Author Archives: Tom Arms

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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Observations of an expat: Liberty

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Retired UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption recently told Radio Four’s World At One said that when people lose their freedom it is not because tyrants have taken it away. “It is usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.”

The eminent jurist was talking about measures in the UK to combat coronavirus which he described as a cure “worse than the disease.”

At the moment, I think he is wrong about Britain. But if he was talking about Hungary he would be spot-on. There the Fidesz-dominated parliament has responded to the pandemic by voting Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.

The right-wing populist Hungarian leader can now lock-up his media critics. He can continue to pack the courts with his cronies and block refugees from entering Hungary. He can close down universities that teach the liberal ideas he despises and dismiss from jobs anyone who makes disparaging comments about his rule. He can even suspend elections. Orban can, in effect, do whatever he wants. And because parliament has surrendered its scrutiny powers, he can do it for as long as he wants without fear of retribution.

Orban has gone on record as saying that his goal is to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” along the same lines as Russia, China and Turkey. Now—thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic—he has the power to do it.

Hungary is also the leading light in the four-nation East European Visegrad Group of countries. Where he goes the others tend to follow. In fact, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have already said that they are thinking of passing similar decree-type legislation.

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Observations of an expat: The political vacuum

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The coronavirus pandemic is a global problem. It requires cooperation at the local, regional, national and international level. Political point scoring, unilateralism and nationalism have no place in defeating Covid-19. Pandemics are no respecters of bank balances, social position and especially not borders.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Western democracies are failing to rise to the occasion, and the result could very likely be long term damage to our political system.

Ever since World War Two, the world has looked to the United States for leadership in times of crisis. Not this time. Nearly four years’ experience of Donald Trump’s isolationist unilateralism has taught us that he is congenitally incapable of forging the international consensus that is called for. Trump’s arsenal of political tactics is limited to attack, mockery and denigration. He has no strategy and the concepts of compromise and cooperation are totally absent at the personal, national and international level.

So far Trump has managed to damage the prospect of essential bipartisanship by referring to coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax”. In any national crisis it is essential to have the media on board as the vital channel of communication. The president has denounced them as peddlers of fake news and “sensationalism.” European allies were estranged by Trump’s unilateral decision to close American borders to their citizens.

But perhaps worst of all, has been the president’s treatment of China. By repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” he has alienated the one government whose experience of the pandemic could prove invaluable in stopping it.

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Observations of an Expat: Let’s go for a cruise

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It is time to think about a cruise. Or, how about a visit to a stately home or an empty school?

All of these are places where beds could be placed for the victims of Coronavirus. And places to put beds are the first things needed for the anticipated thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of patients with which the already overstretched NHS hospitals will be unable to cope.

There are other accommodation possibilities. Top of the list – private hospitals. They already have administrative and nursing staffs. Most of the doctors work in the public and private sector. There are 28 private hospitals in London alone. In the UK as a whole there are an estimated 30,000 private beds.

Schools are shutting and will remain shut until September. There are 32,770 schools in the UK. Empty classrooms, halls and corridors can be filled if necessary. Also available are leisure centres with their vast sports halls and universities. All of these will be empty and could be pressed into service and low-paid staff who would otherwise be at home worrying about how to find money for food and rent could be very usefully employed.

Stately homes are a traditional source of instant hospitals. There are 1,650 stately homes in the UK. Many of them saw hospital service during World War I and World War II. People will not be visiting these homes during the pandemic. They will be empty and waiting to contribute as they have in the past.

Back to the cruise ships. President Trump has  offered New York City a military hospital ship to help that city cope with the coronavirus crisis. There are an estimated 550,000 passenger berths on ships involved in the world cruising industry. These ships and their crews are now idling in ports. They and their crews can be pressed into service, not just in developed counties, but in developing countries practically devoid of proper medical facilities.

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Observations of an Expat: Viral Trump

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Up until the Second World War the United States was an isolationist country. It stayed out of the European-led  imperial carve-up to concentrate on developing its own contiguous empire. The country briefly emerged from its shell in World War, and then promptly pulled up the drawbridge, lowered the portcullis and retreated back into a continental shell protected by two ocean moats.

After World War Two, US involvement in world affairs was essential for holding off the Soviet Union and world stability. Then came Donald Trump. It was not clear at first whether the New York property mogul and his “America First” policy was an isolationist or unilateralist,  or a bit of both. Coronavirus has helped to answer the question.

But before that, it must be made clear that Donald Trump’s major concern is not America’s national interest or world stability. It is, quite simply, Donald Trump. At the moment that means winning a second White House tenancy agreement in November 2020.

That is why in the early days of coronavirus  he was keen to minimise the dangers. He had a “hunch” that it was going to be OK. People should continue going to work even if they had Covid-19 symptoms. Flu, said Trump, was more dangerous than Coronavirus. He claimed there were plenty of testing kits when his scientific experts said the opposite.

There was a purpose to these  irresponsibly dangerous and false statements:  to keep the stock market indices as high as possible.  Trump’s best chance of winning a second term is a continuation of the booming market that has marked his first three years.  Trump once famously said that if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue his supporters would still vote for him. Perhaps, but will they vote for Trump if their pensions are destroyed; meagre savings wiped out and jobs and homes lost?

