HAS THE WEST LOST THE PLOT?
“A cycle of Western domination of the world is coming to a natural end. Their populations, on the other hand, can feel these large changes in their bones, and in the job markets. This, in part, explains supposedly politically aberrant – to the elites at least – events like Trump and Brexit”. So writes Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished Singaporean diplomat, in the slimmest of slim volumes entitled Has the West Lost It?
Getting a view of the West’s trajectory, as others see us, is a salutary experience. For Mahbubani the last two hundred years of overwhelming Western hard and soft power is a temporary aberration in two millennia of history. We are, he argues, returning to a world in which China and India are the largest economies and global power centres. But returning to a changed world. After the entry of a vast Asian labour force and growing Asian economies into the global market, taking advantage of Western experience and technology, the West’s share of global GDP inevitably began to shrink with the consequence that incomes in the West, except for those of elites, stagnated.
China, by entering the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at the end of 2001, injected almost a billion low-paid workers into the global economy; this led to declining real wages and growing inequality in the West. Eastern European labour, visible and often blamed was by comparison only a minor depressant. Globalization between 1973 and 2015 saw productivity rise by 73.4% while wages rose by only 11.1%. An incredible 63% of Americans do not have enough savings to deal with a family emergency costing over $500. The significance of these economic events and the growing inequality they created was ignored as the USA, responding to 9/11 by embarking on neo-con wars in the Middle East, had its government’s attention diverted to military interventions.
Mahbubani argues strongly that a hubristic West has yet to come to terms with the policy implications of this transformed geo-economics and geo-politics. Our British perceptions of the world are skewed towards pessimism and, I would say, victimhood. Max Roser, an Austrian researcher into long term evaluation of living standards, based in Oxford University’s Martin School for Global Development, has tracked the numbers in extreme poverty globally: 75% in 1950, 44% in 1981, below 10% in 2016. According to the OECD, the size of the middle class around the world doubled from 1.8 billion in 2009 and will hit 3.2 million next year. The West still has a picture of a backward, underfed world instead of large pockets of dire poverty in war zones and, notably, in parts of Africa.
Mahbubani is highly critical of US military interventionism around the world, particularly in the Middle East. President Trump’s approach has been to raise military expenditure to unparalleled levels, to insist that other countries comply with the US’ own regime of extreme sanctions against perceived enemies, and to start a trade war with China. “The setbacks to America’s ability to shape the international environment to its advantage are not the result of declining capacity on its part”, former Ambassador Charles Freeman said in a lecture at Brown University, Rhode Island. After decades of experience in State and Defense Departments and in the US Foreign Service, Freeman concluded: “They are the consequences of a failure to adapt to new realities and shifting power balances”.
Has the West Lost It? deliberately provokes with a sweeping critique of the West. But I do not think the people of Kosovo and Sierra Leone would decry Western military interventionism. I doubt if, as Mahbuhani suggests, the EU’s 1962 Common Agricultural Policy had been different, and not a beggar-your-neighbour-across-the-Mediterranean policy, that we would now have fewer migrants from Africa. And I would like the BBC’s excellent More or Less programme to test his often shocking statistics, several of which are reproduced here. What worries me most is the unexamined assumption that democracy and individual human rights seem irrelevant to his analysis. Mahbubani surely does not believe that autocratic government and a police/surveillance State are needed before nations change from “basket case” to economic titan.
Finally, Mahbubani underplays the importance of international financial crises. While he does briefly mention the West’s reaction to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8, the impact of the global banking crash of 2008 is missing from his analysis. This is surprising because it was China’s financial reserves on top of the US and European tax-payers billions which bailed out the banks, and China’s 30-40% contribution to global growth after the initial shock that helped avoid another Great Depression.
