Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘US’

The Perils of President Trump

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.

 

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Too much Russia on their minds

In recent weeks you could be forgiven for thinking we were back in the early eighties at the height of the Reagan/Thatcher era’s talking up of the threat from Moscow.

The renewed Russian and Syrian assault on rebel-held east Aleppo and the images of destruction getting out and into western media has stimulated what can only be described as Russophobia to reach new heights, stoked as it is by Washington and London with many journalists and commentators in tow.

The charge list against the Kremlin is long and growing all the time.

President Putin is accused of a litany of wrongdoing from war crimes in Syria and Ukraine to attempting to subvert the US presidential election and funding Europe’s anti-EU populist parties.

Then there are the reports of actions that would be routine and barely worthy of comment if they were being done by the US – carrying out military flights close to other countries’ airspace, basing bombers in the Russian Far East to patrol the Pacific or test launching missiles from submarines – which are being given media prominence.

Historians can point to a long pedigree for Russophobia, and in Britain it long predated the 1917 Revolution, the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Even though Moscow and London ended up on the same side in the two world wars and during the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia was discounted as a weak, declining country of little consequence, the “Russian bear” has generally been portrayed as a rival and a threat in Britain since the imperial rivalry of the nineteenth century – by both politicians and journalists.

Of course, the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is a journalist who went into politics and perhaps that explains his suggestion last week that people should protest about Syria outside the Russian embassy in London – a suggestion that indicates he still has to learn he’s no longer a practitioner of what one former diplomat joked to me is the journalist’s vice – the exercise of power without responsibility.

In the case of the assault on Aleppo, there is truth in the accusation that the bombing is being carried out without much concern for civilian casualties.

But while it may allow the politicians, like Johnson,  and media commentators to indulge in righteous indignation and – one suspects – to revel a bit in a feeling of moral superiority, it doesn’t make for good policy or a long-term solution to the war in Syria and the growing impasse in relations between the West and Russia.

The former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, allowed his sense outrage to get the better of his judgement when he went on the BBC to call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Syria – an act which would almost certainly mean going to war with Russia, something no serious western politician has any intention of doing.

Indignation can be constructive.

It can galvanise people to take action to prevent humanitarian abuses or to end armed conflicts where unwitting civilians are caught in the middle.

But selective indignation is counter-productive.

Undermined – as it inevitably is – by hypocrisy and double standards that undermine its moral force.

Be it the British government’s condemnation of Russian action in Syria while remaining relatively quiet about Saudi action in Yemen, or that of supporters of the Stop the War coalition who tend to be muted in criticism of Russia while focusing their ire on the British and Americans over Iraq, Afghanistan and – indeed – Syria.

Or Russia’s condemnation of American and British recognition of Kosovo’s break away from Serbia while subsequently recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s declarations of independence from Georgia.

And that’s before you consider how both sides are capable of sowing disinformation and outright lies to gain advantage.

Remember Russia’s insistence its forces have not been involved in Ukraine or the American refusal to own up for launching a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Moral suasion requires consistency to carry authority.

The old saying “people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones” isn’t a call to stay silent; but it should be taken as an invocation to avoid hypocrisy if you want your words and actions to carry weight.

Double standards have practical consequences.

As I’ve written elsewhere, they undermine the trust that’s needed between opposing sides if there’s to be much hope of settling the disputes driving conflicts from Ukraine to Syria.

 

 

 

 

Syria, Yemen and how double standards block the path to peace

 

 

The past week has been an unedifying one in the world of international diplomacy.

World leaders have been at the United Nations in New York for their annual gathering at the General Assembly where they immediately disappointed with a watered down agreement to consider reforming how they deal with the growing numbers of refugees.

If that were not enough, the proceedings were then overshadowed by an outbreak of finger pointing between the Americans and Russians over the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire.

Washington accused Russia of bombing the humanitarian convoy in Syria that killed at least 20 and undermining the ceasefire.

Russia denied it was involved. But that hasn’t stopped the Americans continuing to stoke outrage against Moscow in same week the US itself had helped undermine the ceasefire by killing 63 Syrian troops in an air strike – an attack the US insists was unintentional.

Whether or not Russia did carry out the convoy strike, and past experience of the veracity of American allegations in conflicts where it has taken clear sides gives pause for thought (remember Defense Secretary Cohen’s claim ahead of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 that 100,000 Albanians had been killed in Kosovo), Washington’s attempt to take the moral high ground over Syria is undermined by its actions in Yemen.

