Monthly Archives: November 2008

It’s been clear for some time that India has a serious and growing problem with terrorism. There were terror attacks in Delhi when I was there last September. At the time, the Indian reaction – both from the public and the government – seemed commendably calm. I wonder whether the calm will survive the latest horrors in Mumbai?

We still don’t know the full death toll – but it looks like it will run into the hundreds. The police are reported to be preparing to storm the Oberoi Hotel and there are hostages being held at the Taj Palace. (I stayed there in September, too.)

One always has to be careful with comparisons to 9/11. That was so spectacular, and so many people died. But this attack does have a ring of 9/11 – the terrorists have attacked some of the iconic buildings in the commercial capital of India. The fact that there were multiple attacks and that the gunmen in the Taj were reportedly trying to separate Americans and Brits, also makes it sound like an al-Qaeda style operation. Read more


Texas A&M is not the obvious place to pick if you want to discuss American decline. The university sends more of its graduates straight into the military than any other civilian college in the US. Its officer training corps prowl the campus in crisply pressed uniforms and knee-high leather boots, greeting each other with brisk “howdys”. Agonised introspection and crises of confidence are not Texan traits. Read more

Now that the G20 has staged its first ever summit, it is clear that the venerable old G8 has a real challenger on its hands. The G20 has a lot going for it. It includes China, India and Brazil. It has the aura and excitement of novelty. It even has another summit scheduled – in April – which will be well before the next big G8 gathering in Italy this summer.

On the other hand, the G8 still has some advantages. It is a smaller and less unwieldy group. It has a history and an institutional weight behind it. It still contains most of the world’s leading economies – and they are all democracies. Shared values, and all that.

In fact, I would even argue that the G8 was quite well-placed to see off the upstart G20 – were it not for one thing. Next year it will be presided over by that one-man wrecking crew, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy. Read more

What a fantastic Florida-like mess in the French Socialist Party. Martine Aubry – Jacques Delors’s daughter – claims to have won the leadership of the party, beating Segolene Royal by 42 votes out of more than 134,000 cast. Royal is demanding a recount and has accused Aubry of issuing an auto-proclamation to claim the leadership – a word redolent of Latin American coups.

Francois Hollande, the party’s outgoing leader, must have rather complicated feelings as he tries to sort all this out – he is, after all, Segolene’s estranged ex-husband. Meanwhile President Sarkozy is gloating openly, announcing grandly that – “Nothing unites the Socialist Party leaders except an astonishingly violent hatred.” It’s a great line. But he has a certain cheek, given that his own erstwhile rival – Dominique de Villepin – is now going to face trial for his alleged role in efforts to blacken Sarko’s name. What is the French for chutzpah? Read more

I am in College Station, Texas. As the name implies, College Station is a university town – home to Texas A&M University, which is famous for its football team, its veterinary school and the George H.W. Bush library, in that order. It is a fabulously rich university. As the Dow continues to crash through the floor and gloom about the US economy becomes all pervasive, it’s worth being reminded how much entrenched wealth there is in this country. The university provost told me that they currently have $800m worth of building-projects underway on campus. Those are the kind of numbers I associate with places like Abu Dhabi. Read more

Historians are sometimes divided into lumpers and splitters. The splitters like to chop problems up into lots of small bits. The lumpers like to link them altogether. Read more

Well, Obama has finally got some good news. The bilateral agreement between the US and Iraq sets the course for full withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011. Although the pace of withdrawal is a little slower than the one Obama talked about on the campaign trail, it sounds like a deal he can live with.

Much of the early comment has focussed on whether the various Iraqi parties will be able to unite around the deal and make it stick – and whether the military situation will be stable enough in three years time to allow for a full withdrawal. But the thing that strikes me most forcibly is that the deal means that the US is finally letting go of any ideas of retaining permanent military bases in Iraq. Read more

Now that the presidential election is over, pundits and political junkies have to find new ways to amuse themselves. So the new guessing game is “who will be in the Obama administration?”

Today’s FT has a good rumour – Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. I think this is reasonably plausible. The Obama people didn’t want Hillary for vice-president because she would have been a little too close for comfort – and they also didn’t like the idea of Bill hanging around the White House. But with Hillary safely across town in Foggy Bottom (or even better, in perpetual motion, flying around the world), Obama would be able to put the people he really trusts into the National Security Council, and run foreign policy from there. Read more

I know it’s for my own good, but I am finding airline security-measures increasingly irritating. The endless standing in line and the constant packing and unpacking would be marginally more tolerable, if the security demands were a bit more consistent. But they vary a lot, depending on which country you happen to be passing through.

The Americans are shoe-fetishists. It is impossible to go through an American airport without being asked to take off your shoes. The British go through shoe phases – but are permanently obsessed with liquids. So at Heathrow, sometimes they ask to x-ray your shoes, and sometimes not. But they always want to take a look at your toothpaste and deoderant – the British Airports Authority have developed a nice line in selling clear plastic bags for travellers to put their toiletries in. Meanwhile at Frankfurt airport yesterday, I wasn’t asked to take off my shoes or put my liquids in a clear bag. But they did want me to take my belt off. Perhaps they were worried I might try to hang myself? Read more

When I started as an FT foreign-affairs columnist, I told myself that I wouldn’t spend too much time going to conferences. I don’t know quite what I envisaged myself doing instead – working, perhaps? Sitting in monk-like contemplation in a library? Going undercover in the tribal areas of Pakistan?