Mabhubani is right to conclude that Western governments did not do enough to prepare for and protect their citizens from the Asian ascendancy. And that this had political consequences. He attributes the Trump and BREXIT phenomenon to changes in the distribution of economic power and the resulting visible inequality in the West. The average income of a CEO in the USA in 1965 was twenty times that of their workers. By 2013 it was on average 296 times greater with “fat cats” much resented in the UK.
What should be done? Financial Times economics journalist, Martin Wolf, gave a pertinent answer: “The elites – policy-making, business and financial elites – are increasingly disliked. You need to make policy which brings people to think again that their societies are run in a decent and civilized way”. There seems little chance of this happening until we put BREXIT and Trump behind us, and accept that we must think in more realistic terms about the consequences of inequality and our role in the world around us.
See TheArticle.com 28/05/2019
“The American role in post-war Iraq actually will be fairly minimal”: that was John Bolton, then US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, in late 2002. “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear programme”: John Bolton a few weeks before the international nuclear deal signed in 2015. (He believed a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was needed).
Bolton is a firm supporter of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), listed officially by the USA from 1997-2012 as a terrorist organization. He apparently sees this bizarre authoritarian “Muslim” cult as the future government of Iran once the ayatollahs are overthrown. Such were the views that lead to his appointment as National Security Adviser in April 1918 following the much decorated Lieutenant-General Herbert McMaster who opposed pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and lasted 13 months in the job.
In the Trumpian universe disdain for facts and poor judgement are qualifications for office. And since the future US Secretary of Defence, Patrick Shanahan, is at present only Acting Secretary until Senate confirmation, Bolton ‘the moustache’ has led on US policy towards Iran. An aircraft-carrier battle group and four nuclear-capable B 52s are on their way to the Gulf on Bolton’s advice, and an Iran battle-plan updated with provision for 120,000 US troops sent to the region.
John Bolton who has been pushing for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for over a decade, himself has avoided any experience of war – in Vietnam - by opting for a few months service in the national guard. He has no in-depth experience outside the USA let alone in the Middle East. If he had seen the acres of graves along the road from Tehran to Ayatollah Khomeini’s large mausoleum, he might have reflected that after the Iran-Iraq war the senior ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be experienced and tenacious in battle. He might also have perceived the significance for US diplomacy of the deep divisions over the velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the Shi’a clerics. If Bolton had put aside for a moment his belligerence, and contempt for the United Nations, he might have understood that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed 15 July 2015), a hard-won international treaty, thus punishing President Rouhani for his compliance, played into the hands of Iran’s own extremists. Rouhani has complied with the world’s most comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency verification regime to date. The IAEA reported on Iran’s nuclear facilities and production of enriched uranium on ten occasions since 2015 and verified that Iran is compliant. Rouhani took a considerable risk in signing JCPOA. He was rewarded by the US ruining the Iranian economy by ever more effective sanctions. His position has been undermined.
What is the risk now of a major war breaking out between Israel/USA and Iran? Firstly, the two key military leaders, US General Kenneth McKenzie, CENTCOM (Central Command) Commander for the Middle East region and Major-General Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, are both new to their jobs, appointed only a few weeks ago; both need to prove themselves in their new roles. Salami says that Iran stands “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation”. McKenzie threatens Iran with “an experienced, ready, battle hard force with the best equipment and training in the world”. Each side has branded the armed forces of the other as a terrorist organization. Rhetoric from both sides, at the moment, but dangerous rhetoric.
On the plus side, neither the US military nor Israeli Intelligence services are keen on plunging the Middle East into a further war which might close the Strait of Hormuz to vital oil supplies. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has made it clear the US does not want war. General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA and CENTCOM, and Meir Dagan, former MOSSAD chief, neither insignificant voices, have made it clear that they think a military strike on Iran would lead to a regional conflagration. President Trump has on a number of occasions broadcast his intention to bring home US troops from the Middle East, to avoid another Iraq-type war, and has recently asked President Rouhani to give him a call.
