Tag Archives: observations of an ex pat

Observations of an ex pat: Blink

Vladimir Putin is daring the West to blink first.

It is the second time since 1945 that the nuclear super powers have been dragged to the brink of the abyss.

In October 1963 it was the Americans who felt threatened. Soviet missiles were moving into their backyard. This time it is the Russians. No US nuclear weapons are being sent to Ukraine, but Russia claims that Washington is using Ukraine as its proxy to—using Putin’s words—“destroy Russia.” But that is where the reverse parallels end. Ukraine is no Cuba. It is more dangerous.

For a start Putin is not Khrushchev. The Soviet system had many faults. It made no pretence of being democratic and its stated aim was the overthrow of Western capitalism. But one of its strengths was that, in 1963 at least, the Politburo was more of a collective leadership than it is today. There was a party leader, but there were others behind him who held significant influence and could replace him in a peaceful transition. In fact, that is exactly what happened.

Putin is an elected dictator. His stranglehold of the media, the judiciary and the electoral commission casts a huge shadow over the Russian ballot box.

Once elected, Putin’s power is far greater than that of his post-Stalinist Soviet successors. He maintains and dispenses that power with a system that combines old-style feudal fealty with kleptocracy masked by religiously-fuelled populist nationalism. And because Putin is elected he has greater domestic political legitimacy than his Soviet predecessors.

This legitimacy, however, has a price—success. If the Russian President fails to deliver he can be removed more easily than the old communist leaders. And because there is no obvious successor or mechanism for finding one, Putin is more likely to resort to drastic measures to stay in power.

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Observations of an ex pat: Diagnose First

Editor’s Note: This was submitted on 9th September but held back because of the death of the Queen.

Britain’s new Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss is doomed to failure because she has failed to correctly diagnose the cause of her country’s problems.

Any doctor will tell you that before you can successfully treat a patient you must first know what you are treating. In fact, the treatment is often the easiest part of the medical business.

The same rule applies to most aspects of life, especially politics. Before you can correct social and economic ills with new policies, laws or decrees you must correctly identify the cause of the problem. If you fail to do so the problem will fester and grow in much the same way as an untreated cancer.

Problems in political diagnosis often arise when the politician insists on examining the patient through a narrow ideological lens. Medieval Europe, for example, was a socially stagnant period because all social issues were addressed through the pages of the Bible. The Soviet Union collapsed because the ruling Politburo decreed that all of society had to be organised through the prism of Marxist-Leninism.

Liz Truss is attempting to solve Britain’s mounting problems through a narrow conservative, anti-European window.

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Observations of an expat: Gorby’s object lesson

Mikhail Gorbachev is an object lesson in the dangers inherent in moving a corrupt, highly-centralised autocratic government in which the individual is a servant of the party and state to a fairer and more open society in which the state is the servant of the people.

That is not to detract from Gorbachev’s greatness. His policies of perestroika and glasnost helped to bring an end to the Cold War. But it also opened the door to the rise of dangerous Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev did not set out to topple the Soviet empire. He was a true believer who was convinced that communism was the path to political nirvana. His mentor was Mikhail Suslov whose primary role was to keep the Politburo on the ideological straight and narrow.

The problem was that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was not communist. It was a planned economy with the financial levers in the hands of the Party. But even more so, it was a corrupt, oppressive geriatric oligarchy with a rapidly failing economy that was unable to support its military establishment and political control of Eastern Europe.

The “Era of Stagnation” – As Gorbachev dubbed it – started in the mid-1970s under Leonid Brezhnev with a clampdown on human rights and emphasis on heavy industry and the military establishment. Soviet consumers were ignored. Between 1975-1985 the Soviet economy grew at a miserly average rate of 1.8 percent a year. The income of Soviet man dropped. Bribery, long queues and shortages were endemic. The state-controlled media and statistical bureau reported the exact opposite. Everyone knew they lied.

The exception to this economic plunge was the Party faithful. They were allowed to buy Western consumer goods in special hard currency shops and the Politburo were chauffeured from office luxurious dacha in Zil limousines.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982 there was a power struggle between the reformist wing led by Yuri Andropov and the old guard led by Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov won and then died 15 months later. Chernenko succeeded him only to die after just 13 months in the top job. The hierarchy swung back to the reformist wing and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev immediately announced that he wanted to improve living standards and political freedoms and was prepared to cut non-productive military expenditure to achieve those aims. His policies were summed up by the terms perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political and social openness). The economy was decentralised, incentive schemes were introduced for workers and managers and state subsidies reduced along with Soviet aid to satellite countries. Nuclear arsenals were reduced and Soviet troops were pulled out of Afghanistan.

