Archive for the 'Foreign Affairs' Category


Betting on the next Foreign Secretary

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

Last weekend I did a piece on who will be the next Chancellor and my central premise was that Boris Johnson would leave Jeremy Hunt at King Charles Street lest he adds another malcontent on the backbenches so dabbling in this market didn’t really interest me as I might end up tying up my money for a long time. The events in the Strait of Hormuz probably ensures Boris Johnson decides to keep Hunt there for continuity reasons alone.

However the more I thought about it I convinced myself there’s value in backing Emily Thornberry at 16/1, there’s a couple of plausible routes to her becoming the next Foreign Secretary.

  1. There’s a general election soon to solve the Brexit impasse in Parliament or if sustained no deal causes the government to collapse and a Labour led government takes power (either via a majority or some form of coalition/supply and confidence arrangement.)
  2. Boris Johnson’s government loses a vote of no confidence and during the fourteen day window of the fixed term parliament act Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister either for the long term or a caretaker Prime Minister until an autumn general election (perhaps with the only proviso he has to extend Article 50 lest we fall out of the EU whilst in the middle of a general election.) Thus Corbyn needs to appoint ministers and that’s how Emily Thornberry becomes the next Foreign Secretary.

So for some smallish stakes I’m backing Emily Thornberry in this market. It does say a lot about the anticipated direction of a Johnson ministry that Priti Patel, a woman who had to resign in disgrace for running a private foreign policy, is the third favourite in this market.



The man or the message?

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

The recent decision by Iran to start enriching uranium, in breach of the JCPOA, shortly after the attack on two ships in the Gulf of Oman is a reminder of the Middle East’s penchant for unpleasant surprises.  No sooner had the attack happened, than the US, followed by Britain, asserted Iran’s responsibility.  There was intelligence proving this.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, Corbyn queried its reliability and, even more predictably, was slapped down by the Foreign Secretary.

Corbyn was, however, right to ask such a question.  Instant findings are not always correct.  Intelligence does not always get it right.  At any event, the US swerved away from what seemed at one point like a potential casus belli.  We are unlikely ever to know exactly who did what and why.

The understandable focus on establishing responsibility has tended to elide three far more interesting questions: (1) Should the US react? (2) If so, how? and (3) If militarily, should the UK join in?  Until recently, there has been an almost automatic assumption that Britain should join in with whatever the US decided.  It has not proved a wise assumption.  And partly because the assumption was that Britain should act, more credibility was perhaps afforded to the intelligence than it really warranted.

It is not surprising that alternative voices have arisen querying this.  Not all of these are motivated by malice towards the US.  (One of Blair’s fiercest critics regarding his decision to join the Iraq war in 2003 was Ken Clarke, a man unlikely to be swayed by the arguments of the Stop the War groupuscule.)

Reactions to claims based on intelligence seem to fall into two camps.  One trusts the intelligence authorities on the basis that they do a difficult, thankless task, their successes unremarked and their failures all too bloodily visible.  Criticism of them is seen by some politicians and commentators as akin to a form of treachery, though this is not shared by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

The other view is to see them as self-serving operatives more concerned with upholding unjust and reactionary power relations and dismissive of the demands of democratically elected radical politicians.  There has long been such a tradition on parts of the left, not all of it Corbynite, to hold a version of this view, certainly since the 1924 Zinoviev affair.  The fact that at times some Labour MPs and others on the left did consort with the Soviet Union and were in consequence under the eye of the intelligence authorities did not help matters.

So if Corbyn was right on this occasion to be a little cautious, can the concerns previously expressed by members of his own party  about his approach to military adventures abroad and security issues be dismissed?  Not so fast.  The questions to be asked of Corbyn are these: (1) If the evidence existed, would you accept it?  (2) If military action was the most sensible course of action, would you take it? And, finally (3) Do you apply the same high standards of proof to claims by other states or only to some? 

This is where Corbyn faces difficulties.  Scepticism is valuable.  But demanding endless proof beyond a reasonable point suggests someone who is looking for a reason to disbelieve rather than genuinely testing the evidence.  It is not at all clear what Corbyn’s reaction would be in circumstances where military action was the right thing to do or the lesser of two evils.  And it is in relation to the third question that he faces the greatest difficulties of all.  