Trump believes that increasing sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime by finally blocking its oil exports, together with his miraculous deal-making skills, will solve the Iran problem. But the problem has become of his own making: rejection of an international treaty signed by the USA and five permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, China, France, UK plus Germany and the EU. The pressure this put on President Rouhani, who is beset by supporters of the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has pushed him into threatening minor violations of the treaty. For the moment we are in a classic smoke-and-mirrors game.
John Bolton as Under-Secretary for Arms Control was adept during the prelude to the Iraq War at politicizing and manipulating intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Recent news feels like an action replay: vague reports of new Iranian threats to the US in Iraq, denied by Major-General Chris Ghika, the British deputy head of Operation Inherent Resolve (US-led against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq); a background of Revolutionary Guard activity in Syria and Iraq together with Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon. And what should we make of those “sabotaged ships” in UAE waters, reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 – the supposed attacks by North Vietnam on the USS Maddox - used to justify the deployment of US conventional forces in a war against North Vietnam? Or was Iran sending a “message” about oil sanction? A surfeit of rhetoric and politicized intelligence can lead to war by accident.
A senior adviser to President Rouhani, Hesameddin Ashena, recently tweeted President Trump: “You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you’re going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the moustache”. All part of the game. But with someone as erratic and unfocussed as Donald Trump, who most commentators believe is genuinely no warmonger, it is a game in which miscalculation can happen.
Bolton has stayed true to form: he has now overreached himself. Trump is de-escalating. But the likelihood, expressed in an earlier blog, that the USA’s ever closer relationship with Israel may encourage an Israeli military strike on Iran, alongside its current bombing in Syria, remains a danger.
See also "Thanks to John Bolton Iran could be standing on the cusp of full scale confrontation" The Article.com
A large photograph of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Da’esh leader, appeared in The Times on 30 April. He looked distinctly alive and well fed, compared to his murderous followers, and was starring in a video designed to reinforce his leadership of Da’esh and to celebrate its atrocities. Then we have news of Asia Bibi’s release at last and escape to Canada reminding us of the innocent Christians suffering under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
So this may not be the best time to declare my admiration for Muslims in their practice of Ramadan. No matter. The Islamic annual fast began on Sunday night, 5 May and will last till 4 June. It is a strenuous expression of Muslims’ aim to lead a life of self-discipline, prayer and charity completely at odds with the orgy of cruelty and hatred which is Da’esh.
Britain is far from free of prejudice against Muslims. It extends far further than the defunct UKIP, the Brexit Party and Farage, and, if Baroness Warsi is to be believed, has seeped into parts of the Conservative Party. The Mayor of London needs police protection because he is Muslim. Steve Bannon is now promoting Islamophobia in Europe. The positive aspects of Muslim faith are simply ignored. We have to fear the direction in which our society is going.
During Ramadan observant Muslims neither eat nor drink between dawn and sunset. Sunnis time sunset to be when the sun disappears over the horizon, like a coin in a slot; Shi’a when the red glow has left the sky. The fast lasts four weeks from the beginning of the ninth lunar month of the Muslim calendar until the end. It is tough going in the Nordic countries when it can last over 15 hours. In the intense heat of the Middle East fasting is shorter but punishing. Young children, the elderly, nursing, pregnant or menstruating women and travelers are traditionally dispensed.
I was in the Yemen in 1989 watching families gathered around plates of food waiting for sunset; the firing of a cannon signaled that the fast was over. In Nigeria expatriate advice was not to have your car repaired during Ramadan as mechanics were not on top form. When I broke my leg in Connemara during Ramadan, most of the surgical team in Galway Hospital came from the Middle East. With the inheritance of my expatriate prejudices, I was hoping that the consultant orthopedic surgeon in charge of repairing my multiple fractured limb, whom I learnt was Jordanian, would not be practicing even if Muslim. He appeared at my bedside in a bomber jacket and I guessed he would be the least pious of the team. If there were going to be prayers of supplication, dua, said that evening, it seemed more likely that they were going to be mine than his.
