Monthly Archives: December 2008

I am on holiday this week. This has the advantage, from my point of view, of meaning that I didn’t have to write a newspaper column on Gaza for yesterday’s FT. It is a depressing subject - to put it mildly. And it is hard to find anything to say about the Israel-Palestine conflict that is either original or constructive.

But my respite will not last. I am back at work next week. And given the likelihood that the fighting will still be going on, I may be writing about Gaza.

So while the world appeals for a ceasefire, let me appeal for some insights from blog-readers. I realise that this too might be a foolhardy endeavour since – in the past – discussions on this subject have tended to bring out the worst in everyone. If this particular thread degenerates into abuse, we will just shut it down. Anyway, here are my questions: Read more

Usually, when I sit down to make a list it is a form of procrastination. Once a year, however, I can put my list-making habit to a practical use – when I write an end-of-year column, picking the five “defining moments” of the past 12 months. Read more

Funny, how quickly things can go sour. The Russian government is the latest to face social unrest, linked to the global economic crisis. As blog-readers might have gathered, I was in Ukraine last week – and a Russian economist mentioned to me that there were demonstrations in Vladivostock against the new tariff on car imports. The FT is now reporting that the trouble is spreading.

More broadly, the Russian government is facing a serious economic crisis on several fronts. Just six months ago, its huge pile of almost $600 billion in foreign reserves seemed a symbol of the country’s new-found strength. But they have got through roughly a quarter of that in just three months – mainly through supporting the rouble. At this rate, it will all be gone well before the end of 2009. That is not an entirely implausible scenario, because the fiscal pressures on the Russian government are only likely to grow over the next year. Official projections are still that the economy will grow by about 3%; but private-sector economists in Moscow are talking about a deep recession. With oil down at just over $40 a barrel, the cash-spigot has been turned off. Read more

It is quite rare for a senior politician to start a speech by announcing to the audience that he hasn’t taken a shower that morning. But that was the opening line deployed by Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, when I saw him speak in Kiev yesterday. He was not making a point about his personal hygiene. Rather, he was highlighting the fact that half of Kiev has been without hot water for the last week or so. The vice prime-minister blamed mismanagement by the mayor of Kiev – a political opponent, as it happens. Whoever is at fault, it’s a pretty grisly situation. The temperature outside is minus seven.

The whole episode brings together three of Ukraine’s most controversial subjects – heating, energy supplies and political infighting. The country’s political leadership are – as ever – at each other’s throats. But Ukraine could do with some decent leadership at the moment. The economy has been hit really hard by the credit crunch. The IMF have already extended a loan to Ukraine, but there are worries that the country may have to come back for more. And yet another confrontation is looming with Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, over energy bills. If things get nasty, it could make Kiev’s hot water problem seem pretty mild. Read more


There was a distinct whiff of triumphalism in Beijing in the weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Chinese officials speculated aloud about whether it would be wise to lend the Americans the money they needed to bail out their sinking banks. There was tut-tutting about American profligacy. The famous prediction by Goldman Sachs that the Chinese economy would be larger than that of the US by 2027 was revisited – perhaps it would happen even sooner than that? Read more

I have got into the habit of finishing every December, with a column that tries to list the five most politically significant events of the year. I plan to publish this year’s list on December 23rd. It seems to me there are four events that have to make the list: the election of Obama, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Beijing Olympics and the Russian invasion of Georgia.

But what should be my fifth event? Please send nominations by the end of the week.

What a delight to discover that the governor of Illinois seems to have wandered in off the set of the “The Sopranos”. When Rod Blagojevich says of his right to appoint Barack Obama’s successor in the Senate – “I’ve got this thing and it’s f***ing golden, and I’m not going to give it up for f***ing nothing,” – it could be Tony Soprano himself speaking.

There is also a lovely contrast between the unbelievably sleazy reality of Illinois politics and the absurdly prim and exacting ethics-standards demanded from potential appointees to the Obama administration. For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is a link to the lengthy questionnaire all job-seekers must fill out. It would seem to me to rule out anybody who is not either a liar or a Mormon missionary. Read more

I think I’m going to take the precaution of closing the comments section on this posting, before I open it – so to speak.

But, a couple of final thoughts. First, I am amazed by how many people read that article as a passionate call for the formation of a world government, rather than a dispassionate discussion of the possibility. I began to wonder if I had misunderstood my own article. But I was re-assured (if that’s the word), by a discussion with my sister, who described the piece as – “A slightly dull discussion of a school-boy debating topic that went – on the one hand, on the other hand, probably not.” That seems fair enough to me. Read more

I knew that there was something odd going on, when I woke up at 7am on Tuesday and found that over 200 e-mails had arrived in the seven hours that I had been in bed. It turned out that my article on world government had been “Drudged” – ie put on the much-read Drudge Report and this had set off a torrent of e-mail traffic.

