Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for September, 2015

SDGs? What are those?

The world has come together at the UN General Assembly to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 of them in fact.

But if you rely on mainstream media you may have missed the news, given coverage – including by my former colleagues in the BBC – has been relatively limited despite coverage of the Pope’s speech.

The SDGs are a commitment by all 193 UN members to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

They are much broader and more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals they replace. The 8 MDGs, not all of which were achieved, were aimed at ending extreme poverty but lacked the environmental focus – the sustainable bit.

The SDGs have been a few years in the making and you can understand why journalists – apart from some specialist correspondents – were not interested in the process of how they were drawn up and agreed upon.

But the Goals are designed to address some of the most important challenges facing humanity and now they have been officially adopted by all the UN member states which represent most of people on the planet, the media, with a few honourable exceptions, is failing in its responsibility to inform those same people what they are and what their leaders have committed to do.

The UN, some governments and activists are not waiting around for the penny to drop.

They are using social media to get the message out about the #GlobalGoals and there is an imaginative global campaign, Project Everyone, devised by a team led by filmmaker, Richard Curtis, involving schools, cinemas and, among other things, music festivals hosted by leading celebrities aimed at making sure people around the world are aware of the SDGs and inspired to support them.

While journalists have a duty to remain independent and retain the necessary perspective to report objectively, they should give stories about the Goals, and the campaign to promote them, the prominence they merit given what is at stake for the people who read, watch and listen to them.

As things stand, public awareness is pretty limited and there is clearly a job of informing to do. And while social media is essential in this, traditional media still has an important role to play.

So why hasn’t there been more prominent coverage?

One basic reason is that many journalists themselves aren’t sure what the SDGs are and so haven’t appreciated the significance of what has been agreed.

Then there is the scope of what the Goals encompass – there are 17 of them and 169 targets to be used to assess progress towards them.

Journalists like stories to fit into categories. That’s a business story, that’s a science story, etc. But the SDGs as a whole don’t fit neatly. They cover issues including health, education, environment, business and social policy and summarising them requires thought and care in a profession where the pressure of limited resources and tight deadlines means there is less and less time to do that thinking.

But this isn’t really an excuse.

Some years ago, for instance, when the BBC’s business reporting was subject to criticism, the corporation’s journalists were expected to bone up on the subject as part of an effort to address the shortcomings.

Media organisations – and journalists generally – should have been taking their professional duty more to heart and doing the same to improve their reporting of development and environment issues.

When a nameless veteran reporter is quoted as offering the excuse that SDG sounds too similar to STD, you know you have a problem.

Apart from doing their homework on the Goals, part of the solution to ensure better coverage could be for journalists to think more creatively about the categories they divide stories into.

Instead of pigeonholing stories as “Environment” or “Development”, it has been suggested to me they could, for instance, think in terms of stories that relate to “People and Planet”.

There is the not unreasonable expectation that the media make an effort to publicise the Goals and find ways to make them accessible to their audiences.

As the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (yes I know it’s a mouthful), Amina Mohammed, told Reuters: “it’s not being handed to you on a platter”.

Over the coming weeks and years let’s hope journalists and editors rise to this challenge.

 

 

 

 

Corbyn’s foreign policy: the radical change?

Forget the media labels “far-left” or “hard-left”, in terms of economic policy is the new Labour leader any more to the left than say George Osborne or Boris Johnson are to the right?

Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas are in many ways quite conventional Keynesian economics not that far removed from those advocated by the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman.

Where Corbyn holds views that are a more obvious break with both past British governments and his own Labour Party is in foreign policy. In this sense it’s not surprising it was disagreements in this area that led several former shadow ministers to refuse to serve under him.

Barring the three years when Michael Foot led the party in the early 1980s, since 1945 Labour has been led by Atlanticists who see close relations with the US, the possession of nuclear weapons and membership of NATO and the EU as central to Britain’s place in the world.

