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Friday, 21 July 2017

Sailing up Brexit creek to disaster

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for the UK's chief Brexit negotiator David Davis.

There he was in Brussels (if but briefly), face to face with his steely-eyed EU counterpart Michel Barnier, and all he could hear in his head were the voices of his Cabinet colleagues.

'Be tough.' (International trade secretary Liam Fox). 'Be flexible.' (Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond) 'Tell 'em to go whistle.' (Foreign secretary Boris Johnson) 'Make sure we get a soft landing.' (Home secretary Amber Rudd)

And that's just what they're saying in public. God only knows what they're saying in private.

Imagine you're a car salesman and a couple come in to buy a new car. They want a good deal, of course, so they try to negotiate. Partner A: 'We want a deal that's fair to both sides.' Partner B: 'No, we don't. We're perfectly prepared to walk away with no deal at all if we don't get what we want.'

They squabble. They bicker. They call each other names. I don't know about you, but if I were that salesman, I'd leave them to it and find something else to do. Which is exactly what the EU will be tempted to until and unless Mrs May's bunch of squabblers get their act together.

This is what happens when prime ministers lose their authority, because the four senior ministers I cited above all think they have a real chance of taking over when Mrs M finally throws in the towel.

So, of course, does David Davis, who is in effect running the Brexit negotiations -- which he says make landing on the moon look simple -- while simultaneously trying to position himself for a successful leadership bid.

It is a recipe for disaster. And the only hope of resolving it is that during their summer break, enough Conservative MPs will come to accept that they need to find themselves a new leader pronto.

Some of the older ones might even recall Sir Geoffrey Howe's speech when he resigned from Margaret Thatcher's government in 1990. He complained bitterly about her attitude towards the EU, which he said was like 'sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.'

In David Davis's case, it's not so much that his team captain has handed him a broken bat, but instead has provided him with a whole selection of bats, of varying shapes and sizes, none of which seem to be any good. What's more, she's forgotten to tell him what the rules of the game are.

No wonder M Barnier is complaining of a 'lack of clarity' in the UK's bargaining position. How can there possibly be clarity as long as the government is so deeply split and the prime minister has lost all authority?

I can't honestly think of a single way in which the UK's negotiating position could be worse. The country is divided, the government is divided, and the opposition is divided. Even if, against all the odds, David Davis is able to negotiate a deal before March 2019 (the two-year time limit from when the UK formally informed Brussels that it intends to leave), the chances of it winning the support of the Commons are vanishingly small.

So here's a thought. When a computer blows a gasket, you can often reset it to a date that takes it back to before the problem occurred. There ought to be a similar System Restore facility in Westminster, so that we could just turn back the clock to the day before the Brexit referendum and do it all again.

When the UK's former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned last January, complaining that  'serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall', I translated his parting remarks as meaning 'We're up the creek without a paddle.'

Six months later, we seem to be even further up the creek -- and still without a paddle. It'll soon be time to grab hold of the life jackets.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Values? What values?

When Donald Trump addressed the people of Poland last week, just before he headed off to Germany for the G20 summit, he spoke in glowing terms of what he called Western civilisation.

'We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,' he said. 'We value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.'

I wonder if the Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo heard those words. We'll never know, because now Liu is dead, the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in 1938.

Western civilisation? The right to free speech? The dignity of every human life? Rarely have those words sounded as hollow as they do today, less than a week after China's president, Xi Jinping, was fêted by his G20 fellow-leaders.

(It's not entirely fair, incidentally, to single out President Trump for criticism. Liu's American lawyer Jared Genser wrote in the Washington Post two weeks ago that Barack Obama 'led the West in playing down concerns with China on human rights and was conspicuous by his unwillingness to help Liu, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.')

But let's not confine ourselves to the abysmal record of China. Also at the G20 summit, looking like the cat who got the cream as he wrapped Mr Trump round his little finger (if you'll excuse the mixed imagery), was President Vladimir Putin, a man whose political enemies have a remarkable habit of ending up dead.

Enemies like Boris Nemtsov, whom I met in Moscow in December 2013, as he campaigned to reveal the appalling corruption in which the Sochi Winter Olympics were mired. He was shot dead on a Moscow street just over a year later. Or like the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006. Or the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009.

(We'll return to the Magnitsky case another day, as it's part of the increasingly surreal Donald Trump Jr emails saga. The Russian lawyer whom the young Trump met in the hope that she was about to hand over some dirt on Hillary Clinton was best known as a lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's death.)

Standing right next to Mr Putin in the G20 family photo was President Erdoğan of Turkey, who just a year ago survived what may or may not have been an attempted coup against him and who then embarked on a crackdown in which an estimated 50,000 people have been arrested and another 150,000 have been either sacked or suspended from their jobs.

The inescapable conclusion? That Western civilisation defends the right to free speech except where it doesn't.

Certainly not in Egypt, for example, where a military coup that put an end to an inglorious -- but democratically-elected -- Muslim Brotherhood administration was greeted with a deafening sigh of relief from Western capitals.

And definitely not in Saudi Arabia, where a ruling royal family riddled with corruption has been fawned over shamelessly for decades in return for billions of dollars-worth of arms contracts. (Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who had the temerity to write in favour of such outlandish ideas as secularism and democracy.)

I wasn't born yesterday. I know that strategic and commercial considerations will always take precedence over such wishy-washy things as 'values'. What sticks in my throat is the cant, the absurd pretence that somehow the West stands for all that is best about the human condition.

