Monthly Archives: January 2009

God it must be fun being Nouriel Roubini. Once dismissed as a bit of a crackpot by the Davos elite, Dr Doom is now the star of the show – billed as “the man who got it right”. At dinners, seminars and parties, everybody now wants to hear from the great Roubini. What is going to happen next? Nothing very good, apparently - he thinks the US banking system is basically insolvent, and the same goes for Europe.

The great thing about being Roubini is that not only is he now widely hailed as cleverer than everybody else – he is also able to imply that he is morally superior and more courageous as well. Part of the current Roubini patter is that many other analysts got it wrong because their judgement was clouded by conflicts of interest. Others, he thinks, lacked the intellectual courage to consistently stand out from the crowd. This makes him sound like an arrogant sod. Maybe so – but he is also appealingly dishevelled and quite funny.

Those are not words I would apply to Vladimir Putin. I went to an off-the-record thing with him yesterday so – apologies – I cannot reveal the not-very-startling things he said. But watching him at close quarters is rather fascinating. He is small, extremely fit-looking, with piercing blue eyes and a nice line in mirthless laughter. As a colleague put it to me later, “I wouldn’t want to be in a room with just him and a bare light-bulb.” Read more

There has always been a certain tension between the World Economic Forum’s slogan – “Dedicated to improving the state of the world” – and the fact that many of the delegates are in Davos to network and go to parties. That is particularly awkward in a year when many of the people here have arguably done quite a lot to mess up the state of the world – by, for example, flogging toxic debt.

Davos has reacted by toning down the parties this year. The closing gala, which usually features dancing and loud music, has been re-branded as a “cultural event” – which sounds really dismal. The tasting of fine wines is not taking place. The investment banks are keeping a low profile.

I was expounding my theory that this is the party-free Davos to a colleague from The Economist, who then dismayed me by producing a vast folder of party invitations. So it appears there are lots of parties – I just haven’t been invited. My former colleague rather grandly picked out some of the B-list invitations, he wouldn’t be using, and tossed them my way – a German bank, an Indian newspaper, that kind of thing. Then he spotted a functionary from the Clinton Global Initiative, called him over and suggested that he invite the FT’s foreign-affairs columnist (me) to the CGI party in the Davos museum. The functionary looked at me for a moment and then said – “I’m afraid it’s a very restricted space.” Oh well, I’m going to a South African jazz party instead – and I won’t even have to gatecrash.

Davos is full of these minor social humiliations. I bumped into the historian Niall Ferguson today, who was a star of the most sought-after dinner this year – on what happened to the investment banks last September. But despite his elevated status, Ferguson is facing the ultimate ignominy – the forum have put him in a hotel room in Klosters, a long drive away from Davos. “I’m a gloomy Scot”, he remarked cheerfully, “I thrive on these sorts of setbacks. Read more

I am now in Davos and preparing to play my part in “shaping the post-crisis world”, which is the official title of this year’s forum. I must say this strikes me as over-optimistic. The words “shaping” and “post-crisis” seem misplaced. (I will grudgingly accept “world”.)

But what would be a better title for this year’s Davos? “Sinking in quicksand” is closer to the spirit of the times; “Buried under an avalanche of debt” acknowledges our Alpine surroundings; “Up shit creek without a paddle” has an appealing directness and shares the same length and meter as “Shaping the post-crisis world” – so that is my favourite for the moment. But I am open to suggestions.

I wonder whether Davos itself might not become the next victim of the globalisation crisis. The streets are still full of important-looking people, falling over in the snow. But two rather crucial groups are notable by their absence: bankers and official Americans. Read more

I once knew a senior European Union official – an Austrian – who argued to me that Greece had no place in the European Union. “Greece is not really culturally European, it’s part of the Middle East,” he insisted. “Just listen to their music.” Read more

The BBC are under attack for refusing to broadcast a charity appeal for people made homeless in Gaza. The Observer newspaper claims that the BBC has been thrown into crisis by the decision. Jon Snow, a veteran broadcaster, calls the decision “ludicrous”. Douglas Alexander, a government minister, has called upon the BBC to re-consider. Tim Llwellyn, a former BBC correspondent, accuses his former employer of “cowardice”.

But I think the BBC are right. Broadcasting a charity appeal for Gaza at this particular moment would compromise the corporation’s impartiality. This is not a disaster caused by a tsuanami or an earthquake. It is not an Act of God. It is the product of a highly controversial war – and for the BBC to broadcast appeals for humanitarian relief for Palestinian victims would inevitably be seen as a political act. Read more

Now that Obama has his feet under (or perhaps on?) the Oval Office desk, the rest of the world naturally wants to know – what does it mean for us?

Earlier this week I did an audio roundtable for the FT on American foreign policy under Obama, with Philip Stephens and Mark Fitzpatrick. And then last night, I did an event at the LSE on the US and Europe - with Robert Kagan, Robin Niblett (the head of Chatham House) and Charles Grant, president-for-life of the Centre for European Reform. Read more

Well, I’m sorry but that was a bit of an anti-climax. Straining to be generous in my column this morning, I wrote that I was sure that Obama would “blow them away”. Actually, I don’t think he did.

Of course, it was impossible to live up to the wildly-inflated expectations. The “Daily Show” nicely satirised these by predicting that Obama’s oration would be so brilliant that it “makes the Gettysburg address seem like a series of simian grunts.” But the actual speech was a bit flat and predictable. Read more

Over breakfast this morning my son asked me what Obama would say in his inaugural address? I replied tetchily that I had no idea – he hasn’t given the speech yet, it’s a secret. But then I thought that’s not actually true – I think I have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to say.

