Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘David Cameron’

Climate Change or Terrorism: Which is the True Existential Threat?

Climate change is “the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

So said the then UK Chief Scientific Adviser, David King back in 2004.

It’s a view that’s been echoed by, among others, President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Eleven years on, King’s comment came to mind as the UK parliament debated and approved air strikes on Islamic State in Syria at the same time as delegates from more than 190 countries were meeting at the UN climate summit in Paris to try to agree a deal to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Syria vote took up many more column inches than the goings on in Paris despite the presence of world leaders, including Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the summit.

Polls in Britain about the most important issues facing the World, indicate terrorism is seen as a much greater threat than global warming. It also seems public concern about climate change has declined since the last disappointing key UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Why should this be when the scientific consensus is that unless the world takes measures now global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees and cause catastrophic changes in the climate that will pose a grave threat to all of humanity?

Some climate scientists think it’s partly their fault. They believe they gave people the impression climate change would be more dramatic and also that it may be too late to do much about it. But climate change is likely to be gradual and psychology suggests if people think they can’t do much about something, they will most likely carry on as usual.

But political leaders and the media also bear some responsibility.

When there is a terrorist attack, there is frequent talk about terrorism as an existential threat.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself has said he believes IS is an “existential threat” to the UK.

According to the dictionary “existential” means “relating to existence”. So an “existential threat” to the UK is something that threatens the very survival of the country.

Does the Prime Minister really believe IS poses a threat to Britain’s national survival in the same way Nazi Germany did in 1940?

Surely not?

But he is not alone in using this language – other politicians and media commentators have also liberally used the cliché – and it is bound to have an impact on public perceptions.

Anecdotally, I know well-informed people who agree with this assessment of the scale of the IS threat and dismiss climate change as exaggerated – when it is precisely the other way round.

The frog in boiling water is the analogy that’s used to explain the lack of urgency about taking action to combat global warming. Then there’s the fact that because climate science is developing all the time, there is always an element of uncertainty about it, even if the broad trends are clear.

However, there’s already evidence that climate change will disrupt our way of life and threaten the existence of states.

The Pentagon and other defence ministries now recognise climate change as a threat to national security and see it as a driver of conflict.

One of the causes of the unrest that led to Syria’s devastating civil war that may well end in the permanent disintegration of the country was prolonged drought and it’s very likely climate change was a cause of that drought. It’s this research Prince Charles was referring to in a recent interview with Sky News when he grabbed headlines by suggesting a link between terrorism and climate change.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, which the UN estimates has killed around 300,000 and displaced almost 3 million, has also been linked to drought caused by long-term changes in climate.

Another problem when it comes to public perceptions of the two is that while terrorist attacks are sudden and shocking – that is the whole point of them in the eyes of the people carrying them out – climate change is incremental.

We humans also seem to find it far easier to empathise with the relatively small numbers of victims of sudden random violence than we do the large numbers whose lives are threatened by an creeping menace like climate change.

I don’t intend to diminish the impact terrorism has on its victims and their loved ones.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a terrorist attack then it is an existential threat to you.

But, unless you live in a handful of countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan,terrorism is not a threat to the future of your country. It’s also not a threat to human existence. Climate change, on the other hand, probably is.

Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

Calais migrant crisis – something must be done …. of course

“Send in the army”.

That familiar bedfellow of “something must be done” can now be heard coming from the mouths of British politicians and commentators.

They offer it as a solution to the Calais migrant crisis that’s been disrupting links between France and Britain for weeks incommoding commerce and tourism alike.

Apart from the fact England lost control of Calais in the sixteenth century and it is now part of sovereign French territory, the proposal that British troops be sent to France to secure the Ferry and Eurotunnel terminals and prevent the thousands of migrants there from attempting to stow away on lorries or get through the Channel Tunnel is not a solution.

As things stand London is struggling to convince that it is on top of the situation.

But the pressure Cameron is under is partly of his own making.

His government has failed to keep its – arguably unrealistic – promise five years ago to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year, so any sense that migration is “out of control” leads to loud headlines and the need to appear to take decisive action.

