Author Archives: Tom Arms

Observations of an ex pat…Trumps immigration battle plan

Thank you Melania. Thank you Ivanka. Thank you also Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary for Homeland Security. Thank you for engineering a reversal of the inhumane policy that tore 2,842 children away from their immigrant parents.

No thanks for President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly or shadowy prince of darkness Stephen Miller. They were responsible for the heartless decree that turned vulnerable children into pawns in the president’s immigration battle.

The separation decree was in the making for well over a year.  John Kelly first publicly proposed it in May 2017.  Stephen Miller took up the baton with a vengeance. He has taken over from Steve Bannon as the ultra-nationalist, alt-right, anti-immigrant chief White House strategist with the ear of the president.

Miller has been whispering away: Immigration, immigration, immigration. That is the key to victory in the mid-term elections.

For President Trump immigration means Congressional funding for his “big beautiful wall”, laws to allow the speedy deportation of illegal immigrants and sweeping changes to legal immigration.  He is increasingly frustrated that that Congress has refused to cave in to his demands, especially as illegal immigration figures are climbing after a drop in 2017

In May the president launched a vicious and lengthy tirade against Homeland Security Chief Ms Nielsen in front of the entire cabinet. She, he said, was to blame for the rising immigration figures. Ms Nielsen sat there and took it on the chin, but according to sources, was close to quitting on the spot. She is reported to hate her job.

The much-maligned Attorney General Sessions saw an opportunity to weasel his way back into the presidential good books. On May 7th he told wannabe immigrants: “If you cross the border unlawfully then we will prosecute you…. If you are smuggling a child you then that child may be separated from you as required by law.”

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Observations of an ex pat: British shambles

What a shambles! Theresa May is clinging onto the north face of the parliamentary Eiger by her finger nails while Remainers bay for her blood on one slope and Brexiteers on the other.

The only thing keeping the prime minister on her increasingly precarious perch are behind-doors conflicting promises that must be kept secret because if they leaked Mrs May, the government, the conservative party and Brexit negotiations would tumble.

The Labour opposition, meanwhile can’t decide whether to oppose or join the government, and is, if anything, more divided than the Conservatives. Anti-European Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn instructed his MPs to abstain in key amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill—the essential piece of legislation needed to take Britain out of the EU.

In an unprecedented party revolt, six members of Corbyn’s front bench resigned to vote their conscience and a total of 90 Labour MPs ignored their leader’s instructions. Rebel Hilary Benn said: “There comes a point when we have to stand up and be counted.”

Then there is the Scottish National Party. Parliament allowed only 15 minutes to debate the government’s plans to take control from Brussels of legislation related to Scottish fisheries and environment  instead of devolving them back to the Scottish Parliament. The SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, was expelled for refusing to sit down and shut up. The other 55 SNP members of parliament walked out with him and a ton of grist was poured into the Scottish independence mill.

Why is there such a chaos in the Mother of Parliaments? Is it because of Mrs May’s paper-thin majority? Is it because of Corbyn’s spinelessness on the overarching issue of Brexit?

No. It is because the Brexit policy is built on a false premise. It is a sandcastle built in a thunderstorm by political figures wearing nostalgia-tinted spectacles.

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Observations of an ex pat: Too much of a good thing

Too much of a good thing is bad for you. That’s what my mother always told me. Her pronouncement was echoed by my father, teacher, doctor….

That appears to be the case for environmentally-friendly green technology. I mean, how can you go wrong with windmills, solar panels, tidal power and pedal power? They are the good, politically correct thing.

Well, according to a report recently published by Cambridge University, green technology could cost the world economy up to $4 trillion by 2035. This, is of course, grist for the mill of the climate change denial lobby—until you examine the fine print. The cost is the poorly planned transition from non-renewable to renewable energy.

The reasons for the potential problem are manifold: It is costing more and more to extract fossil fuels from the earth; the additional extraction cost requires time and heavy investment; green energy technology also requires investment and time before it can come fully on stream; and the transition between the switch over from fossil fuel to environmentally-friendly energy production will be very expensive.

The countries that will hurt hardest will be the ones who currently benefitting the most from recently increased fossil fuel production—the US, Russia and Canada.

Canada and the US, especially, are now heavily into shale oil production. The US invested $22 billion from private equity sources alone in the US shale oil business in the first three months of 2018. Oil production is this year set to reach a record high of 9.7 million barrels a day. American investment in green energy was about half of the money put into fossil fuels.

According to the International Energy Agency, the world invested around $700bn in oil, gas and coal in 2016. China is leading the way in investment in renewable energy. It is still building coal-fired power stations, but in 2017, according to Bloomberg, it poured $132.6 billion into green energy resources. This was more than twice the investment of the US and EU combined and half the world total invested in renewable energy.

