Tag Archives: United states of America

Observations of an Expat: Tyranny of the Majority

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Then there is democracy unchained, or without the restraints of the rule of law and free speech.  Also known as “the tyranny of the majority” or the “will of the people” or, perhaps, “democracy flawed.”

These are elected governments with political leaders who have harnessed to their own pursuit of power a perceived threat to the majority, or a growing, vociferous and politically motivated minority.

There are far too many examples to choose from but let’s focus on Hungary, Russia, Israel, India and the US for starters.  In each of these countries, the leaders (or wannabe leader) have won the support of the majority of the population either through lies or by allying themselves with a social movement which promotes one section of society at the expense of another.

Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy with carefully monitored and oft-held elections. Its American supporters are keen to point out that it is the only democracy in the Middle East and this makes the Israelis their only rock-solid ally in the region.

Twenty percent of Israel’s voters are Arabs. As the occupying power, Israel is also responsible for two million Palestinians in Gaza and another two million on the West Bank – none of whom have a vote.  Their rights and concerns are totally ignored by Benjamin Netanyahu because his political base is conservative Orthodox Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court has attempted to protect Arab rights. As a result, Netanyahu is beavering away at dismantling the court and its powers.

Vladimir Putin was recently re-elected President of Russia with 87.5 percent of the vote. Such a large figure is of course suspect, but most observers accept that Putin would have won regardless. He has successfully portrayed himself as the only possible leader of a nation under attack from wicked, grasping Western enemies. His answer is that the best defense is a good offense which means the pursuit of Russian imperial ambitions.

Viktor Orban has cast himself in the role of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic saviour of ethnic Hungarians and European Judeo-Christian values. “We must state,” said Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, “that Hungarians do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed; we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with that of others.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Baltimore

The Baltimore Bridge disaster was more than a fatal human tragedy. It was a commercial and trading disaster which starts in Baltimore and ripples well beyond American shores.

But let’s start with Baltimore and its immediate environs. When the Singapore-flagged container ship Dali crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge it closed a major land and sea route in and out of a city which is one of America’s most important as well as one of its most socially-deprived.

The 1.6 mile long bridge crossed the Patapsco River which is the major sea channel in an out of the Port of Baltimore which in turn is a major exit and entry point for America’s vital car trade. That sea channel is now blocked. In 2023 the port handled 52.3 million tons worth $80 billion. It directly employed 15,000 people and indirectly supported another 139,000 jobs. This is in a city known as the heroin drug capital of America and where residents have a one and 20 chance of falling victim to violent crime. Powder keg Baltimore does not need thousands to be suddenly laid off work.

The bridge carried a major highway – Interstate 695 – as well as well as spanning the entrance to the port. I-295 is a major arterial road connecting New York, Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Last year it carried nearly 12 million vehicles. As the Easter weekend descends on one of the most congested areas of America, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks will be forced to travel hundreds of additional miles on roads ill-suited to carry the extra traffic.

The impact of the bridge disaster will be felt well beyond Baltimore. Eighty percent of the world’s trade moves by ship. It is called the “global supply chain” and when a link in that chain is broken it affects shipping movements across the world. And a major factor in the price of goods is the cost of transporting them.

In recent years the biggest impact on the global supply chain was caused by the covid pandemic. But other factors have been a drought which this month disrupted the Panama Canal; the six-day blockage in 2021 of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship Ever Given; naval battles in the Black Sea as a result of the Ukraine War and attacks by pro-Palestinian Houthis in the Red Sea.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is one of a growing number of breaks in the increasingly fragile global supply chain which pushes up prices for us all.

Russia

Tajiks have lots of reason to hate Putin’s Russia. Tajiks attached to Islamic State-Khorashan even more so. They don’t need the Ukrainians, the CIA or MI6 to egg them on.

That is why there is universal scepticism towards Vladimir Putin’s allegation that the four Tajik terrorists who gunned down 130 people in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall theatre were acting in league with Ukrainian, British and American intelligence. The assertion is made more ludicrous by IS-K’s instant claim of responsibility.

It is unclear whether the terrorists were drawn from the estimated two million Tajiks living in Russia or if they come from Tajikistan or if they originated from Afghanistan where the Persian-speaking Tajiks make up 25 percent of the population. It is known that they are Muslims and that would be enough to turn them against Vladimir Putin.

Putin climbed to power on the back of genocidal war against the Muslims of Chechnya. It made him popular with ethnic Russians but a hate figure for the Central Asian Muslims who were once part of the Soviet empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire before that.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Ukraine aid bill is starting to inch its way through the American House of Representatives. Up until this week the $60 billion much-needed package has been blocked by Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to allow Congress a vote on the issue.

He also tied the aid bill (which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan) to tougher laws on immigration.

This has clearly been done in collusion with Donald Trump who opposes aid to Ukraine and wants to delay any agreement on immigration so that he can make it his key election issue.

Senate Republicans have already passed the Ukraine aid bill and have been piling the pressure on Speaker Johnson to allow a vote. This week he agreed. But with several huge caveats. For a start, aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan will be voted on separately. Next, he wants to change the wording of the legislation from “aid” to “loan” or possibly “lend-lease.”

Johnson also wants to explore the possibility of applying the profits from $300 billion of frozen Russian assets to the aid that Ukraine needs. This would involve something called the REPO Act or, The Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukraine Act which authorizes the President to seize Russian assets.

The problem with the REPO Act is that it specifies that the seized assets should be used for reconstruction. Ukraine needs money to fight. Reconstruction comes after the fighting.

There are other problems with Johnson’s apparent change of heart. To start with, separating out the different clauses and turning aid into a loan will seriously delay the bill. Next, because it is substantially changed the bill will have to go back to the Senate and, finally, both houses of Congress are about to start their 22-day Easter recess.

Mike Johnson’s change of heart may actually be a change of delaying tactics.

European Union

Meanwhile the Europeans are trying to fill the gap and smooth over their differences over Ukraine. The last few weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olof Scholz sniping at each other over who is more generous to the brave Ukrainians.

Macron talked about the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine and urged Scholz to provide Volodomyr Zelensky with long-range Taurus missiles. The more cautious Scholz delivered a firm “nein” to sending troops and ruled out the despatch of Taurus because German soldiers would be needed to operate the system. Scholz also pointed out that Germany was providing a lot more money than France and that if the French leader wanted to help Ukraine he should put his money where his mouth is.

Enter Donald Tusk, former European Commission president and current prime minister of Poland. He called a meeting of the leaders of the EU’s two biggest countries to smooth out difficulties that were threatening to derail EU support for Ukraine.

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Observations of an Expat: US Support for Israel Cracks

One of the rock solid, unwavering givens in the world’s diplomatic playbook has cracked – the 76-year-old bipartisan US support for Israel.

There will be repercussions for Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, Europe and the Middle East.

Since before 1948, support or opposition to Israel has been one of the world’s key political fault lines. Which side a government chose played a major role in determining their position on a host of other issues.

At the fulcrum of this fault line was support for successive Israeli governments from Republican and Democratic American administrations. More than $4 billion a year in military aid flows from Washington to Israel, and that is only the money that is known. Whenever Israel faced UN condemnation it could count on the American veto. And if it was attacked, America, supplied the latest weaponry. Israel was America’s only certain and democratic ally in the Middle East and Israel could not exist without America.

The public appearance of the crack was the Senate speech last week by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. He called on Israelis to vote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office. And he implicitly warned that if the voters did not remove “Bibi” then American aid and political support was in jeopardy.

President Biden gave the Schumer speech the presidential seal of approval. It was, he said, “a good speech.” Republicans disagreed and the battle lines were drawn. Senate Minority leader accused Schumer of interfering in the democratic processes of a close ally. Donald Trump said that Jews who voted Democrat “hated Israel” and “hated their own religion.” Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said he would be inviting Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This event is unlikely to happen because it requires the support of Chuck Schumer.

