Author Archives: Tom Arms

Observations of an expat: Money talks

Money talks. And nowhere does it shout louder than in the political arena of the United States of America.

The roll call of companies turning against the president and his acolytes is impressive. A truncated and growing list includes: American Express, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Stripe, Apple, Amazon, Google, the PGA, Deutsche Bank, Signature Bank, Hallmark, Verizon, Comcast, AT and T, AirBnB, New York City, the Koch Organisation….

Several on the above list deserve special mention. Deutsche Bank has been (now was) the Trump Organisation’s bank for years. It is owed $340 million by the company. But that is not all, President Trump has personally guaranteed every penny of the loan which is interest only. This means that when the loan falls due in 2023 and 2024 he will have to stump up the full amount.

New York City building projects have been a Trump cash cow dating back to the early days of the business his father created. They have simply cancelled all contracts with the Trump Organisation. That will hurt the bottom line.

The Koch Organisation has been America’s leading contributor to conservative causes since Fred Koch financed the start of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society in 1953. Between 2009 and 2016 his sons Charles and David gave a staggering $889 million to the Republican Party, individual Republican politicians and conservative think tanks.

The Koch Organisation started going off Trump a few years ago. But after the attack on Capitol Hill they also turned against his Congressional supporters. They have warned those Republican congressmen and senators who either objected to the Electoral College vote or voted against impeachment that the Koch Organisation’s contributions to their electoral war chests will likely be axed.

They need the money. To run for a seat in the House of Representatives costs an average of $1.6 million and you have to raise that money every two years because that is the length of your term of office. Senators hold their seats for six years, but the average cost of a campaign is $12 million. Elizabeth Warren’s last run for office cost $42,506,349.

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Observations of an expat: Banana America

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Donald J. Trump’s political career is very likely over. But Trumpism lives on.

The disrupter-in-chief, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire and the world’s most outstanding example of a self-deluded politician has finally gone too far.

He clearly incited thousands of supporters to march on the seat of American government in an attempt coerce elected representatives into overturning the election result. The assault on the US Capitol while senators and congressmen met to confirm the results of the November vote, was an attempted coup, insurrection, sedition and treason.

Trump’s baseless claims that the election was a fraud were the inspiration behind the riots. His speech – and that of Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr and others – clearly incited the crowd. His actions were a clear breach of his oath to protect and defend the US constitution.

The events of 6 January, and the two months that preceded it, set a frightening precedent which undermines democracy in America. And because the United States is seen as both the cradle and protector and chief advocate of global democratic values, it undermines laudable efforts to make other governments more representative.

The United States now looks more like a banana republic of the sort it regularly criticises than the “shining city on the hill” that it claims to be.

As awful as the Capitol Hill riots were, even more disturbing are the results of Hill HarrisX opinion poll conducted on 6-7 January.  According to this survey 59 percent of the voters polled disapproved of Trump’s handling of the riots. Great, you might say, that is a clear majority. But the flip side is that 41 percent of the electorate approved of Trump’s actions.

Despite the fact that the riot was a clear attempt to undermine the constitution, the rule of law and the democratic processes of government, a whopping 41 percent of the electorate thought Trump did the right thing.

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Observations of an expat: A bad year

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2020 has been a bad year. It is certainly the worst I can remember and I have been around for 71 of them.

The main cause is, of course, coronavirus or covid-19. It started in Wuhan, China almost exactly 12 months ago, and as the year draws to a close about two million people worldwide have lost their lives to this deadly virus.

Coronavirus has destroyed lives and livelihoods and although vaccines are now being distributed, it will be some time before the world returns to normal—if ever.

The Chinese were initially slow to respond to the threat. Whether their tardiness was in response to a lack of medical knowledge or political considerations is unclear. It was most likely a combination of the two.

The Chinese appeared to have relatively quickly stopped the spread of the virus; helped partly by long years of experience of pandemics and epidemics and partly as a result of a tightly-controlled society. As a general rule, Asians have fared better than their counterparts in other parts of the world. Most scientists have ascribed their relative success to experience of dealing with similar viruses such as SARS (an earlier form of coronavirus) and Avian bird flu.

Those that have fared better than most were countries who could quickly and efficiently shut their borders to the rest of the world. Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan and Australia are four examples, although almost everyone is suffering as winter and covid-fatigue set in.

The worst hit were the countries of the West – Europe and North and South America. There the combined emphasis on individual liberties, lack of experience and knowledge, political ineptitude and an emphasis on wealth over health led to the greatest number of deaths.

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Observations of an expat: Looking foolish

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Everyone hates to look foolish. To avoid this hugely embarrassing peril they will often go to great lengths ranging from self-deception to conspiracy theories to lies.

And the greater the personal investment in an untenable position the more difficult it is for the investor to change direction and face the chorus of “I told you so’s.”

Two of the most prominent examples of this foolishness are Brexit and Donald Trump. Millions of intelligent Americans have invested their political heart and soul in the Cult of Trump. They cannot comprehend the possibility of his losing the November presidential election. Therefore, their leader must be the victim of a massive fraud.

The numerous election officials – Republican and Democrat – who consistently maintain that the vote was the fairest in American history are evil participants in a Deep State conspiracy. They are in an unholy league with the courts that have repeatedly dismissed the Trump campaign claims of election chicanery.

