Monthly Archives: January 2010

The FT is running a live blog commentary of Tony Blair at the Chilcot Inquiry  – see it here

It is snowing in Davos. I don’t know why that should surprise me. It is a ski resort, after all. The locals – who apparently do not simply disappear when the World Economic Forum leaves town – are pleased, since it means there will be plenty of snow on the slopes for the school half-term. But for some delegates, the snow seems to be a bit of a downer – adding to the discomfort of Davos. I saw one South African delegate struggling into his heavy coat and gloves and moaning, “this is torture.” The Chinese, however, are pleased. A senior Chinese official claims that there is an old Chinese saying that – “Heavy snow means there will be a good harvest.” This was slightly more interesting than his claim that the nations of the world “have common but differentiated responsibilities” over climate change.

I have spent much of the day in meetings of the Davos “International Media Council” which brings together a group of journalists from all over the world for off-the-record briefings with important people. This is all very flattering – but also slightly frustrating, since I am not allowed to report what they say.

One of the briefings was given by David Cameron. As a British citizen, I was interested to see what a small group of foreign columnists and editors made of the man who is likely to be our next prime minister. Generally, they seemed to be favourably impressed. The Americans were simply astonished to find a conservative who was willing to discuss the idea of tax rises in a calm fashion – and who took “liberal” positions on the environment and gay-rights. “The last time we had conservative leaders like that in the US”, said one, “Eisenhower was in power.” Read more

Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple. Now the World Economic Forum has driven the wine-tasters out of Davos. In previous years, one of the highlights of the forum was a small but spectacular tasting of fine wines. But last year Klaus Schwab, the forum’s mastermind, decided that guzzling first-growth clarets was an inappropriate way of celebrating the global economic meltdown - and the wine-tasting was cancelled. We all hoped that this was a temporary abberation, but apparently not. The new Puritanism is here to stay – Davos wine-tastings are off the menu until further notice.

But you cannot deter dedicated wine-tasters that easily. Last night a wine-tasting was organised by former Davos employees who have formed a new organisation called the Wine Forum. It took place in a conference room in an airport hotel in Zurich at 6pm – a time and a location that was specifically designed to intercept delegates en route to Davos.

Jancis Robinson of the FT was mistress-of-ceremonies and the wines were provided by Krug, and Chateaus Cheval Blanc and Yquem. One of the malign results of globalisation is that these wines, which were once affordable to the likes of me, are now global brands cherished by the super-rich and so mesmerisingly expensive. I’ve never understood why the anti-globalisation movement doesn’t make more of this issue. The 1959 Chateau Yquem that we tasted last night now sells for about £1600 a bottle – each gulp that I took would have made a small contribution to paying off my mortgage. The Cheval Blanc 1998 is about £400 a bottle. Read more

Ingram Pinn illustration

During the second world war, Britain’s food supplies were threatened by German U-boats and the government responded with posters, urging the public to “dig for victory”, by growing vegetables. You might assume that such concerns were consigned to history. But apparently not. The issue of national food security is back on the agenda. Read more

An interesting shoving match is developing between the Americans and the Chinese over the internet. The Chinese reaction to Hillary Clinton’s speech calling for internet freedom around the world has been predictably fierce. But, equally interesting I think, is the question of why Hillary chose to weigh in on this subject, in a way that was bound to antagonise the Chinese. The Google row made her speech pertinent, of course. But I also know that there has been fretting – even among some Democrats – that a succession of actions by the Obama administration has given the impression of American weakness to the Chinese. So there might be a demand to show a slightly tougher side to US policy.

What are these alleged acts of weakness? Here are some, in no particular order: 1) Hillary Clinton says, early in the administration, that she is not going to let human-rights issues interfere with dialogue on other important issues. This message is re-enforced by Nancy Pelosi’s refusal, around the same time, to present the Chinese with a list of imprisoned dissidents. 2) Hillary Clinton tells the Chinese that she hopes that they keep buying US Treasury bonds. 3) The Obama administration does not make much of a fuss when the president’s town-hall meeting in China is censored on Chinese television. 4) The Americans agree to a communique after the Beijing trip which includes a phrase about China’s “core interests” – language that refers to Taiwan that the US has hitherto resisted. 5) The Obama administration hesitates to announce arms-sales to Taiwan and does not make much fuss, publicly, about cyber-security issues. Read more

It was fascinating to see Paul Volcker standing next to Barack Obama yesterday, when the president made his big announcement on the reform of investment banking. Volcker, the slayer of inflation in the early 1980s, who more or less disappeared from the public eye for a generation after retiring as head of the Fed in 1987, is now back in fashion and back in power. Meanwhile, Alan Greenspan – the man who succeeded Volcker, the high priest of deregulation and once hailed as a “Maestro” – has had his reputation trashed.

