Tag Archives: observations of an ex pat

Observations of an ex pat: The Commonwealth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Perfect Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Facebook faces the music

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

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

It is incredibly successful at both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump and the Korean Swamp

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: America Direct

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Disappearing water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Gun crime in America

The answer to American gun crime is…. More guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Balking at the Balkans

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

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

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

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

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

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Observation of an ex pat: Money scales

Global economics is a balancing act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Let’s talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Whataboutery

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

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

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

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

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

There is even a useful ism synonym—Whataboutism.

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Nuclear madness

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

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

It worked. Earth is still green and blue

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Moldova

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Tectonic shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: 2018

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: Wounded Special Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: The Middle East explained

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

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

The Sunnis hate the Shias.

The Shias hate the Sunnis

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

Iran is the dominant Shia power

Saudi Arabia is the dominant Sunni power.

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

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

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

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Observations of an ex pat: A media world

The world’s media is rapidly changing. And as it changes it plays a sad role in helping to divide society.

The irony is that the press in all its forms has never been freer, more competitive and offered a greater array of opinion and facts.

The number of traditional print platforms has markedly declined, and the ones that remain are only just staying in business with slashed circulation figures.

The print business, however is being rapidly replaced with news websites. As of the start of this year there were an estimated 100 million news websites worldwide. This compares to about 18,000 daily newspapers.

To understand the impact of these figures it is important to realise a basic truism about the vast majority of the media. It exists to make a profit. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as state-owned broadcasters or magazines and newspapers published by pressure groups.

The benefit of a profit-oriented media is that profits keep the press free. Without profits journalists quickly became mouthpieces for whomever is stumping up the cash to pay their bills. Alternatively, they become more outrageous in their news coverage in a desperate bid to maintain circulation figures. This is often as true of what is referred to the mainstream media, quality or broadsheet newspapers as it is of the tabloid scandal sheets. Desperate times induce desperate measures.

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Observations of an ex pat: Managed democracy

They call it “managed Democracy”.  Another term is an “illiberal state.”

It is a political/philosophical term that has emerged from central and Eastern Europe to describe political systems whose leaders claim democratic credentials while suppressing  dissent.

Degrees of managed democracy have become the order of the day in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia. It is also finding adherents elsewhere in the democratic world where politicians and their supporters are frustrated by the slow-turning wheels of traditional representative government.

At the heart of this new system are free and fair elections—and they are scrupulously so. Election observers are invited to scrutinise every poll. Ballot papers are carefully printed, distributed and counted.  The result is announced and –the winner takes all.

From the moment that a new government is elected the “managed “ element takes over with a vengeance. Government appointed  judges pack the courts along with the top positions in the military and police. Senior positions in the universities change hands. Opposition media is either barred from press conferences, terrorized, de-licensed, denied advertising revenue or its senior figures are thrown into prison on trumped up charges.

The political opposition is marginalised and when elections come around again the government is a guaranteed pole position because of its stranglehold on the levers of power.  Over a few elections the word democracy is dropped from the political vocabulary and voters are left with a state which is “managed” for a shrinking group of corrupt special interests.

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Observations of an ex pat: A Friendly Wall

Walls are generally built to keep people out. Trump’s big beautiful wall, Hungary’s anti-refugee wall, the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall and every castle wall built before, during and after the medieval period.

There are exceptions to this rule.  The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, as is every prison wall ever constructed.

But in Africa a wall with a difference is literally sprouting. It has been dubbed “The Great Green Wall of Africa.” It is neither holding people in or keeping them out. It is holding at bay the sands of the Sahara desert and helping people to stay in Africa.

They started planting the Great Green Wall of Africa ten years ago. The wall is in fact a six mile wide strip of millions of Acacia trees which will eventually stretch 4,800 miles across the southern edge of the Sahara and through 11 countries from Senegal on the West coast to Djibouti on the Red Sea.  That is about half the length of Trump’s proposed wall along the US-Mexican border and about 600 miles short of the length of the Great Wall of China.

Its purpose is to battle the effects of climate Change in Africa. Over the last half century 60 acres a minute have been lost to desertification as the Sahara marches south.

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Observations of an ex pat: Think, Mr Trump

Please, please, Mr. Trump, think twice before opening your mouth next week. Think again before opening your twitter account and a fourth time before turning away  from the teleprompter to extemporaneously voice your thoughts.