The fact-filled brick wall that Trump supporters have bumped up against has led some of them to call for dangerously extreme measures. Pardoned former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has, for instance, called on President Trump to suspend the constitution, cancel the election result, declare martial law and then use the military to oversee fresh elections.

Britain’s Brexiteers are faring equally badly, although in a different way.

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Observations of an expat: Pakistan – next to recognise Israel?

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Wafting through the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and across the parade ground of military headquarters in Rawalpindi is an interesting political rumour: Will Pakistan be the next Islamic country to recognise Israel?

If it does it will not be so much a feather in the Israeli-American cap as a full-sized Native American war bonnet. Only Saudi recognition would beat it as a diplomatic coup.

But is the rumour likely to become a reality? Diplomats say that such a move is possible. But set against the brick wall of political realities it is highly improbable.

For a start, the political, social, economic and cultural conditions in Pakistan are completely different from those in the countries that have recently recognised Israel—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan. The UAE is an extremely wealthy states ruled by absolute monarchs. Their largely pliant population is happy to stay out of politics as long as the oil money keeps rolling in. Bahrain is not enormously wealthy, and its population is divided between Sunnis and Shias. But the ruler is an absolute monarch and in lock step with the UAE.

Sudan is not so wealthy. But its diplomatic position has been bought by Washington. As one of the centres of Islamic terrorism, it languished for years on America’s economic blacklist. US aid and investment is now pouring in.

Pakistan, in comparison is poor and its politics are Byzantine. The per capita income of the 212.7 million Pakistanis is below that of Sudan at $1,357 a year. They are 154th in the world wealth stakes.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is a perfectly competent and charming man, but he is politically circumscribed. The real power in Pakistan is the military—the sixth largest in the world. The prime minister is allowed to operate freely, but only within parameters established by the military, especially the army. If he steps outside the parameters than he runs the risk of removal—even a military coup.

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Observations of an expat: Development Aid

This week the British government announced that it planned to cut its overseas aid budget by 0.2 percent or about $4 billion a year. In 2019 it was $19.3 billion and Britain laid proud claim to being the world’s third largest aid donor and one of only five countries which had reached the internationally agreed aid donor figure of 0.7 percentage of GDP.

The announcement this week by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was an emotional short-sighted political decision by a populist government as a knee-jerk response to the economic difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic. It had no grounding in either humanitarian or economic considerations.

Instead it caved in to the popular conception that charity begins at home without any acceptance of the fact that we live in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world.

Schools in the developing world will close or not open. Children will go hungry. Unemployment will rise along with political instability.  People, lots of them, will die if the proposed cut in British aid goes ahead.

British prestige in the world will also suffer. So will British trade and the British economy. The aid budget has never been an exercise in unadulterated altruism.  The fact is that aid flows from the developed to the developing world encourage global economic growth which creates markets for British goods and services. Poor people buy fewer British products. Dead people buy even less.

The aid cut still has to be voted on by parliament, and there is a growing cross-party consensus – including a number of rebel conservative MPs – that the proposal is a mistake and should be rejected. But parliamentary arithmetic – an 80-seat majority for the Johnson government – coupled with the political attraction of a simplistic solution to a complex problem, means that it will probably be approved.

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Observations of an expat: Ethiopia

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Ethiopian Nobel peace prize winner Abiy Ahmed is planning—hoping with fingers and toes crossed—for a speedy and decisive end to his dispute with the rebel province of Tigray.

If his hopes are unrealised than it will have severe and widespread repercussions in the second most populous county in Africa, the strategic Horn of Africa and beyond.

Prime Minister Abiy and the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been at loggerheads since he took over the premiership two years ago.  Up until then the TPLF had held the reins of power in Addis Ababa. Corruption, human rights abuses and a long war with Eritrea pushed them into an unwelcome political wilderness.

The problem is complicated by Ethiopia’s complex ethnic mix of 80 different groups speaking 86 languages. In an attempt to hold these competing factions together the 1995 constitution established a loose federation of nine ethnically-based states; each with the right of self-determination up to the right of secession. The constitution was a TPLF creation.

The TPLF-constructed constitution does not, however, fit in with Abiy’s vision of a unitary modern democratic state. He booted the TPLF out of the ruling coalition and formed a national political party, the People’s Prosperity. Then, to add insult to injury, Abiy used the excuse of the coronavirus pandemic to postpone elections due last August.

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Observations of an expat: 2024

There are few certainties in American politics at the moment, but I think we can say (with fingers and toes crossed) that Donald Trump has lost the presidential election; Joe Biden will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021 and Trump will leave the White House (one way or another) on or about the same day.

But what will the obese, orange-faced narcissist with the bouffant hair style do once he has exited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Well, he will be 74 years old. He could simply retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his golf handicap. He doesn’t have to worry about money. In addition to the billions of which he constantly boasts, Trump will receive an ex-president’s pension of $207,800; free healthcare; a staff and Secret Service protection.

That scenario, however, seems unlikely, Donald Trump is the ultimate illustration of power as an aphrodisiac. He thrives in the limelight and wilts in the shade. Donald Trump will want to continue as disrupter-in-chief outside elected office.

To do so, requires money.  This may attract him back to his property roots and a global real estate empire. It badly needs attention as most of his investments are in leisure and travel-related property which has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

But the problem with a return to real estate is that the Trump brand has been tarnished. While he was a rising star and then president everyone wanted to do business with him or his family. Doing business with a defeated and petulant president who is a right-wing ideologue would be too much of a political statement for most businessmen.

