Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
Is Gordon Brown thinking about a sudden switch on Afghanistan? His latest speech did suggest that support was conditional:
“In a move to rally public opinion after the worst week for the UK in Helmand province since British forces were deployed there in 2006, the prime minister said international support for Mr Karzai ‘depends on the scale of his ambition and the degree of his achievement in five key areas’. He hoped the president would use his swearing-in ceremony later this month to outline clear plans to promote security, good governance, national reconciliation, economic development and improved relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours.”[A]
This was a mild reaction to the farce of the Presidential election, followed by an Afghan policeman shooting dead five British servicemen. It could all be empty talk, most likely is just empty talk. But there’s an interesting alternative. He could wait a few months, then say that his conditions had not been met and that British troops would pull out unless some sort of compromise government could be created. This would ‘snooker’ the Tories – do they fight the election as the party that is going to stay in Afghanistan regardless? It would also lend covert help to Obama. And it would be what the British public now increasingly want:
“The poll shows that over a third of the population (35 per cent) think British troops should be withdrawn immediately, compared with 25 per cent a fortnight ago. Overall, some 73 per cent of people want UK troops out of Afghanistan now or within a year, while 57 per cent think victory is no longer possible.”[A]
The USA may be feeling even worse, with the recent mass killing by a US Army Major, a Muslim born in the USA but with Palestinian parents. The problem is, they’d find it very hard to create an alternative government of any sort. This proved almost impossible after the fall of the Najibullah government, which lasted till 1992 and was keen for a compromise after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. A US journalist noted shortly before the fall of that a deal was possible but that the US government didn’t want it:
“Abandoned by his former benefactors in Moscow and cast somewhat adrift in the new politics of the region, Afghanistan’s President made an impassioned appeal to the United States today to help his country become a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia…
“The Afghan President’s praise for the United States and his attempt to enlist Washington in common cause against fundamentalism marked the sharpest departure yet from the open hostility that has characterized relations between Kabul and Washington since Afghanistan’s leftist coup of 1978.
“‘We have a common task, Afghanistan, the United States of America, and the civilized world, to launch a joint struggle against fundamentalism,’ said Mr. Najibullah, who then described what he thought would happen to his country if Islamic extremists took power in Kabul.
“‘If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many more years,’ he said, the rush of his words repeatedly overwhelming his translator. ‘Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs. Afghanistan will be turned into a center for terrorism.’
“Mr. Najibullah has promised to support a United Nations plan to summon a wide spectrum of Afghans — including the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas — to a gathering that would lead to a political accord to end Afghanistan’s years of civil conflict.
“But his call for immediate aid left open to question whether he wants Washington to extend assistance while he is still in power or after a United Nations-sponsored transition from his Government is irreversibly under way. Mr. Najibullah has grown increasingly uneasy about the expected outcome of the United Nations process, which almost certainly would mean his removal from office and the dissolution of his Watan, or Homeland Party, the successor to the Soviet-inspired Communist Party he once led…
“Most disappointing, the President said, was the refusal of the United States to talk to his Government at any level. The guerrillas, he said, had held talks with the Russian Government in Moscow, and Mr. Baker had visited the newly formed governments in Central Asia, ‘so what is the obstacle that the United States of America is not opening its embassy in Afghanistan?’ he asked.
“The last American ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was killed in 1979 during an attempted kidnapping. Mr. Dubs was never replaced and American representation in Kabul continued at a reduced level until the embassy closed in 1989.” [B]
What happened was that there was no deal, the Najibullah government fell and the various warlords squabbled and fought each other until the Taliban emerged. The decision to let it happen would have been made by Bush Senior, who at that time still had hopes of a second term. His replacement by Bill Clinton made no real difference, though. Clinton was just as much a part of the blunders of the time, helping produce disaster in the break-up of Yugoslavia by always blaming the Serbs in a civil conflict where no one behaved well. In Former Yugoslavia as in Afghanistan, US policy was to allow chaos but to be hostile to whatever seemed like a survival of socialism. That there might be no stability without an element of socialism was not a notion that they could accept.
