Iran's Elections: Missing the Point
22nd May 2013
UPDATE This piece below ("Short, pithy, packed with more wisdom than you find in bloviations ten times the length") has been picked up by the Browser
Here is my latest piece over at Commentator, looking at the startlingly poor performance by a clueless State Department spokeswoman when asked to give a view on what ought to be a simple question: if Iran bars women for campaigning for President, are Iran's elections 'free and fair'?
As a former pro in this sort of thing, I am really surprised at how lame the prepared lines were for this question. It's almost as if some dopey desk-officer had strung together some word-processed platitudes without giving a scrap of thought to how anyone might use them in front of journalists and not sound absurd. Is this what the Amazing Shrinking US Leadership of Obama is now giving us?
Let's give them a shred of probably undeserved credit, and imagine that the State Department has pondered over how best to respond to the latest round of farcical 'elections' in Iran. They have concluded that one or other aggressively anti-Western tendency is going to win again, and decided that there is nothing to be gained as things now stand for ratcheting up public pressure on Iran. The economic sanctions regime on Iran is already severe and painful.
So, what to say instead?
How about something measured like this:
- in almost every respect that matters we Americans disagree with the undemocratic way Iran chooses candidates for its elections
- the fact that now women candidates are barred from running for the country's top office shows that the ruling Iran elite is showing no respect to half the country's population, and no respect to the many international undertakings and obligations that require equality of opportunity for women and men that Iran itself has accepted
- it is therefore hard to imagine any country accepting that these forthcoming elections in Iran have been free and fair - by proceeding in this manner the Iranian regime is further isolating itself
- the USA wants a normal relationship with Iran. Restoring that after everything that has happened will be a long hard job
- but if whoever comes to power after these elections, gravely flawed and undemocratic as they obviously will be, opens the way to a sincere and sensible programme of normalising relations, Washington will be ready to respond
That sort of language manages to combine a firm sense of disagreeing with Iran's so-called elections with a signal of engagement if Iran's next leader manages to achieve a change of course.
Simple, clear, principled and flexible. Always the best combination. It's called diplomacy.
The Ambassador Partnership
9th May 2013
This is to let everyone know that ADRg Ambassadors LLP is now renamed The Ambassador Partnership LLP with a completely new (and simpler) website.
Basically, after I left the FCO and qualified as a professional mediator, the idea emerged of setting up a new and unique distinguished panel of ambassador-mediators. This was done in 2010 as ADRg Ambassadors LLP.
From that standing start we have built up a business that has grown to the point where a new look and to some degree change of emphasis were required. The original name derived from the fact that we were linked with leading UK mediation providers ADR Group (where ADR stands for Alternative Dispute Resolution). We have found that an independent wider international problem-solving and consultancy model is where the demand is - the world of formal set-piece mediations is dominated by major practitioners, who rightly see us as serious competition.
Thus the new look, based on offering three main (and to some degree overlapping) products:
- problem-solving (including mediation as required)
- technique - top-end diplomatic skills such as Negotiation, Speechwriting and so on
One key point of diplomacy is to build friendly relationships without knowing exactly when they may be needed. So with international business - much better to work patiently on making high-level local contacts so as to be ready sensibly to address issues before they start to grow into problems and then expensive disputes. As problems mutate into disputes, the costs expand exponentially and all too often the original issue fades into insignificance compared to the costs burden of continuing the battle, or not. It is FAR cheaper (and a lot wiser) to call in an outside expert to help brainstorm the questions concerned and look creatively at how to manage them. This is where our mediation skills combined with diplomatic wisdom give us a unique advantage.
The new site gives examples of the sort of work we are now doing under each heading, and the expanded team of people available to do it. As well as the original core of former UK Ambassadors we have colleagues from Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Ghana and Czech Republic, with others to follow. It is hard to describe in puny words just how effective this is as a global network - in principle and usually in practice we can find you incredibly quickly a well-connected former senior diplomatic expert (British or otherwise) for almost any problem you can think of.
Through these networks we know how find just the right diplomatic/political entryway into most governments round the planet, and help make sure that messages to the right part of that government are cast in a way that is appropriate but effective. This of course does not guarantee success, but it saves formidable amounts of messing around, and much increases the chances of a message being taken seriously.
On the Technique side, the list of our clients is long and getting longer. We bring high-level training and coaching experts armed with front-rank personal experience of some of the world's toughest negotiation environments, delivering workshops and teaching sessions that have enough 'theory' to make sense but plenty of roleplays and real life scenarios to make the sessions highly operational and interesting. An 'unstuffy' open-minded British style goes down well in many organisations where people are used to strict hierarchy and formality.
In short, if you have a business or other problem with an international dimension, or you see a large hole looming and need smart advice, or you want front-rank support for your team in developing world-class 'diplomatic' skills, you know what to do.
Call the experts in corporate diplomacy.
27th April 2013
Here I am again, this time quoted in the Daily Telegraph on the always interesting subject of Balkan apologies:
Charles Crawford, a former British ambassador to Belgrade, said the language used by Mr Nikolic represented a drastic change from his previous questioning of the scope of the atrocity.
Coming a week after Serbia sealed a deal with Kosovo to end a stand-off over who governs ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, the statement will boost Serbia's ties with the EU as it bids to join the bloc.
"He's gone a long way. Certainly for someone from his nationalist background to have struck this tone is impressive," Mr Crawford said.
Well, of course I said a number of other things too, but that was the one line they used.
This story is all about Serbia President Tomislav Nikolic telling a Balkan TV journalist that he "goes on his knees and asks for forgiveness for the crime that was Srebrenica", and then apologises "for all crimes done in the name of Serbia or the Serbian people by any individual from our nation". Pressed to agree that Srebrenica was really an act of genocide, Nikolic replied that everything that happened in the wars of the former Yugoslavia had the characteristics of genocide.
Here is the B92 story with the link to the video of the interview. In Serbian, for those who like their Balkan meat raw.
Nikolic's intention here was to put some clear water between this statement and his very different view expressed last year:
"Genocide did not take place in Srebrenica. This is about individual guilt of members of the Serb people. The Serbian parliament condemned this crime, but did not say it was genocide. No Serb recognizes that genocide took place in Srebrenica, and I am no different."
He wanted to strike a note of humility and constructive reconciliation with Bosnia, complementing the much praised deal between Serbia and Kosovo and the European Union a few days earlier. Most people would think that he did a good enough job here. Yet was he even now choosing his words rather too carefully?
The point is that most Bosniacs want the Serbian President to acknowledge not just that Srebrenica was a 'crime' or a 'war crime'. They want to hear him agreeing and accepting that it was specifically an act of genocide, and that Serbia as a state played a part in committing that act of genocide.
Nikolic of course does not want to use that formulation for various reasons, some political and some legal, so he carefully skirted round it using the language above. Plus he used a familiar tactic to 'relativise' the Srebrenica massacre by citing it in the context of the wider supposedly genocidal wars that marked Yugoslavia's disintegration.
All that aside, perhaps more immediately significant than this interview was the pragmatic and non-confrontational tone that emerged from a visit to Belgrade by two of the three-man BH Presidency, namely Bakir Izetbegovic (Bosniac, son of Alija Izetbegovic) and Nebojsa Radmanovic (Serb). Nikolic this time sent a not-too-subtle signal to the Bosnian Serbs to work with Sarajevo: "for me, Serbs from Republika Srpska are Bosnians, even if some of them don't like to be called that".
Let's have a little sympathy for President Nikolic in all this. He's just doing what any Western chattering pundit does. If you're embarrassed or dismayed about what someone has done that your political rivals are exploiting, you quickly rush to argue that that person was a 'lone wolf' or some other form of nutty individual - nothing to see here folks about any wider issues, so move along.
So a murdering gunman unambiguously proves the case for banning most if not all guns, whereas a murdering abortionist tells us nothing whatsover about scaling back abortion. Organisations like the police are denounced as 'institutionally racist' because of what a few bad apples do, but radical Islamist organisations are essentially benign even if rather too many of their members gorge themselves on terrorist propaganda.
