Monthly Archives: February 2010

I am in Japan for the first time for a few years, which is good. However, my Blackberry isn’t working – which is bad. The only other place my BlackBerry refused to send me my drip-feed of diversionary e-mails this year was Afghanistan. But, actually, Japan is even more of a communications blackhole. At least my mobile phone worked in Kabul. No such luck here in Tokyo.

I was warned by the FT office here that this might happen. But I didn’t really believe them. How could a BlackBerry not work in a country that I still think of as at the most technologically-advanced in the world?But, apparently, that’s the problem. In Afghanistan, BlackBerries don’t work because the place is so backward. In Japan, they don’t work because the place is so advanced. The whole country has switched over to 3G networks, so if you turn up with your pitifully-backward western devices they just sit there, looking at you uselessly – refusing to ring, bleep or flash little red lights at you. Read more

There has been further terrible violence in the Mexican drugs war this week – thirteen people killed by masked gunmen in Oaxaca state, which isn’t even one of the areas that is normally regarded as in the frontline. The more this kind of thing happens, the more people will begin to ask whether President Calderon actually made a mistake in unleashing the “war on drugs” in 2006.

Perhaps the most articulate Mexican critic of the drugs war is Jorge Castaneda, the former foreign minister, who makes several telling criticisms of the whole effort, in this article for Foreign Policy. I sympathise with some of what Castaneda has to say. But it’s not clear to me what his proposed alternative is? Is he just suggesting that Mexico should have tolerated organised crime. That is certainly implied by his sentence – “Mexico is not Norway and it never was.” Read more

Thousands marched on the streets of Athens today. There was some tear gas, some shouting and some scuffles. But, by local standards, it was all reasonably peaceable. The big questions, however, are whether street protests could escalate – and whether Greece’s financial crisis actually imperils the country’s political stability.

On the plus side, George Papandreou, the prime minister has very high popularity ratings at the moment. The trades unions, are also closely linked to the ruling party, PASOK – which makes it less likely that popular protests against the austerity programme will get out of control. Of course, there must be a threat that if Greece is in for a long, long period of austerity and reduced living standards, there will be a drift to the political extremes. But, at the moment, the communist and extreme nationalist movements still seem relatively weak. I met Loukas Tsoukalis, an eminent Greek political scientist, in London earlier this week and he seemed completely confident that there is no plausible threat to Greek democracy. Read more

As Greece’s financial crisis rumbles onwards, it has become commonplace to argue that the roots of the problem stretch all the way back to the design of Europe’s single currency. Actually, it is worse than that. The Greek crisis is about the very basis on which European unity has been built for the last 60 years. It threatens not just the euro but the entire edifice of the European Union.

Continue reading “Greece threatens more than the euro”

To this day, the most successful article I have ever written was a column called “And now for a world government“. By successful, I don’t mean that it was a particularly good article – this is “success” defined in terms of internet hits.

I noticed the other day that if I type my name into Google, one of the first popular searches suggested is “Gideon Rachman world government” which yields over 40,000 results. Gideon Rachman and new world order produces 844,000 results. Slightly weirdly, another popular search seems to be “Gideon Rachman, Jewish”, which produces over 15,000 hits.

The common thread, I think, is that my world government piece was picked up by the loony right in America as grist for their conspiracy theory that there is a secret plot to create a world government and to deprive Americans of their freedom. At the time the article was published, there was a particularly persistent radio host who kept trying to interview me, by the name of Alex Jones. Something about him made me decide to steer clear. Maybe it was the crazed tone of the messages left on my answering machine. Maybe it was the fact that his programme is called “Prison Planet“. I had a vision of a shaven-headed nutcase speed-dialling me from a cell in San Quentin. Read more

Yesterday morning I went to a journalists’ breakfast in London with Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia. The last time I spoke to Saakashvili was for a “lunch with the FT” in April, 2008. A few months later, in August 2008, his country was briefly invaded by Russia – and something like 20% of Georgian territory remains under Russian occupation. So it was understandable that the Georgian president seemed a little more careworn and less ebullient than when I last met him.

Still, Saakashvili was bullishly insistent that the Georgian economy is bouncing back. He remains convinced, however, that the Russians are determined to overthrow his government, one way or another. As far as he is concerned, a further attack remains entirely possible. So the Georgians are extremely concerned by the proposed French sale of tanks and warships to Russia. Saakashvili said that the new armaments would make any future Russian invasion of Georgia much faster and more dangerous.

Exactly what happened in August, 2008, remains a subject of bitter dispute. So I have greatly enjoyed reading the painstaking reconstruction of events, by Ron Asmus, in a recently published book called, “A Little War that Shook the World” (Palgrave Macmillan). Asmus’s sympathies clearly lie strongly with the Georgian side. But his research seems to be impeccable.

For me, the most fascinating revelation in the book comes on p.186, where Asmus appears to reveal that Vice-President Dick Cheney was pressing for the US to bomb Russia’s invading troops in Georgia. Read more

President Obama’s decision to receive the Dalai Lama at the White House should be seen against the background of three related trends: the continuing deterioration in US-Chinese relations, China’s growing assertiveness and the pressure on the Obama administration to respond by “getting tough” with China. Read more

My column published earlier today asked why Mexico is the “missing BRIC”? I considered all sorts of serious explanations – from the drugs war to Mexican reliance on the US market. But there is a simpler explanation, perhaps Mexico is the unwitting victim of the power of the acronym. Read more

How does it feel to be Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman? Last year Forbes magazine listed him as the 701st-richest man in the world. But unlike other billionaires, Mr Guzman cannot enjoy his fortune by spending time on yachts or in fancy restaurants. As Mexico’s leading drugs baron, he has the country’s army on his tail – and so has to hide out in a mountainous region of 60,000 square kilometres.