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Observations of an ex pat: Divorce settlement

It was the marriage of the century. John Bull and Europa were tying the knot. After hundreds of years of on/off romances and on/off tiffs, the two rivals had decided they were both better off as one household rather than as two feuding neighbours.

Let’s be honest, JB was the more reluctant of the two. For centuries he had been top dog, with conquests right across the globe. He didn’t just have a girl in every port, he owned the ports and the hinterlands beyond.

Unfortunately two successive wars with Europa’s close relative Herr Hun had cost him dearly. JB could no longer afford to maintain his worldwide harem, many of whom were tiring of his attentions anyway.

So, he jumped into the marital bed with Europa who had come up with the novel idea of stopping feuds between her troublesome family members by making them economically interdependent. Admitting JB to the select circle with a marriage contract was the coup de grace of years of complex wooing and negotiation.

For awhile everything went swimmingly. There was a definite honeymoon period. But some of JB’s family were unhappy about the nuptials. Their heads told them that the family business could do better linked to Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and Rome. But their hearts yearned to be sailing across the high seas, sledging through the Canadian Arctic or slashing their way through the jungles of Africa and South Asia.

They started a whispering campaign against the marriage in general and Europa in particular. She was greedy, corrupt, dictatorial, domineering, overpowering, undemocratic and, most of all, not British. The whispers grew to a debate. The debate grew to a row and finally John Bull decided to call the family together for a vote on whether or not to sue for divorce. There was a fierce campaign of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies and finally the family voted by a narrow majority for divorce.

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Observations of an ex pat…Told you so

It is so satisfying to say: “I told you so.”  It is also very annoying. It is, however, one of my life goals to be as annoying as possible to President Donald Trump and his misguided followers.

Being honest, however, I must admit that I am voicing the four-word  admonition  early in the Korean diplomatic ballet. This leaves me vulnerable to a devastating return volley of “I told you so’s” from the legion of Trump supporters.

I am willing to risk it.

It is no surprise that the Trump-Kim summit scheduled for Singapore in June is likely to be postponed indefinitely.  The White House is trying to rescue it. They may succeed. It is unlikely. The proposed summit was a poorly executed rush job. It raised unreasonable expectations for the American and world public . Its probable failure may have saved the Nobel Peace Prize committee from a difficult and embarrassing decision.

There are several reasons for the indefinite postponement: Lack of input from professional American diplomats; administration job changes;  US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Accord; lack of pre-summit diplomacy; diplomatic semantics; continuing US-South Korean military manoeuvres and the personalities involved.

Staffing levels at the US State Department have been cut by almost a third. Many of its senior posts remain unfilled.  It is only this week—16 months after his inauguration—that Donald Trump has nominated someone to fill the important post of ambassador to South Korea.

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Observations of an ex pat: Media attack

The press is under attack. It is accused of disseminating fake news, invasion of privacy, distortions, half-truths and conspiracy theories. Journalists are demonised, denigrated, locked up and even murdered.

The media has always faced such problems. Power brokers pay lip service to press freedom but are, at best, reluctant supporters.  In rare rational moments they  acknowledge its value. But they throw up barriers  the moment  the media spotlight shines on their unsavoury activities.

The press has always managed to see off such opposition because the courts were behind it, and because its operations were based on sound commercial foundations.  The former is still true, but changing in countries where populist governments are twisting the law. The latter is definitely no longer the case.  The media’s commercial base is rapidly eroding and public interest is suffering as a result.

For three centuries the press prospered, and it is no coincidence that those same three centuries saw the fastest growth and the greatest advances in science, technology and political thought in the history of mankind. Newspapers and magazines have been a channel through which flowed world-changing ideas and information.

By the turn of the twentieth century every city in the world had at least one newspaper. Commercial restrictions were dictated largely by geography and technology. General circulation of the  New York Times and Washington Post were limited to a radius of about 100 miles from their respective printing plants because that was how far the newspaper lorries could drive in the time available. The British London papers did not achieve a national reach until the development of the railways.

Market forces dictated that the editorial content reflected the varied interests of the readers in the respective geographic areas. New Yorkers read about events in New York with a focus on the business and financial world.  The Washington Post was the paper to read for American government happenings. The national distribution of the London newspapers were different. They pointed the way to a readership base based on ideology rather than geography.

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Observations of an ex pat: Iranian ripples

Donald Trump has dropped a massive boulder in the world’s diplomatic pond. Its ripples will be felt in every corner of the globe and in some cases the ripples could quickly grow  to tsunami proportions.

Let’s start with the epicentre– the Middle East. The region is already peppered with smouldering short fuses: The Arab-Israeli conflict; Syrian civil war; Yemeni civil war; Turks v. Kurd; Qataris v Saudis and Emirates; Saudis v. Iran; The Russian presence; threatened American withdrawal; Hezbollah… .