If we all agree when it suits us to do so that most bad stuff just comes down to the horrible behaviour of a few deluded or even wicked individuals, why should anyone else apologise?
Serbia v Kosovo v EU
23rd April 2013
Here's my Commentator piece on that important Serbia/Kosovo/EU deal.
Kosovo did better on symbolism than substance. It won agreement that Serbian officials in the municipalities concerned would henceforth be paid by Pristina, not Belgrade, and come under Pristina’s overall legal and political authority. And by the very fact of Belgrade and Pristina signing an ‘international’ agreement, the Kosovo Albanians can now assert that de facto Belgrade has recognised Kosovo.
But to get this, Pristina conceded substantive autonomy to the ethnic Serbian communities in most major policy areas (health, education and especially police – in the Balkans control over the police is all). And it gave Serbia the chance to press on with its EU membership without recognising Kosovo.
Serbia in turn did better on substance than symbolism. Northern Kosovo and other Serbs in Kosovo have been promised far-reaching devolved powers that need never be ceded and allow them to work very closely with Serbia. Nothing real has been conceded on Serbia’s bottom-line issue of principle, namely Kosovo’s independence. And Serbia can get on with its EU integration processes without Kosovo-inspired blackmail.
Yes, the Albanians’ argument that Serbia has de facto recognised Kosovo is vexing. But Belgrade still has the diplomatic firepower to hold the line in the key capitals that matter (Moscow and Beijing) to stop Kosovo joining the United Nations except on Belgrade’s terms.
Brussels ended up with some substance (the prospect of easing wasteful tensions in that part of the Balkans, and getting the impossible Balkanites bogged down in EU accession bureaucracy) and some symbolism (a much needed diplomatic triumph amidst all that Eurozone misery and a show of leadership for the EU method).
Of course, this is just one way of looking at it. Back in real life plenty of people in the Northern Kosovo Serb community are feeling well and truly sold out, suggesting that Serbia lost heavily on both Symbolism and Substance. But NB it may be the case that Serbia qua the current Serbia leadership did a relatively good job in the negotiation but Serbs in general and Kosovo Serbs in particular did much less well.
So, goes the argument, Serbia surely has effectively renounced its claim to control that last part of Kosovo it (sort of) controlled. That must mean that Serbia has given up on Kosovo finally? And does that not mean that Kosovo 'therefore' is now accepted by Belgrade as independent?
Maybe. But in international law and politics a lot turns on what people say, as well as what they do.
Belgrade will find plenty of sympathetic ears out there in the world community of nations when it complains that it had 'no choice' but to go along with this bullying EU-led push, and that whatever happens it will not recognise Kosovo's 'illegal' secession. Note President Nikolic's carefully chosen words describing the deal: “the only possible way to guarantee to Serbia that Kosovo will never be a state accepted in the United Nations”.
This is Serbia's bottom line, and as diplomatic bottom lines go it is quite a good one. Even if Kosovo is a state 'accepted' by many countries, Kosovo will (he asserts) never be recognised as a full member of the international community without Belgrade's consent. Unless Russia and China agree, Kosovo can not enter the United Nations as a normal country just as all the former Yugo-republics have done.
This in turn means that Kosovo is highly unlikely ever to get accepted in world sporting bodies and most international organisations. It will have a sui generis twilight-zone status, recognised by roughly half the countries in the world but not the other half, including some of the biggest heavy-hitters in the 'non-Western' camp. Palestine, now recognised as a state by over 130 countries, is in a similar ambiguous position but with most of the states that have recognised Kosovo on the other side of that argument.
Meanwhile Kosovo is hoping that Serbia's concessions this time round will help persuade the likes of China/Russia/India/Brazil that Serbia is giving up the fight - why should they be holding out against recognising Kosovo, when Serbia's core position is eroding and (arguably) negotiable?
My guess is that Kosovo will not get much further down the international recognition road as a result of this agreement. Why? Because those large countries holding out against recognising Kosovo can't care less about the Kosovo/Serbia problem itself. They are making their stand against the idea that international borders can be changed by Western powerplay (where does that end?), and because it is never a bad idea to oppose on principle what 'the West' wants. Apart from anything else, the more you oppose it the more likely you are to get something in return for eventually changing position!
Anyway, soon the fun over local symbolism begins. It is one thing agreeing that Pristina henceforth will have ultimate responsibility for what happens in northern Kosovo and a growing grip on people there by paying salaries to public sector employees. It is quite another to expect that those Serb employees put up a picture of the Kosovo president in their offices or wear Kosovo insignia or otherwise doff their caps to symbols of Kosovo authority and legitimacy.
All that will drag wearily on. And on.
The point is that unless and until there is a deal involving Belgrade on Kosovo's independence the whole idea of Serbia and Kosovo joining the EU edges towards either complete stalemate or a new outcome of unfathomable diplomatic ingenuity. Back to Commentator:
Well into the future the European Union will have to decide whether to admit Serbia without recognising Kosovo and/or to admit Kosovo that is not a state recognised by the international community as a whole: A Euro-style Mexican stand-off.
This week Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina joined forces to kick decision-day well down the road. They all know that that fateful moment will come. But they’ll double-cross that bridge when they finally reach it. Oh, and who knows what the European Union itself will look like then?
That last one is a good question.
Framing Political Opponents
23rd April 2013
Over at PunditWire my latest piece, this time on how to use subtle framing and reframing skills of the sort used by mediators to create a subtle bad smell around people and policies you don't like, all the while pretending you're being reasonable and objective:
Framing is all around us these days in politics. Organisation activist Saul Alinsky featured it prominently in his Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
A classic version of this is the dead cat denial. You untruthfully accuse your opponent of having a dead cat on the front doorstep (or some other seemingly heinous offence).
When your opponent exclaims crossly that this is utterly untrue, you slyly reply “Ah – so now you’re denying that you have had a dead cat on your doorstep?” The ensuing hoots of anger and frustration from the opponent create a general mood that this person is a bit crazy, always banging on about dead cats. After all, if there isn’t a dead cat or other dead animal there at the house somewhere, why is s/he getting so worked up about it?
You tip-toe away. Mission accomplished. A sneaky reputational frame-up.
This applies in all sorts of areas:
A popular framing buzzword these days is ‘fairness’. Those who rhetorically champion fairness want a double framing. First, to get it established that they – and they alone – are fair, and everyone who disagrees with them is ipso facto unfair. But second, they assert the right to decide what is fair and what isn’t, and thereby grab intellectual and emotional sway over whatever issue is up for discussion. It pretends to be about substance. It’s really about control.
Another vivid example from the hard ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum is to accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being ‘privileged’ and so disqualified from being taken seriously on the issue in question (or perhaps at all).
So if you are a white male, you should just shut up completely. White professional, able-bodied, Christian women with husbands need to ‘check their privilege’: only non-white, poor(er), disabled, non-heterosexual, non-Christian women are truly aware of oppression, and so qualified to pronounce on what society must do to address it.
This proposition gains traction because it has more than a ring of credibility: it is self-evident that given the history of the past few centuries ‘black’ people are better placed to talk about and identify racism than ‘white’ people. Likewise that women spot patronising sexist discourse and behaviour more readily than most (if not all) men.
But it also leads us inexorably to a ridiculous place, namely ever-shrinking squabbling grouplets of allegedly oppressed people demanding that they and they alone are at the ultimate oppresses and so should tell the rest of us what to do. Isn’t this just the latest iteration of bullying Leninist vanguardism wearing non-gendered undergarments?
Conclusion? Obvious to any professional speechwriter:
Conclusion for us speechwriters? Only that honest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to achieving compromise is one thing. Dishonest, subtle reframing of issues with a view to emphasizing division and grabbing power is another.
Both, alas, work.