As his response to the Skripal poisonings showed, his scepticism about Western claims is only matched by a credulity about the claims of other states, with a far less transparent political system and without any sort of free press.  It is, therefore, all too easy to dismiss what Corbyn says on the basis that his responses are predictable and based less on evidence and more on an a priori assumption about which side he should be against.

This may not matter in the immediate future. Whatever else the Iraq war has done, it, the ill-fated Libyan adventure and the Syrian imbroglio have probably exhausted Britain’s desire to project force abroad, at least in anything more than a token way.  It will be a long time before a British PM can stand up in the Commons, say “Trust me” on a matter of war and peace and not be viewed with a gimlet eye by 649 other MPs.

Does Corbyn’s credibility on security issues matter?  Isn’t the topic discussed and what is said more important?  Well, yes and no.  Difficult topics like what Britain’s role should be in relation to civil disturbances/civil wars/terrorist or military threats from abroad need to be discussed openly and frankly, not declared off limits or no longer relevant because of the agreed established consensus, what might be termed “received opinion”.  If Corbyn becomes PM he will benefit from a new consensus or, at least, a weariness with and wariness of military adventurism, certainly if it involves following Trump.

Still, as the Skripal poisonings and the downing of the Malaysian airline over Ukraine show, let alone ISIS terrorism, events have a habit of upsetting the consensus.  When British lives are lost or at risk, voters will want to feel the PM is on their side, that this is his default instinct.  It is not necessarily obvious that this is the case with Corbyn or, perhaps, to be fair to him, that this is the case with his closest advisors.

It is all very well criticising past British actions and how this has impacted what other states think of Britain.  That does not help those blown to smithereens.  However self-critical one wants to be about British history, it is naïve to think that Britain has no enemies or that they will respond gently to discussion and an “I feel your pain” apologia.

Geo-politics is not a Socratic debate in genteel drawing-rooms.  Who makes the argument is often as important to us as what is said.  Why?  Well, motive and sincerity matter.  A person’s history and associations are relevant to both.  Those who hold up Corbyn’s views on the Iraq war as evidence that he got it right and that, therefore, his foreign policy views should be listened to ignore how he arrived at that decision.  Was it through chance or careful thought that he got it right?

If WMD had been found, if the UN had passed a second resolution, would Corbyn have changed his mind?  If not, then his rightness was no better than that of a stopped clock.  Indeed, he may have been right but for the wrong reasons.  It is the reasoning which matters not the conclusion.  Too many of Corbyn’s supporters look at the latter and ignore the former.

But equally – and however distasteful the messenger – a challenging message needs to be listened to.  Politicians are fond of touting Britain’s intelligence operations, its membership of the Five Eyes Group, its defence capabilities as strengths in a post-Brexit world, one way in which it can project power, be important and relevant.

The more pertinent question is what is the purpose of Britain’s intelligence services: just to protect British citizens and interests?  Or also as a platform for a wider projection of British influence, the cyber-equivalent of the Navy of old?  As for defence, all very well for Hunt to promise a huge increase in spending. But what is this for?  What role can Britain play, should Britain play, whether alone or with others?  Surely these questions should be debated long before budgets are decided?

There is an ambiguity in Corbyn’s approach: contrast this thoughtful speech following the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017 with his earlier defence speech and response to questions.  But there is much to agree with in what he said, as well as much to disagree with.  The issue of Corbyn’s true views and what he would do when events happen may not be entirely clear.  His response to the Skripal affair seemed at odds with his speeches a year before.  But we would nonetheless do well to pay closer attention to what he has said.

Regardless of whether he becomes PM, how Britain should deal with events beyond its immediate horizons will, like much else, require fresh thinking not a complacent assumption that Britain can and should behave as it has always done.  Just because it is Corbyn making that point is no reason to disregard it.




French toast – Bread and butter issues burn Macron

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

Aux armes citoyens! or at least put on your yellow hi-vis. In the last month, 50 years after the explosion of 1968, the French are once again taking to the streets.  Whereas Mai 68 was a cocktail of demands for a freer more open society, Decembre 18 is more a cry of anger about a stagnant standard of living.