The Iran Nuclear Accord (aka Joint Consultative Plan of Action) was one of the region’s few diplomatic success stories—albeit a limited one.

Since President Trump announced American withdrawal from the Accord, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini has announced that his country will resume work on building a nuclear weapon.

In return, Israel has bombed an Iranian base outside Damascus; announced the preparation of bomb shelters; called up reservists for air defence, intelligence and home front command units and deployed missile defence batteries in Northern Israel.

Iran’s Army Chief of Staff, Major General Mohamed Bagheri, warned: “If the enemy casts a covetous eye on our interests or conducts even a slight act of aggression, the Islamic Republic will give an appropriate response at an appropriate time.”

Back in Washington they are celebrating. Not the problems in the Middle East, but the release of three American citizens from North Korean prison.  President Trump hailed the release as a diplomatic triumph for his administration and the best of auguries for his forthcoming summit with Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-un.

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Observations of an ex pat: Death around the world

What makes us human? When do we cease to become human? Or, to put it another way, when do we die?

The questions are becoming an increasingly important as cases such as Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard grab the headlines and pull at the world’s collective heartstrings.

Fifty years ago a group of scientists gathered at Harvard Medical School to discuss the issue. Up until then it hadn’t been an issue. If your heart stopped beating and your lungs stopped breathing, you were dead. But then along came modern science with its ventilators and heart pumps.

So the Harvard scientists asked the question: What makes humans unique? What organ of the body differentiates us from other forms of life and without it, we would cease to exist. The answer they came up with was the brain.

On the basis of that meeting, the US Congress passed the 1981 Uniform Death Act which said doctors could declare a person dead when the brain was deemed to have suffered irreversible and permanent damage.  The individual states followed suit (with variations on the theme) as did most Western countries.

By 1968 the need for a definition of death had become increasingly necessary. Insurance companies demanded to know how long they would be liable for the medical bills. Doctors wanted to know when they could harvest organs for transplant purposes.  The victims’ families demanded reassurance that their loved ones would not be declared prematurely dead so that their organs could be harvested.  When was a person widowed? When should life insurance be paid?

So brain death became the marker for when doctors  signed the necessary paperwork. But there were exceptions.  Orthodox Jews and Muslims believe that a person does not die until the heart and lungs stop and argue that doctors attempts to declare their loved ones brain dead is a denial of their right of freedom of religion. This is recognised by the state of New Jersey, Israel, and the Islamic world but leads to court cases elsewhere. 

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Observations of an ex pat: Fettered press

It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution. It has been British Common law since 1688. It is a key element in the 1953 European Convention of Human Rights and the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. It is Article Two of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Part of the UN Charter.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech is—allegedly—chiselled in stone in almost every constitution in the world with the exceptions of self-recognised authoritarian states such as China, North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

But according to the 2018 Press Freedom Index,released this week, this near universal commitment is observed more in the breach than the observance, and the breaches are occurring more often and—increasingly—in countries  regarded as members of the democratic club.

Let’s start with the leader of the“The Free World”—the United States.  America has fallen two places to 45th in the press freedom index. Reporters Without Borders, who produce the index, places the blame firmly at the door of the White House.  What do you expect when the president emulates Stalin by referring to reporters as “enemies of the people?”

The EU—bastion of liberal democracy– is meant to be a democratic club. Support for democracy and a commitment to principles such as a free press are pre-conditions for membership. If a government backslides it faces fines, suspension of voting rights and—in extremis—expulsion from club membership.

But these deterrents have failed to stop  an increasing number of EU governments. In Hungary (down two places to 73), Prime Minister Viktor Orban has accused Hungarian-born  billionaire philanthropist George Soros of supporting independent media outlets in order to “discredit” Hungary in the international public’s eyes. Orban has branded him public enemy Number One.

In Austria, the leader of the far-right populist FPO party accused the public radio and TV broadcaster ÖRF of spreading lies. In Spain (down two at 31), the October independence referendum in Catalonia has resulted in government-fuelled harassment of pro-independence journalists.

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Observations of an ex pat: The Commonwealth

Ten years ago a Commonwealth-wide poll revealed that support for the political descendant of the British Empire was highest among the developing countries.

Not surprising, they had the most to gain from aid and trade. Support from the developed Commonwealth countries was half of that of the developing world. Britain was at the bottom.

That is changing. Brexiteers have conveniently rediscovered their imperial roots and are now pushing for a revival of the Commonwealth as a replacement for lost European markets. It is, after all, the home for a third of the world’s population and a total GDP of $17 trillion. This may seem like a lot until you compared it to the $60 trillion GDP of the EU.

Nevertheless, the British government gas rolled outLondon’s red carpet for this week’s biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—usually referred to by the inelegant acronym CHOGM.

