Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Israelis are pretty used to international condemnation. They weathered the storms over the attack on the Gaza Strip in 2009 and the invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006. The Israelis will not be enjoying the current wave of international condemnation, unleashed by their deadly assault on the blockade-busting ships bound for Gaza – but they will assume that it too will pass. Are  they right?

There are three particular angles for the Israelis to worry about. First, that there will be some sort of new intifada. Second, the continued deterioration in their relationship with Turkey. Third, their fraying ties with the Obama administration. Read more

From a diplomatic point of view, last night’s German victory in the Eurovision song contest could not have been better timed. How fitting therefore that the nineteen-year-old chanteuse who carried off the title, Lena Meyer-Landrut, is from an old German diplomatic family. Her grandfather used to be German ambassador to the USSR. And I am sure that she must be related to Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, who is one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s closest diplomatic advisers.

I knew Nikolaus quite well in in Brussels. where he was first spokesman for the German government and then for Valery Giscard d’Estaing, when Giscard chaired the ill-fated constitutional convention. Nikolaus was a charming and cultivated guy – but he was not exactly what you would call a song-and-dance man. Rather tightly wound, I always thought - although he did once let me interview him in a telephone kiosk. (There was nowhere else to sit.) Anyway, dear blog-readers, if somebody can pin down the relationship between Nikolaus and Lena Meyer-Landrut, I would be most grateful. Read more

When the European Union works well, the co-operation of three crucial partners is vital: France, Germany and the European Commission. It was the alliance of the Franco-German couple, allied to a powerful commission president in the shape of Jacques Delors, that led to the creation of a single European currency.

So it is a sign of the huge disarray at the heart of the European Union that the current president of the commission, José Manuel Barroso, is feuding openly with the German government. Even a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. But now Barroso is calling German plans to re-open the Lisbon Treaty “naive”, criticising Germany for being too slow to act on the Greek bail-out, and pointedly reminding the Germans that the euro was all their idea in the first place. German ministers, meanwhile, have responded with even more aggressive language – openly calling Barroso’s charges “absurd”. Privately, top officials in Berlin have been cruelly dismissive of the commission president for months, accusing him of grovelling to secure his re-appointment. Read more

When a regime as brutal, unpredictable and desperate as North Korea puts itself on a war footing and severs all ties with its bitter enemy to the South, then the world has every reason to be worried. Under the circumstances, a fall of just over 3% in the South Korean stock market sounds like a fairly moderate response.

The markets obviously think the risk of war is still fairly small. And I think – and hope – that the markets are right. The fact is that neither side has a real reason for wanting conflict. The North Korean government would risk a humiliating defeat and a loss of power. Unlike in the Korean War, it has no external backer to come to its rescue. South Korea is a rich, sophistictated society with a rising international profile – why should it risk all that, by being sucked into a conflict with its crazy neighbour to the North? Most South Koreans also have zero desire to shed the blood of their unfortunate compatriots. Read more

Everybody’s favourite moment in The Graduate is when the film’s hero is cornered by one of his parents’ friends. The older man’s advice to Benjamin Braddock consists of just one word – “plastics”. Something similar keeps happening to me at international conferences. I will be minding my own business, when a delegate will get up with a gleam in his eye and announce portentously – “shale gas!”

Continue reading “Shale gas will change the world”

Paddy Power, the Irish bookmakers, have a flair for offering bets that make a headline. Here is a good one. They have set odds for which country will be the first to leave the euro. The favourite obviously is Greece – at a rather ungenerous 11/8. But I was most attracted to the sixth favourite, which is Germany offered at 12-1. Given the current state of German public opinion, I think that might be quite a good bet – although it is not clear what the time-frame offered is. Imagine if Germany does indeed become the first country to leave the euro – but in 2025 – and I have lost the betting slip.