This means things that are done like providing money for improved fencing at Calais and the offer of sniffer dogs – which make sense – appear inadequate in the eyes of critics.

Clearly, there is an immediate need.

Migrants who have gathered at makeshift camps near the French port after having made their way – in most cases – from the Middle East and Africa via south and south-east Europe need to be given accommodation and have their claims for asylum processed.

This will almost certainly require large-scale police action, where, if France agrees, British officers can help to move the migrants to alternative sites.

But this is not something military forces should be used – or indeed are trained – for.

Beyond dealing with the immediate problem though, the crisis will not be solved until a few other things are sorted out.

EU countries need to start actually cooperating, rather than merely promising to cooperate, in dealing with the thousands of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece – and now increasingly Hungary – where most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese and others first arrive in the EU can’t cope on their own.

EU leaders – with the exception of the Brits, Danes and Hungarians – agreed at their June summit to share the burden by accepting allocations of asylum seekers, but progress is clearly not fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

And while not all the migrants are refugees from conflict and oppression, Britain and its EU partners have a moral and legal obligation to give asylum claims a fair hearing.

The EU could also help to reduce the number of purely economic migrants by getting serious about helping African and Middle Eastern countries provide jobs and decent living standards by opening up their markets and investing in those countries, as well as better targeting development aid.

Such a policy was put in place twenty years ago under the Barcelona Process, but it has always seemed to lose out to other political and economic priorities and has proved inadequate.

But that still leaves the main cause driving the current surge in the number of migrants – the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the anarchic situation in Libya.

The UK has defended its parsimony in giving asylum to Syrian refugees by pointing to the humanitarian aid it is giving to help Syrian refugees in the region and the people displaced inside the country.

It is true Britain is one of the largest aid givers, however, it is revealing that newly released figures show the UK spent much more bombing Libya during the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 than it did on aid to help stabilise the country after his overthrow.

And it is precisely the failure to stabilise Libya and its further descent into chaos that has enabled migrants to cross the Mediterranean in such large numbers.

The same skewed approach can be seen in Syria and Iraq.

The US alone is spending more than $ 9 million a day on its air strikes on Islamic State forces, while the UN-led relief operations for the millions of refugees who have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, let alone the millions displaced inside Syria, are chronically underfunded with less then a third of the money needed arriving so far this year.

So is it any wonder people are desperate enough to risk the journey to Europe?

If the politicians in London want to end the crisis in Calais, they don’t need to send in the troops, they need to shoulder a fairer share of the burden of asylum seekers in the EU, something they are currently refusing to do.

They also need to find the money to spend more on supporting international relief operations and be ready to invest in the reconstruction of Libya, Syria and Iraq if and when the fighting ends and the circumstances allow.

Will Cameron mk2 mean a diminished Britain?

Foreign policy received little mention during Britain’s long election campaign, but the surprise victory of David Cameron’s Conservative Party portends lasting significance for the country’s role in the world.

Why this is so lies in the future of two unions – the European Union and the United Kingdom itself.

Cameron’s return to No. 10 Downing Street has increased the odds that the UK could leave the EU, and the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, SNP, means the chances the UK itself could break up have also risen. A country that leaves one of the world’s major economic blocs and cannot hold itself together is not one that will continue to carry the same weight in the world.

The Conservatives went into the election promising to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum on continuing membership by the end of 2017.

Cameron has said that if he gets the changes he wants to the EU, especially tightening freedom of movement and the ability of people from other countries to claim welfare benefits in Britain, he will campaign for a vote to stay in.

There are powerful forces ranged against Britain’s threatened exit from the EU, what the media call “Brexit.” Big business is dead-set against leaving the world’s largest marketplace and has already started to lobby. In parliament, the two next largest parties, Labour and the SNP, need no convincing. Both are strongly pro-EU and despite the anti-EU, United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, gaining almost 13 percent of the vote nationally, it only returned one MP to the House of Commons; its public face, Nigel Farage, lost re-election.

