Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

With a few notable exceptions, such as Russia and Israel, President Joe Biden – partly by dint of simply not being Donald Trump – will be widely welcomed on the international stage. 

America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia who have had to take four years of abuse and having their interests undermined by the Trump administration will be particularly relieved to see tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R Biden as the 46th President of the United States.

Even China’s leaders, while not expecting Biden to be a push over, will probably welcome a return to greater predictability and pragmatism in Washington. 

But what the world needs to see from the US following four years of “America First” is also some humility.

Instead what we got when Biden announced his new foreign policy team on Twitter was this

While Biden acknowledges the world faces challenges which can’t be tackled without international cooperation, his emphasis is on “restoring American leadership”.

There’s no doubt Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will be a breath of fresh air after the bombast and ideologically-driven confrontation of Mike Pompeo’s tenure.

But while Blinken, who was Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, is erudite, steeped in world affairs, speaks fluent French and believes in international cooperation and the multilateral system, he is also steeped in the traditional assumption of American foreign policy practitioners that the US must – and should – always lead. He is a believer in American exceptionalism and that leaves little room for humility. 

In a 2015 speech, apparently forgetting the US’s long record of destructive military interventions, he said the world always turns to the US for leadership “because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilise others and to make a difference”

Last year, he told the Hudson Institute that US leadership in international institutions is essential, saying, “There is a premium still, and in some ways, even more than before, on American engagement, on American leadership”. He also argued that the world’s democracies need “leadership from the United States, playing the role that it played before, as the leader of the free world.”

This intellectual baggage makes it unlikely we are going to see a more humble US under President Biden, yet we need to.

For one thing, with its dysfunctional politics, the US foisted four years of Trump on the world and it is not churlish to expect for that alone the new administration should at least try to sound chastened.

More significantly, the world has changed from that unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s overwhelming victory in the Gulf War. China is now a serious rival and the European Union an economic powerhouse.

It is past time American leaders, Democrat or Republican, paid more than lip service to this geopolitical reality.

Biden and his new foreign policy team are right to say the world faces challenges – the COVID pandemic, the climate crisis and the rampant destruction of nature among them – that no one nation can face alone. But what the world needs is for the US to rejoin international efforts to face those challenges, not to attempt to reassert American leadership.

After all, it was that leadership since 1945 that has shaped the world we live in – with all those challenges.

The pandemic has wreaked enormous human and economic damage, but it has also presented a glimpse of what can be achieved when people work together for a common goal. The first lockdowns saw carbon emissions and pollution fall, allowing people to see that rapid improvements in air and water quality are possible. There has also been a realisation from governments, business and civil society that we as we recover from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to “build back better”, be that by making economic stimulus packages both socially just and green or by strengthening health systems.

In short, we should not just go back to business as usual and part of that means taking a more equitable and collaborative approach to international relations where countries work in partnership and no one country, however powerful, assumes it should lead.

It may be hard to be humble, but it what’s the world needs now (apologies to fans of trite American songs).

The measures being taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic and buy scientists time as they develop a vaccine, like efforts to control climate change before them, have fallen victim to the ongoing culture war being waged by the extreme right.

More than a million people have died as a direct result of Covid-19 and many more have been infected and left with long term damage to their organs, so you would expect efforts to control it would have widespread support.

Polling suggests that support is there, but there are also many actively opposing the measures needed to protect public health.

The protests and rhetoric calling for an end to restrictions – whether on the grounds that the economy should come first, in the name of individual liberty or because the disease is either a hoax or no worse than a mild flu – come largely from the political circles who support Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, the far right in Germany and Italy and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

When the British Conservative MP, Sir Desmond Swayne, during a debate in parliament in September, denounced being required to wear a mask to go into a shop as a “monstrous imposition” it was easy to laugh at the absurdity of his comment. Does Sir Desmond regard being required to wear clothes while in public in the same light I wondered at the time.

However, this same MP is a hard-line Brexiteer who has also said white people wearing black face is “just a bit of fun”.

What do opposition to masks, leaving the EU and belittling the significance of black face have in common?

They are all symbols to the reactionary right in the culture war that once seemed a peculiarly American conflict, but is now raging in Europe and Brazil.

When you zoom out from the day-to-day headlines and social media commentary to see the big picture, a pattern emerges.

People who are uncomfortable with many of the social and political changes that have taken place across western society in the past six decades are trying to turn the clock back.

A social revolution began in western societies in the 1960s that has seen women achieve greater equality, including access to legal, safe abortion; widespread acceptance of LGBT rights; greater acceptance of demographic changes that has seen people of colour become more fairly represented (though as Black Lives Matter shows there is a still a long way to go); as well as a wide acceptance of diversity of lifestyles.