In a post-speech interview with the New York Times, Senator Schumer, said his disillusionment did not start with the war on Gaza. The impetus for him was the bromance between Trump and Bibi and the Trump-organised Abraham Accords which established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries without any consideration for the Palestinians. Netanyahu, said Schumer, made the crack inevitable when he decided that his interests lay with Trump and the Republican Party at the expense of the Democrats.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

NATO

French President Emmanuel Macron set the cat among the NATO pigeons this week when he hinted that France just might – no stronger than might at this stage – send troops to Ukraine.

The suggestion was definitely on the table when 21 Western heads of state or government and six foreign ministers met in Paris this week. Polish President Andresz Duda confirmed it.

It was apparently raised by Macron and we know that the frontline Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania backed it. We also know that the British, American and Germans vetoed it – for the time being. Everyone else is keeping their cards close to their chests.

On two things the allies were agreed: Russia is stepping up its cyber and disinformation attacks and that some time in the next few years, according to Macron, “we have to be prepared for Russia to attack the (NATO) countries.”

Immediately following the Paris summit, President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address in which he warned that any further NATO involvement in Ukraine “raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilisation.”

On a slightly less apocalyptic note, Putin said that he would be strengthening Russian forces on its Western flank which means recently annexed Eastern Ukraine, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Russian borders with the Baltic States and new NATO member Finland.

Ideally, NATO would avoid a head to head with Russia by providing Ukraine with the means to keep fighting. But Europe’s defense industries lack the capacity and America’s $60 billion military aid package is being blocked by MAGA Republicans.

One solution was voiced this week by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She suggested using the $300 billion in frozen Russian assets to purchase weapons for Ukraine. The money had been earmarked for reconstruction purposes. But if Ukraine is defeated than there will be nothing to reconstruct.

Russia

Meanwhile, as of this writing, martyred Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being laid to rest in Moscow’s Borisovskoye Cemetery.

The funeral service was held in a Russian Orthodox Church near the Navalny home in southeast Moscow. A large crowd gathered outside the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God. As Navalny’s body was carried in and out of the church the crowd chanted “Navalny, Navalny” interspersed with “executioners, “executioners”

The church was surrounded by masked police guards who blocked several of Navalny’s closest allies still in Russia from entering the church. They also banned cameras and videos from the church, although Navalny’s supporters were able to broadcast much of the event on a You Tube channel which was watched by hundreds of thousands.

The state media did not report the funeral and the Kremlin, when asked to express condolences, refused to do so.

Navalny’s death is the most high profile and dramatic anti-dissident action by the Putin regime. But it is not the only one. This week 70-year-old Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov was sentenced to two and a half years for criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Orlov is best known as the co-chair of Memorial, a Russian human rights organisation which was one of three winners of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. In October he was fined $1,600 for an article in which the state said he “discredited” the army. Not enough, decreed Putin. So the verdict and sentence were cancelled and Orlov was this week placed on trial for the same crime and this time sent to prison.

Orlov and Navalny are only two of thousands of Russians who have dared to criticise Putin. Most of them have either joined Navalny in the grave or Orlov in prison.

United Kingdom

Islam is the new scapegoat of Europe. Actually, that is not accurate, fear of Islamisation has been around since before the Battle of Tours in 732.

But it appears to have reached a fresh apogee in Britain. And the rest of Europe’s far-right parties are no slouches in the Islamaphobic stakes.

Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden…. They have all helped to move the anti-Islam dial and, in doing so, have infected the mainstream political parties.

In Britain it stayed on the distant fringes of the far-right for a long time. Parties such as the British National Party and English Defence League were associated with football hooliganism as much as Islamaphobia.

That started to change with the rise of UKIP and its successor party Reform. They have been gradually chipping away at the right-wing of the Conservative party with the result that the Tories have started to steal some of their anti-Islamic clothes in order to keep their voters.

This became all too apparent this week when Conservative Party Chairman Lee Anderson told the right-wing news channel GB News that the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists and that he had given the city away “to his mates.”

For working purposes, the term “Islamists” is generally interpreted as either Islamic extremists or Islamic fundamentalists. I personally know Sadiq Khan. Before I joined Liberal Democrats I had a brief flirtation with the Labour Party and deputised for Sadiq on two occasions when he was my constituency MP. He is almost as far from being an Islamic extremist as the Pope.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Israel

“The Day After Gaza” – as the discussion about what to do after the fighting is called in Israel, is the number one topic in the Israeli cabinet.

Not surprisingly, the coalition government is hopelessly divided.

On the far-right side are the representatives of the Ultra-Orthodox parties led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. They want to “encourage” the Palestinians to leave the Gaza and replace them with Jewish settlers.

A shade more reasonable is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who wants Israel to retain overall security control while working with a multi-national force in Gaza. Palestinians would be free to manage day-to-day affairs as long as they did not “commit any hostile actions against Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to officially unveil his ideas in cabinet, but he has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In it he said he had three goals – destroy Hamas everywhere; demilitarise the Gaza Strip and “deradicalise” Palestinians.

The first goal, presumably involves assassinating Hamas leaders in foreign countries. This has the potential of being construed by the host country as an act of war. It certainly would not help Israel’s image.

As for demilitarisation, Gaza is already officially demilitarised. Everyone can see how well that has worked.

The third is new and startling Netanyahu claims that at the root of current problems is a Hamas-controlled education system which has radicalised the Palestinians against Israel. He wants to re-educate or “de-radicalise” Palestinians through a revised educational system. This smacks of the re-education camps of China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia….

Taiwan and China

2024 will be a big election year. Four billion people in more than 70 countries will be trooping to the polls.

Some of the elections will be a sham. Russia is a prime example. I can predict now that Vladimir Putin will win.

Others are real and important. They include the US, UK, EU, India, South Korea and Mexico. One of the most important and potentially consequential elections occurs next Saturday in Taiwan. The result will determine if the 24million Taiwanese move away from or towards Mainland China.

The voters’ decision will have a major impact on the actions of Xi Jinping’s China, and this turn has the potential of dramatic consequences for the rest of the world.

The Taiwanese elections are both presidential and legislative. At the moment both the legislature and the presidency are controlled by the Democratic People’s Party (DPP). The President, Tsai Ing-wen has served two terms and is barred from standing for a third.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States (1)

Rudy Guiliani is broke. Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss wish Trump’s top legal adviser wasn’t. A US court has ruled that Guiliani has ruined their lives when he publicly and falsely accused them of tampering with Georgia election ballots.

This Friday a jury of eight was considering whether or not to grant their request for $43 million in damages. An award, which will almost certainly be academic.

Three divorces, a lavish lifestyle and backing Donald Trump’s election lie has destroyed the 79-year-old’s fortune.

The former Mayor of New York was a presidential  candidate in 2007. As such he had to reveal his assets. He said he was worth $18 million. Court accountants believe the figure was probably closer to $70 million. In 2017 he was earning $10 million a year in speaker’s fees alone, and had been doing so for more than 10 years.

He enjoyed the money. According to court documents, Rudy Guiliani in 2017 owned six homes, belonged to 11 country clubs and spent $12,000 a month on cigars.

The fall started with divorce from his wife Judith.  She took a big chunk of his assets and alimony payments of $43,000 per month. But Giuliani’s biggest mistake was joining Donald Trump’s personal legal team in 2018.

By 2020 he was his top lawyer and closely connected with Trump’s election lie. This led to a $10 million defamation suit by an ex-employee and additional law suits from election computer manufacturers Smartamatic and Dominion Voting.

