Monthly Archives: May 2009

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

Pinn illustration

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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.

Gideon Rachman

Pinn llustration

“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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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