There is a fascinating contrast in styles between the two men. Watching the pictures yesterday, I was reminded of what Greenspan had to say about Volcker in his autobiography:

“Volcker and I were not personal friends. At six foot seven with an ever present cigar, he made a vivid impression, but in conversation I always found him quite introverted and withdrawn. He didn’t play tennis or golf – instead, he liked to go off by himself and fly-fish … Having been a civil servant most of his career, he didn’t have much money. He kept his family at their house in suburban New York for the entire team he was Fed chairman. All he had in Washington was a tiny apartment – he invited me over once in the early 1980s to to talk about the Mexican debt crisis, and the place was filled with piles of old newspapers and all the other clutter of a bachelor apartment.” Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

Fly into Islamabad. Offer military aid. Deny conspiracy theories. Suggest that it wouldn’t be too bad an idea for Pakistan to go after Islamist extremists more vigorously. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

The man responsible for America’s military has come to the country at the heart of the US fight against militant Islamists – and yet he can’t talk about a key part of that struggle. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

Ripples from events on both US coasts have reached India, where Robert Gates, America’s powerful defence secretary, is talking grand policy. Read more

Losing the Senate seat in Massachusetts is, of course, the worst possible way for Obama to celebrate his first year in office. It is a stinging rebuke to lose a seat in a state that is so liberal that it is the only one to have voted for George McGovern in 1972. Even worse, by losing the Democrats’ super-majority in the Senate, it is now substantially less likely that Obama will be able to pass health-care reform. And if he loses health-care, he loses the opportunity to notch up a big and obvious achievement for his presidency.

Obama certainly needs something big and tangible to point to. The problem with his first year in office is that his biggest domestic achievement is a negative one – stopping the recession from tumbling into a Depression. And you tend not to get much credit for things that didn’t happen on your watch. Meanwhile his biggest foreign-policy achievement is ephemeral – improving America’s image. I have no doubt that Obama has done this, and that it is important. But it is something that it is difficult to put your finger on, and it has not yet translated into solid improvements in America’s most troubling foreign-policy dilemmas.

The Afghan war is getting worse and bloodier. Engagement with Iran has not got off the ground. There has been no progress in the Middle East peace process. Obama has made concessions to the Chinese on human-rights and Tibet, but got very little in return. He has pressed the re-set button with Russia, but not much has happened. Key allies, including India, Japan and Israel, are unhappy with him. The Copenhagen climate talks were a fiasco. It’s all very difficult. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

A large part of covering modern ministerial visits consists of spending long hours in confined spaces in the middle of very big countries. This blog has been written in the darkened interior of the last car in Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ convoy, parked in the midst of Sir Edwin Lutyens spectacular government complex in Delhi.  Monkeys clamber on the rooftops of the buildings here and pigeons fly through the corridors. It is a very grand place – and it is unlike almost anywhere else the US has to deal with.

That’s partly the lesson of this trip – the US is keen for its ties with India to develop further and faster than Delhi is comfortable with. Though the relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, India has yet to sign three technological agreements that have been on the table since as far back as at least 2002. The deals would enable more cooperation between the two countries’ militaries and – hardly the least important detail – would also make US military hardware more attractive to Delhi by bundling it with fancier software. That way, aircraft sold by the US to India could include state of the art navigation and targeting systems.
But India, which is well aware of its status as a rising great power, is reluctant to do anything that would group it together with  mere US allies Read more

I have just spent a couple of days at the German Marshall’s Fund of the United States’s “China Forum” – which oddly enough is always held in Sweden. That is a nice international combination for you. I love Stockholm, but it is perhaps not at its most charming at this time of the year. Together with the various Chinese, American and European participants, I spent a fair amount of time looking out of the window at the snow and the ice floes floating in the harbour.

It was a fascinating time to be discussing relations between China and the West. There is a lot going on. (See my column this week, just below). And one of the events whose significance people are still trying to decipher is the Copenhagen climate summit of last month.

There was lots of interesting corridor gossip about what happened at the final climactic meeting. Everybody agreed that Barack Obama had walked into a meeting convened by the Chinese, with the Brazilians, South Africans and Indians. Some said Obama had gatecrashed deliberately. Others that he had simply arrived on time for a 7pm bilateral with the Chinese Pm, Wen Jiabao, and entered the room on that basis. The most detailed version of what happened next that I heard, goes as follows. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

Another thing that strikes me about Bob Gates’ trip to India is the strategic vagueness of it all. In the map of the 21st century world, the US sees India as an indispensable partner, even if the country’s size, prospects and independent-mindedness means it will never become a full ally.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both paid extended visits to the country, a courtship that ultimately produced a civil nuclear deal between Washington and Delhi and – this is where Gates comes in – plans to intensify military co-operation.

