Perhaps there is something wrong with me – or I am badly missing the point. But I can’t help feeling a certain sympathy for the Russian position over Kosovo. All my friends who follow Russian foreign policy and/or the Balkans tell me I’m wrong and that the Putin government is behaving provocatively and irresponsibly. But, as far as I can see, it is the Russians who are sticking to the letter of the law.
Let me re-cap. The situation in Kosovo has been building steadily towards a crisis for months. By December 10 the Serbs and the Kosovars are meant to have reached an agreement. Everybody knows that this is not going to happen – and that the Kosovars will almost certainly declare independence soon after the breakdown of talks. At that point the US will in all probability recognise Kosovo, as will many EU countries (although not the EU itself).
The only thing that surprises me about the Russian government’s crackdown on the opposition ahead of the Duma elections on Sunday is how heavy-handed it is. President Putin is clearly keen to preserve the facade of Russian democracy and his party is cruising to victory anyway – so why bother?
An explanation of sorts was offered to me recently by Mikhail Kasyanov – once Putin’s prime minister, and now a leader of the increasingly fragmented and harried opposition. Kasyanov says that the current regime in the Kremlin is "based on the KGB spirit". He thinks that "Putin would win anyway, but the KGB mentality is risk averse. If they can eliminate risks, they’ll do it."
Last time I visited Jerusalem, I sat down with a colleague and tried to see how many Middle East peace plans and conferences we could list. Within a couple of minutes we had scribbled down Venice, Madrid, Oslo, Camp David I, Camp David II, Taba, the Rogers plan, the Annan plan, the Reagan plan, the Tenet plan, the Saudi plan, the Mitchell report, the Geneva accord and the road map. Read more
Derk-Jan Eppink, a Dutch civil servant, has done something unique. He has written a genuinely entertaining book about the European Commission.
Of course, there is no shortage of books about the commission and the workings of the Brussels bureaucracy. But most of them are horribly dull. They are written by academics and aimed at other academics, or students or would-be eurocrats. Nobody would consider reading them for pleasure. Read more
I met John Howard only once – at a breakfast in London – and he struck me as grumpy and charmless. I was obviously missing something. Howard was a phenomenally successful politician. He won four successive elections in Australia.
Now that he has finally lost, it is tempting to draw a general lesson – and there is an obvious one to hand. Foreign leaders who backed George Bush over Iraq have been punished. First Jose Maria Aznar, then Tony Blair. Now John Howard. One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts as Australian prime minister will be to start pulling troops out of Iraq.
I recently wrote a column on the political consequences of $100 oil, which drew quite successfully (I thought) on an earlier discusssion on this blog. So I would like to repeat the experiment.
There is no shortage of analysis of the global economic consequences of the falling dollar. But what about the global strategic consequences? Over the long term, a feeble currency is usually both a symbol and a cause of national decline. I’m not sure you can yet read anything too profound into the current movements in the currency markets, although Hugo Chavez is doing his best.
Still, even in the here-and-now, I think there could be political ramifications to the falling dollar. Off the top-of-my-head, here are four possibilities:
The great thing about British, as opposed to American journalism, is that in Britain you can get away with statements of monumental vagueness.Here is a fine example from this week’s Spectator. Norman Stone – a historian who once lectured to me (and others) at Cambridge, before emigrating to Turkey, via Oxford – is the author of this week’s Spec diary.
He writes that – "I have read somewhere that at the time of the Marshall Plan – announced when I was six in 1947 – we smoked 90% of our dollar earnings?" This statement prompts several questions: Read more
Well, that was quick. In 2003, the idea of empire became fashionable in Washington, DC. But the flirtation has lasted little more than three years. The imperial eagles are being put back in the cupboard. The challenge for the US now will be to avoid sliding straight from imperialism to isolationism. Read more
Critics of the "war on terror" – like me – have a favourite cliche. The battle is ultimately about "hearts and minds". Bush has got it all wrong because he has "over-militarised" the conflict.