China on European Welfare Incentives
14th April 2013
Have a look at this magnificent AJ interview from late 2011 with Jin Liqun, head of China's Sovereign Wealth Fund.
The whole thing is impressive for Jin Liqun's steely logic and sense of effortless authority. But it moves into overdrive at 11.40 or so when he starts to talk about why investing in Europe is not necessarily a good idea as the welfare model is 'out of whack':
"If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack.
"Why should, for instance, within [the] eurozone some member's people have to work to 65, even longer, whereas in some other countries they are happily retiring at 55, languishing on the beach? This is unfair. The welfare system is good for any society to reduce the gap, to help those who happen to have disadvantages, to enjoy a good life, but a welfare society should not induce people not to work hard."
He goes on to say that China has accumulated its money through hard work over three decades. Is it fair to the Chinese people to risk that money by investing in a Europe where hard work is not so obviously a dominating feature?
Eurobonds - The Time Comes? Fine Soros Speech
9th April 2013
You have to hand it to George Soros. When he goes for it, he hits the target big.
Look at this speech arguing that the introduction of Eurobonds is by far the best way to solve the Eurozone's (and EU's existential crisis).
I myself have no idea what a Eurobond looks like or why it might or might not work. But what I like about this presentation is the way he comes across as taking seriously a good many alternative arguments (both substantively and politically) and working through them in terms most reasonably expert people might understand:
Germany is opposed to eurobonds on the grounds that once they are introduced there can be no assurance that the so-called periphery countries would not break the rules once again. I believe these fears are misplaced. Losing the privilege of issuing eurobonds and having to pay stiff risk premiums would be a powerful inducement to stay in compliance. Indeed the penalty would be so painful that the rules would have to call for small doses in order not to aggravate the offending country's financial position too abruptly. At the same time a the fiscal authority in charge would exercise stricter controls and disobedience would be punished by further reductions in the amount of eurobonds allowed to be issued. No government could resist such pressure...
Guarantees have a peculiar character: the more convincing they are, the less they are likely to be invoked. The US never had to pay off the debt it incurred when it converted the debt of individual states into Federal obligations. Germany has been willing to do only the minimum; that is why it had to keep escalating its commitments and is incurring actual losses. The fiscal compact, backed up by a well functioning fiscal authority would practically eliminate the risk of default. eurobonds would compare favorably with the bonds of US, UK and Japan in the financial markets.
Admittedly, Germany would have to pay more on its own debt than it does today but the exceptionally low yields on Bunds is a symptom of the disease plaguing the periphery. The indirect benefit Germany would derive from the recovery of the periphery would far outweigh the additional cost incurred on its own national debt.
The main limitation of eurobonds is that they would not eliminate the divergences in competitiveness. Individual countries would still need to undertake structural reforms. Those that fail to do so would turn into permanent pockets of poverty and dependency similar to the ones that persist in many rich countries. They would survive on limited support from European Structural Funds and remittances.
But Germany accepting eurobonds would totally change the political atmosphere and facilitate the structural reforms that are also needed. Reforms work better when trading partners are prosperous than in conditions of widespread decline. Eurobonds offer a promising environment to structural reforms that are also needed...
The rhetorical craftiness of this speech lies in the way he makes his preferred conclusion seem calm and reasonable by whittling down the arguments against it. He even throws in the heresy that maybe Germany should leave the Eurozone and allow the remaining countries to issue Eurobonds:
Obviously, it would be better for Germany to leave than Italy and equally obviously, it would be better for Germany to agree to eurobonds than to leave the Euro. The trouble is that Germany has not been put to the choice, and it has another alternative at its disposal: it can continue along the current course, always doing the minimum to preserve the euro, but nothing more.
If my analysis is correct that is not the best alternative even for Germany, except in the very near term. The situation is deteriorating and eventually it is bound to become unsustainable. The longer it takes, the greater the damage. Nevertheless, that is Germany's preferred choice, at least until after the elections.
There is a strong case for Germany to make a definitive choice whether to agree to eurobonds or to leave the euro. That is the case I came here to argue.
And this sense of his agonising over how far to speak out and when is also cleverly done:
I reflected long and hard whether I should present my case now or wait until after the elections. In the end I decided to go ahead, based on two considerations.
One is that events have their own dynamics and the crisis is likely to become more acute even before the elections. The Cyprus rescue proved me right. The other is that my interpretation of events is so radically different from the one that prevails in Germany that it will take time for it to sink in and the sooner I start the better
So he concludes in a generous 'reaching-out' way that allows those in Germany who might utterly disagree with him to change their minds graciously. He appeals to a human sense that yup, sometimes we just get things wrong, for the best possible reasons - if so it's OK to change course.
To state my own views, my first preference is eurobonds; my second is Germany leaving the euro. Either choice is infinitely better than not making a choice and perpetuating the crisis. Worst of all would be for a debtor country, like Italy, to leave the euro because it would lead to the disorderly dissolution of the European Union.
I have made some surprising assertions; notably how well eurobonds could work even without Germany. My pro-European friends simply cannot believe it. They can't imagine a euro without Germany. I think they are conflating the euro with the European Union. The two are not identical. The European Union is the goal and the euro is a means to an end. Therefore the euro ought not to be allowed to destroy the European Union.
But I may be too rational in my analysis. The European Union is conflated with the euro not only in popular narratives but also in law. Consequently the European Union may not survive Germany leaving the euro. In that case we must all do what we can to persuade the German public to abandon some of its most ingrained prejudices and misconceptions and accept eurobonds
I should like to end by emphasising how important the European Union is not only for Europe, but for the world.
The EU was meant to be the embodiment of the principles of open society. That means that perfect knowledge is unattainable. Nobody is free of prejudices and misconceptions; nobody should be blamed for having made mistakes. The blame or Schuld begins only when a mistake or misconception is identified but not corrected. That is when the principles on which the European Union was built are betrayed.
It is in that spirit that Germany should agree to eurobonds and save the European Union.
Pow! Always praise good technique.
But will it work? If I were a German, would I trust other tricksy EU countries not to find a way to freeload on any shared Eurobond system and send me the bill?
Corruption at the UN?
9th April 2013
Many years ago when I was at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy I had an American friend call Jim Wasserstrom, a lively quirky character.
And he is continuing to be lively and quirky, to the point taking on the United Nations and its policies on people who reveal corruption in its own ranks:
James Wasserstrom (pictured), was posted to Kosovo to fight corruption. In 2007 he started raising concerns about what he saw as misconduct involving links between UN officials and a local utility company. His worries were ignored. After he complained to the UN's oversight office, he says, his boss cut his staff, in effect abolishing his job, and had him investigated for misconduct. That culminated in his detention, the search of his house and car, and other indignities.
He appealed to the UN's Ethics Office. After a year-long investigation it ruled that Mr Wasserstrom's maltreatment was perhaps excessive, but did not count as retaliation against a whistleblower.
On June 21st, after a long and costly legal battle that unearthed documents backing Mr Wasserstrom's case, the UN's new Dispute Tribunal overturned that. Without ruling on the alleged corruption, Judge Goolam Meeran, in a blistering judgment, said “any reasonable reviewer” would have spotted the clear conflicts in the UN's evidence and demanded, at the least, more investigation of the complainant's treatment. Now an anti-corruption officer at America's embassy in Kabul, he stands to gain $1m in damages, plus costs. The UN must now negotiate on that, and other remedies
The UN has indeed negotiated on that but in a more than grudging way, to the point where Jim is applying punchy public pressure on the US Administration to Do Something:
A United Nations whistle-blower who prevailed in a landmark case that exposed evidence of retribution against internal criticism, but who was awarded only a tiny fraction of his claimed financial losses, sought help from Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, asking him to withhold 15 percent of the American government’s United Nations budget allocation.
The whistle-blower, James Wasserstrom, an American whose protracted legal battle with the United Nations ended a nearly 30-year career there, cited an American law that requires such withholding if the secretary of state determines that the United Nations is failing to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation
... Even though he won his case, Mr. Wasserstrom said a United Nations oversight panel judge’s decision last month to award him only $65,000 of his claimed $3.2 million in total damages had sent a message that “clearly tells U.N. staff that even when a whistle-blower wins, he loses.”