I’ll be blogging about the speech after Obama has given it. But here are my predictions. This is a summary – I’m not going to attempt Obama-style rhetoric. Read more

On Tuesday Barack Obama will finally get the chance to say something memorable. This may seem like a curmudgeonly thing to say about a man who is widely hailed as one of the great orators of his age. But Mr Obama has perfected the art of sounding marvellous while saying very little. Read more

So – more than 1,200 deaths later – who won? Israel has announced that it has achieved its goals and called a ceasefire – conveniently enough, just two days before Obama’s inauguration. Hamas says that it has also won and has also declared a ceasefire.

Both sides can claim a victory of sorts. Israel will say that it has stopped the rockets. Hamas has survived. Israel will say that it has re-established its deterrent power. Hamas will believe that it has proved its status as the real face of Palestinian resistance. Read more

When he leaves the White House, George W. Bush might be tempted to try out his own version of Richard Nixon’s famous line to the press that – “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.” Except that Bush junior doesn’t do self-pity. We learnt that in his rather strange closing press conference, when he adopted a whiny voice to say – “why did the financial crisis have to happen on my watch?” – before denouncing such sentiments as “pathetic” self-pity. From this I deduced that this thought is bothering him a lot.

Indeed, former leaders often spend a huge amount of time worrying about their images. I was once told that Lady Thatcher meant a special point of cultivating historians, in the hope that they might write something nice about her. They certainly don’t have much that is nice to say about George W.Bush. One recent poll of American historians found that 61% thought he was the worst American president ever and 98% rated him a failure.

Any verdict that unanimous makes me a bit suspicious. Is there really nothing good to say about President Bush? Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard has a try.  Read more

These are troubled times at Bank of America – what with today’s announcement of an emergency government bail-out.

Still, if employees are feeling depressed may I suggest that they take a fond look-back at this inspirational video, made by Bank of America employees in happier times. It features an ecstatic middle-manager singing a song, set to a tune by U2, about a recent merger that the bank had negotiated. The song contains immortal lines like – “Two great companies come together/ MBNA and BOA/ One bank, one card, one name that’s known all over the world”. Bono himself couldn’t have put it any better. Read more

Pop sociologists like to divide people born since 1945 into different groups. There are the baby boomers, there is Generation X, we may even be on to Generation Y by now. But, as far as I am concerned, we are all members of Generation L – that is, L as in lucky. Read more

I have always been sceptical about the idea that Tony Blair is a plausible candidate for the presidency of the EU. Apart from the small snag that the job does not yet exist, it seems to me that the combination of bitterness over Iraq and Britain’s refusal to join the euro,  means that there will be too much opposition.

Still, Tony Barber reports in today’s paper that the idea has got a new lease of life. If Blair is eventually dragged reluctantly to the throne, he will have a lot to thank Nicolas Sarkozy for. As the FT notes today, Sarko’s hyper-active and effective presidency of the EU in the second half of 2008 has made the case for a “big-hitter” as president of Europe. Or, at least, somebody people have heard of.  Read more

Neither Israel nor Hamas seem particularly inclined to heed the UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The Israelis, in particular, tend to shrug off condemnation by the UN, which they regard as an incorrigibly anti-Israeli body. You can understand why. The UN Human Rights Council, for example, has adopted far more resolutions condemning Israel than any other country. Both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon have criticised the council for singling out Israel.

That said, I think Israel will still view Thursday night’s Security Council resolution with some concern for a couple of reasons. The Security Council is the serious bit of the UN. And it is hard for Israel to dismiss the UN altogether – after all, its owes its very existence as a state to UN resolutions. Read more

At times like this, a bit of escapism is in order. What could be better than going to the football?

The trouble is that you can’t escape the credit crunch, even in a football stadium. The corporate names of the major English teams look like a roll-call of disaster. Manchester United, the champions, are sponsored by AIG. Newcastle United are sponsored by Northern Rock, the first British bank that had to be nationalised.

West Ham United don’t even have names on their shirts because their sponsors, XL, a travel company have gone bankrupt. In fact, the whole club is up for sale because its Icleandic owner, Björgólfur Gudmundsson, lost hundreds of millions of pounds after the collapse of Landsbanki, which he chaired. How appropriate that West Ham’s team song is “I’m forever blowing bubbles/Pretty bubbles in the air/They fly so high/They reach the sky/But like my dreams, they fade and die.” Read more

The newspaper headlines in London proclaim that the temperature will drop to -10, and that Russia has just cut the gas supply to western Europe – again. And yet the reaction here, seems rather less alarmed than the first time this happened back in 2006.

Why? For three reasons, I think. First, bad news is always slightly less shocking, the second time around. Second, there is now more of a sense that this is a genuine economic dispute, as much as a Russian power-play. There are real arguments to be had about Ukrainian debts to Gazprom, and the price Ukraine pays for its gas.

But the most important reason is that Europe is actually rather less in thrall to Russian gas than we first thought. In Britain, just 3% of our energy needs are met by Russian gas. Pierre Noel of Cambridge University summarised the situation rather neatly in a recent paper  for the European Council on Foreign Relations called “Beyond Dependence: How to Deal with Russian Gas”. Read more

By sending ground troops into the Gaza Strip, Israel has crossed a line that brings it perilously close to strategic failure. Read more

My earliest political memories are of Helen Suzman, the veteran anti-apartheid MP, who died yesterday.

I was born in London, but I lived in South Africa for three years from 1968-70 – between the ages of five and eight. I think it was probably possible to grow up in London completely oblivious to politics, but that wasn’t really an option in South Africa. My first political memory is of a general election in apartheid South Africa – seeing posters for Suzman being nailed to trees in the rich, liberal Johannesburg constituency of Houghton that she represented. Read more