But the Brexiteers will find that the former colonies may be reluctant to jump back onto the British wagon.   They have long memories. Many still lodge bitter resentment  at being left in the lurch when Britain was lured away by the siren call of Brussels.

All of the countries have adjusted to a life without Commonwealth trade preferences. Canada has increased its business with the United States. Australia and New Zealand are now focused on China, Japan and other Asian countries. Singapore has become a Far Eastern entrepot. The developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific have gained access to EU aid and trade.

As one Commonwealth head of government told me: “When the British want us we are expected to jump. When we want them they are too busy to bother.”

Trade will not be the only issue on the table. Climate change, Syria, plastic pollution, cyber security and the election of a new titular head are all on the agenda.

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Observations of an ex pat: Perfect Storm

The world appears to be heading for a perfect storm.  It just needs a catalyst to blow it onshore or—hopefully—a change in the political winds to divert it.

The storm is being driven by the forces of nationalism, historic conflicts, a sense of justice and injustice, and the absence of a coherent diplomatic strategy. It is fed by ill-judged rhetorical bluster which creates political hostages to fortune.

The United States – almost certainly in conjunction with the two biggest European military powers Britain and France—is on the brink of responding to the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed Assad regime. (Editor’s note: This was written before the attacks overnight but due to technical issues is only just being uploaded now.)

Russia has vetoed all attempts to resolve this repeated atrocity through the United Nations.

Moscow has warned that if Western forces attempt to bomb Syrian air bases, ground forces, or chemical weapons depots than it will shoot down any missiles involved in the attack. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, ominously added:” If there is a strike by the Americans, then…the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,”

If there is a Russia attack on an American destroyer or submarine or the British sovereign airbase inCyprus… well, then the storm will have hit.

This approaching disaster did not materialise overnight in a vacuum. It has been brewing for years. Obama’s foreign policy was weak, especially in Syria where hisinfamous Red Line exposed an unwillingness or inability to act decisively.

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Observations of an ex pat: Russian spy evidence again and again and…

It is time to look at the evidence a second time, and then a third, fourth and a fifth.

A large and important slice of the world’s governments—led by the British—have inflicted severe diplomatic damage on the Russians because of the British allegation that Moscow attempted to murder a Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil with the nerve agent Novichok.

The Conservative government of Theresa May is utterly convinced that Putin’s Moscow is behind the attack. It persuaded 24 other countries – and NATO headquarters—of the veracity of their case to the extent that they have all joined in expelling Russian diplomats.

But they have failed to persuade Opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn or Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot. The Socialist duo recently leapt on a slip by error prone Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to revive the reasonable doubt alternative.

The slip involves the investigations by Britain’s Porton Down Chemical Weapons Establishment which identified the nerve agent used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The chief executive of Porton Down, Gary Aitkenhead, told Sky News : “We have not verified the precise source” of the nerve agent.  This contradicts Boris Johnson’s interview with a German journalist in which he said that Porton Down had unequivocally identified the source as Russian.

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Observations of an ex pat: Facebook faces the music

Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

It also has an unstated mission: To make a shedload of money.

It is incredibly successful at both.

There are 2.2 billion active Facebook users.  Mark Zuckerberg is worth $67.7 billion.

But the rest of society is discovering that there is a price to be paid in invasion of privacy and erosion of political liberties.

The problem is that the posted holiday snaps, political opinions and declarations of love don’t belong to you.  They belong to Facebook who run the data through clever algorithms  to work out just what you are likely to want to buy. They sell that analysis to advertisers who use the information to micro-target consumers on Facebook.

No longer do advertisers have to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a page in a glossy magazine to reach 200,000 users of which possibly only two percent will be interested in their product. They now pay a fraction of the old price to reach 200,000 Facebook users whose information  that they entered on their  Facebook page reveals them as a prime target.

What is wrong with that? Advertisers reach a highly targeted international market which opens the possibility of global trade  while consumers are offered the opportunity to buy the sort of goods and services they want at the best possible price.

That must be a good thing. Yes it is. Unfortunately it does not stop there.

Enter Cambridge academic Professor Aleksandr Koga and Cambridge-based digital analytical firm Cambridge Analytica. Dr Koga, a psychology professor who invented an app which extracted information on 250,000 Facebook users AND all of their connections—a total of 50,000,000 Facebook users. He said he wanted the information to produce psychological profiles.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump and the Korean Swamp

Hey, hey, hey, Donald Trump is off to Pyongyang. Or is it Beijing, Moscow or Seoul?

Anyway, that is not important. What is important is that he will before the end of May hold summit talks with North Korea’s Kim (rocket man) Jong-un to secure the disarming of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. The master of the art of the deal will negotiate peace in our time.

Maybe. More Likely, maybe not. Donald Trump has failed to master the dark arts of diplomatic negotiation. And he refuses to accept that discussions between governments require a different perspective and skill set than those practised by New York real estate moguls.

