Tom Arms’ World Review

France and Germany

The Franco-German alliance is wobbling. As if to emphasise the problem, this past weekend the entire German cabinet decamped to Versailles in an attempt to improve relations.

The relationship between Paris and Berlin is one of the cornerstones of the European Union. It has been held since 1960 when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer ended a century of war and suspicion at Reims Cathedral.

Some of the current problems can be attributed to the egos of Macron and Scholz. President Macron makes no secret of his desire to lead Europe. Unfortunately the French economy does not match its president’s ambitions. At the same time the rather colourless Chancellor Olof Scholz is having difficulty filling the over-sized shoes of his predecessor Angela Merkel.

The personal relationship between the two leaders is complicated by important policy differences over China, Ukraine, Russia and energy. Scholz encourages trade with China. Macron is more diffident. The French president also wanted the German Chancellor’s recent visit to Beijing to be a joint Franco-German affair. Scholz refused.

On energy, the French are annoyed that the Germans failed to foresee the problems of dependence Russian oil and gas and remain reluctant to build nuclear power plants. About 70 percent of French energy is nuclear while in Germany it is only 12 percent.

Then there is Ukraine. The French – along with most of the rest of France and Germany’s allies – are annoyed that almost every scrap of German military and economic aid has to be dragged out of the Scholz government. When it comes the aid is often generous, but the “frank discussions” that precede it are causing friction.

India

Don’t mess with the BBC. That should have been the message that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heeded before trying to ban a documentary attacking him.  The BBC has 22,000 staff, 192 million radio listeners, 294 million television  viewers, the world’s most visited news website. Distribution deals with television networks around the world, and the most trusted brand in world journalism.

None of the above, however, stopped Modi from banning a two-part documentary entitled “India: the Modi Question” from being shown or distributed in India.

The documentary was not Modi friendly. In fact, it was extremely unfriendly The programme strongly implied that Modi climbed to power on the back of divisive Hindu nationalism. Also that while Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 he stood aside and allowed Hindu rioters to massacre 1,000 Muslims . That was part one. In Part two, the documentary accused Modi of trying to disenfranchise the Muslim minority; suppressing freedom of speech, assembly and the press, intimidating his political opponents and moving the world’s largest democracy towards an authoritarian Hindu state.

So, the programme was not re-broadcast on Indian television. But the ban was reported in the Indian press. The resultant publicity meant that  tens of millions viewed it on the internet and at special showings at Indian universities. And as they watched the viewers would have asked: If it isn’t true why has Modi banned it? Of what is he frightened? And finally they thought: the BBC is usually reliable.

The documentary ended with a diplomat saying that the Western world is turning a blind eye to Modi’s political excesses. He said that India was too important as an economy and a counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia.

Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock this week moved to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to nuclear Armageddon. The minute hand has been moved to its news dangerous position mainly because of the war in Ukraine.

The Doomsday Clock is based at the University of Chicago and is meant to warn humanity how close it is to destroying itself and the planet. If the clock reaches midnight it means that there has been a cataclysmic nuclear exchange or climate disaster.

The board that sets the clock reported this week: “Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict – by accident, intention or miscalculation – is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spiral out of anyone’s control remains high.”

The Ukraine War was also blamed for delaying negotiations for a New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty to replace the existing agreement which will expire in February 2026. The clock’s board warned that failure to replace START would “eliminate mutual inspections, deepen mistrust, spur a nuclear arms race and heighten the possibility of a nuclear exchange.”

The hands of the Doomsday Clock are set every year by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Their bona fides are impressive. They are not some pontificating hack journalist blogging in his London study. The board was founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. Its current membership includes ten Nobel laureates.

Afghanistan

There appears to be dissension in the ranks of the Taliban. The cause is the role of women and the need for effective aid agencies to prevent mass starvation.

The Supreme leader, ultra-conservative Ayatollah Hibatulla Akhundzada, is primarily responsible for the misogynistic diktats that banned girls and women from schools and from working with the vital aid agencies.

Akhundzada is a religious ideologue. He is based in Kandahar rather than the capital Kabul and issues theocratic pronouncements from behind closed doors. In fact, he is rarely seen in public and some observers believe that he is dead. His edicts, however, are treated as political gospel by a large segment of Afghanistan’s devout Islamic population.

