Monthly Archives: March 2010

I am grateful to Alan Beattie for drawing my attention to this fantastic exchange a few weeks ago in the House of Lords on pest control. It quite restores my faith in Parliament. The debate about the best way of dealing with mice in the Palace of Westminster is so beautifully droll that it is hard to believe that it was not scripted. It is certainly England at its finest, combining elements of Pinter and Monty Python.

I particularly like the discussion of the utility and indeed existence of “hypoallergenic cats”. I am pretty sure that they do exist. But I would warn their noble lords that cats that do not provoke allergies tend to be almost hairless, and therefore not very easy on the eye. I was also struck by the incredible claims made for the hit-rate of the last House of Lords cat. Baroness Finlay of Llandaff says – “Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning.” Personally, I find this hard to believe. Sixty a night? Talk about no rest for the wicked. Read more

Somewhere in the attic I have a home-made poster of 12 old European currencies that I assembled, in a fit of nostalgia, just before they were all made obsolete by the appearance of the euro at the stroke of midnight on December 31 2001.

Continue reading “The euro’s big fat failed wedding”

I saw Cathy Ashton perform live for the first time over the weekend. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised. Partly, this was because my expectations were so low. Ever since she was appointed as the new EU foreign-policy supremo, back in November, Ashton’s publicity has been relentlessly negative. Commentators (including me, I must admit) dismissed her as hopelessly unqualified for the job. Friends of mine in Brussels had told me that her performances in private sessions were hesitant and unimpressive.

So I was eagerly expecting a bit of a train-wreck when Ashton took to the stage for a public discussion of Transatlantic Relations at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels forum. But, in fact, Ashton did fine. She was fluent, articulate, poised. She had to talk about a range of issues from arms control to Georgia to missile defence, and there was no moment where I thought – “Oh my God, she’s out of her depth. ” True, she said nothing that was interesting or memorable. But, I’m afraid, that just shows she is doing her job well. Read more

At European summits, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that the arguments are all about finding the correct policies or defending national interests. I suppose, sometimes, that is the case. But more often that not, it seems to come down to personality politics. I was struggling earlier today to understand why the French had been so reluctant to involve the IMF in the putative rescue of Greece. In my innocence, I thought it might have something to do with a French preference for a “European solution”. But then a French colleague explained to me. It’s simply that Nicolas Sarkozy sees Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, as a potential rival in the next French presidential election. So he doesn’t want to agree to anything that might make Strauss-Kahn look good. Read more

This poll would be frightening, if it wasn’t so funny. Or possibly funny, if it wasn’t so frightening.

A Harris poll of 2,320 American adults finds that 14% of Americans believe that Obama “may be the Anti-Christ”. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 24%. Some 32% think he is a Muslim – and 57% of Republicans think this. One in four Americans (25%) think that Obama was not born in America and is therefore ineligible to be president (45% for Republicans.) And 20% of Americans think their president is “doing many of the things that Hitler did” – 38% of Republicans think this. (Technically true, I suppose, Hitler ate, slept and went to the loo; and so does Obama.) Read more

When the euro was launched in 1999, the British were constantly being warned that if they refused to join the European single currency, they would eventually find themselves marginalised within the European Union. The Brits scoffed at this notion. But it seems to be true. A desperate deal to extricate the euro-zone from the Greek crisis is currently being hammered out, a few floors above where I’m sitting, here in the gloomy Justus Lipsius building in Brussels. But the British are essentially irrelevant to the negotiations. And happy to be.