They’ve also relied heavily on bombing, presumably thinking that this would be a way for the USA to dominate the world without huge numbers of ground troops and without needing too many allies. The drawback is that airstrikes are much more likely to hit innocents that ground fighting, and also seem much less excusable to the victims. If you see people fighting and dying and also hitting the wrong targets, you can maybe understand their difficulties and see that they too are suffering. When a bomb falls from an aircraft high and safe above it all, that’s another matter.
In Afghanistan, every air-strike that kills civilians generates blood-feuds, and also simple anger. People with no previous Taliban connection with an urge to ‘get even’. Which can be most easily obtained by joining Afghan’s hopelessly corrupt police.
How do you make stable politics out of a mess like that?
“India and China struck an agreement on Wednesday to co-ordinate efforts to combat climate change that has at its core demands that the developed world take the lead in cutting global carbon emissions.
“Both countries are resisting acceptance of binding cuts or caps to their carbon emissions, arguing that they will unfairly curb their development. They insist that the developed world should take responsibility for the damage it has inflicted on the planet.
“Wednesday’s agreement, at a time of tension between the two Asian powers over territorial disputes and water resources, aligned efforts to tackle climate change for five years. It also agreed a common cause to seek financial resources and technology to help developing countries control their carbon footprints as they industrialise.” [C]
Western politicians have so far treated climate change as a non-issue, fit for empty gestures. Now that public opinion has become convinced that climate change is real, they are trying to shift the cost onto those least able to pay. Each individual in the developed countries has a much bigger ‘carbon footprint’. But the very large populations in China and India mean that they contribute a large share of current carbon dioxide emissions. Of course the West did most of the polluting historically, but an attempt to shift the cost can be sold to voters more easily than a refusal to do anything. And it may amount to a stall, because of course the developing nations are not going to let the rules be re-written to their disadvantage:
“‘India will never accept any dilution or renegotiation of the provisions and principles of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In particular, we will never agree to the elimination of the distinction between developed countries and developing countries as far as internationally legally binding emission reduction obligations are concerned,’ said [Indian Minister for Environment and Forests] Ramesh, junking the news report for completely distorting and twisting the meaning of his discussion note to PM by quoting him selectively and significantly adding its own editorial interpretations.
“‘Internationally legally binding emission reduction targets are for developed countries and developed countries alone, as globally agreed under the Bali Action Plan. India will agree to consider international measurement, reporting and verification of its mitigation actions only when such actions are enabled and supported by international finance and technology,’ the minister said in a statement.
“Earlier at the press conference on SAARC Ministerial Cooperation in Environment, Ramesh also reiterated that all the member countries have decided not to move away from Kyoto Protocol and Bali Action Plan.” [D]
184 states signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the USA has not. I’d expect the USA to sabotage any new agreement as well.
If you desire peace, don’t keep ignoring the views of those you’re trying to make peace with. The Dalai Lama must have known that China would be offended by his visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the former ‘North-East Frontier Agency’. It has long been loosely connected to Tibet and is sometimes called ‘South Tibet’. The sixth Dalai Lama came from the town on Tawang on the border, just south of the line of actual control.
The British as rulers of India tried to get control of it in the Simla Agreement of 1914, accepting that it was loosely part of Tibet and that Tibet was part of China. The government of Tibet was willing to hand over this region, the government of China was not and the British left it alone for the rest of their rule. They knew that most Chinese would not accept that China’s rights had lapsed unless a Chinese government said so. And British interests in Shanghai and the Yangtze Valley were then very much more important. Maps continued to show the area as attached to Tibet and China, including a map used in a book produced before independence by Nehru, India’s first leader.
The newly established Republic of India then got adventurous, forging local links and claiming the area for its own. It is generally believed that China would have conceded the area had India given up its claim to the Aksai Chin, an area of desert bordering on Kashmir. This is what India has kept on refusing to do.
