Foreign affairs

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The halving of oil prices over the past six months has caught pretty much every economist by surprise and prompted a rush to explain the reasons behind this astounding drop and the consequences for the global economy.

On Wednesday, the World Bank has weighed in with a study included in one of the analytical chapters of its twice-yearly Global Economic Prospects. The Bank has good reasons to study the oil price drop: the sliding cost of crude will have profound implications for growth rates, inflation outlooks and the public finances of emerging markets, whether they are oil-producers or oil-importers. Read more

By Rachel Sanderson in Milan

In his ninth end of year address to Italians and the last before he retires this year, Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano pulled no punches.

His voice hoarse and visibly tired, in a televised speech on Wednesday night, Mr Napolitano attacked the prevalence of organised crime in Italy describing it as a “subsoil of rot” running through Italian social and political life. Read more

Most people have something they do to mark the end of the year: make a resolution, go to a party, tidy the attic. My annual ritual is to make a list of the five most significant events of the past year in global politics. This year is an odd one, in that it seems to me that there are only two events that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. The first is the breakdown in relations between Russia and the west, caused by the Ukraine crisis. The second is America’s return to war in the Middle East. So let’s deal with those two first and then move on to the other contenders.

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By Gideon Rachman
The euro crisis is back. An election in Greece next month and the probable victory of Syriza, a far-left party, will frighten politicians and investors. Once again they will be engaged in a grim discussion of a connected series of possible horrors: debt-default, bank runs, bailouts, social unrest and the possible ejection of Greece from the eurozone.

After watching their fortunes nosedive over the past year on the back of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and adventures in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s oligarchs caught a break on Friday night: a free meal on Vladimir Putin. Read more

The move by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, to announce the tentative resumption of diplomatic relations is already prompting talk that the world’s oldest trade embargo may be coming to an end.

Introduced in 1960, the US embargo of Cuba has hit the island economy of 11m people hard over the decades. In its annual report to the United Nations on the subject Cuba in September estimated it lost $3.9bn in foreign trade in 2013 alone because of the embargo. Havana’s running tally for the total economic damage: $116.8bn.

That figure is obviously worth taking with a pinch of salt, as should be any idea that the embargo is going to be lifted soon.

But there is no doubt that a change in US policy would represent a huge economic opportunity for Cuba or that the potential looks alluring to plenty of businesses in the US. Here are some points to keep in mind and some charts worth pondering: Read more

By Vincent Boland

It is the event that the Irish cannot put behind them. Six years ago, the country’s banks collapsed, and brought Ireland down with them. An official inquiry into what happened, and why, and who was responsible, got under way in Dublin on Wednesday. There is no guarantee that it will shed any new light on the affair. Read more

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House. Getty.

It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.

Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba. They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed. Read more

In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Why now?

A year after civil war ignited in South Sudan, peace talks are continuing, with little prospect of a lasting deal. I went to Juba to mark the December anniversary of the start of the war and to find how the capital of the world’s newest country is coping, and also to see the work of the International Rescue Committee, the FT’s partner for this year’s seasonal appeal.

What impression did you take away about the situation on the ground?

Billboards across Juba honour those who gave their lives for South Sudan’s freedom – the country seceded from the Khartoum regime to the north in 2011 after decades of fighting. “Your freedom is the price of our blood,” says one. Others evoke unity: “We are many tribes, but one nation; We need each other to build a strong and united country.”

But they look like sorry prophecies. The civil war sparked by a political and military fallout last December quickly set ethnic groups against one another in five of the country’s 10 states. Residents of the ethnically mixed capital now live in an atmosphere of mistrust. Read more

Almost exactly 15 years ago, on December 29, 1999, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s prime minister and on the verge of promotion to the presidency – published a 5,000-word “mission statement” that summed up what he saw as the enduring values of the Russian people.

With the rouble dropping like a sack of Volga valley potatoes and the increasing threat to the Putin era’s social contract – “I make you wealthier and let you travel abroad, but I stay in power indefinitely and you don’t demand political freedom” – it is worth taking another look at the so-called Millennium Message. Read more

When an election was called in Israel earlier this week, most people assumed that the likeliest outcome was that a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu would be replaced by another government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet early developments in the election campaign – supplemented by early opinion polls – suggest that Mr Netanyahu may not be such a shoo-in, after all. Read more

  • The Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday released its long-awaited report into the CIA’s use of torture in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Here are five key findings
  • Retail businesses in Russia that built empires selling imported goods and foreign holidays to affluent Russians are now struggling to adjust amid a 40% drop in the rouble and a looming recession
  • The safety of Indian women is in the spotlight once again after a driver of the ride-hailing app Uber raped a 25-year-old in New Delhi, leading to calls for the service to be banned
  • The striking thing about Japan’s election is that nobody is able to articulate a different course to Abenomics, despite Mr Abe’s falling popularity and public opposition to his economic plan
  • Drunken and boorish behavior, cellphones, crying children and reclining seats have all led to episodes of flight rage. But a bag of macadamia nuts? (New York Times)

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By Gideon Rachman

Political analysts often use chess as a metaphor to describe world affairs. States and peoples move around the board struggling to make incremental gains. Every now and then, a grandmaster arrives and transforms the game with a new and unexpected gambit – something like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s “opening to China” in 1972.

• Syria’s young girls are facing assault, early marriage and being forced into prostitution as the refugee crisis spirals. The IRC, selected by the FT for its 2014 seasonal appeal, is seeking to protect and empower them

• A motley crew of ex businessmen, academics and pro-Russia activists has seized control in Ukraine’s rebel republics Read more

After a frenetic period of travel involving 10 separate trips overseas in the past three months, I am trying to catch my breath, shake off the jet lag and make sense of what I have seen. Leaving aside the big geopolitical themes, one tentative conclusion I have reached is that world leaders and hotel lobbies do not mix.

This first struck at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid as I waited to greet Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, who was the guest-of-honour at the FT’s Spain Summit. On one side of the lobby was a bank of photographers and TV crews. I was standing on the other side with a couple of FT colleagues and the hotel management. Rajoy’s limo drew up and we could see him and his entourage heading towards the entrance. Just at that moment, a party of elderly Americans came out of the lift, clad in their trademark tracksuit bottoms and fluorescent visors, and began to totter across the lobby, demanding loudly, “Where’s the coach?” The hotel manager froze — torn between the desire to shove the Americans out of the way and his duty to be courteous. He just about pulled it off but it was a close-run thing. Read more

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One of the most compelling of international relationships was on display in Ankara this week when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The paramount leaders of Russia and Turkey dominate their countries’ politics like few other heads of state, casting long shadows on the world stage. When they appeared together at Mr Erdogan’s $600m new palace on Monday, there was the undeniable crackle of power in the air.

But commentators should beware of bracketing the two men together in too facile a fashion. Read more