Carefully consider all the options that Rex Tillerson says he has prepared for you. And think about what General Mattis told Congress about the wisdom of scrapping the Iran nuclear deal.

At stake is so much more than the appeasement of your political base and the fulfilment of a shoot-from-the-hip-vote-catching campaign promise.

Your decision will have repercussions on relations in the wider Middle East, with North Korea, Europe and America’s standing in just about every corner of the world.

Let’s start with the pressing problem of North Korea.  You want—everyone wants — a deal which de-nuclearizes  North Korea. But agreements involve at least two sides and requires both to stick to the deal and be known as the sort of government which keeps its promises.

Agreed, North Korea has a bad record in that department. But China doesn’t; and as you have repeatedly said: With China on your side, North Korea could be forced into keeping its part of the bargain.

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Observations of an ex pat: Identity crises

Economists love globalisation. It allows them to achieve what their fellow bean counters the accountants call economies of scale.

This has substantial knock-on benefits. It increases profits so it is good for shareholders and share prices . It reduces the prices at the till and so it is good for customers. It keeps down inflation which is fantastic news for old decrepit types on fixed incomes.

It creates job opportunities in the developing world which means the developed world does not need to dig so deeply into its aid pockets.

International understanding is improved by the exponential growth in global business, political, social and cultural links required to grease the wheels of globalisation.

Politicians are happy because the increased savings and profits mean more tax revenues for them to spend on their pet projects and ships, planes and soldiers.

But there are some dark clouds in this blue skies picture. First there is what I regard as a bit of a canard—job exports. I am unimpressed by this Trumpian argument because it can be rectified with economic growth and retraining.

Blowing away the next cloud – identity loss–is more problematic. As the world melds into one interdependent homogenous blob who are we as individuals? I ask the question because who we are is determined to a large degree by the language we speak, the religion we practice, our national history, culture and laws.

Globalisation is creating an identity crisis and that in turn has created a political backlash from people who fear that the essence of who they are is under threat.  Furthermore, the nationalist backlash created by this perception threatens to undermine all the benefits of globalisation and regionalisation that have accrued since the end of World War Two and many years before.

There are many examples of this but two recent ones are independence referenda in Kurdistan and Catalonia.

Posted in Op-eds | 19 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Scary

Be scared. Be very scared. In fact if you saw, listened to or read about President Donald Trump’s UN address than you are probably terrified.  If not, then think again.

Trump used the occasion of his first speech to the General Assembly to draw red lines across the  map and dare his opponents to cross them. North Korea, Iran and Venezuela are the new axis of evil.

In one breath he called for an international order based on a respect for national sovereignty and with the next bullied those those who oppose him.

The United Nations and international cooperation enjoyed early support, but …

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Observations of an ex pat: Colombia on the brink

Tejo is the Colombian version of horse shoes. It is also a reflection of the national psyche.  The target is packed with gunpowder. When it is hit, it explodes with a loud and violent bang.

The game was adapted by the Spanish from a gentler pre-Columbian version. Their conquest was cruel, violent and involved large quantities of gunpowder.  Colombia has followed that route ever since. It is now trying to change.  It will be difficult. It is not impossible.

Its history has been one civil war after another.   In 1948 the murder of reforming presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan sparked off the ten-year La Violencia.

The civil war that cost 200,000 lives also spawned the guerrilla organisation FARC.  Its end in 1958 failed to address the country’s underlying social problems, leaving it ripe for a Castro-inspired guerrilla movement.

FARC needed money. So it developed the cocaine business and dabbled in extortion and kidnapping.  An estimated 250,000 people died between 1958 and 2016. Five million were made homeless.

In 2002 Alvaro Uribe was elected president on a tough anti-FARC ticket.  Uribe made good on his campaign pledges.  President Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize, but inside Colombia, Uribe is credited with driving the guerrillas to the negotiating table.  He is the most respected and popular politician in Colombia.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trouble at NWS 101

There are serious problems in the playground at Nuclear Weapons School 101. There is a new boy—Kim. Nobody likes him. He is loud, obnoxious and into domestic abuse in a big way.

