplomats. I am the lone journalist. Last night we had dinner with Zheng Bijian, who is chairman of the China Reform Forum and the man who coined the famous phrase “peaceful rise” to describe China’s emergence on the world stage. But apparently these days even “peaceful rise” is deemed to be too provocative, so the new formulation is “peaceful development with harmonious characteristics”. I feel more re-assured already.

Verbal formulas are pretty important round here. On a couple of occasions last night, Mr Zheng told us gravely: “Taiwan is a core national interest for China. We have no room for manoeuvre on this issue.” In other words – if the bastards declare independence, we’re invading. Otherwise, he was affability itself. We got the usual toasts of friendship. And we also got nine courses of food – starting with cream of mushroom soup and ending with banana split; all washed down by a cabernet sauvignon with Chinese characteristics.

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I am back in Singapore for the first time for almost a decade. Inevitably, it is a bit of a trip down memory lane – the palm trees, the skyscrapers, the shopping. The government.

Ah yes, the government. I’m afraid that my strongest impression of Singapore was shaped by what happened when my reporting inadvertently setting off a row between The Economist and the Singaporean authorities. This escalated to the point where the magazine’s circulation was severely restricted in Singapore – with the threat of an eventual ban. I cannot remember the full details of the dispute – something to do with the publication of letters from the government. And, to be honest, it is probably not in my interests to make too great an effort to remember the details, since the Singaporeans appear to have strong feelings about repeating a libel.

But I do remember the feeling of being closely watched whenever I returned to Singapore after the great Economist row. I don’t think I was being paranoid. Why else would the girl escorting me to my room in the Shangri-La hotel have squeaked – “This is so exciting”, as she ushered me in. Maybe it was just my aura of brooding masculinity – but somehow I doubt it.

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The news about Silvio Berlusconi this morning made me feel nostalgic. The man is obviously a rogue and a buffoon. But he is fantastically entertaining – as the latest public exchange of letters with his wife illustrates all too clearly.

I got to observe Berlusconi at reasonably close quarters during the Italian presidency of the European Union in 2003. He threw a banquet for journalists in the Villa Madama in Rome – and his display there revealed several of his characterstic qualities: charm, lechery, paranoia.

First, he made sure that all the prettiest female journalists were sitting at his table. I was a little way away, but they seemed to be having a pretty uproarious time. Apparently Berlusca made great play of the fact that there was a magnificent Roman-style bath in the villa, and offered to show it to his guests after dinner. Then he gave a long and rambling speech, whose main argument seemed to be that all his legal problems stemmed from the fact that the press and judiciary in Italy are controlled by Communists. He even claimed to be the most persecuted man in the country, which was an odd take on events – since he was also the richest man, and the prime minister. The Italian diplomats at my table were absolutely cringing and didn’t know where to look. And a German journalist sitting next to me said in shocked tones: "This is a very serious matter. A major European country is in the hands of a lunatic."

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