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Observations of an ex-pat – Disappointing Biden

President Joe Biden is a foreign policy disappointment. He entered the White House with more foreign affairs experience than almost any of his predecessors—23 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during which time he met 150 heads of government.

 The world had hoped—no, expected—that the new president would inject an ordered wisdom into America’s conduct of world affairs after the chaos of the Trump years. Instead, it has been presented with an increasingly disjointed and incoherent foreign policy which has fallen dangerously short of expectations.

 The latest example is the visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House of Representatives – who is second in line to the presidency– said her trip was meant to show strength of purpose. Instead it has exposed a confused, disjointed and divided policy towards the crucial issue of Taiwan which has repercussions on a wide range of world issues.

 It was obvious that the visit would infuriate Beijing. And it did. They have responded with a series of dangerous military exercises in the Taiwan Straits, ballistic missile firings, cyber attacks, Chinese fighter jet sorties into Taiwanese airspace and a ban on Taiwanese food imports. There is a fear that the Chinese reaction may drag on in the form of a de facto blockade of the island which Beijing claims as China’s 23rd province.

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Observations of an Expat: Critical Kherson

Russia and Ukraine are locked in a battle for control of the strategic city of Kherson. It could be a turning point in the Ukraine War.

Kherson sits on the west bank of the Dnieper (also spelled Dnipro) River, 60 miles from the Black Sea. Russian forces have been in control of the city since 2 March, but now the troops are trapped by a Ukrainian counter offensive.

Using American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), the Ukrainians have destroyed virtually all the bridges connecting the roughly 1,000 Russian troops in the city to their main force on the eastern bank of the river. The city is now surrounded on three sides and the troops retreat route is blocked by quarter mile wide river on their fourth. They have been told by Ukrainian generals to either surrender, leave or be annihilated.

Meanwhile, there are reports of Moscow rushing forces across the Crimean bridge linking Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula and increased road and rail traffic from Crimea to the eastern bank of the Dnieper. Forces are also being transported to Ukraine from as far away as Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.  Putin is clearly preparing for a major battle.

This is unsurprising. Kherson is important to both sides politically and strategically. For a start it sits near the mouth of the Dnieper River with both a sea and river port and a major shipbuilding industry. The Dnieper is the fourth longest river in Europe and flows through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea near Kherson. The river is dotted with hydroelectricity plants and ship canals that enable major cargo vessels to travel 1,200 miles upriver to Kyiv and beyond. It is a vital part of the region’s history, culture and economy.

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Observations of an ex pat: I am an immigrant

I am an immigrant. I emigrated from the United States to the United Kingdom on the 12th 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, African, Central Asian or East European War. I did not turf up at Heathrow claiming political persecution or risk crossing the English Channel in an inflatable raft. 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 Africans, Asians, Hispanics, 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 and girls—many of them now young men and women– 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.

Think about it, by their very nature immigrants have proven through their actions that they are risk takers. They are adventurers. They are focused, determined and prepared to work hard to achieve their aims. Such people are assets to any community lucky enough to have them.

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Observations of an ex pat: A bad special relationship

The Anglo-American special relationship is growing closer—but not for the right reasons.

It has been founded on shared values, history, legal structures, trade, military and intelligence links and an unwavering belief in the democratic institutions which underwrite all of the above.

Today the democratic cornerstone is being undermined by the actions of conservative-minded political parties in both countries– America’s Republican Party and Britain’s Conservative and Unionist Party.

They have veered away from the responsibilities of political stewardship to the naked pursuit of power at all costs and tied their fortunes to personalities rather than policies. Both parties have adopted standard bearers (Donald Trump in America and Boris Johnson in the UK) who have become inveterate liars and slanderers.

Of course, in America, everything is bigger and better. And in the case of Donald Trump and his falsehoods, the former president is definitely in the world beater category. According to analysts at the Washington Post, he issued more than 30,000 lies during his presidency. And, of course, there is the “Big Election Lie” with which he is attempting to undermine the electoral system.

Boris Johnson is no slouch in the falsification stakes. But he goes more for quality than quantity. His Brexit lies were notorious. And as Prime Minister he regularly stands before the dispatch box of the House of Commons and rolls out statistics which Britain’s own Office of National Statistics immediately denies. But, of course, his most recent big lie was that there were no parties at 10 Downing Street during covid lockdowns. The police are currently investigating 12 such incidents.

The problem is that under parliamentary rules, MPs cannot call another member of parliament a liar; at least not in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. To do so is a grave offence and results in temporary expulsion of parliament. Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the House of Commons, found this out to his cost.