The Americans are supplying weapons and intelligence in support of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war that’s involved similar attacks on humanitarian workers, particularly hospitals and clinics.

Moscow is unlikely to feel under much pressure to change its approach in Syria as long as Washington doesn’t change its approach to Yemen

And it’s not just the Americans backing the Saudis.

As my former colleague, Robin Lustig, has pointed out in a powerful piece, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Teresa May, has brushed off criticism of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia emphasising Riyadh’s cooperation against Islamist terrorism.

The hypocrisy and double standards of the major powers and their allies – be they the Syrian or Saudi governments – are more than just words though.

They also directly undermine attempts to bring an end to the fighting and suffering of civilians that all parties claim to want – as I’ve argued before in the context of Ukraine.

With both sides effectively saying “do as I say, not as I do” and, in the eyes of their opponents, being rank dishonest, it makes it extremely difficult to build even the minimum of trust that’s needed for a durable peace effort.

As the siege of Syria’s second city Aleppo intensifies again and the Saudi campaign in Yemen grinds on, there is an urgent need for the main powers to get back round the table and at least agree to stop fuelling the conflicts.

But this week has shown that prospect seems remote.

So, one could forgive ordinary Syrians and Yemenis – living under siege and bombardment or having fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere – for looking at the images from New York and being reminded of Nero and his proverbial fiddling as Rome burned.

Climate Change: Merci

French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.

The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.

Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.

Of course, France did not do it alone.

At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.

The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.

The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.

In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.

One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.

That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.

The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.

Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.

There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.

It could be – if countries follow through.

What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.

 

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.

Saudi Arabia: Going Rogue

We haven’t heard much about rogue states since George W Bush’s tenure in the White House ended, but maybe the term should be revived and applied to one of America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia.

The talks on Syria in Vienna have finally got all the relevant international players around the table with Iran taking part along with the Saudis. Following the deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the US no longer had a good reason to refuse to talk to the Iranians and as Assad’s main backers they are crucial to making any progress.

So far so good.

But Saudi Arabia seems to have been doing its upmost to provoke the Iranians into walking out.

Ahead of the talks, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave media interviews saying Iran had to accept Syrian President Assad’s removal – interesting, given how Saudi diplomats are usually pretty media shy.

Then when the talks started it appears al Jubeir went out of his way to provoke his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and there was a blazing row.

Under King Salman’s predecessors, Saudi Arabia pursued a cautious foreign policy and shunned the limelight.

No longer.

Although King Abdullah did send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring to put down unrest among the country’s Shia majority, since his successor ascended to the throne in January this year he has taken this regional activism to a different level.

Salman appointed his favourite son, the young and inexperienced, Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Defence Minister. The Saudis promptly launched a direct military intervention in the civil war over the country’s southern border in Yemen. With air and some ground forces, the Saudis are leading an alliance of Sunni states trying to crush the Shi’ite Houthi rebels the Saudis accuse of being Iranian proxies.

Many of the more than 4,500 civilians killed so far in the fighting have died in air strikes and recently – in a gruesome rerun of what happened last month in Afghanistan – a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was hit. The UN says 39 medical facilities have been struck – and possible war crimes committed – in Yemen since the intervention started, although the Saudis deny they are responsible.

Saudi-led forces have imposed a blockade on Yemen though and according to the UN, this is causing a humanitarian crisis as almost 13 million people – half the population – are now short of food, medicine and fuel.

Credible reports indicate the new Saudi government also escalated support – in arms and money – for Syrian rebel groups, including those allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front. This is thought to have been crucial to the rebel advance which led to Russia’s intervention to prop up President Assad in September.

The new Saudi leadership, unnerved by the prospect of US rapprochement with Iran following the nuclear deal and angered by President Obama’s sudden U-turn in 2013 when he called off American military strikes on Assad’s forces at the last minute, has become markedly less pliant to US wishes.

Like Washington’s other close ally in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia is doing its own thing and Obama, faced with a determined friend, seems largely content to let the tail wag the dog.

The Americans have turned a blind eye to Saudi links to rebels Washington doesn’t consider “moderate” enough to merit its own backing. The US has also supplied arms and intelligence to support Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.

While Washington says Assad’s use of indiscriminate force against civilians has put him beyond the pale, the moral and diplomatic credibility of its position is undermined by its failure to oppose what the Saudis are up to around the region.