Donald Trump, as it happens, pretends much less often than most of his fellow Western leaders. His speech in Warsaw was a rare exception, but not to be taken seriously, given that no one was fooled for one moment into believing that he had written it, that he meant it, or even that he understood it.

At least Trump is open in his admiration of despots: Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Sisi of Egypt and even the truly appalling Duterte of the Philippines. I suspect he would love to be able to behave as they do: locking up his opponents, ruling by decree, and governing by fear.

To his credit, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson did issue a statement paying tribute to Liu Xiaobo after his death on Thursday and calling for the release from house arrest of his wife, Liu Xia. It was the very least he could have done.

President Trump, tone deaf as ever, chose instead to praise President Xi Jinping as a 'very talented man, a good man, a terrific guy and a very special person'.  A few hours later, the White House had to issue a follow-up statement: the president had been 'deeply saddened' to learn of Liu's death and offered his condolences. So that's all right.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Will Trump go to war over North Korea?

It's three a.m. in Washington DC and the President of the United States suddenly appears in the White House Situation Room. He's ranting about North Korea and 'Option B' and 'teaching those motherfuckers a lesson.'

Trailing after him is his military aide, clutching the briefcase that contains the black book and the nuclear code. The nuclear football. ('Option B', by the way, envisages a nuclear attack against both North Korea and China.)

According to a military official who's present: 'The rules say that if the President wants to order a military strike, then he can do it. Just like that. Doesn't need to consult anyone.'

It's all right. You can breathe out. It's a scene from a novel: 'To Kill The President', by Sam Bourne, also known as the award-winning Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. It was published this week (Harper Collins, £7.99), with astonishingly good timing, just as Donald Trump (the real one, this time) threatened North Korea with 'severe things' following what appears to have been Pyongyang's successful test of an inter-continental ballistic missile.

This is the same Donald Trump who boasted (on Twitter, of course) just weeks before his inauguration last January: 'North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!'

Well, Mr President, it has happened -- or at least North Korea has now built a missile that appears to be capable of reaching Alaska or even Hawaii. (Why would it want to attack Hawaii? First, because the US maintains a substantial military presence there, and second, because it's a lot closer than the US mainland. Remember Pearl Harbor.)

But North Korea has not -- as far as we know -- developed a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried on an ICBM, nor one that is able to withstand re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. So the threat, while real, remains potential rather than actual.

Let us agree that the world would be a much better place if no one had any nuclear weapons at all. Let us also agree that we might sleep easier in our beds if Mr Trump had not reportedly asked a foreign policy expert last summer: 'If we have them [nuclear weapons], why can't we use them?'

If I were the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, my question to Mr Trump would be this: 'How come it's OK for Israel to have nuclear weapons (although of course it still denies that it does have them); how come it's OK for the UK, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan to have them; oh, and how come you, as leader of the only country in the world that has actually used nuclear weapons, get to decide who else can have them?'

Hypocrisy rules. All that North Korea wants is what we Brits like to call an 'independent nuclear deterrent.' (When countries that we don't approve of have the same thing, it's called 'weapons of mass destruction'.) In other words, it wants to be sure it can defend itself against possible attack -- and it wants to terrify its neighbours.

Mission accomplished, you might say, even before Pyongyang has shown that it does have both a nuclear weapons capability and the ability to use it. Its neighbours -- especially South Korea and Japan -- are duly terrified, and, understandably enough, they're extremely keen for the US to protect them.

So what might the unpredictable, impatient, under-informed and irascible Mr Trump do? If he bombs North Korea's missile sites, he risks hundreds of thousands of deaths as soon as Pyongyang retaliates against South Korea. (Nearly half the South Korean population lives within fifty miles of the border between the two countries.)

He already seems to have had second thoughts about relying on China to turn the screws -- surprise, surprise, President Xi Jinping turns out not to be prepared to act as the US president's poodle. (Trump tweet: 'Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!')

And as for internationally agreed sanctions, well, Mr Trump hasn't exactly gone out of his way to build strategic alliances, has he?

The US news network CNN has very helpfully compiled a handy list of all the issues on which Mr Trump has put himself at odds with the US's G20 partners.

Climate change? The US is in a minority of one.

Trade? From Canada and Mexico to China, Japan and the EU, the US is on the wrong side of the free trade fence. (Eg the just-signed free trade deal between Japan and the EU.)

Muslim travel ban? Even Theresa May has called it 'divisive and wrong'.

And even if the UN agrees to authorise a tightening of sanctions on Pyongyang (for example, by targeting Chinese banks that do business in North Korea), the precedents do not suggest that they would make a ha'penny-worth of difference. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian: 'Cuba, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Myanmar and Korea: history tells us that sanctions merely give longevity to entrenched regimes.' 

Which leaves diplomacy. Admittedly, it's been tried before, with only limited success. Years of talks involving the US, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea halted Pyongyang's nuclear programme temporarily, but broke down when North Korea pulled out in 2009.

So it might be a good idea if North Korea's neighbours started by recognising that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons programme. As I wrote last April, the Kim dynasty are convinced that without it, they're as good as dead. After all, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya both gave up their nuclear programmes, and look what happened to them.

The best hope now is that China, Russia, and Japan will put their heads together and devise a new proposal to put to President Kim. And the best chance they have of getting anywhere is by making sure that President Trump is kept well away from anywhere where he could do real harm.

It's come to this: one ill-considered 6.30a.m. tweet from the Trump bed chamber could tip the Korean peninsula into open war. Appallingly, we are now reduced to relying on Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to find a way back from the brink.