Corbyn has been compared with Foot, but it’s hard to imagine him making the speech Foot did supporting British military action over the Falklands in 1982. His role in the Stop The War coalition opposing military interventions abroad and his advocacy of withdrawal from NATO makes comparisons with George Lansbury, the pacifist who led the party between 1932 and 1935, more apposite.

And even if he never makes it into government, as Leader of the Opposition his approach to foreign policy matters.

Through parliamentary debates and votes he can have a direct influence on policy as his predecessor Ed Miliband showed when he opted to vote against military action in Syria in 2013.

Also, as the main spokesperson for the UK’s main opposition party his positions on the international issues of the day will influence perceptions of Britain in the world.

The three areas where Corbyn is likely to have influence in the next few years are the main ones in Prime Minister Cameron’s in-tray: the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and subsequent referendum; the decision whether or not to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons; and if British forces should join the US-led military action against Islamic State in Syria.

During his leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn told journalists he had voted to leave what was then the EEC in the 1975 referendum and he sent out mixed signals about his approach to the next vote, which could be held as early as next year.

But since his victory Corbyn’s position has come under intense scrutiny and he has committed to campaign for Britain to remain a member.

As he laid out in a Financial Times Op Ed, his misgivings about today’s EU are based on its approach to economic policy which he identifies, quite correctly, as dominated by neo-liberal ideas. He wants to see greater protection for social and employment rights and will push Cameron to include these in his renegotiation.

This is counter to the agenda the Prime Minister is currently pursuing. So if Cameron gets most of what he wants in his renegotiation and recommends a ‘’Yes” vote, it could put Labour in a tricky position.

Corbyn’s FT article gives a clue to his likely approach to the vote. He implies Labour would also campaign for a “Yes” while at the same time promising to renegotiate a better deal when they return to power.

If that is the position he takes, it risks not only being a confusing message, but is also likely to be regarded as unrealistic given Britain’s EU partners, having just finished a painful renegotiation with Cameron, will be highly unlikely to agree to an incoming Labour government’s request for yet more special treatment for the UK.

On Syria, Cameron has already announced a drone was used to kill two British citizens fighting with IS who, he said, were a direct threat to the UK, but full-scale air strikes would have to get parliamentary approval.

Here Corbyn will have some sway.

If the government opts to take action, the Labour leader has made clear he will oppose it. The SNP would also vote against. So the result would hinge on how many Labour MPs broke ranks with their leader to back Cameron and how many Tories rebel against the government – in 2013, remember, thirty of his own MPs defied the Prime Minister on Syria. The final tally could depend on how well Corbyn argues the case against action to the House of Commons.

Then there’s the final decision on the replacement of Trident, expected to be made next year.

When Britain opted to replace Polaris with Trident in 1980, Cold War tensions were high following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and public opinion was not persuaded by opponents like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other activists.

This time public opinion seems more divided and polls where the people are told how much it would cost have shown majorities against replacement.

Cameron almost certainly has the votes in parliament, including some on the Labour side who would defy Corbyn if he whips the vote. But the platform the Labour leader now has to oppose the decision could help increase public opposition by galvanising a wider debate on the utility and affordability of nuclear weapons as well as the benefit Britain gets out of having them and could potentially reap from giving them up.

One other area where Corbyn has strong views is over Israel-Palestine, where he is a long-time critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Two years ago, Labour MPs led a symbolic vote in parliament to recognise Palestinian independence and the new leader can be expected to call for Britain to follow fellow EU member Sweden in officially recognising Palestine.

As things stand, it’s unlikely Cameron will take such action given his record of support for Israel, but another Israeli assault on Gaza or widespread unrest in the West Bank leading to violent Israeli repression could change that calculus.

All told, if the new Labour leader can broaden the appeal of his views on Britain’s role in the world among his parliamentary colleagues and the public, he could have an unexpected influence on UK foreign policy.

China’s big parade: evidence of expansionist threat or a normal great power?