When countries like the UK legislated for equal marriage in the past decade, for example, there was very little organised political opposition and many took that as a sign that society had changed – largely for the better.

But now it is clear that some parts of society were deeply opposed to such changes and they have rallied to the culture warriors of the right, be they Trump supporters in the US, Brexiteers in Britain – or England to be more precise – or the Bolsonaristas in Brazil who raise a phantasmagoria of communism to try to change the education curriculum to restore “traditional family values”.

These same people are now in the forefront of efforts to belittle the pandemic and oppose measures to contain it.

Many of their shibboleths are challenged by these measures – closing bars and restaurants are an attack on individual liberty, lockdowns are undermining the pursuit of wealth, the natural order – aka survival of the fittest – is being undermined by measures that put the health of the vulnerable ahead of prosperity.

While this is usually described as a culture war, given the scale and ferocity of the reactionary forces unleashed, combined with sophisticated use of up to the minute social media tactics, this could be seen as an attempted counter-revolution akin to the Counter-Reformation of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In a rational world, efforts to fight a lethal pandemic would be based on the best scientific advice and politicians would make decisions based on that counsel and the best interests of their populations.

But what is driving this wider counter-revolution is not rational for many, it is an emotional hankering for a mythologised past where everyone was heterosexual, women knew their place and white people were on top, both in their own countries and globally.

The lack of rationality motivating many who support this movement is underlined by how common conspiracy theories are among them and leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro have tried to take advantage of this. It seems many people do believe not just that Covid-19 and climate change are a hoax, but that pandemic control measures are a government plot to take away people’s freedom for good.

It is also striking how the leaders of these reactionary movements, despite mostly being from socio-economic elite themselves – Trump comes from money, Nigel Farage is a privately educated former City trader – portray themselves as victims and play on feelings of victimhood among their supporters.

2020 has been an exhausting year which is ending on a welcome note with the end of the Trump presidency, but that does not mean the attempted counter revolution will end – after all 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump

Even if we find a way to end the pandemic and Brexiteers can celebrate the UK being finally out of the EU, the reactionaries currently crying foul over masks, lockdowns and EU diktats will latch onto something else.  The Counter-Reformation culminated in the Thirty Years War – Europe’s first devastating pan European conflict.  We need to ensure the current culture war remains a battle fought with words, gifs and memes.

People photo created by prostooleh –

China: the big bad dragon?

Sinophobia seems to be all the rage.

In the past year, Beijing has replaced Moscow as the main source of menace in the eyes of western politicians, news editors and media commentators.

Whether it is TikTok, Huawei, Hong Kong, the South China Sea or Taiwan, you can’t miss the narrative of the China threat.

The shift started before the COVID pandemic that almost certainly originated in China broke out, but it has accelerated rapidly since. 

US President Trump tweets regular attacks on China and used his video address to the UN General Assembly last month to portray the country as the source of all the world’s problems from COVID to Climate Change.

His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a highly provocative keynote speech in July entitled ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’ revived the rhetoric of the Cold War to argue that 50 years of American engagement with Beijing had failed, and he came closer than any American leader in many years to calling for regime change in China.

And they are not alone. Conservative British politicians have got in the act too with the Chair of the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugenhadt leading the charge.

What lies behind this?

Has the Chinese regime changed and become a growing threat or is there something else at play here?

President Trump heaping the blame China for the pandemic is clearly a poorly disguised attempt to divert American voters’ attention from the failings of his administration that has seen the virus take over 200,000 American lives.

But even before the advent of SARS-CoV2, Trump used talking up the China threat as a political tool as he tried to deliver on his campaign promise to restore American industry by pressuring US companies to bring production back home by launching a trade war with Beijing and using executive orders.

The attempt to choke the leading 5G technology company, Huawei, and the blatant attempt to force a takeover of TikTok by an American company seem to be driven less by security concerns and be more about the commercial hobbling of successful Chinese competitors.

The irony seems to be lost that this is being done by the state that Edward Snowden revealed to be using big tech to spy on huge numbers of people around the world as well as in the US.

And it is not just Trump.

Republicans and Democrats alike say China poses a growing threat and the Pentagon has shown it is keen to do its bit too by ramping up spy flights off China’s coasts – some allegedly using their transponders to disguise themselves to radar as civilian airliners, which, given airliners have been mistakenly shot down in the past, is irresponsible and dangerous. On top of this, the US Navy has reinforced its numbers and activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims and Washington is increasing arms sales to Taiwan.

Though China is still nowhere near as powerful as the US, it is undoubtedly true that as the country has grown richer over the past few decades, it has also become stronger militarily and has used its economic heft to increase its influence in the world – as every other country, including of course the US, has done throughout history.

So no surprise there. 

