Author Archives: Tom Arms

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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An Ostrich Prepares to Lash Out

Every week I do an hour long programme for American radio. The purpose is to try to explain what the rest of the world is thinking about America and what is happening in the world which should be of interest to Americans.

The format takes the form of a discussion between myself—an avowed liberal expat—and an old school friend, Lockwood Phillips, who is a staunch Trump supporter. Not surprisingly, the mix leads to some lively discussions. This week was especially so.

Actually, it was the off-air discourse that was at times off-colour and even more interesting was the exchange of emails …

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Observations of an expat: The end of Trump?

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It has been a bad June for President Donald Trump – and the month has just begun.

The death of African-American George Floyd at the hands (or, if you prefer, knee) of a Minneapolis policeman has sparked demonstrations and riots across America and the wider world.

The president’s plan to wrap his proposed military clampdown in a religious cloak badly backfired when he was condemned by mainstream American religious leaders for using the Bible as a political prop.

It looks as if the president is about to lose another Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper. And his first and most popular Defence Secretary, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis has finally ended his long self-imposed silence and denounced Trump as “divisive”, “immature” and “incompetent”.

But it gets better, or worse if you are Trump or one of his supporters. The president’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation has met with universal condemnation from world leaders. They largely accept the American premise that China delayed passing on vital information about coronavirus, but reject Trump’s sinophobic and UNphobic assertion that the WHO colluded with Beijing.

Then there is the forthcoming G7 summit which Trump wants to expand to re-admit Russia and include India, South Korea and Brazil. Basically he is trying to stack the deck in his favour after being snubbed at the two previous G7 meetings. This has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon in the foreign ministries of the existing G7 countries, and could easily spell the end of the G7.

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Observations of an Expat: Trump vs Twitter

President Trump has a point when he attacks Twitter for flagging his posts. But it reeks of hypocrisy.

The social media platforms have to date enjoyed pretty much a license to print money existence with very little in the way of a corresponding social responsibility.

Under a 1996 American law website operators — unlike traditional publishers — cannot generally be held responsible for content by their users. They are effectively a digital wall upon which the public paste fly posts. The social media sites argue that they have no more control of those posts than does the owner of a brick wall.

Of …

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Observations of an expat: Sino-American Covid diplomacy

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It is difficult to tell who is winning the Sino-American Coronavirus diplomatic battle. Two weeks ago I would have put the US in the lead. They had successfully poured ice water on Chinese claims to have successfully suppressed the spread of the virus in China. It is now generally accepted that the Chinese statistics are extremely dubious.

This week the pendulum has swung the other way. The reason is the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly which – unsurprisingly – was dominated by the pandemic.

The pendulum received a gentle push from the European Union which successfully proposed a full and independent investigation into the causes, spread, handling and consequences of coronavirus as well as a report into how best to deal with a repeat crisis.

On the surface, this would appear to be a victory for the Trump Administration who have been loud on their accusations – despite all evidence to the contrary – that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab from whence it reached the community by accident or intent. The Chinese have been even more outrageous with their leading conspiracy theory: America developed the virus and despatched US military personnel to Wuhan to spread a Covid-19 paste on hundreds of Chinese door knobs.

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Observations of an expat: While you are Covid distracted

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The world’s other problems have not disappeared while we struggle with coronavirus. Here is a sample. There are lots more.

Climate Change: The big item pre-pandemic and possibly bigger post-pandemic. Clear skies, uncongested roads, a drop in petrol prices, fresh air and birdsong are prompting a quality of life re-think. Many countries are planning increased facilities for cyclists and the French are considering banning domestic air flights. But can this environmental impetus survive the desperate need to return to work when the lockdown ends?

Locusts: Almost totally absent from the news headlines has been successive locust plagues in East Africa—the worst in 70 years.  This is a human and economic disaster for an estimated 300 million which will have a knock-on effect for many more.

Globalisation: The concept of an increasingly interconnected world was under attack before the pandemic by nationalist leaders fighting the exportation of jobs. Climate change and health fears and concern about national economic security have added a new level of opposition. Set against that is lower prices, and improved global stability that comes through economic interdependence.

Arms Control: The last remaining major Cold War Treaty—START or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty—expires in February 2021. If it is to be renewed then talks need to be held now. There is little sign of that happening. The Russians want it renewed. Trump says no unless China is included and Beijing is showing a distinct lack of interest. Failure means a new arms race with a new generation of deadlier weapons.

Brexit: The EU wants to postpone the end of year deadline because of coronavirus. Boris says no. Talks are taking place virtually. The EU negotiator Michel Barnier says Brussels and London are miles part on a whole range of issues. We could be heading for a December no deal Brexit and WTO rules on top of a massive Covid-created contraction in the British economy.

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And now for something completely different…

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Every cloud has a silver lining. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception, and I don’t just mean a bump in profits for Amazon, Zoom and face mask manufacturers.

The health crisis has sparked a priority rethink. What is more important, seeing family and friends or the latest pair of Jimmy Choo shoes? Who is more important to society: bankers and lawyers or dustmen and nurses? Do lives come before the health of the economy or vice versa or are they inextricably tied? Do we prefer the roar and pollution from cars and planes or the sound of birdsong, the smell of clean air and a sustainable planet?

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Observations of an expat: Coronavirus exploitation

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A pandemic is a perfect excuse for politicians to exploit public fear for their own political advantage—and many of them are doing just that.

Let’s start with Trumpland where the administration’s mishandling of the pandemic means that the country is fast heading for a world-beating 100,000-plus deaths. Trump is using coronavirus to stoke the fires of Sinophobia. China has been the US administration’s chief bogey since 2016 when advisers such as Steve Bannon were warning that a Sino-American war was inevitable. The anti-Chinese stand is also proving popular with the voters in an election year with 70 percent of the electorate critical of China.