France is increasingly struggling to satisfy its citizen’s aspirations. In the post war world France progressed rapidly during Les Trente Glorieuses  the period 1945-75 when the economy could do no wrong,  generations grew up in the safety of a state planned system. But then since the eighties the old formulae have struggled to deliver the goods. Worse, governments have continued to act as if nothing has changed.

At the micro level successive governments have put more demands and regulation on employers and businesses, at the macro level joining the Euro and a failure to react to globalisation have all stressed the French economy. 

On its own this would be a difficult situation, however the problems of living standards are not falling equally across the nation. Paris, like its twin sister London, seems largely impervious to the problems; the Ile de France region has higher growth, higher salaries and lower unemployment.

Out in the regions it’s a different matter – slow growth, high unemployment but worst of all little hope of things changing.So provincial France is taking to the streets, including the streets of Paris.

The protests have been set off by a proposed rise in fuel tax which since it is immediate and hits drivers, impacts the provinces harder than Paris. But this is simply the spark which set the fire alight there has been a slow build of problems in France mirrored by the rise of the political extremes and the decline of the traditional left and right.

And then there’s Emmanuel Macron

The French President is a product of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration France’s training school for its senior politicians and civil servants.  ENA graduates come out almost with a right to rule, an attitude they carry with them. Macron came to power with an agenda to modernise France and push through overdue reforms. Initially he made progress with labour reforms for SMEs and reforms in the SNCF the highly unionised rail company.  On the world stage too he set out his stall on Europe, Trump and Internationalism.

However as time has progressed Macrons biggest problem is looking like Macron himself. The early veneer of a French JFK has worn off to reveal a more familiar Louis XIV figure. 

In a series of less than successful walkabouts, Macron’s  meet the people gaffes  have  revealed  him to be somewhat autocratic  with a je m’enfoutisme to  the concerns of ordinary people.

Dismissive, disinterested, discourteous all at the same time Macron has managed to lose the man on the Metro  and is now the president for the rich. His approval ratings are hitting new lows in the history of the French republic.

For now it’s not so much Louis XIV as Manny – Antoinette.

So where next? Already Macron has had to recognise his failings.  The law on fuel tax is to be delayed in a climb down to restore basic law and order.  The protests are already damaging the economy to the point where Frances EU budget submission may be shakier than Italy’s. 

But with the climb down comes loss of authority and worse – encouragement to go back to the barricades next time some unpopular reform hits the statute book. With European elections in 2019 Macron’s party is not looking in good shape, the centre is in danger of being squeezed from the extreme left and  extreme right. Furthermore the chance to strut the world stage has lessened. 

Macron’s undoubted Europeanism looks less threatening as he wobbles at home. Across the Rhine Frau Merkel can only hope France can get its act together. Now is the time when we get to see how serious Macron is about pushing his agenda, to progress he must seriously rethink his approach.  Mitterand did just that after his first two years in office and went on to serve two full terms so all is still to play for. The test really comes back to Macron himself.  If he fails then we may yet see Sadiq Khan asking French Bankers have they thought of moving to somewhere, calm, business like and predictable.

Bon courage.



Going nuclear

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

When Peter the Great died in 1725, the Russian empire covered an extent unimagined when he came to power.  From his deathbed, he commanded his successors to follow his example.  His will provided:

“My successors will make [Russia] a great sea destined to fertilise impoverished Europe, and if my descendants know how to direct the waters, her waves will break through any opposing banks.  It is just for these reasons that I leave the following instructions, and I recommend them to the attention and constant observation of my descendants… IX To approach as near as possible to Constantinople and India.  Whoever governs there will be the true sovereign of the world.  Consequently excite continual wars, not only in Turkey, but in Persia… And in the decadence of Persia, penetrate as far as the Persian Gulf.”

For most of the period since, it was Persia’s fate to be contended over by great powers, a proxy for other battles, picked over for its spoils.  It was a pawn in the nineteenth century great game between Britain and Russia.  By 1907 it was formally partitioned into zones of influence, an arrangement that was superseded only after the Communists took over in Moscow. 