The last ten days of Ramadan recall and celebrate the foundation of Islam, the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad receiving the verses of the Qu’ran. The spiritual purpose of this abstinence, and the recommended religious practices associated with it, such as special prayers and alms-giving, is taqwa, to gain in piety, strengthening that part of human nature that seeks the good and weakens the propensity for evil, nafs (Qu’ran 2:183-185). Fasting is one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam, some would say the strongest.
The Muslim daily fast ends with a communal meal. The fasting month ends with a big family get together like Easter or Christmas. Ramadan shares its basic rhythms and purpose with the other two monotheistic religions, though today Christian and Jewish fasting occurs in a far less robust and demanding form. Lent in the Churches of the Syriac tradition gets closest to the rigour of Ramadan. But does the Islamic fast have any significance for a secular Britain? Well, it is as counter-cultural as you can get to both individualism and hedonism, and brings concern for self-discipline and self-control into sharp focus.
Apart from a willingness to experience hunger, Muslims have also built into their religious practice a normative attempt to reduce poverty by the requirement to give an annual tithe, zakat, and practice sadaqa, charitable giving. Ramadan is a time to do both.
Thirst is a different matter. I have an African memory of coming back from the Chad border, being rescued hitch-hiking in a temperature of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside Maroua in northern Cameroons by a pick-up with Muslim workers in the back. It was so hot out of the shadow of buildings or trees, it hurt. The driver offered me some murky water in a dirty plastic container. I declined. It required little imagination to see the consequences of accepting. We stopped, mats out, for the sunset, maghrib, prayer. We were skirting the border with Nigeria now frequented by Boko Haram. I could feel my tongue swelling up in my mouth. I don’t recommend experiencing real thirst.
I am looking forward to going for iftar, the meal breaking the fast after sunset, with Turkish friends, several of them refugees from Erdogan’s police state. They are from the modernizing and progressive Muslim Gulen movement persecuted by the Turkish government. Some of the Gulen movement participated in the failed military coup against Erdogan who promptly designated and banned the movement as terrorists. Turkish asylum seekers, many Gulen followers, are now being sent back by Greece from the Turkish-Greek border. So this will be for several around the table an iftar and Ramadan separated from their relatives, a worrying time. And I won’t be taking up Turkish Airlines advertised invitation to visit the historic and scenic beauties of Turkey in the near future.
South Africa goes to the polls on 8 May to elect a National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures for the fifth time since the April 1994 elections that ended apartheid. This was one of the best monitored elections in Africa drawing monitors from around the world. Black voters swept the African National Congress (ANC) to power. The Party still retains some of its glory as the movement that brought freedom, though it is waning. The hope, excitement and enthusiasm of 1994 are long gone.
The advantage of monitoring the 1994 elections in one of the Ecumenical Monitoring Programme for South Africa (EMPSA) teams in KwaZulu Natal alongside President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia was that he was our canary down the mine. If the crowd shrank away, that was an area dominated by Inkatha, the Zulu Party. If people were beaming and rushed forward to greet him, then we were in territory dominated by the non-racial ANC. You always knew where you stood and the likely dangers.
There were three in our monitoring team. Kaunda himself, a former leader of a nationalist struggle, signature white hankie in top pocket, with his immaculate Zambian bodyguard in perfectly pressed military uniform, plus me as adviser, general factotum and bag-carrier. We were very lucky. Until only a day or two before the elections began on 26 April, and our arrival in Durban, it had looked as if civil war between Inkatha and the ANC might break out in KwaZulu-Natal. Hence the presence of an influential and admired mediator and election monitor such as President Kaunda. Inkatha leader Chief Gatsha Buthelezi pulled back from the brink.
Our itinerary took us to small towns and townships north of Durban. We attended a night prayer vigil for peace in Pietermaritzburg Anglican cathedral. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was at the back of the church. The Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley, delivered a short address. Shortly after he spoke, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a stocky white man rushing up the aisle towards us looking disturbed. Sure enough, he blundered along our line of pews towards Kaunda. To my amazement the bodyguard moved aside to let the man past him and sit next to Kaunda.
