Monthly Archives: May 2009

When people say that California represents the future, they usually mean it nicely – they are thinking about hi-tech industries, or popular culture, or environmentalism. But reading Matthew Garrahan’s piece on the golden state’s budget travails in today’s FT, I wondered whether California now represents the future of the west – but as a nightmare, rather than a pleasant dream.

The Californian budget crisis is so severe that all public employees are having to take pay cuts. Public-health services are under serious threat, and there is talk of pushing Aids patients and the terminally-ill out onto the streets. It has proved impossible to raise taxes any further and the bond markets are in revolt. California is looking to Washington for help. But with the federal government running budget deficits of 12% of GDP, and the federal debt pushing up towards 100% of GDP – you have to wonder whether California’s present might, once again, be America’s future. Read more

Visit the vast bureaucracies of the Pentagon or the State Department and “under-staffed” is not the first word that springs to mind. But – in fact – as the Obama administration grapples with the world, it is short of key people in vital areas.

Take North Korea: the US’s special envoy for North Korea is Stephen Bosworth, but he is only a part-timer. He divides his time between the State Department and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, where he is the dean. The lead State Department official should be Kurt Campbell, Obama’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Asia – but almost six months into the administration, he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Read more

It is amazing how quickly the news cycle moves on. When I was packing my bags for Washington over the weekend, the big story was Guantanamo. By the time I got here on Memorial Day (Monday), it was the North Korean nuclear test. And today the headlines have been dominated by Obama’s first Supreme Court pick – a Latino woman, and therefore a “twofer”.

But neither the North Korean or Guantanamo messes are going to go away. They are both an illustration that this foreign-policy business is full of unpleasant surprises that are strangely impervious to the charms of President Obama. Read more

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There was a moment, a few months ago, when sensible people in rich countries were considering pulling all their money out of the bank, buying gold ingots and hiding them under the bed. But now that the panic has passed, something less frightening and rather bleaker is beckoning. Welcome to the politics of austerity. Read more

Back in February I blogged about a seminar I had gone into Paris devoted to the subject of “Is there a China model?” The organisers of the forum have now made a film of the whole event. It will appeal to anybody who is interested in:

a) The debate Read more

So have we finally seen the evidence that it is indeed possible to win a military victory in the war on terror? The Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaska certainly seems to have achieved something like that. Over weeks of intensive and gruelling fighting, it gradually pinned back the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) into a smaller and smaller pocket of land – finally killing the Tigers’ legendary leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

These developments have been greeted as a triumph in Colombo – but with unease in much of the west. The Sri Lankans, for their part, are angry about what they regard as European sympathy for a terrorist organisation. Earlier this month Carl Bildt, the widely-respected Swedish foreign minister, was denied a visa to visit Sri Lanka. And a couple of days ago, demonstrators in Colombo stoned the British embassy and burned an effigy of David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, in protest at Britain’s alleged sympathy with the LTTE. Read more

Who saw the crash coming? Well, careful readers of the FT would have recieved some warning. I refer not to the work of Gillian Tett or Martin Wolf – although both can claim some credit – but to this short story by Julian Gough, an Irish novelist based, which was published in the FT.  Gough’s account of the inflation of goat-prices in Somalia and their impact on the global economy now seems eerily like an allegorical warning of what was to befall us.

Mr Gough has now been rewarded – either for his literary flair or his economic insights – by having his story dramatised on BBC Radio 4. If you hurry, you can listen to it here - before they take the link down next Friday. The Hollywood movie goes into production next year, although the part of the goat is yet to be cast.

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“A billion people, in a functioning democracy. Ain’t that something.” George W. Bush’s awestruck musings on the wonders of Indian democracy will be echoed all around the world this week. Read more

A senior European diplomat I met last week predicted that the Obama-Netanyahu talks would be “very tough in private, but very calm in public.” Well, the two leaders have just emerged and staged a brief press conference and – in public – they were indeed leaning over to be nice to each other.

Netanyahu, often self-confident and aggressive in private, was a real pussy-cat. He was clearly eager to sound reasonable and optimistic. There were no dark warnings about impending Armageddons. Instead he talked about a moment of unique opportunity in the Middle East because Arabs and Israelis “see a common threat”. Perhaps it was just a different way of talking up the threat of Iran – but it sounded more positive. The Israeli leader also kept emphasising what a great friend of Israel Obama is; there was no overt effort to question the president’s committment to Israel’s security – even though what Obama had to say (and his manner) was very different from the back-slapping, unquestioning support for the Israeli point of view that George W. Bush used to offer. Read more

I was in Krakow over the weekend and took the chance to visit Auschwitz – which is about an hour’s drive away. The experience was not what I anticipated.