Kim is especially disliked by Donald who is president of the student council, captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams, number one in his class and popular with all the girls. And he has been at the school less than a year.  Donald also controls a big chunk of what Kim regards as his home turf.  In fact, Donald and his family have been calling the shots at NWS 101 since they threw the first and—so far—the  only knock-out punch against Tojo and Hirohito.

Donald is strong. Very strong, and he backs it up with a frightening array of brass knuckles, baseball bats, knives, axes, swords, clubs, machetes and the biggest,  bestest and most frightening array of guns ever developed by mankind.

Some of the other kids in the playground are a bit envious of Donald. They think he has been throwing his weight around too much. This is especially true of Vladimir and Xi. That is why when Kim started building up his rival arsenal they turned a blind eye. They even smuggled some sweets to him. Perhaps, they thought,  it was time that Donald was taken down a peg or two. Perhaps introducing Kim to the playground could persuade Donald to share the captaincy of one of the sports teams or a girlfriend or two.

They don’t want Donald hurt. They need him and—even though he has occasional problems recognizing it—he needs them too.

Kim doesn’t have such qualms. He is anxious to prove his tough guy credentials and is not in the least concerned about who is hurt in the process. He has built up his own arsenal and even though it is nowhere near the size of Donald’s weapons stock, Kim is threatening to attack Donald on his home turf.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged and | 5 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Crooked or incompetent?

Is the Trump team totally incompetent or crooked? Is it perhaps a combination of the two or an unappealing variation on the political spectrum?

For despite the never-ending stream of White House protestations and presidential tweets, not all of President Trump’s problems are the result of a witch hunt of historic proportions orchestrated by  the Democrats, the liberals, “ the dishonest media,” immigrants, refugees, Muslims, “so-called judges”,  turncoat Republicans, Chinese currency manipulators, Angela Merkel, Mexicans and Canadians.

Next week we may start to learn the answer to the questions posed. It is a major week for the Trump Administration.  Three big names from the Trump campaign—Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort – are all appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating the Russian hacking scandal.

A bit of background for anyone who has been living at the bottom of a mile-deep Tibetan cave for the past month.  Donald Junior—after initially denying he had met with any Russians—published a string of emails which revealed that in the depths of the presidential campaign he was keen to meet with a Russian lawyer who could dish the dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The White House made much of the fact that Trump Junior released the  correspondence rather than having  it  revealed by someone else. Little was made of the fact that he made public  the emails after the New York Times said they were going to publish them.

Posted in Op-eds | 5 Comments

Observations of an ex pat…The law

The British like to think they invented the law. It is true that thanks to empire and successful European wars, British law is the foundation of many of the world’s legal systems.

It is certainly the cornerstone of the American judicial system and  the old imperial countries. British lawyers rewrote the law books in Germany following World War Two and contributed heavily to the European Court of Justice with which they are currently having so many problems.

Actually, the principle that the rule of law MUST underwrite civilized societies dates back to at least ancient Egypt. It is there  where we find the first allegorical representation of the Goddess Justice holding the scales in which the rights and wrongs of a case were impartially weighed.  The Egyptians called her Anubis.

The Greeks called her Dike, and added the sword to represent the finality of legal decisions.  The Romans provided the moniker Justitia, or Justice, and the Swiss added the blindfold in the 16h century.

Posted in News | 6 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Minced meat in Hamburg

Stability. Order. Security. That is what these big multinational summits are meant to project.  They are designed to reassure the lower orders (that’s you, me and a few billion others), that Planet Earth is in safe hands as it hurtles around the sun at 66,000 miles per hour.

I am not reassured. In fact, a look at the G20 Hamburg line-up has left me seriously worried.

North Korea now has an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, nuclear weapons and a juvenile dictator with a bad haircut. But Russia, China and America cannot agree on how to deal with him.

Russia, the United States and its allies are on the cusp of coming to blows over Syria and Ukraine. India and China are the same over their border at the rooftop of the world.

Then there is China against everyone over the South and East China seas. Saudi Arabia is trying to squeeze Qatar into submission and under attack for human rights abuses in Yemen and support for Islamic extremism. Russia has a corruption problem, gay problem and human rights problem.

Italy has a potential bankruptcy problem. The UK has a Brexit problem compounded by a leadership vacuum.

Posted in Op-eds | 15 Comments
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