So on the face of it, Cameron would have plenty of support if he campaigns to stay in and if his renegotiation is successful and the referendum won, it may well settle the long-running debate in Britain on Europe, and anchor the country in the EU for the foreseeable future.

But, despite opinion polls suggesting more support for staying than leaving, there is no guarantee Britain will vote to stay.

Prime Minister Cameron may well convince Britain’s partners to agree to changes restricting the right of EU citizens to claim welfare benefits in other member states. But on his demand to restrict the right of people from other countries to stay in the UK if they do not have a job, he has little support in other countries, particularly Germany and Poland, which embrace the free movement of people as a keystone of the EU. If the British prime minister must compromise on this, he may find it difficult to argue he has negotiated enough changes to justify campaigning for a vote to stay in.

The other complicating factor is – ironically – the fact the Conservative leader confounded the pollsters, media commentators, and maybe even himself, by winning a narrow overall majority.

This means backbench Conservative MPs will have more influence on the government than during the past five years of coalition. Up to a third of them are strongly Eurosceptic and will keep the pressure on Cameron to drive a hard bargain in negotiations, making the necessary compromises more difficult. They will also make a lot of noise if they think the prime minister has only managed to secure agreement for partial changes.

Indeed, within hours of the election, one of the most influential Eurosceptics, the former cabinet minister John Redwood said “the British people will leave the EU unless there is a sensible offer on the table” and sensible for him includes “the need to regain control of our borders.”

Cameron is also facing a phalanx of right-wing newspapers, implacably hostile to the EU, cheering on the skeptics. And if their track record is anything to go, by these papers will campaign vociferously with scant regard for the facts.

Traditionally, the pro-EU forces have a much lower profile than their opponents and have based their arguments on pragmatic economic arguments, but the stagnation of the eurozone since the economic crisis now makes such a positive case support more difficult.

If the British do vote to leave the EU, it would threaten the future of that other Union – the UK – almost certainly triggering another referendum on Scottish independence with a likely majority willing to quit the United Kingdom this time.

Polls on the EU consistently show more support for membership in Scotland than in England meaning the EU referendum could see a majority of Scots voting to stay in while a majority in the UK votes to leave. And although SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says its landslide win in last week’s election, where it won 50 percent of the vote and 95 percent of the seats in Scotland, is not a mandate to hold another vote on independence, she has vowed to seek another independence referendum so Scotland could remain in the EU in the event of a UK vote to leave the union.

And it’s not just the EU referendum that makes eventual Scottish independence more likely – the way Cameron fought the election also exacerbated the divide between England and Scotland because he used the specter of the Scots calling the shots with a minority Labour government to scare English voters into supporting his party at the election. The tactic may have worked well with English voters, but it was divisive and probably helped boost support for the SNP.

A UK out of the EU, shorn of Scotland, would consolidate the perception in the world’s major capitals that Cameron is taking the country down an isolationist path.

The economic crisis and the austerity of Cameron’s first term have already diminished London’s appetite for international engagement, most notably in 2013 when MPs voted against military intervention in Syria. And the Conservatives are committed to further cuts, some of which will probably fall on the diplomatic service and the armed forces. US officials have already expressed concern Britain will not honor its NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence.

The notable exception to this retrenchment has been foreign aid, which has been protected from cuts with Cameron honoring the commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GDP. This means Britain could end up playing a role more like Japan since 1945 – funding international development, but playing a much less active diplomatic and military role.

This aid has brought Britain a lot of goodwill from around the world.  But the other instruments of British soft power have not fared so well. The BBC World Service, widely seen as key to British influence around the world, is now funded out of the public levy that pays for other BBC services, rather than directly by the government. The Conservatives are likely to freeze the levy or even reduce it when the current agreement on funding comes to end next year – and that will almost certainly mean more cuts to the BBC’s international services.

With the means to project its influence around the world facing straitened times and the increased likelihood it could end up outside the EU without Scotland, the UK’s global significance and authority is set for further decline – a puzzle for a country that still has the world’s fifth largest economy, a nuclear-armed military and a prized seat at the UN Security Council.

Read the original of this article at Yale Global 

Tag Cloud