It is quite possible to read about a potential acquisition in the morning; walk into a boardroom in the afternoon; and walk out in the evening with the title deeds to a skyscraper.  Saving the world from the threat of nuclear annihilation is more complex.

There is a set procedure which involves months of careful preparations by diplomats who are experts in their field. These diplomats go by the nickname of “Sherpas” because their job is to prepare the way for the meeting of heads of government at “The Summit”. By the time  country leaders walk into the grand chamber, every ‘I’ has been dotted and ‘t’ crossed.  The only thing left for the political leaders is to sign the documents, shake hands, smile for the cameras and take all the credit.

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Observations of an ex pat: America Direct

Trump’s threatened tariffs are not part and parcel of an America First Policy
They are part of an America Directs Policy. Or, even better, an America Dictates Policy.

Many would say that such a policy is no more than a continuation of a reality that has existed since 1945. They have a point. But at least it was nominally linked to a morality-based system.

Trump’s policies are tied to vengeance and greed. We are tired, he bleats, at being taken advantage of. The rest of the world has been laughing at us for too long. So, he is going to tell the world what it must do.

This is clear not just from the threatened tariffs on steel and aluminium. It is becoming all too obvious from NAFTA negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the backroom free trade talks between Britain and America.

Trump appears to be coming to the reluctant realisation that pulling out of the Trans Pacific Pacific Partnership may not be the unmitigated wonderful thing that he thought it was. He thought the TPP would fall apart without America and he could pick off the individual former members with a series of bilateral deals. He was wrong.

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Observations of an ex pat: Disappearing water

Water, water… Where? Certainly not everywhere. Not anymore. The essential ingredient to life is becoming a disappearing and fought over commodity.

Nowhere is this more obvious at the moment  than in relations between Egypt and Ethiopia over rights to the historic Nile.

Since the dawn of civilisation, the waters of the Blue and White Nile have joined at Khartoum to form the Nile River—the only source of fresh water along its 1,600-mile journey through the desert  to the Mediterranean.

Egyptian civilisation grew out of the Nile more than 3,000 years ago. It is the reason that Egypt can continue to support its fast growing population of 100 million. But only just.  The UN predicts that the combined pressures of a growing population, rising sea levels and industrial pollution will result in severe water shortages by 2025.

And that is without the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which is due to open later this year.  GERD–as it is known in Ethiopia– will span the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan. It will cost $5 billion, every penny paid by the Ethiopian government. The dam will power a hydroelectricity plant expected to treble the country’s electricity output. Ethiopia will be transformed from a country supplying electricity to only 25 percent of its 75 million citizens into the powerhouse of East Africa.

But what about Egypt? The Ethiopians claim that the dam will have zero impact on water levels flowing through Egypt. But According to the Geological Society of America,  the dam will reduce by at least 25 percent the flow of water through the land of the Pharaohs . Eighty-five percent of the Nile waters originate in Ethiopia.

The Egyptians have, unsurprisingly, complained loudly and at great length. In 2013 former President Mohamed Morsi threatened war.

From the Ethiopian, point of view, GERD has become more than a giant economic benefit. It is now an issue of intense national pride, similar to that felt by the Egyptian public over the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Observations of an ex pat: Gun crime in America

The answer to American gun crime is…. More guns

At least according to Donald Trump and the NRA. In the wake of the Parkland Florida shooting they want  teachers to carry guns.  But why stop there? America’s clergymen – and women—could strap on shoulder holsters.

How about scout leaders? They would look really macho with a pair of pearl-handlers dangling from their hips.

Trump’s latest daft answer to a problem is unsurprising. Every time he faces a problem involving force his knee-jerk reaction is to respond with more force or—at the very least—the threat of more force. North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, ISIS and now gun crime. Such a reaction does not solve the problem, it only insures that it keeps spiralling downwards, which is why the National Rifle Association was an early advocate of gun control in America.

The year was 1934 when the US federal government moved to ban the gangland weapon of choice—the sawn off shotgun.  Karl Frederick, who was then president of the NRA, was called upon to testify. He told a congressional hearing: “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. … I do not believe in the general promiscuousness of the toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

NRA support was crucial in the passage of the first gun control law. But, as you would expect, the law was challenged by gun enthusiasts citing the Second Amendment.  The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where, in 1938, it was upheld.

The Justices said that ownership of guns was protected only in the context of the need to maintain “a well regulated militia.” The Founding Fathers did not mean it to be a catch-all right for every individual.

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Observations of an ex pat: Balking at the Balkans

t was a “little difficulty in the Balkans” in the summer of 1914 that resulted in the deaths of 16 million European soldiers by November 1918.

It was the break-up of the Yugoslav federation that led to a Balkan civil war from 1991 until the turn of the millennium  that caused 140,000 deaths and 4.4 million refugees and internally displaced people.

