Sunday 21 December 2008

19 December 2008

So, will Barack Obama change the world? Er, probably not.

Will he radically change US foreign policy? Well, maybe he will, but there again, maybe he won’t.

If you heard our programme from here last night, you’ll have heard four of Washington’s most respected foreign policy analysts discussing the likely future shape of US foreign policy once Obama takes office next month. And what struck me about them was how uncertain they were. (If you missed the programme, it’s available on the website, as is an extended version, including a question and answer session with our invited audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)

Will Obama keep his promise to pull US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House? Probably, yes.

Will he make any headway in reviving the Middle East peace process? Probably, no.

Will he sign up to a new global agreement on reducing carbon gas emissions to combat climate change? Possibly, but it’s far from certain.

And so it goes on. During the Presidential election campaign, Obama promised “change you can believe in”. But beyond the rhetoric, there weren’t that many concrete policy proposals, especially in the field of foreign policy. Which is why even the best informed analysts here really have little clear idea what he’s planning to do.

And here’s the key issue: the over-riding preoccupation of the incoming administration will be how to revive the economy. Peace in the Middle East, forging a new relationship with Moscow, breathing new life into nuclear non-proliferation – all that may have to wait.

So what should we expect? Well, the rhetoric will certainly change: you won’t hear so much about the US ending tyranny and spreading democracy around the world. There’ll be more of an emphasis on negotiations, and on building international alliances. But will it be, in the words of a New York Times columnist,“continuity we can believe in”, or, in the words of another New York Times columnist, “a sweeping shift in foreign policy”?

Our panellists couldn’t agree. Is a change of tone the same as a change of policy? Or do US national interests always eventually over-ride Presidential ambitions? We’re about to find out – and the answer could well shape the world we live in.

Just a word about next week: on Christmas Eve, we’ll have a special pre-recorded programme in which we’ll be looking at the arguments for and against global population control; there’ll be no programme on Christmas Day, but we’ll be back as usual on Boxing Day. I’ll be taking a short break, so no newsletter from me next week …

Friday 12 December 2008

12 December 2008

How often do I get the chance to write about the transition from feudalism to democracy these days? Not often, is the answer. So when the opportunity arises, I grab it.

The island of Sark is one of those places you need a powerful magnifying glass to find on the map. It’s the smallest of the Channel Islands, just off the northern coast of France – and it’s in the news today because only now is it experiencing the uncertain pleasures of a democratic political system.

In the words of the official Sark government website: “Sark holds a unique position within the Channel Islands, which themselves hold an unusual position in Her Majesty's possessions, in that they are not part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain nor are they sovereign states. Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark have their own insular legislature, judicial system and administration.”

Which means, for example, no income tax, no health service, no unemployment benefit and no old age pension. And until yesterday, no fully-elected parliament (which is called the Chief Pleas. Please don’t ask me why.)

The main investors in Sark are multi-millionaire twin brothers, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. They’re not great fans of feudalism, and they lobbied to introduce a fully-elected parliament, which they fondly believed would be much more likely to welcome their ideas for reform and modernisation.

It seems they were wrong. The islanders have elected a parliament made up overwhelmingly of representatives who were not on the Barclays’ most-favoured list. As a result, the Barclays have started shutting down their businesses on Sark. “The islanders got what they wished for,” was the stark comment from their lawyer.

I visited Sark once, more than 20 years ago. The man in charge, then as now, was the Seigneur, Michael Beaumont – I described him at the time as “a most friendly man with a relaxed manner and a ready smile … he reminded me of the better kind of headmaster, living in semi-retirement somewhere, perhaps in East Anglia.” Not a typical feudal ruler.

He owns every inch of Sark (it’s not a vast area, about two square miles, with a total of 600 people living on it). He’s the only man allowed to keep pigeons, and the only man allowed to keep an unspayed bitch. And now he has to come to terms with democracy.

More to the point, so do the islanders. According to the Barclays’ lawyer, the brothers have been investing about £5 million a year in Sark – and that’s now going to stop, because, in effect, the islanders elected the wrong people to parliament.

Democracy can sometimes be expensive. And 12 days before Christmas, about 140 people have lost their jobs. How odd that, in 2008, they should be reflecting that they might have been better off if they’d stuck with feudalism.

I’ll be in a very different sort of democracy next week: on Thursday, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme, live from Washington, in which we’ll be discussing with a panel of experts Barack Obama’s foreign policy priorities as he prepares to take office next month. I hope it’ll provide us with a real insight into what changes to expect after George Bush’s eight years in the White House. So I hope you’ll be able to tune in, either on air or online.

Friday 5 December 2008

5 December 2008

I wrote last week that we journalists aren’t very good at dealing with stories that move slowly, over a long period of time. Well, today I’m going to put that right: Zimbabwe has been slowly disintegrating for nearly a decade now, and it’s time to put it back at the top of our agenda.

We’ve reported three times this week on the ever more appalling crisis there: on Monday we had a remarkable eye-witness report from Harare on how soldiers had gone on the rampage; on Tuesday, we reported on the worsening cholera outbreak; and last night, we had an interview with the Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, who called on fellow African governments to “push Mugabe from power”. (All programmes are still available via Listen Again on the website.)

If you’ve missed the latest developments, here’s a taste: the central bank has raised the cash withdrawal limit from banks from the equivalent of 18p a day to about £34 a week. It’s issued new 50 million and 100 million dollar banknotes (they’re worth about £17 and £34 respectively). And remember, these are the “new” dollars that were introduced in August, when 10 zeros were knocked off the old ones.

No wonder everyone uses US dollars or South African rand instead if they can. The official inflation rate is now said to be 231 million per cent, although how anyone can calculate that is quite beyond me.

So let’s forget the figures. The shops are empty, the hospitals, by the admission of the health minister himself, are “non-functioning”. More than 500 people have already died of cholera, more than 10,000 others have gone down with the disease – and there’s a chronic shortage of water-treatment chemicals so that for a period this week, the capital, Harare, was without water.

I’m not sure anyone ever really believed after the elections earlier this year that President Mugabe would agree to share power with the opposition MDC. But for months, as Zimbabweans struggled to feed themselves and their families, the diplomats tried manfully to come up with a deal that would save Zimbabwe from total destitution. They failed.

The MDC seem to have decided there’s no point in continuing with the pretence. Within the next few months, Jacob Zuma will become President of South Africa, and they expect him to take much tougher line with his neighbour to the north than did Thabo Mbeki. We’ll see what happens, if Robert Mugabe is still in power then.

When I was in Harare in 2000, to report on parliamentary elections, people told me: “Mugabe won’t be here for much longer, he can’t go on for ever.” (He’s now 84.) The so-called land reform programme was already well under way, and most white farmers had already been forced to leave. It was the beginning of Zimbabwe’s long slow descent into economic collapse, as food production dwindled and investment dried up.

For years now, Zimbabwe’s neighbours – and others – have waited for the country to reach a tipping point, a moment when the whole rickety structure that has kept Mugabe in power for so long comes tumbling down. After the first round of the presidential election last March, it looked for a time as if that moment had arrived. But his forces regrouped, reimposed their will by sheer brute force, and he survived.

Now is another potential tipping point. The army is restive, disease is spreading, and the very basics of human life – food, water – are disappearing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mugabe was gone by the end of the year.

By the way, our editor, Alistair Burnett, has written a piece on the BBC Editors’ blog this week about how we try to balance our coverage of foreign and UK news. Should we, for example, have done more about the Baby P case on Monday, or the Shannon Matthews story last night? You can read his thoughts here -- and we’d very much appreciate your view.