Slander is also now a common tool of both party leaders. Boris Johnson recently stood in Parliament and accused Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, of refusing to prosecute notorious celebrity paedophile Jimmy Saville. In both Parliament and Congress speakers are protected by absolute privilege which means that they can say whatever they want without fear of prosecution for libel or slander. The result was that Keir Starmer was cornered by an angry mob shouting “paedophile protector.”

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Observations of an ex-pat: Ukrainian Light

There is a glimmer of light the end of the Ukrainian tunnel. The messages emanating from Moscow have shifted from unrestrained militant threats to militant threats with the occasional conciliatory murmur.

 

For a start, Moscow has agreed to continue negotiations. Most encouraging was an interview Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave to Russian radio stations on Friday. “If it depends on Russia,” he said, “then there will be no war. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely ignored, to be trampled.”

 

Of course, the only person whose opinion really matters is President Vladimir Putin, and he is the personification of Churchill’s definition of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

 

Attempts to fathom the inner workings of the Russian leader’s mind seem destined to failure as one of his clear aims is to keep the US-led Western Alliance guessing and off-balance in order to constantly retain the initiative.

 

One possible guide to Putin’s thinking is the Russian media. The state broadcaster Russian TV (RTV) is sticking to a bellicose line. The Ukrainians are “Nazis” threatening to attack “peace-loving” Russian speakers in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Little is reported about the 125,000 troops on the Ukrainian border but when they are referred to, the commentators stress the Kremlin position that Moscow has the right to move its forces whenever and wherever it wants within Mother Russia.

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Observations of an ex pat – Anglo Saxon Free Speech

The blizzard of alleged lies and tales of blackmail emanating from 10 Downing Street is truly disturbing. But they obscure even more alarming policy shifts which threaten longer-lasting effects than any fall-out from partygate.

Nearly the top of the list of the partially-buried problems are the threats to free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest.

Britain and America have led the way in establishing and protecting those rights. They insisted that they were written into the UN Charter and Germany’s post-war Basic Law and their example has inspired others around the world. Now both countries are heading the opposite direction. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Britain is ranked 33rd and the US is a dismal 44 out of 170 countries.

The blame for America’s poor ranking is laid almost exclusively at the door of ex-president Donald Trump and the Republican Party he has reshaped in his own image. Trump enabled and emboldened free press opponents by attacking the media as “enemies of the people” and branding criticism of his administration as “fake news.” With the Republicans likely to regain control of Congress in this year’s mid-term November elections, the media is preparing for a fresh onslaught.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have long-regarded the BBC as a hotbed of liberalism. They started their term in office by reducing the number of ministerial interviews on the world’s most respected news outlet. Then this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that she was freezing government funding for the BBC.

On top of that, the beleaguered Johnson government’s proposed Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill will effectively ban traditional rights of free speech, demonstrations and protests by giving police the right to shut down any gathering that causes “serious disruption.” The government decides what is a “serious disruption.”

Politicians around the world and of every political persuasion have a love-hate relationship with the media and protesters. Those in power seek to curb freedom of speech because it exposes nefarious activities undertaken to retain power. Those seeking power recognise it as an essential tool for gaining power, only to jettison their support once it has served its purpose. The result has been a perpetual struggle between media, the government and vested interests.

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Observations of an ex pat: Migration time bomb

The world is sitting on a migration and demographic time bomb. A perfect storm of environmental, economic, and demographic factors are combing with increased international instability to drive millions of people from the developing to the developed world.

An internationally coordinated response is required to deal with the problem that will not go away. It will just become worse. Instead growing xenophobia is constructing physical and bureaucratic dams that must eventually burst.

Ironically, the two sides of the cultural and geographic fence have complementary problems. There is a shortage of workers in the xenophobic developed world and a surplus in the developing world. Birth rates in Europe, the US and Japan are either failing to replace those who die or—at best—leading to a no population growth scenario.

Low population is accompanied by an ageing citizenry. The median age in most of the world’s rich countries is between 40 and 50. This puts increased pressure on health and social care services, pensions and young workers who have to support their elders.

The developed world is also bordering on, or actually suffering, labour shortages. If their countries’ fail to grow by increased birth rates than they must recruit immigrants in order to maintain productivity levels that can support ageing populations.

In contrast, improved healthcare has dramatically cut the infant mortality rates in the developing world. This means that the median age in most of Latin America is 27. In Africa it is 18. In the case of Niger the median age is 14.8 years. The underdeveloped economies of these countries are incapable of supporting their rapidly growing populations. Their young people are heading north to survive.