Two very good lessons from history to encourage the European Union to welcome the six Balkan states—Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia– to join the European club.

The EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner, Federica Morgherini, has for over a year been commuting between Brussels and the Balkans negotiating accession. Next Sunday European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sets off on a six-day tour to finalise details for the Balkan states to start on the road to full EU membership by 2025.  In May the EU heads of government special summit in Sofia is expected to act as a rubber stamp.

For Brussels the goal is political stability on its southeastern border, and a block on Russian and Chinese expansion.  But there is an economic and political price to pay. This was underscored by Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, when he warned: “The EU must not repeat mistakes of the past.”

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Observation of an ex pat: Money scales

Global economics is a balancing act.

If one side of the scales moves up, the other side goes down.

This truism was well-demonstrated by the recent volatility in the world’s stock markets.

Only a few weeks ago the IMF forecast the best year for economic growth in ten years—3.9 percent.

Two weeks later world stock markets plunged. They recovered but left a crowd of nervous investors in their wake.  The markets are concerned with profits and it is one of life;s economic ironies that growth can hit profits.

The drop started in New York. This is logical because an unpredictable president should lead to a volatile market. Donald Trump’s economic policies have in the short term, at least, been a success. American unemployment is now down to 4.1 percent. And growth is up to 2.6 percent.

Full employment is reckoned to be 5 percent of the labour market. Below that and economists reckon you need to import workers in order to maintain growth. Trump’s immigration policies are doing the opposite. If the country’s does not import workers than the law of supply and demand will push up wages, which is exactly what is happening.

Higher wages means higher corporate costs which means less profits which is reflected in the share prices.

This is why when the markets opened in Asia they plunged even further and faster—five percent down compared to  4.8 percent in the US. Unemployment in Japan is 2.8 percent, China 3.1 percent and South Korea 3.3 percent.

It also helps to explain why the European markets dropped less than 2 percent later in the day. Unemployment in the Eurozone is 8.7 percent.

There were some other items that caused the scales to tip. Wage inflation fuels general inflation which the central banks usually correct by increasing interest rates. These have been at record lows. In Japan investors in treasury bonds receive only 0.07 percent  interest.  All the central banks have said rates are going up.

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Observations of an ex pat: Let’s talk

It’s time to talk. And the Liberal Democrats should publicly say so.

Nuclear weapons, cyber weapons, drones, robots and rogue nuclear states have combined to move the Doomsday clock to two minutes before midnight.

The last time it was this close to Armageddon was January 1953. Stalin was still in the Kremlin. The Korean War was raging and General MacArthur was pressing for a nuclear attack on China. The Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949. The Americans exploded their first hydrogen bomb in 1952. Anti-communist witch hunter Senator Joe McCarthy was at the height of his powers, Post war Western Europe was struggling to rise to its knees and the Soviet thumb was busily screwing down Eastern Europe.

The international situation was bad. In 2018—say the committee that moves the hands of the Doomsday clock—it is as bad as the worst it has ever been.

And yet, despite the fear that is creeping into global diplomatic relations, very little is being done to encourage negotiations designed to push the minute hand away from midnight. We have become so obsessed with issues such as immigration, sovereignty and economic growth that we have lost sight of the dangers that threaten to obliterate any political and economic gains.

The dangers are as great now as in 1953 because the weaponry is more frightening and the threats are politically more complex and multipolar. In 1953 it was Moscow v. Washington. In 2018 it is Washington v. Beijing, Moscow v. Washington,  Washington v. Tehran, China v. India, Israel v. Iran and the Arab world, North Korea v. Washington, Pakistan v. India, Russia v the EU. Kegs of nuclear gunpowder are scattered across the globe just waiting for the spark to blow us all to kingdom come.

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Observations of an ex pat: Whataboutery

I have discovered a new word—Whataboutery. I would like to claim that I coined it. But that would be a lie. It is in the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary which says the word has been around since the 1970s.  I just missed it.

However, it is missing from the pages of America’s premier lexicon Webster’s. So perhaps I can claim the credit for introducing it into the American vocabulary.

All that is by the by, the real issue is what is it about whataboutery that has struck my fancy and what is its definition.

The OED defines whataboutery as follows: “The technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”

If you want to use it in a sentence you could say: “All too often, well-intentioned debate descends into whataboutery.”

There is even a useful ism synonym—Whataboutism.

Both words are very close to the well-known morality phrase: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” This is a sentence I heard from mother throughout my childhood. It was uttered every time  I tried to justify a usually nefarious action by whining: Johnny’s,/Sam’s/Joe’s…(fill in the blank) mother let them…(fill in another blank)”

I never got away with it. But it seems that all too often politicians are being allowed to get away with sentences that start with “Whatabout”—and they are supposed to responsible, respected, adult leaders. It just doesn’t seem fair.