Another possibility is the media mogul route, either with his own television network, or, in tandem with an existing conservative platform. It he goes the latter route the most likely partner is the ultra-right wing One America News Network. Fox has been ruled out after they unceremoniously ditched him on election night.

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Observations of an expat: THE Election

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Hope is a terrible emotion. It too often leads to despair. But an almost overwhelming hope is the dominant emotion for all those supporting a Biden victory in the US presidential elections.

As I write this the election remains in the balance. No bookkeeper will give a Trump victory any odds. Biden is almost certain to win, but the emphasis is still on the words “almost” and “hope”.

Just when Biden can give his uncontested victory speech is unknown. Trump will not concede. The president has made it clear that he will contest the election result in the courts—right up to the Supreme Court; even though almost no respectable legal eagle believes Trump has grounds for his claims of a fraudulent election.

But the president’s business success was largely based on highly suspect legal triumphs and he will use his unrivalled experience in the courts to keep Biden out of the house and job which he claims as his exclusive preserve.

Then there is the cloud of violence hanging over America. So far there have only been a handful of incidents. But the fact is that Trump supporters are dramatically extreme – and often armed – in support for their man.

Biden has asserted that he will be a unifying president for all Americans. The problem is that rural and small town America have felt ignored for years. They believe that their way of life has been marginalised, under-valued, and under-represented by a coalition of patronising degree-wielding urbanites and non-whites who threaten their values.

If Biden wins, the man from Delaware may also face problems with Congress. America’s checks and balances system means that for an administration to be effective it needs a majority of support in the House of Representatives and Senate. The Democrats have held onto their plurality in the lower house but, for the time being, The Republicans have control of the Senate. This may change in January when there will be two Senate run-offs because of Georgia’s convoluted election laws.

A defeated Trump is unlikely to take the accepted route of retiring to his Florida mansion to work on his memoirs and presidential library. During the campaign, son-in-law Jared Kushner, was busy organising a future platform which is likely to become Trump Television. This will enable Trump to broadcast vitriol, personal insults and dangerously false conspiracy theories to undermine a Biden Administration, and prepare a 2024 bid for the White House either for himself or one of his children.

If Biden does succeed then there is hope. Joe is recognised as one of the most honourable politicians in Washington who strongly believes in the rule of law as laid down in the US constitution. In contrast, Trump twists the law to work only through friends prepared to swear feudal fealty to him personally.

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Observations of an expat: The end is not in sight

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It would be nice to think that with the US presidential elections only a few days away, and Trump trailing badly in the opinion polls, that the end of nearly four years of right-wing populism a la Donald Trump is in sight.

This is a false hope on so many levels.

For a start, he may still win. And, a massive question mark hangs over the issue of whether or not Donald Trump will accept defeat at the polls. “If I lose, the election is fraudulent,” Trump asserts with unbelievable arrogance and disregard for basic democratic values.

If the president loses and refuses to concede than America runs the risk that Trumptonian arrogance obstinacy combines with divisions in American society to bring gun owners out on the streets. And the longer Trump fights a pro-Biden result the greater danger.

The convention since World War Two has been for ex-American presidents to slip quietly out of the political limelight to expand on their footnote in history by writing their memoirs, building a presidential library, creating a charity or two, joining the lecture circuit and taking on a behind-the-scenes elder statesman role. To do otherwise threatens the establishment of an alternative court which would undermine the sitting president.

Trump is not the type to embrace a quiet retirement. He will attack, lambast, slam and condemn with lies and conspiracy theories any occupant of the Oval Office other than himself because he cannot conceive of any other person being able to fill the position.

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Observations of an expat: Taiwan

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Hong Kong has taught the Chinese leadership that they can’t win the hearts and minds debate. One country, two systems, has not worked.  Neither will Beijing be able to buy support with their economic performance.

All of this raises questions about the future of Taiwan, and recent moves by Beijing are causing an increasing number of misgivings about the possibility of a peaceful solution to a problem as old as the People’s Republic.

Fears that the Chinese Communist Party is moving ever closer to a military solution have been fuelled by recent events. Last month 40 fighter jets from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a series of sorties over the sacrosanct median line that runs down the middle of the Taiwan Straits.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded with a call for tension-reduction talks with Beijing. China’s President Xi Jinping wasted no time in replying. The following day he rejected negotiations, issued a threat to invade Taiwan and released a video of training exercises simulating an invasion of the island.

So what would such an invasion look like and what are its chances of success? Well for a start, the Chinese forces are about five times the size of the Taiwanese military, and they are backed up with nuclear weapons.

But that is not the complete story. Two-thirds of Taiwan is mountains which are much easier to defend than open plains. On top of that, there are only a handful of beaches suitable for Chinese landing craft. If the PLA does successfully land it will face a determined military of 174,000 professional soldiers and a million reservists.  They—and the political hierarchy—will be ensconced in a bewildering labyrinth of mountain tunnels.

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Observations of an expat: Brexit – a fishy tale

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The Brexit deadline came, went, came again and went again. Both sides look foolish. Which means that if nothing, else, both sides desperately want an agreement and neither side wants to be the one that walks away from the table.

Fish appear to be the biggest sticking point.  And the two countries at loggerheads are traditional foes Britain and France.