Try a little exercise. Imagine what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry would have said and done if it were Iran launching air strikes on Yemen and blockading its ports.

If the US is serious about restoring stability to the Middle East and protecting the rights of civilians there, it should be reining in the Saudis in Yemen, not aiding and abetting them.

On Syria, the Americans should take the Saudis to one side and make it clear to them they should play nice at the talks so as not to extinguish the glimmer of hope for political progress that’s appeared since Russia intervened directly in the conflict.

Sailing by: Trouble in The South China Sea

Most eyes may still be on Syria as the epicentre of global tension, but the temperature just rose in South China Sea too where several countries, including China, lay claim to the same waters.

The much-previewed US challenge to China’s claims has finally taken place with an American navy warship sailing within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the disputed waters of the Spratly, or Nansha, archipelago.

Chinese naval vessels shadowed the US ship and warned it off, but no clash took place – this time.  China’s navy commander has warned his counterpart of the danger of an accidental war if the Americans do it again.

The American move comes just a few weeks after President Obama gave President Xi the red carpet treatment in Washington. So what’s going on?

The US was demonstrating that it doesn’t recognise China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

It also insists it doesn’t take sides over Beijing’s disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, which also claim parts of the Sea.

To try to substantiate this, the US patrol also passed through areas claimed by Hanoi and Manila, but as Washington has been distinctly quiet over the island-building activities of other countries, which pre-dated China’s, it is clear the Americans are only really bothered by the Chinese.

The Pentagon characterised the patrol by the USS Lassen as “routine”, but given the months of discussion and open hinting by Washington that it would carry out such a patrol, it clearly wasn’t.

There are other inconsistencies in the US position too, although both Beijing and Washington are being disingenuous.

The Pentagon describes the patrol as a Freedom of Navigation exercise to demonstrate that its ships can sail wherever international law and customary practice allow.

But despite its extensive claims in the South China Sea, there is no evidence China is threatening that freedom. In fact, given the dependence of its economy on trade and energy imports passing through the Sea, it is not in Beijing’s interest to do so.

By sailing close to one of China’s artificial islands, the Americans were seeking to utilise one of the clauses of the international treaty governing use of the seas – UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The only problem is the US itself has never ratified UNCLOS.

If Washington is concerned about establishing the right of freedom of navigation for its ships, a more effective and consistent way to do it would be to push the Senate to ratify the treaty.

This patrol was less about international law than raw power. Everybody, including of course China, knows the US did it to show that it can and to show the Chinese it is still boss on the water to try to deter Beijing from consolidating its extensive claims in the region.

As for China, it is a party to UNCLOS, but its position is also flawed.

Beijing denounced the sail-by as “illegal”, but under the Convention it wasn’t.

China has also shown a lack of regard for UNCLOS by refusing to take part in arbitration with the Philippines under the Convention – a refusal that has not had the desired effect of preventing the Permanent Court of Arbitration from allowing the case to go ahead.

Chinese officials say Beijing has built the artificial islands – seven in the past year – to provide airfields and docking facilities to support disaster relief operations in the typhoon-prone region.

That is valid as far as it goes, but by asserting the 12-mile limit around these installations, China is also clearly using them to advance its territorial claims.

If it wants to uphold the international law it says is essential for maintaining peace, China should agree to talks to settle these claims by compromise as it has done on several of its land borders. Instead, it says it wants to agree a code of conduct to manage relations in the South China Sea with its South East Asian neighbours, but talks on that have yet to yield any fruit.

This has led to rising tensions, particularly between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have turned to Washington for support, giving the US another reason for its challenge to Chinese claims – to show its friends it can be relied on when push comes to shove.

Although, Chinese and American officers have been talking about ways of reducing the risk of accidental clashes on the sea and in the air, more is needed if the two sides want to avoid getting into a shooting war.

A better course would be for China to sit down with its rival claimants and settle their maritime borders – and for the US to leave them to it.

As things stand this is unlikely to happen.

Beijing shows no appetite for multilateral talks and despite Washington’s lip service to the changing global order, the US attempt to stop its allies joining Chinese-led initiatives, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, shows it has still not been able to truly accept that the rise of China means it has to treat Beijing as more of a military and diplomatic equal.

As much as anything else this is what lies behind the US Navy sail-by, which instead of encouraging compromise over the South China Sea, is only stoking further tension.

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