In 2022 the Internal Revenue Service took out a lien on his Florida condo because he had failed to pay $500,000 in taxes. In August of this year his own lawyers sued him $1.4 million in unpaid legal bills. His current net assets are $1 million. His known current liabilities (and there are more to come) are $1.9 million. He is bust. Backing Trump has a price.

United States (2)

Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot over their planned impeachment of President Joe Biden.

There seems to be little doubt that the president’s son Hunter is guilty of a number of bad things. But despite months of deep digging by Republican congressmen, no one has been able to uncover a shred of hard evidence linking the president to his son’s business dealings.

Nevertheless, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives appears determined to start impeachment proceedings against President Biden.

Impeachment is a serious business. It takes a lot of time and effort. While an impeachment is in progress Congress is focused on little else. That means debates over government spending, immigration, Ukraine, Israel and climate change are all put on the legislative backburner.

These are all important issues for the American electorate. They will not thank Republican congressman for ignoring their interests to pursue a political vendetta without evidence to back it up.

Ukraine

It has been a bad week for Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. In Washington he hit a brick wall in an attempt to release $61 billion in aid.

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Observations of an Expat: Nikki Haley

Presidential wannabe Nikki Haley is a charismatic, hard-headed woman who hides her ambition and political nous behind a veil of southern charm.

In 2016 candidate Donald Trump attacked her for suggesting he release his tax returns, the then Governor Haley, flashed an ironic smile and replied: “Bless your Heart.”

Trump simply smiled back. He did not realise that the phrase was Carolina code for “May you rot in Hell.”

The steel magnolia allure of Ms Haley has taken this daughter of Sikh immigrants from the South Carolina legislature to the state governor’s mansion, to the ambassador’s job at the UN and finally to the number two position in the race to win the Republican nomination for the US presidency.

She is yet to become a real threat to front-runner Trump, but she has emerged as the only outside chance.

Haley was a reluctant Trump supporter in 2016. She started off backing Marco Rubio and when he dropped out she switched Ted Cruz. Trump’s rhetoric, she warned, “would lead to violence.”

But in the end Party loyalty won out and one of the most powerful and popular Republican governors endorsed the Trump campaign. In 2017 she was rewarded with the job of US Ambassador to the United Nations.

At the UN former governor now Ambassador Haley agreed and disagreed with Trump. She agreed with him on withdrawal from the Paris Climate. The Iran Nuclear Accord and the UN Human Rights Council. She is – and still is – a big supporter of Israel. But Ambassador Haley opposed Trump’s, threats to NATO, the Muslim ban and his bromance with Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. “Instead of praising dictators,” she said, “we should have the backs of our allies.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Remember Ukraine? A reminder: It is the East European country sandwiched between Russia and Poland which Russia invaded in February 2022.

You would be forgiven for letting it slip from your political consciousness. Six months ago it and its president Volodomyr Zelensky were being hailed as the “democratic shield” protecting the West from land-hungry autocratic Russia.

Now it has been pushed out of the headlines the corridors of concern by the war in Gaza and whichever crisis comes next.

The problem is that Ukraine cannot afford to slip off the front pages. It needs a successful PR campaign to stay in the war and keep the shield intact. Its armaments industry and its population are limited.

Russia’s manpower pool is four times the size of Ukraine’s. Its historic label is “steamroller.” Its armaments industry is ten times larger and was preparing years before the war started. It is also receiving weapons from Iran, North Korea and possibly China.

It is weapons that are particularly important at the moment, especially artillery shells which are used by both sides to hold the enemy at bay. Russia is estimated to have fired 22,000 rounds a day during the summer to stymie the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The Ukrainians fired 5,000 rounds.

European members of NATO promised Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery shells by the end of 2023. It will fall well short of that target, although several European countries–  including Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Finland and the Baltic states—have started to increase their armaments production. However, a lot of the increased production will go towards replacing depleted national stocks.

America, is, of course, the historic “arsenal of democracy.” But President Biden’s promised support is being held up by Republican congressmen who either want to divert money to Israel or feel that Ukraine is solely a European problem.

If the defense of Ukraine is left entirely to Europe then the hard-pressed European economies will have to increase armaments production even more. At the current rate, the million promised rounds is only enough to keep the Ukrainian guns firing for another six months.

UK and Rwanda

Britain’s Rwanda asylum issue is morphing into a constitutional crisis. At stake is the independence of the British judiciary, a long-established cornerstone of the country’s democratic foundations.

The UK Supreme Court recently threw out government plans to fly asylum seekers to the central African country of Rwanda. The basis of their decision was that the proposal was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on Refugees and three British acts of parliament relating to asylum seekers and refugees. Rwanda was not safe, ruled the court, because its government was likely to return asylum seekers to the country from which they had fled. This is known as refoulement.

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China and USA

The Sino-American goalposts have changed. Two years ago, the Chinese economy was booming and the US was struggling to emerge from a damaging coronavirus pandemic.

But as Presidents Biden and XI met in San Francisco this week the American economy was booming at 4.7 percent. The Chinese economy was reeling from a burst property bubble and government crackdowns have led to a flight of foreign capital.

When the Chinese star was in the ascendant so were the sabre-rattling “Wolf Warriors”. But the changed circumstances has led to the dismissal of bellicose foreign minister Qin Gang and last month Xi replaced Defense Minister General Li Shangu who was under US sanctions for overseeing the sale of weapons to Russia.

Beijing cannot afford poor relations with Washington at the moment. And Washington – with the problems of Ukraine, Gaza and forthcoming presidential elections, doesn’t want to have to worry about China. All of which could explain why the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries managed a cordial meeting in San Francisco this week.

But will it hold and can they build on it? The question is still hanging. A week before the meeting US and Chinese diplomats held a meeting to discuss each other’s nuclear arsenals. It was the first such a meeting and a good sign.

Climate change is clearly a topic to build on. It is difficult for the two biggest economies to dispute the importance of saving the planet. There are differences on how to handle fossil fuels but agreement on methane gas emissions.

A big topic in the US is opioid abuse, in particular fentanyl. A sizeable chunk of the drug is produced in Chinese laboratories and shipped to America. Last year fentanyl was responsible for 75,000 American deaths. The two leaders agreed to discuss the issue further Xi stressed that the easiest way to stop the problem would be for Americans to stop buying the drug.

Touchiest topic is Taiwan. On that Biden-Xi agreed to disagree. But they did agree to resume communications between each other’s military establishments. These were suspended after the visit to Taiwan of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Both sides that it was vital for the opposing militaries to talk to one another to avoid accidents. As Xi put it: “Conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”

Taiwan

The potential spanner in the Sino-American diplomatic thaw is January’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan.

At the moment the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) controls both the presidency and the parliament and opinion polls show them way ahead to stay in power.

This is not good news for either Washington or Beijing. This is because the DPP is moving Taiwan to declare itself an independent sovereign nation. This is opposed by Beijing because Taiwan would then be able to offer itself as a multi-party capitalist democratic alternative to the one-party autocracy on the mainland.

The US administration would be unhappy because an independent Taiwan would undermine its policy of “strategic ambiguity” which allows it bestow de jure diplomatic recognition on communist China while enjoying de facto relations with Taiwan.

The problem is an old one. It dates back to 1949 when the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and claimed to represent all of China from the offshore island. Until 1979 successive American administrations agreed with him.

The unilateral independence route is not a foregone conclusion. The Kuomintang Party (KMT) is committed to watering down the independence demands and improving relations with Beijing. This week the party announced it was joining forces with the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) to fight the elections. The outcome could have far-reaching consequences.

Turkey and Germany

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Observations of an Expat: MAGA wins

MAGA has won the Speakership of America’s House of Representatives.

It is difficult to be more MAGA-like than Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson.