It should also come as no surprise that the Chinese state is repressive and will brook no internal political challenge – whether from democracy activists or separatist movements in Tibet or Xinjiang. Human rights organisations have been trying to get western politicians to listen for years, yet only recently do they seem to have a got their attention.

The nature of the regime in Beijing has not fundamentally changed, despite the procedural changes that would allow President Xi Jinping to stay in office beyond two terms.  

What has changed is the state’s capacity for control and repression using modern information technology.

Xi’s China is also now being accused of exporting attempts to restrict freedom to other countries.

But, again, the use of what the Chinese Communist Party calls united front work to influence attitudes towards the Chinese state has always been part of its foreign policy toolkit and never went away.

There is almost a tone of nostalgia in the West these days for the era of Deng Xiaoping whose foreign policy counsel was to “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”.

But, of course, this was also the same Deng Xiaoping who ordered the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 where the army killed hundreds and ordered the ‘punitive’ invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

But one thing that has really changed in recent years and does not get talked about so much in the West, but has clearly not gone down well, is that China is no longer willing to just serve as a source of cheap consumer goods for western countries. 

China wants to move up the value chain, as economists say, and Chinese companies have become serious competitors in areas western countries long regarded as theirs, such as telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

So it looks like the US, with some of its allies in tow, has decided to try to use national security as an excuse to undermine the competition, rather than try to compete commercially.

How better to do that than portray Chinese companies as the uniquely nefarious arm of the Chinese state and label that state as communist and expansionist and throw in some Cold War language for good measure.

As President Trump garners headlines and comment for his meetings with – potentially erstwhile – allies in Europe and President Putin, his administration is courting serious danger in Asia with the US leader firing the first salvos in his economic war against China.

The markets seem sanguine so far about what China has called the largest trade war in economic history and the $34 billion tariff package – with tariffs on a further $200 billion worth of goods in the pipeline – has seen immediate retaliation from Beijing.

The overwhelming majority of economists and trade experts question the wisdom of Trump’s tariffs. Their main objection being there is no clear end game, so this could easily escalate into a full-blown trade war damaging the US and China, and everyone else into the bargain.

More widely when it comes to China, none of Trump’s moves seem to be thought through – and here the China experts in the US are not really helping.

Trump campaigned on a belligerent anti-China ticket and as we have seen since he took office his governing style is not far removed from his campaigning style – marked by stoking grievances among his base with hostile rhetoric, shot through with lies.

After his first meeting with President Xi, it seemed he was softening – as an authoritarian leader, Xi seemed to appeal to Trump and the US also needed China’s support to ratchet up pressure on North Korea, but all that early warmth has gone.

In its new National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon has clearly identified China as its number one threat and is ramping up naval activity in the South China Sea by increasing the number of vessels it sails through the 12-mile nautical zone around Chinese-held islands in a belated attempt to push back at China’s increasing military presence and power there.

Since his election, Trump has also flirted with strengthening support for Taiwan which is particularly provocative.

Beijing regards Taiwanese independence as a red line that would trigger military action to achieve national reunification by force.

A scenario which would almost certainly also entail war with the US.

So, does Trump want war with China or is he blundering around with gesture politics without heed to the consequences?

You would expect Trump with his Sinophobic trade adviser, Peter Navarro, and his apparent willingness to let the Pentagon set military strategy, to act provocatively towards China, but despite the growing risk of conflict, the acknowledged China experts in the US are not offering much of a counter to this.

There has been a lot of soul searching of late among the American foreign policy establishment who have finally woken up to the fact China is not liberalising as it gets richer

A debate is underway among think tankers and academics about how the US should respond to China’s re-emergence as a great power.

Given this debate is ongoing and there is no clear conclusion to it yet, it would be wiser to adopt a policy of “do no harm” in the meantime and advise caution on the Trump administration.

Instead, a large number of them are urging US to push back against what they see as Chinese expansionism, rather than seek compromise with Beijing given China’s growing power is a reality and its behaviour is notably less bellicose towards its neighbours than say the US was when it was emerging on the world stage.

I had an interesting exchange with one of the younger China experts at the recent Chatham House London Conference. When I suggested the “do no harm” approach, the response was “What? And let the Chinese take over the South China Sea?”

The idea that China’s neighbours in ASEAN should deal with China on their own terms – with discreet US backing – seemed unthinkable, yet this would be a less provocative approach that recognises these countries have their own interests and agency.

Now, it is possible – even likely -Trump would not listen to such advice, but by endorsing an aggressive response to China, these experts are giving intellectual cover to the administration’s actions that appear to have no clear objective beyond the raw assertion of US power.

Donald Trump may think Thucydides is the name of a local Greek restaurant, but these experts know better.

Many have written of the need to avoid the eponymous trap as the US faces up to a rising China.