The next big goal seems elusive, even though the US wants to encourage Delhi to become more of a counterweight to China and is keen in the extreme for India and Pakistan to cool mutual tensions (so allowing Islamabad to focus more on battling the Taliban than on its powerful neighbour). Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

I am travelling with the US defence secretary Robert Gates and a clutch of itinerant journalists to India and there’s a certain dowdy potency about the whole experience.

Gates, a CIA and White House veteran who has served some seven presidents, is a very big fish in Washington and well beyond.

His record of working for President George W. Bush – during which time he presided over the successful surge in Iraq- has given him massive clout in the Obama administration, and his support for sending 30,000 more troops may well have been decisive in the recent debate over Afghanistan.

But Gates himself is a low-key guy, who slipped into jeans as soon as he was on board the airplane and who rates his own common sense approach to problems more than any more flashy qualities. Read more

Google’s clash with China is about much more than the fate of a single, powerful firm. The company’s decision to pull out of China, unless the government there changes its policies on censorship, is a harbinger of increasingly stormy relations between the US and China.

The reason that the Google case is so significant is because it suggests that the assumptions on which US policy to China have been based since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 could be plain wrong. The US has accepted – even welcomed – China’s emergence as a giant economic power because American policymakers convinced themselves that economic opening would lead to political liberalisation in China. Read more

In California they are debating whether gays should be allowed to marry; in Uganda they are debating whether gays should be allowed to live. Meanwhile, in China they have just banned the country’s first ever gay pageant - which had been hoping to select a Chinese contestant for the Mr Gay competition in Norway next month.

The campaign for gay rights is now a global movement – but it is making progress at very different rates in different parts of the world. Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 and was defined as a mental illness until 2001. Meanwhile, there seems to be a pretty vicious backlash against gays in parts of Africa. Uganda is one example; Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is another. Read more

The normal tools of political and economic analysis seem somehow irrelevant – or even distasteful – in the face of a calamity like the Haitian earthquake. Thousands of people have died; thousands more are destitute or trapped under rubble. After reporting these ghastly facts, is there anything more to say?

Of course, the mechanics of the international rescue effort need to be reported. One assumes the US will take the lead. But it was interesting that one of the first planes to land in Port-Au-Prince was from China Air – and that even poor old Iceland is sending assistance. I guess the Haitian earthquake puts even their problems into perspective. Read more

The reports from Beijing of signs of popular Chinese sympathy with Google’s threat to pull out of the country, in protest at censorship, are fascinating. I wonder whether those photos of wreaths being laid outside Google headquarters in Beijing, could one day be as famous as the statue of liberty photos, taken in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Ironically, perhaps the best way of monitoring Chinese reaction to the Google story is on the internet itself – which has become the main forum for a snapshot of relatively uncensored Chinese opinion. Those who reckon that the Chinese people are even more nationalistic than the government often cite the rabid tone of much popular internet commentary on issues like Taiwan and Tibet. So what is a Chinese nationalist to do – torn between a love of the internet and a love of his native country? Read more

Pinn illustration

In Winnie-the-Pooh, there is a significant moment when the bear is asked whether he wants honey or condensed milk with his bread. He replies “both”. You can get away with this sort of thing if you are a much loved character in children’s literature. But it is more problematic when great nations start behaving in a childish fashion. When Americans are asked what they want – lower taxes, more lavish social spending or the world’s best-funded military machine – their collective answer tends to be “all of the above”. Read more

Game Change, a new book on the last US presidential election, is causing waves. It is not published until tomorrow, but excerpts and edited highlights are appearing all over the place.

The authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have done a very effective and entertaining job of dishing the dirt. As far as I can see, just about the only major figure who comes out with any credit is Barack Obama himself. Hillary Clinton is portrayed as scheming to get stories about Obama and drugs into the media , as foul-mouthed – and as stunned and paralysed in a most unpresidential fashion, afer her defeat in Iowa. Sarah Palin comes across as even more of a moron than you might have thought. John McCain’s campaign worried that both the candidate and his wife could be having affairs. Bill Clinton was definitely having an affair – and is self-pitying and hysterical into the bargain. Perhaps the most tawdry episode of all is the story of John Edwards’s affair (yes, they’re all at it), which is re-told in this long excerpt. As you might expect, Edwards come across a narcissistic and ego-maniacal. What is more unexpected is that his wife, Elizabeth, also comes in for a pasting. It takes a certain twisted courage to take a “wronged woman” and cancer victim and to portray her as a monster. Read more