Gordon Brown, still our prime minister, was on my train to Brussels this afternoon. (He was sitting in the next door carriage, guarded by some burly looking security men.) The train only got in a little after 4pm, by which time the French and German leaders had already hammered out the basics of the deal in Brussels. The agreement looks like a classic bit of euro-fudge – there might be loans to Greece, with Europe taking the lead and the IMF serving as back-up. Or possibly, the other way around. The text will be revised further this evening at a special meeting just for the 16 countries that are members of the euro-zone. By this time the other eleven EU countries – including the British – will have been ushered out of the room. Read more

An interesting story in today’s FT on the Turkish reaction to the congressional decision to label the Ottoman-era killing of the Turks as “genocide”. Professional diplomats in the US have been quietly opposed to the genocide resolution for years, since they knew how furiously the Turks would react. Phillip Gordon, who is Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, had his confirmation held up for months in Congress because the Armenian lobby deemed him to be unsound on the genocide issue. The Obama administration has, in fact, worked very hard on promoting Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and made some headway. The hope was that this would be enough to cool Congress down. But it didn’t work. The Congressional vote has put Turkish-US relations into the deep freeze – which will make it much harder for America to enlist Turkish support on top American priorities, in particular Iran. (Turkey currently has a seat on the UN Security Council). Read more

President Barack Obama has leapt out of his political sick-bed, ripped out his feeding tubes and is ready to dance a jig around the Oval office. The Congressional approval of healthcare reform has reinvigorated the Obama presidency in a way that has implications not just for Americans, but for the world.

Continue reading “Obama’s bounce changes the world”

Hillary Clinton’s speech to Aipac (the American Israel lobby, essentially) went as well as can be expected – better, probably. There were some people who were worried that she might actually be booed or heckled, after the harsh things that Obama administration officials had to say about plans to build further Israeli housing in East Jerusalem (an insult, etc). In fact, Hillary got several standing ovations. And this was not at the price of watering down her message. Although she made several reassuring statements about the enduring nature of America’s committment to Israeli security, the secretary of state also reiterated American opposition to further settlements and said that America would push back “unequivocally” when it disagreed with Israeli policy. Read more

I met Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition, in the ornate surroundings of the Landmark Hotel in London this morning. He was remarkably relaxed for a man who is due to be put on trial, on charges of sodomy next week – which is a crime in Malaysia punishable with a long jail term. If convicted, this would be a return to a prison cell for Anwar. He was arrested in the late 1990s and served six years in solitary confinement on previous charges of sodomy (later over-turned) and corruption.

Yet for a man who is about to undergo a humiliating and dangerous ordeal, Anwar seemed in remarkably good form - relaxed, cracking jokes and outwardly convinced that he will beat the rap. I asked him how he could be so laid-back, given the trial that he is about to undergo. He replied cooly – “It’s not that I’m oblivious to it, or unaffected by it, but you have to just get on with life.” He knows that he can survive prison and he has the support of a staunch and politically-engaged wife and six daughters. Read more

They always say that mass demonstrations against an unpopular government reach a point of no return when blood is shed. But the “red shirt” demonstrations in Bangkok are different. Yes, there is blood on the streets - but, in this case, it it the protesters who are spilling their own blood on the pavement, in a bizarre form of political protest.

There is a certain brilliance to the tactic. The television pictures are irresistible and have gone all round the world. But what are the demonstrators trying to say? That the government has blood on its hands?; that they will shed blood for their cause? It is not entirely clear. Jon Henley of the Guardian has consulted social anthropologists, political scientists and Thai sociologists and has emerged none the wiser. It’s all very baffling. Read more

Is China like the US in 1890? Or is it more like Japan in 1980? If the parallel with America is right, China is likely to be the dominant power of the next century. If the Japanese comparison is more accurate, then the Chinese challenge to American hegemony could prove ephemeral.

Continue reading “Bubble or not, China’s rise is real”

If this really was the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations for thirty years that would be pretty dramatic. But whatever the private verdict of the Israeli ambassador to America, I find it hard to believe that it’s quite that serious. If it is that bad, why is the New York Times, which follows this relationship in minute detail, not giving the story more play?