And yet – in urging push back on a bellicose, impulsive, ill-informed President, they risk bringing about a confrontation the Ancient Greek historian would instantly recognise.

They should be urging President Trump to accept the changing geopolitical landscape and advising him – in the words of one the most prescient China experts, Lyle Goldstein – to “meet China halfway”


It was dinner table chat a few months ago, now the possibility of a second vote on whether to leave the EU is being openly discussed in the media.

The man who has made Brexit his life’s work, Nigel Farage, has even acknowledged it may be necessary to hold a second vote.

Recent polls have suggested a majority across the UK would like to have a say on whatever deal is negotiated between London and the other twenty seven EU capitals – with the choice being accept the agreed deal or stay in.

Opponents of Brexit are beginning to hope it can be stopped and supporters – as Farage’s comments suggest – are beginning to fear it could be.

But is the prospect of a second referendum really on the table?

There are formidable obstacles that need to be overcome if British voters are to get a say on the final deal.

The courage of politicians is one. Another vote requires the Labour Party to step up to the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition and back it. As things stand, with Jeremy Corbyn still effectively supporting Brexit, this still looks a remote possibility despite those recent polls showing growing support among Labour voters.

If Labour were to come out for a second referendum, they would be joining the Lib Dems and Greens who have already called for one. The Scottish National Party would likely join this alliance and potentially – and crucially – some Tory Remainers, who would be needed to overcome the Democratic Unionist votes propping up Theresa May’s government.

Such an outcome would almost certainly face accusations of treachery from the Brexit supporting right wing papers, which may well deter potential Tory rebels – and may well deter Labour too. Although in Keir Starmer Labour has a politician capable of mustering a strong parliamentary campaign for a rethink.

Even though the first referendum wasn’t legally binding, it would be politically impossible to reverse Brexit on basis of a parliamentary vote – it would play into the populist narrative of ‘elite’ politicians ignoring the people’s will.

But that argument and the onslaught of the right wing press could be blunted by the fact that it is the ‘British People’ who would be the ones making the final decision – not politicians or judges.

A second obstacle, which may be insurmountable, is old father time.

Come the morning of 30 March next year, Britain will legally no longer be a member of the EU, whether or not a transition period is agreed, and it is very possible the deal will not have been finalised by then.

So the UK would face the prospect of holding a referendum on that deal after it was no longer a member of the EU.

If the result were a majority to remain in the EU, would London have to apply to rejoin?

This is terra incognita legally and constitutionally, but then, so is the whole Brexit process currently underway. Also, if a transition period is agreed, de facto the UK would still be abiding by all EU law and regulations, so if the other 27 were willing, what would stop a rapid decision that nothing had really changed, so the UK could rejoin without going through the lengthy application process?

Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way – particularly in the EU with its proclivity for fudge.

The final potential fly in the ointment though would be the attitude of the other 27 if the British were to change their minds and say “actually we’d rather stay in after all’,

Would they just say fine, no problem?

After all the disruption and work caused by Brexit so far, the rest might decide the UK should pay a price to stay – such as an end to opt outs (aka special treatment in many other countries) or even the annual rebate.

In this case, opinion in Britain could shift again, egged on by the Europhobic press and politicians.

Potentially a second referendum campaign could see a much better quality of debate and argument given what we now know of the complexities and the economic downside involved in leaving.

Although given the way the UK media works and given the hard line politicians’ penchant for playing fast and loose with facts and realities, Brexiteers would no doubt portray the EU as bullying and unreasonable and point to the talks so far as evidence.

For their part, Remainers would be well advised to avoid the ‘Project Fear’ nonsense of the last campaign and focus on a positive vision of what the EU stands for, reminding people – particularly older voters who may remember the last World War or its aftermath when Europeans were dying in their millions – there’s more to the EU than trade and immigration.

Containing President Trump

It becomes clearer with each Tweet, Executive Order and press conference that the United States is in the throes of a chaotic attempted counter-revolution led – at least in name – by the President.

Donald Trump sees himself as a disrupter. A man who seems to respect no one, relishes in going against convention and actually abusing whoever he feels is standing in his way, including the leaders of some of America’s key allies.

Behind him are the two Stephens – Bannon and Miller – both hardline ideologues who some suspect are the real political brains in the White House.

Bannon is an extreme nationalist who, when he led the far-right website, Breitbart News, among other things, championed white supremacists. In an unprecedented move Trump put him on the National Security Council, removing key military personnel to make space.

Miller is a communications adviser who rose to prominence serving right-wing Republicans in Congress and who, at 31, is now so influential that he – rather than White House lawyers – apparently drafted Trump’s Executive Order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the entry of all Syrian refugees (which might explain why it didn’t pass judicial scrutiny).

Some observers see Trump as Bannon’s ‘useful idiot’ but I’m not convinced.