He is opposed to Ukraine; supports Israel; maintains that Trump won the 2020 election; is a born again evangelical Christian who quotes the Bible whenever possible; voted against the Biden budget; is a member of the right-wing Freedom caucus;  is opposed to same-sex marriage; opposes abortion and has Trump’s endorsement.

Moderate Republicans – and just about everyone else – were terrified at the prospect of the election of right-wing “legislative terrorist” Jim Jordan. He seemed more intent on tearing down the political establishment then working with it. So they blocked him, again and again and again.

The moderates wanted Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer wielding the Speaker’s gavel. They looked as if they might succeed. Then Donald Trump interceded – in a complete reversal of his previously stated neutrality, and in contravention of all political conventions – slammed Emmer for voting to certify Joe Biden’s election and endorsed Mike Johnson.

By this time the moderates had been worn to a frazzle by long nights, ruined weekends and endless rounds of votes. They risked being blamed for a government shutdown if a Speaker was not chosen soon as well as being accused of preventing vital aid reaching war-torn Israel and Ukraine. They voted for Johnson for an easy life.

They will most likely live to regret it. Moderate Republicans are telling themselves that the lesser of two evils has been elected. But the only real difference between Jim Jordan and Mike Johnson is the decibel levels at which they operate. Jordan’s reputation is as a loud-mouthed arch-conservative bully. Johnson is quieter. He has as worked more in the Capitol Hill shadows and he has not been in Washington as long as Jordan. But Johnson is every bit as uncompromisingly far-right as Jordan and just as ruthless in pursuit of his political agenda. The difference is style, not substance.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be delighted by the Gaza Crisis.

It ticks a number of Moscow’s foreign policy boxes. For a start, it distracts the world from his war crimes in Ukraine and allows him to point the blame finger at America’s absolute support for Israel.

Russia’s Middle East policy is complicated. It supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but Putin also has a close personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has used that relationship to stop Israel from sending weapons to Ukraine.

Russia has also refused to go along with most of the rest of the world in branding …

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United States

The ripple effects following the ejection of Kevin McCarthy from the Speaker’s chair in the US House of Representatives are severe and wide-reaching. The issues most affected are moderates in the Republican Party, Ukraine and the credibility of the United States.

The mainstream of the Republican Party – or at least the congressional caucus – is not as unreasonably far-right as it is portrayed. Out of the 221 Republican members of the lower house, only 40 are signed up members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus. And of those, only about 20 could be considered extreme right by American standards.

The problem is that the Freedom Caucus – especially the far-right 20 or so members – are really a separate political party using the broad coattails of the Republican establishment to pursue policies which are antithetical to their own party. They can succeed in their aims because the Republicans’ majority as a whole is so narrow that the Freedom Caucus holds the balance of power.

In practice this means that the next Speaker could easily be Congressman Jim Jordan, a rabid Trump supporter and founding member of the Freedom Caucus. He has already secured the ex-president’s endorsement.

It also means that Ukraine will find it difficult to secure the next tranche of US military aid it has been promised. For the Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump the issue of self-determination and respect for the rule of law comes after support for Vladimir Putin.

The ejection of McCarthy also makes a US government shutdown almost certain.  It was McCarthy’s successful 11th-hour deal to prevent a shutdown which provided the straw that broke the back of the caucus camel. Any future Speaker will be all too aware that he will suffer the same fate if he allows Biden’s budget through Congress.

All of the above bolsters the belief that political divisions are rendering the US ungovernable. This in turn undermines credibility at home and abroad. America is the recognised standard bearer of world democracy. Alternative systems—especially Russia, China and Iran—argue that if democracy can’t work in America… then it can’t work.

Ukraine

Support for Ukraine this week suffered a blow on the European side of the Atlantic as well as the American.

It came in the form of an election victory for the pro-Russian Slovakian politician Robert Fico and his Direction-Social Democracy (or SMER-SD) Party. Fico’s party failed to win an outright majority in parliament, but with 24 percent of the votes it is the largest single party and is currently in coalition talks with smaller pro-Russian parties.

They have until 16 October to form a government and in the interim period have announced an end to all aid to Ukraine; a block on Ukrainian membership of NATO and an end to Slovakian support for EU sanctions against Russia.

Unlike most of the current batch of European populist parties, SMER-SD is left as opposed to right-wing. This, however, has not prevented Hungary’s populist right-winger Viktor Orban from welcoming Fico’s victory. Clearly common ground on the populist positions on the EU, Russia, gay rights, woke culture, immigration, media restrictions, curbs on the judiciary, sanctions and the war in Ukraine trumps the political spectrum issue.

This is not Fico’s first run at Slovak prime minister. He was initially elected to the job in 2012 with a whopping 83-seat majority. He was forced into coalition after the 2016 election and shortly afterward ran unsuccessfully for the presidency. In 2018 he was forced to resign as prime minister after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. He had been investigating the Slovakian mafia and police later linked Maria Troskova, Fico’s assistant, to the gangs.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Ukraine has approximately 30 days before the autumn/winter rains bring their counter-offensive to a muddy halt.

To date they appear to have broken through the first line of a three-line Russian defense in an area around Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhia. There is an outside possibility they can achieve a major breach, but that is highly unlikely.

There is more depressing news for Ukrainian troops. For a start the bromance between Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will keep the Russian troops supplied with artillery shells to help keep the advancing Ukrainians at bay.

Then there are problems with Poland. Up until this week the Poles have been a driving force behind EU and NATO support for Ukraine. But Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki – with one eye on the farming vote and next month’s general election – has stopped military supplies to Ukraine because Ukrainian grain is driving down Polish wheat prices.

Poland has the support of Slovakia and Hungary and wants EU-wide restrictions on the import of Ukrainian grain. The Ukrainians, of course, are exporting their grain to EU countries because the Russian blockade makes it impossible for them to ship it to their usual customers in the Middle East and Africa.

The next problem is signs that US support is waning. This week Volodomyr Zelensky turned up in Washington to assure American lawmakers that Ukraine is slowly but surely winning. President Biden responded with a $325 million military aid package. Zelensky also has the support of the leadership in both the Senate and House of Representatives. But a group of far-right Republican Trump supporters are threatening to block a financial package which includes an extra $24 billion in aid to Ukraine.

And then, finally, there is the fact that Trump has pledged to stop military aid to Ukraine if he is elected in 2024.

France

It has taken seven years, but it looks as if the investigation of France’s right-wing leader Marine Le Pen may end up in court.

She and 23 members of Her Rassemblement National – including her father Jean-Marine Le Pen – are accused of misuse of EU funds. They allegedly used a total of about $620,000 of money which was meant to be spent on EU administration to fund party activities.

The accusation comes from the Paris Prosecutor’s office and still has to be confirmed by the prosecuting judges. But it seems highly likely that that is a formality.

If she is found guilty, Marine Le Pen faces the possibility of a $1 million fine, 10 years in jail, and a 10-year ban on holding public office. Her conviction would have a major impact on the French and European political landscape.

According to the Paris Prosecutor, Ms Le Pen spent $45,000 of EU funds to pay her personal bodyguard. On another occasion she is alleged to have diverted EU funds to pay for a meeting to discuss party activities and hung an EU flag outside the meeting room. When the meeting started she told party members “take that s**t down.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Donald Trump

Donald Trump will never see the inside of a prison. Neither will he be fitted for an orange onesie.

Not because he is innocent. Based on the evidence I have read to date, he is guilty as Hell. And I am sure a lot more will come out during the numerous trials he faces.

No, he will remain a free man for several reasons. One is that his lawyers will use every trick in their legal library to delay, delay, delay. They will appeal against the Washington venue for the trial there. They will also claim that the Washington judge is biased. The same with New York.

Their objections will be dismissed. But justice requires that they be heard and that takes time.