To complicate matters further climate change and war is increasing the number of displaced persons in the world. In 2016 there were 10.6 million DPs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees the figure grew to 84 million in 2021, and that was before the Afghan crisis added several million more to the depressing and worrying total.

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Observations of an ex pat – Ukraine Week

We are entering Ukraine Week. A series of meetings across Europe and at the highest level will probably determine whether 100,000 Russian troops will cross the border into Eastern Ukraine and ignite Europe’s greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War.

It started Friday with a Zoom meeting of NATO foreign ministers. On Monday Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin go head to head in Geneva. Next Wednesday NATO heads of government hold a summit in Brussels, and the following day, in Vienna, the 57 members of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meet in Vienna. The last event includes Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky who will discover just how far other countries will go to defend his nation’s sovereignty.

Conspicuous by its absence from these talks is the EU. The reason is that the issues are primarily security and military and the EU has no defence forces. It will, however, be heavily affected by any Putin-Biden pact and its diplomats will be flapping around the edges of Ukraine Week trying to make its collective voice heard.

So far Putin has done all the running. He annexed Crimea in 2014 and moved his “Green Men” into Eastern Ukraine. He has disrupted shipping in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea; threatened gas supplies to Western Europe and now has 100,000 troops camped out on the Ukrainian-Russian border.

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Observations of an expat: Afghan consequences

The defeat in Afghanistan of the liberal democrat West and the victory of an authoritarian Islamic fundamentalist Taliban has worldwide geopolitical consequences.

It has called into the question America’s commitment to its allies; provided political ammunition to China and Russia; emboldened fundamentalists in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa; increased the threat to Israel; weakened NATO; prompted a re-think in India; and, encouraged many in the Far East.

Governments around the world heaved a collective sigh of relief when Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House. Trump’s “America First” policy tinged with isolationism and a shoot-from-the hip unilateralist foreign policy was a serious concern in capitals across the globe. They welcomed the statement from foreign affairs expert Biden that “America is back.”

But Biden’s refusal to listen to the concerns of NATO allies and order a precipitate withdrawal has led many to think that Trump’s unilateralist America First programme has become bipartisan. European NATO has long accepted US dominance of the alliance as essential to their survival. But it refuses to become an unconsulted-taken-for-granted adjunct of US foreign and defence policy. Especially when that policy runs counter to Europe’s interests.

And the Afghan debacle is just that. If Afghanistan again becomes a base for terrorist organisations then it will be Europe—not America—that will be the primary target. The Taliban has promised it won’t happen. And they need aid and expertise to reconstruct their war-ravaged country. But one of the Taliban’s first acts upon entering Kabul was to release thousands of hardened Jihadists from Pul-e-charkhi Prison. Al Qaeeda is reported to have bases in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and rival ISIS is believed to have up to 10,000 members in the country.

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Observations of an ex pat: The Biden/Putin Circus

G7 in Cornwall, NATO heads of government in Brussels and finally a Putin-Biden face-to-face on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It is President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip and designed to show, in his words, that “America is back.”

Not with the unilateralist, like it or lump it foreign policy of the Trump years, but with a return to across the board multilateralist-driven leadership. One of the keys to this new policy will be US-Russian relations. And a big part of the meetings in Cornwall and Brussels is finalising tactics for the summit in Geneva.

The US president has a long list of grievances to present to Vladimir Putin: Belarus, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, election meddling, cyber-attacks, intermediate nuclear weapons, human rights, corruption, sanctuary for ransomware criminals….

He will deliver the list and then move on. Biden did not ask for the summit to list grievances. He asked for it to forge a new and more pragmatic relationship with Moscow as a counter to the real threat—China. During the Cold War years, the US successfully played Beijing off against the Russians. Now it is time to play the reverse side of the diplomatic coin: Russia against China.

But to judge the success of such a strategy you have to first understand the Russian leader’s position. And to do that you have to start from the premise that Russia is a failing state. However, it is also an ambitious failing state with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—6,257 warheads. Putin inherited an economy that was tanking. He stopped the precipitous decline by selling out to oligarchs and has ended up a prisoner of the corrupt system he created.

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Observations of an ex pat: Lies, damned lies and the Russian Government

What a hoot. I mean, I nearly landed in hospital with laughter split sides. Did Russia actually believe that US and British intelligence would launch a major cyber-attack on the American government in order to cast blame on Moscow?