Consulting Paddy Power’s odds on who is going to win the World Cup, I see they have Germany at 14-1. In other words, they think that Germany is more likely to abandon its currency and unleash political turmoil in Europe than to win a soccer tournament that it has already captured three times.  Read more

For connoisseurs of British class distinctions, I would particularly recommend this article by Ben Macintyre, on the subtle distinctions between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Both posh – but in different ways, it seems. My favourite line is where Macintyre notes that Clegg’s Russian great uncle was”clubbed to death by his own peasants, which carries a certain aristo cachet.”

For those interested in Thailand, here is an audio slideshow that I put together with the Ft.com team yesterday. And I can also recommend Joshua Kurzlantick’s piece in Foreign Policy. Less sophisticated, perhaps, than McCargo’s piece that I linked to yesterday – but still definitely worth reading. Read more

There are two rival narratives about what is happening in Thailand. According to the first story, a privileged elite has decided to hold onto power by gunning down unarmed demonstrators, drawn from the rural poor, on the streets of Bangkok. This makes Thailand today sound like a replay of the French Revolution – only with the royalist reactionaries winning.

But according to the rival narrative, a sinister and thuggish protest movement – manipulated by an exiled billionaire with a criminal record – has been holding Thailand to ransom by occupying the capital city and making normal business and government impossible. The constitutional government has offered to hold early elections to defuse the protests, but was spurned. It had no option but to act. Read more

With the enactment of the Lisbon treaty late last year, some European leaders allowed themselves to dream of a new world order – one in which the European Union was finally recognised as a global superpower, to rank alongside the US and China.

In the past few weeks, Europe has certainly got the world’s attention – but not in the way that it had hoped. Rather than admiring the EU for its dynamism and power, the rest of the world is watching the unfolding economic crisis in Europe with fascination and horror. Observing the struggle to save the euro from Washington or Beijing is a bit like watching a car crash on the other side of the road. It is bad enough being a spectator – but there is the added fear that you will be hit by flying debris. Read more

A week of political and economic turmoil across the European continent has left British politics looking more European; and European politics looking more British.

Britain now has the type of coalition government that seems perfectly normal in Germany, Italy or the Netherlands, but which is deeply alien to the UK’s tradition of adversarial politics and strong one-party government. Meanwhile, the debt crisis in the eurozone has created a political and economic atmosphere reminiscent of Britain during the heyday of Thatcherism: riots in the streets in Athens; a confrontation with public-sector workers in Spain; a Eurosceptic backlash in Germany led by populist tabloid newspapers. Read more

For many months, the government of Thailand has insisted that it wants to restore order to the streets of Bangkok, without resorting to violence. That attempt has now failed. Blood is being shed as the army attempts to isolate and disperse the “red shirt” demonstrators.

The bloodshed in Bangkok is a throwback to the bad old days of Thai politics. Military coups used to be a fairly regular occurrence in the 1970s and 1980s. Quite often they passed off without many casualties. But as Thailand grew richer and more enmeshed in the global economy, the hope was that the country’s politics would mature and modernise. There would be civilian rule with smooth transitions of power. Today’s events show that Thailand has gone backwards. Read more

In theory, I should know Britain’s new chancellor of the exchequer, really quite well. George Osborne grew up in the same street as me in London. We went to the same school. He used to be called Gideon, before changing his name to George. I once interviewed him for a job. But the odd thing is, I hardly know the guy.

The reason for this is rather humiliating. The chancellor, as I will have to learn to call him, is much younger than me. Eight years younger, to be precise; he has only just turned 39. So the first time I really met George Osborne was when I interviewed him for a job at The Economist in 1997. Read more

Europe has bought itself time with its €750bn bail-out for the euro. But the long-term problem remains.