The Dalai Lama, meantime, seems to be relying on Western power to eventually restore him. The visit can be seen as a move in a complex diplomatic game:
“You have to hand it to the Dalai Lama for his sense of timing. Only a few weeks ago, he was quietly shunned by the White House – the first time in nearly two decades that he did not stop by while visiting Washington. Yet this week the Dalai Lama is back in the headlines with his visit to Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India, prompting outraged protests from China which claims part of the region as its own and calls it ‘southern Tibet’. The visit has been planned for months but coming as President Barack Obama is packing his bags for his first trip to Beijing, it helps keep a bit of a squeeze on the White House.” [G]
“His visit comes amid rising tensions between India and China over sovereignty of Arunachal Pradesh, which India controls, but which Beijing refers to as ‘southern Tibet’ and has been increasingly vocal in claiming as its own.
“Beijing revived the seemingly dormant border dispute last year when it tried to block an Asian Development Bank country strategy for India, citing the plans for loans to develop water infrastructure in the remote state.
“While India had been reluctant in recent years to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to Tawang – the second-holiest city in Tibetan Buddhism after Lhasa, analysts said its decision to allow the trip was an assertion of India’s sovereignty over the area.”[H]
The Chinese media are actually taking a mild line on the territory. Thus the English version of the Peoples Daily says:
“Sandwiched between Myanmar, Bhutan and China, the lush, forested southern Tibet is claimed by both China and India, with the latter the de facto controller of the area.
“The visit took place amid reports of major military build-ups on both sides of the border, while little progress is being made to solve the years-long territorial conflict.
“To China, the presence of the separatist in the disputed region, which India calls Arunachal Pradesh, is seen as a double insult.” [I]
But the game can only go so far. Some Indian politicians may find the confrontation useful, but it is not getting in the way of cooperation on climate talks. China is both richer and militarily stronger. China is also integrating its Tibetan population, both in Western Tibet and in ‘Eastern Tibet’, the partly Tibetan areas that the Dalai Lama originally came from and which have long been parts of various Chinese provinces. There they have just scored an interesting little success:
“A grand niece of the 14th Dalai Lama told Xinhua on Monday that she had joined the Communist Party of China (CPC).
“‘I’m proud to join the CPC,’ said 35-year-old Deying Drolma, grandniece of the Dalai Lama and now a soldier of People’s Liberation Army. She took her oath to be a member of the CPC on June 26.
“‘I had tears in my eyes when I took the oath,’ Deying Drolmam recalled. ‘I felt myself the happiest one in the world.’
“‘My grandmother Khyi Losel is a cousin of the Dalai Lama. When he fled to India in 1959, he asked her and her family to go with him but she refused. She told us we shall never betray our motherland,’ said Deying Drolma.” [J]
Meantime the whole of Tibet is being integrated ever more closely into the rest of China, with three airports and a fourth planned:
“More then 3.2 million people have visited Tibet so far this year, breaking all records and doubling tourist spending in the Himalayan region, thanks to a new railway and airport, state media reported on Friday.
“The tourists spent 3.89 billion yuan (253 million pounds), an increase of 90.1 percent from on the same period last year.
“‘Since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and promotion efforts, the tourism industry has boomed,’ Xinhua news agency said. The railway opened in July 2006.
“Most the tourists were domestic but 325,870 came from overseas — a rise of 155.4 percent.
“Tibet, which now has three airports, noted a one-fifth rise in flights over the summer.
“China, which expects the number of tourists visiting Tibet to reach 6 million in 2010, is building a fourth airport in Ngari in the west, which will be the world’s highest.” [K]
Globally, China is making more friends, especially in Africa. Wild talk about ‘neo-colonialism’ can’t hide the fact that Chinese trade is a lifeline. And that China refuses to play the West’s game of deciding that particular African leaders need to be criminalised and hounded out, adding to instability in a continent that badly needs stable government.
“The flames have burned for half a century but darkness still prevails in the Niger delta.
“At night, the orange glow from flares – fuelled by the waste natural gas from crude production – provides the only light visible across vast stretches of Nigeria’s oil region, where many settlements are starved of power.
“Logic would suggest a simple solution: harnessing the gas from the flares – along with that from bounteous gas fields – to fire the country’s power stations, most of which stand idle for lack of fuel. But logic, as veterans of the conflict-prone region remark, is an infrequent visitor to the delta.