Next, there is the jury selection. One recent trial took several months to select the jury because they went through over a thousand potential jurors. In the case of Trump, the difficult is in finding 12 people in politically polarised America who do not have an opinion of the man and his election lie.

Even if a jury is selected, a venue is agreed for all four trials and impartial judges are found, there is a reasonable chance that a dedicated MAGA supporter will find their way onto a jury and block a guilty verdict.  Unanimous jury decisions are required in American trials. That is a high bar for the Trump prosecutors.

Let us suppose he is found guilty on a felony charge in a court by a jury somewhere in America. The verdict is then likely to outrage and activate his MAGA base to such an extent that Trump wins the 2024 election. If that happens he will simply pardon himself and his many co-conspirators. The case in Georgia will be more difficult because he can only give pardons for federal crimes and Georgia is a state crime. But his highly paid lawyers should be able to find a loophole.

If they don’t, there is the appeal process. If Trump is found guilty he will appeal. The appeal process can extend for years, possibly up to and beyond Donald Trump’s allotted time on this Earth.

Russian spies

Spies, spies, everywhere – especially the Russians. Which is not surprising. They had a huge spy network in Tsarist days. It was massive under the Soviets and, of course, Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in East Germany.

There is also the fact that Russia is at war, oops, I mean conducting a “special military operation” (SMO) in Ukraine. The SMO means that Russia needs intelligence on who in NATO is supporting what, when, where, how and why in Ukraine. Also, who they can support to espouse the Russian cause, scatter seeds of division and discontent and maybe even overturn a government or two.

And finally, if the war escalates, how best to attack NATO.

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United States

Did Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden talk this week? On the surface it would seem they did not.

Blinken spent a constructive few days in Beijing repairing Sino-American relations, at least to the stage where the two sides were talking to each other even if they were failing to agree on very much.

Then, almost as soon as Blinken steps off the plane, his boss calls China’s President Xi Jinping a dictator. The Chinese foreign ministry immediately responded by attacking Biden’s comments as “blatant political provocation.”

The American president is well known for his foreign policy gaffes and when they occur the State Department jumps in to pour oil on troubled waters and restore diplomatic calm. Not this time.

The State Department spokesman said the following day: “We will continue to responsibly manage this relationship and maintain open lines of communications with the PRC. But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt about our differences.”

He added: “We have been very clear about the areas in which we disagree, including clear differences about the merits and demerits about democracies versus autocracies.”

It would appear that Blinken and Biden are playing a good cop, bad copy routine. This is partly for domestic consumption. US administrations aim for a bipartisan foreign policy, but that is difficult to achieve in the current polarised climate with China the whipping boy of the Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats.

Africa and Russia

Africa went to Moscow this week. It also went to Kyiv, but the most important and interesting leg of the trip was to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

Of course, it wasn’t all of Africa. It was the heads of government of Egypt, South Africa, Congo, Comoros and South Africa. The delegation was led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who has come under attack for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and allowing Vladimir Putin to visit South Africa in August despite a warrant for his arrest issued by the International Criminal Court.

The African leaders called the trip a “Peace Mission” and justified their involvement by the fact that their continent suffered a 30 million tonnes of grain shortfall in 2022 because of the war in Ukraine. They issued a ten-point plan which called for guaranteed grain supplies, an exchange of prisoners of war and the return of all children to their country of origin.

In Kyiv that had to run for air raid shelters during a missile attack and were told by President Zelensky that there could be no peace without Russian withdrawal.

In Moscow, President Putin told them that the grain deal could be cancelled altogether; that the “special military operation” would drag on and that the thousands of Ukrainian children taken to Russia were moved to protect them. In short, there was no joy for the Africans in either capital.

Back in South Africa, the trip has been branded a poorly conceived and badly executed effort to repair Ramaphosa’s tarnished image. The South Africans were especially humiliated when the plane carrying Ramaphosa, his advisers, journalists and 15 containers of weapons, was stopped at Warsaw Airport because it did not have the correct paperwork. The plane had to return to South Africa and start all over again.

Ukraine

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are planning their own diplomatic offensive to back up their military counter-offensive.

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Observations of an expat: India

The Washington red carpet rolled out for Narendra Modi this week underscores India’s emergence as a cornerstone of America’s foreign policy.

Delhi is seen not only in military terms as a regional counterbalance to China, but increasingly as a major economic partner and a key to reducing Western dependence on Chinese factories.

But there are trip holes in the carpet of which all players need to be aware.

The biggest gaps are historical. India’s democratic institutions are the latest layer of centuries of political and cultural veneers that pre-date the Greco-Roman traditions that are the roots of American and European civilisation.

In many ways, India and China have more in common than the US and India. They are both Asian. They are both proud of their ancient histories, and they both endured the rigours and humiliation of colonialism. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of independence, this perceived commonality with China encouraged Jawaharlal Nehru to pursue a close relationship with Beijing. It foundered on the rocks of a disputed Himalayan border.

The two countries also have a common cause in that they both assert that the current legal structures that underpin the world order are disadvantageous to their interests and the interests of the wider developing world. They were written by Western countries for Western countries in the wake of World War Two. They need to be adapted to the 21st century. For a start, India wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Then there is Russia. Again, the relations between India and Moscow go back to the struggle against the British, when many members of the independence movement visited Russia and received training and support. When independence came, it was only natural that the links forged in the shadows emerged as public policy and Russia became India’s arsenal and a major aid supplier.

The US responded to the Russian presence by supporting India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan and then, from the 1970s until about 2010, China which also threw its weight behind Pakistan and launched a border war with India in the Himalayas.

The US is keen to wean India’s military off their Russian suppliers and is offering not only weaponry but defense technology to allow India to expand its own defense industry. This sits well with Modi’s “Make in India” policy. Moscow, however, still supplies 49 percent of India’s weaponry although it is down from 70 percent a few years ago. The US in 2022 supplied only 11 percent of India’s military needs.

India’s continuing attachment to Russia is evident in Modi’s refusal to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. His purchase of discounted Russia oil and gas has been a major factor in Moscow’s ability to finance its war machine. In fact, India has increased its purchases of Russian energy ten-fold.

India is unlikely to abandon Moscow for Washington and the Biden Administration appears to have reconciled itself to this political reality. China, it argues, is the bigger long term threat to American interests and is emphasising the anti-Chinese Quad Alliance of India, America, Australia and Japan.

The problem with the Quad is that India almost instinctively rebels against formal alliances. Delhi was one of the driving forces behind the 1961 creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (along with Yugoslavia, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia). It is still a key member. Indian’s strong attachment to non-alignment is one of the reasons that the Quad is not a formal alliance like NATO, but rather a structure for security dialogue. In fact, its formal title is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

India’s foreign policy is based more on relationships rather than formal alliances. It prefers a transactional form of mutual back scratching then strict commitments. As the world’s most populous country and the fifth largest – soon to be third – economy in the world, India is becoming increasingly aware of its diplomatic heft, and is acting accordingly.

It was during the Clinton Administration that the State Department first starting courting the emerging India. But the big breakthrough came during the George W. Bush years when in 2005 the two countries signed the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. India thus became the only nuclear weapons state that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty who was allowed to conduct nuclear commerce with other states.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

NATO

The current Arctic military exercises are relatively small by NATO standards. But they are hugely significant. They are they the first manoeuvres in which Finland has participated as a full member of the Alliance.

In fact, 12 countries are participating; two of whom are NATO partners: Sweden and Switzerland. The latter has been neutral for more than half a millennium.

There is no chance that the Swiss will end their neutrality, but in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Sweden decided that the NATO umbrella was more important than its 200-year non-alignment policy. Unfortunately, NATO membership requires the support of all 31 member countries. Two members, Turkey led by President Tayyip Recep Erdogan and Hungary led by self-declared illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban, blocked it.