Economically speaking, neither country’s fishing industry makes much of a contribution to the respective GDPs, although the French industry is almost three times the size of the British. But they both have well-organised community-based political lobbies, backed up by history, tradition and an overwhelming sense of injustice.

Up until the 1950s Britain had the world’s largest fishing industry, and its dominant position stretched centuries into the past.  William Pitt the Elder called cod “British Gold” and Victorian Grimsby was the world’s biggest fishing port. Overfishing, the loss of the Icelandic waters, the extension of exclusive economic zones and finally, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), reduced the industry from whale to sprat. There are now 24,000 people employed in the British fishing business compared to 65,000 in the French.

The CFP was – is – a bad deal for British fishermen. This is mainly because it was negotiated on the basis of historic fish catches in the 1970s when the industry was still based on a distant water fleet and the British waters were left to a large degree to French, Belgian and Dutch fishermen.

British fishermen don’t expect a return to the glory days but they want the lion’s share of fish in the resource-rich British waters. Of the roughly 6.4 million tonnes of fish caught in EU waters in 2018, 7000,000 came from UK waters. The French want to hang on to what they’ve got.

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Observations of an expat: Trump, Covid and me

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Donald Trump and I have something in common. We are both on steroids. And I can tell you from personal experience, that heavy doses of steroids can affect you mentally – and physically.

It can make you angry and a shade irrational. Just ask my wife. In fact she says I should delete the word “shade”. In my case it affects my feet and hands as well; swelling the feet and making the hands shake.

The reason for these changes is that steroids dramatically and rapidly push up your sugar levels. It is a bit like suddenly swallowing a kilo of the white stuff in one 10 second sitting. You become hyper. I have also become a steroid diabetic. As President Trump weighs about 20 kilos more than me, it is possible that he has suffered the same or similar fate.

In my case, I have to take steroids for a chronic cancer called Multiple Myeloma. The bad news is that the nature of the cancer, the steroids and a bewildering cocktail of other drugs, means that I will be boring you with this column for many years to come. Steroids affect your behaviour and your quality of life. But they save lives. They don’t end them.

Your body also adjusts to the initial onslaught of steroids and the chemicals that accompany them. In my case it took about four months and a reduction in steroid intake. I have no idea how long it will take Trump to physically and mentally acclimatise. But, I can assure you that a weekend at Walter Reed Hospital – no matter how good the doctors are – is insufficient.

Of course, Donald Trump’s behaviour was erratic in the extreme long before he swallowed his first dose of dexamethasone. He stands apart as a person who refuses to accept that the laws of nature and man apply to him. Facts, historical records and evidence of our own senses are an irrelevancy as far as Donald J. Trump is concerned.

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Observations of an expat: Geopolitical fault line

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Throughout history the Caucasus region has been one of the world’s key geopolitical fault lines and a potentially explosive ethnic, religious, cultural and political melting pot.

It links Europe and Asia. It connects the Black Sea to the riches of the landlocked Caspian. It straddled the Silk Road which connected the Turkic-speaking tribes which stretched from Anatolia to China’s troubled Xinjiang region. The Caucasus region is at the centre of dividing line between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Islamic world of Central Asia. It has been disputed, fought over and occupied by the Ottomans, Russia, the Mongols and Iran.

At the very heart of this fault line are Islamic Azerbaijan and Orthodox Christian Armenia. Separating these two countries is mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh; internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but with a majority ethnic Armenian population that has set up their own government (The Republic of Artsakh) which nobody – not even Armenia – recognises. However, Azerbaijan has not governed the area since 1988.

During the days of the Soviet Empire the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was smothered by political control from Moscow. But when the Soviet Union fell apart the two South Caucasus nations fell out over Nagorno-Karabakh. From 1988 to 1994 they fought a war which left 30,000 dead and displaced a million people from their homes. In the end, Moscow managed to broker a ceasefire, but not a peace.

Since 1994 there have been sporadic clashes along a “Line of Control”, but this week the clashes quickly escalated into a proper renewal of hostilities. With the rest of the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and the US presidential elections, the conflict has the possibility to drag Russia and NATO Turkey into opposing positions.

Russia is doing its best to assume the honest broker position, but Turkey makes no bones about its diplomatic stance. It fully backs Azerbaijan and demands that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh accept that they are part of that state.

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Observations of an ex pat: Shifting goalposts

If evidence was required of shifting global goalposts then diplomatic observers didn’t need to look any further than the start of this year’s UN General Assembly.

For a start, the General Assembly Hall was sparsely populated with socially distanced diplomats. Coronavirus has kept away the heads of state, government and foreign ministers who normally gather in the UN building on the west bank of New York’s East River. Instead, the speeches have been pre-recorded and displayed on the giant screen.

No politicos means no chance for the usual annual flurry of bilaterals where the real diplomatic business is done. It also means fewer opportunities for world leaders to make the 214-mile plane journey to Washington for a photo-op and short chat with the US President.

But all of the above are relatively speaking cosmetic changes compared to the rapidly moving substantive global shifts pushing the world down uncertain paths.

This is a big anniversary for the United Nations. It is 75 years since the organisation’s founding in October 1945. Europe had been devastated by World War Two. Politically the world was still Euro-centric with the end of the colonial era yet to be confirmed. Asia was a backwater. China was riven by civil war. The Soviet Union was threatening and the United States had emerged as the number one military, political and economic power.

The formation of the UN formally ended the roughly 150 years of American isolationism and catapulted Washington into the position of world policeman and bastion of democracy, capitalism and free trade.