Read the rest of the column and leave comments on it here.

As I was about to leave Mexico on Friday night, I got the text message everybody dreads – “Your flight has been delayed seven hours, please report to the airport at 2am.” I assumed that this was just the normal mishaps – “due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft, snow in London, sick passenger”, blah blah. But, in fact, it turns out, I was the victim of the latest transatlantic security scare. Read more

Next week, Mexico is going to host the first ever Latin American summit. When I was told about this at the Mexican foreign ministry, earlier today, I was really surprised that this had never happened before. But apparently not. The meetings of the Organisation of American States include the US, as does the Summit of the Americas. The Ibero-American summit includes the former colonial powers – Spain and Portugal. So this will be the first ever exclusively Latin summit. They will all be there in Cancun – Castro, Chavez, Lula. Read more

I was slightly startled when I discovered yesterday that I was sharing a double bill at Monterrey Tech yesterday with Malcolm Gladwell. I have never read Gladwell’s famous books, “The Tipping Point” and “Blink”. And – up until yesterday, I had never seen him speak. But I know he has sold zillions of copies and is a famously good speaker – good enough to fill theatres with paying customers in London. Read more

On a quick trip to any country, it is easy for a foreigner to fall prey to “capital city syndrome”. You never get out of the biggest city, and so the views that you see and hear there become the “state of the nation”. That is almost always a mistake – which is a roundabout way of saying that I am very glad that my trip to Mexico, has taken me from the capital, Mexico City to Monterrey in the north. Read more

At first sight, the prospect of a Viktor Yanukovich presidency in Ukraine looks like part of a depressing pattern for democracy around the world. Mr Yanukovich was the “bad guy” during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. He was backed by Russia and accused of electoral fraud. The western world cheered when he was swept aside in favour of the heroic, pro-western Viktor Yushchenko.

Read the rest of this article and leave comments on this column here.

I must admit that I am surprised that John Terry has been forced to resign as England’s soccer captain for having an extra-marital affair with the former girlfriend of an ex-teammate. I can see that Terry’s wife has reason to object. But once the England management go down this path, they may find they have very few players of sufficient moral stature to aspire to the captaincy. The newly-appointed captain, Rio Ferdinand, has also had his sex life featured in lurid newspaper stories (and videos) – and has served a suspension for missing a drugs test. What’s the big difference, other than the passage of time - and the fact that Terry is married? Read more

I am in the departure lounge at Heathrow, waiting for my flight to Mexico City. This will be my first visit to Mexico since I went on an unusually arduous honeymoon in 1991, which involved rather more long-distance coach journeys than was probably wise. This time, no coaches. Read more

People who worry a lot about global warming sometimes talk about tipping points – a moment when catastrophic climate change becomes irreversible. But I am beginning to wonder whether the climate-change debate is not in danger of reaching a tipping point in the other direction – the moment when it becomes impossible for the global warming lobby to win the political argument for serious action.

Arguably, the fiasco of the Copenhagen summit has already demonstrated that it will be all but impossible to achieve a proper global agreement. But at Copenhagen, all the major governments were at least committed to the idea that “something needs to be done”. I wonder how long that consensus will last. Read more

I spent the morning at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, for the launch of their annual report on the global military balance. I found the briefing really fascinating, which could be a dangerous sign that I am now on the official register of “international affairs bores” and should be forced into early retirement.

The briefing offered by the IISS experts ranged fascinatingly over a variety of topics from the Iranian nuclear programme, to Russia’s new military doctrine and the links (or lack of them) between al-Qaeda and Iran. Read more

Ingram Pinn illustration

Since the end of the cold war, discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos have followed a reliable pattern. Everybody agreed that globalisation was a jolly good thing – but it was the delegates from the US and Europe who shaped the debate. It was informally accepted that the flow of ideas – as well as investment and jobs – was from west to east. Read more

The State Department is making the best of President Obama’s decision to skip a planned US-EU summit in Madrid later this spring. It’s not to be understood as a snub, you understand – the president hugely values and respects the Europeans. And the Spanish. He adores Madrid and he thinks the EU is completely fab and really, really important. He’s just a bit busy. Maybe another time.

There is no doubt that the Spanish government, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU (You thought it had been abolished? Fooled you!), will treat this as a bitter blow. The Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero was royally snubbed by George W. Bush and so it was really important to him to underline that he has a great relationship with the sainted Obama. One European foreign minister who I encountered in Davos told me that the Americans were about to pull out of the US-EU summit and added, with a smirk that suggested a worrying lack of EU solidarity – “When the Spanish hear, it will be like a nuclear bomb has gone off in Madrid.”

The Spanish are not the only Europeans feeling snubbed by Obama. The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, was enraged when – on a recent trip to Washington – Obama failed to schedule a lunch with him, and the Commission president was fobbed off with Joe Biden. Back in Brussels, Barroso was heard to rage – “Bush never treated us like this.” When the Europeans are getting nostalgic for George W. Bush, you know that their noses are seriously out of joint. Read more