To be fair to Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), he didn’t actually categorically blame the CIA, National Security Agency, MI6 and GCHQ for the December Solar Winds hack into US government departments and about 100 private companies. Naryshkin simply denied Russian culpability and claimed that the tactics were similar to those used by American and British intelligence. The careful intelligence-speak gives him wriggle room to deny the denial should that ever become necessary.

What we are talking about is what the intelligence world calls a “false flag” operation. The term dates back to at least the early days of European empire when marauding pirates would hoist the flag of a friendly nation in order to close quarters with their prey before raising the skull and bones and opening a broadside. The same tactic was used by the British and French navies with great effect during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Observations of an ex pat – Water Fights

One of this week’s lesser-reported clashes was over water rights between the two impoverished Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It deserved more attention. Central Asia lies at the heart of the Eurasian land mass. The headwaters of its rivers provide water to half of the world’s population. But climate change and the consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union are destabilising this strategic, and too often ignored part of the world.

or centuries the five stans (as they are often called) were a prosperous key trading link in the Silk Road connecting China and Europe. The ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan was the world’s largest in the 12th century. It is now an abandoned ruin. Between 1861 and 1885 the five stans were absorbed by the Russian Empire. They tried to break away after the collapse of the Tsar, but were reconquered by the Bolsheviks in 1925 and fell behind the Iron Curtain and out of international politics for the next 66 years.

There were good and bad elements to Soviet rule. One of the good ones was that the Soviets stablished a trans-stan barter system that prevented the five states from squabbling over water. Eighty percent of the region’s waters originate in in the mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The other countries are mostly desert and rely on water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers to maintain their agricultural industries.

The desert countries, however, are rich in gas and oil. So, Moscow devised a system whereby the water-rich mountainous stans provided the desert stans with water during the spring and summer and the desert stans provided cheap fossil fuel energy to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to prevent them from freezing in the winter.

The barter system lasted for a few years after 1991 and then fell apart as the energy rich stans discovered that they could earn more money selling their gas and oil to foreign buyers. The water-rich stans were forced to resort to hydro-electricity to replace energy supplies from their neighbours. This reduced the flow of water to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with the inevitable impact on their farming communities.

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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 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 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 ex pat: Blame Newt

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The blame for today’s polarised world is most often laid at the door of President Trump. He is credited with climbing to power on the back of colourfully-worded hate politics and of providing the inspiration for Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummins, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland.

But who inspired Trump? The answer is the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich was—still is—a staunchly conservative Republican from the deep south state of Georgia who entered the political arena in the 1970s when southern Democrats were shifting to the liberal left in a vain effort to retain power in the South in the aftermath of the civil rights campaign. Gingrich believed that the answer to the loss to the conservatives was to replace it with a radicalised and more conservative Republican Party.

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Observations of an ex pat: Who’s on trial?

It is not just Donald John Trump who is on trial in the US Senate. In the dock before the court of world opinion are 100 senators, the American justice system, the rule of law and democratic institutions in the United States and in every other country which follows its lead in promoting liberal democratic ideals.

Like it or not, America has been historically viewed as the world’s leading exponent of the interlocking values of democracy, judicial transparency and the rule of law. It likes to think of itself—as the Puritans and President Ronald Reagan said—as “the shining city upon the hill.” The light has been dimmed by the current administration, but it is still spluttering away. But if the Republican-controlled Senate block the calling of witnesses in the trial of President Trump it will be pouring a bucket of water over that light.

American law is based on English common law. And one of the basic tenets of English common law is that everyone – regardless of their position in society– is entitled to a free and fair trial. The obvious question is: How can you have a fair trial without witnesses? How can you determine a person’s innocence or guilt until all the evidence has been heard and the witnesses have been interrogated and cross-examined?

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Observations of an Expat – Capitalism—New Lease of Life?

The resounding defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has revived the cries for “Responsible Capitalism.”

Corbyn is a not so thinly-disguised old style socialist. He and his supporters believe that the only route to a fair society is through socialism based on public ownership. The problem is that historical experience says otherwise. There have been successful mixed economies, but every attempt at full-blown socialism has ended in political, economic and social disaster.

In every instance they have hit the brick wall of human nature and its hand maiden the survival instinct. Humans are greedy. That greed has dragged us out of damp caves into centrally-heated bungalows. Conversely, the same greed has ignited wars, destroyed the environment and created social inequalities.

The bastion of world capitalism—the United States—is a shining example of these inherent contradictions. Its national entrepreneurial success has created the wealthiest country in the world. But that wealth is not equitably shared. Two-thirds of America’s wealth is owned by five percent of the population. Forty percent of Americans earn less than $15 an hour; five percent earn the minimum wage or less and 28 million Americans do not have medical insurance.