While it’s clear Trump is ill-informed, doesn’t seem to understand the office he now holds, or be committed to much more than being the centre of attention and making money, he seems to genuinely share Bannon’s prejudices.

So, it appears those who said Trump’s opponents in the election made a mistake because they “took him literally, but not seriously”, were wrong.

They should have done both then – and certainly need to now.

Despite this, Trump’s first few weeks have shown there are some constraints on him.

Apart from the suspension of the Executive Order on immigration by the courts, his National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, has had to resign after the media revealed he lied to the Vice President about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador in Washington, and, despite his rhetoric before taking office, he has so far maintained his predecessor’s policies on China/Taiwan and Russia.

But, he has moved to gut US action on climate change and he seems intent on neutering, if not abolishing, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as repealing Obamacare.

Elsewhere, on the world stage, despite blinking first in his opening dealings with President Xi Jinping by assuring him the US would not depart from its traditional One-China policy, the chances of war between China and the US – either intentional or accidental – are still considerable if Trump follows through on his rhetoric on trade or the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

As a result, what many across the political spectrum are asking now is: who can protect the World from Trump and America from itself?

Ultimately, the main domestic constraint on a President is Congress. But, as yet, there is no sign enough Republicans are worried enough to take action against Trump, although they do seem concerned by his team’s contacts with Russia during and after the election, and it is always possible a Special Prosecutor could be appointed to look into this.

Whether his refusal to release his tax returns and his blurring of the lines between his personal business interests and the interests of the US government could lead to impeachment will depend on Republican Representatives and Senators deciding his actions are threatening enough to their own political interests and/or the interests of the country.

In the meantime, what can the rest of the world do?

Post-Brexit Britain – in danger, as it is, of slipping into less- than-splendid isolation – has decided to try to cosy up to Trump and is not going to publicly take him on.

China has taken the opposite tack and we’ve already seen Beijing make clear it is not going to be pushed around and – at least for now – Trump back down.

But many in the West are looking to Germany and Chancellor Merkel to stand up for them and the values of democracy and tolerance.

And Berlin seems up for it.

After Trump talked to Merkel when he first took over, the German government made clear she – albeit politely – didn’t hold back.

On the subject of refugees, Merkel’s spokesperson told the media “The Geneva Refugee Convention requires the international community to take in refugees from war on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are expected to do so. The Chancellor explained this policy to the US President …”.

For those of a historical bent, the age old German Question has, maybe, finally found its answer with Berlin taking on the role as key defender of western values.

Quite a turnaround, given the history of the last century.

But Germany on its own can’t restrain a rogue US, so it has to be hoped the right-wing populist tide in Europe will wane, especially in France where Marine Le Pen is leading presidential opinion polls for May’s election, and the EU, which Trump wants to see collapse, will rally round Berlin and stand up to Washington.

The New Year greetings I sent to my friends and relatives this year included the hope that 2017 would be a better year for humanity than 2016.

That was from my heart rather than my head.

If I’d written “be afraid, very afraid” instead, it would have put a damper on New Year celebrations.

But as Donald Trump assumes presidency of United States – still the world’s most powerful country economically and militarily – it is difficult to avoid a sense of trepidation.

Trump’s inaugural address with its “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first!” centrepiece was as crude and bombastic as his campaign speeches and gave no reassurance that the office of the presidency would moderate him.

So, all told, it’s difficult to envisage this year being better for the world than last year’s annus horribilis.

While the US and much of the western media have been obsessing about what Trump’s presidency will mean for relations with Russia, the much more alarming prospect of what it means for relations with China has taken a backseat.

During the transition, Trump and his Secretary of State-designate, Rex Tillerson, were deliberately baiting the world’s second most powerful country.

If the two men follow through on what they have been saying about slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, the one-China policy and blocking Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea, we may not only see a trade war between Washington and Beijing – damaging the global economy and making us all worse off – it could all end in a shooting war over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Trump may well improve relations with Russia and end American attempts to prevent Moscow’s push back against western impingement on what the Russians see as their traditional sphere of influence.

But even there there’s an issue where it could all go south with the Kremlin – nuclear weapons. Trump has sent mixed signals: talking on the one hand about modernising the US arsenal and, on the other, the possibility of a deal with Russia to reduce the numbers of weapons.

Neither of these initiatives would likely be welcome in Moscow given its greater reliance on nuclear – as opposed to conventional – military forces for its security.

Then there’s the justified fear that President Trump – I have to pinch myself when I write that – is intemperate, impulsive and aggressive, and that rational discourse and policy-making will be eclipsed by the urges of this thin-skinned man.

We also have to remember that he’s surrounded himself with people who hold views that are, similarly, not always based in fact.

The most important area of policy this is likely to affect is climate change.