I feared an assassination. But no. The man broke into wracking sobs. Kaunda held his hand and took out his handkerchief. Between sobs the man explained that as a member of the South African Special Forces he had raided the ANC HQ in Lusaka, the Zambian capital. He had come to ask forgiveness for the killings. He and Kaunda talked quietly. I asked the bodyguard later how he knew it had been safe but he just smiled. This election time seemed filled with some kind of enchantment. The wonder of the 1994 elections was that they were conducted peacefully, and were in themselves part of a process of reconciliation, and, looking at the faces of the black voters in winding queues, waiting to cast their first vote, a moving expression of hope and human dignity.
25 years later the contrast is striking. This time some 50 different parties are contesting the 400 seats in the National Assembly. The atmosphere of euphoria and expectation of major change has gone. Half the population remains below the poverty line in a country with one of the world’s most unequal societies and spectacular income inequality. Over a quarter of the labour force are unemployed. Youth unemployment is running at around 50%. Judging by the very low electoral registration levels for young people, hope that the political Parties will improve their lives has disappeared. The fiery populist, Julius Malema, former leader of the ANC Youth League who appeals to angry youth, is likely to see his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), currently at 6.25% of the popular vote, make gains.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela led the ANC to a resounding victory in the country’s first national democratic election. But for people born since then the heroic past is just that, the past; the ANC has gradually become for them just another political Party. Since Thabo Mbeki’s time as President 1999-2008, the ANC’s share of the national vote has been declining, though only by a few percentage points, (the 2004 elections, when the economy was growing at 4.5% annually, gave the ANC a record 69% of the vote). After Jacob Zuma’s de facto coup in 2008 and the rampant corruption he brought, steady decline set in. This year some commentators are predicting the ANC will only get between 50-60% of the popular vote.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is, in comparison with his predecessor, good news. A lawyer who rose up the ranks of the ANC to become its secretary-general, starting from his base as leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, he is credited with deploying his negotiating skills, playing an important part in reaching a settlement with the apartheid regime. Worth $550 million through his former business acumen: franchises in McDonalds, chair of the Board of the telecoms giant MTN, and time on the Board of Lonmin (platinum mines), he is well placed to know what is going on and to reflect on endemic corruption in the Party and the country’s inequality.
The question is not so much will voters continue to walk away from the ANC, but will they support it enough to give Ramaphosa the mandate and the authority he needs to pursue his proclaimed reformist programme, break out of the corruption/stagnation syndrome, and reverse South Africa’s inevitable decline. He faces considerable difficulties, not least the vexed and politically explosive issue of land reform. During his fourteen months in office, the Rand has dropped in value by 19% . Ramaphosa has tried to get rid of the most corrupt brakes on economic progress represented by ANC place-men. But protests and riots about corruption, housing, water, electricity and other failures of service delivery have been increasing.
A white Cape Town social worker, dismissing my support for the ANC in the early 1980s, said to me: “They will simply displace a corrupt and greedy white elite with a black one”. Jacob Zuma and his clique certainly proved her right. Let’s hope President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has some genuine achievements under his belt, proves her wrong. And that on 8 May South African voters will prove the commentators wrong, and give him the votes for members of the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures that provide him with a mandate to do so.
See TheArticle.com “In 1994, the ANC swept to power on a wave of hope. 25 years on, the mood in South Africa couldn’t be more different”
President Trump’s visit to London in early June is going to cause a lot of trouble, cost a lot of money and generate acres of newsprint. But the State visit does raise interesting questions about what are our legitimate expectations of people in public office, in the professions and in the arts. What behaviour ought we tolerate before shunning an individual, and who should do the shunning? These questions, important though they are, are now being raised merely as weapons in current partisan political battles.