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Observations of an ex pat: That time of year

t’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the season of good will, holly, mistletoe, reindeer, white-bearded elves, and midnight mass. I mean the time to look back and forward at the world political scene. And there is so much to write and so little space.

Britain has just had its Christmas election. America has had its Christmas impeachment. Hong Kong is still in turmoil. Latin America is going through another of its political crises. The Chinese economy is shrinking. America’s Democratic Party cannot decide which way to go. Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon are rioting, so are the French. The Eurozone has had a terrible year. Putin is as belligerent as ever. Turkey is becoming more obstreperous and Israel can’t reach agreement on a coalition government.

Boris Johnson’s landslide victory has for the moment put paid to the Brexit debate. He claims that his historic 80-seat majority on the sound bite slogan “Get Brexit Done” is a massive mandate for leaving the EU. That is an over-simplified misrepresentation. Opinion polls report that the country continues to be split almost 50/50 between remain and leave. The election result was as much—it not more—of a reflection of distrust of an ideologically-driven Labour Party than it was a vote on Brexit.

So Brexit is likely to remain a big issue with the focus shifting to the prime minister’s renewed No Deal threat if free trade talks are not concluded by this time next year. They are other worrying messages coming out of 10 Downing Street: A review of the relationship between the government and the courts and the role of the media are two indications that Boris Johnson will use his enhanced power to stifle dissent and move Britain to a more presidential style of government.

Unfortunately, Boris won’t be facing much in the way of an official opposition. The Labour Party is set for a bitter civil war between the far-left ideologues of Momentum who blame Labour’s defeat on everyone but themselves, and the more pragmatic wing who want a return to the old New Labour. The current election rules as set down by the party constitution put the Corbynistas and Momentum in pole position. This means a longer and more vicious blood-letting than previous leadership battles and raises the spectre of a Labour split and an open goal for the conservative government.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has this week become the third president in American history to be impeached. Because voting in both houses of Congress has become totally partisan, it is highly unlikely that Trump will be found guilty by the Republican-controlled Senate. But has his 2020 re-election been hindered or helped by impeachment? That question cannot be accurately answered until all the evidence has been presented in the Senate trial. So far everything that the House of Representatives has heard is second or third hand. This is because the president has refused to allow any White House officials to testify. There will be a battle royal to force into the Senate witness box.

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Observations of an ex pat: Dealing with lies

All politicians lie. That is what we are told anyway. If they told the truth, it is argued,  they would never be elected.

The problem with that belief is that it undermines the very foundations of democracy. If you cannot believe your elected representatives than what is the point in elections? They become no more than expensive political theatre.

It certainly seems that the 21st century political arena is filled with more mendacity than previous years, and the instances of misinformation and disinformation appear to be multiplying. The question is: How to deal with the increasing number of lies before they damage our political institutions beyond repair.

Adam Price, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru thinks he has the answer: Make intentional political lying a criminal offence. That is an interesting idea, but not the right answer.  Hit them where it really hurts–in their bank accounts– by extending the laws of libel to social media.

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In today’s social media world of the internet, trolls, hacks, cyber attacks and 24/7 news, a lie can be orbiting the North Star before truth even thinks of climbing out from under the duvet.

The Internet is the greatest boon to freedom of speech since the Gutenberg press. Billions of people now have access to the greatest body of information at any time in history. But every action has a reaction and they are not always good. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recognised that his digital offspring is a mixed blessing.

There has been talk of regulating social media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before parliamentary committees on both sides of the Atlantic and told that he has to find a way of preventing his cash cow digital platform from becoming a vehicle for fake news. He has been told that he should employ tens of thousands of editors to plough through every posting – which run to the 1.62 billion accesses daily–and remove anything that smacks of lies and hate speech. On Twitter there are 500 million daily tweets. Their impact is multiplied by retweets and republication on traditional mainstream media.

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Observations of an ex pat: Whither NATO?

“The most successful military alliance in history” is one description. Another is “brain dead.” And a third is “obsolete.”

The fact is that all the above descriptions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are correct in varying degrees along with “guarantor of peace in Europe” and the “military heart of the Western Alliance.”

It is also true to say that the alliance is in crisis. To paraphrase Dean Acheson’s description of post-imperial Britain, NATO won the Cold War and has yet to find a new role in the world.

If one starts from the assumption that NATO is a force for good than it is essential that the alliance re-discover its role in the world. To do that it needs to re-evaluate the circumstances and values that led to its formation 70 years ago; examine how the world has stayed the same; how it has changed; and then change and adapt.

