I thought Obama’s speech outlining his plan for withdrawal from Iraq was extremely well-judged. The political task was as tricky as it gets. He had to stand in front of the cream of the American military and announce that a war that he had always opposed – but that they had fought – is now coming to a close.
As usual, the president got the tone just right. He paid a genuine and sincere tribute to military heroism. He stressed what has actually been achieved in Iraq. But he did not renounce his opposition to the war – it was the implict thread running through the speech. By the end of Obama’s address, the marines were cheering him to the rafters – a promise to increase their pay might have helped improve their mood.
Until I arrived in Paris I was under the impression that Nicolas Sarkozy was experiencing something of a renaissance. The French presidency of the EU was generally felt to have gone well. Sarkozy is one of the few political figures in Europe who still radiates a sense of energy and purpose.
But it is not doing him much good in the opinion polls. The papers here report that the bounce he achieved in the second half of last year has now dwindled away and Sarko is now back down to approval levels of between 36% and 44% (according to which poll you choose) – and has fallen between 4% and 9% in just a month. He is back down to the (dis)approval ratings he was achieving during his bling period in the spring of last year. The main explanation for the fall in his popularity is pretty simple – the economy.
I have just spent a fascinating couple of days, closeted with some Chinese academics in a house outside Paris, at a seminar organised by Sweden’s “Glasshouse Forum“.
Several of the assembled profs were members of China’s “new left” – people like Zhiyuan Cui, an economist from Tsinghua University and Shaoguang Wang of Hong Kong university. I was surprised by how confident they seemed. The consensus seemed to be that China would weather the global economic crisis better than most – and that the Chinese political system is sufficiently robust to withstand higher unemployment and slower growth. One of the participants pointed out that in the late 1990s, 60m Chinese people had been thrown out of work in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis and the restructuring of China’s state-owned enterprises. But the country’s long-term trajectory remained ever upwards.
Another participant joked that China had discovered that whatever country it models itself on is doomed. In the 1950s China had modelled itself on the Soviet Union; in the 1980s there was a fashion for imitiating Japan; and more recently, there has been a fascination with American capitalism.
Barack Obama’s foreign policy team knew that sooner or later they would face a crisis over Iran. Unfortunately for the new US president, the crisis is already upon them.
Vaclav Klaus is a difficult man. Vain, boorish, a “climate-change denier”, a Eurosceptic. But I couldn’t help cheering when I read the FT’s account of his address to the European Parliament, whcih was given late last week.
The parliament is a horribly pompous and pampered body – and the Czech president really stuck it to them. He observed, correctly, that the parliament completely marginalises those who dissent from the politically-approved view of the necessity of ever-deeper European integration. And he criticised those “claiming that the status quo, the present institutional form of the EU, is forever uncriticisable dogma.”
Comparing this suffocating political orthodoxy to the Soviet era in which he grew up was perhaps a little over-the-top. But the parliamentarians rather made his point for him – by walking out in large numbers, when Klaus suggested that, since there is no European demos, the EU’s democratic deficit would not be solved by increasing the powers of the European Parliament. Heresy!!
As a “foreign affairs commentator”, I am meant to follow politics all over the world. At least in theory, I have cogent views on everything from the Bolivarian revolution to Chinese land reforms. This is an interesting, if tricky, assignment.
Wednesday was a particularly head-spinning day. At lunch-time I moderated a session at the LSE on the future of the Russian economy. In the afternoon, I took part in a conference call about a seminar on China that I am going to in France next week. Then at 6.30 pm I went over to the Policy Exchange think-tank in Westminster to interview Larry Lindsey, before an invited audience. Lindsey is a former economic adviser in the Bush White House, so we were talking about the Obama stimulus package. When that was over, I walked a few hundred yards across Whitehall to go to a dinner in Churchill’s War Rooms (an underground bunker, just near Downing Street). This was dedicated to the study of the problems of Pakistan’s tribal areas – and I found myself sitting between Pakistan’s deputy defence minister and a senior Nato general.
I have finally found a question that Martin Wolf does not know the answer to – who invented the term “globalisation” and when? I e-mailed Martin (now temporarily resident in New York) with this query. But he was flummoxed – and this despite having written books on the subject.
I then thought I had solved the conundrum when I came across this obituary of Theodore Levitt, a Harvard Business School professor, from the New York Times. The article claimed that Levitt had invented the term in a Harvard Business Review article in 1983 called the “Globalisation of Markets”. But then, disappointingly, I noticed that there was a correction appended to the bottom of the article – claiming that the term had been used by economists earlier in the 1980s and was first used in the 1940s. Disappointingly vague, I thought.
On both sides of the Atlantic, senior officials are issuing dire warnings about global political turmoil. In the US, Admiral Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, says instability produced by the economic crisis is now the biggest short-term threat to US national security. In Britain, Ed Balls, a cabinet minister, argues that the financial crisis is “more serious” than that of the 1930s, adding cheerfully: “And we all remember how the politics of that era were shaped by the economy.”
The FT today reports that ecstatic crowds in Venezuela greeted Hugo Chavez’s referendum victory with chants of “Hey ho, Chavez won’t go.” I wonder what that is in the original Spanish?
Perhaps more important, I wonder whether it’s true? Can Chavez continue to function and rule if the oil price is stuck well below $50 a barrel.
Thailand never used to have an image problem. Put to one side the occasional negative story about sex tourism and heroin-trafficking and the country has been successfully marketed as the idealised Oriental paradise: exotic, beautiful, warm, welcoming and unthreatening.
But lately things have gone wrong. In November, political protesters occupied and closed Bangkok airport, turning Thailand from the “land of smiles” of tourist brochures into a vale of tears for stranded holidaymakers. International human rights groups are criticising the country for its treatment of refugees and for its use of lèse-majesté laws to harass and imprison critics of the Thai monarchy. And now, to top it all, there is an economic crisis.