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Observations of an expat: Liking people

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People like to do business with people they like. Think about it. How many times have you returned to the same bar, restaurant, shop or café because you like the owner or the convivial waitress. You will even pay over the odds because that big smile and friendly chat with a croissant is worth the extra money. Life is just too short for decisions to be based on the saving of a few pennies.

Another much sought-after characteristic is competence. In fact, charm and competence are generally considered a winning combination. And one without the other is, well, pretty much the exact opposite.

That is why a report published this week by the Pew Research Centre is such bad news for everyone in America. It is also an object lesson for the rest of the world.

The Pew Research Centre is a Washington-based think tank that for the past two decades has conducted annual in-depth international surveys on different countries’ perceptions of the United States. Actually, the Pew people prefer the term “fact tank” which, of course, brings their reports into direct conflict with the Trump Administration who might be best described as an “alternative fact farm.”

Certainly the White House takes little comfort from this week’s Pew survey which reports that perceptions of America and its president plummeted to record lows. The President of the United States is viewed as incompetent and the country as a whole is disliked.

Twenty years ago the British people, for instance, gave the “land of opportunity” an 87 percent approval rating. Germany’s approval levels of America were at 78 percent. France, which has always had a more ambivalent attitude to the US, was a bit lower at 62 percent. At the end  of summer 2020 the approval rating of three of America’s most important allies is roughly half of what it was at the turn of the millennium– 41 percent in UK, 26 percent In Germany and 32 percent in France.

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Observations of an expat: Rogue Britain

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Britain is becoming a rogue state. In fact, it may already be one. The Johnson government’s threat to jettison the EU Withdrawal Bill negotiated last year and an alarming philosophy of “creative destruction” threatens to leave the UK dangerously isolated on the world stage.

This is bad for Britain and bad for the world.

The UK is one of the chief pillars of the post-war rule of international law which has underwritten the world’s longest period of relative peace and prosperity. Without these legal structures dictators are emboldened to embark without fear of serious reprisal on genocide, murder of political opponents, theft and even war.

The specific issue at stake is Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill which will be debated in Parliament on Monday.  Under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Bill which Johnson negotiated a year ago, there would be pretty much an open border between Northern Ireland and Eire, with a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The terms were unpopular and a major British concession a year ago. But they were agreed and became a legally-binding building block on which to construct a UK-EU trade deal. Talks for that deal are now deadlocked over fishing rights, legal jurisdiction and competition rules; and Boris fans say that the only way to overcome the impasse is by threatening to break the previous agreement.

The government is fully aware of that such a move is a breach of international law. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted as much. It was confirmed by the protest resignation of Sir Jonathan Jones, the government’s top legal adviser. But they don’t care. Boris Johnson is fixated on British withdrawal from the European Union on his terms. This blinkered policy put him in 10 Downing Street and he is quite happy to sacrifice the rule of law to protect his political legacy and emerging brand of radical conservatism.

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Observations of an expat: Shifting Arabian sands

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The recent establishment of diplomatic relations and business ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates raises a host of questions, hopes, problems, issues and consequences.

Is it good or bad?  In the constant shifting sands of the Middle East where tribal loyalties overlap with religious and ethnic rivalries it is probably best to say that it is a bit of both, and the need for a supreme balancing act will continue to be the order of the day.

The UAE has at least partially opened the diplomatic floodgates and other Arab countries are expected to soon follow. It is reckoned that the next Arab country to establish links with Israeli will be the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was among the first to congratulate both Israel and the UAE on their bold move. The reason? Sunni king Al Khalifa is terrified of Iran. The Persians have long claimed the island as part of their territory, and 60 percent of the population is Shia.

Next on the likely list is Oman. The late Sultan Qaboos regularly acted as a mediator between Arab and Israeli interests. In 2018 he hosted a visit to Muscat by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Omanis have been praised for their regional diplomacy, not only between Israel and the Arab world, but also between Iran and Arabia.

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Observations of an expat: Politics of fear and loathing

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Fear is the major political currency of America’s Republican Party. The traditionalists are frightened of socialism. They are scared of big government. They dread the thought of a diminished suburban life style.  They are panic-stricken at the thought of losing their guns that protect from the forces of both the law and lawlessness. But most of all, in an increasingly racially divided society, the long dominant White population is terrified of becoming a minority.

Republicans will deny that they are racists. But the fact is that race issues have been a dominant theme in American politics from the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619, to the genocidal elimination of Native Americans, the Civil War, segregation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act and, finally, Trump’s wall.

They are not overly concerned with constitutional rights (except perhaps their interpretation of the Second Amendment). Enforcement of the rule of law is not at the top of agenda (except as it pertains to the protection of property). Whether or not their president is a tax-evading, misogynistic, narcissistic, racist, incompetent foul-mouthed liar is of little interest. They accept that he is a bastard. But he is their bastard. Even a global pandemic which has left more Americans dead than in any other country takes a back seat to the battle to preserve the fabled American dream.

America is a largely conservative society. Donald Trump is in the White House because he has successfully managed to persuade Americans that he is their best bet for fighting off the foreign hordes and ideas that run counter to perceived American values. In this election, the American right has gone to war; and, as in any war, the first casualty is truth.