In 1949, the world was only four years out of a world war. America had emerged enormously wealthy, militarily powerful and armed with the world’s first true weapon of mass destruction. Its ideological enemy the Soviet Union had absorbed Eastern Europe and seemed poised to send its steamroller army across the rest of the devastated continent. It was four months away from detonating its first atomic bomb. Britain—which had been charged with the responsibility of protecting post war Europe—was broke and broken, and appealed to America to fill the vacuum. China was soon to “fall” to Mao’s communists and slip behind a bamboo curtain for 30 years. Former enemies Germany and Japan were as distrusted as the Soviet Union. There were only 59 members of the United Nations as most of the future 193-strong membership was still colonies.

NATO had a clear purpose: To protect the democracies of Western Europe from Soviet aggression so that they could recover from a devastating world war; preserve the shared values of economic and political liberalism; protect traditional markets and prevent a third world war. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, declared that the purpose of the alliance was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”

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Observations of an ex pat: The Laffer Curve

It is an economic model called the Laffer Curve and it reeks of common sense and good economic stewardship. It is also being studiously ignored by the Labour and Conservative parties in their headlong race to buy votes with expensive election promises.

The Laffer Curve is basically a bell-shaped curve which starts at zero on the left , rises to an optimum figure in the middle and then drops back down to zero on the far right. The zero on the left is the expected tax revenue that would be raised if the tax rate was zero, which is fairly self-explanatory—no taxes, no revenue.  Halfway up the left side of the curves means taxes are too low and revenue is insufficient.

The zero on the far-right may appear at first glance to be counter-intuitive.  The higher the price (taxes) the higher the revenue. But if we use the shop analogy the fallacy of that argument is exposed.  If a shop charges more money than the customer can afford than they just go elsewhere. In the case of taxes they vote with their feet and move to another country and refuse to invest in an economy which fails to give them a return with the result that the pool of money from which taxes are drawn shrinks.

The key is to find the happy median. This is the highest point on the Laffer Curve where the tax rate—like Goldilocks’s porridge—is neither too high nor too low but set just right so that it draws in the maximum tax revenues.

The Laffer Curve is named after American economist Arthur Laffer from the Chicago School of Economics. Professor Laffer did not invent the theory. But he did popularise it during the Ford, Reagan and Bush Senior Administrations. The theory actually has its antecedents in 14th century Tunisia; was popular in 19th century American economic planning and a cornerstone of the policies of US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon during the Roaring Twenties.  Even John Maynard Keynes made some admiring references to it, but it was largely forgotten in the 30 years after World War II.

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Observations of an ex pat: Egos

Say what you like about Tricky Dicky Nixon. And you can say a lot. He was an egotistical, toilet-mouthed politician who abused the office of the presidency for his own personal political gain. He was also one smart cookie when it came to foreign policy.

His major saving grace, however, was that when faced with the inevitability of defeat, he resigned. For most of his five and a half years in office Nixon acted as if his personal interest and the national interest were one in the same. But in the end, he came to realise that the US constitution, the …

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Observations of an ex pat: Losing face

t is meant to be a Chinese thing. Face is very important. A western synonym might be a combination of pride and credibility. At any rate, it is important that a person not be seen to lose face; that they are not made to look foolish or stupid.

In addition, the person who is right has to be careful not to look too superior. They are all too conscious of the Western proverb: “There but by the grace of God…”

The West, on the other hand is an “I told you so society”. It loves to rub the noses of its politicians in their mistakes and failed promises. It positively drools at the prospects of adopting an air of righteous superiority.

Asian politicians will often give their opponents a way out—an honourable exit. Their Western counterparts, will hound, pester and plague their rivals to the bitter end.  Their aim is to strengthen their position with an adversarial political system that allows nothing less than the total humiliation of their foe.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The retention of face is more of a long game. It recognises that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Forcing a loss of face is more a winner takes us all scenario.

The prize in the West is higher. But so is the price paid the loser, which is why they fight so hard to win, and if they can’t win they fight hard not to lose. When caught in a lie—or a mistake– they double down, fabricate, invent,  cover-up, issue counter-accusations, rant, rave… almost anything and everything short of an admission of  error or wrongdoing.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump is right

Trump is right. He is wrong about most things and there is insufficient space to list them all in this article. But he is bang on the money when he says that the deal that Boris Johnson has negotiated with the EU makes a US-UK trade deal less likely—at least the “great deal” that the public have been promised by governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Boris has dismissed Donald’s claims. His friend the president, he said, is “patently wrong.” The deal that he negotiated with Michel Barnier allows Britain to do trade deals with whomever they want. Well, yes and no, but in practical terms mainly no as far as the US is concerned.