To attend or not to attend the State Banquet in honour of President Trump has become a signal of personal and political virtue. The Speaker of the House of Commons and leaders of opposition parties have hastened to declare that they won’t be there, a decision which as private individuals they might make without exciting comment. But they are not private individuals. And one at least aspires to be considered prime minister in waiting.
Most of us believe that a moral line should be drawn somewhere, but where it should be drawn is a tougher question – especially when we’re talking about those in public office. The President of China leads a State which has crushed Tibet and now interns millions of Uighur Muslims, determined to obliterate their identity. Only a minority protested during his visit to Britain. Public opinion seemed reluctantly to accept that British interests demanded that Xi should be received with honour. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, Vincent Cable and others believe that the expression of racism and misogyny trumps – excuse the pun – all other moral dereliction. Or maybe they all, except Corbyn, think they will never have to take responsibility for British foreign policy.
The unpalatable fact is that one of the duties of public office is to put national interest, or international peace, first – and to accept the unpleasantness of associating with the loathsome characters who strut on the global stage. The latter comes with the job description. Winston Churchill in wartime, all cigars and bonhomie, did a good job of working with Stalin. Tony Blair spent some unpleasant but successful hours with Gadaffi to eliminate what was believed to be his nuclear programme. Heads of state and prime ministers, as their name tags at international conferences suggest, represent their states not themselves (someone should tell this to Mr. Trump). International relations, particularly in a complex multi-polar world, require that we relate to, and sustain good relationships with other states. Ergo, our national representatives have to work with some very unpleasant characters. It is almost as simple as that.
But does the general public have the same responsibility? Obviously not. As private individuals we have every right to protest at the personal and public conduct of a visiting head of state. But we ought to think about the reason for our protest and its likely effectiveness, especially as the cost of policing and security will be heavy. And we as private citizens should also think about the national interest. Do we seriously think that protest on our small island, however large the demonstration, will dent Mr. Trump’s vote next year? Or are protesters still living with the illusion of a continuing “special relationship” with the USA, 75 years after D-day; a relationship that would mean having an effect on the USA’s foreign policy or even ours? Probably not. It looks very much as if anti-Trump protesters will be expressing their own powerful ethical identities, as they have every right to do, precisely because they are private individuals and believe, as private individuals, that they ought to make a visible moral stand.
Turning now to members of the professions. They are held to quite stringent moral standards in addition to the expectation that they will always act legally. While we accept that holders of public office may be forced to a tolerate violations of ethical norms, the same does not apply to members of the professions. For doctors, barristers, teachers, accountants and social workers, misconduct which is not criminal (such as breaches of confidence or sexual misdemeanours) still result in heavy penalties and possible expulsion. Professional relationships are deemed to be governed by much the same standards as those of private life. The difference being that the standards are enforceable and are enforced. Impeachment of a president, for example, is deliberately and constitutionally quite another story.
The work of creative artists also throws up interesting moral questions, especially as much of the work we so much admire is centuries old. Lovely Roman temples were built by slave labour. The innocent sounding circus was a festival of cruelty. Caravaggio was a violent man and a murderer. Wagner was an anti-semite. Writers, like Charlotte Bronte, whom we still much enjoy were bigots. Picasso was a sexual predator. So was Eric Gill. Yet their work is part of our heritage and even when we fear it is tainted we continue to admire it. Despite the occasional outbursts of protest, we decide not to boycott because the work has taken on alife of its own. We view these objects of beauty separately from the conduct of their creators.
Back to the dilemma which faced Mr Corbyn. He decided to refuse to take part in the official hospitality offered to the American head of state. When further ethical dilemmas present themselves, as they will, he must reflect and decide whether he is a future prime minister who will be responsible for safety and prosperity of the state or something more akin to a private citizen. Then he must act accordingly. Perhaps he knows already.
TheArticle.com “Private citizens have every right to protest Trump’s visit. But what about those in public office?”