With climate change sceptics, and people with links to the fossil fuel industry, prominent in Trump’s incoming administration, the US contribution to fighting global warming is pretty certain to be undermined.

With NASA confirming in the past few days that 2016 was the hottest year yet on record – following 2015 which itself broke the record – action by all countries to honour the commitments they made under the Paris Climate Agreement just over a year ago are imperative.

The hope has to be that even if Trump’s “America First” sees him backsliding on climate change, other countries won’t follow suit.

China for one has indicated it will continue on the path it has set itself to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions and many other countries should follow suit.

But can the world’s climate afford four – or possibly eight – years of Trump in the White House?

For the good of humanity and the planet, we can only hope so.


While much of the media – especially in the Anglophone world – has been focusing on the American election and the implications of Donald Trump’s victory, there’s been a new outbreak of violence in western Myanmar that needs urgent attention before it escalates and undermines the country’s ongoing reform process.

Last month, the authorities in Rakhine state reported an attack on several police posts near the western frontier with Bangladesh in which nine policemen were killed.

The attack was blamed on Muslim insurgents – who have posed little of a threat during the country’s long history of unrest.

Last week saw  serious clashes between the army and these insurgents, who have yet to be firmly identified, but do seem to be Rohingya, that has left more than thirty dead, among them at least two soldiers.

Ever since its independence from Britain in 1947, Myanmar – or Burma as it used to be known – has experienced ethnic conflict.

At that time, several of its ethnic minorities rebelled against the central government – dominated by the Burman majority – and have been fighting ever since for greater self- government.

Until recently, Rakhine in the western part of the country had not been a major centre of unrest.

But since 2011, when the country has started to open up to the wider world and the military has gradually stepped back from running the country, Rakhine has seen an upsurge in communal violence.

It began with members of the Buddhist majority attacking and harassing people from the Muslim Rohingya minority who they regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

This prejudice was fuelled by the central government, which failed to take action against Buddhist extremists inciting hatred against the country’s Muslim minority.

The government has also refused to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, arguing they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most historians, on the other hand, argue Muslims have been living in the area for hundreds of years, although in what numbers is unclear.

The argument is more than academic with the Rohingya rendered effectively stateless given they are not Bangladeshi citizens either.

The chaotic violence and international criticism of its failure to protect people forced the central government to intervene and set up camps for Rohingya who’d been driven from their homes by Buddhist violence.

Since then, Rohingya have languished in camps and many others have attempted to flee by sea to neighbouring countries.

This new wave of boat people have not been welcome in the countries where they’ve landed, principally Thailand and Indonesia, which has dimmed the prospect of finding refuge abroad.

Assuming the recent attacks are being carried out by armed Rohingya, it should  hardly come as a surprise.

All the roots of a wider insurgency have been gestating for a while.

Attacked by their neighbours, left unprotected by the security forces and with the option of seeking asylum in nearby states limited, it looks like some have decided to fight fire with fire.

By the evidence being gathered by rights groups, the Myanmar military – which has been fighting ethnic insurgent groups for seventy years – is responding in time honoured fashion.

The danger is that an insurgency based among Muslims could attract outside support and end up taking a more radical turn, as it has in other countries, like Nigeria where the Boko Haram group ended up aligning themselves with ISIS.

The fact that the country is now run by a civilian-led government under the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi since historic elections just over a year ago, makes this turn of events even more disturbing.

Ms Suu Kyi has called for calm, but she has ducked supporting Rohingya demands for citizenship – her moral compass seems to have been distorted by electoral considerations with her desire to avoid alienating Buddhist voters overcoming her commitment to human rights.

This refusal to take a tough line in their defence has disappointed many Rohingya and may have contributed to more concluding violence is the only way to defend their community – after all if a leader who has been admired around the world for her commitment to democracy won’t help you, who will?

If this is the judgement against her, it may be a bit harsh.

Under the constitutional deal that led to the end of sixty years of direct military rule and the first competitive elections in decades which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD into office, the military retain control over key ministries, including defence, and still have considerable freedom of action.

So the civilians don’t seem to be driving the response to the insurgency in Rakhine.

Whatever the politics in Naypyidaw, the latest violence and heavy handed response of the army pose a challenge to the authority of Ms Suu Kyi’s government and threaten to undermine her international reputation even further.

However, Ms Suu Kyi has not shown much inclination to use the clout she possesses from her own personal popularity and her party’s overwhelming electoral victory to restrain the military.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had been brought in to try to find a political solution before the recent attacks on the security forces.

His efforts clearly haven’t yielded much so far– it’s time Aung San Suu Kyi put more weight behind the veteran diplomat’s push for a compromise before things get much worse.