The coercive pressure of the withholding threat, Mr. Wasserstrom said in a letter to Mr. Kerry, could force changes in what Mr. Wasserstrom described as an organizational culture in which “U.N. personnel who are aware of misconduct, corruption and fraud are likely to remain silent.”
Surely not. At the United Nations? Tsk, is nothing sacred?
Hang in there, Jim.
If you want More, follow @GovAcctProj (the excellent Government Accountability Project) on Twitter - links to Jim's press statements and letter to John Kerry.
Who leads UNESCO?
5th April 2013
I find myself taking a fleeting interest in the goings-on at UNESCO as the time comes round to choose a new Director-General. Never a dull moment there - it is an especially 'politicised' UN body.
Try this punchy piece about the way the Obama Administration may be manoeuvring to get US taxpayers' money into UNESCO despite a US law stopping funding of any international body that admits Palestine as a full member without Palestine directly negotiating with Israel.
And here is an excellent WikiLeaks US 2009 cable (yet another example of fine US diplomatic professionalism) describing the machinations surrounding the election of the current UNESCO Director-General. Envelopes with cash and the allegations of intimidation:
Egypt may have overplayed its hand as allegations of bribes offered to various delegations surfaced in the days before the elections. One member of the U.S. delegation witnessed an unfamiliar man carrying a large amount of cash in an envelope at UNESCO headquarters. Several Member States complained to the Director-General and to the Executive Board Chairman about an atmosphere of intimidation at UNESCO and not feeling comfortable talking to their colleagues without outside lobbyists immediately questioning them in the corridors at UNESCO. Elizabeth Longworth (protect), Matsuura's Chief of Staff, confirmed to the U.S. Representative that on September 21, the D-G banned an individual from further entry to UNESCO because of numerous allegations of unethical conduct by the individual related to the election.
The victory for Bulgaria's Irina Bokovo (needless to say someone from an impeccable communist family) seems to have owed a lot to China siding with the USA to block India and thwart a strong Egyptian candidate:
The Chinese ambassador was jubilant after the result and said to the U.S. Representative that "this victory represented a successful partnership between the United States and China in support of good governance in the international system. In the first rounds we voted in support of geo-political obligations. In the final round, we voted in support of the integrity of this Organization."
Note too the clumsy untransparent Cold War-style procedures to elect the new new DG:
In the 2009 election, candidates were allowed 20 minutes to address the Executive Board and 30 minutes to answer questions, with no answer lasting more than 5 minutes. Moreover, the meeting in which this occurred was closed. There was no opportunity for members of national cooperating bodies to view the presentations. While candidates did publish vision statements on the Internet and while many of them visited capitals of member states or participated in UNESCO activities, they remained largely unknown to the members of the national commissions of UNESCO's member states ... I believe it is time for UNESCO to open its selection process in order to assure that the most qualified candidate is elected Director General. Importantly, the National Commissions should be empowered to carry out their duties of advising their representatives at UNESCO on the qualifications of the candidates.
Lack of proper modern transparency in choosing top international officials is a major cause of corruption and mismanagement across the international community. But alas few governments want to do anything about it - better to keep up their sleeves the hope of patronage and/or behind-the-scenes manipulation
All the usual dirty international fun.
N Korea and Washington: Jaw-Jaw?
3rd April 2013
The FT has an interesting but perhaps rather mischievous piece (££) by Kishore Mahbubani (distinguished dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore) that argues for President Obama learning from centuries of wise diplomatic practice by 'picking up the phone' to talk to the North Korean leader:
... let’s go back to basics. Diplomacy was invented thousands of years ago to enable us to talk to our enemies. It prevented envoys from having their heads chopped off at rival courts. Diplomacy was never primarily about communicating with friends...
Almost any other pair of rival states would have the phone call. This reflects age-old diplomatic wisdom. As François de Callières, the special envoy of Louis XIV of France, wrote in 1716: “Every Christian prince must take as his chief maxim not to employ arms to support or vindicate his rights until he has employed and exhausted the way of reason and persuasion.”
Mr Obama should heed the advice of the sun king’s aide. (And while he is at it, he should call Tehran, too.) Every wise leader throughout history has found a way to talk to their enemies. North Korea is a scary country and it is hard to know how seriously to take its threats. But it is even harder if you do not talk to it. The time has come for the US to follow the wisdom of the ages – and to be unpredictable.
My comment is reproduced here:
"There have been many indirect encounters between US and North Korean diplomats but this is not enough ... why did Mr Kim want to talk to Mr Obama? Because he is more worried about the threat from China than from the US"
Yes, countries that profoundly disagree usually need to talk to each other. There is not much to be said for the sort of stagnant outcome we see in the USA/Cuba relationship.
But there are many ways of doing that short of two leaders having a stilted telephone exchange, as appears to be suggested as the way forward here. If the Pyongyang regime really does fear China more than the it fears the USA, there is nothing whatsoever stopping a rich top-level secret dialogue developing between themselves and Washington and any other capital on earth on how best to manage a move to a more stable situation. Nor is there any reason to think that Washington would reject it a priori. For all we know it may in fact be happening in some way.
UPDATE: as one would expect, the Americans are indeed doing their best to talk quietly to Pyongyang
Talking is not enough, and may indeed be a device to create new objectionable realities. There needs to be some sort of plausible common ground in prospect, and that in turn requires at least minimal operational trust.
The core problem here is that North Korea keeps playing a banal game of capricious blackmail that makes it impossible for any country (including Russia and China themselves) to develop any sort of trust, not least because Pyongyang makes the North Korean (and to an extent South Korean) peoples hostages of its own ruthless eccentricity.
Thus when Kim Jong-eun says 'simply' (sic) "Please ask Mr Obama to call me", this is surely a trivial propaganda stunt. He himself can initiate a process leading to dialogue if that is what he really wants (and really needs).
The article fairly points to a deep philosophical problem in diplomacy, and in life: when do you let someone with filthy boots enter your house?
There is no right answer in principle. Different conditions can be set, according to the situation.
The other big point of course is that Washington and Pyongyang are in a strange cycle of wanting to avoid losing 'face'. The very fact that Pyongyang insists on Obama picking up the telephone is all about the symbolism of "I create the problem - let anyone who wants to solve it do so through me and only on my terms".
We had enough of that rubbish with Milosevic. It may be wise, all things considered, to let Pyongyang have a fleeting puny propaganda victory by indeed initiating that phone-call. But what if the phone-call gets nowhere and so leaves Obama looking humiliated (as of course may be part of the Pyongyang point)?
Once such a commital move is made, it can not be taken back (as Nimzowitsch profoundly pointed out). We'd all be worse off.
Some very fine points of diplomatic technique here. Thoughts welcome.
More Musty Needy Speeches
29th March 2013
My latest piece at Punditwire, where I note with horror that the Milibandistic dry rot of filling speeches with meaningless - but also intellectually shifty - musty/needs exhortations has spread all the way across the Atlantic to President Obama's speechwriters:
... his [Obama's] recent well received speech in Israel, where the m-word is used a disturbing 21 times:
• Assad must go so that Syria’s future can begin
• Iran must know this time is not unlimited
• Iran must not get a nuclear weapon
• America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran
• and that’s why security must be at the center of any agreement
• the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, their right to justice, must also be recognized
• Arab states must adapt to a world that has changed
• Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state
• Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn
• you must create the change that you want to see
Why does this style of rhetoric start to sound hollow, if not annoying?
Partly because the machine-gun spray of all these supposed requirements devalues each of them. But also because it asserts a false intellectual leadership, hinting at bold visionary purpose while side-stepping any personal or political responsibility for making anything on the list happen back in real life?
