Monthly Archives: October 2009

That is because I’m disappearing for two months, to finish a book. (About international politics, amazingly enough). To ensure maximum concentration, I am abandoning not just the column – but also the blog. I will return to normal duties at the beginning of January.

In the meantime, a group of my colleagues have kindly agreed to take over my blogging duties. Over the next couple of months, this will become a group international affairs blog – drawing on the resources of the FT’s network of foreign correspondents. Among the people who have promised to blog at least once a week are Geoff Dyer, Roula Khalaf, James Blitz, Alan Beattie and Victor Mallet. (The last two will start around November 10th.) And other correspondents will chip in, every now and then. It promises to be really good – but, I hope, not too good, or I could be out of a job in 2010.

David Miliband, British foreign secretary,  Read more

For most of the past twenty years, high levels of unemployment in Europe have been a source of shame and concern for European policymakers. Conversely, the Americans have revelled in the extraordinary job-creating US economy. Whenever Europeans defended their welfare states, or poined to inequality in the US, the Americans had a ready riposte – at least our people are at work.

But, without exciting much comment, things have now changed. American unemployment is alarmingly high – 9.8% according to the tables at the back of The Economist. By comparision, Britain is 7.9%, Germany 8.2%, the Netherlands 5.1%, Denmark 3.7%. The euro-zone as a whole is at 9.6%, just below the States – but the average is dragged up by Spain’s outstandingly poor performance, with unemployment of 18.9%. Read more

For those of you who have not yet made it to p.24 of the second section (UK edition) of today’s FT, may I bring your attention to what seems to the single most amusing/interesting fact in today’s paper.

Paul Betts in his European View notes that, during the French EU presidency, France hosted a three day “Union of the Mediterranean summit” that cost 16.6m euros. He goes on – “On the occasion of that summit, a shower was specially installed in the Grand Palais in Paris at a cost of €245,000 for the personal use of the president. Mr Sarkozy never used it.”

David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, has been making the running in the efforts to secure the EU council presidency for his old boss, Tony Blair. (Miliband was the head of the Downing Street policy unit under Blair.) The Charlemagne blog suggests, amusingly, that Miliband’s heart may not be in it – and that he is playing some sort of weird double game, designed to advance his own ambitions.

But, whatever his secret musings, Miliband made an interesting and thoughtful speech on Britain and Europe a couple of days ago at the IISS in London. He argued that world is heading for an “Age of Continents” – in which sheer size will be increasingly important. The world will either be run by a G2 of China and the US, or by a G3 that includes the EU. The moral is that Britain has to throw its lot in with the EU, or face increasing irrelevance. As Miliband himself notes, the Tories aversion to deeper European integration is so intense that they would probably prefer increasing irrelevance – an idea that William Hague seemed to accept in his own IISS speech, a few weeks back. Read more

Following Sarkozy’s happiness commission, the latest effort to come up with a broader measure of national well-being than mere GDP has been made by the London-based Legatum Institute. Legatum’s  ”Prosperity Index” sounds like it is weighted towards economics. But, in fact, the institute tries to take into account a great many factors in producing its national rankings, these include health, entrepeneurship, democractic governance etc. The Finns are apparently the best-off people in the world, according to this measure. Strange then, that they are so catatonic.  Maybe that is the secret of their success.

In the manner of these reports, Legatum tries to come up with ten “key findings”. These include “freedom cannot be divided”, “good governance is central to life satisfaction” and most sweeping of all, “History is not destiny.” Blimey. Who said it was? And what would it mean if history was destiny? Read more

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Poor Tony Blair – sabotaged by his own countryman. Just weeks ago,Mr Blair looked like the frontrunner to be president of the European Union. But now William Hague, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, has let the rest of Europe know that the opposition Conservative party would regard his appointment as a “hostile gesture”. Since the Tories and Mr Hague are likely to be in government by the middle of next year, after a British general election, their views have real weight. Charles Grant, head of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank, says: “On my travels around Europe I have found that Hague’s comments have made a huge impact.” Mr Blair’s candidacy has been badly damaged. Read more

This post from Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times looks at the EU summit and discussions on the Lisbon treaty.  Read more

The great news furore here in Britain is about the appearance of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, on the BBC’s Question Time programme. Since I suspect this has hardly featured in the news outside the UK, let me explain for those of you logging in from Riyadh or Brisbane. The BNP are the British equivalent of France’s National Front – they made a small electoral breakthrough at the last Euro-elections and now have two MEPS. (Griffin is one of them.) Since Question Time is probably the most prestigious political programme on TV, it is a big step for Griffin to be allowed on.