If I had a vote in the American presidential election, I would cast it for Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump’s opposition to action on climate change is enough of a reason to do so on grounds of policy alone

On top of that Trump has – how can I put it politely – character flaws beyond the dreams of avarice, which should disqualify him from occupying any political office, let alone the Oval one.

But, I would vote for Clinton with some trepidation for what it means for the rest of the world.

While she has one of the most progressive domestic policy platforms of any recent mainstream candidate and wouldn’t renege on climate change commitments, Clinton’s approach to foreign policy is another matter.

So whoever wins this week, the world is likely set for even more instability than we’ve seen in recent years.

Both candidates are firm believers in American exceptionalism – even if the way Clinton translates that worldview into policy is more conventional than Trump – and so international frictions will almost certainly rise over the next four years.

Why do I say that when the conventional media view is Trump poses all the risk?

Let’s take relations between the US and other major powers, like Russia and China.

Russia is the country that’s attracted the most attention during the campaign – allowing officials and media commentators to dust down the old Cold War stereotypes about the Russian threat.

Under President Obama, who came into office promising to reset the relationship with Moscow, relations have tanked and confrontation escalated, particularly over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as over allegations of interference in each other’s internal affairs. Washington has even accused the Kremlin of attempting to influence the outcome of the election in Trump’s favour.

This may not be unconnected to the Republican candidate’s approach to Moscow.

A Trump win could well see the strains in relations with Russia ease given he clearly doesn’t see Russian actions – from Ukraine to Syria – as a threat to US national security.

But if Hillary Clinton wins, these tensions are likely to rise.

She has promised to intensify sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in particular, and the continued standoff over Syria is also likely to continue with the rhetoric turning even sourer between the two nuclear powers.

This matters because Obama’s signature policy of reducing the risk of nuclear conflict – and Russia and US have by far the largest arsenals – has made little headway and neither of his putative successors is going to pursue it.

When it comes to China, where Obama’s famous pivot, or rebalance, to Asia has seen a gradual deterioration in relations between Washington and Beijing in the past few years, things are set to get even worse – only here it is indeed Trump who poses the greatest risk to global stability.

Unlike Russia, for Donald Trump, China is a direct threat to American national interests.

If he sticks to what he’s proposed during the campaign – an even greater military build-up around China’s coast and retaliation for alleged unfair trade practices – we are headed for a major escalation in tension.

And with the impetuous, unpredictable and untested Trump as commander-in-chief, the risk that an accidental clash in the South China Sea could blow up into a major conflagration is much greater.

But given her record in office and what she’s said on the stump, even with Clinton in the White House, relations with China will probably continue their downward trajectory – if less dramatically.

Despite what she has said about increasing cooperation with Beijing in areas of mutual interest, candidate Clinton has promised a stronger line on China’s human rights record – which won’t go down well there.

On top of that, as Obama’s Secretary of State we know she was usually on the side of the greater use of American military muscle than her boss, and, as her previous dealings with Beijing indicate, her approach to the South China Sea is pretty much guaranteed to be seen by the Chinese as more provocative than the current administration’s.

Whether it’s Clinton or Trump who enters the White House next January, the first thing in the in-tray is most likely to be the campaign against Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq.

Both candidates have indicated they would intensify air strikes – which would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties.

The difference between them comes over the use of ground troops. Trump says he would commit more Americans, whereas Clinton would seek to continue Obama’s approach of supporting local allies to do the fighting.

Of course, all this comes with the proviso that Trump is an unknown quantity when it comes to foreign policy.  So were he to become president, there is a degree of doubt that he’d do all the things he’s said he would.

We know much more about Hillary Clinton. Her approach to the rest of the world was forged during her husband’s presidency in 1990s when the lesson she took from the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo was that military intervention stops wars and saves lives.

Given her views on Syria and Libya when she was Secretary of State it’s a fair bet she has not changed this view much, despite all the evidence that the results of large scale armed intervention are unpredictable at best and usually incur a much greater cost to civilians than anticipated.

Also – in spite of lip service to the way the world has changed with the re-emergence of the likes of China and India and the need for multilateral cooperation, under a President Clinton, we can expect the US to continue to fail to adjust its actions to rise of the rest and the shift in relative balance of power.

Here she was speaking to the American Legion a couple of months ago: “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead”.

After all if President Obama, who has been castigated for weakening the US role in the world still believes “the question we face …. is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead” as he told military cadets in 2014, it would be naïve to expect a departure from this way of looking at the world under Clinton.

This doesn’t bode well for the rest of us over the next few years.

A true acceptance in Washington of how the world has changed is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to restoring some sort of order to global affairs.

As for Trump, he shows no sign of having applied much thought to such questions at all and seems inclined to shoot from the hip – and we can only hope that he’d only do that metaphorically.


The phoney peace is over.