So, for example, what will be the President’s response if (as seems more than likely) Arab states ignore the President’s call for reform and do not, “adapt to a world that has changed?” Or if Israel doesn’t, “recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive?”
That said, while we love to moan about our leaders’ supposed evasiveness and/or dishonesty as exemplified by slippery language like this, how will we respond if they start being honest – and admit that most outcomes they think good for us are completely outside their control?
Good last question. To which answers come there none.
Cyprus: Insolvency and National Sovereignty
26th March 2013
Here is an interesting (but not altogether clear) piece about Cyprus and 'national insolvency' by Stephen Kinsella at Harvard Business Review:
... national borrowing on the modern scale really only began around the seventeenth century. Before that in the monarchical era, so-called "court bankers" provided cash-strapped sovereigns with loans and quite often served as royal tax collectors and handled other fiduciary matters for them. Monarchical debts, when they were paid, were usually paid at the people's expense. For example the land now known as Pennsylvania was given by the Crown to William Penn to repay a 16,000 pound debt.
With the passing of the monarchical governance structure, responsibility for a nation's debt moved from the rulers to the ruled. Henceforth these were the people's debts, issued by a national bank, the Bank of England — in return for the privilege of producing its own banknotes — on behalf of the people, to their elected rulers.
I believe the analogy between national finances and insolvency is damaging. If politicians and policy makers believe their country is, literally, insolvent, then they behave differently towards their creditors. For politicians of debtor states, suddenly vast privatizations make sense, because of course you're selling some of your remaining assets.
Suddenly the will of the people of the debtor nation becomes secondary to the will of the nation's creditors. Suddenly democracy is an expensive irrelevance in the face of an overwhelming technocratic desire for a speedy, and market-friendly, solution.
There's more (my emphasis):
The single European currency project, in depriving member states of the ability to issue their own currency, has created the conditions for something close to national insolvency when economies slump. With high debt-to-national output ratios, current account deficits, fiscal deficits, and, putting it mildly, shaky banking systems, the debtor countries of Europe look very much like insolvent firms to the markets.
Their sovereign power to issue currency is gone, meaning only painful deflation through the wage channels are possible. Leaving the currency union is very, very costly. The solution is national austerity. Indeed, in some cases, like Cyprus, Ireland, and Italy, the banking systems are so big relative to the rest of the economy as to make the sovereign itself almost vestigial.
The saving of the banking system and the system as a whole is the prime concern of Europe's policy makers — typically representing the interests of creditor countries — but what will take its place?
A more or less autocratic system of coercion is the logical outcome of these policies. They come from using ideas like national insolvency to reduce the grip a people have on their sovereignty.
But there is no asset valuation concept in the founding documents of any nation state; nor should there be.
That last sentence is curious. Why 'should' there be no asset valuation concept in the founding documents of any nation state?
There is in fact always an implicit asset valuation, namely the ability of the state to coerce its own people to extract more taxes and so pay off debts. The 'asset' is the future work of the populace and the ability to extract value from it. Without that why would anyone lend money to a state when that state wanted to spend more than it was taking in from taxes?
The author is right to identify the emerging 'more or less autocratic system of coercion' as the logical outcome of EZ policies. And he's right that this reflects the fact that the EU/EZ projects do require people to have less grip on 'their' (sic) sovereignty. But that's not a bug. It's the key feature!
Nasty parochial national sovereignty is now required to give way to bold shiny higher EU-level sovereignty, in which the mass of Germans heavily outvote the puny Greeks and Cypriots - democracy! I have added a comment to the piece in this sense.
So, question. Is 'national sovereignty' (putting to one side the increasingly tricky of what a 'nation' is these days) a conservative, old-fashioned, obstructive force? Or is it something progressive and noble, the one unfailing must-be-maintained-at-all-costs barrier between the masses and the brutish technocratic markets?
Who should have more say in how the EU deals with its currency and its debts? Large numbers of Germans or small numbers of other countries' citizens? What does democracy as a basis for sovereignty mean in this context?
And, as usual, the only question that matters: who decides?
IR Theory: Obama in Israel
25th March 2013
Further thoughts on the speech by President Obama in Israel (scroll down to see the earlier post from my PunditWire piece below). This time prompted by analysis over at Foreign Policy.
First, Hussein Ibish who thought that he did a terrific job:
The psychological, communication and political skill that was marshaled to give the speech its maximum impact with public opinion was quite extraordinary, and stands in contrast to some miscalculations Obama made about Israeli and Palestinian perceptions during his first term.
By systematically downplaying expectations for his trip, Obama made the power of his speech and the boldness of some of the language and positions he staked out -- particularly regarding the realities Palestinians face under Israeli occupation -- surprising and therefore all the more striking...
... The effectiveness of Obama's careful political and psychological preparation for these unprecedented statements with his Israeli audience was demonstrated by the sustained, and otherwise unimaginable, applause he received for almost all these remarks. He clearly went a long way in assuaging Israeli skepticism.
Palestinians will be harder to win over, as they require more than words given the onerous conditions of the occupation and their repeated disappointment with successive American governments, and in particular with Obama's first term...
... Diplomacy without sufficient outreach may have proven to be a failure in Obama's first term. But this kind of bravura performance of public diplomacy will have to be backed up with significant real diplomacy or it may be remembered as yet another inspiring Obama Middle East speech that ultimately produces more disappointment than tangible achievement.
Still, if Obama was primarily trying to change the tone and the atmosphere in the region, and the way he is perceived by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it's hard to imagine how he could have been more effective than he has been over the past couple of days.
Hmm. If I were a Palestinian I'd be unimpressed with the marginal walk-on role the Palestinian leadership was given and the obvious glowing warmth of Obama's tone when with the Israeli side.
Then there's Stephen M Walt, a lot more sceptical:
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid.
And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility.
What will he or she say then?
That seems about right.
However, my eye caught what Stephen Walt had to say about the role of language in international relations theory. As someone who flees screaming from all such 'theory' I nonetheless found it cleverly put. Thus (my emphasis):
There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states.
In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible...
But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly.
From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
Walt is a self-proclaimed realist and so saw the President's words in Israel very much from that point of view. Hence his pessimism:
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences.
Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Read both pieces. Walt's drills deeper and is more convincing, but both are eloquent and interesting.
In my view the distinction between the IR Social Constructivists and Realists is more about the need of US professors to write convoluted clever stuff than it is about anything that matters. Of course 'power' matters. But sometimes power comes not from weight of firepower but from creating a certain new tone and from being convincing: helping change attitudes today, and so creating a better chance of changing policies tomorrow
So? It just depends. There is a lot of reality out there, so a speech on its own - even from a US President in Israel - rarely makes any perceptible difference to anything. Obama's much praised but intellectually nugatory Cairo speech is a good example of a much vaunted speech that if anything weakened the US position in the region, because it rambled around and appeared to promise more than Obama could or would ever deliver.
Here my sense (I speak as someone who knows nothing at all about the Israel/Palestine and wider 'Arab World' nexus of problems) is that President Obama leant very heavily towards the Israelis, partly in his words (what he said and what he did not say) and partly in the way the whole visit was organised and packaged.
Why did he do that? Stephen Walt:
By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Which brings me back to my earlier conclusion:
... Or was this visit 'really' about something else entirely, namely sweeping aside any misunderstandings with Israel (and helping Israel get back on track with Turkey) so as to be able to work with them in managing the more immediate horrendous and potentially inter-related problems of Syria and Iran? Not to forget the gruesome economic situation in Egypt.
Politics is/are all about priorities and timing. If you are a US President keen to work up a respectable second-term foreign policy legacy you might conclude that as things stand the Palestinian cause will just have to wait for a while, as other much bigger Arab/Muslim dramas unfold. And that in this failing Middle East region Israel, for all its faults, represents a stable partner you can more or less rely on.
Is such a conclusion an iteration of Realism, or Social Constructivism? I report. You decide.