For the first time ever, China has held a military parade, complete with its most modern missiles and watched over by 30 visiting Heads of State, to mark the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The decision to mount this display in the first place, and the way it was staged, tell us quite a bit about what Beijing intends to do with the new kit it showed off.

Many headlines in the West – whose leaders largely stayed away – framed the parade as an aggressive show of force. And there are loud voices among US military officials, commentators and politicians accusing Beijing of modernising its armed forces for nefarious purposes – namely territorial expansion.

Some of China’s neighbours, especially Japan and the Philippines which both dispute ownership of islands and atolls with China also level this charge.

They point to China’s rapidly increasing spending on its military and its more assertive approach to territorial disputes in the past five years as evidence.

In the past few months, they have focused criticism on Beijing’s island building programme in the South China Sea where small islands and atolls have been expanded and some equipped with airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

But is this evidence of expansionism?

President Xi Jinping used his speech at the parade to try to reassure onlookers, announcing a 300,000 cut in the number of troops and insisting his is a peace-loving country.

While it’s true China’s defence spending has been rising at unprecedented rates, Beijing’s budget is still dwarfed by Washington’s, both in dollar terms and as a proportion of GDP.

Also, Beijing is not the first country to indulge in “island building” in the South China Sea, other claimants were at it before the Chinese, even if the scale of what Beijing has been doing is much larger.

At a recent conference dinner, I was at the same table as a well-known hawkish American commentator. The conversation turned to the South China Sea and the assumption behind most of the talk was China is an old-fashioned expansionist power which the US and its allies have to put in its place.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps Beijing did not fit that mould, I was literally scoffed at.

But if you compare American and Chinese history there is a big difference – in both motivation and approach.

One of the messages President Xi is sending with the September 3rd parade is that China will stand up for itself and never again allow itself to be invaded and intimidated.

It’s easy for non-Chinese to forget how the country was invaded, first by the British who seized Hong Kong in the Opium war of 1839-42 and culminating in the full-scale Japanese assault of 1937 with its accompanying atrocities and the death of up to 20 million Chinese. What is called “the century of humiliation” in China.

The territorial claims Beijing makes today are also based on its interpretation of history, rather than a future scheme to conquer its neighbours.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea are nearer Taiwan than Japan and were taken by force by Tokyo during war with China in the 1890s. China argues they should have been returned after 1945 under the Potsdam Declaration.

Instead the US kept them, using the islands as firing ranges until 1972 when it returned them to Japan which by that time had become a close American ally.

The Chinese also argue their claims in the South China Sea are historical, although these are a lot vaguer than those in the East China Sea.

Compare that with the United States.

It grew from the original thirteen colonies on the East Coast to include Hawaii, 2,400 miles from the West Coast.

The justification for this expansion – much of which was achieved by military conquest – wasn’t history. It was the nineteenth century idea of Manifest Destiny – that despite the presence of indigenous peoples, Americans had a God-given right to take the land they wanted.

It was a powerful, unequivocally expansionist ideology.

Washington has never really looked back and today its military bases have spread to at least 74 countries and its navy patrols the world’s seaways unhindered.

It routinely sends spy planes and ships right up to the territorial waters of other countries, including of course China. When others do the same to the US – and Chinese ships were sighted off Alaska at the same time it was parading military hardware through Tiananmen Square – the Americans don’t exactly welcome it.

The modernisation of China’s armed forces and its assertion of its maritime claims can be seen as normal business for a large country with an economy dependent on oil imports which have to pass through the South China Sea.

To its east, there’s no doubt Beijing is also trying to develop the military capability to prevent US forces from intervening to stop it retaking Taiwan – if it ever judges its attempt at gradual, peaceful reunification has failed. Although, Beijing sees this as completing its historic mission to win back all the territory lost in the recent past.

This doesn’t mean a rising China isn’t capable of aggression.

It does mean its territorial ambitions are probably much more limited than some seem to fear and Washington’s ever were.

Tag Cloud