That was obvious from the Republican Convention where speaker after speaker uttered outrageous lies in pursuit of four more years of a Trump presidency. Former Army Colonel turned anti-abortionist nun, Sister Deidre Byrne, accused Joe Biden and Kamala Harris of supporting not only late-term abortion, but infanticide as well.

Tennessee Senator Marshal Blackburn warned: “If the Democrats have their way, they would keep you locked in your homes until you become dependent on the government for everything. “

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Observations of an ex pat: Not so free or fair elections

Elections are great. They are the cornerstone of liberal democracies. They ensure that the government has the support of the people so that the country can move forward.

Elections are great… IF (notice the capital letters) they are free and fair. Otherwise they are an exercise in political hypocrisy designed to sacrifice the national interest to special interest groups—a sad, bad and ultimately dangerous road for the guilty politicos and the country they claim to represent.

There are several elements that contribute to making elections free and fair, including: Multiple parties representing a variety of political views; a free press; open debate; secret ballots;  transparency in polling procedures; an absence of foreign interference and an inclusive structure which ensures participation by all members of society.

Of course, the absence of any or all of the above conditions doesn’t stop the less democratic rulers from staging polls and claiming the mantle of respectability that elections bestow. They are a sham; easily exposed as such and suffer the consequences accordingly. It would probably have been better for the rulers concerned to have not bothered with the vote in the first place.

The most recent dramatic example of a sham election is Belarus where Alexander Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote. There is no free press in Belarus. Virtually all of Lukashenko’s political opponents were thrown into jail before the election. Anti-Lukashenko rallies were banned. The ballot boxes were almost certainly stuffed, that is if they even bothered to count them. The result has been national chaos as tens of thousands have risen up to demand the end to Lukashenko’s 26-year-old dictatorship. Thousands have been beaten, arrested and thrown into detention. The electoral crisis in Belarus has sparked a foreign policy crisis as The European Union supports the Belarussian opposition and Vladimir Putin warns Brussels to back off.

Putin’s electoral record is also heavily tarnished. The restrictions are nothing like those in Belarus but “Russia,” as Melbourne University reports, “does democracy differently.” For a start, freedom of press is a rapidly disappearing asset in the land of the Muscovites. But more importantly is the handling of opposition candidates. If they become too troublesome they are imprisoned on trumped-up charges or simply “eliminated.” Elimination was the fate of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov who was shot and killed on a Moscow bridge in 2015. This week we learned that the oft-arrested and imprisoned Alexei Navalny is in a coma in Siberia after drinking, what his family claim, was a poisoned cup of tea.

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Observations of an expat: I am an immigrant

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I am an immigrant. I emigrated from the United States to the United Kingdom on the 12th of December 1971.

I had studied for a year in Britain 18 months before and fell in love with the country and one of its citizens and moved back despite the dreary weather and traffic jams.

I did not flee a Middle Eastern War. I did not turf up at Heathrow claiming political persecution. Neither was I escaping a life of poverty in an African mud hut. In fact, if I had stayed in America I would probably be enjoying a comfortable country club existence.

Nevertheless, I feel an affinity with African, Asian, Hispanic, or any person from any race or country who left their homeland to seek a new life. It is not easy to leave the safety net of cultural familiarity, family and friends.

If you are born to a country your acceptance is automatic. As an immigrant you have to constantly prove your worth and justify your decision to uproot your entire life and start afresh.

I feel I have succeeded. I started an international news agency which launched the careers of well over a hundred journalists. My children are all a credit to me as are the 200 boys – many of them now young me – who have passed through my scout group over the past 20 years.

I am not boasting. In fact, I don’t regard myself as particularly unusual. Immigrants in every country have outstanding records of contributing to their adopted homelands.

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Observations of an expat: If Biden wins

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It is looking good for Joe Biden. He is racing ahead in the polls as foot-in-mouth Trump slumps under the weight of the pandemic, economic woes, legal problems and a growing credibility gap.

But what would a Biden win mean? In terms of the tone of political conversation it would mean a dramatic change. We would also see some big differences on the domestic political front. In foreign policy, an evolving international situation plus difficult to change actions which Trump has started, means shifts could be less dramatic.

Compared to Trump’s stream of consciousness rants, Biden is practically mute. Throughout his career, he has been known for his gaffes, but nearly half a century in Washington has taught him that there are times when it is best to say nothing, or to leave it civil servants to do the talking. Don’t expect a daily tsunami of tweets or cleverly-worded personal insults.

One of Joe Biden’s biggest tasks would be to close the national divide that a Trump presidency has created. He must find a way to push the hate-mongers and conspiracy theorists back into the woodwork from which they have crawled while at the same time avoiding the trap of forcing them underground.

Gun Control is a key flashpoint between the former vice-president and Trump’s dedicated base. Biden was heavily affected by the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and is a keen advocate of gun control. Among his past proposals has been a buy-back scheme for owners of assault rifles. And if the owners refuse to sell they will be required to register the weapons under the National Firearms Act. Needless to say, the powerful National Rifle Association opposes his candidacy.

Biden comes from what has been termed the “sensible centre” of the Democratic Party. The problem is that in recent years the party has moved to the left with the rise of figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden’s “sensible centre” position is looking more like that of right-wing Democrat. This could create difficulty for him in Congress with issues such as welfare and defence spending and healthcare,  even if the Democrats hold onto the House of Representatives and win control of the Senate.