The hope of the rest of the Alliance is that Erdogan will be more receptive to compromise following his 28 May re-election for a further five years. In the next few weeks there will be a constant stream of visitors to Ankara to try to persuade the Turkish leader to drop his veto. They will be led by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg but will also include senior officials from the US, UK, France, Germany, the Baltic states and, of course, Sweden.

The aim is to change Erdogan’s mind so that the Alliance welcome the Swedes into NATO alliance at the heads of government summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11-12 July. But NATO has to overcome Hungarian objections as well as Turkish.

Hungary’s veto is based on two important foreign policy pillars: good relations with Russia and Turkey. The former is rooted in land-locked Hungary’s total dependence on Russian oil and gas. This is also the reason Hungary continues to defy Western sanctions by buying Russian energy. The Turkish connection is based more on a common ideology between the two right-wing populists – Erdogan and Orban.

The official stated reason for Hungarian opposition is Swedish criticism of Orban’s democratic credentials. “Stockholm,” wrote a Hungarian government spokesperson recently, “sits on a crumbling throne of moral superiority.” It is a weak argument. Swedish criticism of Orban is no greater than that of most of Western Europe, and the hope is that if Erdogan has been brought into line, Orban will follow.

USA

America will NOT default on its debt. That is a near – but not quite – certainty. The House of Representatives has voted to raise the debt ceiling. The Senate has to follow suit by 5 June and is almost certain to do so.

In the end there was the inevitable compromise between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic President Joe Biden. To please the Republicans $1.3 trillion was shaved off the federal budget.

There were some cuts to welfare spending but not enough to alienate Democratic Congressmen but enough for Republicans to point to an achievement. The biggest White House concession was to allow the building of an oil pipeline through West Virginia in order to secure the support of troublesome Democratic Senator Joe Manchin as well as Republican congressmen.

In the context of the bigger picture the amount saved is insignificant. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government will spend $80-plus trillion over the next ten years.

The problem that both parties face is that there is virtually no room for discretionary spending cuts. To start with there is defense. Both parties support a large defense establishment. The result is that US defense spending is 3.1 percent of GDP and 12 percent of the federal budget.  American government spending on its military represents 40 percent of military spending in the entire world.

But an untouchable military is only part of the budget problem. Two-thirds of federal spending is the even bigger sacred cow of social security (state pensions) and medicare (medical insurance for the elderly). Both of these are increasing in line with an ageing American population.

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United States

US presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis this week said Ukraine is a territorial dispute. He also said that Ukraine is not one of America’s vital national interests. This puts him seriously at odds with President Joe Biden, America’s NATO allies and about 50 other countries who firmly believe that the war in Ukraine is a battle between democracy and autocracy, good and evil.

DeSantis was not always of this opinion. In 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea, the Florida governor was in the forefront of those calling for Ukraine to be armed. The reason for the shift appears to be his political ambitions.

First hurdle in the race to the White House is securing the Republican Party nomination and at the moment  the opinion polls show him trailing his main opponent – Donald Trump, who is well known for his pro-Russian, anti-NATO and anti-Ukraine politics.

DeSantis clearly reckons that the only way to beat Trump is to out-Trump the former president. The problem he will face – once in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave – is moving from an anti to pro-Ukraine policy. De Santis’s rhetoric is a strategic gift to Vladimir Putin. He and his Kremlin coterie are banking heavily on a Republican victory in 2024. This means they only have to hold on for another 18 months or so before American disenchantment becomes official foreign policy.

France

The French, it is said, work to live. Americans, Brits, Japanese, Germans … live to work. This basic difference in outlook goes a long way to explaining why millions of Frenchmen and women are protesting and striking against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the start of the state pension from 62 to 64 years. It will deprive them of two years “living time” or, as the neighbouring Italians would say: “La Dolce Vita.”

The problem with this idyllic view of life is that it clashes with hard-nosed demographics. France’s population is growing older and less productive. The French Treasury can’t afford to arm Ukraine, switch to a green economy and pay for the pandemic as well as continue to pay for one of the world’s most generous pension schemes. Especially as the French population is clinging to life much longer than the insurance actuaries estimated when today’s retirees entered the workforce.

In fact, when estimating premiums and pay-outs, insurance companies calculate that their customers will live for five years after they start taking their pension. The current average life expectancy of a Frenchman is 82. The maths no longer work.

The demographic problems faced by France, are common throughout the developed world. Which is why governments are pushing up state retirement ages. But this has not stopped the French from arguing that their national motto of “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité” makes them a special case.

As a result, for the last few weeks they have been out in their hundreds of thousands to protest against Macron’s plans. They were heard. More importantly, the Deputies to the National Assembly listened. This week Macron failed to garner the necessary Assembly votes to push through his pension plans. So he used Article 49:3 of the constitution which permits the government to enact legislation without parliamentary approval, but allows the opposition to table a quick vote of no confidence.

The reaction was immediate and brutal. Opposition Deputies banged their desks, waved flags and placards and sang the Marsellaise. They also tabled the aforementioned vote of no confidence in the government. Outside the National Assembly riots broke out across the country. More than 150 people were arrested by Friday morning.

If the no confidence vote is passed then the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne will fall and parliamentary elections will be held. Macron’s Renaissance party is already in a minority in the National Assembly. After an election with the pension age as the only issue, his representation will almost certainly fall further. This will make it more difficult for him to govern and be grist for the mill of his far-right opponent Jean-Marine LePen.

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Observations of an expat: Shifting playing field

The diplomatic playing field has shifted this week. The cause is China’s successful brokering of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Middle East arch-enemies and regional super powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the fact that new embassies will appear in Riyadh and Tehran does not mean that all will now be sweetness and light. Deep-seated differences remain between the founts of Sunni Islam and the world’s Shi-ites. But there is no doubt that jaw jaw is better than the undeclared war that has existed in the Gulf region for decades.

The biggest regional winner is Saudi Arabia. Iran has been sniping away at the kingdom’s oil and communications infrastructure and backing Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The eight-year Yemeni civil war has cost an estimated 300,000 lives; badly tarnished Saudi Arabia’s international reputation and drained the treasury. If diplomatic communications can shift the Iranian position on Yemen then it will enable Crown Prince to focus more on his economic plans as well as improving his platform on the world stage.

A definite loser in the current shift is Israel. Jerusalem’s implacable enemy is Iran. The Iranians support Hezbollah and Hamas and are on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon which they say would be an existential threat to their existence.  Maintaining tensions between Arabs and Persians was a key element in Jerusalem’s divide and conquer diplomacy in the Persian Gulf.

The biggest loser, however, is the US. The biggest winner is China.  From 1945 to 1990 there were two super powers who competed for dominance on the world stage—America and the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War the United States has been the go-to nation for any government seeking support in a diplomatic struggle.

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Observations of an expat: Adjusting the thermostat

European thermometers dropped this week. But generally speaking it has been a relatively mild winter and temperatures are starting to rise. This is good news for Ukraine. Good news for Europe. Bad news for Russia and great news for America.

Twelve months ago the Western Alliance was seriously worried that Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and oil would render it powerless to stand up to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The outlook is now considerably brighter. Cash-strapped consumers turned down thermostats. Russian gas supplies have been cut by two-thirds. Nordstream pipelines have shut down (thank you saboteurs whomever you  may be). New storage facilities have been built for liquefied natural gas (LNG). The US has increased its shipments of LNG and Europe is moving faster towards renewable energy sources.

Glitches remain. Landlocked countries such as Austria, Hungary and Slovakia remain heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas and some 20 billion cubic metres (BCM) of Russian gas is still being pumped by pipeline into the EU. Ironically, the pipeline runs through Ukraine. Also, Europeans have increased purchases of Russian LNG, but moves are afoot to reverse that.