In my mind’s eye, Auschwitz was isolated, empty and covered in snow. In reality, I drove there in bright sunshine and found that Auschwitz is in the suburbs of a small Polish town. You drive to Oswiecim, it’s left at the garden centre, and there it is - Auschwitz. There is a big car park full of coaches. Auschwitz is a major tourist destination. There is nothing to be done about that. And I’m sure it is better that lots of people visit than that the place is forgotten. But it is not an atmosphere that lends itself naturally to silent contemplation. Read more

By any conventional political analysis, the governing Congress Party should have done badly in the Indian elections. The economy is suffering because of the global recession. And the Indian government has appeared powerless and clueless in the face of a spate of increasingly bold terrorist attacks. Both issues should have played into the hands of the right-wing opposition party, the BJP.

Instead Congress has done much better than expected. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, might have been exaggerating slightly when he claimed that the election results have handed his party a “massive mandate”. But Congress has clearly out-perfomed expectations. Before the votes were counted, the conventional expectation was that Congress would get around 150 seats – instead they seem to have won over 200 seats, and should be well placed to form a reasonably stable coalition. Read more

Officially, Russia does not use energy as a political weapon – and the gas cut-offs to Ukraine are no laughing matter. Unofficially – well, take a look at this video recorded in a Moscow theatre earlier this year.

As readers of this blog might have gathered, I have just been in Hungary – searching for evidence of political extremism. But perhaps I should have been looking closer to home. It is entirely possible that the far-right British National Party – which enjoys fraternal relations with Jobbik in Hungary – will gain a seat, perhaps more than one in the European Parliamentary elections on June 4th.

The BNP are not showing up well in the polls – but that is probably because people are reluctant to admit voting for them. In fact, conditions are perfect for the BNP. There is a deep recession, and now there is a sleaze and expenses scandal that is engulfing the British Parliament and discrediting mainstream politicians. UKIP – the UK Independence Party, which wants to withdraw the UK from the European Union – is another party that should benefit from the scandal. UKIP made a big breakthrough in the last Euro-elections in 2004; and the polls have been suggesting that they will do much worse this time. But the sleaze scandal looks likely to give them a big boost. Read more

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“Everything I say is a lie” has long been a favourite puzzle for philosophy students. But it took a Hungarian politician to turn a logical conundrum into a political strategy. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s admission in 2006 to a closed session of the Hungarian Socialist party that he had “lied morning, noon and night” to win the election, was swiftly leaked. It provoked riots in Hungary. Read more

One of the biggest questions about the global economic crisis is whether it will drag China down as well. At the beginning of the year, things were not looking too good for the Chinese – with reports of mass lay-offs and social unrest in the industrial heartlands of southern China. More broadly, there seemed to be a strong argument that the Chinese growth model – based around the insatiable appetite of the American consumer – was now broken. Read more

I’ve reviewed War of Necessity, War of Choice, by Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

I was brought up to believe that Speakers Corner in Hyde Park encapsulate all that is best about Britain. Here is a country where liberty is so ingrained that anybody can turn up, mount a soapbox and give a speech. Of course, in reality, Speakers Corner is a bit of a disappointment. Many of the speakers are lunatics or religious fundamentalists. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

The British government, however, seems increasingly at odds with the notion of freedom of speech. It has taken to banning all manner of foreigners from entering the country, on the grounds that they are promoting offensive or dangerous views. I blogged earlier this year about the decision to exclude Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who wants to ban the Koran. Now a ban has been issued against Michael Savage, a right-wing American talk-show host – who also has a record of baiting Muslims. Mr Savage has also said offensive things about autistic children – which, amazingly enough, Labour MPs have cited as partial justification for his exclusion. But as Catherine Bennett shows in an excellent column in today’s Observer, it is very hard to argue that Mr Savage is a genuine danger to public order. Read more

I am in Budapest, and this morning I met the new face of the Hungarian far right. I suppose if Hollywood was casting for such a role, the neo-fascist would be a male, skinhead in a leather jacket. But Kristztina Morvai turned out to be a blonde woman and a human-rights lawyer, who has written books on violence against women and who was once awarded the “Freddie Mercury” prize by the Red Cross, for promoting Aids awareness.

Nonetheless, there was no mistake. Ms Morvai is heading the list in next month’s European elections for Jobbik – the “Movement for a Better Hungary” – and has a strong chance of winning a seat in the European Parliament in next month’s poll. Jobbik boasts a paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard – and is regularly accused of baiting Gypsies and Jews.

Ms Morvai, immaculately clad in a red-business suit, met me at the cafe of the World League of Hungarians and issued a challenge of sorts – “I have met foreign journalists before. They are always very disappointed to discover that I am not actually a Fascist. But then they go away and write that I am a Fascist, anyway.” Read more

When President Barack Obama welcomes the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan to the White House on Wednesday, he will be meeting two leaders the US relies on – and deeply distrusts.

The Americans desperately need both Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to get a grip on the deteriorating security situation in the region now referred to in Washington as “AfPak”. But both men are regarded as incompetent leaders with whom the US has a scratchy and difficult relationship. Read more

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“I will never apologise for the United States, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” President George H.W. Bush’s statement in 1988 was more than just a “Bushism”, of the sort that his son later made famous. It was also a pithy summary of a whole school of thought in the US. Read more