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Observations of an ex pat: Cold war line up

We are heading for Cold War Two. Some say we are in it. Either way, it will touch every corner of the globe—as did its predecessor— as the main protagonists’ battle against each other for the hearts, minds, military assets, trade deals, access to resources, political influence and strategic positioning of third countries.

Cold War I was the US v. the Soviet Union. Post- World War Two Europe was the initial cockpit and Western Europe were America’s junior partners. China was the Soviets subordinate for several key years, but the inflated national egos of the two countries and their joint occupancy of the Eurasian land mass led to the inevitable falling out.

Cold War II is different. The focus is now Asia where communist China threatens to replace America as the hegemonic power. Russia is now China’s junior partner and has dropped several places on Washington’s worry list. It is economically stunted but remains a belligerent military giant, which means it should be of greater concern than currently rated by Washington.

The biggest difference between Cold Wars One and Two is that China has succeeded economically far beyond the dreams of the old Soviet Union. This has enabled Beijing to use soft trade power while accumulating cash to build hard military muscle and buy allies around the world.

With a few exceptions, Beijing is not having much luck winning support in Asia. After all, that is the region that they seek to dominate as the Soviet Union sought dominance in Europe. Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Australia are all solidly in the American camp.  Their only real regional allies are pariah-like North Korea and Russia.

But elsewhere in the world they have gained friends and influence through a combination of investment, trade, loans, grants and infrastructure development.  Africa’s abundant natural resources have been successfully targeted with some $60 billion of investment compared to $16 billion from the US.

In Latin America, the Chinese have stood alongside the Russians in backing Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, a move which has helped keep Trump from intervening in the troubled South American oil giant.  In Cuba, Beijing, has replaced the old Soviet Union as the island’s main economic support. Beijing took the unusual step of writing off a $6 billion debt and is now Havana’s biggest trading partner.

The rest of the Western Hemisphere is in the American camp. But Europe is being lured by Chinese cash and cheap manufactured goods. It is not as compliant as Washington expects or would like. The Greeks have sold Beijing a 51 percent stake in the strategic of Piraeus, thus giving the China’s Belt/Road Initiative a foothold in the Mediterranean.  In 2019 the Chinese market was worth about $200 billion a year to the EU. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the way in forging closer links with Beijing, visiting China 12 times in the past 14 years.

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Observations of an expat: Taiwan

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Forget about Hong Kong. The ex-British colony is a consolation prize for Beijing compared to the 23.6 million souls on Taiwan, or, to give it its claimed name, the Republic of China.

The Taiwanese have kept an eagle eye on political events in Hong Kong since before the 1997 handover. From the start they were sceptical about the Beijing’s talk of “two systems in one country” and pledges of peaceful reunification. Recent events in Hong Kong have confirmed their scepticism and is threatening to ignite a 71-year-old Asian powder keg which could all too easily lead to a Sino-American showdown.

The dispute dates back to 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek, leader of China’s Kuomintang government, fled across the Taiwan Straits a few months before Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party declared victory in the long-running Chinese Civil War. He took with him China’s gold reserves, American-backing, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a totally unrealistic claim to rule the 3.7 billion square miles of Mainland China from an offshore island of 13,980 square miles.

It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. In 1971 Taiwan lost its seat on the Security Council and the UN. In 1979 the US caved into the pressures of realpolitik and extended diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It maintained a de-facto embassy in the Taiwanese capital Taipei and pledged itself to the continued defense of the island, but in the eyes of Beijing and the rest of the world it was the de jure recognition that counted. Today there are only 15 countries (including the Vatican) that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

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Observations of an expat: The Thucydides Trap

Huawei, Hong Kong, Uighurs, the South China Sea, Chinese economic and military growth, “Kung Flu”, economic crisis, cyber-attacks, intellectual property theft, trade wars, sanctions, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping … are all combining to raise the spectre that the world is marching eyes wide open into the Thucydides Trap.

What, you may ask is the Thucydides Trap? It is a political/military term coined by American academic Graham Allison in 2012 to warn against the inevitability of war between China and America.

It was based on the work of the Greek historian Thucydides who explained that the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was the result of a growing power (Athens) rising to challenge the supremacy of the established power (Sparta) to such an extent that the only possible resolution was war.

The scenario has been used to explain the causes of several conflicts throughout history including World War One (Germany challenging Britain) and World War Two in Asia (Japan challenging the US).

Not all of the contests have resulted in an exchange of blows. The Soviet challenge was successfully contained at the Cold War stage. This was partly because of the nuclear-based Mexican stand-off and partly because the Soviet system failed to develop an economic model that challenged American supremacy.

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Observations of an expat: Marxist BLM

I was recently sent an article by the American columnist Charles Davenport in which he warned of anti-American Marxist infiltration of Black Lives Matter.

To be fair to Mr Davenport, he prefaced his criticism of BLM with a stiff condemnation of the death of George Floyd and racial discrimination in general.

But then he goes on to quote their leaders out of context and describe Black Lives Matter as

… an anti-American, often violent, collection of Marxists. Their contempt for capitalism is brazen, as is their disdain for law and order.

He is right and wrong. But more importantly, Mr Davenport fails to ask the all-important question: Why?

It is absolutely true that there are Marxists who support BLM. Some of them are in leadership positions. They are in a tiny minority. A recent opinion poll by the Pew Research Centre showed that 67 percent of the American population support Black Lives Matter. There is no way that 67 percent of Americans are Marxists.