The conventional wisdom is that the US is going down to a catastrophic defeat in the battle for Muslim opinion. The recent resignation of Karen Hughes from the State Department – she was in charge of US public diplomacy – was seen as evidence of this.
But – actually – there is interesting evidence that America is doing a lot better on the hearts-and-minds front than is generally acknowledged. This first occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, when I was writing a column on Pakistan, and turned to the Pew polls of global opinion. Normally, if you are looking to prove American unpopularity around the world, Pew is a reliable source of bad news. And indeed, the approval ratings for America in places like Turkey and Pakistan – not to mention the Arab world – are as low as you might expect.
When the British press get their teeth into you, it can be a nasty experience. Usually it is members of the royal family, models or footballers who get "monstered". But it can happen to government ministers too. And one who is definitely in trouble at the moment is Lord Malloch Brown – a senior minister at the Foreign Office with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the UN. I met him last night at a speech and dinner at the London School of Economics – and he was looking a little battered.
Malloch Brown was recently the subject of a cover article in the Spectator, claiming that he has become a serious embarrassment to the British government. The gist of the story was that the Americans hate him because of his behaviour at the UN, as Kofi Annan’s deputy. Malloch Brown is also accused of high living at public expense and of being too close to George Soros. Ominously for the newly ennobled minister, the support for him from his colleagues (both in public and private) has been distinctly luke-warm.
But if Malloch Brown is forced out of the government it would be ridiculous. I don’t particularly share his adoration of multilateral institutions. But if you talk to the man it is clear that he is serious, thoughtful and knowledgable. I have met so many brain-dead British foreign office ministers. It would just be absurd if – having finally found a Foreign Office minister who is clever and experienced – Britain decided to sack him.
I read in today’s FT that the clash between King Juan Carlos of Spain and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has become a video cult-hit on the internet.
It is good viewing. So, in line with my policy of tracking YouTube moments in international politics, I feel moved to re-publish it.
There is something about the last throes of an American presidency that seems to persuade occupants of the White House that it would be a good idea to try and solve the Middle East problem. Jimmy Carter tried it, so did Bill Clinton. In Britain, Tony Blair fell prey to the same temptation and is now a part-time peace envoy (when not giving speeches for exorbitant sums in China.)
The latest lame-duck president to try his hand at the peacemaking game is George W. Bush. To be fair, his efforts are considerably more half-hearted than those of Clinton or Carter. In fact, until very recently there was some doubt about whether the Annapolis summit would even take place. Now we seem to have a confirmed date – November 26th. But expectations are justifiably low. The only senior person in the Bush administration who seems remotely fired up is Condi Rice. In a speech this week she declared that "Failure is not an option" – always a phrase to make the heart sink.
When the British government surveyed employment in the City of London recently, it came across a pleasingly symmetrical fact. About one-third of the high-skilled workers were foreigners and so were about one-third of the low-skilled workers. Read more
American academics are constantly on the look-out for the latest foreign policy slogan. A few years ago, Joe Nye had a big hit with the idea of "soft power". Now he and others are back with a new idea called "smart power", which the FT gave a cautious welcome to this morning.
But amidst all the arguments about the need for the US to re-build its influence, it is worth invoking that useful old principle – "Follow the money". If you do that, it suggests the argument is already over. America spends hugely more on missiles and the military than it does on diplomacy and all the paraphenelia of soft power. The State Department’s budget is $10 billion a year. The Department of Defence’s annual budget is $460 billion – plus, at the moment, a further $200 billion a year for the Iraqi and Afghan wars. The entire State Department costs less to maintain than just one of the US’s eight carrier battle groups. Read more
Earlier this year Goldman Sachs caused a stir when they predicted that China would have a larger economy than America by 2027. But this week China overtook America in one area that is of particular interest to the likes of Goldman Sachs. PetroChina became the most valuable company in the world. After its stockmarket debut in Shanghai the firm is now valued at over $1 trillion – slightly more than double the value of the world’s second biggest company, ExxonMobil.
