Monthly Archives: February 2009

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

Pinn

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. Read more

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!! Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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.” Read more

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. Read more

 

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. Read more

There is a row in Britain about the decision to ban Geert Wilders, a Dutch MP, from entering the country because of his anti-Islamic views. David Miliband, the foreign secretary, cited the old saw about their being no freedom to shout fire in a crowded theatre to justify the ban. In other words, Wilders’s views, (he thinks, amongst other things that the Koran justifies terrorism and should be banned), are a danger to the public order.

I think the ban is a mistake and so, I discovered this morning, do 80% of the pundits polled by the Politics Home web-site. ( I quite often participate in their polls, but missed that one.) The easy reason for opposing the Wilders ban is that it gives a populist and a demagogue far more publicity than he would otherwise have got. But the real reason is simpler and more important – free speech. Read more

The fact that Tzipi Livni and Kadima sneaked ahead of Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu by one seat in the Israeli election has allowed some analysts to spin the election as good news for the beleagured peace process. I don’t see it that way.

Its true that Livni favours trying for a two-state solution, while Netanyahu is not keen. But that’s where the good news for the peace-camp ends. There has been a big swing to the right, which will make it significantly easier for Likud to form a coalition than for Kadima. Read more

I am beginning to have religious doubts. For the first time in my life, it has occurred to me that maybe the ultra-Orthodox Jews really do have a direct line to the Lord. There is a group living here in Jerusalem who regard the Israeli state as an abomination because it has been formed before the return of the Messiah. They had called upon God to signal his disapproval of Israel by smiting Tuesday’s elections with storms. And lo, it came to pass. The weather on election day was filthy: torrential rain, gale-force winds, even hail at one point. The winds were so powerful that they blew my new light-weight glasses off my face and they disappeared somewhere. So I am typing this blind. God knows what words are coming out on the screen.

Despite the weather, the elections went ahead. The exit polls suggest that Livni and Kadima will be the largest party, closely followed by Likud, with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu and “Yvette” Lieberman beating Labour into fourth place. So Livni would get first shot at forming a government, but might not be able to secure a majority. Read more

James Ferguson's

You might expect a general election conducted just weeks after a war to be a tense affair. But, as Israel prepares to go to the polls this week, the country does not feel on edge. The joggers on Tel Aviv’s beaches pound up and down in the surf, oblivious to the anarchy and violence an hour’s drive away in the Gaza Strip. Read more

I have written a column about the Israeli election for tomorrow’s paper. But – as ever – the odder aspects of the story tend to get squeezed out when you are attempting to make a serious argument.

But Israeli politics is nothing if not quirky. Among the stranger aspects of this election: Read more

I am in Israel this evening. Election posters are everywhere and there is lots of excitement ahead of the vote on Tuesday. But visiting Hebron market on the West Bank this afternoon, I didn’t find any Palestinians who seemed to think the result would make much difference to them.

Even though the Palestinians are studiously indifferent to the Israeli elections, their own politics are on the move. Hamas have always been strong in Hebron – and the general opinion seemed to be that the war in Gaza had strengthened support for them in the West Bank as well. One woman trader I spoke to didn’t seem too happy about it. “If Hamas take power in the West Bank”, she said, “it will be very bad for women. They will make me close my stall down.”

I’ve never seen anywhere on the West Bank where Israeli settlers and Palestinians live so close together as in Hebron. The town is now effectively divided by check-points, walls and metal gates – all policed by a very heavy Israeli military presence. The Israeli side seemed comatose this afternoon, a combination of the fact that it was the Sabbath and that there are only 400 settlers, guarded by hundreds more troops. I saw one extravagantly bearded man out for a stroll with his family – a charming scene, apart from the fact that he had a machine-gun strapped across his chest. Read more

European policymakers will this weekend be able to have their first close look at the foreign policy team of President Barack Obama. The American delegation to the annual Munich security conference will be led by Joe Biden, US vice-president, and will include General James Jones, Mr Obama’s new national security adviser.

But for those searching for clues to the new administration’s approach to the rest of the world, there is a treasure trove of evidence that has been little examined – the writings of the people who will shape foreign policy. Read more

I was once told that the Brookings Institution’s annual budget for its foreign-policy studies programme is three times the size of the budget of the National Security Council. But even venerable and well-funded think-tanks like Brookings are going to be squeezed by the credit-crunch. And some of the tiddler think-tanks are actually going to go out of business.

Part of my job involves mixing with people who run or staff think-tanks. And like a lot of the other people I mix with – journalists, bankers, middle-class layabouts – they are a worried group. Read more

There are rock festivals and book festivals – and then there is the annual globalisation festival, otherwise known as the World Economic Forum in Davos. Read more

Barack Obama has promised change. But, in one respect, his presidency is already looking very traditional – the appearance of an embarrassing brother.

The arrest of George Obama on drugs charges in Kenya brings back memories of those other great presidential brothers: Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. Billy was Jimmy’s embarrassingly uncouth brother, who did things like peeing on an airport runway in full view of the press – as well as lobbying for the Libyans and launching his own branded beer. Roger Clinton was an even darker character – a convicted drug offender and unconvicted rock singer. Read more