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Observations of an ex pat: Nuclear madness

MAD was the big acronym during the Cold War. For those who cannot remember, it stood for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The thinking behind the terrifying term was that the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers—America and the Soviet Union—would be maintained at such a level that neither could risk striking first for fear that the other power would be left with enough weaponry to launch a retaliatory strike that would leave planet Earth an irradiated cinder block.

It worked. Earth is still green and blue

But the political landscape has changed and is changing. There are new players and new threats. This would seem to indicate the need for a new strategy. All the reports are that this new strategy will be unveiled in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be published next month with the term “low-yield” nuclear weapons entering the defence lexicon.

So what is different? Well for a start Moscow and Washington are not the only two countries with nuclear weapons. Throughout most of the Cold War France and Britain were also armed but their arsenals—especially Britain’s—was closely tied to America’s. China joined the club in 1964 and the basic structure of the East V West stand-off was established.

There were also regional nuclear powers. Israel is incredibly tight-lipped about its capabilities, but most experts agree that it has had the bomb since 1966, and its arsenal currently stands at about 80 warheads.  The weapons, however, are clearly meant to be a deterrent against an overwhelming conventional attack from hostile Arab neighbours. Nowadays they are also concerned about a nuclear attack from Iran.

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Observations of an ex pat: Moldova

Keep your eye on Moldova. It could be the cause of the next Ukrainian-style flare-up between Russia and the West.

A bit of background for those who have never heard of Moldova. It is sandwiched between Romania and southwestern Ukraine. It is the poorest country in Europe; ranks 103 out of 168 on Transparency International’s corruption scale; is bitterly divided between pro-Russian and pro-Romanian factions; and Russia has troops in a narrow strip of land on the eastern border which has declared itself independent.

Over 80 percent of the country speaks Romanian. They two countries also share common traditions and even the same name for their respective currencies—the leu. During the interwar years a big chunk of Moldova was actually part of Romania.  After the war it was part of the Soviet Union. In fact, impoverished, landlocked Moldova has over the centuries bounced back and forth between Romania, Russia and the Ottoman Empires.

The Romanians and Russians have especially left their mark—and peoples—behind. The Russians settled a large community on the banks of the Dniester River on the Eastern border. They are the largest ethnic group in an area generally referred to as Transnistria, although it has also gone by the name of Bessarabia and the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic of Transnistria.

When the Soviet Union collapsed  in 1991, Moldova—all of Moldova—declared itself an independent republic. The Russians in Transnistria were unhappy about this. The result was a civil war with the Russian support for the Transnistrians.

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Observations of an ex pat: Tectonic shifts

The Earth is constantly changing. There are something like 15 plates which comprise the Earth’s crust or mantle and they are forever moving towards and away from each other. Geologists call the movements tectonic shifts, and sometimes they cause massive earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

The geological shifts are mirrored in politics. Presidents, prime ministers, governments and countries move to the right and the left. They change alliances and sometimes disappear altogether.

Earthquakes are difficult to predict. The same can be said of tectonic political shifts. In one case we are dealing with nature with all its unknown variables. In the other we are dealing with equally unpredictable human nature.

The political world at the moment is going through one of its shifts. It is a shift which involves the rise of new powers, ideas, concepts, and resources and the decline of their older counterparts in different parts of the world. Just as with an earthquake, or volcanic eruption, these are likely to be disruptive at best and wreak death and destruction at worst.

Fifty years ago the world was locked in a Cold War between two powers—the United States and the Soviet Union—representing two separate and distinct political ideologies. Most of the rest of the world either voluntarily or involuntarily sided with one power or another.

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Observations of an ex pat: 2018

It won’t improve. The world is in a mess. The economy is a bright spot, but politically there is turmoil in every which direction.

Only a fool would offer predictions, but it is worth nothing some of the big events and issues for 2018 that could prove to be important catalysts and platforms.

Catalonia: The unilateral independence referendum declared in favour of independence from Spain. The Madrid-approved election also declared in favour of independence. Now it is up to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to make concessions that will prevent his country’s break-up.

It won’t be easy. Rajoy is a dyed-in-the-wool federalist. It was …

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Observations of an ex pat: Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

To start with I would like a new pair of cufflinks (nothing too flashy), a kindle, a good thriller read and the time to read it.

Then there a few other items which I don’t usually place on my Christmas list.

For a start do you think you could work on some magic dust. I know you know how to make it. It’s magic dust that makes your reindeer fly.

So could you just make some dust to scatter while flying around  through the night sky which would restore a veneer of civilisation to the world. Something that would remove the perpetual scowls and angry body language of presidents—and lots of lots of other people. Something that makes them at least look as if they are searching for a solution rather than a fight.

By the way, do you ever take back presents? You know, if the boy or girl has misused them or doesn’t play properly? If so, would you please collect all the megaphones that you handed out to politicians a couple of Christmases ago. Oh, and while you are it, could you remove the cotton from their ears.