Press Regulation: Curbing 'Egregious Practices'
25th March 2013
My new piece at Commentator on how these new press 'regulations' might or might not tackle 'egregious practices':
So we have no lack of sanctions in this area, formal and informal. Just as we have the strictest laws against killing people. Yet in a country of some 60 million people some murders and manslaughters and deaths by dangerous driving nonetheless happen.
That’s the way things work. Accepting that is not being complacent or ‘uncaring’. It’s realising that there are philosophical and practical limits to what can and should be done to make everyone perfectly safe all the time.
In the case of these egregious media practices, the number of people who were either victims of media harassment or who committed the harassment are tiny. Trillions of words are published in the UK every year. The number of words or articles that are obviously egregious and damaging but not caught by existing laws is vanishingly small.
Yes, these cases catch public attention. But what is the right measure here: the volume of public clamour, or the tiny unhappy unimportance in the great scheme of things of such occasional excesses? The pain of someone caught unfairly in a media firestorm, or my right as a modest blogger/pundit to write this article without fearing the state?
Most important: how to work out the likely effects of changing the law/rules/regulations as is now proposed? Perhaps on the far margins of the media a few more egregious cases will be prevented. Perhaps not. No-one knows.
But it is almost certain that a number of stories exposing wrong-doing or impropriety won’t be written because on those same margins the journalists and bloggers will wisely fear straying inadvertently into exemplary damages territory.
That’s the whole point of these changes – to make all writers fear the consequences of their writing, and so ‘be careful’. Everyone loses. Except the powerful undeserving creep whose misdeeds stay hidden.
Ministers and MPs are in a unique position in society – they alone (with help from judges) write the rules, then send out people with sticks and guns to use whatever force is necessary against you and I to enforce them.
This means that Ministers and MPs above everyone else have to take their moral responsibilities seriously. They hold our ancient legal rights and freedoms in trust for us. They have no right as trustees to trim these rights and freedoms in a furtive midnight haggle among themselves with a well-funded pressure-group for the sake of trying to do the utterly impossible, namely to stamp out all human unfairness and unpleasantness.
What we see instead is Ministers and MPs making it up as they go along, giving no value to freedom as a Kantian end-in-itself...
See the many other examples on almost a daily basis of today's government far out of control, so big and incoherent that it has become quite detached from basic principles and common sense. How do we the people curb egregious state bullying?
Obama's Warm Words in Israel
24th March 2013
Swing by National Review Online to catch up on conservative views on President Obama's visit to Israel and what do you find? Not much. In fact almost nothing. Which goes to show just how strikingly well Obama did in behaving warmly towards Israel.
Yes, the 'optics' of Obama appearing under a huge Arafat picture were rather strange. But what about what he actually said?
I have been looking at three major Obama public pronouncements during his visit. You can find them here at the White House site, that dutifully records almost every public word the President offers.
My analysis is at PunditWire:
During the first Obama Administration we find the Internet clogged with Obama’s many sharp disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and wider Israeli policies. The White House cheerfully let the world know that it was feuding with the Israeli leadership on issues great and small.
Now in 2013 behold the language and message of the President’s public words in Israel:
“I know that in Israel’s vibrant democracy, every word, every gesture is carefully scrutinized. (Laughter.) But I want to clear something up just so you know — any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet. (Applause.) That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.” (Laughter.)
The President even deploys the widely reviled Z-word in a positive sense:
“While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland… Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea — the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.” (Applause.)
... The tone at the President’s joint press conference with the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas was completely different. Partly because what works in a major set-piece speech or at a state banquet does not work at a shared media event. But mainly because it was far harder to show underlying warmth in the political or personal relationships. For example:
“So one of my main messages today — the same message I’m conveying in Israel — is that we cannot give up. We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is.
As I said with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, we will continue to look for steps that both Israelis and Palestinians can take to build the trust and the confidence upon which lasting peace will depend. And I very much appreciate hearing President Abbas’s ideas on what those steps could be.”
This is the solid, dull, carefully scripted language of international relations. Not words and wit shared between hard-headed friends who know that for all their ups and downs they are talking to each other on the same emotional wavelength.
The result? President Obama has certainly knocked on the head (for a while) the argument from his domestic opponents that he is 'anti-Israel'. Perhaps thereby he creates some credit in the political bank to be credible in delivering tough messages to the Israelis as and when a negotiating crunch comes. But was it wise even in those terms to be seen by all sides to give the Palestinian cause almost a desultory amount of time and attention?
Or was this visit 'really' about something else entirely, namely sweeping aside any misunderstandings with Israel (and helping Israel get back on track with Turkey) so as to be able to work with them in managing the more immediate horrendous and potentially inter-related problems of Syria and Iran? Not to forget the gruesome economic situation in Egypt.
Politics is/are all about priorities and timing. If you are a US President keen to work up a respectable second-term foreign policy legacy you might conclude that as things stand the Palestinian cause will just have to wait for a while, as other much bigger Arab/Muslim dramas unfold. And that in this failing Middle East region Israel for all its faults represents a stable partner you can more or less rely on.
Eurozone Wobbling Tightrope Walkers
21st March 2013
Back from sharing with the Croatian Diplomatic Academy some training thoughts on Lobbying and Negotiating in the European Union. With the Cyprus drama helpfully unfolding before our startled eyes.
These fiendishly complex financial/banking negotiations are impossible for normal people to follow, although anyone following my Twitter feed will have seen plenty of superb analytical pieces by different experts.
For example Frances Coppola, who has a superb writing style that explains things in ways even I can understand (sometimes):
The proposed deposit haircut of 6.75% for deposits under 100,000 Euros looks harsh and unfair. And indeed it is. But not because deposits were ever "safe". Compared with the alternative - bank failure, sovereign insolvency and unrecoverable loss of most of their money - this was a good deal for small depositors. And it may still be improved.
What is harsh and unfair is that depositors have been led to believe that small deposits were guaranteed, when the supposed "guarantee" is not worth the paper it is written on. In the Eurozone, deposit insurance is only as good as the ability of the sovereign to honour it. If the sovereign cannot honour it, it is worthless. And that is the situation not only in Cyprus, but also in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and possibly Spain. None of these sovereigns could borrow, print or otherwise raise the money to meet claims under the EU's deposit insurance scheme.
It is time that depositors were told the truth. The lack of a common deposit insurance scheme in the Eurozone means that deposit insurance is a luxury available only to those countries that can afford it - which are also the countries that least need it. Everywhere else, it is a sham.
Or try Beate Reszat, who wonders whether the time has come to retreeat to simpler and more manageable currency arrangements across Europe. Masses of subtle ideas here delivered clearly:
After 40 years experience with regional currency regimes, which eventually all failed, maybe the time has come for European monetary policy to choose a minimalist approach returning to national currencies and focusing on sporadic coordinated discretionary measures to influence market conditions and expectations, and to content themselves with being one stabilising element among others in times of turbulence.
Mitigating transition effects, regaining flexibility, and slowly and patiently restoring credibility and trust in European institutions and processes, taking along all member countries on an equal footing, should be the primary objective. Over 60 years of successful European economic and political integration would be worth it.
More generally, as regular readers here know, on our courses we explain that one way to approach negotiation is to move away from surface Positions and explore instead underlying Interests and Needs. What are those Interests and Needs in the Eurozone fiasco?
It's easy enough to explain the broad case for maintaining pan-European financial stability, even if extraordinary measures are required that set bad new precedents: the possible costs of abandoning the Euro are unfathomable, so doing that looks more risky even than the damaging new policies now emerging. The high tightrope walker with no safety-net is having to perform ever more manic gyrations to avoid toppling off, yet so far those gyrations appear to be working!
But Chaos Theory teaches us that in such radically unstable circumstances even tiny vibrations can set in motion far-reaching bigger changes. And maybe in fact the tightrope-walker starts to think that she/he is just not agile enough to stay on the rope in the conditions now prevailing, however feverishly she/he wriggles. Better to try to stay aloft in the hope that somehow balance and equilibrium can be restored? Or to try to make a controlled but risky jump down from a great height in the hope of hitting the deck under conditions she/he controls a bit?