Furthermore, there is an ongoing debate within the ivy-clad towers as to whether Marxism is more or less democratic. In fact, when Marx and Engels wrote their “Communist Manifesto” In1848 they implored the workers to revolt in order to establish a more democratic system that represented the rights of the wider working class rather than the narrow establishment of the day. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was added later and probably owes more to Lenin than Marx.

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Observations of an expat – Israeli memories revived

The ongoing debate over anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party plus Israel’s planned annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has revived old memories of a visit to Israel.

The year was 1976. I was invited as a guest of the Israeli government.

The reason for my invitation was that I was a young (27) American recently appointed diplomatic correspondent. The Israeli government regarded – with some justification – the bulk of the British foreign affairs writers as a pro-Arab write-off. But an American-born diplomatic correspondent at the heart of the British journalism establishment had the potential to be a real coup.

They were, in theory, right. Americans imbibe pro-Israel sentiments at their mother’s breast. This is probably the result of the Jewish lobby, Holocaust guilt, Biblical teachings, Israel’s democratic government in a sea of absolute monarchies and dictatorships and, finally, Israel’s geostrategic position in the oil-rich Middle East.

When I arrived in London, I, like most of my countrymen, was pro-Israeli. When I stepped off the plane at Tel Aviv I was still pro-Israeli. And for the next few days the Israelis worked hard to confirm my opinion. They set up interviews with Teddy Kollek, the charismatic mayor of Jerusalem, foreign minister Yigal Allon, scandalous Mandy Rice-Davies who had set up a couple of night clubs in Tel Aviv, and even organised a dinner date with the talented, beautiful and young prima ballerina of Israel’s state ballet company.

To make certain that I travelled safely from A to B the Israeli foreign office provided an air-conditioned limousine and a young Israeli diplomat to keep me out of trouble, answer questions and entertain me. He was charming – until about halfway through the trip.

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Observations of an expat: Start talks Start

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US-Russian talks started this week in Vienna between US and Russia to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) which expires in February.

Negotiators face massive obstacles – for lots of reasons.

For a start, Presidents Trump and Putin are fond of their nuclear toys. They have both effectively scrapped the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty and announced significant investment in new nuclear weapons.

Both men are keen on the more “bang for the buck” theory of nuclear war.

The other big reason the talks are headed for failure is the Trump Administration’s insistence that China is included in the negotiations. China’s nuclear arsenal is miniscule (300 warheads compared to an estimated 6,185 American and 6,800 Russian). But the Americans view the Chinese as the greater medium to long-term threat to American interests.

The French and British nuclear deterrents have been accounted for in the complex alphabet soup of Soviet-American nuclear weapons accords. But France and Britain are American allies. China and Russia are – at the moment – close – but not allied. The Chinese argue that if they are included then why not also India, Pakistan, Israel and possibly even Iran. This would, of course, turn negotiations into an incomprehensible farce as each country has a different strategic reason for its nuclear deterrent.

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Observations of an expat: Rooftop war

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The Chinese and the Indians are at it again. To be more precise the Chinese are at it. They are once again pushing at the disputed 2,100 mile Sino-Indian border.

This week 20 Indian soldiers died and tensions rose as Chinese soldiers attacked with sticks and stones. Tensions appear to have subsided – for now.

But why is a border high in the sparely-populated Himalayas of any interest to the rest of the world? For a start we are talking about the two most populous countries in the world. They are both nuclear powers. They have the largest and second largest conventional armies in the world.

There is also the problem that the headwaters of the strategic Indus River run through the disputed Ladakh Region.  The Chinese have become notorious for damming fast-moving Himalayan rivers for their hydroelectric power at the expense of downriver farmers and industrialists. Several southeast Asian nations will testify to the fact.

Ladakh also borders Tibet and has historic and cultural ties with the Buddhist country which is a constant thorn in Beijing’s side. Control of Ladakh would enable the Chinese to tighten their control over Lhasa. Pakistan could also be expected to exploit the situation to renew fighting in disputed Kashmir – now under Indian martial law.

China and India are world economic engines. A Sino-Indian War – especially in the midst of an economically disastrous pandemic – would join Brexit and American race wars in tipping the world into an even deeper economic abyss.

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Observations of an expat: A sad, bad history

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Queen Elizabeth I was appalled when she was told that Sir John Hawkins had gone into the slaving business. The venture “was detestable and would call down the vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers,” she said.

Then Hawkins showed her the accounts. The Queen immediately invested in his next slaving voyage. That pretty much sums up the English attitude towards slavery. It was “detestable.” But they held their noses because the trade made shedloads of money.

Slavery helped finance Britain’s industrial revolution and stately homes as well as providing the economic foundation stone of colonial America.

The British did not invent slavery. Historians estimate that 30  percent of the Roman Empire were slaves.  The difference is that the African slave trade was based on racial superiority which subsequent generations are still trying to shed.

The Portuguese were the first in modern times to deal in the African flesh. But by the end of the mid-fifteenth their Spanish neighbours had replaced them.  King Charles V insured Spanish dominance by selling the rights to a monopoly – the asiento – to provide African slaves to Spanish colonies.

If anyone other than the asentista tried to sell slaves in a Spanish colony the captain and crew could be tried as pirates. This did not stop  Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. The two men are better known for capturing Spanish treasure ships, circumnavigating the globe and saving England from the Spanish Armada. But they were also England’s first slave traders.

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