Friday 18 September 2009

18 September 2009

OK, so maybe you’re wondering what to make of President Obama’s announcement that he’s abandoning (sorry, “putting on ice”) the Bush administration’s plans for anti-missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

What you make of it will depend very largely, I suspect, on how you look at the art of diplomacy. Do you see it mainly as the projection of national strength, in order to keep your citizens safe, or rather as the defusing of tensions, and the building of alliances with like-minded states, in order to achieve the same end result?

So: do you worry that by shelving the Bush plans, President Obama will make the US look weak in the face of Russian anger? Or are you encouraged that he seems prepared to hold out an olive branch – both to Moscow and, indirectly perhaps, also to Tehran?

Mind you, the way the decision has been explained has little overtly to do with being nice to Moscow. Not even President Obama wants to portray himself as someone whose main priority is to make new friends.

What he has said is that his military and security advisers have come to the conclusion that there are better ways to protect the US and its allies from a potential Iranian or North Korean long-range missile threat (which, in any case, his experts say, is rather further into the future than the Bush team believed). And he has gone out of his way to try to reassure the Czechs and the Poles that he’s not about to abandon them.

So let’s look at some of the likely repercussions. Moscow says it’s encouraged – but we’ll have to wait to see if there’s a reciprocal Russian gesture. Will President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin now move more rapidly towards a new nuclear arms reduction agreement?

Will they agree to tighter sanctions against Iran? Will they engage more positively in the carbon emission reduction negotiations in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December? Was there an implicit, if not an explicit, understanding between Washington and Moscow that a move by one will lead to a move by the other?

And what about the Iranians? Will they see the decision as a sign of weakness, or as an opportunity to engage more fruitfully with Washington, even on the issue of their nuclear enrichment programme?

As for the Poles and the Czechs, they’re feeling a bit sore at the moment. The governments in Warsaw and Prague have expended valuable political capital in backing the original Bush administration plans, often against substantial public opposition. So they’ll need a lot of stroking in the coming months.

And what you would make of it all if you were a Georgian, or a Ukrainian? Would you worry that Washington might look weak, and that Moscow might be tempted to throw its weight around even more than it has been doing? Or would you breathe a sigh of relief that at least one source of tension has been removed?

If the Obama decision was a calculated gamble, it’ll take a few months at least before we can begin to assess whether the gamble has paid off. But it was certainly a significant gesture, if not an entirely unexpected one.

We do live in interesting times., don’t we?

Friday 11 September 2009

11 September 2009

Suppose you were President of the United States of America. You walked into the Oval Office this morning, and here’s what you found in your in-tray, marked “For the President’s urgent decision”:

1. Afghanistan: the election was a fiasco. President Karzai’s credibility has vanished. General McChrystal wants more troops. Britain, France and Germany want an urgent international conference to decide what to do next. Yes or no?

2. Iran: their latest nuclear proposals add up to zilch, according to our guys. (The Russians take a different view, but they would, wouldn’t they?) The New York Times says our intelligence agencies have concluded that Tehran has created enough nuclear fuel “to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon”. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have been conducting some mysterious secret mission in Moscow, apparently connected somehow to Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr President: you need to decide what to do.

3. Israel/Palestine: Everyone is waiting for you to unveil a dramatic new peace initiative. All we’ve got so far is the two sides agreeing to talk. Sir, it’s not enough, and Mr Netanyahu is speeding up settlement building even as he hints he’s ready for a “suspension” of new permits. We need something in time for the UN General Assembly in 10 days … your thoughts, please.

4. Health care: your speech on Wednesday seems to have gone down well. But it wasn’t enough, as you knew it wouldn’t be. You still need to do more to get some of our own people on the Hill on side, and Senator Olivia Snowe (Republican, Maine) needs a touch more sweet-talking. We think you’ll get something through, but we need to know how much further you’re prepared to go to buy off the unconvinced. When will you abandon the “public option” idea of a government-funded health insurance scheme to run side by side with the private schemes?

I don’t know about you, but if I were President, I think I’d find any one of these decisions daunting enough, let alone all of them together. But I guess no one runs for President thinking he’s in for a quiet life.

So Barack Obama is where he is, and soon he’ll be marking the first anniversary of his election as President. An increaasing number of American voters are asking what he’s managed to achieve so far … his economic stimulus package may have saved or created a million jobs, as the White House is claiming, but many more jobs have been lost.

Power and authority work in strange ways, so if the President gets it right on just one of the issues listed above, he’ll then be more likely to make headway on the others. Success breeds success, just as failure breeds failure. Trouble is: where will the first success come from?

Mr Obama sometimes gave the impression during his campaign that just by electing him, American voters could make the world a better place. But a ballot paper is not a magic wand, and the world’s problems didn’t melt away as soon as Barack Obama won last November.

And remember the brutal US electoral calendar … in November of next year, it’ll be time for mid-term Congressional elections, which means there are already plenty of Democrats in Congress more anxious to do what they think will please their voters than to do what will please their President.

So, suppose you were President … on issues 1 to 4 above, what would you do?

Friday 4 September 2009

4 September 2009

TOKYO-LONDON: Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I’m writing this week’s newsletter 31,000 feet above ground level, somewhere over Siberia, on the plane back from Tokyo in that limbo time zone where it seems to be neither day nor night.

And I’m pondering the meaning of Japan’s population statistics, which make chilling reading for the newly-elected government after last Sunday’s earthquake election.

Imagine a country that knows it is shrinking. A country that knows it is ageing more rapidly than any other major industrialised nation on earth. Which has the highest proportion in the world of people over the age of 65, and the lowest ratio of under 15s. That country is Japan.

As I reported on Wednesday, on current trends, the population of Japan will have halved by the end of the century.

It is, literally, a country that is slowly dying.

According to one United Nations estimate, it’ll need to import 17 million foreign workers over the next 40 years, just to keep its economy afloat and provide enough carers to look after the elderly. (By 2050, there will be more than a million Japanese over the age of 100.)

I’m no social psychologist, so I wouldn’t dare to come up with an explanation for why Japanese couples aren’t having enough babies. But one theory is that Japanese women are increasingly reluctant to marry, because they think Japanese men have shown themselves unable to adapt to the needs of a new, more flexible society – and have retreated into a fantasy world of comics, video games and animated pornography where they feel less threatened.

The Japanese internet search engine Goo Japan reckons 70 per cent of Japanese men are still unmarried when they reach their 30th birthday. (Mind you, marriage rates in Italy, Norway, France and Ireland are even lower.)

So I found myself thinking at one point of the film “Children of Men”, about what would happen in a world where all women are infertile and the human race is dying out. Not that Japan is descending into anarchy – quite the opposite, in fact. It is still the most orderly place I know, where no one is impatient at traffic lights, and even the hungry and homeless wait in long neat lines for their food hand-outs.

On the one hand, it is the nation of Toyota, Hitachi, Panasonic and Mitsubishi, global leaders and still very much a force to be reckoned with. On the other, it is the nation of manga comics and young women who dress up as French maids to pander to the fantasies of lonely men.

In the current economic climate, the newly-elected government will have no shortage of competing priorities. But it’s already committed to increasing the children’s allowance to £170 per child per month, in the hope that a cash incentive will encourage more Japanese couples to have more babies.

After all, what could be more important for the country’s future?