The pace of comments – and their vituperative tone – persuaded the blog-masters here to shut down the comments section on that article pretty quickly. But this had the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to e-mail me directly. The following from one reader is fairly typical:

“Just wanted to let you know that you’re never gonna get your New World Order.
People are waking up everyday to what’s really going on ….Good luck gettin’ the guns you traitor piece of trash!!”

If you get two e-mails like that it can be faintly unsettling. If you get 200, however, you begin to get used to it. That said, the whole experience has given me an insight into the mindset of the gun-toting, bible-bashing, nationalistic bit of the United States. Here are my conclusions. Read more

I have never believed that there is a secret United Nations plot to take over the US. I have never seen black helicopters hovering in the sky above Montana. But, for the first time in my life, I think the formation of some sort of world government is plausible. Read more

Here is a sinister little story from Russia. Memorial, an organisation dedicated to documenting the horrors of Stalinism, has had its offices in Saint Petersburg raided. Orlando Figes, the distinguished historian, is outraged and reckons it is all part of an official effort to rehabilitate Stalin and the Soviet Union.

If there is a cult of personality in modern Russia, it is clearly still centred around Vladimir Putin. The prime minister staged his annual phone-in show last week and hugely amused the audience by publicly discussing the rumour that he had threatened to have the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, “hung by one part”. (The balls, in fact.) This kind of remark sounds entirely in character. Putin is obsessed with castration. I was once at a press conference in Brussels with him, when he offered to castrate the Le Monde correspondent, whose offence had been to ask a question about Chechnya. Read more

The worst suspicions of liberal supporters of Obama are liable to be confirmed by the delighted reception some eminent neo-cons have given to the new Obama foreign policy team.

Here is a comment from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations:

“As someone who was skeptical of Obama’s moderate posturing during the campaign, I have to admit that I am gobsmacked by these appointments , most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain. (Jim Jones is an old friend of McCain’s, and McCain almost certainly would have asked Gates to stay on as well.) This all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the unconditional summits with dictators, and other foolishness that once emanated from the Obama campaign. His appointments suggest that, if anything, his administration will have a Reapolitiker, rather than a liberal, bent, although Clinton and Steinberg at State should be powerful voices for “neo-liberalism” which is not so different in many respects from “neo-conservativism”. Both, for instance, support humanitarian interventions in places like Darfur and Bosnia.” Read more

I am sure that if you are stuck in Bangkok airport, the theoretical implications of Thailand’s political crisis do not rank very high up your list of concerns. Nonetheless, they are fascinating.

Remember all those theories about how the emergence of an urban middle-classes is a force for democratisation, because the bourgeoise will demand political rights? Well, in Thailand the precise opposite is happening. The urban middle-classes are rising up and demanding that democracy be rescinded.

Do not be fooled by the fact that the group occupying the airport call themselves the “People’s Alliance for Democracy“. Their intent is clearly anti-democratic. They have just brought down an elected government. Their broader demands are for Thailand’s directly-elected parliament to be replaced by a legislative body that is 70% appointed. Sondhi Limthongkul, a Thai tycoon (Thaicoon?), who is the group’s de facto leader says bluntly that – “Representative democracy is not suitable for Thailand.” Read more

On the day I arrived in Delhi last September, terrorists had set off bombs in markets across the city. The receptionist at the Taj hotel told me that they were advising guests to stay inside to avoid danger. The hotel felt like a sanctuary from the chaos outside. When I set off the metal-detector coming back into the Taj, the security guard just laughed and bowed deeply. Read more

“Washington is a tough town”, remarked a friend of mine, as we surveyed the make-up of Obama’s new national-security team. What he meant was that the Obama loyalists, who had slaved away on the campaign, have got none of the top jobs.

I realise that the fate of the Obama campaign team may not be the primary concern of foreigners, trying to figure out the future of American foreign policy. But I think the way Obama has handled his inner circle still says something interesting about the man.

Advisers who sign up for a presidential campaign are basically buying a lottery ticket. The idea is that if their candidate wins, they get to share in some of the spoils. But look at who Obama has appointed to the three biggest foreign policy jobs: Hillary Clinton, his arch-rival, gets the State Department; James Jones, a marine general who was close to John McCain, gets National Security; Robert Gates is held over from the Bush administration at Defence. And Obama’s intimates: Samantha Power, Tony Lake, Richard Danzig – so far, nothing. Only Susan Rice has made the cut as ambassador to the UN. And although she made a brave face of it, at the press conference that has just finished, Rice will probably be disappointed not to be in the White House – and right next to Obama, as she was throughout the campaign. Read more