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.
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.
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:
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.
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.