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Observations of an expat: Maybe Minister

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The row between British Home Secretary Pritti Patel and her until recently Permanent  Under Secretary of State Sir Phillip Putnam is part of a disturbing trend which is undermining a 150-year-old tried, tested and globally-respected system.

Europe, America and most of the rest of the world endure political patronage in varying degrees. This was also the case in the UK before Gladstone took a leaf from the Chinese and Indian experience and introduced civil service exams in 1870. Patronage, corruption and political ties were swapped for a civil service based on merit. Bribery income was replaced with job security, above average salary, a gold-plated pension and the prospect of a lucrative private sector contract upon retirement.

In return the civil servants were expected to offer apolitical and impartial advice to their policy-making ministers. When the policy was decided, the civil servants implemented it.  Secretaries of state came and went. The civil servants stayed on to provide a historic knowledge, keep track of the buried bodies and point out the consequences and pitfalls of a minister’s preferred course of action.

The final ruling, however, rested with the minister. That is why when a mistake was made it was the politician who resigned.  The issue of resignations is one of the core causes for the unravelling of the relationship between civil servants and government. Ministers have, for the most part, stopped taking responsibility for their decisions. Politics has become a career choice. Elected officials have become increasingly focused on retaining their jobs, political infighting and climbing the greasy pole rather than public service.

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Viral conspiracy – Observations of an ex pat

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Every week I do a programme for American radio. It is an hour-long midweek discussion of world affairs. The other half of the discussion is dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter Lockwood Phillips. I am the loony London liberal, and I am assured that a large number of radios are splattered with rotten tomatoes every time my dulcet tones waft over the air waves.

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Observations of an ex pat: Stuck in a car

I have just spent two days in a cramped Vauxhall Astra chauffering my brother, his wife, her sister and her brother-in-law. It was an interesting experience. They are from the Bible Belt states of North Carolina and Georgia respectively and dyed-in-the-wool Republican Trump supporters. They regard me as a beyond redemption loony liberal.

The first day they were recovering from jet lag and weren’t up to political battle. But as we drove out to Oxford on the second day swords were crossed. The group’s champion was brother-in-law, Paul, a Christian missionary with a political science degree. We disagreed, but the disagreements were illuminating.

As expected, the discussion focused on Trump. Here are a couple of highlights:

Trump and the rule of law – I maintained that Trump is riding roughshod over the American constitution and the rule of law as evidenced by his refusal to allow White House staff to testify in the Senate Impeachment trial.

Paul’s response – The Democrats in the House of Representatives had their chance to call staff. They could have gone through the courts and forced the White House to respect the subpoenas. They chose not to, so they have lost the right to complain

Myself – If they had pursued the issue through the courts it would have taken months, perhaps even years.

Paul – That is the way the legal system works. You can’t complain that Trump is riding roughshod over the law and then deny him access to due process.

Myself – Hmm…

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Comrade Dominic

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In the Soviet Union they had one in every ministry, factory, communal farm, university, school and military unit.

They were called commissars. Their job was to insure that workers stuck to the party line. They called it democratic centralism; a reversal of Western democracy.

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Observations of an Expat: Ireland

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Ireland, we were told by Boris Johnson and his coterie of Leave campaigners, was not a problem. It was a non-issue dreamt up by the Remainers as part of their fear campaign. The Good Friday Agreement, they said, was secure along with the future of the union.

Then Boris drew the EU-UK border down the middle of the Irish Sea and threw Northern Ireland’s Protestants to the nationalist wolves. It was not the first time that a British Prime Minister was prepared to sacrifice Ulster for the benefit of England. During World War II, Winston Churchill, offered unification in return for Irish entry into the war on the side of the Allies. Eammon de Valera refused because he thought Churchill would be unable to deliver on the pledge.

This week Sinn Fein – the political wing of the IRA – emerged as one of the victors in a three-way tie in the Irish general election. A unified island was not a major part of their campaign. In fact, it was conspicuous by the virtual silence on the subject. Instead the nationalists focused on a left-wing agenda of increased spending on public services and housing in contrast to the long-established 100-year duopoly of the centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

But make no mistake it. A united Ireland free of British control remains the heart and soul of Sinn Fein. It is the reason that it was formed back in 1905. And pre-World War I support for the nationalist cause in the southern two-thirds of the Ireland was the reason that Sir Edward Carson was able to mobilise 100,000-plus members of the Ulster Volunteer Force to threaten a civil war unless the six Protestant-dominated counties of the north remained part of the United Kingdom.

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The mandate of heaven and coronavirus

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At the risk of appearing crude, crass and unfeeling, this article is going to focus on the political and economic consequential dangers of the coronavirus. This should not be taken in any way as an attempt to belittle the deaths of 805 Chinese (as of the early hours of Sunday morning) or the grief that their friends and families are suffering. Every human life is precious. But as the death toll mounts and the quarantine is extending, the economy suffers and this suffering will result in political consequences.

In Hubei Province there are an estimated 50 million people in quarantine. That is 50 million people who are now not working. Neither are they in the shops, restaurants or cinemas spending money. The Chinese government have imposed severe travel restrictions throughout the country and restricted gatherings in public places in every major city.

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