The deal is in two parts, the withdrawal agreement which sets out the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union and is politically binding. That includes such things as the cost of the divorce bill and the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU.

The second half is the political declaration which is not legally binding and is meant to set down the parameters for a future UK-EU free trade agreement. Included in the political declaration is a clause which under Theresa May’s deal was in the legally binding withdrawal agreement. It says that that both sides will keep the same high standard on state aid, competition, social and employment standards, the environment, climate change and relevant tax matters.

It is this clause that bothers Trump. He does not like the EU restrictions which he regards as non-tariff barriers that can put a block on controversial American exports such as chlorinated chickens.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump the pushover

Donald Trump likes to portray himself as strong man. A hard, tough man who stands up to the rest of the world, tweets it like it is and puts America first. The evidential facts tell a different story.  Trump is increasingly becoming the puppet of anti-democratic strongmen such as Turkish President Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin who use the American president’s craving for acceptance to manipulate him for their own ends.

Trump grew up in the New York borough of Queens when it was the first stop for the latest generation of immigrants struggling to survive in the land of opportunity.  The denizens of Manhattan looked down on Queens and all who dwelt there. Trump was determined to show the descendants of the Vanderbilts and Astors.  He would make billions; marry super models; become a reality TV star; plaster his name in 40ft high letters across giant skyscrapers and, finally, become president of the United States.

He wasn’t a strong man. He was a failed businessman who suffered six bankruptcies and was shunned by the New York aristocracy he courted. His life has been one long struggle against a debilitating inferiority complex. And like so many second-raters who seek justification through the accumulation of power and money he has sought the advice, approval and company of those who are truly powerful and ruthless. Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s policy in Eastern Europe.

On 13 May Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a 45-minute meeting with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. A meeting at the White House is no small matter. It is a much sought after honour which implicitly bestows on the visitor the presidential seal of approval. His audience was opposed by Trump’s national security advisers but pushed by Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The security advisers made it clear that Orban should be blocked because he has politicised the Hungarian judiciary; taken control of the media; changed the electoral system to favour his party, adopted a strong pro-Russian stand; is rabidly anti-immigrant and euro-sceptic.

The State Department, National Security Council and others thought that Orban’s basic values and actions conflicted with American values  and could send the wrong message to America’s traditional allies and Congress. But Orban’s values did not conflict with Trump’s. He was keen to meet a strong personality who could get things done. As David Cornstein, Trump’s  Ambassador to Budapest said: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the power that Viktor Orban enjoys…..”

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Observations of an ex pat: Syrian hypotheticals

Politicians hate being asked hypothetical questions. Or so they say. Journalists don’t. They love speculating, flying kites and pontificating about the consequences of the actions of their political masters. I am a journalist and Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria offers a near limitless range of hypothetical consequences. So I will indulge myself with a few of them.

American military promises:  Gone, kaput, up in smoke. It is now confirmed that carefully negotiated alliances bound with the blood of allies can be wiped out with a single Trumptonian tweet. Bringing the boys home is more important than world peace. Japan and South Korea should be worried. President Trump has already moaned about the cost of keeping 73,000 troops In those countries and turned a blind eye to North Korea’s development of short range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. As for the security guarantees for Taiwan and the support for Hong Kong Protesters, the Chinese are rubbing their hands with glee—and possibly cleaning their gun barrels.

The European members of NATO have been under attack from Trump since before he entered the White House. He wants them to shoulder more of the worldwide defence burden and he certainly wants to cut back on the 60,000 American troops deployed in Europe (including Turkey). He has repeatedly told advisers that the rich EU should send an army to the Middle East. At the same time he undermines the European Union by supporting Brexit and slapping tariffs on EU products. But most important of all, he fails to recognise that the EU does NOT have an army. You cannot send into battle an army that does not exist.

Syria, is, however, likely to act as a spur to greater European integration, including more European military cooperation. ~This will probably increase the influence of France as the largest military EU power; weaken the influence of the United States; strengthen the position of Russia in Europe; possibly result in more nuclear weapons held by France and Britain and, as Europe is forced to rely more on its own defences, lead to a European foreign polic y more independent of the United States.

ISIS revived: One of the major jobs of the Syrian Kurds was to guard 12,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters and another 70,000 of their dependents. The troops that were on prison duty have now been pulled away to fight the invading Turks. As a result the ISIS prisoners are escaping. They will join the estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters who are at liberty but in hiding. Together they will doubtless exploit the chaos and the vacuum created by Trump’s decision.

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