Or maybe the tightrope walker misjudges her/his own skill, thinking that balance can be maintained when in fact (ie as events will show) a point of no return has been passed?
No 'right' answer on tactics. But for now we can be sure that the highest level guardians of Eurozone stability, namely the ECB inner elite, will do whatever they can to stay aloft. Heck, their professional reputations and salaries are at stake. They have Interests and Needs too, you know!
How about 'Fairness' as a basic Need as it might be said to underpin Trust?
This is hard to call.
On the face of it, it is Not Fair that 'ordinary' Cypriots who have money in the bank supposedly under a legal guarantee up to a certain level should have a slice of that grabbed by the state. Collectivist looting!
Yet as Frances Coppola points out (see above), those guarantees are worth nothing in a state that has bungled its finances to the degree Cyprus has done. All Cypriots have had the benefit of Cyprus scooping in global money via its comfy and not, ahem, invariably transparent tax arrangements. Plus check out this powerful piece by Michael Weiss on the many Russian (and Syrian) angles in the story.
In other words, trying to work out what any given Cypriot 'deserves' in this imbroglio is impossible. Cypriots might hoot that they have been aided and abetted by the European Union in countless ways, so the EU too should suffer. Yet even if there is a logical or accurate point there, it is a morally unworthy one:
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine
What of wealthy Russians who have invested money in Cyprus banks? They have moved funds on a large scale out of their own uncertain country to an EU jurisdiction that treated them more than generously, and that in one way or the other they tried to squeeze in their favour. No-one elsewhere in Europe will cry bitterly if such people now take a sizeable hit.
Nonetheless it is a sign of just how unstable - and weak - the Eurozone now is that top EU folk are rushing to Moscow to see what if anything the Russians might do to help. In such circumstances the Russian elite and their oligarch chums have several advantages, not least a steely cynical far-sightedness. But that does not guarantee that they'll get an outcome they like, and they might just underestimate the no less steely cynicism and acumen of the Germans who are driving EU policy. Chaotic Eurozone collapse could wallop Russia's interests too.
And let's also remember that there is little difference between the state grabbing money from your bank account and the state 'inflating debt away' by debauching the currency. Either way force is being used improperly to cheat you in ways that are less or more subtle, "but it's in your own interests".
UPDATE: Maybe there is a way forward?
Again, the benefit of all this financial sleight-of-hand was the central bank printed money for Ireland today, and Ireland didn't have to pay it back for many years. As Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times explains, it was a deliberately convoluted way of printing money for the government to hide that they were printing money for the government.
Cyprus should pull an Ireland, and force the ECB to make a decision. Either the ECB refuses to accept guaranteed natural gas bonds as collateral, and Cyprus gets booted from the euro, or the ECB relents, and the panic subsides.
In other words, make the ECB decide whether the euro is worth printing 5.8 billion euros.
What does it all mean?
Only that we have created financial systems that are in principle so unstable that managing them goes beyond the wits of even the best minds on the planet. The Eurozone is the most staggering example, but there are others. Governments in Europe are fast draining their ability to cope - their blundering moves are too slow and too inaccurate and too inexplicable to the public.
Plus there is one appalling even deeper dynamic in play: demography. As Europe's birth-rates ebb away and older people start to require ever-more expensive healthcare, the longer-term EU 'social model' is in principle unaffordable. So are our fundamental mainstream economic models (based on an historic expectation of paying later for spending now) actually sustainable, when there just may be too few people around in years to come to generate the income to service the debts?
My guess? As trust in the technical capacity of governments to run a currency honorably declines, expect rival innovative systems like Bitcoin to look more credible.
And, as if by magic, dishonest governments fear honest competition and begin to mull new 'regulations'.
This is where the real financial battleground of the next century or so will emerge. Between on the one side states and their tiny privileged elites clinging to the right to control people by controlling (and if necessary stealing) their money, and on the other side millions people demanding the choice to take responsibility for themselves.
EU Budget - Gurgling Down?
8th February 2013
Here's my Telegraph Blogs piece this morning on the news coming from Brussels that mirabile dictu the EU Budget may in fact not grow over the coming seven year financial cycle:
The French have made the usual belligerent noises, feigning to champion increased spending that they too can’t afford. As a net contributor (but unlike the UK with a huge stake in the existing bad pattern of spending skewed towards the CAP) France hoots for more Europe, then gracelessly falls in line behind the tough position determined by the other two largest net contributors, UK and Germany.
But wait. What about the European Parliament? Can’t they refuse to endorse the deal and impose annual budgets at higher costs to UK?
London’s answer to that will be “bring it on!”. If the EU Budget in all its labyrinthine complexity is not agreed at the start of the seven-year spending cycle, it gets far harder for the major net beneficiaries of structural spending (eg Poland and Romania) to plan sensibly. That in turn sharply increases the likelihood that by 2020 they will not have spent their allocations, so the actual spend by the UK and other net contributors is sharply down.
In other words, if the European Parliament tries this on in a clumsy power-grab it will incur the wrath of almost everyone, including MEPs on all sides who, taking their lead from their respective capitals, prefer the certainty of a comprehensive Budget deal now to the horrible uncertainty of annual budgets.
In any negotiation of this sort, those who pay in more than they get out decide the final outcome. This time round David Cameron – aided by the shamelessly opportunistic Labour Party in Westminster – has stuck to a firm position of principle that also makes sound economic sense. He is winning a major victory.
In a battle between Givers and Getters, Getters win. It just comes down to how little they want to Give, and how long the Getters want to keep the issues open, trading the hope of further small gains against the certainty in planning that comes from getting the whole boring business over and done with.
The depressing thing is that the EU now staggers on with no move seriously to downsize the role of the CAP in overall shared spending. Plus all sorts of budgetary bungs will have been handed out to get the final package close to approval, so the process is even more squalid and inefficient than usual. None of which helps maintain Europe's long-term position as a world economic force.
Maybe that's exactly how decline has to happen. It's just easier to stick with the sinking ship you know, and gently gurgle downwards with it.
Racism and Adoption
4th February 2013
Here is another Commentator piece from me on a subject with moral content, namely how far is it appropriate to take into account the ethnicity (or 'race') of would-be adopting parents? Is it right to put a child from a 'minority' community into a 'white' home?
... those who hooted loudest for a supposedly progressive non-racial outcome in apartheid South Africa are those who hoot loudest for a defensive multi-racial approach here in the UK now. This shows itself in many ways, above all the enforced categorisations of ‘ethnic minorities’ that appear in demands emanating from the Cabinet Office for staff surveys and other official processes.
The categories chosen (or not chosen – don’t ever ask why, say, Poles do not feature on these lists) show how vital it is for the race relations industry to create racial/ethic categories and assign people to them. Without these formalised state-created apartheid-style categories, the opportunities for asserting control over people and processes would be hugely reduced.
These issues come to a head with adoption. We have children without a home needing to get out of state institutions into a normal family, and we have parents wanting to adopt said children. On the face of it, creating arrangements that deliberately make it less likely that ‘ethnic minority’ children are in fact adopted would look to be a massive human rights abuse.
Yet this outcome is not only what we have, it is championed and enforced by the armies and ideologies of official multi-racialists, on the grounds that ethnic minority children should be adopted only by families of the same ethnicity. Anything else risks creating ‘psychological problems’...
The really baffling thing in all this is that thanks to the more or less uncontrolled immigration policies beloved by progressive forces here, the UK really is getting quite melting-potty anti-racial.
So-called ‘mixed’ marriages and relationships are ever more common, even chic. More and more children are being born and moving on to Olympic, academic and other success with skin hues and DNA combinations that tick no known Cabinet Office survey boxes. The adoption industry’s rearguard attempts to disallow ‘mixed-race’ adoptions are now grotesquely conservative, even reactionary.