At the moment opposing politicians spend  too much time shouting at each other through giant bullhorns while the cotton wool—plus their uncivilised behaviour—prevents  them from listening and discussing.  

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Observations of an ex pat: Adventures in Israel

A long time ago—back in 1977—I was invited to Israel as a guest of the Israeli government.

At the time I was the diplomatic correspondent of a large chain of British newspapers, and, despite the Balfour Declaration, the British press was not known for a pro-Israeli stance.

Their reporters seemed more attracted more to the wild open spaces and the vast starlit skies of Arabia than the Biblical lands.

I, however, am an American, and had absorbed a pro-Israeli stance through osmosis. The Arabs were in bed with the Reds and the plucky democratic Israelis had seen off repeated attempts to push them into the Med.

When I visited everyone was still arguing about the outcome of the 1967 War in which the Israelis managed to secure the rest of Jerusalem and, the West Bank of the Jordan and the Golan Heights in just six days. It was a triumph and the poster of the year in America was of a weedy-looking Hasidic Jew bursting out of a public phone box while tearing off his Black coat to reveal a superman costume.

But ten years later the world was demanding that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. No, said Israel. We need “defensible borders.” That was the diplomatic mantra: “defensible borders , defensible borders.”

I arrived in the heat of the summer but waiting for me was an air conditioned limousine, a driver and a young Israeli from the foreign ministry. I was his first diplomatic assignment.

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Observations of an ex pat: Wounded Special Relationship

Donald Trump has just shot the special relationship in the foot.

It will recover. The special relationship between the US and Britain does not rely on one president, one prime minister or even one monarch. They are all relatively ephemeral influences in a relationship based on centuries old links involving a common legal foundation, a common language (almost), cultural and family ties, and common philosophical roots.

But the hole in the foot hurts. It means that the relationship will now limp along at a time when frighteningly unstable events on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world demands the normal good steady stride.

So what did Trump do and—more importantly– why? Well, for those who have just emerged from a spelunking trip, the president has been tweeting again, or, to be more precise, retweeting.

This time President Trump retweeted a video from Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the far-right Britain First Party/movement.  The video purported to show the violent activities of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Its clear purpose was to support the movement’s racist, hate-filled, anti-Islamic, anti-immigration message.

Setting aside the morality of such a goal, the videos had virtually no basis in fact. They were the fakest of the fake news that Trump loves to attack. But this did not bother the president  or  his spokesperson Sarah Huckabee who dismissed the credibility issue. It’s the threat that counts, she said, and the threat is real.

Threats, like medical diagnoses, must be based on hard facts. If a doctor makes the wrong diagnosis then the prescribed treatment will be wrong and the patient will die. If a politician—especially the president of the United States—makes his decision on false information then the resultant actions will cost lives.

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Observations of an ex pat: The Middle East explained

The Cold War-like conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is simmering quite nicely—and, like most Middle East problems, threatening to boil over. The roots, the causes, the issues and the problems are all part of that complex Middle East tapestry which closely resembles Churchill’s riddle wrapped in an enigma and perpetually shrouded in the shifting sands of Arabia.

But I will attempt to provide a guide on today’s state of play.

The Sunnis hate the Shias.

The Shias hate the Sunnis

The problem is a 1,382-year-old dispute over the religious line of succession

Iran is the dominant Shia power

Saudi Arabia is the dominant Sunni power.

Almost all the other countries line up behind either Iran or Saudi Arabia, although some try to take a middle route. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult as tensions rise.

The latest problems started with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and his replacement by a Shi-ite theocracy.

Another exacerbating factor was the demise of Iraq’s secular—but still Sunni– leader Saddam Hussein who has been replaced by a pro-Iranian Shia leadership in Iraq.

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Observations of an ex pat: Pressure cooker politics

Recent events in Zimbabwe have underscored the fragility, failings and dangers of unrepresentative government and the absence of the rule of law exercised by an independent judiciary.

Note the use of term “representative government” and “rule of law”.

Democracy is a much overworked term which is mainly used to describe the American and British political models. The existence of hundreds of different nationalities dictates that each nationality must find a form of representative government that suits its particular needs, history and culture.

But it must be representative, because as Zimbabwe has so accurately demonstrated, the problem with dictatorships is that they attract corruption, repression and failure.

Such governments succeed for a limited time as the governed compare the rulers to the incompetence of their predecessors. But gradually the misdeeds of the new dictator mount and are added to an increasingly explosive recipe. The dictator attempts to stay in power by repressing dissent and screwing down the lid on the simmering discontent.

But the issues feeding the discontent refuse to go away. Because of the repression they simmer all the more violently in a pressure cooker political environment  without the escape valve of a representative system through which legitimate discontent can be expressed.

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