The Taliban government in Kabul is left to deal with the consequences. These include 28 million out of a total population of 32 million living in extreme poverty. Six million are facing starvation and the entire country is suffering the worst winter in decades with temperatures plummeting to -28 centigrade. This in a country where most huts are made from dried mud and heating consists of a charcoal burner.

The ban on women working NGOs and aid agencies has spelled an end to operations by Save the Children, Care International, the International Red Cross, Norwegian Refugee Council and even Islamic Relief. Women are needed partly because of numbers and partly because most aid is directed at families and mothers and men are banned from interacting with them – especially foreign men.

This week Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, reported a possible change of direction by the Kabul government that would allow women to work “in some aid agencies.”

The exact details have not been publicised, but it would appear that Islamic lawyers have found a loophole. The fear now is that Ayatollah Akhundzada will close the loophole. This in turn could widen the rift between the ideologues and the moderate members of the Taliban trying to resolve a humanitarian crisis.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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8 Comments

  • My take on The Doomsday Clock people is that they are “Useful Idiots” for Putin now as they were for his Communist predecessors . Putin wants us to be terrified.
    The facts are that Nuclear “Weapons” have been available to many sides for more than three quarters of a Century & have never been used since Nagasaki. They are far more effective as an Insurance Policy than as actual Weapons.

  • Mel Borthwaite 29th Jan '23 - 1:20pm

    @Paul Barker
    I’m afraid I disagree with you on this. I believe that the risk of a nuclear war in now greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and arguably, greater than even during that period. The situation we face now is an actual war between Russia and NATO/others backed Ukraine where the three possible outcomes are 1) a Russian victory, 2) a compromise or 3) Russia resorting to nuclear weapons to prevent a military defeat. NATO and Ukraine have made it clear that they will not accept or allow a Russian victory or accept a compromise to end the war, insisting that Russia must be defeated. You may believe that Russia will be able to accept a military defeat without resorting to their nuclear arsenal – I think that highly unlikely.

  • Nuclear disarmament is a serious issue. We have gone backwards in recent decades. Former Soviet states that disarmed and joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states include Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Neither South Korea or Japan has nuclear weapons and neither wants to go down that road.
    Even before the recent invasion of Ukraine, Mikhail Gorbachev in a 2019 BBC interview was warning that the current tension between Russia and the West is putting the world in “colossal danger” due to the threat from nuclear weapons and calling for all countries to declare that nuclear weapons should be destroyed.
    A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Europe (from the Urals to Ireland’s Atlantic coast), could be the basis for a new security relationship between Russia and Nato and potentially a stepping stone to conflict resolution in Ukraine. That would require Britain and France to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the removal of US weapons from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. That could be presented as a significant win for the Russian government.

  • Paul Barker 29th Jan '23 - 6:17pm

    The point I was making was about The Doomsday Clock – here we have group of people who have been saying that Nuclear War is just round the corner for the last half Century. The fact that they keep getting it wrong doesn’t seem to affect either their view of themselves or the willingness of others to take them seriously. The obvious analogies would be those Christian Sects who are forever announcing The “Last Days” or Communist Sects who think The Revolution is always coming soon – although it never does.
    I have no opinion on whether the actual use of Nuclear Weapons has become more likely, I can’t read Putins mind.

  • @Paul Barker. The Scientific board that sets the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock has not been saying that nuclear war is around the corner. In the 1980s and 1990s it was usually around 15 minutes or so before midnight. That is a lot different than 90 seconds.

  • nvelope2003 29th Jan '23 - 8:08pm

    The Russian leader is not rational or he would not have invaded Ukraine. That is the problem when you have a man who wants to win a nuclear war if it comes. Nobody thought Sinn Fein would take Ireland out of the United Kingdom and the Mighty British Empire but they did.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 30th Jan '23 - 9:40pm

    “3) Russia resorting to nuclear weapons to prevent a military defeat.”

    Why didn’t they do it last year when they couldn’t take Kyiv? or when the Kherson counteroffensive undid most of their gains?

    Because the nuclear weapons threats have always been a bluff. They know they will get a nuclear response back and the West have far less cities to hit.

    Putin specialises in spreading fear and clouding people’s judgements through it. According to your post it looks like this strategy is working.

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