Russia (and then the USSR) invaded Persia/Iran four times in the twentieth century.  On the fourth occasion, in 1941, the USSR and Britain acted in concert occupying Iran as one of the anti-German manoeuvres in the Second World War, the USSR holding the north and the British taking the oilfields in the southwest (a revival of those zones of influence).  The Russians needed some intense pressure from the USA before they were winkled out of northwest Iran after the end of the Second World War: the USA then stepped into the void.  In 1953, the CIA sponsored a coup after the Iranian government nationalised British oil interests, and replaced it with a friendlier one.

In 1979, Iran had a revolution in more than one way.  A secular shah was replaced with an Islamic republic and Iran, for so long a pawn, decisively broke with all foreign would-be patrons, becoming a regional power.  This was made possible by the vastly increased oil revenues Iran benefited from in the wake of the oil shock of the early 1970s.

This unhappy history explains why Iran is now so determined to secure its independence of action.   Its nuclear programme was a part of that.  Ironically, given subsequent events, Iran’s nuclear programme was started with American help in the 1950s and 1960s.

Which brings onto the US interest in Iran.  This historically has twofold: first, the oil itself.  And secondly, the stability of the wider region, which historically has been very important to the US partly because of oil, partly, historically, because it could help check Russian ambitions in the region and partly because of Israel.

So when Iran seemed to be upping its nuclear ambitions in the last decade, the USA (along with much of the rest of international opinion) became seriously worried.  On the one hand, it did not want another nuclear power, especially one as hostile and so heavily driven by an ideology with a worrying emphasis on the merits of the afterlife. 

On the other hand, it had an interest in keeping oil supplies as undisrupted as possible (and oil prices as low as possible), which the sanctions regime against Iran worked strongly against.  This meant that it was keen to reach a deal with Iran, even an imperfect deal.  And so, eventually, it did: after a decade of tightening sanctions, the P5+1 (the permanent security council members and Germany) reached a deal with Iran in 2015 over its nuclear programme.

This deal was always controversial with the US right and was never ratified in the USA.  Donald Trump made it a campaign pledge that he was going to walk away from the deal, a pledge he made good on last week.

Was this Donald Trump being crazy, belligerent and short-sighted?  Belligerent, yes.  But not particularly crazy or short-sighted, at least not from a US perspective.  Look at the chart at the top of this piece.  When UN sanctions began in 2006, the USA was just about at its peak of net petroleum imports.  Any rises in oil prices or disruption to supplies really hurt it.

Now, the position is transformed.  The USA is heading fast for needing no net petroleum imports.  Moreover, this is in part a function of high oil prices: US producers need high oil prices to be economic.  This trend has accelerated sharply even since 2015.

So the USA simply does not have the same pressing need to reach an imperfect deal.  Its strategic interest in the Middle East is becoming, for the while at least, much less about oil and much more about supporting Israel. 

The calculation has changed.  The USA can therefore seek a much more favourable deal or consider using force to curb Iran’s ambitions, if it thinks the existing deal is inadequate, without particular fear of economic blowback.  That is what it has done.

The same considerations do not apply to the EU.  It is a heavy net petroleum importer (Britain is now a net importer too).  Rises in prices or disruption to supply are far more worrying for European countries.  So it is unsurprising to see EU countries, including Britain, working hard to salvage the deal.  Everyone is acting in accordance with their rational interests.

So this development is bad news for the EU, including Britain.  It is also bad news for the Middle East.  If the USA no longer has a particular interest in maintaining the peace on a compromise basis and those in power in the USA are no longer compromisers by temperament, we can expect to see more conflict.  Brace yourselves.

Alastair Meeks


Peace talks for our time, but where?

Sunday, March 11th, 2018

Will Trump have his Nixon in China moment?

Following the news about the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un Ladbrokes have a market up on the location of the summit.

It is well noted that Kim Jong-un is very paranoid, particularly about his own security, so he might wish hold the talks in North Korea, or the DMZ, which per the terms of the bet would count as a dead heat.

It might appeal to Trump that going to North Korea to sue for peace to have his own iconic Trump in North Korea moment, nearly fifty years on, only Nixon could go to China moment is still part of the lexicon.

‘Only Nixon could go to China’ is an old Vulcan proverb as Mr Spock observed in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered country when talking to Captain James Tiberius Kirk about Kirk’s suitability to host peace talks with the Klingons. That’s how momentous this summit could be.