The bulk of Europe’s gas is now coming from America. Exports from the US are up 137 percent from a year ago. Companies such as Chevron and Exxon have stepped up fracking operations in Texas, Appalachia, New Mexico and Louisiana. They freeze the gas in terminals and then ship it to Europe. There it is transferred to either newly built storage facilities or specially adapted ships where it is returned to its gaseous state and piped to homes, power stations and factories.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

China

We will probably never know the reason for the removal of Hu Jintao from the recent Chinese People’s Party Congress. Was it the result of the medical problems of a confused old man? Or was it a crude attempt by Xi Jinping to emphasise that he is now totally in charge?

79-year-old Hu was Xi’s immediate predecessor. His administration was known for corruption, market reforms and greater political freedom; all of which are being suppressed by Xi. There must have been some discomfort among the party grandees about Xi amending the constitution to allow himself to serve a third (and probably fourth, fifth…) term as party leader and president.

Publicly humiliating Hu could have been his way of warning off potential critics. There aren’t many left in the upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi has used the party congress to eliminate rivals and confirm acolytes. Good for Xi but bad for the world. Having the world’s most powerful dictator surrounded by Yes Men is not good news.

Franco-German Alliance

The Franco-German Alliance has been at the heart of peace in Europe since 1962 when Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle buried a century of brutal animosity in a service at Reims Cathedral.  But what has been termed the “engine room of the EU” is now showing signs of stalling in the face of the energy crisis, the Ukraine War and relations with America.

French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for an EU-wide agreement to cap gas prices and share resources. Such a move was approved in principle at a recent EU summit but Germany’s Olof Scholz is dragging German feet on agreeing the details. At the same time, the Germans have been using their buying power to secure gas supplies at the expense of less well-off EU members. So far the Germans have filled about 90 percent of their storage capacity while countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are struggling.

There are also differences over defense and how military and economic aid should be directed towards Ukraine. The Germans are keen to use Ukraine to tie Washington closer to the defense of Europe. France sees the war as an opportunity to increase European defense cooperation and are angry at the Germans’ cancellation of Franco-German projects involving a new generation of fighter aircraft and battle tanks. Scholz and Macron were keen to smile for the cameras and minimise their differences at their most recent meeting, but they also postponed a 26 October regular Franco-German ministerial conference until “sometime in January.”

US and Ukraine

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Tom Arms’ World Review

USA

Who are the MAGA Republicans that Biden claims are threatening American democracy?

For a start they support the cult of Donald Trump and cults are antithetical to democratic values. Next they propagate the lie that Trump won the 2020 presidential elections. And unless an estimated 40 million voters drank a hallucinogenic Kool-aid they know that Trump is lying. Or alternatively, America is facing a major mental health problem. Finally, they feel so threatened by the values and policies of the Democratic Party that they are prepared to jettison truth, the rule of law and a much-revered constitution in the pursuit of power.

The current battle ground for what Biden has dubbed the “soul of America” is the mid-term elections to the Senate in House in two months’ time. His threat to democracy speech this week at Independence Hall in Philadelphia was Biden’s opening salvo in the campaign. Only a few months ago the received political wisdom was that the Democrats faced a drubbing at the polls and the likely loss of both houses of Congress. But that was then.

In the intervening period Biden has proved himself a legislative mastermind by pushing through his economy and climate change package. Missing top secret papers have been found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hideaway. Support for the Ukraine war has grown. Abortion has become an election campaign with polls indicating most voters favouring controlled termination. Inflation has stalled and gasoline prices tumbled.

Sleepy Joe has woken up, come out fighting and rapidly climbed five percentage points in the opinion polls. Trump backers are, however, standing firm. In fact, every attack on the ex-president and every legal investigation is greeted with cries of “witch hunt” and “conspiracy.” The MAGA squad have invested too much in the cult of Trump. They cannot afford to fail and are likely to resort to increasingly desperate claims and acts. This should be one of the most interesting US mid-term elections ever.

Pakistan

Two thousand-plus dead so far. More rain. More death. More destruction to come. Baked mud homes returned to mud and washed away. A bill which so far is expected to easily surpass $10 billion. Pakistan’s monsoon floods are a humanitarian disaster and another climate change warning.

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Observations of an expat: unholy alliance

The unholy alliance of the Christian Right and the Republican Party has conquered its Everest with the end of abortion in most of America.

It still has other political mountains to climb: Same-sex marriage, gay rights, equal rights, Christian nationalism, creationism, contraception, sex education, political correctness, gambling, pornography, Sunday trading…

But Roe v Wade was top target. It was the emotively totemic issue that united hardline conservative Republicans and Evangelicals and differentiated them from the rest of the country.

The alliance, however, may now be facing the downward slope. A poll taken just after the Supreme Court decision showed that 59 percent of Americans support abortion and 58 percent now want a federal law making abortion available nationwide.

The unholy alliance’s victory shows what religious fervour linked with political organisation can achieve. But the majority has learned the hard lesson of complacency associated with defending the status quo. They have been galvanised, are removing the gloves and have electoral numbers on their side.

America has a long history of mixing politics and religion. New England was founded by religious dissidents who sought to breakaway from establishment Church of England and for a long time set up their own theocracy in America. The US constitution was seen as a triumph of rationalism, the summit of the Age of Reason and a victory over the religious superstition of the medieval world.

For about 100 years enlightened reasoning – with exceptions – reigned largely supreme within the American corridors of power. Then along came Darwin and the church split between the fundamentalists who dismissed evolution as heresy and those who reluctantly accepted it as the logical fruit of science.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Nine weeks. This is how much time – according to the International Grain Council – that the world has before the Ukraine War sets the world on an unalterable course towards world famine. This is because in nine weeks Ukrainian farmers will start harvesting the winter grain crop and start moving it to portside harbours to be shipped out via the Black Sea. The problem is that those silos are already filled with 200 million tons of grain from the previous harvest because of the Russian naval blockade and destruction of Mariupol. If that grain is not moved – and moved quickly – the winter harvest will simply rot in the fields and the same fate awaits the Ukrainian autumn harvest and every subsequent harvest until the silos are emptied and the blockade lifted.

On top of that, Western sanctions are blocking the export of Russian grain. Between them, Ukraine and Russia, account for 20 percent of the world’s grain production. They also contribute mightily to the global stores of rapeseed oil, sunflower seeds and oil, barley and (with Belarus) potash for fertiliser. Africa and the Middle East obtain 40 percent of their grain from Ukraine and Russia – 95 percent of it shipped via the Black Sea.  The UN is desperately trying to negotiate a naval corridor to rescue the grain. Turkey is also trying to mediate and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was in Ankara this week to discuss the problem. But a diplomatic solution seems unlikely. Russia refuses to cooperate until Western sanctions are lifted. Ukraine accuses Moscow of stealing its grain and Moscow says the responsibility for clearing the mines it laid blocking the harbours is Ukraine’s responsibility. Until those issues are resolved the grain stays in the silos and the harvest in the fields.

During Cold War One the US and Soviet Union flexed their economic muscle to compete for economic influence in the developing world. America – with its deeper pockets – won. Now the battle is between Washington and Beijing and the economically powerful Chinese are pulling ahead. They are now the number one trading partner for most countries in Africa and Asia. But most worrying for the US is the growth of Chinese investment and trade in what it regards as its backyard – Latin America. Between 2002 and 2019, China’s trade with Latin America and the Caribbean grew from $18 billion to $316 billion. China is now the number one trading partner with every major Latin American country except Mexico. With this trade comes political power and influence.