Most of the European Union is living beyond its means. Government deficits are out of control and public-sector debt is rising. If European governments do not use their new breathing space to control spending, financial markets will get dangerously restless again. Unfortunately, European voters and politicians are simply unprepared for the age of austerity that lies ahead. Read more

Gordon Brown has just announced his resignation as the leader of the Labour Party and, therefore, as prime minister. This does not mean he is packing his bags with immediate effect. That still awaits either the successful formation of a Tory government, supported by the Liberal Democrats; or the new option that Brown has put on the table, a Lib-Lab government, led by a new leader of the Labour Party and prime minister. That option would probably not be fully in place until September.

This development means that the Lib Dems are either spoilt for choice, or facing an agonising dilemma – depending on your point of view. The attractions of a deal with the Tories remain powerful. A Tory-Lib arrangement would have a much stronger majority – and would match the public perception that the Conservatives won the election and that Labour lost. Getting rid of the famously Machiavellian Gordon Brown removes one powerful objection for the Lib Dems in dealing with Labour. But other problems remain. Both the Lib Dems and Labour lost seats in the election, so this might look like a “coalition of losers”. And the coalition’s majority would be wafer-thin and reliant on the votes of nationalist parties. It would look much less like the “strong stable” government that Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, insists is his goal. Read more

I have just finished watching David Cameron’s statement on television. I was impressed by how coherent and fresh he seemed. Personally, I feel shattered – and all I did was stay up to watch the election on television. I’ve always thought that one mark of top politicians is freakish stamina; and Cameron, Clegg and Brown clearly all qualify on those grounds. I suppose, for Cameron, the prospect of becoming prime minister over the next 48 hours, must be a fairly major shot of adrenalin.

In their own ways, I think Clegg, Cameron and Brown all made dignified statements. I thought Clegg did well to disguise what must have been fairly crushing disappointment – although he now has the excitement of the coalition negotiations. Brown also did well not to sound too desperate to make a deal. But, one of the strange aspects of this election, is that – in a way – all three leaders have lost. Read more

Why is this day unlike any other? I can think of a few reasons.

1. It is my 47th birthday.

2. It is Tony Blair’s 57th birthday.

3. It is the day on which my brother Tom’s novel got an absolute rave review in the New York Times, rocketing him up to number four on Amazon in the US. You can buy the book here.

4. My colleague, Lucy Kellaway, points out that it is also the day on which her novel is published in Britain. I’m sure it too will get raves. You can buy it here.

5. And last of all, it is election day here in Britain. Read more

When I was in Japan recently, critics of Yukio Hatoyama often said that the prime minister was in the habit of making nice-sounding promises that he later found it impossible to keep. Exhibit one was Hatoyama’s pledge to renegotiate the deal covering the US military bases in Okinawa and to move an important marine base off the island completely. Predictably, Hatoyama has now had to back down. But – what the hell – it helped win the election.

The whole episode got me thinking about the British election. If David Cameron becomes prime minister over the weekend, as seems increasingly likely, what pledges can we expect him to break first? Three candidates that spring to mind: Read more

Barack Obama wants a world without nuclear weapons. America will push the idea of “global zero” at the United Nations conference on nuclear non-proliferation that opened in New York on Monday. The vision was unveiled just over a year ago. In a speech in Prague, the US president painted a glorious picture of a world freed from the nuclear threat, while adding (in words that faintly echoed Martin Luther King) that it might not happen in his lifetime.

Continue reading “A nuclear-free world? No thanks”

Washington and New York are perhaps not the obvious places to visit, if you want to gauge the mood in Germany. But, in recent days, I’ve had the chance to talk to a few German politicians and senior civil servants at a dinner and a conference. What they had to say was very striking.

I have never known the German establishment be quite so open about the depth of Euroscepticism in their own nation. Normally, the Germans talk about Euroscepticism as some sort of nasty British disease – while stressing their own country’s level-headedness and “European vocation”. Not any more. Read more

I have never found New York a particularly relaxing place. But the city is especially edgy today, after the apparent attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square on Saturday night. Just to add the atmosphere of barely suppressed hysteria, President Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran is in town – in fact, he should be addressing the UN on the evils of nuclear weapons, more or less as I type. Read more