All things considered the 33/1 on Russia also looks like value, I’m on. Trump could use it to try and rehabilitate Putin in the eyes of American voters and effectively neuter Robert Mueller’s investigations.



Challenges, challenges

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

It is perhaps too easy to assume that Western democracy, capitalism and liberalism will continue to thrive and prosper, certainly in the West, and that they will continue to act as a model for countries elsewhere. To counter any complacency, here are two long-term challenges which the Western model faces.

Money or freedom?

Paddy Ashdown said that the biggest mistake the West made in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan was to fail to make the rule of law and security the first priority. Economic activity and democratic structures need this basic framework. Without it, corruption thrives and embeds itself. People need security before they can contemplate parliaments, opposition, debates about policies and all the liveliness and unruliness of a healthy democracy.

For all the risks posed by terrorism, the lack of physical security is not the primary problem for the West. But the failure to provide economic security is. Most voters are not wedded to democracy or capitalism as a matter of principle. They prefer the democratic capitalist system because it has proved the most effective way to combine relative freedom and ever increasing living standards for the widest group of people.

But what if it stops doing so? What if the fruits are concentrated in ever fewer groups, whether of people, companies or regions? What if other systems manage to provide greater economic growth and wealth more reliably and widely?

China has, after all, been very successful in extending wealth amongst its citizens and doing so without feeling the need – or being put under domestic pressure – to liberalise politically, let alone adopt Western democratic norms. It is one of the few states which has managed to clip the wings of the global tech giants. And now it is extending its reach into Africa. Why then should African states look to the West as their model? Why should the Middle East – especially after the chaos unleashed in part by recent Western interventions? Or Asia?

The US no longer seems willing to set itself up as an example. And if the Chinese model continues to succeed and the West continues to stagnate by comparison, how certain can we be that Western electorates will continue to value and maintain a system which no longer produces results – or the results electorates have come to expect? The willingness of voters to vote for unconventional leaders or movements in recent times should maybe be seen as a warning sign that results matter to voters, rather more perhaps than the theoretical elegance or historical longevity or formal legitimacy of their political/economic systems.

Diversity of opinion?

It is ironic and not a little depressing that at a time when diversity – of culture, identity, lifestyle – is so feted, diversity of opinion, beyond a relatively narrow circle of received and impeccably liberal opinion, is increasingly viewed with disdain. (Substitute “conservative” for “liberal” in that phrase and it would describe mainstream opinion in most of 19th century Europe.) Even asking a question in a university about whether colonialism might have brought some benefits seems to excite horrified disapproval.

We seem in danger of losing the belief (best expressed by JS Mill) that what our society should be and think should emerge from people, as many people as possible, expressing their views, debating them and negotiating compromises. If we determine in advance how society should be organised, what its principles and values should be and ban or ignore or otherwise make it impossible for any views which do not fit with a predetermined outcome to be heard, how can we answer the question “Why?” when (not if) it is put?

There is something very brittle and unselfconfident about a liberalism, about any dominant opinion, unwilling to argue its corner. The self-righteous intolerance of those seeking to deny others a voice is its shrill companion. In truth, both have a curiously religious approach to the idea of debate. The all too frequently used “You can’t say that.” / “I am offended” / “Bigoted” / “He’s a Marxist” / “hate speech” mantras are in danger of making mini-Torquemadas of us all.

And there is something very complacent about a capitalist system which assumes that its benefits are obvious and seems to have no answer, beyond more of the same, when those who are locked out turn elsewhere. Capitalism should have a better justification than “Well, look at how awful Marxism was.” To those contemplating a life of paying off student debt and renting, “Venezuelans have no loo paper” is an eccentrically irrelevant answer.

And yet debate, winning the battle of ideas, defeating bad ideas by putting forward better ones, by arguing for something, by arguing why – and showing, with examples – why democracy is good, why fairness matters, why discrimination is wrong, why social cohesion and looking after one’s neighbour matter, why capitalism can work and how, why free speech matters, why liberty benefits people, why the rule of law matters to all of us, why the right to own property securely is important, why the state should not be permitted to act overbearingly or retrospectively or without restraint are the only way in which our society and economy can renew and refresh themselves. Too often in recent years the answer to the questions posed (by our young, but not just them) has been “umm…” Time for a more vigorous response.