“With the government offering to buy gas at what they say is a fraction of the production cost, oil companies are reluctant to invest billions of dollars in pipelines and other infrastructure.
“As world leaders prepare to gather in Copenhagen for next month’s climate change summit, the delta’s flares serve as reminders of the difficulties of their task.
“Last year, Nigeria, which boasts sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest energy industry and is the fifth biggest crude supplier to the US, flared 15bn cubic metres of gas, more than any other country apart from Russia and about one tenth of the global total, according to US defence department data.
“At the same time, 150m Nigerians share roughly as much electricity as the 3m inhabitants of Wales. Businesses are hamstrung while the delta’s chimneys give off millions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses each year without producing a single watt of power.
“Most economists agree the power crisis is the biggest barrier between Nigeria and increased prosperity.” [E]
Nigeria swings from military dictatorship to bad elected governments. It has never yet had a government that can properly assert the national interest.
[And now it has Islamic extremists as well.]
Banks do not exist, there are only individual customers and employees.
When Mrs Thatcher said ‘society does not exist’, she was announcing a political program aimed at rolling back social feeling and notions of collective duty. What she can’t have expected was that her program would undermine what was left of middle-class respectability. She blamed the decline of respectability on the welfare state, and assumed it would recover when people were pushed out of this framework. That was one view: the rival notion is that it was commerce itself that had done the job, by eroding secure small property. This goes right back to the Communist Manifesto, arguably it goes back decades before that to conservative thinkers like Oliver Goldsmith and the poet Coleridge, warning that the new forces of money were going to wreck the society
The actual flow of events under Thatcher and since Thatcher show clearly that it is large-scale depersonalised commerce that is the main enemy of respectability (or of any sort of civilised life). Maybe welfarism also did it a bit of damage to old-fashioned values, but Thatcher’s diagnosis was wrong from the start.
The erosion of ‘respectability’ is fatal for the system. Most discussions of the banking crisis still assumes that banks operate as corporate entities. Everything makes a lot more sense if you see them as frameworks for individuals who want to get out with enough money not to care about their reputation or future employability.
What’s bad for the financial system can be good for individuals within it. The modern mentality has been to make your fortune and get out. People are acting ‘rationally’ according to New Right doctrine, which each of them sees as applying to themselves and not others. Individuals encouraged to be selfish will be just that and will be socially destructive.
Civilisation works by harnessing selfish impulses, but also notions of duty. Maybe also sympathy, though this is harder to manipulate. But any civilisation also needs laws to make anti-social behaviour less profitable. Laws do not stop such things as rape, murder, fraud or burglary, but it does limit them.
After the current massive financial disaster, politicians must say something about limits. This is seen as OK for as long as it is empty words. No major leader has so far said that we should restore the controls that were created after the Great Crash, plus closing all the loopholes. The banks have evidently got the political system under their control, convinced everyone that the financiers must be protected from popular anger.
While a full system of controls is unlikely, there are still arguments about just how small the changes can be. As expected, Britain and the USA are firmly on the wrong side:
“The business secretary, Lord Mandelson, warned in Brussels today that the European Union’s proposed regulations on hedge funds and private equity firms may threaten future investment.
“‘We must be vigilant against burdening industry with excessive costs, and resist any moves that place restrictions on investor choice, leaving the EU open to accusations of protectionism,’ Mandelson said at an event hosted by the thinktank Bruegel. ‘The EU must remain an attractive destination for venture capital.’
“Earlier this year, the EU Commission proposed tough new regulations on European private equity firms and hedge funds, mostly based in London.
“UK officials are lobbying EU representatives in order to redraft the directive, which could cost fund managers as much as £4.6bn in compliance costs, according to a recent report by the Financial Services Authority.
“The rules impose conditions such as restricting fund management jobs to EU nationals, as well as stopping third-party funds, for example, from the US, from marketing their services in Europe.” [F]
Stifling hedge funds isn’t very likely, but would be an excellent idea. The blighters do nothing useful, just waste the talent of their employees and siphon off money from the productive economy. As for ‘Venture Capital’ – isn’t it remarkable that France and Germany, which impose rules on such ventures, have done slightly better than the UK? Before the breakdown of currency controls in the 1970s, they were doing much better.
