Monthly Archives: January 2010

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Gideon Rachman

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

Daniel Dombey

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

Daniel Dombey

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

Daniel Dombey

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

Gideon Rachman

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