What is pretty clear is that the Obama administration has decided that this time they are going to go public with their unhappiness about the Israeli government’s decision to expand settlements in east Jerusalem – and the fact that the announcement was made while Vice-President Joe Biden was actually in Israel. I think the whole “weak Obama” narrative began when the president demanded that the Israelis stop settlements and was cooly ignored by the Netanyahu government. Maybe that still rankles in the White House? Read more

I hope it is not a breach of etiquette to criticise a guest writer in the FT. But I thought that the piece in today’s paper on the euro by Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, was extraordinary. If this really is how Germany is thinking, the euro is in even bigger trouble than I thought.

Behind the careful bureaucratic language, Schauble makes some amazing claims and proposals. Here are just a few. Read more

Amidst the rash of commemorations celebrating the twentieth anniversay of the fall of the Berlin Wall last year, it was easy to feel that 1989 was a year in which freedom advanced everywhere. The Soviet empire collapsed. Two years later the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. A few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela was released. The end of the cold war unfroze deadlocked political situations all over the world.

But political freedom did not advance everywhere in 1989. Most obviously that was the year that the Chinese government sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square. And 1989 was also the year that Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in Burma. Who would have believed that twenty-one years later, this heroic woman would still be a political prisoner? At least, twenty one years after Tiananmen, China has changed unrecognisably. But Burma is still frozen in time and in tyranny. The depressing sense that nothing at all has changed is re-enforced by the latest news that the Burmese military junta has banned Suu Kyi from participating in national elections later this year. Read more

Sitting in his office in Tokyo last week, a senior official pointed to a recently published volume called “Japan Rising”. “I look at that book every now and then to cheer myself up,” he said. It is easy to understand why. Right now, Japan has got that sinking feeling.

Continue reading “Japan edges from America towards China”

During my week in Japan I kept being asked – “what are your impressions?” So here they are, my top four impressions of Japan.

1. Policymakers and economists have been seriously freaked out by the Greek crisis. I lost count of the number of conversations in which Greece came up within the first five minutes. The reason for Japan’s concern is obvious. Japan’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio is even higher than that of Greece. If we are now entering a period of sovereign debt crises, then Japan is clearly vulnerable. Or is it? There were some analysts who argued that the Japanese situation is quite different from that of Greece, largely because 95% of the country’s debt is owned by the Japanese themselves, so the country is much less vulnerable to a sudden withdrawal of foreign confidence. Others suggested that the Japanese government is gradually soaking up the country’s accumulated savings and so a crisis will hit quite soon. I’ve no idea who’s right – but here is an admirable summary of the debate by the FT’s Mure Dickie. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US diplomatic correspondent

Travelling with Hillary Clinton this past week has given me a distinctly unusual perspective on the world.

For instance: on some stops just about all you see is the inside of the presidential palace. So I can report that Argentina’s famous Casa Rosada or Pink House, from whose balcony Evita Peron made appearances before Argentina’s shirtless masses, is in a distinctly dodgy state of disrepair. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US diplomatic correspondent

For most ordinary mortals, Hillary Clinton’s schedule in Brazil on Wednesday would be a day to recover from.

The US Secretary of State spent much of the day in Brasilia meeting the foreign minister and president. She then flew to São Paulo, where she endured an hour-long motorcade driving past residential neighbourhoods, warehouses and love hotels. The rain drummed down, brakes skidded, and intrepid Brazilian motorists tried to cut into the convoy. Read more

By Daniel Dombey, US diplomatic correspondent

There was a flash in Hillary Clinton’s eyes just now as she talked about the issue that is occupying ever more of her time as Secretary of State – Iran’s nuclear programme.

Last month the US-led campaign to increase pressure on Tehran took her to Qatar and Saudi.  Arabia, where King Abdullah welcomed her with a lavish lunch and watched a few minutes of a football match as he sat beside her wearing a frayed pair of Nike trainers. (Later on he switched his giant television to off-road truck racing.)

Iran has also been a constant concern for Clinton during her present swing through Latin America and the position of Brazil, which is currently sitting on the UN Security Council, is particularly important. Read more