Chinese success was the driving force behind President Joe Biden’s decision to call this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles but the gathering was not the success he had hoped for. Various initiatives were discussed: a new development bank, training for 500,000 health workers; a food security programme and a “climate partnership.” But the US only invited what it regarded as democratic governments to the summit which excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This angered many of the other attendees (including neighbouring Mexico) who registered their displeasure by sending their foreign ministers instead of the head of government as requested. As the US Congress pores over the details of any Latin American programme there will doubtless be strings attached to any trade or aid deals. This is in stark contrast with the Chinese. They are interested in only in the money, markets and access to strategic raw materials. The governments with which they deal are free to champion or suppress human rights without comment or interference from Beijing – for now.

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Observations of an expat: US Elections and 6 January

American Democrats have set up giant screens across key locations. Free ice cream is on offer and major political revelations are promised.

Bennie Thompson, committee chairperson, has already accused ex-President Donald Trump of an “attempted coup.”

The Congressional committee investigating the 6 January Capitol Hill Riots is going public – in a big way. Trump and his army of supporters have dismissed the committee’s hearings as a “political hoax.”

The first carefully choreographed hearings started on Thursday night. More are planned next week and later in the month. CBS, NBC and ABC are broadcasting the hearings live. Fox News will not. Republican spin …

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Observations of an expat: gun control v. tyranny

Chiselled on the wall of the entrance lobby of the National Rifle Association are the words: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

This, claims the gun lobby is the Second Amendment of the US constitution. It is not. The oft-quoted right to bear arms clause is preceded by the words “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right….”

Should the amendment be read in its entirety with the second half contingent on the first? Or has the need for a citizens’ militia become redundant in the modern age and therefore only the second half remains relevant?

The NRA is in no doubt. It only every quotes the second half. All references to militias are conspicuous by their absence.

But why do Americans need guns? Conservatives say it is to protect themselves and their families from bad people with guns. Liberals reply: then take the guns away from the baddies as well as the goodies so no one can shoot. It is a policy that has worked in Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other developed countries.

American conservatives retort with what may be the real reason for hanging onto their firearms: Individual gun ownership is the ultimate defence against tyranny – the tyranny of anarchy and the tyranny of overbearing government.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz – one of the most prominent supporters of the NRA and a major beneficiary of the gun lobby’s largesse – was crystal clear on the tyranny issue when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He wrote in his campaign literature:

“The Second Amendment isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It’s a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”

But from whence does this need for weapons as protection against tyranny come? The answer is Britain.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Sweden and Finland want to join NATO. Vladimir Putin has reversed himself and reluctantly said that membership of the Alliance by the two Nordic countries posed “no threat”.  A seamless Swedish-Finnish application seemed certain.

Wait, the diplomats forgot about the perennial thorn in NATO’s Southern flank- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An application to join NATO requires the approval of all 30 members and President Erdogan has threatened a Turkish block. His reason? He is angry because Sweden and Norway give asylum to members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which he is trying to wipe out. Sweden and Finland also imposed sanctions against Turkey when Erdogan ordered his troops into Northern Syria in 2016 (they are still there).

At the top of the list of criteria for NATO membership, is, according to the US State Department, a commitment “to uphold democracy, including tolerance for diversity.” On that basis, Erdogan’s Turkey would fail membership requirements. Since the attempted 2016 coup, Erdogan has jailed nearly 80,000 judges, military officers, civil servants, police, teachers and journalists. 130 media organisations have been closed. Homosexuality is banned and Erdogan has announced plans to reinstate the death penalty. There is, of course, no question of booting Turkey out of the Alliance. It is the strategic bridge between Europe and Asia and at the moment prevents Russian ships from sailing through the Dardanelles to join the war in Ukraine. Realpolitik trumps human rights.

But should Erdogan be allowed to prevent solidly democratic countries from joining NATO? The British government have indicated a possible workaround if Erdogan refuses to change his mind. It has signed a separate “mutual assistance” treaty with Norway and Sweden. If other NATO countries followed suit then the Turkish veto would be irrelevant.

The shooting in a Buffalo supermarket which left ten African-Americans dead is not an isolated incident. According to a report by the respected Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 67 percent of the domestic terror incidents recorded in 2020 were organised by far-right and white supremacist groups. Many of those who stormed Capitol Hill were White supremacists. FBI Director Christopher Wray described White Supremacy as a “significant and pervasive threat” to the US. President Biden called it a “poison running through the body politic.”

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Elon Musk is a brilliant entrepreneur and the world’s richest man. He also has a gargantuan ego, mercurial personality and thinks big. Tesla was developed to create a carbon-free planet. Space X is designed to give humanity a Martian bolthole in case we fail on Earth. His takeover of Twitter is, in his words, the result of a “strong intuitive sense that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important for the future of civilisation.”

Musk is a free speech absolutist. He is opposed to Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump but would be likely to countenance suspension. This brings the mercurial Musk into conflict with most of the EU governments, Britain and India. They have either introduced or are planning legislation to force social media to police their sites to prevent hate speech, conspiracy theories and outright lies such as Trump’s claim that he won the 2020 presidential election.  How this will resolve itself will be watched very carefully by all the other social media players because, based on past performance, Musk is not the sort of person to quietly accept government interference.

With the French presidential elections and the war of Ukraine grabbing the headlines you might have missed an important election result in the Balkan state of Slovenia. It was billed as a “referendum on democracy” and democracy won. On one side of the political ring was incumbent Prime Minister Janez Jansa. He is a Trump-loving ally of Hungary’s right-wing populist leader Viktor Orban. According to Freedom House his latest two-year tenure (he had been elected PM twice before), has been marked by Slovenia suffering the sharpest decline in Democratic institutions and values of any country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Jansa repeatedly attacked the judiciary and the media whom he called “liars” and “presstitutes”.

Facing Jansa was 55-year-old former Fulbright scholar Robert Golob.  He is businessman who created the state-owned energy company GEN-1 and has limited political experience as a city councillor and former State Secretary at the Ministry of Economics. In January he created the Freedom Party to contest the April elections. The result was a resounding victory. The Freedom Party won 34.5 percent of the vote compared to 23.6 percent for Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party. The turnout was also encouraging. 71 percent of Slovenia’s 1.7m voters cast their ballots compared to 51 percent in elections two years ago. The increase in voter turnout has been attributed to Golob persuading young people to vote – a possible lesson for other politicians seeking to remove far right populists from elected office.

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Book review: “The Avoidable War” by Kevin Rudd

As the title of the book suggests, the author believes meeting jaw to jaw would be far better than catastrophic conflict and war between the US and China.  He also lays out in painstaking detail no less than 10 different scenarios, as a “cautionary guide” to policy makers navigating the dangerous waters in the decade ahead.

Would America have their Waterloo moment with China taking over Taiwan militarily or will it relive a new Korean stalemate with protracted military conflict and large- scale casualties on both sides?  Of course, ideally China and the US could also find themselves within a new world order without the need for military confrontation (Xi’s Optimal Plan).

At an interview last month following the launch of the book in Washington, Rudd said that writing the book was like giving birth to an elephant.  Indeed, the book is no light reading from a heavy weight Sinologist, former PM of Australia and current President and CEO of the Asia Society think tank.  Yet I raced through the chapters without too much effort, finding the tone and style flowing and engaging. Rudd also managed to dissect complex issues into bite sized chapters, shedding light on China’s concentric circles of concern and influence.

The kernel that lies within the first concentric circle is of course the Chinese Communist Party and the politics of staying in power.  Rightly or wrongly, Xi and the leadership believe that China needs strong central leadership lest it dissolves into bickering camps or breaks up like the Soviet Union had in 1991. With Xi Jinping thought now embedded in the Chinese Constitution and the removal of 2 fixed terms of the Presidency, the next 20th Party Congress in the second half of 2022 is likely to deliver the result he wants.

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