China’s President Xi Ji-ping is just as bad. Between Beijing and Washington an increasing number of outrageous conspiracy theories have been launched by both sides. The Chinese have also used the pandemic to boost military operations in the South China Sea and is selectively dispatching its medical equipment to countries where it thinks it can establish a stronger foothold. It has also used Covid-19 to crackdown on Hong Kong dissidents and is claiming in capitals around the world that its relatively successful handling of the pandemic demonstrates the superiority of the country’s political system. The latter claim is a leaky bucket as increasing doubt is poured on Beijing’s death statistics.

One of the most blatant pandemic power grabs is in Hungary. President Viktor Orban has managed to persuade his parliament that the danger of the pandemic means he should rule by decree for an unlimited period. As a result, the already sycophantic press has been further muzzled and public protests have been banned and in some cases criminalised.

In Turkey, President Erdogan, released thousands of prisoners from jail—except the political prisoners. He has also blocked fundraising efforts by opposition city councils in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.

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Observations of an expat: Where is Kim? 

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Where is Kim Jong-un? Is he alive? Is he dead? Has the obese 36-year-old with a weird haircut had a stroke or heart attack? Has the coronavirus pandemic forced him into a secret lockdown? Does he have coronavirus? Has he been the victim of a palace coup?

The questions are being asked because the North Korean leader failed to make an appearance on 13 April at one of the most important annual celebrations in the country’s political calendar – the birthday anniversary celebrations for his grandfather, Kim il-Sung.

All the above questions are important. But even more important is who is likely to succeed him and what would a post-Kim world look like?

The current front-runner to succeed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Dear Leader’s” little sister, 32-year-old Kim Yo-jong.  The main reason is that the running of the highly secretive and oppressive communist regime is a family affair and the little sister is Km Jong-un’s closest family. However, there are some issues with the sibling. First of all, Kim Yo-jong, is a woman in a highly patriarchal society.

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Observations of an expat: American guinea pigs

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Thank you America for volunteering your citizens as coronavirus guinea pigs. To be more specific, thank you President Trump and the governors of Florida, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Minnesota, Vermont, Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

They have decided that the first duty of government is the protection of the almighty dollar rather than the protection of human life. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, has gone further and proposed that elderly Americans should offer to die to protect the economy.

Because public health and safety is the responsibility of state governments, anti-lockdown measures vary from state to state. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have been the hardest hit and are trying to ease back towards normality with a suck and see approach.

Georgia is more dramatic. The Governor still advocates social distancing but is reopening restaurants, hair salons, bowling alleys and — my personal favourite — cinemas. Just how hormonal teenagers will manage back row gropes while sitting six feet apart is a mystery waiting to be solved.

South Carolina is reopening its beaches and non-essential retail outlets and Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee has more or less said to hell with it and opened everything.

Meanwhile the anti-lockdown protests continue, spurred on by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity dubbing coronavirus a “pandumbic.” The first and biggest demonstration was in Wisconsin. An estimated 2,500 people, many of them wielding guns and pro-Trump banners, gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Lansing. The Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, had angered them by imposing a strict state-wide lockdown.  On Thursday it was announced that seven of the demonstrators had been diagnosed with coronavirus.

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Observations of an expat: Someone talk to Trump

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Someone please explain to Donald Trump that we are in the middle of a global pandemic which requires global cooperation and coordination.  In fact, as of this writing approximately 2,100,000 people in 180 countries have come down with coronavirus. The light at the end of the tunnel which Trump talks about is most likely the oncoming train.

So far the the developed world has been hit hardest.. But Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK and America started off with a mere handful of cases of this highly contagious disease. And that is the position the developing world – especially Africa and large slices of the Middle East are in at the moment.

One big difference between the developed and developing world is medical infrastructure. Several developed world countries have crashed through the 10,000-plus death barrier and are still going. They all have advanced medical systems. Mali, has three respirators per million people. In the refugee camp at Idlib, water is rationed to two and a half litres per day per family, for washing, cooking and cleaning. The largely Western medical staff working with organisations such as the Red Cross and Medecins San Frontieres have returned to their home countries to deal with the crisis there. Some public health officials are predicting that if coronavirus takes hold in Africa as it has in Europe and America, 40 percent of the population (500 million people) could die.

Faced with an almost one in two chance of death, these people will redouble their efforts to flee the grim reaper by crossing the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Atlantic’ and they will more than likely bring with them a fresh round of Covid-19 cases and infections just as Europe and America are starting to recover from the first.

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Observations of expat: Chinese donations

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The Trump-supporting co-host of my weekly broadcast for American radio is livid. The Chinese, he said, are selling medical equipment to European countries that was donated to them back in January/February. “I won’t forgive them for this if I live another 70 years!” He exclaimed while banging his desk so hard that I feared he would punch a hole in the woodwork.

I was confused, as well as concerned about Lockwood Phillips’ furniture and blood pressure. I had read reports about China donating supplies to Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Also that China’s medical manufacturing industry is now at full blast; 110 million facemasks daily. I have also heard that some merchants (Chinese and others) are guilty of price gouging and that a high proportion of the medical equipment coming out of China is defective. And finally, China’s Covid-19 statistics are proving to be extremely dicey and this is creating difficulties for the rest of the world. But I had not heard that the Chinese were cashing in on the charity of other countries.

Lockwood, despite his politics, is usually a very well-informed and reliable news source. So, after the broadcast I set out to learn more. It was an interest bit of detective work.

The main source of the story was the new American darling of conservative American websites—The Western Journal. Forget about Breitbart News. Their user figures are falling through the floor—down from 17.5 million unique monthly visitors to around the 4 million mark.  The Western Journal is clocking a staggering 40 million unique users a month.

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