The case for less controls was based on the theory of ‘efficient markets’ – that markets find an ideal level. People like George Soros are quite happy to mock ‘efficient markets’ as nonsense, but also insist that there should be no return to the controls that existed before the 1970s, controls that would have prevented people like Soros from making their billions. But this makes much less sense than the arguments of the surviving ‘Market Fundamentalists’. Soros is happy to grub up the foundations of New Right policies, but expects the rest of the New Right edifice to remain intact. I’ve always viewed him as a muddled thinker.
More controls would be a return to a harder-line version of the Mixed Economy, a category that people have forgotten about. The Mixed Economy means that private profit is allowed but many dubious financial games are banned and there is a lot of regulation.
The Mixed Economy produced full employment for several decades, and prevented a serious re-emergence of fascism. Reagan and Thatcher talked about restoring Classical Capitalism but did not in fact do so. They bumped into the dangers in 1987, the crash that now gets forgotten about.
We currently have a rather loose version of the Mixed Economy. It badly needs to be re-tightened.
The Cold War was won by the West’s successful Mixed Economy, plus the refusal of Moscow to compromise with other forms of socialism. Most dissidents in the 1950s and 1960s wanted a more tolerant sort of socialism and a mixed economy. Capitalism was seen as a dark past that no one would wish to return to.
Despite the rhetoric, Thatcher and Reagan hadn’t actually restored ‘Free-Market Capitalism’. They’d had to reverse sharply in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall fell, when their own economies threatened to crash. Massive public spending was the way out then, as it has been in the recent much-more-serious crisis.
Despite which, the BBC still chooses to call the change “a crushing victory for capitalism”, and express surprised at “widespread dissatisfaction with free-market capitalism” that turned up in a survey they commissioned.[L] We don’t actually have anything like the degree of unfettered capitalism that existed before World War Two, or before World War One. But we do have a system in which the rich have been allowed a lot too much freedom to ignore the welfare of society, based on a promised free-market utopia. This was actually tried in the former Leninist states of Europe, shrinking their economies and raising the death-rate. It took some time for Middle-Europe to recover, thanks to admission to the corporatism of the European Community. Russia is still damaged: they’d have done better if they’d dropped their global ambitions but worked slowly at improving the system they had.
Meantime there is every sign that the loosening-up of the Mixed Economy has gone too far and that people want it reversed:
“Twenty years on, this new global poll suggests confidence in free markets has taken heavy blows from the past 12 months of financial and economic crisis.
“More than 29,000 people in 27 countries were questioned. In only two countries, the United States and Pakistan, did more than one in five people feel that capitalism works well as it stands.
“Almost a quarter – 23% of those who responded – feel it is fatally flawed. That is the view of 43% in France, 38% in Mexico and 35% in Brazil.
“And there is very strong support around the world for governments to distribute wealth more evenly. That is backed by majorities in 22 of the 27 countries.
“If there is one issue where a global consensus seems to emerge from the survey it is this: there are majorities almost everywhere wanting government to be more active in regulating business.” [L]
There are also mixed feelings about the Soviet Union itself:
“Opinion about the disintegration of the Soviet Union is sharply divided.
“Europeans overwhelmingly say it was a good thing: 79% in Germany, 76% in Britain and 74% in France feel that way.
“But outside the developed West it is a different picture. Almost seven in 10 Egyptians say the end of the Soviet Union was a bad thing and views are sharply divided in India, Kenya and Indonesia. [L]
“An average of 23% feel that capitalism is fatally flawed, and a new economic system is needed—including 43% in France, 38% in Mexico, 35% in Brazil and 31% in Ukraine.
“Furthermore, majorities would like their government to be more active in owning or directly controlling their country’s major industries in 15 of the 27 countries. This view is particularly widely held in countries of the former Soviet states of Russia (77%), and Ukraine (75%), but also Brazil (64%), Indonesia (65%), and France (57%).