In my view anyone introducing race as a factor in adoption should be sued to high heaven for primitive discrimination. If it's unlawful for me to say that I don't want to hirte someone because of the colour of their skin, it has to be unlawful for the colour of skin to be a factor in determining how far a proposed adoption is suitable.
More lawsuits! That will solve the problem fast and well. Mind you I've been hpowling in the wilderness about this since ethnicity was first identified as a 'human need' back in 2008.
Chris Huhne: Should we Gloat, or Not?
4th February 2013
Over on Twitter I have been having some 140-character exchanges with erudite writer and thinker Bryan Appleyard @BryanAppleyard on the fascinating subject of how far if at all it is right to 'gloat' about the catastrophic plummet from grace of Chris Huhne.
Bryan seemed to think that this was not in order:
Bryan Appleyard @BryanAppleyard
What's wrong with politics is not the sins of Chris Huhne, it's the gloating and sneering that will ensue. http://tinyurl.com/cd3c5ge
I replied that the likelihood that gloating and sneering will follow misdeeds of this sort in itself sends a market signal to people in public life not to cheat and be caught cheating. Bryan then quoted the Bible at me:
John 8.7: "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
Hmm. Curious way of looking at the Huhne problem.
I have talked before on this site about the Prodigal Son parable. The weakness in it from a moral standpoint (it seems to me) is that the 'good' dutiful older son who does not squander his money gets rather dismissed from the story: all the focus is on the wretched son who returns and grovels. The older son is merely invited to celebrate the younger one's return and spiritual rebirth.
Fine. But then what? Is there no virtue to be celebrated other than in a perfunctory way for those who behave well? I know that newspapers need bad news to get sold, but is all attention invariably on those who fall and who then beg for (or even claim to 'deserve') forgiveness? And what of people who try to change their ways but can't? Or of people who claim that they are ready to change their ways but don't really mean it?
Here is my piece at The Commentator that looks at some of these questions from the tragic point of view of someone who toiled in public service for years, never spending a penny more than was justifiable and never telling lies about it. Namely me.It echoes some points that I have made here and elsewhere including in response to the D MacShane disaster.
Conclusion? The sheer brazenness of Huhne's sustained dishonesty puts it into a stellar category, and fully entitles me to feel exultant that this odious man at long last has been revealed as such.
All praise to Guido for harrying and pushing to keep this case in the public eye and create a momentum for the eventual prosecution: today is a huge victory for the blogosphere, and a powerful example of where Leveson-type 'regulation' for the media simply misses the point.
Bryan Appleyard has written about his views on Huhne here. Here's my comment (awaiting moderation):
Our analyses cross in cyberspace.
Here’s mine: http://charlescrawford.biz/blog/chris-huhne-should-we-gloat-or-not- It links to an article I have written about this case: http://www.thecommentator.com/article/2645/chris_huhne_moral_standards_in_public_life
I think you miss an important point here, or maybe it’s that there is no easy answer Twitterly or otherwise to a chicken-and-egg issue: do politicians behave badly because the public sneer at them, or do we sneer at them because they behave badly?
The core power-relationship here is simple. Politicians have asked us to vote for them, as they have promised to uphold high standards in public life. More: they love to come down like a ton of bricks on others who fall from grace (as they see it). And they grab our money and pour out laws and directives and rules and regulations at a rate that is nothing less than objectively oppressive. So as they demand that they be judged by the highest standards, let’s do just that.
I worked in public life as civil servant for nearly 30 years. It is really not difficult. You don’t cheat on your expenses, and you don’t tell lies. If you make a mistake (as you do) you quickly go and alert people to what has happened – you don’t ask others to take the rap so that your career can continue unblemished.
The most profound moral principle in life is to accept the consequences of your own actions. Huhne is so spectacular an example of infamy because he did exactly the opposite, using his own family members for his greedy banal ends. Nothing whatever is gained by being ‘nice’ to someone like that in his hour of doom.
My point about richly deserved derision being a ‘market signal’ has nothing to do with neo-liberalism or the other fancy reductionist things you mention. Rather it simply tried to say that if people are unpersuaded that behaving properly in public office is an end in itself, they might like to consider that failure to do so may in fact have unpleasant consequnces for them and their general reputation.
And this has to be right. If you systematically abuse the trust others have in you, you must accept that their attitude towards you has to change. In Huhne’s case, his professional vanity and private selfishness went to dizzying new heights, so his fall in reputation is all the more precipitous.
There is a ‘market’ element in this, insofar as we all choose how to respond and just how far we fine-tune whatever sympathy we may have towards politicians who mess up. But the public is pretty good (I’d say) at sensing which fallen politicians truly deserve sympathy and some generosity of spirit, and which are conniving manipulators.
I’m sure that if C Huhne follows the example of Profumo and retires to do modest humble good work for a decade or two, we all might start to accept that he understands what he did. He will have earned back our respect. Alas I fear that after a few months of studied silence he’ll try to skulk his way back into some sort of prominence and power, claiming he’s ‘learned his lesson’. Ugh.
So maybe it’s the other way round. Maybe if politicians stop cheating and lying at our expense and try that for 20 years or so, we’ll be showering them with higher salaries and our warm gratitude.
But as a Speech?
23rd January 2013
My piece for The Commentator on the PM's UK/EU speech as a speech:
... Those sentences, like the opening blather about the origins of the European Union, are intended to send a strong signal to other European capitals:
You won't get a better UK Conservative leader than me who has a good chance of knocking over British Euroscepticism for a good while to come, so if I were you I'd start looking hard for some serious moves in my direction.
Listening to the speech on the radio, I could easily tell that the Prime Minister was reading it out. His speechwriters do him few favours, serving up too much predictable phrasing and rhythm amidst trite speech-by-numbers rhetoric and listy structure. These effects can combine to make him sound curiously artificial and intellectually thin.
Plus, by using teleprompter technology, the Prime Minister denies himself any opportunity to be spontaneous, thereby stripping out most of the possibilities for making a speech come across as an intelligent conversation with the audience rather than an over-scripted lecture.
Still, that's modern politics, where issues of language get put through the strainer of anonymous focus groups. They lose spontaneity and sparkle, and so lack emotional content.
Bottom line? Scope for improvement on style, but the strong substance went well beyond what we all expected a few weeks or even days ago.
Rarely has a Prime Minister's speech achieved so much immediate impact and analysis.He's done something right.
Once the dust settles, the UK will need to start outlining in general but non-trivial terms the sort of things it needs to put a recommendation for Yes/In to UK voters in a few years' time. Items on the list might include:
- rebooting the European Parliament to include MPs from national Parliaments
- a number of key competences returned to consensus, not qualified majority voting
- some firm treaty language to reinforce 'subsidiarity' and to make these changes ECJ-proof and competence-creep-proof
- abandoning some annoying Directives or giving the UK/others a formal opt-out
- reforms to improve budgetary discipline/transparency and oppress corruption in huge EU programmes
- reforms to extend the Single Market
- treaty changes that guarantee that certain key national interests for states outside the Eurozone can not be overridden without their express consent
- more good stuff like that
Most of these changes should be acceptable to most member states as a price well worth paying to get UK popular endorsement of its EU membership for the next three decades or so. Naturally they'll start out (as is already happening) by moaning about à la carte cherry-picking or whatever. Plus they'll fret about going through the whole misery of renegotiating a new treaty.
Yet none of these things is really so bad. There is a lot to be said for having a new treaty anyway, to define a stable relationship for EZ and non-EZ states. And if London knows that it will get a solid (enough) outcome from the whole process, the UK does not need to mount a rearguard action to throttle lots of it. Good grief, we might even be positive and constructive.
All of which said, even if D Cameron wins such a package, how do we all vote in any referendum? Does the fact that he likes it serve to reassure the rest of us that it is acceptable? Will the clamorous Eurosceptics persuade us that the concessions he has won are more or less rubbish?
Enough to keep me in happy punditry for a while. Which, after all, is the main thing.
Engage Charles Crawford as