Anyway, I’m not doing very well on my “avoid conferences” rule. I spent the weekend at Ditchley in the English countryside, conferring about the future of the European Union. And I am currently in residence at Schloss Leopoldskron – an Austrian castle where they filmed the “Sound of Music”. I’m a guest of the Salzburg Global Seminar. We are discussing – let me just look at this folder – yes, we are discussing: “The United States in the World: New Strategies of Engagement”. Later next week, I may re-surface in Texas at yet another conference.

There are legitimate reasons to be suspiscious of the conference circuit. Spending your time in country houses and castles is perhaps a little too comfortable. You can discuss the causes of global poverty or conflict, without ever feeling too upset – and the food and drink are free. You also tend to see the same faces. I was not entirely surprised to encounter Lord David Hannay (author and former British ambassador to the UN) at both Ditchley and Salzburg. (Perhaps he will be in Texas, too?) Read more

I blame it all on Dean Acheson. The long-dead American statesman was a big figure at the original Bretton Woods conference in 1944 and later helped invent Nato. Acheson gave his memoirs the modest title Present at the Creation and, in so doing, he inadvertently fed the grandiose fantasies of the leaders of the Group of 20 leading economies who will assemble in Washington next weekend. Perhaps they too can achieve near God-like status by reordering the institutions of the world? Read more

I was irritated to see that Arthur Laffer has just published a book called “The End of Prosperity”. It’s not that I have anything in particular against the curvaceous Mr Laffer. But calling your book, “The End of” something or other, is perhaps the worst cliche in publishing.

This is confirmed by a brief search on Amazon, which yielded the following books – most published within the last ten years. “The End of Poverty” by Jeff Sachs, “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama, “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, “The End of Food” and “The End of Oil”, both by Paul Roberts, “The End of Lawyers” by Richard Susskind, “The End of Fashion” by Teri Agins, “The End of Days” by Zacahria Sitkin, “The End of Human Rights” by Costas Douzinkas, two books called “The End of Globalisation” – one by Harold James and one by Alan Rugman, “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben, “The End of Work” by Jeremy Rifkin, “The End of Medicine” by Andy Kessler, “The End of Memory” by Miroslav Wolff, “The End of Science” by John Horgan and “The End of the Poem” by Paul Muldoon. Read more

During the presidential election campaign Joe Biden warned rather injudiciously that world leaders would test Barack Obama’s mettle within six months of him taking office. Well, it doesn’t seem to have taken them that long. On the very day of Obama’s election, the Russian government announced plans to deploy cruise missiles in Kaliningrad, a tiny Russian enclave that borders Poland.

The Russians deploying missiles in a way that threatens American strategic interests and poses a test for a new, young, charismatic American president – what does that remind you of? JFK and Cuba, of course. A few months ago I heard Robert Kagan, an adviser to McCain, argue that inexperienced and liberal presidents are more likely to end up in dangerous international confrontations because hostile foreigners are more likely to put them to the test, and the new president is going to feel the need to show that he is tough. Eisenhower got through eight years without a truly dangerous confrontation with the Russians. But Kennedy had the Cuba missile crisis Read more

It is just a few hours since Obama was elected – and already events are taking on a retrospective aura of inevitability. The election of the first black president is a historic moment and so it is tempting to believe that it was somehow written in the stars. Obama himself liked to suggest to supporters that “we have a righteous wind at our back”.

The fatalists argue that Bush was so unpopular, the economy so bad, the McCain campaign so confused and the Obama campaign so brilliant, that the Democrat was simply bound to win. I don’t believe it. Don’t forget that shortly after the Republican convention, McCain was actually briefly in the lead. A Republican victory was far from inconceivable.

So what happened? It was not fate that intervened – it was Katie and Dick. Read more

Once I thought I’d write books. Then I became a newspaper columnist. Then I began to blog. Now I have discovered a form of communication that uses even fewer words: Twitter. I will be trying it out tonight here – and it will appear on a sidebar in the blog once the US election results come in.

As I understand it Twitter is a kind on online text-messaging, which allows you to react to events as they unfold. But it doesn’t allow you to react at much length. The maximum post is 140 characters long. Read more

We are on the brink of history. On Tuesday the US could elect its first ever blue president. Read more

John McCain doesn’t sound bitter. Of course, he can’t afford to since he must still base his campaign on the idea that he is poised for victory – “the Mac is back” and all that.

But take a look at some of the rhetoric of McCain supporters and you get a sense of just how bitter the backlash will be – if and when Obama is elected. I think it will make the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” aimed at Clinton look pretty teeny by comparison. Read more


Meeting somebody for lunch does not usually make me nervous. But I feel slightly on edge as I wait for Alastair Campbell. Once Tony Blair’s closest aide, Campbell, a 51-year-old former journalist, makes no secret of the fact that he despises most journalists. He is a big, burly man with red hair and a short temper. Read more