PetroChina is no anomaly. Three of the five most valuable companies in the world are now Chinese – China Mobile and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) are the other two. If you take the top 10 companies as your preferred measure, it is four-all between China and America. Sinopec is China’s other entry. The US has Exxon, GE, Altria and Microsoft. Read more
People facing alarming birthdays often say things like: “Forty is just a number.” You could say the same about “$100 oil”. But such benchmarks concentrate minds. As the oil price threatens to break through $100, politicians all over the world will think hard about the strategic consequences.
So what is likely to happen? The biggest single effect is obvious. Oil producers become richer and more powerful. The biggest oil consumers – the US, China and the European Union – become increasingly anxious. Beneath that big trend, there are smaller effects that could change the course of some of the most delicate and dangerous problems – Iraq, Iran, China’s foreign policy and the resurgence of Russia. Read more
Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first invite to address a joint session of Congress. Nicolas Sarkozy will adore his moment in the limelight tomorrow. Anybody would. But it will probably be particularly special for a man who, according to his estranged wife, sees power as "a Stradivarius" violin. Tomorrow’s speech will be like playing solo in Carnegie Hall.
Still, if he examines the list of around 100 world leaders to have been granted a similar honour, Sarkozy might be given pause. Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin were assassinated. Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran were overthrown. Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam was murdered in an American-backed coup. Bettino Craxi, Syngman Ree and Carlos Salinas were driven into exile. Roh Tae Woo of South Korea was imprisoned for treason, mutiny and corruption. Being honoured by Congress is obviously a dangerous business.
It seems unlikely that Sarko will meet any of these grisly fates. The man whose example should really serve as a warning is Tony Blair. Blair is still alive and making speeches. But his address to a joint session of Congress in July 2003 – interrupted by innumerable flattering ovations – now looks like a low point rather than a triumph.
Sometimes it can be fun to be the bearer of bad tidings. On Saturday night I was able to stroll over to a senior member of the British foreign policy establishment and tell him that a state of emergency had been declared in Pakistan. Lawyers, politicians and human rights activists were under arrest. The senior member looked suitably concerned, got out his BlackBerry, called up the news and began to read. “Oh dear,” he said. Read more
If you are on the international affairs circuit – and you play your cards right – you could probably spend most weekends conferring about something or other. Of course, the importance of the subject and the level of the participants are all factors when deciding whether to give up your weekend. But – as conference organisers well know – a swanky location is always a big draw. And they don’t come much grander than Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, where I have just spent the weekend. The conference itself – on immigration to Europe – was interesting, and I’ll probably write about it soon. But Ditchley - one of the great country houses of England – is an experience in itself. It was a favourite of Churchill’s who stayed there 14 times in the war.
By tradition, English country houses should be slightly uncomfortable. I have always liked the cartoon of a hostess showing a guest to his bedroom and saying – "It’s rather cold, so I’ve put an extra dog on your bed." But, at Ditchley, they now even have mod cons like central heating. Read more
The king of Saudi Arabia has just made his first royal visit to Britain for 20 years. Roula Khalaf reports that the Saudis were surprised by the anger and criticism that was directed towards them in the British media. They shouldn’t have been. The fact is that the British are extremely uncomfortable about the sleazy nature of British-Saudi relations. I recently met a senior Foreign Office official who was willing to talk unguardedly about all manner of issues, except one thing – relations with Saudi Arabia and, in particular, the decision to drop a corruption inquiry into arms sales. At that point, he just shut up and refused to answer questions. I would say he was squirming, except that senior mandarins don’t squirm – they just look blank.
But it remains the case that when the Brits think about the Saudis, the ideas that are generally brought to mind are: arms deals, corruption, Mark Thatcher, the suppression of police inquiries, human-rights abuses, the sponsorship of terrorism, and the impossibility of buying a drink. None of these are positive images. Under the circumstances it was peculiarly inept of the Saudis to claim that they had provided valuable intelligence on the London tube bombings, which had been ignored. It would be even more appreciated if they stopped funding lunatic Wahabi mosques.