Along with 8m other people, I watched the programme last night – and I thought Griffin was reassuringly bad. I had expected him to be smooth, well-prepared and unflappable. As it was, he looked sweaty, nervous, incoherent and ingratiating. One of his big problems is that he has a long history of racist statements – some of them made on tape – that he is now trying to shrug off. His efforts to deny his previous record of Holocaust-denial was embarrassingly evasive – like the worst sort of slippery politician. His suggestion that he had appeared alongside the Ku Klux Klan, partly to persuade them of the error of their ways was ludicrous. So, all in all, I share the views of Matthew Engel in today’s FT – that it was a good move to put Griffin on television, because he made an idiot of himself. Read more

There seems to be a general sigh of relief in western capitals that President Karzai has agreed to a second round for the Afghan elections on November 7th. But my reaction was different. The whole things looks increasingly absurd to me. Do we really believe that the second round is going to be so much cleaner than the first round? Do we really think that – in the war-torn areas of Helmand – thousands of people are now going to have the confidence to turn out to vote, when they were too intimidated to do so the first time around? Above all, do we really think that the Afghans are going to feel terribly different about the continuation of President Karzai’s rule, just because there has been a second round of voting?

But then I don’t think this decision to go to a second round really has much to do with what the Afghans think. It is all about making western governments feel more comfortable. We already know that our efforts to ram the square peg of democracy into the round hole of Afghan society are in serious trouble. President Obama has said that Afghanistan is not going to be a “Jeffersonian democracy”. But the first round of elections were so flawed, that we need something that looks just a little better. Which would be fine – except that it is very likely that lots of people are going to die – western soldiers and Afghan voters – in trying to pretty up “Afghan democracy”. Read more

I thought the FT leader on the Goldstone report got it about right. The report on Israel’s assault on Gaza is a serious bit of work and it’s fairly desperate to try to discredit it by calling its author a “self-hating Jew”.

The bigger problem lies with the UN Human Rights Council – which is clearly unreasonably obsessed by Israel, given all the other worthy targets it could select.

And lying behind that, is a still bigger problem with the very idea of impartial international law. Read more

Ingram Pinn illustration

Almost two years ago, I wrote a column hailing “the age of the small state”. I pointed out that the number of independent nations had grown sharply over the past 40 years and that small countries topped many of the international league tables, on everything from gross domestic product-per-capita to peacefulness and “human development”. Read more

The most important thing happening in the world at the moment is the Pakistani army’s assault on Waziristan. Here is a good account by Anatole Lieven of what is at stake, and what is likely to happen. He is very cautiously optimistic about the fight against the Pakistani Taleban, but believes the Pakistani army will not take on the Afghan Taleban. My only quibble with Lieven’s piece is that his summary of Pakistani attitudes to Afghanistan is based on a single quote from an “old shopkeeper in Peshawar”. This is the kind of thing I do, but aren’t professors at King’s College meant to be a bit more rigorous?

Another really interesting read this morning was Boris Johnson’s savage attack on bankers’ bonuses. I have also been wandering around – contemplating the prospect of higher taxes for the next decade or so – and feeling vaguely outraged that the people responsible for doubling the national debt, are currently rewarding themselves with vast bonuses. Boris Johnson (Mayor of London, lest you forget), has been one of the last defenders of the City – calculating presumably that they remain a useful source of income and employment in the capital. But even Boris has had enough now. When people like the boss of Barclays threaten in this morning’s FT that they will leave London, if we deprive them of their bonuses, I hope they will now find a rush of people holding the exit door open for them. Read more

Back when the Obama administration took power, we were told that they had made a great intellectual breakthrough. They had realised that the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan had to be treated as single issue – hence the ugly acronym, AfPak. And, of course, this is right. The Americans and their allies are not going to win the war in Afghanistan, while the Taliban enjoy safe havens in Pakistan. And it may not be worth “winning” in Afghanistan, if in the process you gravely destabilise Pakistan – a much bigger and more important country.