When Theresa May assumed the prime ministership, one of the first trips – not for now a foreign visit – she made was to Edinburgh for talks on Brexit with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Now it’s Sturgeon’s turn to come to London for talks with Mrs May along with the leaders of the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies.

When May went to Scotland it was all smiles and emollience from the new Tory leader –a wise move given Scots had voted to remain in the EU by a much wider margin than England and Wales voted to leave in the referendum a few weeks before.

It was no secret that many supporters of independence would now push for another Scottish referendum to prevent their country being dragged out of the EU against its will.

Twenty six months ago – yes time does fly – at the time of what was known as the Indyref, the supporters of Scotland staying in the Union with England had argued the country could only ensure it stayed in the EU if it remained in the UK

Many at the time, including myself, thought this was a hostage to fortune.

Prime Minister Cameron had already committed to hold the vote on Europe if he won the 2015 UK general election – and – as we’ve now seen – he could not guarantee an EU referendum would see a victory for what would become known as Remain.

The Scottish National Party had also foreseen this possibility and kept their options open on holding a second independence referendum by running for the Scottish parliament elections in May this year on a manifesto reserving the right to call a second referendum in event of a vote to leave the EU.

So when May met Sturgeon in Edinburgh she promised to listen and consult over Brexit, while Sturgeon largely kept her powder dry taking a wait and see approach to how the new UK leader would handle Brexit.

Two months and a Conservative Party conference later, it is clear Theresa May is veering towards a comprehensive break with the EU – hard Brexit – with pledges to restrict immigration and no guarantee of continued preferential access to the single market or possibly even the customs union.

There also seems to have been precious little listening and consultation with the Scottish Government either, despite strong legal arguments that Holyrood needs to consent to the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act.

In response, and probably reluctantly (despite what the London media and Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson might say), Nicola Sturgeon has started the process to legislate for another vote in Scotland on the whether to end the Union with England.

Number 10 sources have made clear May will block this.

The 2014 Scottish vote was legislated for by Westminster following an agreement between David Cameron and then First Minister, Alex Salmond, and clearly Cameron’s successor thinks she can veto another vote by refusing to pass the necessary legislation.

Mrs May might think this would be legally sound, but unless she wantes to boost support for independence in Scotland and provoke a constitutional crisis it wouldn’t be a wise course of action.

And the spin ahead of this week’s meeting in London, with May in danger of sounding patronising, is unlikely to help her convince Scots she really takes their concerns seriously.

The change from the cuddly rhetoric of listening and consulting to the ‘we’ll make the decisions on Brexit’ and dismissal of the SNP’s democratic mandate to consider calling a second referendum also indicate something else Scots are unlikely to miss.

It seems Theresa May doesn’t consider The Union a true union of equals – flying in the face of the rhetoric from London ahead of the Scottish referendum and the history of how the two countries came to form the UK in the eighteenth century.

But one thing is clear – the gloves are off and we seem set on course for a showdown over whether Scotland remains in the EU rather than the UK.

The unionist media in London and Scotland already seem to believe this is coming and have settled upon Scots Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, as the leader of the anti-independence campaign when the next indyref comes.

She is being given extensive coverage, much of it fawning, on the back of leading the Tories to second place in the Scottish election in May.

I’m not sure this is either justified or wise.

Yes, she led the Tories to their best ever result at a Scottish parliament election with 22% of the vote, but only seven of her MSPs were directly elected from constituencies rather than via the proportional vote for the regional lists.

It’s also worth noting she ran by downplaying her Tory credentials and the Conservatives only won one seat in Scotland at the 2015 UK election

Pro-independence supporters are also already exposing Ms Davidson’s Achilles heel – she is the leader in Scotland of the party that called and lost the Brexit vote which, as things stand, will take Scots out of the EU against their will.

On her side, First Minister Sturgeon is also on less than ideal political ground.

She has made clear she would not want to have another independence vote until it was clear she would win it and, at the moment, the limited opinion polling that’s been done since June 23rd doesn’t suggest a big shift has yet occurred since 2014.

It is very possible that once Article 50 is invoked and talks between London and Brussels get under way – probably next spring – the long-term economic damage from leaving the EU will be clearer and it will focus Scottish voters’ minds.

But Article 50 imposes a timetable on Sturgeon not of her choosing.

A second independence referendum would need to be held before the UK leaves the EU to improve the chances Scotland could remain with the minimum disruption.

All of this means tension between London and Edinburgh will intensify and a second indyef becomes a good bet.

Given the demographics of the first vote and the continued vibrancy of the pro-independence movement, it was already likely there would be a second bite of the cherry for supporters of Scottish independence.

Now, the Brexit vote and – as importantly – the way the government in London is approaching the upcoming talks with the rest of the EU are bringing the end of the United Kingdom ever closer.

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