“Majorities support governments distributing wealth more evenly in 22 of the 27 countries —on average two out of three (67%) across all countries. In 17 of the 27 countries most want to see government doing more to regulate business—on average 56%.
“The poll also asked about whether the breakup of the Soviet Union was a good thing or not. While an average of 54% say it was a good thing, this is the majority view in only 15 of the countries polled. An average of 22% say it was mainly a bad thing, while 24% do not know.
“Among former Warsaw Pact countries, most Russians (61%) and Ukrainians (54%) believe the breakup of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. In contrast, four in five Poles (80%) and nearly two-thirds of Czechs feel the disintegration of the USSR was a good thing (63%)…
“Outside the developed West the consensus is much less strong. Seven in ten Egyptians (69%) say the disintegration of the Soviet Union was mainly a bad thing. Views are divided in India, Kenya, and Indonesia as to whether it was a good or a bad thing, with many also saying they do not know.” [M]
“Latin Americans are particularly enthusiastic about a more active role for government in running the economy, with around nine in ten supporting more redistribution of wealth in Mexico (92%), Chile (91%), and Brazil (89%). Support for redistributing wealth more evenly is lowest in Turkey (9 %)—but those who do not support a greater role for government in this area are also in the majority in India (60%), Pakistan (66%), Poland (61%), and the US (59%).
“The proportions wanting to see government be more active in regulating business are highest in Brazil (87%), Chile (84%), France (76%), Spain (73%), China (71%), and Russia (68%). Only in Turkey (71%), does a majority think their government should do less to regulate business. However, there is more widespread opposition elsewhere, including the Philippines (47% oppose), Pakistan (36%), Nigeria (32%) and India (29%).
“The direct ownership or control of industries by government is generally more controversial, with large numbers opposed to it in, not only the US (52%) but also Germany (50%), Turkey (71%), and the Philippines (54%)…
” Only one in five Chinese rejects capitalism, though most think it needs reform. Seven in 10 want their government to play a more active role in regulating business and distributing wealth more evenly. Half see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as mainly a good thing.
“Fifty-eight per cent say that free market capitalism has issues that can be resolved by regulation and reform, 18 per cent say a different system is needed, and 11 per cent say it works well enough now… A large majority (71%) favour more government action in regulating business, compared to 11 per cent who favour the same action as present and 10 per cent who favour less action. Half (50%) consider the disintegration of the Soviet Union a positive event and 21 per cent view it negatively (30% gave no response).” [N]
Considering that the Soviet Union was widely suspected of planning to invade China from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the number regretting its passing is significant. Presumably they still have a positive view of earlier help. It’s also notable that the increased regulation of the economy, protested at by the West and some dissidents, comes out as overwhelmingly popular.
The original space race came about by accident. In the early years of the Cold War, the USA was much better placed to hit the Soviet Union than the Soviet Union was able to his the USA. To gain something like equality, the Soviet Union had to develop Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – missiles that could be fired from one continent and land on another half-way round the world. Scientists working on the project realised that such missiles could also put a satellite into orbit, and this was done. The USA tried to rush a response and had some embarrassing failures, and also lost the race to put a man into orbit. But then NASA was formed and President Kennedy got it the money it needed to harness the USA’s full technological might. The ‘Moon Race’ was decisively won, after which space was seen as less important.
After the end of the Cold War, it was decided to co-opt the former Soviet space program for the USA’s space station. Beyond that there were no clear ideas. A mission to Mars would be possible – could have been done in the 1970s had the will been there – but actually paying for it was the sticking point. The existing plan is for returning to the moon first.
This is now being re-considered. There isn’t all that much new to find out about the moon. A much better target are the asteroids, now believed to be ‘ancestral rocks’ that haven’t changed much since the Solar System was formed. There have been some fly-bys and interesting photographs, but an actual mission with astronauts could study a lot more. Though the asteroids are much more distant than the moon, their gravity is much weaker, so there are not the same problems with landing and taking off again.
But doing anything will need more money. Though the USA is enormously wealthy, the whole cultural trend has been towards less state spending. I fear the whole thing will get nowhere.