So much for the theory. But, in practice, we seem to have gone back to thinking about Afghanistan and Pakistan as two separate issues. So, on the one hand, there are the constant reports of the White House’s agonising over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. And on the other, news of an upsurge in terrorism and fighting in Pakistan. But nobody seems to be connecting the dots. Read more

By James Lamont, South Asia bureau chief

Today’s attacks on Lahore show that the battlefront in Pakistan’s struggle against Taliban militants has shifted south.

The militants are taking the fight to Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. This region, which borders India, is the political and economic heart of the country. It is also from where the officer corps of Pakistan’s army is largely drawn. Lahore, its capital, is regarded as Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan, tolerant and historic city. Read more

An interesting little item here, on the banning of the works of Noam Chomsky from the prison library at Guantanamo Bay. One has to wonder about the mentality of the Pentagon lawyer, who was trying to obtain a copy of Chomsky for one of the detainees he is representing. Maybe his job at Guantanamo has led him to entertain all sorts of subversive thoughts?

Chomsky predictably interpets the ban on his work as further evidence that the US is slipping towards totalitarianism. But I see it another way. Obama has said that he is banning the use of torture on prisoners at Guantanamo. Subjecting them to the works of Noam Chomsky is clearly incompatible with the torture ban.

President Sarkozy has taken the political lead in promoting “happiness” economics. He even appointed a Stiglitz-led commission to report on alternatives to GDP-per-capita as measures of national well-being. It reported last month and made some interesting points.

But there is a snag. France – the champion of “quality of life”, “the art of living”, the long lunch and sexual liberation (see Carla Bruni, Roman Polanski, Frederic Mitterand etc) – also seems to be a startlingly miserable place. I was shocked by this article in last week’s Economist about the rate of suicide in France. Only the Japanese seem to be killing themselves at a significantly faster rate. Champions of Anglo-Saxon capitalism might note, with grim satisfaction, that suicide rates in Britain and the US are significantly lower than in France. But then Italy has the lowest rate of all the countries on the Economist table. Read more

This post by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times looks at the reconstruction efforts of the US, UK and other leading members of Afghanistan’s international assistance force. Read more

When the FT circulates the list of best-read articles on the internet around the building, the top one or two articles often have a tell-tale word in brackets, after them (Drudge). For, as any web-editor knows, the surest way to get a surge in internet hits is to have your article picked up by the Drudge Report – an idiosyncratic mix of high politics, economics, celebrity news and climate-change scepticism – which has a huge following in the US, particularly amongst “conservatives”.

For a journalist being Drudged is a mixed blessing. Initially, you feel terribly popular and successful as you soar up the “most read” table. And then the e-mails start coming in. Here are a few that arrived today, in response to my Tuesday column on Obama. I think they give a fairly alarming insight into the mental state of parts of Middle America.

Somebody called Bob Clymer writes: “From your writings you are clearly in the Marxist/Socialist camp. Keep your stinking European nose out of America.” And here are the musings of one Bill Smith: “when are you idiotic British Marxist ass-kissers ever going to see reality?  Obama is a dead man walking….he’s too stupid to realize it yet….The Mossad will cap his big brown head and make it look like some Muslim hot-head did it….This halfbreed idiot is a ruination not only to the USA but to free men everywhere….something you lazy bastards in Europe gave up like 65 years ago….” What kind of a mental state do you have to be in, that you want your own president to be assassinated by a foreign country? Read more

Pinn illustration

Just five years ago, Barack Obama was still a local politician in Illinois, preparing for a run for the US Senate. His office wall in Chicago at the time was decorated with the famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in a heavyweight title fight. Ali famously boasted that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” But now that Mr Obama is president, he seems to float like a butterfly – and sting like one as well. Read more